Exploring the Collision Between the Missional and the Monastic.
Engaging the Mission of God…Right Where We Are.
These are a couple of the taglines that Missional Monks has used over the last 3 years to communicate what we’re addressing with this website, the podcast, and other equipping works. Lately, Wes and I have been focusing on a new – shorter (you’re welcome) – version.
Missional = Sent. Monks = Together.
A tagline that defines our name and describes our vision. Simple, eh?
Of course when we start digging in to what it means to live a Sent. Together. life, there are countless paths to explore. Sent. Together. should describe the posture of our churches and faith communities. It provides direction for our church planting, evangelism and discipleship endeavors.
But it also speaks about the way we view broader cultural issues. The human experience itself should be understood as a lived expression of a Sent. Together. process. We are not created to live in isolation. The problems you face are my problems precisely because you face them.
And so as Missional Monks we are committed to engaging community building projects, like the Bret Sent Me experiment. And we’re committed to things like neighborhood meals, playdates at the park, volunteering in our children’s schools, coaching, and training coaches to help people improve their missional imagination.
This afternoon we’re going to post the first of a series of articles that address a disturbing and incredibly unjust piece of legislation currently awaiting either signature or veto from the Florida Governor’s office. Speaking out against this sort of injustice is part of what it means to be a Missional Monk, because it is a recognition that our neighbor’s struggle is our struggle…and hearing our neighbor’s plight is itself a call to action.
Rather than write a long, boring bio of myself, which you would only briefly scan anyway, I thought I’d make it easy and give you a bullet-pointed list of things you need to know about Wes Magruder, the newest Missional Monk:
- Yes, I actually am a friend of Bret Wells. We got to know each other through our work with the Missional Wisdom Foundation, but even then, I kind of like him. I think he’s cool, especially with the facial hair. We like hanging out together, and even more, talking about how to be Sent. Together.
- I am a Wesleyan, but not sure how Methodist. Full disclosure: I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I became a UM because I felt called to the Church, and because I resonated with John Wesley’s emphasis on sanctification, joining together of faith and good works, and patterns of discipleship. When I see those things happening in the UMC, I celebrate. When I don’t, I get a little crabby.
- I don’t think most people who throw the word “missional” around knows what it means. I will say more about this later, but the missional conversation has been dangerously diluted by those who use the word loosely. And a lot of them are denominational folks looking for a new angle. If I can accomplish anything as a new Missional Monk, I’d like to help correct this situation.
- I hate church meetings. This comes from experience, believe me. I’ve been a pastor in churches in London, rural Texas, and suburban Dallas. Most church meetings, I have learned, peak after 11 minutes, and then quickly descend into ineffectiveness, gossip, and malaise. The proudest moment in my years as a pastor was shutting down a committee in England that couldn’t remember why it was meeting in the first place.
- I’m distrustful of institutions, but love community. This isn’t a paradox. It’s just a recognition of the reality that institutions quickly lose sight of the movements that birthed them, and end up doing things that undermine relationships and community. Exhibit A: most North American congregations.
- I believe that justice work is one of the great neglected themes of the North American church. Which means that most evangelical churches are lopsided, having determined (consciously or not) that social justice is not “spiritual” work. We need a recovery of the whole gospel, good news for every system, principality, power, and people group. Look for my contributions on this theme coming soon on this blog!
- I don’t own a gun, and never will. I might as well get this out here now: I’m a pacifist. No, I would not kill someone even if they were advancing on my family to do harm. I can explain some other time and in some other forum. All you need to know is that I believe the way of Jesus is nonviolent. Completely.
- I am suspicious of most Western missionary efforts, though I have been a missionary myself. I spent four years in Cameroon as the director of a new mission initiative through the denominational missional board. The experience was wonderful and life-giving (to myself and others), but even while I worked on the ground, I wondered if I was engaged in anything more than a colonizing project.
- Daraja is the Swahili word for “bridge,” and the name of the nonprofit organization that I recently started. Daraja is my current passion, a ministry to recently resettled refugees in the Dallas area. We train volunteers to coach refugees and their families, and help them make a successful transition to life in America. For more information, check out www.jesuswasarefugee.com.
