Tag Archives: Missional church

Implications for Leadership in the Missional Church

I said, in the introduction, that the typical Lutheran suburbanite lives under extreme societal pressures to be a self-actualized, successful individual who navigates between a myriad of cultural choices as a radical individual with the power to choose. How can the Lutheran leader of suburban congregations cultivate spaces in which these suburbanites can find help to navigate these turbulent waters? What have we learned from the DITB project that might provide some insight into this question? In this, the final section, I will focus on my personal experience of leading the RT, my theological reflection upon it, and its possible implications for the missional church.

Stewarding Power

The first way we can address the question of leadership is to be honest about the issue of power. I faced an ongoing struggle with this issue as I led the RT through the DITB process. How would I handle my power? I entered the project carrying two forms of power. The first form of power is positional. I am an ordained pastor in the ELCA. The RT was comprised of ELCA members, most of whom are members of the church in which I serve. The Lutheran tradition has a history of hierarchical power structures in which the pastor (historically male, exclusively) wielded great control over the various congregational processes. I was automatically imbued with this power in the RT simply because I am a pastor. Further, I was the lead researcher. It was my project, for my dissertation, so the position of “leader” also carries with it inherent power. The second form of power I possessed was cognitive. This was, after all, my PhD research project. I have been immersed in four years of academic study, therefore my head is full of information that the RT did not have. Modern, Western society, being dominated by rationalism and empirical science, values knowledge above all things. Therefore, as Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge, training, and extended vocabulary tends to intimidate people who are not fluent in a particular academic discipline and shifts the power to the one in the room who is considered “the expert.” I was the “expert” in the question the RT set out to explore and they often looked to me to give them “answers.”

Palmer, Brookfield, Hess, and Kegan all acknowledge the power differential inherent in the role of the teacher/leader. The purpose of critical social theory and PAR is to create communicative spaces in which adults can feel empowered to think critically about the dominant power structures and imagine a preferred future. The subject-centered model proposed by Palmer ideally brings the teacher into the circle with the other knowers. This process, however, is not one that ignores the power wielded by the teacher. Rather, it is one in which the leader/teacher is transparent about the power differential and understands the weight of responsibility to steward this power for the good of the community.

I struggled with the power differential throughout the research process. I was keenly aware of how much control I had over the structure of the room, the framing of the questions, the direction of the conversation, etc. I was also keenly aware of the constant push from some of the team members to ask me to give more direction, more clarity, and more answers. They often felt frustrated by the open-endedness of the process. Honestly, I felt frustrated by it at times and constantly fought the urge to swoop in like the hero-leader and fix everything.

I asked the RT to reflect on this issue in Phase Three. I asked them what advice they would give to the church leader based on their experience in the DITB project. The RT data indicate that the process of this project, and how I stewarded my power, is a good model for how the church leader should structure communicative spaces. They said that the missional leader would be better served if she understands her role to be that of the humble servant who facilitates God’s power, through knowledge and wisdom, to create a democratic and generative community of God’s grace and peace. This was demonstrated through the communicative action in the Dwelling in the Word exercises, the various pedagogical modalities, and the action projects carried out by the RT.

We must acknowledge that none of these things would have happened if I—the leader of the team—did not set a table that empowered such communicative action. This was my research project, after all, and I could have implemented instrumental reason at every step of the way and used my knowledge and skill to manipulate the research team. It was a learning and stretching experience for me to constantly step back and let the process unfold, trusting that God was working in, with, through, against, and for the RT the whole time.

The Communicative Zone

The second way that we can address the question of leadership is to understand the pluralistic dynamic of the suburbs and the skills necessary to navigate the communicative zone that exists in the space between seemingly polarized dichotomies. The typical suburbanite is constantly faced with a myriad of options at every level of life: ranging from mundane choices between brands of cereal to the profound choice of which faith tradition—if any—in which to participate. These choices form a perplexing array of apparent dichotomies.

Every dichotomy appears to have two extreme and opposing views on either end of a continuum. Most of human history is the story of opposing sides going to war over which side is correct and best for the world. Often times a move toward peace is the move to find a spot in the middle between these extremes. This, however, is not peace between the two poles, but is the creation of a completely new perspective that is neither one side nor the other. This is almost never acceptable to either side, and it simply perpetuates the ontological gap between particular spaces on the continuum.

An image emerged in my imagination as I progressed through the DITB project that has helped me to understand the implications for leaders as we help people navigate these dichotomies. Imagine that there is a pendulum that swings between two extremes. It does not stop in one middle place on the continuum, but continually moves back and forth between the extremes. As the pendulum swings it creates a field of energy between the two extremes.[1] The movement of the pendulum is both a particular object—the flat disc itself—and the field of energy created by the perpetual movement between the polar extremes. I would suggest, as illustrated in figure 18, that the space between the polar extremes is the communicative zone. It is a dynamic energy that keeps the tension of the two extremes in constant dialogue, thus creating life in the third space it creates. Further, it is another image of Trinitarian praxis. I witnessed the communicative zone form within the RT as we engaged in communicative action through the various modalities of our shared project.

