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.


Posted on June 5, 2013, in Missional. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Something that I needed to hear a couple of years ago is that we can have the same attractional, program-based model even without the building. Moving into a neighborhood, being part of a missional intentional community, these things don’t mean that we necessarily leave behind the models that we grew up with. It is incredibly easy to believe that I’ve changed my paradigm when all I have really done is transfer those exact same attractional ideas and programs into a living room. For instance, I hear my neighbor yelling at his/her kids, I might think, “I should start a mentoring/after school program for all of the kids in the neighborhood!” when what I should really do is just walk over and ask how things are going, sit on the front porch drinking tea and hear about their good times and bad times. I suppose there can be a good/helpful place for “programs” (that’s probably an unhelpfully vague term), but I don’t believe that I have seen a good example at this point in my life.

    Also, I don’t want this to come across as attacking either the churches or the communities who end up in this attractional/program-oriented mindset. I tend to believe that most humans do the best with what they have seen and known. I’m speaking at least partially from the understanding that most people only have so much time and energy at the end of the day and would like to be as faithful as possible with what we have.

  2. Yeah Ross, I think that most of us needed to hear that a few years ago…and perhaps more recently as well. 🙂 The struggle is that we’re still figuring a lot of this out in the US. And you’re right, when we aren’t sure what to do, we fall back on what we know.

    I think that programs are able to play particular roles which are beneficial – they can often leverage the resources of a larger group or entity to accomplish tasks which are more difficult at the individual or small community level. I think the problem comes in because of what you point out in your last sentence. We tend to think of our participation in “faith” stuff as one of the many demands on our time, rather than the orientation through which we engage all those demands. So, when we try to figure out how to best use the time and energy we have, we want to maximize impact by supporting large-scale programs.

    This is one of the most often talked about and yet, in my opinion, still least understood aspects of “missional.” We’re describing an orientation (who we are) more than a program or set of practices (what we do). When the identity piece is sorted out, the activities become the natural outcome of living. And I do think that once we get to that point we’re able to critically reflect on and choose certain programs as beneficial and consistent – without derailing the call to go sit on the porch and talk to the neighbor.

    We’re also conditioned to think of religious things in “professional” terms – just as you wouldn’t sit down and perform an appendectomy on your neighbor but would get them connected to the professional program (a hospital) – we tend to think of “church” stuff the same way. Many of us think, “There are professionals who are trained and paid to do this stuff, so I should let them do it.” If we’re talking about translating Greek or Hebrew texts, that’s probably not a bad thing. But when it comes to loving our neighbor…

  3. Thanks for the response Bret. I need to explore this chunk with you more:

    “We tend to think of our participation in “faith” stuff as one of the many demands on our time, rather than the orientation through which we engage all those demands. So, when we try to figure out how to best use the time and energy we have, we want to maximize impact by supporting large-scale programs.”

    Last night, I was working in the back yard for a few minutes while Laura finished up the dishes from dinner. While I was out there (digging up the newest offspring of a highly invasive tree that is trying to take over our backyard like the…ahem…Kingdom of God), some of the kids in the neighborhood were out on the cross street nearby yelling at and threatening each other, whoever happened to pass by, whoever happened to be in their backyard, and generally causing a ruckus. I knew that two of those kids belonged to the sweet single lady three doors down. Sure enough about 20 minutes goes by and she is chasing them down the street on her electric wheel chair, yelling at them to mind her, but receiving the typical young rapscallion response of running away in a combination of bravado and terror.

    At that point I want to go tell Janice that she isn’t alone, and that even though she might be scared that the neighborhood hates her kids, Laura and I don’t. Frankly, we’re pretty new to the neighborhood and don’t know her kids that well. I want to encourage her and tell her that I believe in her, and that I wish I had more time available to have those kinds of talks with her and to get to know her kids better. But at the same time, I have a wife and work 40 hours a week at a non-profit that I really believe in. I sometimes run into a wall of being faithful with all of the great things in my life through which God is blessing me. It’s funny how even with being faithful with just the “small things”, there’s still not enough of me to go around. That’s where I wish it were easier for me to sit back at the end of the day and realize that it was never my job to save people in the first place…I’m just not very good at that.

    That was more of a ramble/confession (ramfession?) than a question I suppose. Do with it whatever you will.

  4. What you describe in your ramfession is not unique. It’s something that we all face, and it is certainly difficult for young adults and young families. We’re scrambling most of the time: scrambling to balance work and family, scrambling to get established in our career or finish up school or whatever.

    However, in the midst of all that, it really is essential to come to grips with the identity piece. If our activities grow out of our identity (instead of the other way around) we’re going to be able to have the hard conversations with ourselves when our activities are inconsistent with that identity.

    I’m speaking now as chief among sinners, because this is one of my biggest struggles to date. But here’s the deal Ross, it was neither you nor I of whom the prophets spoke. The people should wait for (or look for) another.

    The trick isn’t to find ways to squeeze it all in, save everyone, or drop everything any time something happens (something is always going to be happening…always). I don’t know if there is a trick really. But the closest I’ve been able to come up with is summed up in the Four Things that my boys and I say together each morning:

    Today, I will pay attention
    Today, I will be Jesus
    Today, I will see Jesus
    Today, I will mess up.

    We have to learn to pay attention throughout our day. To take opportunities to be Jesus for others, and to see Jesus in others…all the while remembering that we’re going to drop the ball on more than a few occasions every time we get out of bed. That’s okay. You may not always have the time or the energy to go over and have that conversation with your neighbor. Even Jesus didn’t talk to, eat with or heal every person he encountered. However, if you NEVER have time for that conversation with your neighbor, it could mean its time for you to have that other conversation with you. (says Bret to himself)

    Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove talks about this extremely well – very honestly and practically – in The Wisdom of Stability. He acknowledges how easily things fall apart when we commit to a particular place and people, and he also reminds us that committing to being fully present may require some things of us that don’t fit into the “American dream” very well.

    Non-profits are the worst, because they’ll take every single moment of our lives and every ounce of our energy if we let them…and sometimes still leave us feeling guilty that we didn’t do more. It isn’t an intentional thing, its just the nature of combining the usually under-funded, understaffed organization with a deep passion for an important cause.

    But it isn’t any different from any other job – you look for opportunities to live your calling wherever you are, whenever you are there. So when you’re at work you’re with those people, when you’re home you’re home, when you’re at the coffee shop you’re there. And in all those places you’re aware of what it means to BE in that place.

    And then, I also think that sometimes we’re just in a difficult season where we need to put our heads down and power through. But if we think that is the case, we’d be wise to consider how long that season should last and how we’ll know if we are staying in it too long…and what we’ll do if that happens.

    I don’t know if that helps…

  1. Pingback: Maybe Methodists Are Not So Missional After All

  2. Pingback: How Methodists Could Become More Missional | Missional Monks

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