- I am a girl dad. That’s what my three daughters call me. This means that I know way more than I ever wanted about drill teams, the Twilight series, hair and clothing, and emotional swings. But it also means that I am pampered, loved, and spoiled. Rachel is 19 and currently touring the world with Long Island University — Global. Chloe is a Planoette and going to be a senior next year, while Mallory starts high school next year as a Vikette. Oh, and my wife recently started her own business, a franchise of Kumon.
- In my next life, I want to be a rock musician. Seriously. My younger brother lived this life for awhile as the drummer of a band called Calla, and I was madly jealous the whole time. I’m currently digging the new album by The National, but I also like Bon Iver, Delta Spirit, Mumford and Sons, The Tallest Man on Earth … ok, this could go on awhile. Just know this — Bob Dylan is the man. And so is Bono.
- When Jesus says to follow him, I think he meant it. My whole life has been an attempt to figure out what this is supposed to look like. It’s taken me to some pretty crazy places, but it’s what life is supposed to be about.
- There are only two seasons of the church year: Baseball Season, and Ordinary Time. My major leisure activity is watching baseball. I am a lifelong fan of the Texas Rangers, and thus, have recurring nightmares of a ninth-inning fly ball in St. Louis. I’m SO glad we let Josh Hamilton go, but hope we never trade Jurickson Profar.
I am beyond excited to announce that Missional Monks once again refers to two people
…instead of one guy using the Royal “We.”
Dr. Wes Magruder is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, is the Director of Missional Community Development for the Missional Wisdom Foundation, and is the founder and director of Daraja, a ministry which works to build bridges with refugees in the Dallas area. Wes and his family served for several years as missionaries in Africa. Since returning, he has worked to cultivate missional renewal in a large congregation as the Associate Pastor, he has helped launch missional communities, teaches a course on “Reading Scripture with Missional Eyes” in The Academy, and has developed incredible relationships with refugees from multiple countries. So, since he isn’t busy, I asked him to partner with me as a Missional Monk.
In addition to working together on the blog, Wes and I are relaunching the Missional Monks Podcast (hooray!) – with the addition of monthly videocasts. We already have several fantastic interviews lined up where we’ll be talking about the collision of the missional and the monastic with people in a variety of different contexts.
Through our work together in the Missional Wisdom Foundation, Wes and I have had multiple opportunities to speak and teach together. The “Bret and Wes Show” as it is often called within the Foundation, seems to work pretty well. Specifically, we have had a number of opportunities to work with individual churches and groups that are interested in cultivating the missional imagination. Missional Monks is the perfect context to continue developing and improving that aspect of our ministry.
As this marks an exciting transition for Missional Monks, you can expect a number of changes coming to the website in the near future.
Please join me in welcoming Wes, because I’m contractually obligated to limit the nice things I say to him personally…and I think I’m already over my quota.
But for now it is time to unveil the first ever Missional Monks Videocast…complete with too many closeups of someone who needs to shave.
For this inaugural episode we visited the Seattle’s Best Coffee in Burleson to tell ’em…”Hi, I’m Bret.”
Check it out.
I don’t mind putting effort into communicating well. I may not always be successful, but I will try. I’m stronger in some mediums, and I continue to work on those areas where I’m less effective. I don’t mind reading articles about how to use social media like a pro. I periodically work through online courses on writing effectively and understanding my audience. I’ll take advice from marketing experts and communications gurus. I work with a great one and I take her counsel very seriously.
I understand both sales and fundraising; I’ve done quite a bit of both over the last five years. I realize that my salary as a director of a non-profit depends on our ability to partner with supporters, just as my work as a church planter has for years now. Furthermore, the ability to tell our story well is essential to equipping others to unleash the missional imagination in their own lives.
So, I will continue to give careful consideration to how well I’m telling our story. I will try to be very aware not only of what we’re trying to say, but how others are actually hearing it.
But there’s a limit to how much I am willing to cater the message to the whims of the audience.
While there are certain aspects where it is helpful and imperative, I do not feel obligated to boil EVERYTHING down to a 30 second elevator pitch. We’re not selling widgets here. My calling, both in church planting and working with Missional Wisdom, is about reorienting lives and that takes more than 30 seconds. Always.
