Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Missional Church: A New Identity or a False Dichotomy?

In defining Missional, Alan Hirsch creates a false dichotomy between what he calls the missional church and the attractional church.  The concept of the missional church, if it is not placed carefully in the larger context of the Great Commission, runs the danger of being a partial truth.  The underlying question is, “What exactly is the mission of the church?”  Hirsch says,

Many churches have mission statements or talk about the importance of mission, but where truly missional churches differ is in their posture toward the world. A missional community sees the mission as both its originating impulse and its organizing principle. A missional community is patterned after what God has done in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation God sent his Son. Similarly, to be missional means to be sent into the world; we do not expect people to come to us. This posture differentiates a missional church from an attractional church.

The attractional model, which has dominated the church in the West, seeks to reach out to the culture and draw people into the church—what I call outreach and in-grab. But this model only works where no significant cultural shift is required when moving from outside to inside the church. And as Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, the attractional model has lost its effectiveness. The West looks more like a cross-cultural missionary context in which attractional church models are self-defeating. The process of extracting people from the culture and assimilating them into the church diminishes their ability to speak to those outside. People cease to be missional and instead leave that work to the clergy.[i]

Hirsch has failed to recognize that the culture in the Book of Acts was pre-Christian, and that there was a tremendous shift as the Church at its outset reached out to the Gentiles and incorporated them into what originally was a Jewish church.  Hirsh’s analysis seems to assume that the history of the Church started with the Protestant Reformation, and if applied to moribund Protestant Churches in the West it is at least partially correct.  As a Benedictine my experience is very different.  Our monastery, St. Scholastica, has planted over forty schools and five hospitals.  To this day sisters, who are able to, work outside of the monastery in a variety of pastoral roles.  It is perhaps “missional” to a fault and as our sisters age the monastery community is shrinking. 

The early Church was both attractional and cross-cultural.  In Africa and other places where the Church is growing the model hasn't changed.  If the model has lost its effectiveness in the West it is not because it is wrong, but rather because the fire of the Holy Spirit is missing from the Western Church.

In the Great Commission Jesus proclaims:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.[ii]

What Hirsch misses is that properly conceived the Great Commission is both “missional” and “attractional.”  His rude expression “in-grab” misses the true purpose of the “in-grab”.  That may be due to the common weakness of many contemporary protestant churches.  The Pentecostal Scholar Simon Chann of Singapore has made some surprising statements, surprising because they come from the Pentecostal expression of the Christian Faith. The statements are:  “Worship is not just a function of the Church, but the Church’s very reason for being;” and “What is the mission of the Trinity?  The answer to that question is communion.  Ultimately all things are to be brought into communion with the Triune God.  Communion is the ultimate end, not mission.  Communion …is ultimately, seeing God and seeing the heart of God as well, which is his love for the world.”[iii]     In short, “in-grab” is the purpose of mission.

St. Paul expresses this mission of the church in this way: “I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:15-16).  The language is sacramental language.  The minister is the liturgist, the priestly service is precisely that which the priest does Sunday by Sunday as the liturgist of God at the altar.  The word for offering, is prosphora, that which is offered on the altar of God.  This offering is sanctified, made holy by the Holy Spirit, the Ruach Elohim of the Old Testament and the New. 

The offering that we offer is actually the “offering of the Gentiles.” specifically the fruits our work of evangelism.  In love and adoration we present to the Father those whom we have brought to salvation in his Son Jesus Christ.  That is the very essence of “in-grab.”  This offering is possible only through Christ, and is a work directed by the Holy Spirit.  What strikes me is the awesome responsibility we bear in this matter.  If we are insensitive to the call of the Spirit, we will be left standing on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza while the eunuch makes his way back to Candace the pagan queen unconverted. 

Worship, communion with the God of love, should awaken the love of God within our hearts.  Love demands that we reach outwards in order to bring people into the Body of Christ and into fellowship with the living God.  When that does not indeed happen, it signals that our communion with God is actually abortive and all our religious posturing is precisely that.  We are hypocrites, in the Biblical sense of that word, wearing the assumed mask of piety.  To us then, the Christ will say, “Would that you were either cold or hot!  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth (Rev. 3:15, 16). 

[i] Alan Hirsch, “Defining Missional”, Leadership Journal, Fall 2008 online
[ii] Matthew 28:18-20 
[iii] (Christianity Today, June 2007)