Some Honest Talk about Labels (Emergent, Missional, Etc.)

Some Honest Talk about Labels (Emergent, Missional, Etc.) February 20, 2013

I was interested to see the above video, promoting the new book by my friends David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. It was particularly interesting based on how they used some terminology in the promo video. They repeatedly used the terms “neo-Reformed” and “Emergent” as opposite poles, and they used their own preferred term, “missional,” as the middle way between those two erroneous options.

What was most intriguing to me is that I first met both of these guys at an Emergent Village Cohort. Indeed, Geoff ran the Chicago cohort for many years — it was, under his leadership, one of the strongest cohorts in the country. Meanwhile, Fitch was injecting his own missional-Anabaptist theology into the emergent movement in a powerful way. Fitch has gained an audience for his theology in large part because of his generous engagement with the emergent movement.

In other words, these guys are among the most responsible people for the growth and development of the emergent movement, from which they are now trying to verbally distinguish themselves.

I’ve written before about the term “missional.” It bends a lot of ways. It’s a term that basically anyone can use for what ever purpose they want — from a stalwart Southern Baptist neocon like Ed Stetzer to an Anabaptist pacifist like David Fitch. And then you’ve got the neo-Barthian camp like Darrell Guder and John Franke. They’re all “missional,” and so are a dozen church planting networks like TransForm, Forge, and the Parish Collective.

So here’s a test. Imagine a Christian leader saying this: “I’m not missional.”

No one’s going to say that. Not a PC(USA) pastor, and not a PCA pastor. Not a just-war Augustinian, and not an Anabaptist pacifist. Scot McKnight will say he’s missional, and so will Brian McLaren. So will the pope. So will I.

You might say you’re not Presbyterian or you’re not emergent. But you’re not going to say that you’re not missional.

Meanwhile, we all know that the term “emergent” has been redefined by conservatives. As hard as we tried to use it as an open-handed term for an ongoing theological conversation, the theological police jumped up and down screaming that “emergent = liberal” that people started to believe it. Publishers, for instance, once loved the term; they now want nothing to do with it.

So my prediction is that people will keep using the term “missional” and defining it in their own ways. And I think that’s fine. But let’s all remember that with such a broad term that “missional” — like “evangelical,” or even “Christian” — what it really means lies in the definition of the speaker, and the interpretation of the hearer.

Would you say that you’re a “missional” Christian? Or would you say that you’re not?

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  • As with so many debates about isms and intellectual groupings, one has to wonder what specific questions would really be left if the semantic questions were banned.

    • Larry, what do you suppose would happen in this utopic world you describe?

      • I think most people would discover that they don’t have so much interest in arguing about the points about which they actually disagree; they would also discover that they lack the training and discipline to discover what those points of disagreement, precisely, even are. Labels are placeholders for complete thoughts, but because they are ambiguous, the thoughts they can stand in for can be actually contradictory. Labels–isms like “realism,” and broad, vague concepts like “rights” or in the case of religion “spirit”–facilitate intellectual laziness. When you argue whether someone is “missional” I am sure you can more profitably reduce that questions like, “Should we knock on strangers’ doors to try to convert them to our way of thinking?” and more generally, but still usefully, “In what circumstances should we announce our beliefs, and to what degree should we elaborate and advocate for them in each of those circumstances?”

        • Larry, really? My experience within Christianity is that people want to argue about everything! Whether they agree, disagree, or don’t even know what they really believe about something, it seems that the mark of being a Christian in the U.S. is being a first rate arguer. No?

      • Also, I think we are psychologically constructed to find allies and enemies even when doing so is silly. We use labels as flags to rally around. Intellectual life would seem boring to many of us if we were focusing on the specific issues about which we disagree–because if we were to do so, then we wouldn’t be so easily divided into warring camps.

  • Sure, we can use it. But it’s inside-baseball talk. If I self-define using a term that doesn’t mean anything to folks unhip to our ecclesia-speak, are there ramifications to that? You know, for being “missional?”

  • IMO, to follow Jesus’ teaching, his way of acknowledging our place in the world, our relationship with The Creator is to be missional. To be Christian is to be missional. Even conservative Christians embrace the concept via Matt 28:13 – the great commission. Jesus had one foot in Judaism the other in the world – he was missional wasn’t he?

    So, yes, Tony, “what it really means lies in the definition of the speaker, and the interpretation of the hearer.” A wide spectrum of religious people use the term to fit their perspective and message.

  • sofia

    As someone who lives outside of church-lingo worlds, only encountering the vocabulary periodically, these are my initial responses to the word “missional”: 1)sex, 2)colonialism. I know I could be quite remote in my unfortunate word associations with the term “missional,” but I do wonder if its use could actually be detrimental to how outsiders view Christianity.

