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Contemplative Missiology-Part 1: A Critique of the Missional Church Movement

Be sure to check out Part 2 as well!

“Although it is impossible to give exact statistics, the enormous numerical growth of the church in its first centuries is undeniable. This naturally leads us to ask how it achieved such growth. The answer may surprise some modern Christians, for the ancient church knew nothing of evangelistic services or revivals. To the contrary, worship centered on communion, and only baptized Christians were admitted to its celebration. Therefore, evangelism did not take place in church services—rather, as Celsus said, in kitchens, shops, and markets. A few famous teachers, such as Justin and Origen, held debates in their schools, and thus won some converts among the intelligentsia. But the fact remains that most converts were made by anonymous Christians whose witness led others to faith….Another surprising fact about the early expansion of Christianity is that, after the New Testament, very little is said of any missionaries going from place to place, as Paul and Barnabas had done. It is clear that the enormous spread of the gospel in those first centuries was not due to full-time missionaries, but rather to the many Christians who traveled for other reasons—slaves, merchants, exiles condemned to work in the mines, and the like.”1

If you are someone who follows my articles with any regularity, you probably have noticed that I have been thinking out loud about the missional church movement and the ways in which it seeks to “inhabit a post-Christian culture.”2 I have poked at the ambiguous nature of the word “missional” in previous articles. I have also unearthed an implied “missiology” in the Life of St. Antony and contrasted it with modern methods and failures (see here). This article will be much in the same vein.

Given that “missional” is such a slippery term, I want to share a few examples of what I am critiquing at the outset before I engage the movement as a whole.

Those seeking to embody the missional agenda usually have purpose statements like this: “We are a family of servant missionaries who are passionate about making Jesus known in all of life.” Within the movement,the notion that “everybody is a missionary” is key. Everyone is urged to take as much personal responsibility as possible in bringing the people in their world to Christ. Here is a more elaborate example: “It is the mission of _________ Church to be disciples of Jesus, who make more disciples by gathering around the Gospel, growing in community and going on mission.” The goal is not just to be a missionary within the church who makes Jesus known, but to belong  to a maturing group of disciples who make more disciples together. In essence, every action is interpreted through the lens of an evangelical interpretation of the Great Commission and modified accordingly. As we will see, everything within the church is adjusted to accommodate this missional focus and telos. In particular, substantial changes to liturgy and tradition are permitted and justified missiologically. The Sunday service aims to be both a hub for lay missionary deployment and a safe haven for the unchurched.   

I write about this topic as someone who used to really buy into the missional ideal. I remember my initial excitement when the Acts 29 network took off, popularizing and promoting the missional agenda. Even if churches didn’t join the network, many tried to imitate what the Acts 29 superstars were doing within Reformed and wider Evangelical circles. On a superficial but telling level, skinny jeans, Affliction t-shirts, and hipster haircuts apparently became the new vestments for male clergy. Cussing in the pulpit and saying “bro” a lot were the rhetorical tools whereby these pastors sought to establish clout with their millennial audiences. Most significantly, young men began spearheading new church planting movements all over the place. I bought into the notion popularized by Tim Keller, that the best way to reach non-Christians is through planting new churches.3 Many of us made St. Paul our patron saint, praying that God would enable us to be missionary church planters just like him. We felt biblically mandated to journey into the frontier of our own cities and suburbs. We equated St. Paul’s culture with our own and thought that if God could use Paul in such ways, he probably wanted to use us in the same ways as well.

Then reality hit me. I realized that our post-Christian context is not at all equivalent to St. Paul’s pre-Christian one. Christians don’t need to simply win the culture, as if it had been oblivious to the Gospel and the presence of the Church before. Rather, we need a missiology that helps us win back the multitudes that have left us.  Either we need to take responsibility for losing the culture to begin with and adjust our missiology accordingly, owning our faults, or we need to recall the words of our Lord Jesus Christ whenever he instructed the disciples to dust off their sandals in the midst of a hard-hearted unbelieving culture. We have either lost the culture because of our failure to truly be the Church, or the culture has been hearing us for a while now and simply refuses to receive Jesus’ message. I am more inclined towards the former, given the fact that so many people still believe in Jesus (to some capacity), but don’t believe in the relevance of the church.4

Whatever side of the fence we land on, we cannot say that we are breaking new terrain like St. Paul. Nor are we in the same situation as the apostles when they received the Great Commission from our Lord. This Commission certainly applies to us as well, but we need to make a crucial distinction between apostolic ministry and the ministries to which most of us are called. While laity fall under the umbrella of the Great Commission and have a crucial part in it, the task can only be fully carried out by clergy since baptism is involved. Making the last few lines of Matthew 28 the purpose statement through which everything flows in a congregational setting, without this sort of nuanced caveat, can be misleading and damaging. Not everyone is gifted as a teacher, and not everyone is meant to administer the sacrament of baptism. The average churchgoer will have great difficulty discerning their gifts if Matthew 28 is centralized in an unbalanced sort of way.

