08 February 2013

How Will "Missional" Survive the Future?

I'm a total Sci-Fi fanatic. Most of the sci-fi-post-apocalyptic movies or books that come out get me all jazzed up. I'm fascinated with the concept of how humanity survives when the existing structures previously depended upon on are no longer dependable. In some ways this is how I lean into "being the church". How can the western body of Christ survive the impending collapse? How will the mission of the church survive the future? 

Missional Individualism 
Cultivating a missional perspective is one of the most important recalibrations that a church can make for the future. I am greatly encouraged by this move, but I’ve observed that when a church “goes missional” often they make a fundamental misstep that I believe fractures the longevity of missional momentum. Innocently many churches begin to preach, teach and stir up their congregants to live missionally but often it is fueled by individualism. High emphasis is placed on “me” to use “my” capacities to be missional. Churches hand out 21 helpful hints for “how to be missional” to their attendees. I love helpful hints but in many ways this mode places emphasis on an insidious drive embedded in Western culture: individual productivity. Being missional can easily become a new collection of readily accessible methods in being productive. I’m convinced a missional life cannot be sustained individually.

For those of us born and bred in the good ole U.S-of-A we approach things with a hyper individualistic orientation. We are weaned on the idea of autonomy, when it comes to our ability to climb the spiritual ladder. We naturally envision ourselves "taking on" or "collapsing under" whatever spiritual challenged is laid out before us. This is not the imagination of the New Testament family. This is not the mechanism for missional traction. This individualistic framework threatens the future of the Missional movement. It threatens the gospel's pulse in a real-time neighborhood.

The Missional Pod
The ground floor of missional mobility is in the cultivation of community. After Christendom is in ashes, our primary witness will be the spaces we create for humans to become more fully human. Sustaining community is multiplied in difficulty compared to creating missional energy and I think that's why it has become the church's Achilles Heel.  I detect that what currently is titled community are often task teams, affinity groups and sanitary programs with a cause. There is a level of gathering that happens in these groups but they often do not operate like covenant households. Mission finds its endurance in the ongoing formation of the expanse of community. Community is the "pod" that carries mission into the future.

The Garden Space
Community is the garden space where dirt gets underneath our fingernails, as we learn how to love well. It is the great exposure of those inner inclinations towards “selfish ambition and vain conceit”. In our commitment to a together-life we exercise muscles that we want to avoid using, that make us more nimble for the long haul of missional living. Community is more than “belonging” it is about “becoming” and meeting the best and worst in ourselves. It is a profound instrument that acts like a scalpel and warm cup of tea at the same time. Neutralization takes places in our missional endeavors when community is an addendum or afterthought. For the sake of God’s mission in the world, we need to engage in the physical and the particular rather than being abstract when it comes to the agronomy of community,

Getting Particular
Here are two basic but uncomfortable rhythms that we disciple in those coming out of the fog of individualism and into the light of community. The intention is always to move past the rhetoric of community and into real reorientation. 

1. Availability 
We purpose to move from our place of security and separation to overlap our lives. We make ourselves available through regular shared meals, babysitting each other’s kids, working on each other’s house projects, shopping together, reading together, enjoying holidays together, cooking together and even moving closer to one another. This takes time, time, time to massage into our DNA. This inhabiting-ethos must become intentional. Naturally when we think of "freedom" we associate it with more space for independance and more personal rights. However for the early New Testament faith communities, freedom was the fresh possibility to attach to one another beyond prescribed socio-political-ethnic identifications.

2. Vulnerability
We purpose to incrementally present ourselves as we are, “limited, afraid, insecure, angry and weak”. From my experience this is the hardest risk to encourage people to take. We are so prone to protection, posing and powering-up. I promise, at some point you will get hurt, offended and disappointed. For the sake of God's mission, we need relational glue that is sticky enough to hold us together when our expectations are not met. In the diagnostics of community, this work of vulnerability will often collides with two hidden impulses: inadequacy and cynicism.  Both inadequacy and cynicism whisper in our mind's voice to "hold back", "keep a distance", "weigh your other options", "be suspicious" and "duck out at the first sign of conflict". We cannot genuinely bind with others without the value of vulnerability between us.

These two practices assemble a bare bones communal frame for sustainable mission in our neighborhoods. Let's not succumb to the narrative of individualism even in the championing of mission.  Lets not sweep the inconvenience and labor of community under the carpet anymore.


  1. Excellent post Dan. Read a few others - well thought out - been appreciating your tweets as well. I wish I could spend some time and thoughtfully engage but to be brief - another uncomfortably rhythm (or very connected to your second point) is understanding the reward system in a missional context is very different from a non-missional.
    Keep writing and sharing - thank you.

  2. Tim, thanks. We've been talking about the issue of "returns" in our context. I have found that many who have partnered with our church on the ground have certain expectations on what kind of returns they will receive. Maybe this is what you're talking about with "rewards".
    Anyhow, thanks for the comment. Peace.

  3. I agree that "life lived together" is the fundamental substrate of the missional church, but I also think the building the Kingdom together requires task teams and causes. To approach the world in a valuable way, we'll need affinity groups and task teams.

    In fact, the building of causes together can be the glue that inspires community. Beforehand, people ask, "why?"

