Which Missional Church?

Which Missional Church? January 27, 2011

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?

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  • Though certainly influenced by theology, being missional is more posture than prophet. What I mean by that is that the missionally minded Christian is simply interested in the person in front of them, loving that ‘next’ person as Christ would love him or her. This differs somewhat from the notion of mission – which is designed to ‘go’ some place different from where one already is, yet hopefully, to live missionally within that new geography.

  • Thanks for this claryfying post, Tony. While I have spent most of my time dwelling in the fisrt… I have become more anxious the last few years about wanting to live more intentionally into the second. The seminary I went to always worked hard to balance theory and praxis… but as part of an institutionalized denomination it seems like lofty theory usually ruled the day. While it seems that there is a bit of cross-over between the two, the second appears to be ‘set-up’ to be more transformational in nature… although there is a great deal of transformtion visible in some of the movements of the first. The tension for me, regarding the fisrt, is that if it is truly guided by the nuannces of mainline denominations (which I agree it is) then to be truly ‘missional’ is not possible within the mainline side of things. Mainline denominations, by there very nature, are already grounded in ther primary ‘tional’… instiTIONAL… which means that institutional preservation continues to be their primary objective. I can’t imagine that it is possible for a spiritual organism to navigate two ‘tionals’ simultaneously. To me, it doesn’t seem possible to be institutional and missional regarding praxis. Perhaps that is why praxis might come easier to the “Second Missional Church.” I am feeling like mainline denominations, like the one I am associated with, can continue to ‘do’ mission, but will never be missional by nature… and I am pretty sure that there is a distinct difference between doing mission and being missional…
    Thanks agian for the great post…

  • What about all the neo-reformed types running with the acts29, gospel coalition? I know they listen to Ed Stetzer a lot but they seem to be a separate group than the two you’ve catergorized.

  • Travis Greene

    This is a good summary, but as with all such things, the reality on the ground is not easily separated into categories. Most folks who are missional at all draw from both groups, and many others besides. But the basic distinction between “missional mainliner” and “progressive-ish evangelical” is probably sound. I wonder if it comes down to ecclesiology, with the 1st being more hierarchical anglo-presby types and the 2nd free-church crypto-baptists and such?

  • Tony, Thanks for wading in on this. You are a good culture and theology observer and I’m glad to hear your take on what you see as going on.
    Five quick observations:
    1. I would want to problematize the theological influences a bit. For what its worth, Hauerwas and Yoder would both call Barth one, if not the most, significant influence on their work. (I just posted this week a link to a new article by Hauerwas on “The Church as Mission” on my blog where he connects Barth, himself, and Yoder together. http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell/2011/01/stanley-hauerwas-on-the-church-as-mission.html )
    You have a much better feel than I do for Princeton Theological Seminary’s “Barthian” conversation but I gather it has usually not been quite as interested in the church and mission conversation–the exceptions being Guder and now John Flett’s dissertation now book The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community. (Pretty much any one interested in mission and church would enjoy section 72 in IV.3 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics but that wouldn’t make them a Barthian).
    Interestingly, Michael Goheen argued in his dissertation that the GOCN is closer to Hauerwas and Yoder than Newbigin. I agree with him. http://missionalchurchnetwork.com/lesslie-newbigin-and-the-gocn/
    2. Is Stetzer involved in “The Ecclesia Network?”
    3. Fitch, Woodward and Rozko are all doing or have done doctoral work in theology so it is not a group without academics (though these three are all working at Church on the Vine together as well).
    4. I wonder too about the easily confused largely academic group called “The Ekklesia Project.” The EP have similar ideas as the “The Ecclesia Network” but don’t use the name “missional church” that I know of.
    5. I think your first point comes closest to the truth: “The first [GOCN] is primarily mainline and populated by people who are committed to mainline denominations. The second [EN] is led by evangelicals and non-denominational church planters.”

    I’ll look forward to checking this thread in a couple days and see what we have learned. I look forward to our crossing paths again soon, Tony. Greetings to all on this thread. –Andy

  • Morie Adams-Griffin

    Thank you for this clarification. However, I am not one to get wrapped up in any of the talk about it. I think it is more important to just do it. I feel that is the essence of “missional” in the way I understand it. My worry is that the people who are doing more of the talking about it are missing the importance of the movement…being the church. I agree with some of Mark’s thoughts that the institution will create major roadblocks and unnecessary challenges to the movement. I continue to say that we are going to over-think, over-structure, and over-paperwork the movement to its death (within mainline denominations anyway).

