What is Missional Anyways?

In case you have had your head in the sand or just don’t pay attention to the forthcoming titles on publisher sites you probably haven’t heard that my Neo-Anabaptist, and fellow Chicagoans, Dave Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw have a new book coming in March. Check out their video discussion of why they wrote the book (filmed at a McDonald’s of course).

Emergent church guru Tony Jones picked up the video and reflected on the nature of names and how they serve as an umbrella term for a diverse range of folks, many of whom probably wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room with each other.

“I’ve written before about the term “missional.” It bends a lot of ways. It’s a term that basically anyone can use for what ever purpose they want — from a stalwart Southern Baptist neocon like Ed Stetzer to an Anabaptist pacifist like David Fitch. And then you’ve got the neo-Barthian camp like Darrell Guder and John Franke. They’re all “missional,” and so are a dozen church planting networks like TransForm, Forge, and the Parish Collective.”

Tony then offers a kind of rhetorical exercise:

“So here’s a test. Imagine a Christian leader saying this: “I’m not missional.”

There is some truth to the statement. Yet, it also betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of just what is meant by Missional. Even a basic reading of one or two resources would reveal that what is meant by Missional is not just being about the work outside the church. So to actually answer Tony’s rhetorical test- Of course a leader wouldn’t say he or she is not missional, but it also does not mean they get the general assumptions within Missional Theology proper.

A quick glance at the table of contents of Prodigal Christianity reveals just what grounds Missional thinking– “Signpost One: Post-Christendom.” From the early works of Leslie Newbigin, the fundamental perspective of Mission Theology was the Church’s shift in cultural location. While this shift is clearly one still in process, it is evident both from the backlash of the religious right and the recent data on the rise of the nones (those who name no religious affiliation on American Religiosity studies) the church in North America is slipping from its once established cultural pedestal. As I have said in other settings, the logic of American experiment is reaching its logical conclusion. Missional thought, then, isn’t just about getting outside the church doors. Rather it begins with accepting Post-Christendom as a gift for the renewal of radical discipleship.

Unlike “emergent,” which purposefully focused on the questions and conversation, Missional Theology begins with this simple core understanding of the Church’s position within the wider cultural frame. While it indeed is a term that gathers together Presbyterians, Non-Denominational, and Jones’ favorite, Hauerwasian Mafia there is still a core imaginary that reaches across the spectrum. The Church is no longer the spiritual advisor to American culture.


Filed under Ecclesiology, NuDunkers

7 responses to “What is Missional Anyways?

  1. Scott Holland

    Despite the many rhetorical twists and turns, “missional” still sounds rather imperial and colonial to some of us. It echoes of Christendom, doesn’t it, despite its protests? It’s not the old civil religion of Empire, perhaps, but a new uncivil sectarianism speaking from a God’s-Eye-View and colonizing for yet another Kingdom? At a conference last summer at EMU, a respondent from the floor was hoping to get some of us on a panel to offer a confession that we too, after all, were missional. Several members of the audience offered a hearty boo to this request, at Eastern Mennonite! Oh, the times they are a’changin’.

    • Joshua Brockway

      It seems to me that saying Missional is still too imperial is like saying we should avoid bicycles since they have a carbon footprint too. I just don’t follow how a theological perspective that begins with the disestablishment of the church’s cultural hegemony is still colonial.

      One of the later comments in Jones’ blog starts to get at the issue I think. It isn’t that Missional is the problem but that it is a theological assumption that still has a place for evangelism and thinks the church has validity as a community of disciples. If by colonial you mean that invitation to a way of life in the world (ie evangelism) then I can see how a room of liberals would boo at the assertion of a Missional perspective.

      Interestingly, I recently led a conversation on the Missional Church and got significant push back that it just was not evangelistic enough. Can’t win for losing! Or maybe it’s onto something if the wings of the spectrum have problems…

  2. Scott Holland

    Well. Perhaps. But those of us who do postcolonial theory and theology can’t seriously use this term in public discourse because it echoes the old colonial theo-logical imagination: the church precedes the world epistemologically and the church precedes creation politically.

    It’s too bad that a so called disestablished church or movement rejects Constantine’s sword but not his ecclesial epistemology and vocabulary. The shift of focus from the imperial throne to the colonial or missional pulpit is only subtle, not radical.

    The argument here, as you of course see, is around the question of whether in true disestablishment God is found primarily in the church or beyond the sanctuary in this sensuous living world. It’s an honest disagreement. But even for the sake of better “mission,” some of us wish the creative missional folks could find a language more artful and ethical than “missional.”

    • Joshua Brockway

      There is a conversation happening right now in the blogs (check out Scott McKnights to catch some of it) that is asking what the difference is between liberal and progressive. One guy argues that being progressive is about taking Feminist and Post-Colonial theology seriously- with the implication that those who reject progressivism on other terms do not. In another setting, I and others were accused of being misogynists and imperialists for arguing that the church does matter. I also was struck when someone said rather pointedly that those who tend toward Hauerwas or Neo-Anabaptism don’t account for power and privilege. On the contrary, I know many solid thinkers who are exactly the contrary to those caricatures, made in broad strokes. Might singular writers and thinkers inform those tropes- indeed. Yet I think the problem with labels (pace Jones) is not their multiple interpretations, but their narrowing in of a subset that may actually be much more complex, rich, and even theo-poetic in their own way.

      All that is to say, there are weak versions of Missional theology that are imperialism in new clothes. What I think Fitch and Holsclaw are doing is bringing a rich Anabaptism (rejection of Constantine and his sword) to a theology that can still be magisterial in orientation.

      Seems to me that is indeed a creative bricolage….one that is much more intriguing to me. For I don’t think that rejecting the epistemological and political priority of the church is the logical conclusion to be drawn from post-colonial theory. In fact, there may even be a more theo-poetic form that steps beyond the epistemological feedback loops that inevitably emerge from theoretical and theological tribalism.

  3. I think Fitch and want to (well actually, we do) hold “Kingdom” talk and “non-violence” together. Only the kingdom of Christ is truly non-violent and you can’t talk about non-violence without the Kingdom. Kingdom talk sounds ‘imperialistic’ but it is exactly the subversion of the kingdom of violence by a kingdom of peace that is needed, not a kingdom of violence by outright rejection of “kingdom” talk. This just leaves the house (soul) empty, awaiting the return of seven more demons.

    • Scott Holland

      Thanks Geoff. I do know the Kingdom arguments of the Neo-Anabaptists and the established Kingdom rules of grammar of the older Anabaptists and I can, and sometimes do, play those language games. It does sell in the Evangelical and Emergent Church market.

      However, last night I had an entire class of seminary students express their great dissatisfaction with the monarchical and imperial theological vocabularies of “Kingdom” so celebrated by the demographic playfully referred to as “the Anabaptist boyz.” In other contexts this critique extends to the signifier “missional” and its implied mandatory missionary position.

      If the new wave missionalists and Neo-Anabaptists hope to be disestablished, perhaps they could experiment with the disestablishment of received theological vocabularies? But this would require something edgy: the deconstruction of established rules of theological grammar. Many of my students have stopped cheering for the upside down Kingdom because they have learned that in such a reversal, the Kingdom is still a Kingdom and Constantine’s bishops are only replaced with missional Anabaptist white boyz.

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