From Church Ministries to Missional Churches -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 16

Transforming Theology Project
Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

From Church Ministries to Missional Churches
Chapter 16

It seems as if everyone is talking missional these days. That’s no criticism – I’ve done that myself. I’ve read a wide swath of books and articles on the concept, and preach it at the church. Mission was, for many years, something that we did over there. That’s because we assumed – at least we Americans – that we were a Christianized people. Being Christianized our calling was to take the gospel to others, sometimes referred to as the heathen. Over the past generation we’ve begun to recognize that we were never completely “Christianized” and that mission had to be more than what some people do over there in foreign lands.

If you think that missional thinking is the province of evangelical communities, you would be wrong. Although much of the literature does emerge from evangelical circles, especially those circles wishing to break out of traditional evangelical boundaries, it has had its impact on more progressive/liberal/mainline communities. Part of the reason being that this community has begun to recognize that it no longer speaks to or even understands its context. Where once these communities had thriving mission enterprises both here and away, they have been for decades retreating and retracting. And so, there is openness to a new word – and Philip Clayton, who was himself, by his own confession, an evangelical of evangelicals has embraced this premise and made it the focus of his own work. Transformation of the church will require that the church become missional.

In laying out a vision for more progressive mainliners, Clayton wants to make it clear that this new vision is not simply a new way of describing traditional “social justice ministries.” Mainliners have been pretty good at this. These activities are good, but Clayton believes that our outreach needs to be integrated into our identity, and that we would begin recognize that we Christians aren't the only ones doing this. Thus, the question is -- how does our theology influence the way we see the world and engage in ministry. As we do this, we'll need to recognize that being a church member and a citizen aren’t necessarily the same thing. Instead, it is acting out from our reflections on the seven core Christian questions. This will involve a reinvention of life both inside and outside the church building.

Ultimately what needs to happen is a recognition that the world has changed and thus the church must adapt. It must look inward to see how it has defined itself, so that it might look outward and minister accordingly. Some structures will have to be abandoned, new ways of thinking embraced, the way we do theology must adapt, and once again – we need to refocus ourselves on that “big tent” Christianity as opposed to protecting our traditions.

I do have a concern about the way Clayton ends the chapter. While I do recognize the need for change – indeed I’ve been known to preach the need for change – and I recognize as well that there are new ways of being church in the world that speak more clearly to new generations. But, at the same time, I think it’s important to recognize that our churches include people who do get lifted into the presence of God by a hymn such as “How Great Thou Art” or by listening intently to an organ meditation. To try to sell the church as if it’s not your “Grandparent’s church” (something I don’t think Clayton is doing), sends a wrong message. I’ve seen too many people feel abandoned by churches that have radically changed their worship styles. The message that is given is that you don’t count because you’ve had your day in the sun. It reminds me of a controversial statement made by a former governor of Colorado who suggested that older people who were sick or feeble might have a duty to die. Or to quote Mr. Scrooge, perhaps their (the poor) deaths would benefit society by “decreasing the surplus population.”

It is true that many of the methods and techniques of an earlier age may no longer work, and it is true that we must adopt a missional framework, but let us not in our movement forward forget the saints who got us to this point. Of course, I write this as a pastor of a church that has an abundance of seniors. I’ve had to learn to listen to their voices as well! That said, it is appropriate that we move in our understanding from participating in non-connected church ministries to being missional congregations.


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