A reply to David Fitch’s “Is ‘missional’ doomed?”

Thanks for keeping up (and returning to!) your blog. I deeply appreciate your initiatives and creativity. I have a few replies to you and your friend, Bob Havenor, and have set them within my blog, as I am sure that I have one or two people who do not read your blog but will as soon as they read your impassioned plea regarding the missional movement!!!

You asked right from the top two questions about the doom of the missional movement, and IMHO, it’s already been fulfilled. In so many ways beyond consumerism and overlay, the adjective is already an important corollary to Bishop Stephen Neill’s axiom: “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.” The adjective has done as much to conceal as it has to reveal.

To be sure, for many readers of your books and blog, the adjective is redundant: how can we have or identify a church without a mission? Hence the appeal of the adjective to assist in the recovery of the church’s sense of calling into existence. Clearly, overlays at this point do not promote the kinds of transitions, demolition, and construction of “outward oriented Kingdom (Gospel) living.”

Bob’s concern (and yours, in degrees) regarding structure, e.g., the Sunday gathering or the evangelical corporate practices, is a good one, and I’d like to suggest there are other ways to consider structure than conclude it has power that stalls mission, or that culture is embedded with power that prevents mission from moving forward in the neighborhood.

Before I get there, though, I want to affirm in the strongest possible way those questions Bob raises near the end of his letter. While I don’t know what he means by “mandate,” the second half of his question impresses me as both novel and familiar. In this regard, the stepping into the “murky riverbank of a great unknown” is a great new metaphor for the adjective, and is well represented by the worldwide house church movement. Indeed, this is a crack in the conversation about the adjective that I want to insert a wedge into for how we in the missional movement discuss structure and culture.

I want to suggest that none of the structures (or culture) discussed by Bob and yourself have any power in and of themselves that determines in advance how the people who constitute the church will respond. Indeed, if that were the case, there is probably some rhetoric out there that could validate for the present why such structures already serve Christ’s mission through the church.

Instead, I want affirm, following Margaret Archer, that the people (the missioners) who constitute the church make choices regarding their own sense of mission to activate the powers that both structure and culture possess: I want to affirm the missioner’s humanity to make fallible choices that fulfill their own projects, while keeping intact what we- Bob, you, me, and others- understand to be frighteningly true: there are objective consequences to those choices that the missioner cannot pre-determine. But, the point here is that none of the powers come into play unless the missioners put them into play.

That is not say that the missioner can avoid the powers of structure or culture: others will perceive those powers as constraints or enablements, and relationships, structures, and culture will change or remain static. Even the missioner who refuses to activate the powers can have a later encounter. We observe this in people who decry changes in church structures even though they have steadfastly resisted or distanced themselves from such changes.

Let me add more: Let’s not run too quickly toward ascribing too much power to structure and culture in determining what the outcomes for mission will become. Let’s be sure to do some better on-the-ground discoveries of what people really perceive their sense of mission is, and compare such to the kinds of decisions they enact. Just a hunch: what people from our communities perceive about the power of structures and culture (constraints? enablements?) may be quite different from how they activate such powers…hopefully, I have given some width to the crack given by Bob.

Sorry to have run on. I’m going to conclude by suggesting that one of the trip-wires in Bob’s letter is the notion that we’ll find a successful structure, in contrast to all of the “failed structures” that Bob and the rest of us so keenly see and feel. Some of Roxburgh’s earliest writings recovered the missiological development of Victor Turner’s notion of liminality. “Development” is a key word here, for there isn’t, to Al’s credit, a one-to-one correspondence between the research setting of Turner and contemporary North America. Nevertheless, liminality is what immediately came to mind when Bob mentioned the “murky riverbed of the great unknown.” Traversing that murky riverbed really captures well the journey toward the missional church: a strong sense of liminality, whatever that structure may become by the grace of God. Liminality has a way of reasonably delaying ambitions for finding successful structures…

BTW, I see that you will come to Pasadena in January. My mentor is Ryan Bolger, and he has my contact info; perhaps we can enjoy Peet’s together? LMK…


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