Reality also hit me in another way. Many of these new church plants aren’t actually bringing in new converts as much as they are bringing in members from other congregations. In other words, the masses are not being converted, sheep are being stolen. Is this what the Great Commission is really all about? “Go ye, therefore, and rent out space in the local high school gymnasium and siphon off membership from the less hip church down the street…and, lo, I am with you always, even as you market yourself unto the ends of the world.

One of my favorite professors likes to say, “All you need these days to start a new church is a Bible and a little resentment.” I hate that this is so true. I am not convinced that many of the church planters out there are responding to a call from God as much as they are reacting against a church they no longer have the patience to tolerate. Some attempt to justify their feelings of resentment by convincing others who are equally as disenchanted with the church that a missional calling has been placed on their lives. Even those who are legitimately called to church planting (and, I truly believe some are), often enough operate more out of an attitude of bitterness rather than a vision of a call. They can tell you more about what their church is against than what it is for, and this antagonism is often the crux of their missional marketing campaign. “Welcome to City Church. We are not like the other churches in town.” or, “Welcome to _______ (insert whatever capitalized Greek word you want: Ekklesia, Soma, Eikon, etc.) Church, a place where you can experience church in a different sort of way.” Adherents of the missional movement often pride themselves in being able to offer a different kind of church experience to those they hope to reach. Rather than seeing themselves in alignment with a wider understanding of catholicity, they feel the need to set themselves apart.  

Coupled with all of this comes the stripping of tradition, especially as embodied in corporate worship. I worry that too few recognize the shift they have initiated. The liturgical rhythms are no longer about the means of approaching God appropriately, but about manufacturing an aesthetic appealing enough to please the unregenerate bystander. Thus, God is most glorified whenever a church markets itself tactfully to our unconverted society, making itself as alluring as possible to modern secularized individuals. Even though Frederic Harton lived well before our time, I find his words to be both troubling and sobering as I reflect on these things.

Attempts are sometimes made to assimilate the prayer of the Liturgy to that of the individual, but such attempts are really misguided. Services of a popular character (using the word “popular” in its best not its cheapest sense) are necessary to the full expression of individual devotion and must exist side by side with the Liturgy, but the two must not be mixed or substituted for one another. A sensitive soul instantly feels that extempore praying and subjective hymn-singing, while eminently right at a prayer-meeting, are out of place at Mass, though perhaps he may not be able to say why he feels it. The individualist, on the other hand, wants to find in public prayer the direct expression of his own spiritual condition and needs, and to him therefore the Liturgy seems to be generalized, formal and cold: hence, arise the experiments we have in mind…The Liturgy is not concerned with the individual as such; it is the expression of the worship of the body; hence liturgical prayer is essentially and rightly impersonal. The individual is required to sacrifice his individualism in order that he may enter into the fullness of the Body of Christ. Only as he is humble enough to do this does he find out what worship really is.5

What worries me most is something that seems to be happening on a subconscious level: we are beginning to see a redefinition of orthodoxy, especially in Protestant circles. What legitimates the existence of a true church is being reconstituted. Churches that are “missional” are considered in these circles to be full of life, while more traditional parishes are considered dead. Churches that don’t have worship services hip enough to attract potential non-Christian onlookers, or that lack formational processes innovative enough to manufacture mini-missionaries, are dismissed as being practically heterodox. Schism, then, becomes justifiable. This is evidenced by the fact that so many church planting networks find their origin in groups that have broken off from mainline denominations.

Is it really healthy to grade orthodoxy by a missional rubric, though? When has orthodoxy ever been graded by missiology? When has the winning of converts ever been equated with ecclesial success? Does a church really need an innovative outreach strategy in order for its existence to be justified? Does the New Testament call every Christian a missionary?

I want to come back to the impetus behind these questions in my second and final article for this series. I also want to propose an alternative “missiology,” if we can label it as such, one that is rooted in the contemplative tradition and the oft forgotten movement of the Spirit. I will return to some of the groundwork that I laid in my article on St. Antony (see here) and build from there. The implied “missiology” laden in St. Athanasius’ biography of Antony can also be found in the writings of other mystics. From them we will learn that “missional success” occurs in unintentional ways, and should only be considered as an afterthought. Missiology needs to be postscriptive if it is to have any effect. We must end rather than begin with it.

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TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

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