    What I love about the term emergent is that anyone outside of the Christian church world can probably get the gist of what it means. Something new is growing. Combining “emergent” and “Christianity” tells me that some historical tradition is held onto while new enlightenment is sought–that sounds like something healthy to me.

  • This question is perfect for the book I am currently reading, How (Not) to Speak of God. I think Rollins summed up my view of missional as, “In Christian mission the goal is not that some people ‘out there’ are brought closer to God by our work, but rather that we are all brought closer to God.”

    With this missional is a relationship, where I cannot be missional without someone else while at the same time preventing my “mission” from turning into a self-serving act.

  • Illich

    I thought Fitch was the expert at spotting ‘empty signifiers’…

    • Illich, in my upcoming book in 2014 I track how “missional” became an empty signifier. In this book, Holsclaw and I actually agree with Tony on the malaise that has become missional.Thanks for the post Tony!

    • BOOM!

  • Let’s face it – We are all “theological police”:

  • My “trajectory” around the term missional started with the GOCN. Interestingly, at the time that I was exposed to this, both Acts 29 and the emergent movement were engaging with it. This led me to become a die-hard fan of Lesslie Newbigin. Read everything of his that I could, and began teaching and trying to embody much of his theology. Then, I began reading N.T. Wright, and saw a lot of resonance between his and Newbigin’s work (and Wright is a huge fan of Newbigin). THEN, I came across Chris Wright, and his book The Mission of God (also largely based on Newbigin). At that point, I was a hardcore missional guy.

    My problem was that as I was trying to live those ideas out, along with a few other people, it became increasingly clear that no one else in our Acts 29 church was. At least in those circles, missional meant nothing. Many have even admitted that they’re simply using it as a synonym for “evangelism” – just trying to come up with “non-traditional” ways of doing evangelism. The most “extreme” forms of this – in that world – came from Tim Keller and Jeff Vanderstelt.

    • And by “it meant nothing,” I mean that it could range anywhere from tipping well (“we’re on mission!”) to cashing in your 401k and giving it to your church so that “the mission” could go forward. For the most part, it was a weird mixture of just being a decent human being, neighbor, citizen, etc. and advocating ridiculousness from “the top” – and if you weren’t willing to “sacrifice” for the greater good, then you were sinning.

  • I just finished lumping you all together in my recent dissertation, so I’m not as taken by the labels either. However, labels serve a role. What’s the difference between a Fundamentalist and an Evangelical? Lots of folks lump the two together but there are some real distinctives that are important to understand, lest one entirely misunderstand where a specific person is coming from.

    There’s also distinctive approaches and emphases. Emergent was useful like Postmodern was useful, saying the old is old so let’s move on to something else. What’s this something else? Well, let’s have a conversation about that!

    Missional is useful because it’s a distinctive word utilized in historically Christian settings. Everyone might like the label now, but it’s pretty new to say that places that have had churches for hundreds of years need to be treated like missionary settings. It’s distinguishing old style evangelism–remind people about the religion they grew up with and left or never quite committed to–and cross-cultural approaches, which are holistic and don’t assume prior knowledge.

    Emergent also is more pastoral in leadership and approach, interested in cultural issues. Missional folks tend to be more academic in tone and utilizing missiological and leadership studies approaches.

    Emergent also became a bit of a problem when it expanded well beyond ecclesiology and became identified with a neo-progressive theology. Those who shared the new ecclesiology but did not share opinions on a wide variety of other topics got tired of having to defend themselves about opinions they didn’t even personally have.

    There’s certainly a huge amount of overlap in the labels, but as a general guide its helpful because all sorts of people came into calling for a new approach to ecclesiology and the Christian life for all sorts of different reasons, and these different starting places led to different contributions and continue to offer some pretty clear distinctions in goals and discussions.

  • PaulG

    Just watched the video and checked out the book’s table of contents…that’s my disclaimer – I haven’t read it since it hasn’t been published yet. It seems like a book that it attempting to bring some order to what MIGHT be characterized as a chaotic use of terms to describe some similar concepts (emergent, neo-reformed, missional, etc.).

    Tony, to me in the video the authors seem to be trying to do what you’re alluding to (clear up misconceptions about labels and such). Maybe I’m way off (wouldn’t be the first or last time) – I’ve only had one cup of java this morning.

  • Jonnie

    They definitely not emergent, as a true emergent would never be caught drinking McDonald’s coffee! 😉 Seriously though, representing for Mickey D’s did irk me a little. Doesn’t exactly seem very missional or holistic.

