Bringing Unsexy Missional Back

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Next week, the long-awaited (for folks like me, at least) and much-Internet-heralded #futuregospel event will be happening in Washington, D.C.

That is, the first-ever Missio Alliance National Gathering.

And if I have one hope for this conference, this meeting of some wonderful and diverse minds, it is this:

I hope we can bring unsexy missional back.

Now, I’m not saying that Mike Friesen shouldn’t dance like Timberlake in front of a lot of people, because he totally should you guys. And I’m also not saying that people shouldn’t admire my almost-cool beard, because they should do that too (in moderation, i.e., don’t stroke it please). But other than that stuff, I want to see a whole lot of unsexiness at this conference. I want to see dudes and ladies who proudly identify as OVER IT when it comes to the slick, the produced, the superficial cool, and the underlying cha-ching of American “missional church.”

And in place of the sexy that has so often defined missional, I wanna see substance.

So, without further ado, here are three ways I hope we can unsexify missional next week:

1. Acknowledge our insignificance. Here’s the deal with “missional” churches and conferences over the last 10 years: they take themselves WAY too seriously. From the neo-reformed relevants (think big leather ESV’s and Jersey Shore graphic tees) to the dangerously-doubting emergents (think deconstruction and anger) to the neo-monastic claibornites (think dreads), the tone has generally been, “THE CHURCH IS DYING AND SO IS THE WORLD AND WE ARE THE ANSWER TO IT ALL!”

How will we neo-anabaptist missionals enter the fray?

I hope we’ll show up, first and foremost, with some self-deprecating jokes. You know, about how small our churches are. Or about the revolutionary “bi-vo” budget that our financial team just created – “financial team” meaning my wife and I, and “revolutionary” meaning I now work at Starbucks AND the grocery store. Or about how crazy our PR guys have been lately fielding controversial questions on Twitter, no wait, that was just some spammer DMing me that I was “in a video”…

I hope, honestly, that we will talk about “Post-Christendom North America” with a whole lot of humility, believing our contribution to be much less than saving the West, but certainly more than just sitting on our asses while the fundamentalists drive this thing into the ground.

In fact, if “the future of the gospel” could have a blue collar subheading attached to it, “let’s not sit on our asses while the fundamentalists drive this thing into the ground” would be a good one :).

2. Choose function over fashion, substance over form, every time. The evangelical missional conversation has been plagued these last 10 years by a growing pragmatism that equates missional with a certain form of church. It has led to a programmatic approach that is not unlike the seeker church movement that preceded it: Just do church in these three ways, and it will be a missional church! Of course, that approach only applies a superficial band-aid to the much deeper problems facing the church in the West. And those problems will only begin to be addressed if we get down to the guts of things.

In other words, the two proposed forms in the missional conversation to date – culturally relevant megachurch and communally embedded microchurch (house church, missional communities, et al.) – and all the associated techniques for doing church in these ways, can entirely miss the deep meaning of missional. The hip systems approach of mega and the earthy organic approach of micro, for all of their sexiness and cha-ching in Christian culture, have often been equally bankrupt of that which substantially sustains rooted engagement with the mission of God in the “far country” of our cultural millieu.

I hope that Missio Alliance makes unsexy strides forward in dismantling our superficial preoccupation and bringing us to the juicy theological, spiritual, personal core of what it means to orient ourselves around the mission of God. And, don’t get me wrong, we should get practical – but we should do so as a secondary conversation, humbly drawing out the practical implications in such a way that keeps function over fashion and puts the “aesthetics” of missional church in their proper place every time.

3. David Fitch. Now, don’t get me wrong – Dave is an attractive man (in a middle-aged hockey fan sort of way). But in the best possible sense, Dave epitomizes the unsexy of missional. In fact, I think his seminal book, The End of Evangelicalism?, could have sold way more copies if it had simply been titled Unsexy. Because that’s exactly what it is.

What Dave accomplishes in that book, and on a regular basis over at his blog, in his speaking and lecturing, etc., is the devastating deconstruction of evangelicalism’s “empty politic,” its tendency to attach itself to external signifiers that betray stark internal hypocrisies and a shocking departure from embodying the “hospitable presence of Jesus” (a politic of fullness!) in the world. But it’s not deconstruction for the sake of being controversial and moody (i.e., getting all Pete-Rollins-sexy) - it’s an optimistic sort of demolition. The aim is to further the evangelical project and ethos for the sake of the kingdom, not to lay waste to it while raking in the book sales (i.e., cha-ching).

