Sunday, June 22, 2008

Defining Missional: a SynchroBlog

The above poster comes from http://teampyro.blogspot.com/ Obviously they are not defining missional today. ;-)

Today a large number of bloggers including some significant thinkers who spend the their days considering missional issues are releasing posts defining "Missional." Perhaps this SynchroBlog will provide an historical moment in defining this wee movement of ecclesiastical types who call themselves missional. Perhaps we will simply flap our lips in the wind of God's Spirit as it blows by. I'm hoping for something closer to the former. So I have entered the fray of missional definers, and have saddled up alongside people who think about this stuff far more than I do.

Yet, I think that I do bring some pedigree to the table of thought, and offer my expertise in relational development and evangelical networking with new religious movements (especially Neo-Pagans) as part of the art of missionality.

I am not typically fond of dealing with semantics, except as a means of defining the terms of a specific dialogue. I perhaps am even a little more uncomfortable finely outlining the edges of a word barely squeaking into my 2001 version of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary as though it was an afterthought - listed as an adjective of "mission." Words important to the integrity of a language interest me. Words newly created, or suddenly adapted to define developing movements are less interesting to me, because they are still simply pop terms. (Now, I know the word has been around since the late 19th century - at least, but that is still new as far as the life span of a language is concerned.) See Tall Skinny Kiwi's discovery of the 1883 usage of the word

Yet I will attempt the daunting task of defining a newly developing, and unsettled term simply because it is something considered by many people to be descriptive of the behaviors of our own fellowship in Salem, MA.

I would like to consider being missional as an art as I define the term. As a science, I believe it would lose its power, and its definition altogether. Missional behavior is based upon redemptive interaction with people. Dealing with the fickle human character is certainly more of an art, than a science.

If being missional somehow evades exact definition as it continues being bantered about by those of us who use the term, it may actually be finding its mark more frequently, and remain a living word than if the term becomes solidified like concrete, or codified like a law.

Yet there are distinct values which must remain intact if the word will not end up wallowing in a mire of pop usage, flowing smugly off the lips of people who are anything but missional.

So, here are my feeble attempts to do something I am not quite comfortable doing - defining a pop theological term.


Missional:

As a newly popular term describing the activities of the Christian church the word "missional" is in need of defining if it will accurately describe any movement, or activity of the Church. Perhaps this broad group of people, many whom I write with regularly on the SynchroBlog list I help lead, can by sheer force of the number of words being published online create a solid reference point for anchoring the word missional in the ecclesiological psyche. (As a small historical, but insignificant sidenote, I am the originator of the silly term "SynchroBlog")

Missional is a relatively new word, finding its first published reference in 1893 (see note on Tall Skinny Kiwi above.) In my dictionary it finds itself relegated to a mere afterthought as an adjective of the word "mission." Yet "mission" has a far broader definition that we attach to the concept of missional today. Missional does not relate to military campaigns, or the ruins of former Spanish churches on the coast of California.

The popularity of the word has been driven by the Emergent movement, and appears to be particularly popular as a personal descriptor by those who are considered to be a part of what Scott McKnight calls the Praxis Oriented Stream of Emergent in his Five Streams of the Emerging Church.

I will leave origins of the term to others who study this stuff. Discussions of its misuse will be left to others as well. I have a few thoughts which particularly resonate with me. So others will be left to the task of doing things like connecting Newbigin, and Hartenstein to the term.


ANTHROPOLOGICAL MISSIOLOGY IS AT THE HEART OF BEING MISSIONAL

At the heart of missional behavior is something I hold dear: a radical anthropological missiology.

The "glory of God" is considered by many theologians, pastors, and lay people to be the prime focus of authentic human behavior. I agree. This includes the preaching of the Gospel, and any manner of sharing our faith. Yet, I believe that focusing upon the "glory of God" in our Gospel preaching has too often incapacitated the Gospel, and left it stagnant in a world of flowing change. For the sake of glorifying God churches and church leaders have remained unbending in the culture of their denominational styles, and been unwilling to take the time to understand the culture, and the individuals surrounding them. Our vocabulary has often remained stagnant while our language has been changing in the culture around us, and our attitudes have been witness to the fact that we are part of the status quo - or so it appears to people.