    • Jonnie, that’s David’s thing. He eats at McD’s every day, and he rejects the high-consumer brands like Starbucks. He regularly tweets conversations he has with America’s underclass because he spends time there.

  • People love labels because they are powerful weapons against one another. Once a certain label has been established as negative (emergent, liberal, neo-Reformed, fundy, etc.) all one must do to discredit a speaker is apply that label.

    I grew up fundy-conservative, so I was taught and believed that anything a “liberal” said was automatically wrong. I never even listened to anything a “liberal” may have said. (Obviously, that’s changed.)

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out that words only derive meaning from those who speak and those who receive them. In different conversations words will have different meanings.

    It takes maturity and wisdom to not fall into the easy but cheap tactic of label-and-dismiss, but to actually engage in ideas and conversations instead.

  • Pingback: What we HOPE ‘Missional’ could mean. | Reclaiming the Mission/ David Fitch()

  • Just as with most labels, Missional is pretty much worthless when used as an adjective. It means about as much as tagging *Christian* on the front of whatever thig you are doing or liking.

    It is more helpful as a focusing lens – to help us remember the incarnational movement of God, which then should become the movement of those who follow his way.

    I try my damnedest to avoid using the word *Missional* as I help the church I have a part in leading to take on the shape of God, which is hopefully good news to the neighbourhood around us.

    Missional is a lens through which we can better understand the qualities and movement of god an creation. It is not a tag or adjective to separate myself from someone else.

  • Tony, great questions. Thanks for raising this up again. These issues are real. Dave and I really resonate with your concerns about ‘missional’ and actually spell these out right at the beginning of the Introduction to Prodigal Christianity.

    But we don’t really see ‘missional’ as a middle way between Neo-Reformed and Emergent. We see both as nuanced forms of Christendom (one being more modern and the other more postmodern). We are seeking more of a radical Anabaptist form of ‘missional’ which critiques the pragmatism of much missional literature. But this shouldn’t be news to you, since I think you were the one who came up with the “Hauerwasian Mafia” label to describe Fitch and I (and others) within Emergent back in the day (not sure if you were trying to put us in a box with that label or not).

    Let’s keep dialoguing.

    • Geoff, I look forward to reading your thoughts in the book. Yes, I “labeled” you as HM back in the day. That was my way of provoking theological dialogue within the emergent community. I think it’s a tragic failure on the part of me and others that you and David now feel some need to distance yourself from that word.

      Here’s the thing: I think that you and David both espouse theology that is inherently political. So do I. Now you and I come at it from different angles — you from Anabaptism, me from a post-Reformed (Moltmannian) perspective — but they’re both political/public theologies.

      Emergent, for all of its baggage, has become a highly politicized word within Christian circles. Even laypeople I run into have opinions about it. And I sometimes wonder whether to abandon it because of that politicization, or to embrace it all the more.

      Missional, on the other hand, is most definitely apolitical. That’s why everyone can embrace it. It’s the ultimate non-offensive term.

      But, I imagine that you and I would agree that the gospel is inherently political. So, are you and David trying to politicize the term? Why do you care whether “missional” means your version (Anabaptist) or Guder’s (Barthian) or Stetzer’s (theocracy)?

      And why dismiss “emergent” as postmodern Christendom? That charge I really don’t understand.

      PS: I just read the intro to the book, in which you call me “just another version of mainline Christianity.” Too bad, really, because it shows that you haven’t been reading my blog or my published books. My dissertation, for example, is a harsh critique of the mainline church. It saddens me that you two guys would rely on common misperceptions, rather than doing the work yourselves.

      However, I understand how it works: If your biblical study leads you to unequivocally support gays in the church, you’re “mainline,” regardless of any other doctrine you espouse, regardless of your ecclesiology, regardless of anything.

      • (Grrr. Just lost my comment) I was saying that you are exactly right about the desire to politicize ‘missional’ and that the term is meaningless without it. Also, we aren’t dismissive about Emergent or the Neo-Reformed, but we do have disagreements.

        Maybe we could figure out a forum to hash these similarities and differences sometime.

        • Yes, by inviting us to speak at Missio Alliance. It’s too bad, really, that our perspective is obviously not welcome there.

          • We do engage your published work in the ecclesiology chapter. We “show our work” in the body of the book. That was just the intro. But I’m not really in charge of Missio Alliance, but I’ll pass the idea forward. But we really aren’t dismissive, I think the missional and emergent have drifted apart, maybe for bad reason, but maybe for some good ones.

