June 2001


The Need for a 'Missional' Church

In the West for nearly 1,000 years, the relationship of (Anglo-European) Christian churches to the broader

culture was a relationship known as "Christendom." The institutions of society "Christianized" people,

and stigmatized non-Christian belief and behavior. Though people were "Christianized" by the culture,

they were not regenerated or converted with the Gospel. The church's job was then to challenge persons

into a vital, living relation with Christ.

There were great advantages and yet great disadvantages to 'Christendom.' The advantage was that there

was a common language for public moral discourse with which society could discuss what was 'the good.'

The disadvantage was that Christian morality without gospel-changed hearts often led to cruelty and

hypocrisy. Think of how the small town in "Christendom" treated the unwed mother or the gay person.

Also, under "Christendom" the church often was silent against abuses of power of the ruling classes over

the weak. For these reasons and others, the church in Europe and North America has been losing its

privileged place as the arbiter of public morality since at least the mid 19th century. The decline of

Christendom has accelerated greatly since the end of WWII.

The British missionary Lesslie Newbigin went to India around 1950. There he was involved with a

church living 'in mission' in a very non-Christian culture. When he returned to England some 30 years

later, he discovered that now the Western church too existed in a non-Christian society, but it had not

adapted to its new situation. Though public institutions and popular culture of Europe and North America

no longer 'Christianized' people, the church still ran its ministries assuming that a stream of

'Christianized', traditional/moral people would simply show up in services. Some churches certainly did

'evangelism' as one ministry among many. But the church in the West had not become completely

'missional'--adapting and reformulating absolutely everything it did in worship, discipleship, community,

and service--so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it. It had not developed a

'missiology of western culture' the way it had done so for other non-believing cultures.

One of the reasons much of the American evangelical church has not experienced the same precipitous

decline as the Protestant churches of Europe and Canada is because in the U.S. there is still a 'heartland'

with the remnants of the old 'Christendom' society. There the informal public culture (though not the

formal public institutions) still stigmatizes non-Christian beliefs and behavior. "There is a fundamental

schism in American cultural, political, and economic life. There's the quicker-growing, economically

vibrant...morally relativist, urban-oriented, culturally adventuresome, sexually polymorphous, and

ethnically diverse nation...and there's the small town, nuclear-family, religiously-oriented, white-centric

other America, [with]...its diminishing cultural and economic force....[T]wo nations..." Michael Wolff,

New York, Feb 26 2001, p. 19. In conservative regions, it is still possible to see people profess faith and

the church grow without becoming 'missional.' Most traditional evangelical churches still can only win

people to Christ who are temperamentally traditional and conservative. But, as Wolff notes, this is a

'shrinking market.' And eventually evangelical churches ensconced in the declining, remaining enclaves

of "Christendom" will have to learn how to become 'missional'. If it does not do that it will decline or die.

We don't simply need evangelistic churches, but rather 'missional' churches.

The Elements of a Missional Church

1. Discourse in the vernacular.

In 'Christendom' there is little difference between the language inside and outside of the

church. Documents of the early U.S. Congress, for example, are riddled with allusions to and

references from the Bible. Biblical technical terms are well-known inside and outside. In a

missional church, however, terms must be explained.

The missional church avoids 'tribal' language, stylized prayer language, unnecessary

evangelical pious 'jargon', and archaic language that seeks to set a 'spritual tone.'

The missional church avoids 'we-them' language, disdainful jokes that mock people of

different politics and beliefs, and dismissive, disrespectful comments about those who differ

with us

The missional church avoids sentimental, pompous, 'inspirational' talk . Instead we engage

the culture with gentle, self-deprecating but joyful irony the gospel creates. Humility + joy =

gospel irony and realism.

The missional church avoids ever talking as if non-believing people are not present. If you

speak and discourse as if your whole neighborhood is present (not just scattered Christians),

eventually more and more of your neighborhood will find their way in or be invited.

Unless all of the above is the outflow of a truly humble-bold gospel-changed heart, it is all

just 'marketing' and 'spin.'

2. Enter and re-tell the culture's stories with the gospel

In "Christendom" it is possible to simply exhort Christianized people to "do what they know

they should." There is little or no real engagement, listening, or persuasion. It is more a

matter of exhortation (and often, heavy reliance on guilt.) In a missional church preaching

and communication should always assume the presence of skeptical people, and should

engage their stories, not simply talk about "old times."