The Communicative Zone

Figure 18. The Communicative Zone

How does this discussion impact the suburban leader? Here, again, we can look to Kegan for help. Kegan uses historical timeframes as an analogy to help us understand his orders of consciousness. I will add to that analogy and use a caricatured image of the small town vs. the suburban context to further describe these orders. The small town is third-order consciousness.[2] It is a single, homogenous system in which every member understands her particular role in society. Suburban life exemplifies fourth-order consciousness. The suburban landscape is comprised of thousands of radical, atomistic, autonomous selves moving through the chaotic, ever-changing transactionally based networks. Each connection is a consciously chosen, transactional relationship that is accidental to the primary substance of the individual self. Fourth-order consciousness recognizes that there are multiple systems, and each one of these systems are equally valid, and equally meaningless in the larger scheme of the mechanistic universe, in which the detached, objective observer and wielder of power can have free reign. This lifestyle ultimately leads to isolation, loneliness, abuse of power, and the high potential for violence and oppression. These autonomous entities experience an ontological gap between that which is the “other” and this gap can often be terrifying.

This is the challenge facing the missional leader in the suburbs. Most of the members of our suburban congregations are either third-order thinkers overwhelmed by the suburban lifestyle, or fourth-order thinkers experiencing increasing levels of isolation. What if God is calling us, as the missional community, to dwell in the communicative zones between these autonomous entities and myriad of choices that exist in society? What if we are called to stop and reflect on these relationships and to notice the movement and agency of the Holy Spirit between these seemingly polarized extremes?

We are not asked to abandon our faith cultures, but are invited to open ourselves to the interfaith dialogue, to be willing to listen to each other: to dwell in the world and the words of the stranger. Kegan claims that fifth-order consciousness realizes that all the apparently disconnected systems are, in fact, interconnected and interdependent. It is impossible to be autonomous. The apparently radical extremes need each other to exist, and are actually created and sustained by the pendulum that swings in the field of the communicative zone. This is fifth-order consciousness. This is a picture of relational ontology. This is the life of the Trinity.

Fifth Order Consciousness and the Communicative Zone

Figure 19. Fifth-Order Consciousness And The Communicative Zone

Here, again, we see why the ELCA may be an ideal space for the missional imagination, as I mentioned in chapter two. Lutheran theology upholds the tensive energy of paradox and has the theological imagination to cultivate the communicative zone in society. Could it be that the Lutheran pastor, leading in a fifth-order, missional key, might be able to structure spaces that lead to God’s peace? I would argue that this is the framework for a missional spirituality in the suburbs. Who knows? If we step into the spaces between, we just might meet the Spirit of the Living God in the suburbs.


[1] This is similar to the superposition of quantum physics that Simmons suggests. Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology.

[2] I am drawing an analogy to the caricature of the small town as a geographically homogenous space as opposed to the caricature of the suburb which is fractured and multi-faceted. It would be naïve to suggest that all small-town people are third-order and all suburbanites are fourth-order. The reality is that individuals within all geographical locations will be spread along the continuum of the orders of consciousness for various reasons.

The Use of Digital Media to Cultivate #Missional Spaces

I had the privilege to present a paper at the Upper-Midwest Regional Conference of the American Academy of Religion last Saturday. The paper, titled “The Use of Digital Media in PAR and the Implications for Leadership in Suburban Congregations” can be viewed here.

The following is an excerpt from the paper regarding two images for leadership and the use of digital media.

Curation and Mediation

The cultivation and use of positive digital holding spaces for the local congregation requires intentional leadership. In the same way that the leader of the PAR process or communicative adult educational spaces must structure holding environments for constructive collaboration, so too must the leader structure the digital environment. I would suggest that this leadership requires two key elements: curation and mediation.

John Roberto argues that the leader of spiritual formation in the digital age must view her or himself as a curator.[1] There is more than enough quality content that already exists on the internet. Many people suffer from content overload and simply don’t know where to look to find good content. I had the unique opportunity to create my own content for the DITB project, however, this skill is not necessary for the leader of digital communicative spaces. Rather, the skill needed is the ability to (1) find quality content through trusted sources, (2) compile this content into an easy-to-navigate digital space, (3) lead people to this content and cultivate communicative opportunities for people to engage the content in their own time and space.

