Theological Differences Between the Established Church and the Missional Church (Aug 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Fred Peatross

Last year, I sat down and had a conversation with a local minister. Knowing each other for almost 20 years enabled us to transparently move from the latest news on the home front to the state of our spiritual walks to the desires and dreams of our futures. That exchange cleared the way for the primary reason for our meeting at Starbucks on this particular day: to discuss the analysis in my writings about a phrase he used on the footer of a church bulletin: “Creating environments that connect us with Jesus and people.”

I take the position that the Christian community no longer lives in a favored position with its host culture and to reach this culture, Christians must be more like leaven than a church-centric, attractional-Sunday-center. Individually, many of us are in missional-praxis, but if the established, conventional church is to survive the next decade, its leaders must start thinking with a corporate responsibility and accountability laudable in building a culture of Christians who strategically “go” to the missing in their environment. But as Neil Cole says, “you have to be willing to sit in the smoking section when your primary stance is missional.”

Most often I find a degree of difficulty in articulating a primary missional stance. Reflecting on the conversation that day, I must concede that my failure to expressively characterize the differences between the attractional mode and the missional mode shortsighted my friend, which limited the capacity of his scope, breadth, and range. Because I failed to rework his church lens environment, he mistakenly walked away believing we agreed in principle. I walked away confused by the conversation. As a seasoned church minister with over 20 years’ experience, my friend understood missional as anyone with a resume like his would—through the prism of the institutional church. Whether attractional, seeker, or traditional, the primary lens any church employee sees ministry through is what I refer to as the “church myopia lens.” At times, my friend broke through the institutional church curtain to characterize a personal ministry that extended beyond the church campus. There was no reason to dispute this. I already knew he cared about people and their place in salvation’s process. Our differences in understanding are at the corporate level.

It’s important to mention that I’m not totally, 100-percent opposed to the attractional mode. What I am opposed to is an approach to Christian mission in which the church develops programs, meetings, services, or other “products” in order to attract unbelievers into the influences of the Christian community. While there is an element to which the New Testament church was attractive and enjoyed the favor of the broader community (in some contexts), the contemporary church has come to a place where it almost totally relies on an attractional approach to its community. Church leadership taking the primary stance that by tweaking, or making relevant, the weekly “church worship service” the people Jesus misses will come, stand in line, and like a Saturday night rock concert rush the entrance once the door is opened. A “come-to-church” priority has unknowingly and insipidly taken precedence over “come-to-Jesus.” And “come-to-church” disturbs those of a missional persuasion.

A Foundational Difference

The theological difference between the established church and the missional church begins with how one understands church. Theologians call this ecclesiology. A missional ecclesiology is rooted in God’s character and purpose as a sending God. God sent his Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit sends the Church. As Jesus was the fullness of God incarnate, the missional church follows Jesus’ model and continues the presence of Jesus in the world—participating as the second incarnation—an extension of God’s presence in the world

In summary:

Missional churches are deeply connected to the community. The church is not focused on its facility but is focused on living and representing the One he follows as he walks alongside the people Jesus misses

Missional churches are indigenous. They have taken root in the soil and reflect, to some degree, the culture of their community. Indigenous churches look different from Seattle to Switzerland to Spain. We would expect and rejoice at an African church worshipping to African music, in African dress, with African enthusiasm.

With this understanding, “mission” becomes the very essence of the church as opposed to one function of the church. The church is mission, not a program or an activity in the larger life of the church. As Robert Webber states, “The missional church rejects the association of Christianity with American values and the association of the church with entertainment, marketing, and corporate business models. The missional church is reading both Scripture and culture with new eyes. It sees that what is determined by the Christian faith is more than being a good, upright citizen. It sees the church as something different from the smooth corporate model of business. This missional church calls for honest, authentic faith that seeks to be church in the way of a more radical discipleship.”

Practical Differences Between The Established Church And The Missional Church

Theological difference finds expression in practical ways through ideas, language, and practices. For example, church is characteristically defined in one of several ways.

Church as a place: Church is a place you go. The common phrase, “I’m going to church” explains this view. When a person is at the building or facility, they are at church. The implication is that when they are not at the building, they are not at church

Church as an event: Church is something that happens. It is defined by worship services, Bible class, or various other ministries. Again the implication is that when one is not engaged in one of these events or activities, they are no longer doing church

Church as programs or services: Church is determined by what the organization offers: youth programs, special programs and events, fellowship, mission opportunities, etc.

Rather than embodying and demonstrating a new way of living under God’s reign, the established church, in general, has been domesticated by American culture. The lifestyles of Christians, their morality, materialism, and a host of other ways of living are fundamentally indistinguishable from its host culture. This translates into an American domesticated corporate entity relying totally on professionalism, marketing, promotion, advertising, and consumerism. With few obvious differences from its host culture, the church struggles to remain relevant to culture as opposed to driving culture.

“At stake in the confrontation between consumerism and the body of Christ is nothing less than “the continued existence of the church as faithful witness to the mission and character of God, and with it the capacity to think, imagine, desire, and act in ways formed by the biblical story.”—Consumerism, Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics Baylor University

The task of a missional community is to explore and rediscover God’s countercultural call to represent the reign of God in this post-Enlightenment era.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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