Thoughts on the Missional Movement ~ Part One

SERIES INTRODUCTION. This week, I will be launching into the final edit of the first in a series of five curriculum books that I’ve been working on for a very long time. The main topics in this doorway book are culture, creativity, and compositing teams of people with different strengths to forge better collaborations. I see teamwork as one way to navigate the choppy waters of the world as it now is, a way to expand the surface area of the raft we float on together in that ocean of uncertainty.

Problem is, collaboration doesn’t work well when there are deeply-rooted, irreconcilable differences between potential ministry partners. It’s not that we can’t find a level of appropriate tolerance in letting people be where they are, not where we wish they were. It’s about what to do when conflict occurs not in the content of our perceptions but in the deepest processes we use to make those perceptions. These are what keep us from linking together effectively … and maybe that disconnection is something that we cannot or even should not try to overcome.

This three-part series explores some key aspects of how the Church in the US has fragmented during the modern-to-postmodern paradigm shift, what the field looks like in its missional re-formation, and what this may mean in very practical terms for our discipleship systems and collaborations.

UPDATE: This turned out to be a nine-part series.

Thoughts on the Missional Movement – Series Links:

  • Part 1 – Making Taxonomies in the Midst of Transformation
  • Part 2 – Six Streams in the “Missional Movement”
  • Part 3 – Principles of Paradox, and Magnetic Attractions and Repulsions in the Making of a “Missional Movement”
  • Part 4 – When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: The Way We Process Information and What We Value Create “Irreconcilable Differences”
  • Part 5 – When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: “Irreconcilable Differences” on Operating Systems for Discipleship
  • Part 6 – When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: Operating Systems of Legalism or License Instead of Liberty
  • Part 7 – The Big Picture of Features and Frameworks in Our Discipleship Systems – Approaches to Discipleship Access
  • Part 8 – The Big Picture of Features and Frameworks in Our Discipleship Systems – Approaches to Discipleship Activities
  • Part 9 – How These Frameworks Play Out in Our Overall Attitudes, Styles of Interaction, and Community Connections

The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism
and the Precipitation of the Missional Movement

Part One: Making Taxonomies in the Midst of Transformation


I had a chance to teach recently about how the global modern-to-postmodern paradigm shift has created a form of culture shock for ministries, as we fumble around for how to adjust. Part of that adjustment involves dealing with radical changes in the landscape of ministry culture.

It used to be familiar to us. We knew our way around, and who we could count on or not as far as ministry partnerships. But all this fragmentation of what used to be “evangelicalism” has made for a lot of uncertainty over the emerging landscape of “missional” ministry in the West, where the Church no longer drives the culture. Part One in this series looks at how different people have been viewing this fragmentation and re-formation, so we can consider later what differences this might even make in our everyday ministry and systems of discipleship.

Practical Issues in Fragmentation and Re-Formation

Evangelicalism has undergone radical changes over the last 20 years, especially with the changeover to younger generations in leadership. This modern-to-postmodern shift in cultures and paradigms is still underway. So, the breaking apart of the old evangelicalism and the bonding together of the new is still ongoing. Being in the middle of the chaos makes it harder to interpret, though it is important to be watching and tracking what happens, because it has very practical implications for ministry collaborations. To be specific:

  • The fragmentation helps us understand why people and groups who used to be on board with our ministry no longer are. “The paradigm shift causes loyalty drift.” It’s that same old problem of paradigm conflict, where we think we’re talking about the same thing with someone else, but it turns out we only have similar language – not the same underlying beliefs. (For instance, some theological cults will use the term grace, but mean something utterly contrary to the gospel by it because their entire system is one of works salvation and legalism sanctification.)
  • Meanwhile, the re-formation of streams in evangelicalism also means that new, unexpected partnerships could develop, because we now find enough common ground with a person or group that previously would have written us off (or vice versa). For lack of a better metaphor at the moment, it’s a marriage of compatibility, not of necessity.
  • This break-up problem and new-partner opportunity inherent in a deep shake-up and shift should be reason enough to keep us on our toes. If we want to survive, we need to get an elevated view of the new landscape. In fact, this will be essential to the process of continued spiritual discernment, both for us as individuals and as groups – ministry teams, congregations, and communities.

Ways Other Observers Integrated Their Categories

Figuring out the new lay of the land has drawn a number of people to create “taxonomies” (i.e., organizational schemes) over the past decade. Different taxonomies use different “integration points” as lenses or key features in devising the main categories for their classification system.

Part of what I find most intriguing about attempts to understand the “emerging evangelicalism” while it is still in the process of breaking up and breaking out, is that the integration points aren’t what we might expect. They aren’t just the traditional theological distinctives – like Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, mainline, liberal, charismatic, conservative, Pentecostal, fundamental. They’re often focused on other things, such as:

  • Roles of leaders within the Church.
  • A church’s or movement’s stance toward society.
  • Ministry strategies and structures for shaping the organization.

