06 March 2014

Missional Minimalism

In my first 10 years as a pastor I became accustomed to resources. I worshiped and served with a charitable portion of resources as unidentified supports around me. I had great worship facilities, great budgets and decently funded programs to suit any need or stage of life. I had on-hand artists to paint canvases for my sermons and quality writers to write fresh liturgies every Sunday. I had talented musicians to create any mood we needed.
Whenever I would start a new sermon series or spiritual program, I quickly found myself pondering what resources were needed to land it with excellence.
For 10 years, I privately wrestled with this landscape, tucking away bothersome thoughts.
Then One summer I went to Kenya and returned with hard questions pummeling my mind.
Learning from the Underprivileged
In Kenya, I observed the fallout atrocities from tribal wars, unique farming methods in poor villages and children who just wanted to play until the sun came down. Yet, there was something else that lodged under my rib cage: a one hour conversation with a young PHD Kenyan Pastor.
One afternoon this pastor took me on a village walk and then we moseyed into his hut for what he called a “Pastor to Pastor chat.”
I was expecting a delightful spiritual conversation, but I received a gentle but pointed rebuke on American Christianity. The classic memorable line from my new pastor friend was “we don’t want your overstuffed Jesus.”
We talked intensely about how buildings, budgets and bands had crowded out the DNA of the 1st Century Church. With grace, he expressed how Jesus-followers in his village gathered simply and cared for each other in their poverty. Mission was extended through generosity to other villages.
I was confronted and undone. My privilege blinded me to the wisdom and splendor of limitedness.
I did not know it at the time, but he was a Minimalist, and so was his church. They embraced simplicity even in the face of booming church plants springing up in his country that attempted to mimic American brands.
Paring Way Back
God took me on a voyage after that conversation.
I read a barrel of books, such as Robert Bank’s 1979 work Paul’s Idea of Community. This book seized my hand as I navigated afresh the cultural setting in the New Testament. A year later I met some underground Chinese Christians that shared the richness of their uncomplicated movement.
I felt something brewing, and I didn’t like it.
God was taking me on a pilgrimage towards the place where Minimalism meets Missional Theology.
The term “Minimalism” was originally coined right after World War II. It referred to a shift, found both in jazz and art, that pared everything down to the basics. It was a corrective needed to recover simple palettes. The term refers to something that is stripped to essentials, de-cluttering in order craft open space. The end purpose is not open space. The open space provides more intentional focus on the inhabitants and their relation to each other.
Minimalism, to quote William Henry Channing, seeks “to live content with small means.”
From Synagogue to Simple
The Narrative of the New Testament Oikos added gasoline to this fiery fascination with the axioms of being the church.
When I read through the apostolic letters I observed a trajectory from Synagogue to Simple Community, an intentional breathing space for the Centrality of Love. This new garden of community was the fertile soil for “increasing and abounding in love for one another” (1 Thessalonians 3:12).
They developed a reputation for minimalism which stood in contrast to the Jewish Synagogues and the Greek Mystery Cults of the first century. The Mystery cults were primarily clustered together by interests and were characterized by a volume of shared rituals. The early church was not bonded together by interests and rather what characterized them was mutual love for each other.
The early Church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, went through an awkward but vital transition. They no longer relied on brick and mortar temples as a gathering point. Space was busted open to make room for a new familial temple, made of flesh and constructed by the Master Builder. With aesthetics and a volume of rituals removed they now had to face each other. Former enemies, were now sharing a meal, orbiting around the bread and wine of Jesus the Messiah.
Acts 20 tells of one such gathering packed inside a home in Troas. They shared in the riches of Christ, imaging the ancient People of God assembled before Yahweh.
For the Apostle Paul, the gospel wired people together as a witness to the Resurrected Christ. To be drawn into the Gospel was to enter into the nucleus of community. It was not until Christianity gained favoritism with an Empire in 312 A.D that the Synagogue made an appearance among Jesus-followers.
A Moral Compass
I am now a client, practitioner and champion of “Missional Minimalism,” where the Missio Dei and sacred sparseness converge. Both of these are rails for the future mission of the church.
Persecution or Poverty typically imposes minimalism. I invite you to embrace it voluntarily.
Minimalism promotes making space for inter-dependence instead of dependence on elements. We unknowingly relate through buffers. Minimalism reminds us to audit them. It is a bit of a moral compass for protecting the Kingdom-social-politic of our being tethered together.
I cannot prescribe how Minimalism should be applied in your context, but I know it will lead you to differentiate between needs and wants in the ways in which you gather. A church that does not seek to frustrate conspicuous consumption loses its prophetic voice in the West.
When we add “stuff“, our common-life is the first thing that becomes deluded even if we’re in the same room together. Missional Minimalism is a nimble embodiment of the Body of Christ built for maximum expression of the all-consuming love of Christ.


  1. DanH (@HerfordDan)March 24, 2014 at 5:38 PM

    Dan, this really resonates for me. A question for you: what is the implication for how those with equipping gifts function in the body in a minimalist context? It seems like the equipping function would be much less prominent and more along-side. What is your thought and experience?

  2. Hi Dan,
    When you say equipping gifts what are you referring to? When you say prominence what does that look like?

    I do find that most churches baptize the climb for status with each successive role rewarding us with more attention from the congregation. I suggest subverting this by equipping people to serve from within and along-side in a spirit of quietness. Cultivating a disciple-culture were people are daily, weekly, monthly in relational pockets exploring and being equipped to step into their priesthood is where I would start.

    From my experience people do initially wrestle with status-anxiety.

    I think all gifts have two ends to cultivate vibrant community and vital missionality all under the Lordship of Jesus.

    1. DanH (@HerfordDan)March 26, 2014 at 1:20 PM

      Equipping gifts would include at least those in Eph 4, along with those in Rom 12 and 1Cor12; those gifts that are supposed to be used to build up the body of Christ.

      Prominence would be notoriety/visibility/sway. In the most crass and institutional sense it would be power.

      What I hear is a challenging call. To those who would pursue vocational ministerial roles the call is to set aside the aspirations for 'mega' and take on a smaller and more intimate interaction. To those who would just find a pew or a functionary role in the institution, the call is to step forward and begin one-anothering. At both ends of the 'minster/ministered-to' (producer/consumer) spectrum, the call is intentionally engage in lives. For the current 'consumer', it's a step up in role. For the current 'producer' it's a step in the direction of relative obscurity.

      It seems pretty safe to encourage people to step up, but I'm curious to see how those currently in or aspiring to 'normal' leadership roles track with the minimalist context.

      Thank you for your answer!