Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Missional Think Tank, an Observation

I mentioned in my last post that I participated in think tank concerning missional church that involved a very diverse group of about 70. I learned a lot from the conversation.

The two day conversation was built around small group conversations and big group reporting. I noticed an interesting in the big group reporting. Some of us valued the messiness associated with the word missional, that it couldn't be easily defined or categorized. Others of us felt acutely the need to find more precision in the use of the term. What does the word actually mean? And to what does it point?

This tension kept rearing its head through our discussions which led me to another observation. Those who valued the messiness were by and large academics. Those who valued clearer definition were typically people working in congregations. I have a theory about that.

One of the impulses of the missional conversation as it relates to the seminary is a critique of the hard and fast silos that have defined our work for a long time now. Even though a seminary's faculty are all about the training of ministers, they have prior commitments related to their specific fields of study--New Testament, Church History, Systematic Theology, Homiletics, etc. In that context, missional functions a little like a hand grenade blowing up silos, blurring the lines between disciplines.

This is in part because those interested in the missional conversation are typically missiologists or ministry professors who have been relegated the back end of a theory-praxis divide. In other words, biblical scholars, historians and systematicians are those who say what, and ministry folk are those who say how. I will admit to this feeling a bit like the sound end of a horse as it jumps over the fence. We like a little silo busting to create a little more room at the the theory end of the table. Missional has to remain a little disorienting to sustain its viablity.

Church leaders, on the other hand, experience congregational life these days as chaotic and disorienting. They see missional as a way to organize the chaos into something a bit more orienting and purposeful. They are typically frustrated by academicians who tell them that missional is something, but to tell you exactly what it is defeats the very premise of missional--that it looks different in every context.

My mentor, Pat Keifert, following his mentor, Paul Ricouer, invites us into these kinds of tensions less as a problem to be solved and more as a polarity to be managed. Both impulses are necessary for the health of any social imagination. Both impulses have to be understood in relation to the other. And both have to be strengthened over time. This is hard work, but meaningful, and should be at the heart of any notions of missional leadership.


Casey McCollum said...

This post really resonated with me for a couple of reasons. One, I felt the tension you speak of while doing the M.Div and even more working for a church. But also - I am starting to think a few years down the road and maybe more school and I am leaning toward a Ph.D in Practical Theology - for the very reasons you said here.
I had a conversation with Tony Jones (emergent guy) recently who is working on his Ph.D in PT at Princeton and he really believes that PT is future of theological education.
I guess to me, I see people who want to plant churches but not necessarily engage in the theological rigor to do it well and simply fall back on target marketing/branding/consumer driven, etc... Then you have those that want to pursue theology but shy away from on the ground practices and seem happy in the ivory tower.
I am drawn to both - and therefore drawn to Emergent and Missional ideals.

Mark Love said...


I think Tony is right, but then I would. I love the degree design here, though I think it still expects us to develop our competencies exclusively in the classroom.

Hope you're loving the ACU gig.