Of books on becoming missional, there are many, with the numbers increasing every day. I’ve read many of them, and have found them helpful and stimulating – but after awhile the start sounding similar. When I picked up Alan Roxburgh’s latest book, Missional Map-Making, it seemed as if I was simply recovering old territory. There was the typical analysis about how things have gone wrong in church and society, and that the church simply isn’t keeping up with the realities of the times. With other books in the stack (including another book from a different publisher by the same author focused on the same subject), I decided to put the book aside. Despite my commitment to being missional, it seemed as if I’d read one too many missional books. So, I moved on to other topics and books, but the Roxburgh book still sat there on the shelf, having been partially read. In time, I pick the book up again, mostly to dabble and skim. I read a bit here and bit there, hoping that I would catch hold of something I’d not read elsewhere.
I must confess that at times Roxburgh can take on a “consultant” aura, which can be off-putting. This aura is especially prevalent in the books published in this particular series of books from the Leadership Network. That doesn’t mean that there’s not good stuff to be found, it’s just that there’s this sense to the books that you have to get past as a reader, lest you miss something valuable.
With this less than rousing introduction, you might wonder why you should bother with the book. The answer is found in persistence. As I pushed through the book, I discovered important points of conversation that made me thankful that I’d picked the book back up and continued the journey.
Roxburgh uses the image of maps and map-making to explain the missional ideal. To be missional means to be engaged in God’s mission in the world, rather than simply sustaining the institution. Indeed, Roxburgh like many advocates of the missional way, can be rather critical of the institutional church. He’s not ready to throw out the whole enterprise, but he wants us to be more circumspect about the ability of institutions to bring into play God’s mission in the world.
The book is written for leaders who are called to lead in difficult and transitional times. The world is changing quickly, and so the maps that guide our work must change regularly, and often radically. These transitional times are, according to Roxburgh, are places where “fresh theological imagination is formed,” and thus it is a time when new maps are developed that seek to make sense of the world. The key point of this book might be summed up in this sentence: “the new maps are made on the journey; they can’t be drawn ahead of time (by some form of strategical planning or organization change to create a ‘missional’ system)” (p. 37).
This point, that we can’t create a plan that will guide us for the long haul, is so counterintuitive. It challenges everything we’ve been taught. We talk all the time about vision, goals, strategies, planning, and yet before we can ever implement them, the world has changed and they are obsolete. Remember, the Soviets were great at providing five year and ten year plans, but somehow they never worked out. We live at a time when “common sense is no longer common” (the title of chapter three). As we think about how to do ministry/mission in this fragile and transitional moment, it is important to understand that culture is to us – as he points out – what water is to fish. We swim in it and it forms us, more than we’re willing to admit. Our problem is that the maps that we’ve been creating reflect the modern mind set, one that was and is very mechanistic. It thrives on predictability and our ability to control things, but life no longer works in predictable ways. Indeed, trying to control life is a bit like herding cats – cats don’t like to be herded.
So, since life is no longer amenable to mechanistic answers, the forms of planning that build upon that model no longer work. Now, Roxburgh doesn’t suggest that we throw out everything we know about strategic planning. It’s just that the model often runs contrary to the way in which the Christian faith understands humanity and community. It can’t work if we think of it in one-size fits all ways. Planning has its place, it just has to be done in a way that reflects the reality of our culture and the reality of God’s purpose for life. The Christian faith doesn’t contain within itself, a mechanistic/machine-like view of reality. Strategic planning assumes we can do the analysis, come up with the plan, and then align ourselves to the plan. This simply doesn’t work for the Christian community and so must find a new way of working.
Creating (and then re-creating) the maps that will allow us to engage the world missionally requires that we understand the world in which we live and work. We face eight currents of change, which have come together at this moment to shape our context. These include globalization, pluralism, rapid technological change, postmodernism, “staggering global need,” a “loss of confidence in primary structures,” a “democratization of knowledge,” and a “return to romanticism.” Some of this is positive, but not all of it. Especially distressing for the institutional church is this “loss of confidence” in structures. It is affecting government (consider the rising tide of anti-government rhetoric and activity), business, educational providers, and the church. People continue to be interested and concerned with spiritual things, but they’re increasingly skeptical about the role of religious institutions in providing a useful context for their spiritual journeys.