Some of what I do and teach is very simple. It can be communicated quickly and is easily understood (if not always easily implemented.) Our life in God involves our whole life, not just certain parts. Easy enough. Missional means that we are sent on a mission, therefore a missional orientation means that the faith of each disciple involves joining in God’s mission…wherever we are, and whatever we do. Got it (sorta). Alan Hirsch talks about the power of the phrase “Jesus is Lord.” It is simple and yet dense enough to be passed along easily. In fact, he compares it to a virus that is “sneezed.” Anybody can spread it, anybody can catch it. Some may find that analogy a little gross, but it makes the point.
But it isn’t all so simple. The statement “Jesus is Lord,” has a lot of implications, some of which look very different depending on your cultural situation. So, communicating that Jesus is Lord can be done simply and quickly. Unpacking that statement takes a while, doesn’t it? It isn’t always simple to sort through the ways that Christian culture itself may be working against living on mission with God. Examining (and helping others examine) the many ways that words like missional are used, and the implications of those usages, is complicated. There is no simple, universally applicable, detailed instruction on how people in each particular context live “missionally” – except in the most general terms.
And honestly, its okay that some stuff requires work to understand. The work leading to understanding is a large part of the understanding itself. Refusing to do that hard work may not have any immediate negative consequences. You may draw a large crowd, you may see transformation occur in people’s lives. That is fantastic. The impact of skipping out on the hard work of theological reflection will always catch up to you. They will undermine discipleship, rip apart communities and generally mess stuff up. I’ve seen it firsthand, I’ve heard the same stories repeatedly from church planters and church leaders…and I see it in consumer driven Christian subculture in our society.
Growing up and then later ministering in the Churches of Christ we had a saying that inadvertently applied to this issue. “Dunk ’em and chunk ’em,” refers to the sad reality that often our efforts in evangelism consisted of getting people to accept the sneezed part of “Jesus is Lord,” culminating in their baptism…but then they were mostly left to their own devices to figure out the “now what?” part. The sound-byte approach to evangelism and discipleship leaves us ill prepared and sometimes dangerously malformed.
So, I can’t really justify turning everything into a brief commercial length sales pitch. If you don’t quite get what I’m saying in a sound byte, that’s okay. I’ll try to rephrase. I’ll use a different metaphor. I will consider ways that I am causing noise in the communication. But what I’d like – what I believe must happen – is for us to continue this conversation tomorrow and the day after. I want to invite you to come and see what I’m talking about for yourself. If you don’t have time for that or if you disagree and have no desire to pursue it any further, that’s fine.
Giving careful consideration to how I communicate is certainly part of what it means to remain true to my own particular calling. So, I’m not just trying to be difficult or stubborn here. Igniting and unleashing people’s imagination is a central component to helping others reorient their lives around God’s mission. So I want to do that well, and I don’t want to let my ego hinder the process.
But in order to actually unleash people’s imaginations we have to resist the temptation to become “answer people” who tell others what to do. And we also need to avoid the inspirational but relatively meaningless sales pitch which gets people to sign up without knowing the implications. Both approaches cripple the imagination. Both do more damage than good in the long run.
As with nearly everything, this isn’t a cut and dried issue. We need to keep our communication simple, but never simplistic. The two are not always easy to distinguish from one another. What seems simple to one person may not be so to another. However, that which seems confusing or convoluted may not need simplification, but may actually require diligence and tenacity of pursuit. Einstein is often credited with saying that if you can’t explain something in simple terms you don’t really understand it. (I don’t know if he actually said that or not…remember, Abraham Lincoln said that you can’t trust everything you read on the internet.) But the thing is, Einstein may have been able to explain a concept in simple terms so that you could catch the gist, but he couldn’t teach you to be a serious physicist in one brief conversation. If he could we’d have had thousands upon thousands of Einsteins trained and unleashed during his lifetime. I get the gist of physics (by that I mean that I watch Big Bang Theory and Discovery Channel shows on string theory and the multiverse), but that hasn’t equipped me to contribute anything to those wanting to live like Einstein. If I believed that living like Einstein was my calling in life then there would be no way around putting some effort into the process.
I’ve had this post half-written for a couple months now. Yesterday I began reading my latest review copy book from IVP, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development. By page 40 I was hooked and looking forward to finally publishing this post and writing a review of the book (which I’ll do in the coming days.)
