I was asked this week to answer the question, What is the “Missional Church”? And it got me to thinking, again, about this slippery and elusive term. So I’ll put my thoughts here, in this public forum, and see if you think I’m on to something or not.
My conclusion is this: There are two missional churches. More specifically, there are two movements of people within American Protestantism who claim the term “missional.”
The First Missional Church
This is a group, primarily of theologians and missiologists, initially gathered under the banner of the Gospel & Our Culture Network in the mid-1990s. The names most closely associated with the inception missional church are Darrell Guder, George Hunsberger, Lois Barrett, Craig van Gelder, Pat Keifert, and Alan Roxburgh. Their books include Missional Church and Treasure in Clay Jars.
These thought-leaders come from a mainline context, but they have evangelical leanings. They feel that the church has lost its missional impulse as the mainline church has been ultimately absorbed by American culture. And they found a theological patron saint in Lesslie Newbigin, a twentieth century missionary to India who retired to his native England to find that Christianity was no longer a prophetic force. Newbigin’s books, and those of missiologist David Bosch have guided thinking of this group. Newbigin and Bosch, as well as the books and newsletters of the GOCN, were all highly influential on the genesis of the emerging church movement and of Emergent Village in particular.
Guder and Hunsberger are also Barthians, so that is evident in much of their writing and thinking. At some point in the early 2000s, Keifert and Roxburgh broke ties with the group — each has started his own consulting organization. Since then, the GOCN has been largely dormant; the last addition to their website dates to 2009. John Franke, another Barthian, promises to provide new leadership to the GOCN moving forward.
The Second Missional Church
In the early 2000s, some of the early adherents of the emerging church movement grew increasingly uncomfortable with the perceived liberal theological drift of that movement. In an effort to distance themselves from the ECM, they began to take on the language of “missional” in lieu of “emerging/emergent.” They started a “Friend of Missional” badge for their blogs not long after Emergent Village released its friend badge, clearly an effort to differentiate the two movements.
These are primarily evangelicals with moderate to liberal leanings. They agree with the ECM’s critique of evangelicalism: that the evangelical church in America has been corrupted by culture, is too consumeristic, and has lost the radical, prophetic nature of the gospel. They are most influenced by the anabaptist theologies of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.
While their are certainly theologians sympathetic to them, this missional movement is largely populated by pastors, church planters, and consultants: David Fitch, Alan Hirsch, Bob Hyatt, and Ed Stetzer among them. The organization most closely aligned with this missional is the Ecclesia Network, begun in the mid-2000s.
Is There a Connection?
The looming question is, what, if anything, do these two missional churches have in common?
The first is primarily mainline and populated by people who are committed to mainline denominations. The second is led by evangelicals and non-denominational church planters.
The first is Barthian, the second is Hauerwasian — two theologies that don’t always fit together well.
The first is run by theorists, the second by practitioners.
And yet, they both seem to have the same motivation: To get the church in American to reclaim its mission as a prophetic and counter-cultural force. Put most simply, both missional churches want the church to look and move outward into the world.
So, I put it to you: If you’re involved with one (or both) of these missional churches, what’s your take on the similarities and dissimilarities?