Missional Without The Church?

Missional Without The Church? September 13, 2012


Tony Jones recently posted some harsh critiques of homeschooling (“Death to Homeschooling!” and “Why Homeschoolers Don’t Understand Missional”) that have been generating quite a bit of backlash and conversation. Jamie Arpin-Ricci, for instance, has offers some great thoughts in response: “Missional Implications of Education.”

I agree with Tony that there some screwed up thoughts driving the way that some folks do homeschooling, but as a number of people have noted (including Mark Van Steenwyk) there are a wide range of ideologies that compel people to homeschool, and in that sense Tony is creating a straw man.

BUT the most disturbing part of Tony’s post (as well as those he was critiquing) is the use of the adjective missional without any reference at all to the church (or at least church in any substantial sense that would go beyond the Church, as an abstract collection of all the followers of Christ around the globe).

I cannot be missional. I can engage the mission of God as a member (think body-part, not club-membership) in the life and work of my local church congregation, but it is wrong to speak of misisonal activity without any reference to the church.  Gerhard Lohfink, John Howard Yoder and others have argued that the people of God are essential to the mission of God, and that local congregations are contextual embodiments of the whole people of God (Robert Banks’ book Paul’s Idea of Community is really helpful here…)

John and I have latched on to the term Slow Church (as opposed to Slow Faith or Slow Christianity, etc) because we believe that the church, and specifically the local, particular, embodied church, is important and furthermore that a key part of the “industrialization” of Christianity in our times is the theological and practical marginalization of the local church community.  Like any industrial process that bows down at the altar of efficiency, seemingly gratuitous parts of the process must be eliminated, and at some point Christians got the idea — in our individualistic and hypermobile Western culture– that local churches really didn’t matter all that much.  A major part of our Slow Church project is recovering the prime importance of the local church community, as the place in which we are formed and mature together in the Spirit, and in which we discern and submit to the reconciling mission of God.  And as I sketched out yesterday, there may some very practical reasons for restoring the local church community, especially if we are concerned about sustainability and caring for creation.

I think the term missional is a helpful one, but these days it is WAY overused.  Part of the corrective we need is to use it only to describe activities that are done in conjunction with the local church.  To do so would turn conversations about things like education on their heads: e.g., how do the choices we make about how we educate our children relate to the local and particular reconciling work that God wants to do in and through our congregation?  I have a friend who wrote a piece about Wendell Berry’s essay “Health is Membership” (which will be post here in the near future!), but in it he tells the story of how own congregation came to realize that they could (and maybe even SHOULD) be talking together about health and healthcare. Something similar could be said about education, or food, or housing, or work… The mission of God is the reconciliation of ALL things (Col. 1:15-23), and that is the life that our local congregations have been called into.  Let’s recover the word missional to refer to these sorts of discernments and action that are mediated through the local church.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

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