Almost Christian: Missional Imaginations

I’m blogging through Kenda Creasy Dean’s new book, a theological follow up to Christian Smith’s Soul Searching. I hope you’ll join me. Find all the posts here.

In chapter five, Kenda continues a theme that she’s already introduced: cultivating missional imaginations in teens is a strong antidote to moralistic, therapeutic deism.  But what, exactly, is a missional imagination?

Well, what it’s not is a week-long summer mission trip to an Indian reservation.  In fact, Kenda argues that the fact that we’ve had to find an adjective — basically, to invent the word, “missional” — “testifies to the American church’s frayed ecclesiology.”  Be that as it may, missional is here to stay, and she finds it a helpful term.

Kenda’s definition of a missional youth ministry parallels her understanding of the gospel, and she uses some of the same characterizations: messy, indecorous, risky.  “Missional churches,” she writes, “ratchet up expectations by consciously striving to point out, interpret, and embody the excessive nature of God’s love.”

A ministry that exemplifies missionality for Kenda is Outreach Red Bank, a one-time youth ministry that has “blossomed into a multigenerational church.”  ORB and other missional ministries fashion their life on the cruciform pattern of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection:

“In short, the goal of missional churches is to imitate Christ in context, to participate in anamnesis, a sacramental term that means “remembering”… As communities of memory, missional churches seek to re-member God’s overwhelming love by enacting it in human form, whenever the community gathers and wherever God’s people are sent.”

In this chapter, Kenda leans on the theologies of Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls, and from the latter she borrows the rubric of the missional principle being the result of a two-way move: the indigenizing principle and the pilgrim principle.  To those, Kenda adds the liminal principle: the paradoxical place where Christ meets us and where teenagers seem to exist.  “The gospel’s liminal principle represents Christ’s ongoing revelation as he expectantly waits for us to recognize him and rejoice.”

My question for this chapter is not theological, since I very much agree with Kenda’s characterization of the gospel, nor is it developmental.  It is instead, the result of one sentence in the chapter, in which she describes Christian Andrews, the pastor of ORB, who “keeps his vocation…in perspective by devouring Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics and the Bible, cover to cover, a couple of times a year.”  Hyperbolic though this may be, I have met Christian and I can attest that he is extraordinarily gifted, both intellectually and charistmatically, which leads me to my question:

Is the kind of missional and theologically-robust youth ministry that Kenda (and others) call for actually possible by the average youth worker?

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  • Not in its present state, no. That’s like asking if teachers can really be what teachers should be while still living under the thumb of standardized testing.

  • Dave

    Christian’s own advice is to find a theologian and roll with them as a theological conversation partner. His is Barth, but it could just as easily be any of countless others.

    More importantly and telling for me, he reads the Bible for about an hour a day.

    Being missional involved ratcheting up expectations. The average youth worker will have a hard time doing these things, but just because it is hard doesn’t mean it is not the right thing to do.

  • Maybe. I like the missional position in general, but I don’t think it ultimately matters. Even if one could create the ultimate “environment” for a youth ministry one would still fall short; for no environment can truly cut it when it comes to the act of becoming subjective or being contemporaneous with Christ. And, one could say likewise, that no critique of a Christian subculture or structure or intention really gets to the heart of the matter. Still, I would heartily encourage any “average youth worker” – whoever that may be – to seek any way they can to be deeply authentic, subjective, and intellectual in their ministry and they faith.