To "enter" means to show sympathy toward and deep acquaintance with the literature, music,

theater, etc. of the existing culture's hopes, dreams, 'heroic' narratives, fears.

The older culture's story was--to be a good person, a good father/mother, son/daughter, to

live a decent, merciful, good life.

Now the culture's story is-- a) to be free and self-created and authentic (theme of freedom

from oppression), and b) to make the world safe for everyone else to be the same (theme

of inclusion of the 'other'; justice).

To "re-tell" means to show how only in Christ can we have freedom without slavery and

embracing of the 'other' without injustice.

3. Theologically train lay people for public life and vocation

In 'Christendom' you can afford to train people just in prayer, Bible study, evangelism--

private world skills--because they are not facing radically non-Christian values in their public

life--where they work, in their neighborhood, etc.

In a 'missional' church, the laity needs theological education to 'think Christianly' about

everything and work with Christian distinctiveness. They need to know: a) what cultural

practices are common grace and to be embraced, b) what practices are antithetical to the

gospel and must be rejected, c) what practices can be adapted/revised.

In a 'missional' situation, lay people renewing and transforming the culture through

distinctively Christian vocations must be lifted up as real 'kingdom work' and ministry along

with the traditional ministry of the Word.

Finally, Christians will have to use the gospel to demonstrate true, Biblical love and

'tolerance' in "the public square" toward those with whom we deeply differ. This tolerance

should equal or exceed that which opposing views show toward Christians. The charge of

intolerance is perhaps the main 'defeater' of the gospel in the non-Christian west.

4. Create Christian community which is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.

In Christendom, 'fellowship' is basically just a set of nurturing relationships, support and

accountability. That is necessary, of course.

In a missional church, however, Christian community must go beyond that to embody a

'counter-culture,' showing the world how radically different a Christian society is with regard

to sex, money, and power.

In sex. We avoid both the secular society's idolization of sex and traditional society's fear

of sex. We also exhibit love rather than hostility or fear toward those whose sexual lifepatterns

are different.

In money. We promote a radically generous commitment of time, money, relationships,

and living space to social justice and the needs of the poor, the immigrant, the

economically and physically weak.

In power. We are committed to power-sharing and relationship-building between races

and classes that are alienated outside of the Body of Christ.

In general, a church must be more deeply and practically committed to deeds of compassion

and social justice than traditional liberal churches and more deeply and practically committed

to evangelism and conversion than traditional fundamentalist churches. This kind of church is

profoundly 'counter-intuitive' to American observers. It breaks their ability to categorize (and

dismiss) it as liberal or conservative. Only this kind of church has any chance in the non-

Christian west.

5. Practice Christian unity as much as possible on the local level.

In Christendom, when 'everyone was a Christian' it was necessary (perhaps) for a church to

define itself over against other churches. That is, to get an identity you had to say, "we are not

like that church over there, or those Christians over here."

Today, however, it is much more illuminating and helpful for a church to define itself over

against 'the world'--the values of the non-Christian culture. It is very important that we not

spend our time bashing and criticizing other kinds of churches. That simply plays in to the

common 'defeater' that Christians are all intolerant.

While we have to align ourselves in denominations that share many of our distinctives, at the

local level we should cooperate and reach out to and support the other congregations and

churches in our local area. This will raise many thorny issues, of course, but our bias should

be in the direction of cooperation.

Case Study

Let me show you how this goes beyond any 'program.' These are elements that have to be present in every

area of the church. So, for example, what makes a small group 'missional'? A 'missional' small group is

not necessarily one which is doing some kind of specific 'evangelism' program (though that is to be

recommended) Rather, 1) if its members love and talk positively about the city/neighborhood, 2) if they

speak in language that is not filled with pious tribal or technical terms and phrases, nor disdainful and

embattled language, 3) if in their Bible study they apply the gospel to the core concerns and stories of the

people of the culture, 4) if they are obviously interested in and engaged with the literature and art and

thought of the surrounding culture and can discuss it both appreciatively and yet critically, 5) if they

exhibit deep concern for the poor and generosity with their money and purity and respect with regard to

opposite sex, and show humility toward people of other races and cultures, 6) they do not bash other

Christians and churches--then seekers and non-believing people from the city A) will be invited and B)

will come and will stay as they explore spiritual issues. If these marks are not there it will only be able to

include believers or traditional, "Christianized" people.