Thursday, July 31, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 5

When I try to explain missional church to people, I often begin with the distinction between church as a place where things happen and church as a people sent on a mission. Often, this description evokes the response, "Oh, then we're already missional." Indeed.

Here mission is typically being understood as "outreach," or any activity or program the church does outside its own walls. And many churches do impressive things in their neighborhoods and communities. This, however, in and of itself does not indicate that they are missional.

First, a missional church understands all of its life as mission, not just those things that typically count as "outreach." That is, a church's primary horizon of interpretation is the world, not the congregation or the interior life of the individual. This horizon applies even to those things the church does "within." For example, when worship maintains this public horizon, it participates in God's mission for the sake of the world. When congregations practice simplicity in the name of Jesus, they resist the spiritual power of consumerism that dominates our culture. This is mission as well. These are aspects of its sent life that typically get privatized or individualized.

The missional impulse is a synergistic impulse. It moves toward a holism, seeing all the aspects of a congregation's life as being intimately interrelated around mission. A congregation that has banners in its auditorium that distinguish mission, worship, and fellowship as separate categories in the congregation's life, do not yet possess a missional imagination.

Second, most churches see outreach in fairly paternal terms. It is something we do to or for others. Often, we view outreach service primarily as a door to possible evangelism or church recruitment. This turns others into prospects, people who exist only at the end of our agenda for them. Even when, however, we see outreach as an end in itself, it can still be paternalistic. We represent God and they represent those in need of God. We have the goods, they have the need. We are still seeing mission as something we do for or to others. This is different than seeing mission as something we do with others.

To see mission as a partnership with others, we have to believe that God is active outside of the church. We have to believe that the Kingdom is bigger than our institutional advancement. We have to believe that there are others who serve the interests of the Kingdom without having pledged their lives to that Kingdom. We have to believe that the Spirit of God proceeds us into the world, so that it is possible that we might truly discover something about God with others. We have to believe that we need the other to know God, even others who do not honor or worship God. In this sense, mission is not taking God to others, but finding God with and among others.

Third, and related to number two, churches invest a lot of imagination in figuring out exactly how to get new people to belong to them. I am currently working with a church who think of themselves as possessing a wonderfully thick community life. And they do. No doubt about it. They can tell story after story about how amazing their congregation is. Who wouldn't want to be a part of them? They can't figure out, in light of this, why they are declining. They're scared to death that in a few years they might not exist. This is not an unreasonable fear.

Truth is, we live in a culture where "becoming one of us" is an increasingly difficult thing to do. First, the "if we build it they will come days" are long gone. With a few exceptions, using an attractional strategy for church growth simply will not work. But even more fundamentally, in a culture that is no longer steeped in the grammar of Christianity, becoming a Christian is truly a cross-cultural enterprise. In most cases, we simply aren't equipped to help people do what is necessary to cross the ever-widening cultural gulf.

But even if we could come up with better assimilation processes (and we must), we still expect the persons least likely to do so to do all the boundary crossing. The question, "how can we get them to belong to us?" needs to be traded for the mission question, "how is it in the name of Jesus that we belong to them?"

Most churches haven't a clue about their neighbors. They haven't even begun to ask the question, "how in Jesus' name do we belong to these people?" They may have all kinds of outreach programs aimed at people like so many targets. But they have little idea how God might be calling them to give up their sense of privilege, cross cultural boundaries, and find themselves in mission with new partners.

This is the beginning of missional wisdom.


Redlefty said...

Thank you, this gave a lot of meat to some things I'd been pondering lately.

Anonymous said...


That is a thick question: How do we belong to these people? Interestingly, it seems to me that the Emergents have a good grasp on this. As always there is a temptation to water or dumb-down, but the people I know are doing a good job of saying, "We are here for our neighbors" without falling into the ditch.

Thanks for this post.

There is much to think about. By the way, over on my blog, I'm asking the question, "What is missional?" And I'm hoping to get some folks to chime in on video. The next time you're here, give me about 5 minutes on video if you can.