          • Maybe you could just come anyway? I mean, I wasn’t invited to speak either, but I’ll be there 🙂

            • Actually, I asked JR about how I could be involved from the time he first mentioned it to me. It’s only occurring to me now that I’m radioactive because of my support for gay clergy and gay marriage. I guess I’m a little dense to only be figuring that out now.

  • Rick Bennett

    Vows are spoken
    To be broken
    Feelings are intense
    Words are trivial
    Pleasures remain
    So does the pain
    Words are meaningless
    And forgettable.

  • Rick Bennett

    Enjoy the Silence.

  • Pingback: Who ISN’T Missional?()

  • Of course there is the possibility as a friend of mine said (quoting other friends) that missional is now collapsed to mission minded. One is lifestyle while the other is aspirational.

  • Pingback: What is Missional Anyways? | Collationes()

  • Rick Bennett


    Shouldn’t you say, Emergent and Missional (as we choose to define bother terms, somewhat arbitrarily) have drifted apart?

  • Here’s a fun little way to prep for the SAT test: “Emergent is to Nike as missional is to _____________”

    I say the answer is “fitness apparel”.

    The problem with “missional” is that it isn’t a brand, it’s a category, and only geeks get excited about categories. Most people, on the other hand, get excited about brands, because they’re powerful symbols of the lives we want for ourselves.

    The problem with Emergent is that, as a brand, it just didn’t succeed.

    • I have some research that I did with EV from back in the day, that would lead me to believe that the brand did succeed, but almost guaranteed it’s own demise as a brand because “brands” often need some sort of centralized control if they hope to weather heavy storms. The problem with that is that the ethos of EV wasn’t based upon control, but relationships and smaller networks. It also didn’t help that most folks I know who were involved in EV were/are way too busy (or maybe even uninterested) to enter a “Jesus Street Fight” with many who had large followings for their established brands, that were interested in, at least in my analysis, protecting their turf and controlling ideas.

      And let’s be honest, if as much social media existed at the outset of Emergent, EV, The TerraNova Project, whatever – it would have organized itself around a hashtag… Maybe we should try that – brands make comebacks all the time…

      • Hi Shane – I see no practical difference between, “the brand didn’t succeed” and “the brand did succeed, it just wasn’t managed properly, which caused its demise”. Six of one, half-dozen of another…

        I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons why Emergent eventually failed as a brand – yours seem plausible, and I’d be very interested in your research – but fail it did. I don’t know anyone these days who would disagree with that observation, if pressed.

        I’m not even saying that’s a bad thing (although, in hindsight, I wish Emergent HAD picked a fight and tried to be even more intentionally disruptive). I’m just pointing out one way of distinguishing between the labels “missional” and “emergent” from a popular perspective; a way that I think helps elucidate why “missional” is a safer and less distinctive label.

        • I think that’s fair enough, Jason, but you’re continuing to categorize it as “failed.” That might be a popular way to look at it, but I wouldn’t necessarily see it that way – I suppose it depends upon how we define “success,” with regard to Emergent. I certainly agree that many feel that it failed in some way.

          I hear what your saying, though. “Missional” is less brandish, but that may only be because no one trademarked it. 😀

          • That’s a fair point Shane, although, by the inherent goals of branding (a growing sense of recognition and trust) I think we’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t agree that the Emergent brand has failed.

            On the other hand, it may very well be that Emergent became a brand by accident; that it’s intentional goals had nothing to do with growth, and that it has, in fact, succeeded in achieving its goals, whatever those may be. But my guess is, if the movement didn’t have enough centralized control to manage the brand, then it probably didn’t have enough centralized control to clearly define relevant goals what would lead to its own sustainability either.

            BTW, I have trademarked the term “missional”. Fitch, Holdsclaw, and Rozko all pay me royalties every time they use it on Twitter : )

            • Jason,
              So that is where my parking change has been going. I was wondering! 🙂

            • I don’t think it failed.

              As the brand grew, those with power sought to de-centralize it, so it may have achieved some of it’s goals of opening up conversation. Clearly, it grew enough and had enough of a reach to spawn books, and then counter-books. The brand chose (in some ways) to behave in a more organic sense than one that was more “processed.”

              Part of what happened is that the goals that were set, were met in a few years instead of a decade, and it becomes hard to sustain any kind of organization that rapidly grows without cash infusions – this may be an oversimplification. The stories involved and the factors at work are too numerous to cover in a comment like this: it might be more fitting for a podcast. I can say that sustainability of the organization was never a main goal – sustainability of friendships between people definitely was. Which may be why I don’t believe that it failed.

              • Thanks for that response. Makes sense from my outside perspective, and it’s pretty much what I meant when I suggested it may have been an accidental brand.

