One of the latest rages in evangelical ecclesiology is the idea of a “missional” church. There are a plethora of resources on missional churches on the web, but this article by Len Hjalmarson makes for a pretty decent introduction to the ideas behind this movement. As I have reflected on the church I am helping to plant and what it will look like in the community we are targeting, I have been drawn to some of the qualities of the missional church model-mostly without knowing it.
As I envisioned this church, and then as our leadership has reflected on its desired impact, we have come down on the side of a model that is basic, almost simple, and highly incarnational. We simply want the church to be a place where the Word of God is taught and where the Word of God is lived. I believe there is no stronger influence on an individual or on a culture than the Word of God taught by and incarnated through His people.
The incarnational aspect of church life turns out to be a big part of the missional model. Another aspect of this model which receives a lot of attention is its intentional divorce from the Modern culture. It sees the traditional church model (and traditional churches) as being inward-looking and culturally dead. Now, when a point like this is made, it is almost always in need of qualification. I happen to disagree with this aspect of missional church for a couple of reasons. First, there is no serious model of church which has actually died. For instance, the model birthed in the early Middle Ages (the Catholic and Orthodox Churches) is still alive and well today. The models created in the last two centuries (more democratic structures of “mainline” churches) are still alive and ministering to people. (I happen to be of the opinion, however, that the pragmatic church of the last two decades will fizzle and die.) And secondly, cultures are never homogenous. Although it is true we live in a postmodern culture, there are hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, who are not properly a part of that culture. So to claim that a new model has a better handle on the latest version of society is only to say that it has a handle on the latest addition to society (not the whole).
The Church will always be “bound to” a culture, and will never entirely divorce itself from culture. So the notion that the latest model is making a radical break from culture and striking out on its own is not entirely true. What needs to be reflected upon while a new model is developed is to which culture it is binding itself, not whether it is separating from another culture. No doubt each generation and culture needs to be reached in terms it will understand and respond to, but we must always be weary of thinking that the latest and greatest model is the latest and greatest thing. In our search for relevance or for a workable model we must never bind ourselves too closely to a bad cultural model-especially a model that is too postmodern for its own good.
I like the missional model in large part because it wants to take the energy of the church and funnel it outward. But I think it goes too far in assuming that it is the latest and greatest break from one of the old models and/or cultural styles.