Mark Love said...


That's the big question, isn't it. Two things here. We belong to them in the name of Jesus. We belong to them the same way he does, with the same interests, the same social location, the same saving/serving way of life. But we don't belong to them as an abstraction. We belong to who they really are, and we can't know that beforehand.That comes through listening, and a listening with.

My contact with emerging churches is limited, but what experience I have has not yet confirmed your instinct. The one church I've visited in this area does not look much like its neighborhood. Everyone I've talked to (limited contact, admittedly) drives a good piece to get there. There were just a few people of color in the gathering in a neighborhood of color. The vibe is very folk/rock-white.

I think they are definitely committed to this kind of engagement, but I think certain understandings of culture kind of get in the way. I want to post about that when I have my head more around my argument.

Still, let me reiterate, I don't know much about actual emerging churches. And I could be dead wrong about this church. I'm really wanting to like what they're doing.


ClayMan said...

Hi, Mark. Sean directed me here after I commented on his blog. And it led me to blog on this topic today as well. Wow. Saturday morning Missional for Sunday morning Church. :)

In a nutshell, I don't believe "Missional" is something a corporate body of believers (such as my local institution and yours) are meant to pursue. Rather, it's pursuit by the entire body of Christ. This separates it from being an individual effort (ie: I work in prisons while Adam works for the hungry and Ann caters to those trapped in abusive relationships).

While it is possible to move one corporate local institution towards being missional, how do you account for those individuals who are already so engaged in work via another source?

I believe the key is to ignore the labels. Ignore "homosexual" or "addict" or "felon". After all, each of those is a sin, and we are all sinners. So, focus on the soul. Then you will find mission at work, at the gym, at the park, at school...

Anonymous said...


I know what church you're talking about, and I wouldn't likely find a home there. There is a strain -- a large strain -- among emergent churches that talk, read, and write more about these things than actually do them. There is a reason for this. I won't talk about that now. I don't need to serve as their apologist, plus I don't buy all the reasoning myself.

When I think of belonging to neighbors, I don't think of the church you're referring to, but I do think of one I know somewhat here in Houston. One of the beautiful things about their community is the way they see themselves as partners with their community, a place in existence for the community. (Oddly, one Houston newspaper named their bookstore/coffee house as the best place to break-up in Houston.)

However, they seem to belong to the community in an institutional sense moreso than a personal one. So, I think you may be on to something.

At the same time, I give these churches extra credit for being intentional about their communities, beginning with purposely planting in certain locations. Being part of the "emergent conversation" does not mean a church, or their leaders, are immune from some of the same problems/issues faced by other churches. What I'm saying is that within the churches and people I sense an increased intention to belong to the community that is not typically seen in older, established churches. That's all I meant.

(BTW, some of the better emerging communities are small, intentional groups whose leaders don't have book deals. As a matter of fact a 60-year old female church planter came to my class on the subject at ACU Lectures, and told me afterward, "I'm so excited, I never knew I was emerging.")

Mark Love said...

Good to know, Sean.

JNW said...

Hi Mark

Here's my struggle. How do you keep worship and mission from being separate ideas and activities in a church that knows no other way?

Yes, I agree and understand it requires a new imagination. Easy to say. A bit more difficult to pull off.

I would like to hear you talk about this idea some more. Maybe even give a concrete example or two to spur those of us who suffer from imagination deficit.

Thanks. Good job in Caldwell by the way.

Anonymous said...


I recently discovered your new blog from one of our interns, Garret East, who attends ACU. I liked what you had to say in this post. I don't know if you every read an article I posted on our website from a sermon I gave at World Mission Workshop on "Partnering" I thought you might enjoy and maybe would add to the conversation. Go to . The article is under "December 2007" on the front of our homepage. I think it will resonate somewhat with what you are articulating.
Peace brother,

Ben Langford

Mark Love said...


I not only know of the sermon, I've seen the dvd. You da man.

Garrett's brother Brad is good buds with Josh.

I miss you dude.