                I’ll be anxiously awaiting that podcast episode : )

  • Jonnie

    Try this distinction:

    MIssional is more ‘model’–that’s how you get terrifically different theological streams dipping in.

    Emergent is more a ‘philosophy’ (when it’s more deep and not just a veneer or style like Kimball and others)– it’s acknowledging something more about the structure of knowing, theologizing, etc…

    • I think this suggest part of the problem. “When it’s more deep” suggests a pretty distinctive initial assumption, and saying Dan Kimball is just about a “veneer or style” really co-opts the original orientation of emerging stuff and points it in an entirely different, and only loosely related direction. When Emergent became synonymous with progressive theology and politics it moved a decidedly different direction than the ecclesial reform movements that together sparked the initial conversations. Kimball’s Adventure in Churchland is very much still emerging in the original usage of the word in the late 90s and early 200s.

      His stuff is extremely deep and very much ecclesially radical. It’s just not in favor by those who think emergent is just another way of saying theologically progressive.

      • Jonnie

        Nice word Patrick. You’re right that I’m using the word in the sense that it has evolved more towards theology than ecclesial style, etc. I mean no disrespect to Kimball. I just think their has been a natural progression where the theology has also been more and more approached by and injected with emergent thinking to where it now means more what I mention above. If you think about it, it’s an extremely natural progression, and makes sense why certain evangelicals might now back off from the term.

  • The more I consider this, the more clear it is to me that this is all about sexuality. Look, for example, at the speakers line-up at this conference that David and Geoff are organizing: Though they cast “Prodigal Christianity” and MissioAlliance as big tent, there is not a single speaker that advocates inclusion of gays in all levels of church leadership (please correct me if I’m wrong).

    Reading through the intro of Prodigal Christianity, I can see that’s what this is about, because I cannot think of another theological issue about which David and Geoff would label me “just another mainliner.”

    It’s too bad, really, that MissioAlliance will be known as yet another organization for which acceptance of GLBT persons is a shibboleth.

    • Tony, first I agree with you re:acceptance of LGBT people, but by advocating this position are you not making the argument a shibboleth yourself? This is really more of a thought experiment, but is something really grace-filled inclusion if you don’t also accept those who don’t want to/can’t share your views on grace?

      • is something really grace-filled inclusion if you don’t also accept those who don’t want to/can’t share your views on grace?

        This is such a weird thing to me. If equality for LGBTQ people is simply a continuation of the larger civil rights movement – which I believe it is – then we should apply this question to the “inclusion” of African Americans.

        • I’m not totally sure what your question is, but I’ll try and riff anyways. Yes, I think the inclusion of people of other racial backgrounds is also very important (I was actually impressed to see the racial diversity in the speaker list for this particular conference). However, as the church is called to accept the marginalized, it is also called to accept those who are marginalizing them. Redemption is not found in overturning the social order, it’s in removing it entirely.

          • That was not what I meant. I was saying should we “include” those who don’t support equality for African-Americans using the same logic? I’m sure most of us would say no.

            • I think that’s the challenging part of grace. I’m reading Jay Bakker’s book right now and he seems to make the point that, though it’d be hard to stomach, we are called to do exactly that. Jesus accepted the tax collectors, who were cooperating in the oppression of the Jewish people by the Roman empire.

              • I guess we haven’t clarified what we mean by “include.” I am not saying that those people (racists) aren’t human or aren’t worthy of respect or anything like that. On that ground, yes, of course, we should accept them. And, I would even say that they should be accepted as Christians if they so choose to label themselves in that way – it’s a big tent. But, should we progressive types partner with racists? I don’t even see what that would mean. Likewise, should we partner with homophobes? If we don’t see the connection, then we don’t fully believe that LGBTQ people should be accepted as equal.

                • I’m honestly not sure, because I’m uncomfortable with the inclusion of people motivated by hate, just as most people would be. But at the same time, I can’t see a way to not include someone (even if their ideas offend me) without being guilty of exclusion myself. I think I’ve heard this called the shadow of inclusion. If you include everybody, you are by necessity excluding the people who don’t want to include everybody.

                  Maybe inclusive/exclusive isn’t even a helpful duality.

                  • Maybe the goal is always to include everyone, but I think Rollins is on to something in his newest book where he says that only those who refuse to include exclude themselves.

                    • I can see his point. At the same time, my immediate reaction to this was, “That sounds a lot like ‘God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose to go there'”

                    • I still think that’s true, to an extent… We create our own hells.

