Wednesday, December 28, 2005

From Can Openers to Strategy: A Few Words to the Frustrated

Scott, a friend of mine in California, posted a comment in response to my previous post on subversive can openers that revealed his growing frustration in coming to grips with missional church concepts. It is difficult to determine emotions and perspective through the apparent "tone" of a blog comment or email, so I gave my friend a call to clarify. He has been reading books and looking at websites that I have recommended on American culture, the shift to postmodernity and post-Christendom, and missional church. While these have been helpful in deconstructing his previous paradigm, it has thus far provided little by way of reconstructing a missional church paradigm. As a result of my conversation with Scott, I'd like to provide a few thoughts that might be of help to Scott and others with similar struggles.

First, the intent of my blog is to raise thought provoking, and perhaps troubling questions from a missiological perspective. Thus, I hope to facilitate a paradigm shift away from contemporary approaches to church, as well as ministry to new religions and alternative spiritualities, and toward approaches informed by the insights gained from cross-cultural missions. This means that the posts on this blog will raise more questions than they provide answers. This will be frustrating for many in that our Western heritage is more comfortable with answers and a black and white world than with troubling questions and shades of grey. But the emphasis on subversive questions and paradigm deconstruction should not lead the reader to conclude that I am content to be merely a naysayer, or that no positive answers are available that can be used to construct a missional strategy. As N. T. Wright says frequently in his new book on Paul, "more on this anon."

Second, I am more inclined at this stage to raise questions and provide criticisms as an aid to paradigm deconstruction than I am to provide a clear cut alternative and "strategy," at least where missional church is concerned. (My colleagues and I have put forward some initial thoughts and examples of mission to new religions in our book Encountering New Religious Movements.) There is a strategic reason for this. Unless someone abandons an old paradigm, in this case the Christendom attractional church model, for a new paradigm, a missional church model, then considerations of a new strategy will be interpreted within the old framework and not understood on its own terms within the new framework. I have seen this happen quite a bit, unfortunately, and when it does the response is usually along the lines of "Oh, we're already doing that so we must be missional," to "We've tried that already and it didn't work," or more likely "Why would we do something like that?". Our tendency is to try to fit new ideas and experiences into our previous understandings. I am arguing for a paradigm shift, and unless the reader has begun to recognize the inadequancy of the Christendom paradigm, and the viability of a missional paradigm, then little discussion of strategy will be of value. A paradigm shift must already be underway that then serves as the foundation for appropriate strategy.

Third, American evangelicals are extremely pragmatic. That is, we have great difficulty with "theory," and we want to cut almost immediately to questions of strategy. But we need to recognize the intimate connection between solid theory and strategy. Unless appropriate research and contemplation has taken place on multiple levels (theologically, culturally, and missiologically) then what results is an inappropriate diagnosis of the "problem," followed by an inappropriate solution in terms of strategy. This results in the investment of large amounts of time, finances, and effort to formulating a solution that misses the problem almost entirely.

Fourth, sometimes missiological terminology misses the mark and does not communicate well with evangelicals who are not used to thinking in such terms and concepts (unfortunately). Perhaps it will be helpful to consider biblical concepts. Jesus spoke of the necessity of putting new wine in fresh wineskins (Mat. 9:17). By this in his context he meant that his kingdom message of the gospel was something unexpected according to Jewish expectation, and this required a new container or vehicle for communication of the kingdom message. The early church then engaged in a process of wineskin creation through a process of communicating and incarnating the gospel for the Jews and Gentiles through missiological engagement. If we take Jesus' illustration into our own time, the new wine of the kingdom message of the gospel must continually be put into new or fresh wineskins so that both the freshness and radicality of the gospel is preserved, and so that the message speaks meaningfully within different cultural contexts, whether in Southeast Asia, or the neighborhoods of Sacramento, California. The church has served as a wineskin for American cultures in the past, but traditional, contemporary, and seeker forms of the wineskins are increasingly irrelevant to various subcultures as they are all variations on a Christendom attractional model rather than missional approaches. The church in the twenty-first century needs the flexibility and openness to create new missional wineskins that will look very different from previous Christendom forms.

One of the reasons Scott posted his comment on the blog rather than in a private email to me was because he wanted to involve the blogging community in missional church strategy formation. I will continue to share thoughts, insights, and suggestions (as well as questions!) on this and other topics, but my hope is that the missional blogging community will contribute as well.


Matt Stone said...


Personally, I have found a ‘come and see’ approach works most effectively.

In introducing people to New Age Mission I have often felt like Morpheus in that scene of the Matrix where he offers Neo the red pill –like him I have come to affirm that words alone cannot convey ‘how deep the rabbit hole goes’.

So I am not sure if deconstruction and reconstruction can be viewed so linearly.

Deconstruction is of course the first step, but I think it needs to be revisited and revisited in a dynamic process that includes the exploration of trial reconstructions. As tentative trial reconstructions are themselves proven to be inadequate, deeper deconstruction is prompted.

Everyone who has stuck with us long term was introduced to mission in this way, through either a live visit to a Community of Hope stall or, at the very least, a visit to an alternate festival where I invited them to speak to alternate spirituality seekers one on one. I believe culture shock is an essential initial step in deconstruction and culture shock is most forcefully encountered in the flesh.

In fact, so much have I become convinced of this that I don’t even bother offering deeper insights on mission experience to people who don’t indicate a willingness to experience this first hand.

Anonymous said...

Two thoughts-
1) We have to get away from any idea of "strategy". If we think our purpose is to bag souls for God, I don't think we're clear on the concept. God did not have that kind of motive. He loved, and he gave. Genesis 12-All the families of the world will be blessed through the descendant/s of Abraham. Blessed, not bagged. I think of the early believers taking care of the plague victims while everyone else fled the cities; there was not much chance that the people they were caring for would even live to be able to "go to church" with them.

2) The simplest way to be missional is to decide how to bless one's community, and this requires hands-on involvement, as Matt described. No Strategy. No Strings. If we're going to do it like Matt does it, we'd better know our sh- uh, stuff. But it doesn't have to be complicated- we can partner with what's already going on. Fundraising for a local skate park. Adopting an elementary school and making sure all the kids who are able to do so learn to read. Environmental work. Lots of other ways. If people ask, then maybe we can say something about Jesus.

These are very different than what we have been taught as evangelicals. God is much, much bigger. The Good News is much more comprehensive. There's a lot less guilt attached to living it like this- but it's a lot harder to do. We're not used to it.