04 November 2005

Missional vs. Intentional: Smackdown!

So I've been blogging a lot about this "Missional Church" idea. Go back two posts for a fairly concise definition of what this is. Innovation in this space is being done by folks like the Gospel and Our Culture Network, Church Innovations, Missional Leadership Institute, and Luther Seminary. Most of those folks come from a mainline Protestant background: Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, etc. However, I've discovered something interesting by creating a Google Alert on the word "missional": the idea, or at least the terminology, is catching on like wildfire among conservative, evangelical, even fundamentalist churches and church systems. (I'm not talking about emerging churches--they also tend to be thoroughly missional, at least in theory, but they aren't the big Google Alert generators.)

I haven't done a lot of research into their use of the term, but I wonder (idly and ignorantly) whether all of those conservative churches are thoroughly grounded in the deep theology being done by the groups I link to above. I also wonder whether they have a grounding in historical Christian tradition and spiritual practices--or do they act as if Christianity was founded and died out in the first century, and only resumed again in the 19th century when the Plymouth Brethren invented Dispensationalism?

OK, gear shift. As I mentioned in my last post, there's another concept, "Intentional" church, being investigated under the auspices of the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, a study being carried out by (among others) faculty at the Virginia Theological Seminary. One of those VTS profs, Diana Butler Bass, has written an excellent, slim book called Practicing Congregations: Imagining a New Old Church, which outlines her theory. Essentially, intentional congregations are those which intentionally and creatively choose to stop devoting all their resources to uncritically preserving the "shallower" (my word) traditions founded within the last century or so (church suppers, particular hymns, etc.) in favor of re-forming their communities in new ways, resulting in new vitality. Often these "new ways" are really old ways: reconnecting with the "deeper" traditions of the spiritual practices of the historic Christian faith, from contemplative prayer to radical hospitality to discernment to art.

Bass goes on to say that the "intentional" expression within the more conservative, evangelical churches is the Emerging Church, while the "intentional" expression within the more liberal, mainline churches is what she calls "Practicing Congregations": churches that have truly embraced the sorts of "deep" traditions and practices noted above and re-shaped their collective life around them.

I think it's a really exciting movement of the Spirit within the church that these mainline churches are rediscovering a life of intentional practice. But I can't help but wonder: shouldn't these practices flow out of a sense of missional vocation? Similarly, I think it's wonderful that those evangelical churches are embracing the missional idea. But I hope that, at the same time, they are grounding that missional commitment in an intentional habit of deep spiritual practice. I just have this feeling that each of these movements--potentially--is only telling half the Story. (I want to stress potentially--clearly many congregations talking the missional talk are walking the walk of intentional practice, and clearly many mainline "practicing congregations" are working from a discernment of their missional calling. In fact, these two movements are coming to many of the same conclusions--just compare the lists of practices on PCIP web site with those in the Missional Church book Treasure in Clay Jars, or read this review, which compares the two and comes, in the end, to conclusions not unlike mine.)

Like I said, I don't have much to back up my concern on the missional-but-not-intentional side, but I've gotten definite vibes from within my own liberal mainline tradition (including a conversation with a very cool gentleman from the PCIP project itself) that the idea of being intentional and practicing is a way for mainline congregations to let themselves off the hook for being sent out into the world to proclaim and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. If that's the case, then while I admit that intentional practice is a step in the right direction and may lead to renewed vitality, stopping there stops short of the full Gospel. It certainly falls short of the example of Jesus, who spent a great deal of time out in the world teaching about and demonstrating the Kingdom. It also ignores pretty much all of Jesus' post-resurrection instructions to the church, in the Gospels and in Acts. But the opposite approach (missional but not intentional) is also fraught with danger--Jesus also spent a lot of time "recharging his spiritual batteries" through solitude and prayer, and practicing healing, hospitality, and speaking out for social justice, and so have his followers through the last two milen

I think this is one of those classic "both, and" scenarios: in my opinion, the authentic Christian disciple, congregation, church system, etc. needs to be both missional and intentional. It's like running a race: mission marks the course, the starting line and the finish line, while intentional practice provides the ground under your feet and the water and electrolytes along the way. OK, that's a terrible analogy, but the point is that nobody, in my opinion, is off the hook. Even if you're a liberal mainliner, you have a missional calling in the world--inwardly-directed practice alone doesn't cut it. Even if you're a conservative evangelical, living out your mission requires an intentional habit of practices like contemplative prayer, hospitality, healing, art, theological learning and social justice--it's not enough to support evangelistic organizations and socially conservative politics and get all your creative ideas from the Left Behind books.

OK, well, that's why I call it Rude Armchair Theology. In any case, I guess my message is: when it comes to the Gospel, don't let yourself off easy, even if you're moving in a positive direction. Jesus' life consisted of both passionate mission and deep practice, and so should those of his disciples. And it's him (sure as HELL not me) that I'm holding up as the paragon of both. Oh, and sorry to disappoint: in the end, I am incapable of getting rival seminary professors into a WWE steel cage. And don't think I haven't tried. ;-)

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