                    • In non-profit work, we sometimes differ on whether or not we should take grant money from WalMart. If we individually boycott WalMart, aren’t we supporting them by allowing them to advertise their charity to us? I always say, take the money, if the project is the right to do, it doesn’t matter who is supporting it. For “haters”, if they want to come work on a Habit for Humanity house, let them, but they don’t get to express that hate inappropriately around me, no matter where we are. There are some limits to this, it’s not always that simple, but that is basically my version of “inclusion”.

                  • Jonnie

                    Good. Justice is better, and it also includes (not pun intended) the necessary disallowance of those who would pervert it. Jesus wasn’t feel good inclusive. He sat with the tax collectors because they were excluded. Anti-gay evangelicals certainly aren’t in this socio-cultural position.

          • Jonnie

            Where do you hear this ‘call’ to accept marginalizers?

            • I would say the tax collectors were certainly marginalizers. The Romans were marganalizing people and they were still sought out by the followers of Christ. I think if we set ourselves up as opposed to one group so that we can support another group, no matter what groups they are, we are sowing the seeds of our own exclusionary, divisive practices.

              • Jonnie

                There’s a double bind here Benjamin. The marginalizers who you say we should include (accept without critique?) are the source of the exclusion of one of the other communities (LGBT). To include them without (a degree) of internal change in their position is to, by nature, exclude or at least extremely distress the community they are postured against. In this way, Jesus’ way, inclusion of different types still has divisive and critical engagement with the groups he brings together.

                • A much more extreme (and recently very real) example for me, was when a (very repentant) sex-offender appeared in our midst. Being “good Christians”, we had to learn to include him, but we had to keep others safe, including some who just felt threatened when he was around, even in groups. This was definitely NOT “accepting without critique”. “Inclusion” does not imply “anything goes”.

                  Locally, there was “internal change”, but the UMC had already figured out what we needed to do, so it was just a matter of implementing those policies. IMO, those policies were consistent with the NT.

          • Yes, there is a certain kind of diversity in the roster of that conference that is fantastic — a racial and ethnic diversity that I envy for the conferences that I assemble.

            But there’s another kind of diversity that is totally lacking.

    • I certainly think sexuality is important. But isn’t drawing the line between yourself and others in regard to sexuality exactly to perpetuate the myth that who and how you do it is the most important thing about you (and your theology)? Don’t we want to move beyond that?

      And just to be upfront about our involvement, Dave and I are not organizing this conference. I’m not even a speaker for it. Certainly we are involved in Missio Alliance, but not the conference so much.

      • As an advocate, I don’t think we’re saying “it is the most important thing.” But, the reality is that real people are being hurt every day because of this. I’m not sure we could objectively claim that any one “thing” is “the most important.” But, it is pretty fucking important.

      • Geoff, for the life of me I cannot think of another way that you and I have “drifted apart” theologically. Please enlighten me. I’m serious.

        • I don’t know, we probably differ in the nature and purpose of the Cross/Resurrection, the function of the church (gathering and sending), God’s relation to creation, and other such topics. That is the short answer. The long answer about this drift, I guess, is the lame answer of, “Our answers are in the book.” If we have mischaracterize certain emergent authors and their take on these issues then please let us know (as I’m sure the Neo-Reformed crowd will let us know once they read it).

          • A) I really doubt there are significant enough differences for you to write a book about how different we are, except possibly sexuality.

            B) And even if there are, how very tragic that in book and video you want to exacerbate those differences. How tragic that my requests to be part of Missio Alliance have been ignored.

            • re: B) Why so much tragedy in your eyes? I see opportunities to continue moving forward in dialogue.

              But re: A) We are in dialogue with many people, not just you: Piper, Keller, McLaren, Hirsch, Newbigin, Bosch, Carson, NT Wright, Scot McKight. And we actually spend time on our similarities, not only our differences. We are continuing to learn from everyone…and I’m not just saying that as a platitude: as an Anabaptist I have to mean it. 🙂

              • I read through the introduction twice, and here are some of my (probably too reactionary) thoughts:
                “scandal” can also mean “trap”

              • OK, I’ll be watching my in-box for those opportunities for dialogue.

                And let me just say, for anyone who’s still following this thread, thank God for Fuller Seminary.

                • kyle

                  You really retweeted Rob’s post that attributed things to Walsh and Claiborne they have never said? And it is taking psychological perspective on people he hasn’t met on a book he doesn’t intend to read? And with a bam at that?
                  I would think with run ins in you have with people psychologizing you and pressing upon you things you didn’t say you would be kinder than that.

                  • Tony said this on Twitter, but his “bam” was not an endorsement of my post.

                    I will admit that my summary of Walsh and Claiborne is definitely oversimplified. But, I led multiple book studies in small groups based on their work, and that is the impression that I and many others were left with.

