Monday, July 12, 2010

“The Missional Church & Denominations” – A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

I recently read The Missional Church & Denominations: Helping Congregations Develop a Missional Identity, edited by Craig Van Gelder. This book pulls together essays of denominational and religious leaders who speak to the importance of transforming our communities of faith from being reliant on attractional, programmatic thinking, into missionally-minded congregations that are following God’s call beyond their walls and into their communities and world. Reading their comments, I cannot help but be excited about what this century holds for Christianity. In this age of pluralism and diversity, Christians have the opportunity to build relationships that reflect the dynamic calling of Christ who wanted followers to go out into the world.

Authors comment on various aspects of the need for transformation in our religious structures and the challenges that stand in the way of such change. David Forney encourages us to abandon our “institutional idolatry” that value bureaucracies over the relational work motivated by the Spirit of God (66). He uses the book of Hebrews as a model, both for it’s portrayal of Christian hope and it’s call in chapter 13 to journey outside the safety of the city gate as Jesus did. Alan Roxburgh claims that denominations and churches must accept change as the Jews in Babylon changed under Jeremiah’s mandate to reform themselves in this new place. We live in a secular society where denominational identities, traditional church models, and church attendance records are in flux, and Christians must learn to move past unhelpful and outdated programmatic responses. Denominations can engage in and embrace pathways to new, non-hierarchical, missionally-engaged leadership. Their examples and learning processes can become a resource for churches, when paired with coaching, toward a more community-engaged church with open space for believers to journey together in this new age (101-103).

Writers also use examples from their own denominations for why change needed to occur and how it happened. Daniel Anderson states that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has the idea of the Missional Church in its DNA, based on the fiery example of Reformation leaders. They followed the mission of God to reform the church, but eventually became bogged down in orthodoxy and Pietism. When the ELCA formed twenty years ago, they realized the need to hold it’s tradition of orthodoxy and practice in check with confessional piety. It wasn’t that they needed to do away with tradition, but they did need to renegotiate the boundaries of each strand of DNA. They also try to use their church structure for collaboration rather than hierarchical order, though they sometimes slip into programmatic solutions to missional questions (186-193).

I was struck by the fact that many of the writers of different essays from various backgrounds in this book were saying two very similar things. First, God is a sending God who is on a mission in the world. Churches, as a whole, must join God on that mission, rather than merely thinking programmatically and compartmentally that anything outside the church walls belongs in the outreach or missions programs. Second, the idea of being missional is centered on the idea of a Triune God who is dynamic and relational in the world. In the same way, we must abandon our hierarchical structures for networks--ones that are more communicative and conducive to sharing ideas and gifts. One essay writer, Dwight Zcheile, points out that corporations have already begun to embrace more fluid leadership models, and notes that the church’s tendency to “lag a generation or two behind” accounts for the reason the church as a whole hasn’t yet adopted such transformed structures (140).

Perhaps the greatest summary of what missional is and why communities of faith might consider transformation is articulated by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson of the Reformed Church in America at the close of the book, which he refers to this idea in the context of “God’s calling for our future.” He states:

“A missional church places its commitment to participate in God’s mission in the world at the center of its life and identity. “Mission” places the focus on what God is doing in the world, recognizing that God’s mission is always ahead of us, already active through the Spirit in the world…For the missional church, mission is not an activity or a program; rather, it lies at the center of the church’s identity” (267).

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