As Bill Easum has already pointed out, there has been a lot of confusion around the whole Missional, Emergent, Emerging conversation. Most church leaders I speak with couldn’t cogently define the difference with anything like clarity. They’ve read one book and came away with that author’s perspective and for those brave souls, they’ve read one or two more and came away … confused. It seems there’s little consensus even within the field. Add to all that the insider wars that are going on as the emergents argue with the revolutionaries/emerging church leaders, it’s no wonder few have a handle on what’s what.

Any good postmodern will tell you that labels aren’t terribly helpful, but living without them can make things worse, so for the sake of clarity, here are a couple of labels/definitions that might help some of you (and then we’ll get into the topic at hand).

  • Emerging Church: Those brave men and women who are experimenting with a variety of church models in order to find effective ways to reach those in their community. Some of these models have included house church, micro-church, organic churches, churches without walls, incarnational churches, churches without building, churches without the accoutrement of recent tradition, and so on. Everything the church does is up for grabs and open to reinterpretation.
  • Emergent Church: At one time, the Emerging Church and the Emergent Church were considered one in the same. The division between the two seems to have come as a result of Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and other books like it. In the Emergent Church everything is up for grabs and open to reinterpretation, even including basic orthodoxies of theology. Like any theological stream, this one has adherents on both ends of the continuum – from Jesus is a nice guy and a good teacher and the Bible is a fascinating piece of antique literature to the other end of the continuum that is rather conservative. The goal of the Emergent Church is not unlike the Emerging Church in that they are seeking to find effective ways to reach those in their community. The difference is that theological orthodoxy is open for complete reinterpretation and often embraces syncretism and pluralism.
  • Missional Church: Churches so driven by their mission to reach their community for Jesus Christ that they are compelled to immerse themselves in the communities culture until they fully understand it. Once they’ve reached this understanding, they are willing to sacrifice any and all church traditions in order to create a new and fully indigenous church model. At this point, all Missional Churches are Emerging, but not all Emerging Churches are missional.

And now, to the topic at hand …

Getting a Missional Mindset

Before you read another paragraph, ask yourself this question: “Do I really want our church to have a missional mindset?” Remember, a missional church is willing to sacrifice every church tradition in order to effectively reach their community. Most church leaders are blissfully unaware of the depth and breadth of church traditions. We tend to immediately think of organs, pianos, reciting the Lord’s Prayer or Apostle’s Creed, and maybe even recognize that the pew is a part of church tradition. This is not the place to evaluate or even list all the practices the church engages in that are extra-biblical, that is “tradition.” If you want to read a rather disturbing, but well researched, book on the traditions of the church, take a peek at Viola’s Pagan Christianity. I don’t agree with his conclusions, but his scholarship and research is exceptionally accurate. The question is, are you really willing to consider sacrificing your weekly sermon, your building, your ordination, and even your salary if you discovered that they were getting in the way of effectively reaching those in your community for Jesus Christ? It’s easy to say, “Sure” when we’re secretly confident that we’d never actually have to give up those most basic traditions, but having a true missional mindset means you’ll be honest and objective – and that you’ll impartially evaluate every single church tradition, even the ones affecting you, in the light of effectively making disciples.

So, if you’re willing to consider embracing the missional mindset, what’s next? How do you lead your church to becoming missionally focused? It isn’t easy and it is definitely not an overnight process, but here are three steps to get it started.

Step 1: Hone Your Mission

It seems almost every church I work with today has developed a “mission statement.” That should be a good thing, but unfortunately it seldom is. Many mission statements, dare I say most, are so wordy that they say little and inspire less. Let me give you a couple examples.

  • We are a non-denominational fellowship of believers endeavoring with purpose to serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We are here as a church to fulfill that purpose by focusing upon the person of Jesus Christ. We come together in an effort to be united in our submission to His teachings and to praise and glorify Him before a lost world.
  • First Church, with its rich, diverse history, is a community of baptized people which finds joyful unity in the grace of God the Father, the love of Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Through Word and Sacrament, we are empowered to share the Gospel, to love one another, and to serve God, our congregation and our community with our diverse talents and resources. We are guided by the Scriptures and the Confessions in all that we do. We are committed to Christian education. We welcome all into our midst, just as Christ has welcomed us. We will meet the challenges that the future holds, confident that God will direct and guide us.
  • As part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, our mission is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We provide an affirming, evangelical, and sacramental presence to all in their diversity. We, as an ecumenical community, strive for the prophetic work of fostering unity while celebrating the various faith traditions among Christians in accord with Jesus’ prayer “that we all may be one.” As a servant people of God, we are called to ministries that are loving, inclusive, and justice bearing for the sake of God’s reign by breaking down the divisions among the human family.

Although all three statements were carefully and I’m sure lovingly crafted, none of them provide the marching orders needed to birth the missional mindset. Only a succinct, specific, and inspiring mission has the power to compel people to action.