Here are some examples of “taxonomies of emergence” from the mid- to late-2000 decade. Many of these are referred to in DJ Chuang’s post from January 2008, rounding up various approaches to interpreting categories, layers, or streams in the emerging church. At the time, I read all the links he posted, and others I found on my own, along with all their comments. It was a large amount of material, which goes to show this has been an issue people were concerned about. (I realize in listing these now that all the links are to men, most of whom are church pastors, seminary professors, and/or consultants. I’m not quite sure what all of that means, but I suspect it is an important observation.)

Anyway, whether they are titled “emerging,” or “evangelical,” or “missional,” the analyses are useful for figuring out where key observers perceived these branches of the church were heading, and where they actually now are heading.

  • In January 2006, Ed Stetzer used three categories of connection between church and culture – Relevants, Reconstructionists, Revisionists (to which was added Relevant Reformed) – in Understanding the Emerging Church.”
  • Here is Scott McKnight’s attempt in January 2007 to sort out Five Streams of the Emerging Church by five different roles or activity emphases (prophetic, postmodern, praxis-oriented, post-evangelical, political).
  • In January 2008, Wess Daniels used four philosophies and organizational models – Deconstructionist, Pre-Modern, Open Anabaptist, Foundationalist – in Four Models of Emerging Churches.”
  • David Fitch focused in on the missional branch of evangelicalism in January 2009 to differentiate between the Reformed, Anabaptist, and Pragmatic Missional “twigs” through the lens of theology and ministry strategy. [UPDATE FEBRUARY 2014: This post is now in the archive section of Dr. Fitch’s blog and can be found at this “Reclaiming the Mission” link.]
  • Here is how Michael Defazio saw the Evangelical-Missional Family Tree layout in May 2009, based on a combination of theological stance and missional ministry structures.

Two Taxonomies I’ve Worked On

I’ve been working on several taxonomies myself. One distinguishes differences between toxic and cultic organizations. I am not talking about just the theological sense of “cult,” i.e., anti-orthodox/heretical beliefs, but in the sociological sense of a totalitarian and authoritarian “cultic” system that dictates values, beliefs, and behaviors to its members – and punishes them for any lack of conformity.

Another of my taxonomies is to sort out missional streams in what used to be called “evangelicalism.” I believe this task is important, since the modern-to-postmodern global paradigm shift makes the term evangelical not so useful any more. Personally, I see evangelicalism fragmenting and re-forming into six streams that tend to identify themselves as missional. These six are so different in some ways that it’s hard to believe they are all “missional.” Maybe this just means that the task of taxonomies does not end because there is always some degree of breaking up and connecting together that goes on in the Church.

My taxonomy of missional streams is based in a comprehensive paradigm system that looks at information processing styles, values, theologies, organizational strategies and infrastructures, acceptable lifestyles, cultural systems, and collaboration styles. (See my missional synchroblog post for an overview of the process I use in profiling paradigms.) Given the time I have available at the moment, the best I can do is offer an “executive summary” overview and mini-profiles of these six streams in Part Two.

Before I do that, though, one last point to emphasize: I have not developed these profiles by doing book reports. I’ve been in the middle of the break-up/come-together process as it has been happening, especially from the mid-1990s onward. So, my work isn’t theoretical, it’s experiential.

I have seen the fragmentation of evangelicalism first-hand, and watched for indicators in the precipitation of what is becoming the missional movement. I have acquaintances and friends in ALL SIX of these streams: Progressives, Emergents, Emergings, Evangelicals, Missionals, and Neo-Reformeds. As best I understand, they can be sorted into these six paradigm groupings regardless of their particular overall theology – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, Charismatic, Pentecostal.

So, my conclusions are based in reflections on my interactions with people I know, and on experiences of churches, ministries, and events that represent these diverse streams. In fact, near the end of my missional synchroblog post there are details about an amazing example of a missional network. I’ve worked with for 10 years now. So, if nothing else, check out the case study on the vision and values of the “Learning Trail” – which eventually became the non-profit known as Matryoshka Haus. (A matryoshka is a set of Russian “nesting dolls” where we find something else hiding inside a larger component.) The international, intergenerational teams from Matryoshka Haus have catalyzed a wide range of projects for personal and social change:

  • The Doxology art exhibition to challenge people’s perceptions of Jesus.
  • The Truth Isn’t Sexy campaign dealing with the demand side of prostitution.
  • Sweet Notions Design Camps to empower women who are survivors of human trafficking or homelessness.
  • The Network of Entrepreneurial Talent (NET) to support creativity and networking for social entrepreneurs.
  • The Transformational Index, a system of tools based in biblical values, for use in project goal selection and development, implementation, evaluation of transformational impact on individuals and groups, and revision for sustainability.

So, this “incubator network” represents a leading edge in missional start-ups for social transformation. It includes both men and women as peer partners, and people from multiple generations and different cultural backgrounds. Matryoshka Haus has become my benchmark organization for evaluating the meanings and functions of being missional. In my opinion, if we have a similar underlying paradigm to the one live out in Matryoshka Haus, we’ll be able to composite collaboration teams that are very likely culturally fluid and highly creative, but not compromising biblical values and standards.

To be continued in Part Two: Six Streams in the “Missional” Movement.