The second element for structuring digital holding spaces is the art of mediation. When people gather in physical spaces for adult learning there is always a risk that someone in the group may distract or disrupt the positive flow of interaction. The teacher’s responsibility is to redirect the disruptive element and seek to regain a constructive tone in the conversation. This is even more true in interactive digital spaces. One of the dangers of the digital communicative environment is the ability for individuals to hide behind the seemingly disembodied anonymity afforded by the medium and allow their normal social restraint to be unfettered. This can often lead to destructive modes of communication. The leader of digital communicative spaces must be as diligent in this regard—perhaps even more-so—than in the physical spaces. The leader is called to steward the power that comes with the role of leader and curb abusive communication. This same power should also be used to guide conversation and construct helpful questions that will open up spaces for intentional, constructive communication to occur for the mutual benefit of the community.

[1] John Roberto, Faithformation2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation (Naugatuck, CT: LifelongFaith Associates, 2010), Kindle, loc. 2790.

How the ELCA is Situated for a Missional Imagination

The three congregations represented in the RT are unique, but they are also similar in that they are members of the ELCA. Let us now turn our attention to the ELCA and explore how the ELCA context both contributes to and hinders the communicative space created in the DITB project and projected for the future of the missional church. One of the greatest dangers that the church faces in the twenty-first century is the increasing polarization between various factions along various ideological lines and the violence that often accompanies the disagreements between them. I have already noted, in the previous section, that the pedagogical shift toward communicative action is necessary for a missional imagination for spiritual formation in the local congregation that will find a third way between these dichotomies. I will further argue in the next section that the move toward a postfoundational theology will help the church hold the tension between these extremes and find a third way that leads to the peace of God in the world. Here, I will argue that the ELCA is well positioned to embrace the paradoxical tension held in the communicative space between polar extremes.

The ELCA is well situated to handle these paradoxical tensions because the ELCA is a paradox that dwells in paradox. It is, on the one hand, ideally situated to offer a holding space for the type of communicative, missional imagination that I am arguing in this paper. It is also, on the other hand, significantly hindered in its ability to be that holding space. Let us explore the two sides of this paradox.

On the one hand, the ELCA is well suited to hold paradoxical tensions and communicative space for the missional church. This is true in three ways. First, the ELCA is a political paradox. It is a merger of formerly disparate Lutheran traditions, thus its DNA holds these differences in living tension. The ELCA was officially formed in 1988 by the merger of three Lutheran churches: LCA, ALC, and AELC. Each of those churches was the result of similar mergers in the 1960s. Calvary and Bethlehem experienced both waves of merger and carry within their DNA the various pre-merger identities. Ascension was born from the LCA and experienced the merger of the ELCA and carries within it those various pre-merger and pre-church plant identities.

Second, Lutheran theology is essentially paradoxical, in that part of its DNA is to hold theological dichotomies in tension; e.g. sinner and saint; the God who is hidden and revealed; the Kingdom on the right and the Kingdom on the left; to name just a few. Lutheran theology does not try to prove a definitive “right” answer that disproves the “wrong” answer. Rather, it acknowledges the mystery of the Triune God and seeks to hold these alleged dichotomies in living tension. That is one of the main reasons why I have been drawn to this tribe and why I have framed the DITB research project in the ELCA context. This is also why I will draw heavily from Keifert and Simpson when I discuss the theological frames in the next chapter, since they, as Lutheran theologians, seek to navigate these tensions. Lutheran theology, I believe, is wonderfully situated to be a holding space for people to encounter the Triune God in communicative action in the context of the local congregation.

Third, the ELCA is well situated to hold the communicative space for the missional church because it has a stated vision to be missional. I make this claim based upon the language of the ELCA constitution. Article 4.01 states, “The Church is a people created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world.” Article 4.02 states that to “participate in God’s mission, the church shall…carry out Christ’s Great Commission by reaching out to all people to bring them to faith in Christ and by doing all ministry with a global awareness consistent with the understanding of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all…working for peace and reconciliation among the nations, and standing with the poor and powerless and committing itself to their needs…to see daily life as the primary setting for the exercise of their Christian calling, and to use the gifts of the Spirit for their life together and for their calling in the world.”[1]

However, the ELCA, on the other side, has some inherent elements of its DNA that can sometimes inhibit the freedom needed to structure communicative spaces. Three theological issues challenge the ELCA congregation and hinder its ability to move more fully into the missional imagination. They are: ecclesial identity, the sacraments, and polity.

The first theological challenge is that of ecclesial identity. Lutheranism was born under Christendom in Europe. The church was the center of society in that world. Everyone born within the political realm, of which the local church was the center, was considered Christian and a member of the parish. The ecclesial identity of the parish church is what immigrated to the United States. This worked in the first and second generations of immigrants since they tended to live near each other and established the church in the center of their dwellings. The parish mentality dominated the United States during one hundred fifty years of its existence, thus creating a churched culture. If people wanted to commune with God, they went to church. The trajectory of this identity is still very evident in the suburban context of the RT. There is a great deal of pressure put on parents by the grandparents to get their children baptized and confirmed. This traditionalism is incongruent with the increasing pluralism of the suburbs and creates great tension among the generations.