The book addresses what I believe to be a significant problem behind the demand for constant sound-byte communication and simplistic sales pitches. Our thinking is broken. Or, at the very least, bad thinking habits have caused mental atrophy. The good news is, we can correct the problem in our selves.
So now I need to think carefully about how I’m going to write that review…
I truly enjoy my work with the Missional Wisdom Foundation. As the Director of Operations many of my tasks focus on the logistics and details of our various ministries and efforts. As our organization grows, the IT aspects of my job have also become increasingly complex. The crazy part is that I’m not a detail person by nature, nor do I have any formal training in IT. I’m out of my comfort zone and “expertise” fairly often. While this isn’t always pleasant, it has been incredibly beneficial. I’ve been forced to stretch and grow aspects of myself that would be very easy to leave dormant. Like physical exercise and balanced diet, I believe these challenges are slowly reshaping me into a healthier person.
They’ve also helped me appreciate even more the aspects of my work that do come more naturally. I love teaching. A lot. I love the process of coaching and walking alongside folks as they explore their own calling, decide to take risks and then step out onto the edge.
Of all my tasks, teaching the first course in the Academy – The Missional Imagination – is probably the most exciting. Participants in The Academy are excited about the possibility of something new and more authentic – but many are also unsure, confused, intimidated or even a little terrified by the thought. I have the honor of helping them begin to see more clearly.
As we spend time over the first six weeks exploring the need for and the practice of a missional imagination my prayer is that we begin to envision the ways we can go by staying, because, as Wilson-Hartgrove claims, “If real life with God can happen anywhere at all, it can happen here among the people whose troubles are already evident to us.”1
A missional orientation elicits a tangible response from disciples of Jesus. This is not an ivory tower philosophy, it is recognition of a call to be answered with our intellect, our emotions and most certainly our actions. However, it cannot be stressed enough that missional is not simply an adjective to be placed alongside a program, model or pragmatic list of activities.
Though it carries a significant call to active faith, missional is an orientation (who we are) rather than a program (what we do). The cultivation of a missional approach to faith does not originate in a study of best practices of business, vibrant churches or high-profile individuals. It is not a church growth strategy developed through market analysis. First and foremost missional is a theological issue rooted in our encounter with the one true God of the universe; modeled in the text of scripture, witnessed in the life of the early church and evident throughout our history.
This Missional Imagination course is concerned with the role of missionally oriented imagination regarding the themes of God, scripture, discipleship, worship and community. Imagination is used by advertisers, movie and television producers, motivational speakers, politicians, personal trainers, psychologists and even infomercial gurus. Imagination cultivates us as the germination ground for the seeds of revolution, reform, embodiment of particular ideals or commitment to a particular brand, product or cause.
Imagination is what we experience when a story takes root in our mind. As tendrils of the narrative spread, new regions of brain activity are ignited. Once our imagination is fully engaged, we not only hear the story but we see the story; we can smell it, taste it, touch it…experience it. There are those who believe that the imagination is just for keeping children occupied. They are sorely mistaken. Imagination is an essential aspect of development during childhood. Imagination helps young people explore their world, discover their place in the story, develop the confidence to face monsters and pursue dreams.
Imagination is significantly more than entertainment for children and its significance does not dissipate in the transition to adulthood.
No organized sporting contest, no battle for liberation, no educational reform, no campaign for office, no quest for a corner office, no cry for release from captivity, no response to that cry, no charitable organization or humanitarian cause has ever been conceived or realized without the assistance of the imagination. It is our window into the world that could be. In the case of the missional imagination, its our window into the world that should be, can be and will be through the power of God.
Missional imagination is the ability to see a day in the future when you and your elderly (and to this point barren) wife have become the ancestors of a people that outnumber the sands on the beach and the stars in the sky. It equips us to envision a valley of dry bones being knitted together by God, with life breathed into places formerly inhabited only by death.
A missional imagination inspires conviction and courage in the face of seemingly hopeless odds. This is why in Isaiah 61:3b-4 the prophet, despite contemporary evidence to the contrary, could say:
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his spendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
The missional imagination can take a simple mustard seed, or perhaps a handful of seeds, a coin, a sheep, a lump of bread dough or a lamp on its stand, and transform them into a vision of an entirely new reality.
And this is our goal.