Yet Christ came to serve others, and we are called to do the same. The heart of the Gospel itself is anthropocentric. The good news is about Christ, but it is for people. It is designed to relieve suffering, create healthy family structures for the abandoned, give definition of life to the lost, and bring joy to those who mourn. Christ is the reason the Gospel exists, but people are the target of its mission to bless. God's eye is upon people with a heart for blessing. This is the missio dei. People are at the center of God's heart in the Gospel, and those who will be missional must place people deep in their hearts as well, and so we are called to serve, and to study others. My heart must remain Christocentric in its worship, but the missio dei calling me to service focuses upon the fact that I am a bondservant to others.

Without becoming students of others missional behavior lapses into mere proclamation, and loses the very heart of its purpose to bless, to serve and to care.

I do not believe a person can be missional without understanding others. On an English translation site of the French website philosophie-spiritualite.com there is a wonderful outline of the common mistakes made in the process of dialogue, which cause misunderstanding or establish a less than beneficial interaction.

"Talking to somebody is not just trying to make oneself understood. Dialogue can walk astray and off the path leading to an understanding of others. 1) One may slip into mere information; in this case only the person talking understands what is being said. Exchange never takes place, yet this is required for dialogue. To have a dialogue it is not enough to find a willing listener with the patience to put up with your talking, but to whom you yourself will not be listening. 2) There can also be a misunderstanding when two people don’t attribute the same meaning to the same words, so that each one of them speaks at different levels. The common ground is then missing. 3) Dialogue can degenerate into mere chatting. Chatting appears to be a dialogue, but the people talking are not present in what they say: the content of their speech is as insignificant as it is repetitive. Speech does not aim at the other person’s understanding it; it is only there to substitute for a real presence and above all to avoid silence. A dialogue is only useful to understand others if it makes possible an intimate exchange with them. 4) A dialogue can degenerate to polemics when one wants the exchange of a dialogue, while refusing to make any effort to understand the other person’s position. Each person then sticks to his position and instead of exchanging ideas one struggles to uphold this or that conviction. Polemics replaces the confrontation of points of view by the opposition of individuals. We see this when spokesmen fire off all their weaponry to criticise a viewpoint, then retreat into muteness, and pay no attention to the objection of their adversary. 5) Dialogue also self-destroys in lying. As soon as lying makes its way into the dialogue, speech loses its true purpose. There can be no comprehension without truthfulness and without a genuine intention to have a dialogue. Have can we understand one another if we are not sincere?" (from lesson 12)

Missional behavior demands seeking to understand the perspective, the feelings, the thoughts of others, and learning to present the good works of God, and the preaching of the Gospel in a manner identifying with the needs, the concerns, and the pains of those we serve.

There is a power in the subjectivity which attends the empathetic individual following the missio dei. It is something we might call a subjective imagination. Our experiences have given us a sense of dread or a sense of liberation, a sense of mourning or a sense of child-like joy, a peace or a deep seated anxiety; and these feelings which we have experienced can be imagined to belong to another. The things we have felt, and feared can be superimposed upon the framework of our thinking about other people, and we can see them as fellow sufferers on this life journey, or we can coldly consider their actions in the light of a set of legal standards.

This subjective imagination allows us to empathize with others, and thereby live incarnationally. As Jesus, Who lived in our shoes, and experienced our woes became the perfect High Priest understanding our every struggle, so we too can express the love of God through identifying with the sorrows, the temptations, and the struggles of others.

Missional activity is less than missional without this subjective imagination, which imposes compassion upon others in their difficulties. Whether we are dealing with cultures or individuals, we are called by the missio dei to serve people in their suffering.


