THE ROAD TO MISSIONAL: Journey to the Center of the Church (Shapevine). By Michael Frost. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011. 152 pages.
The term missional has taken on a life of its own, having entered the stage where no one really controls its meaning. Originating from within evangelicalism, and influenced by the writings of Leslie Newbingin, today folks of every theological and ecclesiological stripe have adopted the term, often meaning different things by it. Thus, a left of center mainline Protestant church like mine might have something different in mind than would a conservative evangelical church. Indeed, even the sorting out of the Emergent movement has led to some redefinition of the word, with the more conservative elements of that movement now taking hold of the term missional to define themselves over against the more “liberal” Emergent Village folk. As is often true, when a term gets such broad usage, a pronouncement will be made declaring that the term is now passé and the movement is near death. Michael Frost, an Australian missionally oriented Evangelical, suggests that rather than the missional conversation being over, it likely has yet to have even started. The problem, in his mind, is that it is treated as an add-on, a new technique of church growth, when it is really about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
The title of the book is telling, for it speaks to the author’s concern that most churches claiming to be missional are likely pre-missional. They could be on the way, but it’s likely they’ve not arrived. With that in mind Frost, who is vice principal of Morling College in Sydney, Australia and author of a number of missional-related books (some in partnership with Alan Hirsch), seeks to correct our understandings of the movement. According to Frost, a missional congregation must embrace a “wholesale and thorough reorientation of the church around mission” (p. 16). It isn’t a “flavor” to add into an existing paradigm of church. With this definition, it would appear that most of our congregations would be better off defining themselves in a journey toward being missional, for most are not yet missional. In part, that might be true because they are still coming to grips with what it means to center one’s church in mission.
The book is brief but covers a lot of territory. Frost begins by addressing the evangelical community and reminding them that mission is more than evangelism. It is instead, embracing the mission dei (mission of God), that is – it is alerting the world to the universal reign of God (a definition of mission he takes from David Bosch). It involves evangelism, but the goal isn’t adding persons to the seats in our churches, but participating in God’s work of transforming the world. He spends considerable time engaging those who would limit mission to evangelism, suggesting that it should involve an intertwining of evangelism and social justice. This concern leads him to reengage evangelicals in seeking to understand what it means to evangelize – arguing for what he calls slow evangelism – and discussing the issue of marketing. This has, of course, been a major topic of conversation for some time as we seek to understand what it means to share faith in an increasingly consumerist context, arguing not only for slow evangelism (inhabiting the gospel) but for the benefits of going small. In other words, if you choose the missional route, which calls for living the faith incarnationally, it’s likely that you won’t grow to mega-proportions.
The tipping point in the book is the chapter on the cross as a missional paradigm (chapter 4). What does it mean for the church to live under the cross, not just in terms of Christ being savior, but living the life of the cross? It is, he argues, more than a call to piety, but to living sacrificially. This idea reemerges later in the closing chapter on incarnational living, where he speaks to the reality that living in the neighborhood can be not only sacrificial but entail suffering for others.
It is in chapter five that he begins to really connect with me; for it’s here that he brings in the call to bring into the missional conversation reconciliation, justice, and beauty. He draws these three tracts from N.T. Wright, but they are the aspects of the missional calling that most truly attract those in the mainline. We need to be reminded that part of the mission involves the use of words and announcing the reign of God. We’re too attached to that Franciscan mantra about using words if necessary! Frost reminds us that the heavenly reign of God overlaps with our earthly existence. It is complete, and yet it continues to unfold. In the course of bringing shalom/peace to the earthly realm, God seeks to do three things: 1) restore relationships, both the divine-human relationship and the relationships we have with one another; 2) reestablish justice, that is work toward the goal of restoring a just and equitable society; 3) rediscover beauty.
It is the third component that really grabs me. I think that the first two are readily understood, especially for those who embrace social justice as part of our calling, but we may wonder what beauty has to do with the missional calling. The answer has to do with God’s interest in beauty – as seen in nature, but also in the creativity of those who bear the image of God. He writes:
Those of us who have embraced faith in the universal reign of God through Christ look for expressions of beauty everywhere, whether they be a stunning sunset, a painting by a grand master, a gorgeous piece of music, or a delicious meal. I think the primary way they lead us back to God is through the profound sense of gratitude one feels when partaking of such beauty.” (p. 112).
And just to be clear, he doesn’t have in mind just religious art/music or that created by “saints.” There is beauty to be found in the works of Mozart and Led Zeppelin, and this beauty is a sign of God’s kingdom.
The key to understanding this missional calling is to understand that God’s temple is the world itself. It’s not the church building that is God’s temple – it is that place where God is active and working, and that is not just within the building – though God can work there as well! But the point is – God is not just at work transforming the church, God is seeking to transform the world and we’ve been invited to participate.
In the final chapter, Frost reminds us that missional life is incarnational. It is an invitation to inhabit the neighborhood. That could involve moving into a neighborhood where ministry is to be engaged in, such as an urban environment. But whether or not we move into a new place, we can and should be a missional presence in our neighborhoods. This is true for us as individuals and as churches. This is really an argument against having such a regional vision that one ignores the community in which we live – and just to be clear, that includes suburban communities. Our calling is to embody Christ’s presence in the neighborhood, a calling that includes a willingness to suffer as Christ suffered. It is also a call to be engaged long term and not just for the moment. So the question is – where is Christ present and engaged in ministry in your neighborhood?
I will admit that at first I wasn’t sure what to make of the book. Being that I’m post-evangelical and my congregation struggles with evangelism, we needn’t be reminded that mission involves more than words. We probably need to add words to our mission, but, as the book continued on I discovered that there is much wisdom here. In fact, I find the three dimensions of missional life very helpful – relationships, justice, and beauty. There is much to meditate upon here, especially in the later chapters (depending on your starting point). It is also helpful to remember that it’s easy to use words like missional as a sort of spiritual seasoning. A little dash of this and that and we’re ready to call ourselves missional. It is, of course, much more than that. So, if you’re on the missional journey, and you’re still seeking to understand what this all means, then you will find this a very helpful book. I’ve read a lot of missional books, and this is one of the more accessible ones. It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it may be a good place to begin.