The second theological issue is that of the sacrament. Lutheran sacramental theology lays a strong emphasis on the belief that the real presence of the risen Christ is over, under, and above the elements of bread and wine. It also closely associates the presence of the Holy Spirit with the Word as it is proclaimed and with the water of baptism. This theology is beautiful and can have some important missional implications. However, it also raises two notable hazards. First, there is a tendency, for the Lutheran, to have a God-in-the-box theology. God is contained within the sacraments and the liturgy. If a human wishes to commune with God she must enter the church and participate in the liturgical structures in order to do so. The RT faced this issue as it explored the role of the Holy Spirit in the social/relational/entangled Trinity as it stood in relation to the traditional Lutheran theology. The second hazard has to do with the administration of Word and Sacrament and leads into the third issue.

The third theological issue is that of polity. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession defines the church as “the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”[2] It goes on in Articles XIV and XV to speak of good order regarding ecclesiastical usages and restricts the administration of the sacraments to those who have been called by the church. The ambiguity of the term good order, combined with the historical tradition of hierarchical power structures within certain episcopal-structured branches of the Lutheran tradition, has created a bureaucratic power structure within the national-synodical structure of the ELCA. The RT experienced this tension as it asked the questions of power and authority in the local congregation.

[1] ELCA, “Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” (2011).

[2] Philip Melancthon, The Augsburg Confession, ed. F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), .pdf. (accessed November 3, 2011). (italics mine)

Messy Life Together | A #Missional Sketch of Matthew 28:16-20


I am preaching on Matthew 28:16-20 this weekend as we follow the Narrative Lectionary through Easter. This is the sketch that emerged as I worked through the text.

God’s mission (missio dei, to use my fancy missional ecclesiology language) is:


The disciples all worshiped Jesus when they saw him post-resurrection, but some doubted. I find great comfort in that. Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI) began his Introduction to Christianity by noting that doubt is the one thing that unifies us as humans (read my annotated notes here).

When we, as followers of Jesus, embrace our doubts, it humbles us and opens us up to be able to truly listen to others. I have found that when I listen to others tell me about their faith journey–no matter how radically different it is from mine–I learn something new about God.

Faith is not putting God in a box and tying it up with a neat bow of correct doctrine. Faith is encountering the  resurrected Jesus and grappling with the radical implications of that reality for the universe.

Our doubt keeps us human. It keeps us leaning in for more understanding. It keeps us engaged with the world. It’s messy.


God’s mission is about life. Jesus reminded the disciples that his authority is over all things. He wasn’t sending them out to “reclaim the world” for God. That’s a done deal. It is God’s.

Notice three things in this section:

  1. It’s about experiencing life. Jesus wasn’t actually sending the disciples. The imperative in this text is not the word “Go,” it is the word “make disciples.” The tense of the word “go” might be better understood to read, “as you are going.” As you are living your life in the world…
  2. It’s about life-long learning. Jesus didn’t tell them to make converts. He told them to make learners/followers (that’s what disciple means). The term convert implies a quick and complete change from one thing to another. Once you were that, now you are this. As I’ve studied conversion, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t work that way. Conversion is a long and messy process (again, messy). A disciple, on the other hand, is a person who is engaged in the process of learning, investigating, walking with, and growing. We can engage people in authentic conversations, in which we listen more than we talk, that will invite them to learn more about the way of Jesus in the world.
  3. It’s about life in the Triune God. Jesus told them to dive into the Life of God. That’s what I think Jesus meant by the phrase “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Baptism is not merely an event or a box to check on a religious to do list. To be baptized is to be immersed completely into something. Baptism is a way of life. We are created by the loving community of God–Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things–for loving community with all things (read more about the Trinity here). We are invited each day to follow Jesus to the cross, to die to the sin and death that binds us, to be buried with Christ, and to walk in the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit. This is the life of God for the world.


Jesus said “teach them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Is this another list of rules to follow? Is it a test to determine whether you are “in” or “out.” Follow the rules and you’re “in.” Disobey and you’re “out.” I don’t think so.

What were Jesus’ commands? “And this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it. That is the beginning and the ending of the law that we must follow. Every human activity is contextually bound and must be evaluated only on the test of whether it demonstrates the love of God for others. Period.

That means our highest calling, and the mission of God, is to learn to live together. The good news is that we aren’t left to figure this out on our own. Jesus has promised to always be with us as we live this messy life together.