…Yes, I enjoy my work with the Missional Wisdom Foundation.
1 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), 24.
Within Churches of Christ, Randy Harris is well known…even infamous in some circles – which makes him all the more likable in my book. 🙂 Quirky would be a fair, though insufficient descriptor. He chooses to dress simply in black pants and black shirts everyday in order to clear away one more materialistic anxiety from his life – what will I wear today? Strangely enough, though dressing in one color, he often still manages not to match – quirky.
He has also managed to order his life as a missional monk while remaining within the Church of Christ tradition – and he far surpasses me on both accounts.
Randy teaches undergraduate theology students at Abilene Christian University, travels around the country speaking to and working with churches, and has played an integral role in shaping Mission Alive’s theology lab for church planters.
We interviewed Randy for the podcast – check it out on the page or listen here.
In his latest book, Living Jesus, he addresses the Sermon on the Mount – a section of teaching which has captivated folks, and often left them scratching their heads, for the past two thousand years.
Over time there have been countless expositions and interpretations of the text and many of them seem to fall into one of two (mis)readings of the sermon. Some see Jesus as teaching us to “out Pharisee the Pharisees” – a harsh and legalistic reading which beats the life out of its adherents. Others have basically said that the sermon is intentional hyperbole or an impossible standard. This reading tends to come from the “all people suck” camp and sees the passage as a reminder of our total depravity and need to throw ourselves at the mercy of the court. We can’t live up to this message, and Jesus knew it.
The problem with both of these readings is that we have to basically ignore the text itself to get there. Jesus directly and fearlessly critiques the Pharisee’s tendency to dwell in harsh legalism to ensure their elite awesomitude. And yet Jesus also speaks very directly about how his disciples will actually live – a deeper, more significant righteousness which grows from our identity rather than one which forms the basis of it.
I’m pretty convinced that one reason the Sermon on the Mount is often seen as unattainable is that we continue to read it the same way the Pharisees read the Law. We see a set of external rules to be obeyed rather than the description of a transformed self and society…which have come about because God is at working reconciling and restoring creation.
The bulk of Living Jesus takes us through the sermon passage by passage, considering how each piece serves to show us how to live as citizens of a new kingdom – in ways which neither legalism nor “woe is me” are capable. This reading makes considerably more sense in the context of forming a people and describing a new community…beyond just heaping expectations on the isolated individual.
Within the publishing world there seems to be a growing expectation that when we read about church or faith, we’ll do so in conversation with others. To this end, it has become common practice to include a mini study-guide at the end of each chapter or section of a book. Though the questions are often overly elementary – less challenging than I would have used with a junior high discipleship group back in the youth ministry days – I very much love what they imply.
Their presence may be a marketing strategy, but it is a strategy that suggests we’re beginning to take communal practices more seriously…even in the case of something as private as reading a book. The reminder is constantly before us – this isn’t just for you, its for us.
One aspect of Randy’s study guide is particularly exciting. Beyond just discussion questions or very general application moments, there is a specific suggestion for practice associated with each chapter. It doesn’t just say, “look for ways to be forgiving.” Instead he calls us to make a list of people we have wronged and contact one person a day for the next week (or however long it takes). Specific practice in the reader’s actual context is a powerful and needed tool. In the closing section of the book we see why this is important for Randy as well.
If you listen to the podcast you’ll notice that one of the main reasons we wanted to talk with Randy was to hear more about his work in developing a “quasi-religious order” among college-age men at ACU. This monastic community is ordered around a shared Rule of Life and covenant to living out the Sermon on the Mount.
Randy suggests – and I whole-heartedly concur – that the lack of covenanting community is a significant part of what hinders the development of discipleship in our churches and makes living according to the teachings of Jesus infinitely more difficult. He encourages Christians to consider ordering their lives more intentionally regardless of where they live or in what stage of life they currently dwell.
He recommends several excellent books to help those who wish to pursue this idea. I’d add to that a short book by Elaine Heath: Longing for Spring. Though written for a Methodist audience, it is broadly applicable for any who are looking to form intentional communities of discipleship, prayer and service – and also describes ways in which established congregations can partner with (rather than compete with or fear) these communities.
And of course, helping people form these kinds of communities in their context is exactly what we do in the Academy for Missional Wisdom…so there’s that (shameless plug).