With these challenges facing the church, how should it respond? How should it create maps that will guide it? In many ways, we are in the same boat as the early explorers. They had to draw their maps on the run, because with every discovery their maps changed. Indeed, they discovered that the world was a lot bigger than they thought. To get a sense of what we’re facing, Roxburgh suggests the analogy of the internet. He notes that the internet came into existence in three phases. It began in 1969 with the creation of the first computer network, which was created to assist research projects over a distance. Back then the PC had yet to be designed, so the computers were large mainframes. No one knew at the time where this would lead. In phase two, people began experimenting with the network, and new uses were created, along with the first domain names. Finally, in 1999, just over a decade ago, the internet moved into the next phase, where there no longer was any center of control. Things were changing so quickly that strategic plans were useless. The rules and assumptions that had guided our understanding previously no longer made sense. The future, therefore, belongs not to the planners but to the adapters.
While planning has its place, the key to success – if you want to call it that – involves “cultivating a core identity.” We do this by first assessing the ways in which the environment is changing within our context. How, for instance, are globalization and pluralism affecting one’s context? He notes a book written in the early 1990's that focused on reaching secular people. When he looked at the description of secular folk, he saw his own church. We are affected by secularism – more than we’d to think. We need to be aware and willing to acknowledge this reality. From there we move on to “redeveloping a core identity,” which means offering a new understanding of reality that isn’t formed by culture. This core identity, becomes the basis for any kind of planning that we do, because our planning needs to conform to who we are as God’s people. This involves reconnecting with the biblical narratives and allowing them to reform our understandings of the world and ourselves.
As we develop a new core identity, a new DNA -- that is formed by our engagement with the biblical story – which means more than simply offering more bible studies and Sunday School classes – can begin the missional work of “cultivating parallel cultures of the kingdom.” This idea of creating a parallel culture is key. Transformation will not happen within a culture until there is something else that is different present. Roxburgh points to the creation of a parallel culture in what was then Czechoslovakia, which allowed for the creation of a new identity for people who had for decades lived under Soviet domination. He writes that “a parallel culture develops as ordinary people feel the loss of the capacity to make sense of their lives. In this state of flux arise those revolutionary movements when ordinary people find something awakening in them that begins to reshape the nature of community and society” (p. 145). What is important about the missional movement is that it’s not merely focused on growing churches – that might be a side-benefit, but it’s not the focus. The point of becoming missional is not simply to make better use of our resources, though that’s not a bad thing. No, and here’s the rub, being missional means creating the kinds of parallel cultures, that are rooted in the biblical narrative, that will transform the broader culture. This happens not in a theocratic power-grab, but simply living out the ways of God in the world.
In light of a recent diatribe by William Willimon about the danger of “practices,” it is fitting that when we come to the question of how this map-making process occurs, we discover that it happens as we embrace practices – such as the ancient offices such as reading scripture, prayer, and worship, along with the practice of hospitality (which involves living lives that addresses the fear and suspicion of the stranger), receiving the poor, and learning. If we’re to “cultivate local communities of the kingdom” then we will have to form churches that reflect and makes use of these practices. They are, he says, the practical ways in which the self is transformed toward God’s kingdom (as evidenced in Romans 12).
Again, this involves more than simply transforming churches. The goal is transformation of the world itself, and this requires the creation of partnerships with neighborhoods and communities. It is as we begin this process that we can start planning. It can happen at this point because we’re now ready to reflect the purposes of God. So, when we talk about things changing, we’re talking about more than the institutional church.
My engagement with this book started out a bit rocky, but in the end I found myself reengaged with the missional vision. I was reminded that my five year plans will have to be adjusted regularly to account for the changing environment, and most of all I need to be attentive to God’s work of creating a core identity within the community that is church and the community that lie beyond the church.