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  • Andy,

    Good points. It doesn’t surprise me that you’d want to nuance the theology. I tend to think that the Barthians at Princeton (Hunsinger, Guder, et al) are at best uninterested in Yoder/Hauerwas, and at worst antagonistic thereto.

    And even I’m confused by the similarities and differences between Ekklesia and Ecclesia. If they’re not connected, they should be.

  • Tony, I hope missional grows as a word that symbolizes our inability to define the radical freedoms of Spirit. I hope that, the more we try to define the word, the more it stands apart from tribal religious symbolism, and remains a call to ever greater questions and greater mystery. And by remaining out of reach, but always in sight, may missional help focus our collective eyes not on our differences, but on that perennial common Point on the horizon.

    Perhaps missional becomes the religious equivalent of Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” And if missional isn’t that word, then we need a better Word.

  • For me, Missional Church is a misnomer. I sort of consider myself missional, in that it is a redefinition of “Church.” I no longer view “church” as either: the body who meets here (“c”hurch), or all those who believe in Jesus (“C”hurch)… Church is the body of Christ, as manifest when two or three people come together and turn their focus on Jesus (Matthew 18:20). Church happens; and in this sense the missional “movement” isn’t a movement within “Christianity” but it is primarily a movement within humanity.

  • In reference to Andy’s comment, some comments & clarifications…

    1) Good for you to muddy the theological waters on this one. For whatever differences there might be in the theology of Barth, Yoder, and Hauerwas, they all have serious problems w/ Christendom and its implications for church and mission. On this count, they are helpful conversation partners.

    2) Stetzer is not involved in any direct way w/ the Ecclesia Network
    3) Dave and I are part of “Life on the Vine” here in Chicago, but JR Woodward is out in LA, part of a community called Kairos. I am just beginning to do research for a DMiss program which, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, will have in view the sorts of issues raised here – Anabaptist theology, the missio Dei, Post-Christendom and the functional connection b/t theology and ecclesiology in missional churches.

    Tony, on your post in general…

    As someone with meaningful touch points in both camps, I think there is definitely something to what you are saying here. Amidst a host of similarities, I would suggest that one of the strongest might be (perhaps even more so in a renewed expression of the GOCN) the centrality of missiology. Ironically, missiology has been given little attention in the discussion of “missional church,” but I would venture to say that a host of people in both camps would name it as central to what they’re about. Looking forward to more comments here.

  • JR, Thanks for clarifying. I don’t mean to imply that Stetzer has connection with Ecclesia, just that he falls in that camp. He has expressed affinity with Hirsch, etc., but he is obviously officially connected with Acts 29.

    For that matter, when people like Mark Driscoll and Dan Kimball use the terms “missional” and “missional church,” I consider them to be using those in a more generic way; not referring to a collective movement, as I am here.

  • Thanks. It’s helpful.

    But Bosch had a way of bringing Barth and Hauerwas (or more specifically Barth and Yoder) together. And in different (yes, definitely different) ways both these groups will claim some connection to Bosch.

  • I have recently been reading Craig van Gelder “the ministry of the missional church: a community led by the spirit” where he defines emergent as communities that focus on attempting to recapture something of the ethos and practice of the early church. He sees the role of the missional church being far broader, based on the premise that it is crucial to understand the Spirit’s role in the creation of the church if we are to correctly understand its missionary nature (page 18-19). van Gelder offers a useful open systems perspective model for the church going forward, arguing that as church we find our purpose in Scripture and our vision in context (page 140ff).

    In terms of the missional church movemnet (type 1 above) seeking to protect itself as institution, yes, that is what institutions do. However, on the ground at congregational level all sorts of innovation is posible and will eventually impact on the institution. We are seeing this within the Anglican Church.

  • I look fwd to weighing in on this soon. I’m on the road right now, but I’ll post again later. Very intrigued by the discussion here!

  • In general I think this is spot on Tony. However, I think more attention needs to be paid to the version of “missional” represented by Acts 29. Those folks most definitely see themselves as part of the missional movement and, in terms of sheer volume, probably dominate the broader conversation. For that reason alone, it feels like a rather conspicuous omission from this post.

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  • Dan

    Hey Tony….. Hope all is well!

    Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsch, myself and a couple others (under Ed’s leadership) has been shaping a document trying to define “missional” in a collective way from several folks. Ed will be releasing it pretty soon, I just read the final version yesterday.

    I’ll be curious what you think of that when he puts it out. Ed put it together exactly for the reasons you mention, as it is a term that means so many things in how people use it. So at least from this group’s understanding, putting out our best thoughts in a definition how we understand it and personally define and use the term.

  • Tony,
    I just completed a D.Min. in Missional Leadership with Alan Roxburgh, so I can speak to your post from the perspective of the more mainline, GOCN camp.

    I think you offer an accurate description of the historical progression of the GOCN conversation. As others have pointed out, I think it could use some more nuance on the theological impulses that launched the movement. It’s worth including a reference to the early Catholic theological influences, including the influence of Robert Schreiter (Constructing Local Theologies) and Stephen Bevans (Models of Contextual Theology). Bevans was included in one of the early GOCN books, “Confident Witness,” which in my opinion is one of the best of the series. It’s also worth mentioning the influence of the UK version of GOCN and the Anglican “Fresh Expressions” movement.

    I would also add to your analysis, more background on why the GOCN has ceased to be the defining center of the missional conversation in North America. In my opinion, because it has been dominated by theologians in academia, most churches have found it hard to translate into the practices and experiences of local congregations. Most pastors I know read “The Missional Church” and say a hearty “Amen” to the theology and the cultural critique, but when it comes to actually innovating missional life in a local context, the movement has struggled to show what it looks like on the ground in a local context. In a fitting twist, the word that defines a movement set on rooting out the cultural captivities of the North American church, has become domesticated by the same frameworks it set out to critique.

    On one hand theologians have turned it into a new, proper way of thinking about the church, creating there own kind of modern project to imbue congregations with a new rationality. For example, one pastor I know who went through a missional process said, “I feel like the consultants thought that if we could just get people thinking rightly about the church, everything would come together.” In this manifestation, the center of the dialogue is a new “missional” doctrine. Like most debates in academia, it has become somewhat of an echo-chamber.

    On the other hand many church practitioners have claimed it as a more refined and theologically savvy way of doing church growth or promoting church health. When I listen to the way Stetzer’s crowd uses the word, that’s what I hear. In this manifestation, the center of the conversation is the church and the emphasis is on missional as a better strategy of doing church.

    I would put Fitch and Roxburgh in a different, third missional camp. Roxburgh has lamented both of the above polarities, and says that neither of these manifestations of the conversation “get it.” The introduction to his upcoming book, “Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood,” sums up his perspective:

    “The burgeoning missional church movement is a sign that believers are increasingly feeling the call to impact their communities, which is a good thing. But, says Alan J. Roxburgh, these conversations still prioritize church success over mission–how can being missional grow my church? But to focus on such questions misses the point. In Missional, Roxburgh calls Christians to reenter their neighborhoods and communities to discover what the Spirit is doing there–to start with God’s mission. He then encourages readers to shape their local churches around that mission.

    He is trying to imagine a church that begins not with the church, or ideas about the church, but rather with the missio dei, or mission of God.

    Thanks for stirring the pot on this Tony.

  • Interesting discussion and I’m glad I stumbled into it. I have read the leading authors for both camps, not realizing that, and I am a church planter within a denomination (Wesleyan). We get labeled missional largely because we are in an urban setting and we have quickly learned that most of our activity takes place NOT on Sunday morning. We’ve found that launching a not-for-profit in order to sustain and move us forward, has been far more welcomed by the community. We don’t embrace the label or dismiss it, we are just trying to figure out the best way to reach our neighborhood and city, which happens to be considered missional. So, I think it is spot on to acknowledge that the church has lost its voice a bit and has become way too consumeristic, and hopefully more and more people, labeled or not, will put some hands and feet to the church. Our culture needs a countercultural wake up!

  • My correct address is attached now. Oh, and the name of our church just so happens to be Ecclesia, nice.

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  • Ryan Bell

    I too have done doctoral work in Missional Theology.

    All I want to add is that I think there is a bit of confusion about Ecclesia Network (which my friend JR Woodward co-founded) and The Ekklesia Project (which is an more academic conversation about culture and the church. Tony, which are you referring to?

    And…I’m not sure where Ed Stetzer fits in here, at all.

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