By Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg
We’ve been hearing this word for 20 years. Our seminaries have been teaching it, our agencies have been producing books on it and our congregations have been using the word “missional” to justify programs, mission efforts and other worthwhile “regularly scheduled” activities the church has done for the last 20 years.
But as I question why it seems as though the addition of nominally “missional” efforts doesn’t quite seem to be bearing fruit, it has occurred to me that it’s because we are playing a totally different game, but still using an old scorecard.
What is the old scorecard? Attendance. Budget. Volunteers. These three pillars of the legacy church are what have kept Christian denominations afloat for generations. But as the word missional proliferates, it seems that our “Religious Institutions” are having no impact on the three pillars of our legacy. And chances are, even if we finally get missional right, it probably won’t have this kind of an impact.
Because the scorecard of missional church is discipleship. And it’s not simply about whether we are making disciples (do our people act and speak like Jesus?), but are we making disciples who also make disciples?
That is why I am positive that the vast majority of our churches and our denominations really don’t want to be missional.
Top five reasons we really don’t want to be missional
5. Missional success cannot be measured in a fiscal year.Let’s admit it: we like to have empirical data that our efforts are bearing fruit. The problem with the missional church is that it is relationship-based disciple-making committed to a long-term outlook which cannot be measured with our traditional scorecard. The end result of missional discipleship is not ours to determine, but we are called to do it anyway. It demands the attention of our leaders and may mean that not all of our congregation’s resources go to the congregation. What’s worse is that we are not guaranteed the satisfaction of knowing for sure that our time, money and talents were put to good use, and so therefore there may not be anything to report at the annual business meeting.
4. Missional will not save our church.The expectation of the legacy church is that we do “missional efforts” in order to attract people to our church, to our worship service, to our programs and hopefully, ultimately, to giving of their time and gifts. I know that sounds crass, but it is true. How quickly do our churches pounce on the newly engaged people in our midst because we are starved for volunteers? If “missional” doesn’t generate attendance, budget income or volunteers, what’s the point?
3. Being missional will mess up our community. If “Jesus is the center of our faith, community is the center of our life, and reconciliation is the center of our work” (from Palmer Becker), then missional church is going to mess all of that up. If we are truly a missional church, then our community of preference (our church proper) takes a backseat to mission. Creating community needs to become the center of our life. If we are a truly missional people, then we are rubbing shoulders with those in our community who don’t yet know the love of Jesus in their lives and more than likely will have no concept of reconciliation. But these people still need Christ’s community. Missional church expects that we are willing to equip communities of faith to grow more communities of faith, which means we can’t stay put in our own comfortable Mennonite enclaves of like-mindedness and hope people will see the light and become like us and conform to our community. And again that means that missional work will not contribute to the three pillars of the legacy church (attendance, budget and volunteers).
2. Being missional will inherently mess up our pristine theology and ecclesiology. By now, most of us have come to recognize how contextual theology ultimately is. And theology feeds ecclesiology. If we are a truly missional church that equips others to equip others, the practical level of theology in the church will never be as pristine and perfect as the rigorously academic brand of theology we get in our seminaries. This is not to say that missional church does not grow thoughtful, reflective leaders, but the broader the reach of a missional church across our communities, the broader the context and the broader the pool of experience that will feed into our theological framework. I am quite positive that lifetime Mennonites are completely unaware of how enculturated our Christology has become. It is our enculturated Christology that has rendered our ecclesiology immobile.
But I believe the number one reason we really don’t want to be missional is…
1. Being missional will eventually put us professional church leaders out of a job. There, I said it! Our churches, denominations, conferences and all supporting agencies are made viable through the charitable donations of the local congregation. The sad irony is that those of us who have been called to be the stewards of God’s mission on earth have the most to lose if anything changes. If the purpose of missional church is not about attendance, budget and volunteers, then ultimately, if we do our job right, most of us church leaders will be out of a job. And that, my friends, is why, I believe, we have been so slow to become truly missional. It is hard to make tough decisions for faithful reasons and not look like we are 1) failing 2) giving up or 3) taking away people’s livelihoods. But the truth is that the future of the Gospel does not lie within the monument of the institutional legacy church, but in the movement of missional good news.
If we were honest, we as church leaders would all recognize the ways in which missional church does not fit into the congregational or denominational model we have today.
It is difficult for any leader to be a missional leader if they cannot find a way to be engaged in their community. But often our jobs working for the church not only keep us out of the world God so loves, but also keep the most passionate disciples (leaders) within the Body of Christ committed to board rooms, committee meetings and ministry planning sessions. Missional church is always relationally based and can never be planned during a meeting. It is a one-on-one relationship based way of living a Christ-filled simple life, consistently for the purpose of witnessing to the watching world.
Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg is a minister at Zion Mennonite Church. In October 2017 she will begin serving the Ohio Conference as a part-time missional consultant on a volunteer basis. This column also appeared as a blog post on the website of The Mennonite.