MISSIONAL ACTIVITY TRANSCENDS CULTURE

The Gospel of Christ transcends human culture and thought. It is not stuck in the 19th century, nor is it married to post-modernity. It is good news to the conservative and the liberal, the socialist and the capitalist, the cultural Christian and the new Pagan, the fundamentalist and the anarchist. It was not limited by the fact that Matthew was a Tax Collector, and Judas (not Iscariot) was a radical anti-establishment zealot. They were brought together by the Gospel. It was not limited in them, and it is not subject to human foibles now.

Similarly, the Kingdom of God critiques each and every human culture. Republicans and Democrats in America are evenly critiqued by the upside-down nature of God's Kingdom. Those who have the freedom to drink, and those who are teetotalers are equally challenged to walk in love toward others. The devout and the apathetic find themselves both corrected by the voice of God, and this is the manner of the Kingdom.

Missional followers of Christ will walk between worlds at odds with one another. Missional followers become peacemakers between extremes, and evidence that they are the sons of God. We will dance in the combat zone between the warring factions of our society, and live like fools for Christ's sake. Our battles are not the battles of this world, and at what time we are called to take up a cause, that cause is still subordinate to the missio dei gently hovering over us.

Just as it is not constrained by culture, missional activity is not constrained by church facilities. In American church culture church buildings have often become a bane to evangelistic activity in the life of the local church. Focusing our attention upon buildings we have omitted the command to "Go and preach the Gospel."

Yet just as buildings are not needed to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, The Gospel is not constrained by the use of a building. Churches are creating Going Experiences with creative use of buildings, and others are creating Going Experiences through creative methods of stepping outside a building. Just as the missio dei transcends the cultures of our world, it also transcends the use of buildings - it can be accomplished within or without the building,

Denominations, specific and non-essential details of theology, styles of worship, liturgical practices, social programs, styles of communication, and ecclesiastical structures are not constraining factors for the missio dei. At one moment they may become a hindrance, yet at another moment they may become a tool for the Gospel.

Understanding this cultural transcendence of the Gospel is necessary for those who will live a missional life.


These are my quickly gathered thoughts to the question, "What is Missional?" I certainly have not presented anything authoritative. These are simply the conjectures of someone who has spent the last 10 years breaking down walls of communication, which have been erected between Neo-Pagans and Evangelical Christians, and my observations about being missional are based upon just a couple (among many) things which have been necessary in my own experience.

Please check out some of the other 49 writers on the following list. I am sure you will be blessed.

4 comments:

carl said...

"If being missional somehow evades exact definition as it continues being bantered about by those of us who use the term, it may actually be finding its mark more frequently, and remain a living word than if the term becomes solidified like concrete, or codified like a law.

Yet there are distinct values which must remain intact if the word will not end up wallowing in a mire of pop usage, flowing smugly off the lips of people who are anything but missional."

...This portion is important. I am happy because I know that I am constantly changing and everybody around me is as well. And despite the changelessness of God He somehow changes they way He manifests Himself from season to season, culture to culture etc. in order to be reconciled to humanity.

Pastor Phil said...

Carl,

Could I just take you comment, place it onto my post, and pretend its mine? ;-)

Great observation.

kathyescobar said...

phil, thanks for your post. i also really liked your pentecost piece on jesus manifesto. i agree with you, missional is an art not a science.. i especially like what you shared here:

"Missional followers of Christ will walk between worlds at odds with one another. Missional followers become peacemakers between extremes, and evidence that they are the sons of God. We will dance in the combat zone between the warring factions of our society, and live like fools for Christ's sake. Our battles are not the battles of this world, and at what time we are called to take up a cause, that cause is still subordinate to the missio dei gently hovering over us."

this is a beautiful, beautiful description...thanks

Pastor Phil said...

Kathy,

Thanks so much. I suppose my aversion to anything carrying an 5 point plan to peace, or leading someone to Christ causes me to see our walk with Jesus, and our mission in more fluid terms, and therefore art makes more sense to me than science for defining this word. Besides science tends to have a lot more laws that art, and looks more like grace.