  4. I hear what your saying but I actually think affinity groups are a modern construct that essentially separate us into groups of "likeness". I don't see "affinity" as what rally's the New Testament church. Actually if you get down to it there was very little felt affinity between "Jew, Gentile, Male, female, slave and free". I find affinity very fickle and unsustainable long term. We must find ways to build spiritual oikos without segregating into affinity groups. Affinity appeals to our self oriented passions and preferences.

    I've been at this long enough that I have not seen "cause" driven groups maintain spiritual households long term. They might have some short term effect on a certain justice issue but that is not a strong enough glue to cause them to create shared-life.

    I think "causes" and "affinities" flow out of the marinading space of covenant community.

    thanks for the push back.

    1. I don't disagree with you. In fact, I agree, deeply. You're describing the church itself.

      Allow me to speak from my own experience.

      I am an organizer for missional projects within the church. The projects that I organize that can break down boundaries within churches like Jew or Greek and help churches find a common Kingdom goal. By working together on a common task like this ( http://quixote.org/freshstops ) we find that, if the spiritual oikos is lacking we establish one together.

      Through embodying/incarnating the Kingdom, we learn what it means to be an oikos together. Sub-groups within that organize projects together are part of discipleship and are what it means to be church.

      I would be willing to bet that when the Acts church set up the food distribution for the widows they formed a task force to get it done.

      Yes. I think that groups outside the context of church can break down. I've seen this, in the Occupy movement. When the cause peters out, so does the group. If the work feels fruitless, they move on. Because it doesn't sustain them. It's why I'm a church organizer rather than an activist.

      But in my experience, a shared project in the context of a spiritual oikos, can strengthen that oikos.

      How's that?

      I very much enjoyed this post because it's clearly written from your experiences.

  5. Hey Dan, my name is Erich Schindler, and I'm a long-term missionary in Taiwan. My wife and I are currently starting a missional community here among our local working-class friends (more info on crossing7.com/reachtaiwan). I've been following you on Twitter for a while, and really enjoy your tweets / posts.
    This particular article was helpful for me mainly because of its practical bent. I read a ton of material on living missionally, but have found that only a fraction of it is truly useful to practitioners like myself. So thanks for not leaving things at the theory level, but passing on practical advice with your good pointers on "Availability" and "Vulnerability.
    You mentioned that you're a sci-fi fan. I'm currently reading "Small Gods" by Terry Pratchett, and finding it to be an incisive (not to mention hilarious) reflection on some aspects of the Christendom church. It reminds me a lot of McLaren's "New Kind of Christian" or "Sophie's World." So in case you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it.
    Lastly, just thought I'd point out some spelling mistakes in your article and comments (kind of OCD of me, I know). "churches Achilles Heel" -> "church's Achilles Heel" "your saying" -> "you're saying" "rally's" -> "rallies"

  6. Hi Erich,
    I love hearing about others pioneering communities on mission internationally. I'll pray for you (for real) today.
    It's always difficult to narrow down to the practical in a short blog post. I usually leave the practicality for live sessions/interactions. Thanks for the encouragement.

    I will also check out that book suggestion.

    Thanks for the spelling/grammar help for a dyslexic dude, much appreciated.


  7. I get so frustrated when people say, "If ___ happens, then I just don't know what we (the church) will do." This is a good word on how our mission continues when those normal structures cease to exist. Thanks.

  8. So.. Dan... thank you much for your post! Your writing stirred up a couple questions for me. You named availability and vulnerability - and it leads me to wonder whether we undervalue the power of community because we have not really attempted it. We've dipped our toes in it but that is not the same as swimming.

    Also, as we press into being an oikos, we are on a journey that we have not been on before and we don't know what it will look like to see God's love shared outward and for people to enter into God's family through the oikos - (or do we?). We need more stories of what this looks like to fund our imaginations - how does the gospel leap beyond our community and into our neighborhood (especially if we don't live in the same neighborhood)? The goal/function/telos of the community is not contained within its members - it has a direction and purpose that extends to those currently outside the oikos.

    I value how you have articulated mission as community here and will continue to listen and learn! peace

    1. Geez Ty, you pushed my button with "we undervalue the power of community because we have not really attempted it." This says it all. I suspect so many leaders have never submitted to a communal life which would make it awkward to speak about it. When I speak about my own long submission to a communal (oikos) life I observe in others eyes how foreign it appears. It it sounds too stifling and primordial.

      Plus my second suspicion is that to cultivate sustainable community we need to know how to reconcile well, really well. Most leaders have just as an atrocious history with unresolved conflict as those who don't follow Jesus. So many of them cannot imagine an environment were people are regularly offended, make up and move on. Maybe my hermeneutic is biased but I see a healthy chunk of Paul's letters dealing with how to practice faithful love with people who grate you. I think fidelity is the highest witness of Divine Love.

      Longevity with living into a particular people has opened up corridors into our neighborhood that were not there on paper a few years ago. Simply stated -- we find and are finding deep rootedness with each other so we generously extend the belonging we've received to the neighbors and coworkers we rub up against.

      It is messy and hard to control which might be why most leaders de-emphasize it.


    2. Thanks Dan for your thoughtful response and your testimony that gives us hope as we press into the messy and hard. Peace!

  9. Late to the game for this post, but I'm amazed at how many churches stamp the "missional" label onto things that aren't revamped at all. They're just using it as a buzzword, kind of like how the term "Christian" used to mean something.