Ultimately, Jesus gave the church its ultimate mission – to make disciples of all nations. A well conceived motivating mission statement begins there and then sets it into context. Here are a couple that have managed to inspire thousands:

  • The mission of Willow Creek Community Church is to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
  • The mission of Northwood Community Church is to develop people into fully functioning followers of Christ.

There is no question what these respective churches are all about – which is vital to creating a missional mindset.

Step 2: Start With Culture

Many believe that the second step to creating a missional church is to immediately begin measuring everything the church does by the mission and them begin paring down their existing programs in order to start new ones. Although that sounds like a great idea, the problem is that most churched folks really don’t know their local unchurched culture well enough to even hazard a guess about what might or might not be effective. Unfortunately, that’s especially true with those of us who either did the seminary journey or who have been in the “pulpit” for more than ten years.

Until we really understand the culture we’re trying to reach, deciding what our church is doing that is helpful or not is futile. Indeed, some of the traditions we hold may actually be helpful in reaching the unconnected, so it’s imperative to start where they are.

Now, it’s easy to say “Start with culture,” it’s another thing altogether to actually get there. The only way to get to know that culture is to immerse yourself in it. I’m a St. Patrick fan, and if I had a patron saint, he’d be it. Patrick was phenomenally successful in tribal Ireland because he was intentional about getting to know the culture intimately. He and his followers would pitch their camp outside of a town/village and then for the next year or so, he spent his waking hours learning the language, learning the slang, learning the customs, learning the superstitions, learning the day-to-day habits, learning the belief systems, and building relationships with the residents. Only when he was able to be “one of them,” did he get serious with his faith sharing and church planting. What I admire him most for, though, isn’t just that he started with culture, but that he essentially created from scratch new “church” customs and traditions that were carefully lifted and reinterpreted for the sake of communicating the Gospel. In other words, Patrick was doing missional even before the emerging church started emerging!

Developing a missional mindset, therefore, demands an intimate understanding of your local culture. There’s no book or article or blog or continuing education event out there that can accurately tell you what’s going to work in your context. You and your congregational leaders are going to have to discern that for yourselves. It can’t be done with a once-in-awhile foray into your local coffee shop. It can’t be done with multiple sorties to the mall – even the ever-popular “listening triads” will not get you the information you’ll need to be missional. The only way to get that information is to be serious about being in and with the culture – and that means not just getting out of your office, but mostly staying out of your office. It means that instead of doing membership visitation, you’ll need to spend the bulk of your time building authentic relationships with those outside the faith. You’ll have to put aside your preconceived notions of Christianity and its traditional trappings and practices – including most of what you know about faith sharing and conversion experiences – in order to be open enough to accurately observe and experience the mindset of your mission field. It’s only when you can natively “think” and “respond” from their perspective that you’re ready to move to the third step.

Step Three: Start from Scratch

Only when you have and know your compelling mission and “get” the culture you’re trying to reach can you begin to intentionally develop a missional mindset. You should know, however, that this is the step where most churches stop. From here on out, whatever you decide to do, you’re likely going to hear complaints and accusations that the church isn’t really church anymore; that it’s not biblical; and that it’s not “feeding me.” Up until this step, almost everything has been an intellectual exercise, but at this point what you’ve learned begins to mold the church’s intentional behaviors.

If you happen to be a church planter who has just reached the mission field, this is going to be a bit easier, since whatever you do will essentially be new anyway. However, if you’re in an established church, this step cannot be taken either lightly or quickly.

It’s always easier to start “new” than it is to remodel what already exists, so don’t begin this process by evaluating everything the church is currently doing against the measuring stick of your mission. Instead, with your new-found friends and relationships that you’ve built within the culture, begin to explore what being and doing church might look like with them – not for them.

Sadly, most pastors think they’re being missional when they set out to launch a new “worship service” that’s indigenous to the culture they’ve been hanging out with. However, that idea is nearly always an unconscious attempt to overlay church tradition on culture. The fact is, most “indigenous” worship services look like most other worship services: stand for the first song, continue singing, slip in a prayer or two, take an offering, preach, pray, sing, dismiss, repeat next week. The whole “let’s launch an indigenous worship service” is almost always something we do for those in the culture. As I said previously effectiveness comes when we engage those within the culture and explore what being and doing church might look like with them.

So, what would a missional attempt at church look like? That’s a good question and it always depends on your culture. For St. Patrick, it was incorporating much of the tribe’s superstitions and practices – his famous Breastplate (“I arise today through a might strength, the invocation of the Trinity …”) which was likely written as a ritual to not only embrace the faith, but to ward off malevolent spirits:

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Patrick’s missional mindset began with what was already known and perhaps even practiced by culture and then he added/reinterpreted it in order to introduce Jesus Christ in authentic, relevant, and meaningful ways.

What a missional church would look like in your context is literally up for grabs. It might be getting together with two or three at a time for spiritual conversations, discipling, etc. It might be a gathering at a home or some informal setting for prayer and encouragement. It could even be a non-traditional or very traditional weekly worship service. But you won’t know until you’ve completed steps one and two and only then explored “church” within culture rather than deciding for culture.