The Sermon on the Mount is a foundational passage and it has consistently held an integral role in monastic communities throughout history. I have no reservation recommending Living Jesus as an accessible resource for groups who are currently wrestling with what it might look like to pursue more intentional community in the way of Jesus.
There is also an accompanying dvd series available from Leafwood Publishers. I haven’t seen this series, but you can check out this intro video:
Every morning for the past three years I’ve asked my children this question. It started with just Conner, but then Micah caught on and now Josiah.
In response to the question we say our “Four Things.”
Today, I will pay attention.
Today, I will be Jesus.
Today, I will see Jesus.
Today, I will mess up.
And then we say the Lord’s Prayer together.
Often we’ll take one of the four things and talk about what it means. Paying attention means listening to our teachers, parents, and other adults. But its more than that. It also means that when a friend is talking to us (not during class) we listen carefully to them. A “grown up” way of saying this is we seek to be fully present. It means that we notice what’s going on around us. We notice when someone is alone. We notice when someone is really happy or really sad – and we want to know why.
Most days I ask the boys to choose one of the four to focus on specifically. Yesterday, Conner chose paying attention as his focus. He later told me that during recess he looked over and there was a girl sitting alone on the swings. He told me that it looked like the wind – which was CRAZY yesterday – was the only one willing to push her. So he went over and asked if she wanted someone to play with.
Being Jesus means that after paying attention we look for the good we can do and be in a situation. We’re kind to those who are lonely and we’re kind to those who are mean. We don’t just notice the lonely person on the swings, we go over and say hi. The wind will not be the only person a friend has so long as we’re around. Being Jesus means we not only choose not to engage in bullying, but we stand up to those who bully others. Being Jesus means that people matter to us and they should know it.
Micah chose being Jesus as his focus yesterday. At one point, because of good behavior he got to choose a prize from the “treasure box” in class. He didn’t see anything in the box that he couldn’t live without. Instead of just getting something, he asked a friend if there was anything he wanted, selected that thing and gave it to him.
Seeing Jesus is probably the hardest. It requires paying attention and being Jesus. We are committed to looking for signs of Jesus present in every person. Especially those who are mean; who we consider our “enemies.” It may be harder to see Jesus in some people…but it is also harder to hate those people or neglect them when we do see Jesus.
Somebody once suggested that we shouldn’t end our Four Things on “Today, I will mess up” because it was a negative ending. I disagree – and so do our boys. This is a final reminder of grace. We talk about it all the time. We’re not perfect, we’re going to miss opportunities. And that’s okay. Every day we strive to live up to a high calling. But that high calling comes from our identity, not the other way around. So when we mess up we are not wracked with guilt. We talk about why we missed the opportunity to pay attention or be Jesus, and what we might do tomorrow in order to grab on to a similar opportunity.
When we talk about our Four Things in the evening, the mess up part provides a chance for confession – Rachel and I participate in that confession as well. We learn that sharing our struggles is an opportunity to be loved – because our confession is met with forgiveness and grace. If the mess up involved wronging someone, we talk about what we can do to make it right…and since we do this often, its rare that the boys haven’t already begun making amends by the time they share their mistake.
If “Today, I will mess up,” is viewed as a negative its because we have a misshapen understanding of confession and holiness. We see confession as a retributive rather than redemptive act. We see holiness as a harsh demand rather than an inspiring calling. Today, I will mess up. Period. So how will I deal with that incompetence when it manifests?
This morning, Josiah called me on his way to school. He didn’t get to say the Four Things with Conner and Micah, and wanted me to hear. This is what I heard over the phone…
The culture of a church can either pull people down to their base instincts, or lift people up to their sacred potential. We create culture, and culture re-creates us. – JR Woodward
I can’t help but be impressed by the time and energy that must have been required to write Creating a Missional Culture. JR Woodward can be a goof-ball in conversation and his writing style is often light-hearted, but his content is serious, focused and substantive. My biggest complaint is the difficulty of boiling down a review to blog post length…thanks a lot JR.
In the first part of the book, Woodward addresses several different aspects which converge to create what we call “culture.” He discusses the impacts of language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, and ethics across various manifestations and specific examples.
I remember in one of my grad classes when a professor said, “What is culture? Everything. Every freaking thing is culture.”