                    I go into some more context in the comments section of my post.

                • Jonnie

                  Word Tony. From Fuller’s campus…

                • Of course, I have to say a hearty amen about Fuller as well…

            • kyle

              Could it be you weren’t invited because they weren’t sure you would have enough of value to add to the conversation? That you are a good shock-jock blogger, and interesting liberal, who really wants to push on the GLBT thing but they really don’t want to get bogged down in your hobby horses? I mean sometimes we don’t get invited to things because of a good reason. You should believe and promote yourself the way you are but don’t whine and moan when you don’t get invited to things.

              • Of course that’s possible. There are dozens of conferences every year to which I’m not invited. It’s not about me. It’s about the lack of diversity on that one issue at this conference.

                No one owes me an invitation to anything.

                • kyle

                  Lack of diversity on one issue? Are you sure no one on that long list favors some sort of inclusion? I mean it also happens that all those people disagree with people who fight for inclusion on list of things. I mean it may come a shocker but I am guessing most of the people attending this thing are much more traditional than you so why need diversity there? I find the speakers incredibly diverse.

                  • See my comments above. I’ve already commended their diversity.

                • kyle

                  Oh this it sounds like you complaining all the the members of the College Republicans are Republicans (or Democrats). If you go so wide you lose all common identity and that’s up for each conference and group to decide. The Wild Goose fest was lacking way more flavor then it looks like this thing will.

  • why can’t we just follow? . . . and hold out our hands to others without all the posturing and boxing and definitions?

  • this argument makes me feel like there is so much human effort fighting about church and God — and so little true surrender to and reliance upon God, the Creator. Seriously — I am a freaked out mother of two teenaged boys, a professional writer, historian, and a seminarian (boxes) — but, all this missional/emergent stuff in the church seems like “little lion men” wrestling w/one another when there are starving people on the streets, Monsanto stealing our right to real food, babies being trafficked for war or sex or factory work . . . there is so much to do. seriously.

    • I usually have trouble with the “why are we arguing X when we should be doing Y” argument, but in this case, thanks for bringing it up. I have trouble with it, because it is important that churches deal with the issues like the LGBT, it’s as important as the salvery discussion was 200 years ago. On the other hand, it does belie the work a bit when you say you’re main purpose is building a better world, but you spend so much time just talking about it, doesn’t it? Seems like we could find a way to do the work and make a few rules about civility while doing it, and the rest would just work itself out.

  • Mich

    So If I have this right:
    The Neo-Reformed are on a Mission to run as far away from Emergent as their MIssional legs will carry them?

  • Jeff Straka

    I read the free chapter. The problem I see with “missional” (and I felt this way when I was still in the “christian camp” – I’m now a “Skeptimergent”) is that it is simply a more covert way to evangelize, by infiltrating the “enemy camp”. The end-game is STILL to bring those OUTSIDE the “christian coral” safely INSIDE: conversion. And I get it. These guys went to seminary and need employment and by forming christian-based communities, they will find a way for these folks to fund their lives (after all, they have the god-education and expertise). Now, I realize I may be pissing some people off in this group, but if you are trying to follow the pattern of Jesus, I don’t see it. I think he was about erasing ANY AND ALL dividing lines, religious or political – he was ANTI-TRIBAL! How many people did Jesus baptize into his “religion”? ZERO! Why can’t we simply be about joining with progressive Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Atheists, Humanists, Democrats, Libertarians, Republicans, etc., and get some shit done in this world? I’m pretty sure THAT was what Jesus was about.

    • Now here’s some honest talk about what we should be about. Thanks, Jeff.

    • I think I am okay with an approach toward “conversion” if that means actually helping people move from one toxic way of life to another, trying to make people’s lives more harmonious. But, one of my main issues with the “missional” ideas proposed here is that it MUST BE wedded to specifically Christian language. Like you say Jeff, can we not try to join together with other people BEYOND those linguistic differences?

      • Jeff Straka

        And that movement towards a less toxic life might actually be “DE-conversion”. 🙂

    • It’s hard to see how your accusation of conversion to stick to mainline churches when their numbers have been shrinking for over 50 years. At the same time, mainline churches have built most of the hospitals in the U.S., and are still the largest private charity organizations in most states.

      In fact, in Minnesota, the largest sponsor of Muslim refugees into the state, and the groups lining them up with housing, education, and healthcare, are Lutherans. If you want to work together with Christians, Muslims, Jews, and everyone else to get shit done, you don’t have to look any farther than your local mainline denomination.

