The Great Missional Misunderstanding
For United Methodists, the gathering known as Annual Conference is the high-water mark of the year. It is the time in which we gather to worship, organize our priorities, focus our vision, and catch up with each other — at least that’s what it’s supposed to be.
In past years in North Texas, Annual Conference has been particularly mind-numbing. But this year, things took a turn for the better with a gathering that refocused our eyes on the work of discipleship and revitalization.
The highlights of the event were the two addresses given by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, one of the leading youth ministry authors and speakers in the country. She galvanized the crowd with her depiction of today’s youth culture and a breakdown of Therapeutic Moralistic Deism.
People left the conference feeling better about the future of the church than when they arrived, and that says a lot about how well things went.
However, I think one thing did become clear to me: whatever we United Methodists are, we are not yet truly missional. Everything that happened at Annual Conference this week presupposed and presumed that the attractional church is the preeminent and ultimate expression of Christian community.
Now, before I go any further, let me define exactly what I mean by missional. The word has become a catch-all for a couple of different concepts. Dr. Dean used the phrase missional church in her first talk, and defined it herself as meaning “a church that looks outside of itself and its walls, instead of being preoccupied with itself.”
It would be great if that described most churches in North America, of course, but that is not what missional means, nor is it the best definition of a missional church.
I also heard the word missional thrown around in casual conversation and in the exhibit hall, where a number of ministries (including Daraja!) had booths set up. Most of the time I heard it used like this: “Oh, our church is very missional. We support a food pantry, we have two or three mission trips a year, and we sponsor a missionary in Africa.” In this context, missional means “our church loves to support mission projects.” But that is also not what missional means.
Missional means sent.
A missional church understands that it primarily exists to be sent.
A missional church is so preoccupied with life in the neighborhood that it doesn’t really have time to worry about the maintenance and upkeep of buildings, vehicles, and programs.
And, as a Missional Monk, I would like to remind us that we aren’t sent alone. We are Sent. Together.
Here’s an example of the fact that our Annual Conference doesn’t get that yet. The last thing that happens at every Conference is the reading of appointments. Traditionally, each district superintendent would get up and read the names of all the churches in the district, followed by the name(s) of the pastor(s) appointed to that church.
This year, they changed it up. Instead of taking the time to have each name read, one by one, each appointment was put on a slide which was then projected on the big screens during our closing communion service. The media team had also asked each pastor in the weeks leading up to Conference, to send a picture of the church which they served. Thus, each slide showed a picture of the church building, the name of the church, and the appointed clergy.
Think about the message that presentation sent. The clear message is that Rev. Jane Doe has been appointed, or sent, TO a particular building. Pastors are sent to an already-existing church, where there already exists a group of people who are used to meeting every Sunday morning to hear an inspiring word and then go home to lead a comfortable life. There are already committees and systems and customs in place, which mostly prop up a status quo which we know isn’t sustainable anymore.
Here’s another example that our Conference doesn’t understand missional yet. Another innovation in this year’s gathering was a Monday afternoon Toolbox Session, which is just another name for a series of workshops that people were free to choose from.
Look at the workshops on offer:
- Social Media as a Ministry: Challenges, Content, Growth
- Big VBS for Small Churches: Making VBS the Biggest Outreach Event of the Year
- Planting and Growing an Explosive Small Group Ministry
- Developing a Culture of Call to Ministry: How to Cultivate a Call in Young Adults
- Building a Community Center Without Bricks and Mortar
- Welcoming the Stranger in Small Churches: Five Changes in Hospitality that Can Make All the Difference
- Inclusion at Our Church: A Place for Those with Special Needs
- Are We Building Towers or Temples?
- Retiree Matters: New Retiree Medical Insurance Program
- God Talk: Reaching the “Nones”
- Energizing Volunteers: Maximizing Lay Leadership for Small Churches
- Multi-Site Worship: One Church, Different Zip Codes?
- Confirmation: Claiming the Faith We Profess
- Mission Programming: Growing Your Church Through Social Services
- 911 Responding to Violence in Your Church or School
- A Church Full of Cowboys: Alternative Worship for Small Churches
- Partnering with Schools, the Community, and Other Churches
- Creative, Collaborative Worship Team Planning
- Senior Programming: Do Bingo, Buses and Brunches Really Meet the Spiritual Needs of our Elders?
- In Sickness and in Health: Faith Community Nursing in Your Congregation
- MinistrySafe Refresher
- Effective Programming for Small Membership Churches
Did you notice that every single workshop offered presumes the existence of a building? Interestingly, one session explicitly suggests that you can do social services without a building, but not church!
Did you also notice that what is primarily being encouraged is programming? Lots of programs. The right kinds of programs.
Now, I am not criticizing these workshops, nor the presenters. I am sure these were great sessions, and I happen to know many of the presenters personally, and believe that they have plenty to share that is helpful and valuable.
But what I am saying is that everything presented at Conference was firmly inside the attractional church box. Everything shared and celebrated and lifted up as worthy of emulation was traditional, programmatic, and based on the idea that our job as church leaders is to try to get people inside the church building. And that’s an idea that I think we must get away from, if merely because it’s too small a vision!
The mission of God is greater than that. It transcends the narthex, the vestry, and the sanctuary. In these days of “nones,” spiritual-but-not-religious young people, the benign-whateverism of a good number of Americans, and the different religions and faith traditions of all the rest of us Americans, it might be very good for us to turn our attention away from our buildings and start paying attention to what God is already doing out there.
We cannot go on assuming that the best way forward is getting our programming right. In fact, perhaps the way forward will lead us to forsake programs altogether.