Could this conference perhaps be one of such optimistic demolition? Where we are even willing to lay the axe at our own roots that we might get back to bearing good fruit? I hope so. And I hope Dave, in his wonderfully unsexy way, brings it.

Like a blue line slapshot.

I leave you with this tweet from Dave himself, which I think gets at the unsexifying of missional, and a chastening word to all of us attending this hopefully unsexiest of conferences: 

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So how about you? Are you going to #futuregospel? Are you on board with bringing unsexy missional back? Or do you have some other hopes for the event?

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.

  • dreamawakener

    Zach,
    As one of the emcee’s I can tell you that this gathering will have some solid unsexyness to it.  Thanks for your post.  I will think about how to incorporate your thoughts.  Not sure if I can use your tagline, but I like it.  Thanks for your post. If you could bring some “Nothing But the Blood” aspects to the time that would be good.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      dreamawakener Thanks JR, good to hear! I realize the tagline was a stretch, but thanks for considering it :). Would be honored to chat about the book process, ideas, etc. See you in a few days!

  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ tristaanogre

    DUDE…  You make me so jealous… if it wasn’t for my father’s wedding, I’d be there in a heartbeat… 

    As for unsexy… have you SEEN my sermon videos?

  • tg24

    Some needed words, wish I could be there too.   Yeah I appreciate you saying some of this.  Yes, missional is over-used, no, I’m not saying we should stop talking about it.  Yes, we need to do more, surrender for the duration, adapt to the changes, be rooted in prayer.
    In terms of our practical discussion, you’re right, we ought to consider how we dress certain elements up, but we should be careful to not lose ourselves in bringing unsexy back.  
    I can get into a whole tangent here .  Yes, maybe there have been some moments at these type of conferences where we have glamorized unnecessarily (from the mic or at a pub afterwards) but some solid encouragement has also come from highlighting/normalizing the unconventional too.
    Frankly, I appreciate our collective attempts of being self-aware.  There is “no normal.”

  • lukedalach

    Man good words. I’m looking forward to this week too. My wife and I just realized a couple weeks ago that we were just doing what “mega” has been doing– announcing itself as the hope for the church–just with a new “micro” packaging. Argh. Time to get back to listening to the Spirit and get to the heart of the gospel and Kingdom.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      lukedalach yeah man! right there with you. hope to see you there :).

  • Jennifer

    There are churches of a variety of stripes and styles that have been “missional” without the tagline for years already. I’d love the movement open up and connect with those missional expressions rather than dismissing them as traditional “evangelical” or “mainline.” Pst-Christendom is not monolithic, and faithfulness is the highest call.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      @Jennifer I think I understand what you mean. Clarifying terms about movements and streams can be helpful, but hopefully there can be collaboration and fellowship across the boundaries. I currently attend a United Methodist church and really enjoy my friendships there. There is much to be learned all the way around!

  • http://culturalsavage.com/ culturalsavage

    Good words here man.
    I’m all for the tag line. I approve of keeping it blue collar.
    One question though: do you think it’s primarily the fundamentals that are driving this thing into the ground? I Agree that they are part of it, but I would argue that the “liberal” (or however you want to categorize them” trend to ignore theology for the sake of mission is at the very least keeping the flying car wreck full of fuel.
    Either way, as a very un-hip guy I’m glad to flaunt some un-sexy round about these parts.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      culturalsavage yeah, I think there are fundamentalists on the right and left… agree that the liberal project is as failed as the conservative one, and a new way forward is needed. thanks for the kind words.

  • jpa0325

    Zach, good stuff here. I, unfortunately, will not have a beard and will most likely be wearing golf shirts and kahkis which makes me the least sexy of the bunch.  
    I’m wrestling with what seems to be an implied assumption of this week’s representation – it’s the assumed gathering of  “neo-anabaptist missionals.” What is spectacular about this week is the cross denominational sponsorship of it all ( Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Anabaptist, Anglican, and Reformed). Is your use of anabaptist in this context primarily a missiological descriptor? I know several people who would be very leery of self-identifying as a neo-anabaptist missional (primarily for theological integrity reasons) but would find a home within what I hope is a fruitful dialogue and fellowship this week.  
    Now, off to iron my pleats… JP

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      jpa0325 yeah JP, I think you’re right here. To be honest, because I think labels/descriptors/language/using words is important, I’m trying to find some way to unify the general theological/missiological thrust of the MA project. But I agree that anabaptist is too limiting. Seems like ‘missional’ is at least legit because of the whole ‘Missio’ thing…but maybe not for some. Regardless, looking forward to your pleated khaki Wesleyan unsexiness adding much needed flava to the mix bro :).


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