      Mainline denominations have been missional in the U.S. ever since they first got off the boat and helped the first farmers build the first barns in the middle of the 19th century. The only thing the “missional” movement brings to what mainline denominations have been doing for hundreds of years is trying to attach a sexy label to God’s work. The problem is, most of God’s work, like spending the afternoon visiting with an elderly person, is considered by most people to be terribly boring and mundane.

      Doing God’s work is never a growth industry, as the mainline churches can attest to. Trying to re-market God’s work as “emergent” or “missional” may help sell a few books for a while, but it does not change the inherent, boring, mundane, and non-growth-oriented nature of God’s work.

      Call yourself whatever you want. But show up to join in God’s work, and you will discover God. You will also probably run into few mainline denomination folks while you there as well.

  • chrismorton82

    To answer your question Tony, I refer to myself as missional, if by missional you mean living out the answers to three questions:

    -What is God’s mission in me? or, How am I as an individual becoming like Jesus?
    -How is God’s mission carried out corporately? or, What does a missional Church do?
    -What does it mean to be God’s church here and now? or, What does it mean to be missional in this unique moment?

    I’ve written a full response to your question here: Eulogizing the Emergent Church and Defining a Missional Movement (

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  • I wouldn’t say that I was anything.

  • Has it occurred to anyone else that this whole conversation would probably be viewed as a nonsensical waste of time by anyone outside the intersecting concentric circles of emergent, missional, neo-reformed, mainline, etc.? Except that, those folks (i.e. the vast majority of the rest of the world) won’t notice this conversation at all. Listening in, what I hear are several fragile egos in danger of losing any genuine mission in their own lives at the altar of whatever sense of influence and recognition their fair-weather constituency provides them. But, alas, this critique is coming from a middle-age pastor temporarily (one hopes, most of the time) free from the daily responsibilities of a church, who took the time to read every comment in this thread because he too is grasping at any vestige of coolness and relevancy and doesn’t want to be left behind. Or, to be more genuine and more gracious to all involved, he actually cares about all of the issues and all of the people connected to this conversation. And, he can still laugh at himself for inadvertently writing an entire comment in royal third-person. Perhaps I have the most fragile ego of all.

    • I just went over my sixth-grader’s geometry homework. So I can say with some confidence that concentric circles never intersect!

      But beside that, I see your point, but still think it is a necessary conversation. Is the reformation ever over? How can we not be re-formed if we don’t talk about these things?

      Part of reformation is not about changing the church, it is also about changing people’s relationship to the church. This is done through question and conversation. That is what is going on. The important thing is not whether or not these are really new questions, the important thing is that people are asking them in struggle to make the church relevant to them, personally. I think it is an important question, even if it is only done in some circles.

      • Yeah, my math vocabulary failed me here. I was actually thinking of a Venn diagram in which the space in the center of the intersecting circles represents common ground. But, you got my point and I get yours. I agree that reformation comes through question and conversation. That’s especially true of the questions that make us uncomfortable (like Tony wondering aloud if challenging the Church’s views about sexuality is the unspoken issue here). I just picked up on some turf-battles in the bigger conversation that might seriously detract from the important stuff. But, I could be way off base.

  • Back to the heart of this post: Tony, I think you are correct on the term “missional.” The post you did earlier (“Which Missional Church”) in which you delineated the GOCN and the post-emergent Ecclesia crowds is most helpful and spot on. But anyone can (and have) used the term Missional. Some use the term to simply mean establishing more evangelistic programs, more overseas missions support, or a renewed effort to invite people to church. However, I think Steve Knight got it right when he said in response to this post, “I actually think there are still many, many people who would not say they are missional, simply because they have yet to become engaged with any sort of missional theology.” As David and Geoff articulate and what the likes of Hirsch, Roxburgh, and Woodward are saying is that a deeper missional theology is the key to truly being a missional church. If we are to correctly understand the mission of God’s people in this world, we had better first understand the mission of God in this world.

  • This thread is clearly dead, but it’s got me thinking a week later: why is support for gay marriage an evangelical shibboleth? Clearly it is, but why? (put this in the QTH!) The question comes from Tony’s assertion that invites to certain conferences don’t show up based on that issue. My guess is that it ultimately comes down to a way of understanding scripture, and that that is what this battle represents. There was a time when I could say, the Bible is clear: homosexuality is an abomination – end of story. But the second you start to study the issue, you begin to run into issues of interpretation that muddy the waters and challenge what a person believes about what scripture says and what it means to follow it. Evangelicals who have gone a long way down this road and who have come out in support of gay marriage have clearly a different way of interpreting the scriptures than those who have not, and I think that’s what this battle is about.

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