What is the Missional Church?

Missional-ChurchDeep in the Burbs is a story about the church and the belief that the missional church–missional ecclesiology–offers hope for the church in the twenty-first century. A missional ecclesiology is an understanding that the mission of the Triune God1 (missio Dei) is to restore and recreate all things according to God’s ongoing vision of peace and wholeness for the world.2 The church is called to be a public prophetic companion with its neighbors, bearing witness to the hope found in God’s preferred and promised future.3

Missional ecclesiology has evolved from the conversation in the West around missiology and ecclesiology over the past one hundred years.4 The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were dominated by a Christendom model in which the church sent missionaries into the world to convert heathen nations to Christianity, thus colonizing the world into Western European culture and propagating oppression and marginalization of non-European people and cultures in the name of Jesus. A missional ecclesiology recognizes the Eurocentric and devastating effects the Christendom model of missions and ecclesiology has had on the world.5 It strives to reimagine the nature of the church as, not having a missions emphasis, or sending missionaries, but that the church is missional at its core.6

A missional church recognizes the polycentric and pluriform nature of the Holy Spirit at work in the world.[7] The church, within this perspective, is the congregation of those who are both gathered around the risen body of Jesus and sent into the world to find and proclaim the reign of God in and among all cultures as the church forms an interdependent relationship with all nations.7 This missional activity is not uni-directional, moving from one central place where God is located and correctly understood to another place where God is completely absent. Rather, it is a polycentric, pluriform, multi-directional movement of God at work8 in all cultures,9 in diverse ways, bringing all cultures into generative conversation,10 in order to bring about peace and unity through the particular incarnation11 of the risen Jesus of Nazareth and the diverse incarnations of the Spirit within diverse cultures.

It is from this form of missional ecclesiology and for this missional ecclesiology that this dissertation research project exists.12 It is the assumption of this research that the average suburban ELCA congregation carries with it an inherited Christian-cultured13 ecclesiology which is attractional, at best, and does not imagine itself as partnered with God to find the Spirit at work in the neighborhood and join God in God’s activity. It is the assumption that an introduction to the social Trinity might act as a catalyst for reimagining the nature and activity of the church.14 It is also the assumption of this research that, through the process of participatory action research, the researcher may be surprised to find that these assumptions were misfounded and that the process of interacting with the social Trinity may lead to something entirely different.

Footnotes
  1. I will discuss this in the Trinity Frame. see Simpson, “No Trinity, No Mission: The Apostolic Difference of Revisioning the Trinity.” John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010). []
  2. Key voices in the missional ecclesiology conversation are Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011); Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1998); Alan J. Roxburgh, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition, 1st ed., Leadership Network (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010); Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans; WCC Publications 1989); David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991); George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder, The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996); Stephen B. Bevans and Roger Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today, American Society of Missiology Series ; No. 30 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004). Keifert, We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era, a Missional Journey of Spiritual Discovery. []
  3. This statement merges Simpson’s prophetic public companion with Keifert’s Promised and Preferred Future. see Simpson, “No Trinity, No Mission: The Apostolic Difference of Revisioning the Trinity; Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination; Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism; Keifert, “The Trinity and Congregational Planning: Between Historical Minimum and Eschatological Maximum; Keifert, We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era, a Missional Journey of Spiritual Discovery; Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations. []
  4. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1998); Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). []
  5. see Jennings for a compelling argument for how the Western church is complicit in racism. Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010). []
  6. This is an ontological issue. It requires a shift from substance ontology to relational ontology. see Zizioulas and McPartlan. []
  7. see Bleise and Van Gelder for a particularly helpful image of the gathered and sent body in a Lutheran perspective. Richard H. Bliese and Craig Van Gelder, The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005). []
  8. This statement highlights the distinction between the hierarchical structures of power inherited from Medieval polities. It argues for a capillary, perichoretic, flow of power. see Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward an Emancipatory Educational Space (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).and Foucault. []
  9. Matthew Ashley, “Furthering Humanity: Theology of Culture,” Modern Theology 22, no. 1 (2006); Delwin Brown et al., Converging on Culture: Theologians in Dialogue with Cultural Analysis and Criticism, The American Academy of Religion Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion Series (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Newbigin; H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 1st Harper torchbook ed., Harper Torchbooks (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956); Lamin O. Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, 2nd ed., American Society of Missiology Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009); Matthias Hilberath Bernd Jochen Scharer, The Practice of Communicative Theology: Introduction to a New Theological Culture (New York: Crossroad Pub. CO, 2008); Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997). []
  10. Tanner posits that it is the conversation between various cultures that is generative for the church and the world. Tanner. see also Helm’s discussion of interfaith dialogue. S. Mark Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends, Sacra Doctrina (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001). []
  11. here I am alluding to two important points. First, the particularity of the incarnation as the means by which we can know God. See Newbigin on election Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans; WCC Publications 1989).. Second, I am speaking about the particularist perspective of theology proposed by Kelsey Kelsey. []
  12. I boldly state my agenda and prejudice here because I believe it is impossible to observe something, or ask a question about something, and remain objective and detached from the object. I, as the observer, exist within my own frame and bring my own language and limitations of understanding—my own filter—to the process of observation. This is my horizon, as Gadamer would say it Gadamer, Truth and Method., or my lifeworld as Husserl and Habermas, et alia, would call it. I fully embrace my motivation to puruse this research question through the missional filter. By naming this fruitful prejudice I will hopefully (1) be more aware of the bias that I bring to the data, thus (2) able to critique my prejudices and bring contrasting views into the conversation in order to bring more warrant to my final arguments. []
  13. I here make a distinction between the term Christendom and Christian-cultured. Christendom was the condition of Europe in the Middle Ages and early Modern Era. The United States has never been in Christendom, but has experienced similar effects as a Christian-cultured society. []
  14. It is a deeper assumption that it is the substance dualism of our cultural neo-Platonism in the west that has precipitated and perpetuated this ecclesio-centric, detached culture. []