Well…Woodward pretty much covers “every freaking thing” individually in this first section. Again, from a content standpoint, the book is packed full. However, and I confess I’m not always the best judge of this particular trait, he does seem to balance some of the heavy lifting with easy (or, at least, easier) to grasp explanations and illustrations.
It would have been very easy to conclude this section of the book after describing the various aspects and implications of culture. Instead he makes an exceedingly helpful move and includes a chapter on specific environments which should be cultivated with these cultural factors in mind. Then he concludes with a case for polycentric leadership – neither centralized nor decentralized, but rather where “leaders interrelate and incarnate the various purposes of Christ in such a way that the entire body is activated to service and matures in love” (60).
This polycentric approach relies on the currently popular “5 fold pattern” of Ephesians 4 – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Personally, though this language is quite prevalent in much of the missional literature, I remain unconvinced that this was ever intended to be a comprehensive or prescriptive list of the necessary leadership styles in the church. However, I don’t see much reason to resist it either. It’s hard to think of many broad leadership categories which are needed and not covered here.
There are those who push back against the 5-fold structure. They challenge the biblical merit of the term leadership altogether, and call instead for “disciple-makers,” but their arguments seem less than compelling. When couched in these broad generic terms it becomes a game of semantics.
I’ll challenge the strong claim that Ephesians 4 is meant to provide the rubric for leadership. However, what the passage does say explicitly, is that these giftings are made available by God in order to equip the saints for works of ministry. Yes, that is disciple making. It is also leadership, and you have to do some crazy acrobatics or employ very thin and skewed definitions to pretend otherwise. I love Claiborne and Perkins’ statement in Follow Me to Freedom, that the response to bad leadership isn’t no leadership, it’s good leadership.
Part 2 of the book takes this chapter on leadership and expounds. Woodward looks at the ways in which the leaders’ missional imaginations can shape culture significantly. He completely reframes the definition of leadership to fall more closely in line with Paul’s exhortation that leaders are present to unleash the potential among the people. It requires humility, listening, releasing control and focusing gifts on empowering others more than accomplishing tasks.
We dive even deeper in Part 3 where each of the five leader types are examined as culture creators. Rather than focusing merely on the apostle, prophet and evangelist to the exclusion of the pastors and teachers – as the growing, “Release the APE” movement sometimes risks doing – JR looks at how each temperament / leadership gifting is equipped to influence missional culture in healthy and holistic ways. Of course, he stresses that this will only be effective when the five are working together, rather than operating from paranoid competition.
The final section of the book brings all the previous parts together in order to consider how the missional culture is embodied in a local context. While there is a substantial amount of theory and theology discussed, very little of the book could be honestly dismissed as too theoretical. That is particularly true in Part 4 which is a sort of “applied sciences” division incorporating all previous discussions.
In places throughout, but especially in the closing chapters, the book does seem to be a bit biased towards larger communities – many of his suggestions would be completely unnecessary and impossible in our small house church. However, I often found myself thinking, “How could this principle be applied to our context?” and “What would it look like to set this expectation in our community now, even though there are only a few families serving together?” Given our larger culture’s tendency to cut-and-paste what others are doing, I’m glad a one-to-one correlation wasn’t feasible.
So, who should read this book?
I would definitely recommend it to pastors, elders, church planters, or others in leadership who are wrestling with the cultural roadblocks to living (rather than just studying) missional faith as a community. I think that the casual reader in an institutional, maintenance mode congregation might come away a bit frustrated. Maybe if they can talk some of those in positions of leadership into reading it with them…but even then, I don’t know.
It isn’t really a “casual reading” type of book…but I don’t think anyone is pretending it is. JR tackles some very complicated material head-on and does so in a remarkably accessible way, all things considered.
As I suggested earlier, I wish I had been able to read this book five years ago. I’ll be using portions of it in my next Academy class on “The Missional Imagination”…since I only have six weeks with these students and have to be very selective with the readings, that’s about as high praise as I can offer.
What would the church look like if everyone in the church used their God-given gifts and talents to equip the rest of the church in such a way that the entire church became more like Jesus? And if the whole church looked more like Jesus, how much more would our neighborhoods and cities look more like heaven? – JR Woodward
Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for the free review copy of this book.