Thoughts on the Missional Movement ~ Part Two

The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism
and the Precipitation of the Missional Movement

Part Two: Six Streams in the “Missional Movement”

Missionary ~ Missional

A lot of individuals and groups use the term missional these days, but mean some vastly different things by it. For some, it’s about The Latest Program or add-on feature – a buzzword designed to attract people who are into what’s new and happening. For others, they seem to use it as a “big tent” concept for any group that holds to being something akin now that mirrors what evangelicalism was before.

For others (like myself), it’s the inverse of being a cross-cultural missionary where we’d go overseas, learn the language and culture, find the “people of peace,” and disciple them and others. Similarly but turned inside out, the missional-minded disciple moves in his/her own country where the Spirit leads, roots into a local neighborhood, listens and learns from the people right there, becomes a “person of peace” who welcomes all with respect and justice, and disciples others.

So, what sounds like group compatibility when we hear “missional” may actually turn out to be irreconcilable differences between underlying paradigms … It’s confusing, as the ways we perceive the world just aren’t the same, even if we’re using the same word to describe our approach.

As I said at the end of Part One, my work on analyzing streams within what was formerly known as evangelicalism is not based in book reports or reading the analysis of others. I ended up right in the middle of this shift. And, the way I’m “wired,” the confusion of people sounding in harmony but acting in dischord created big questions that I wanted to have answered as part of an even larger puzzle that I wanted to have solved. So, I’ll start off this post with a bit of history about how this paradigm shift has manifested itself over the past 20 years in the U.S. From there, I’ll lay out my perspective on the six streams that have shaken out of the “missional movement.” (Or, should I say, seem to be poured into it?)

Historical Background

An important book written during the early fragmentation of evangelicalism into streams is In Search of Authentic Faith: How Emerging Generations are Transforming the Church by Steve Rabey (Waterbrook Press, 2001). Rabey is a former Associated Press reporter. He is also one of the very few Boomers over 40 who participated in all the formative conferences in the GenX-emerging-postmodern ministry movement that was catalyzed around the Young Leaders Network. (Young Leaders was launched by Leadership Network and their first conference was in 1996.)

Rabey captures well the decade of shifts in the 1990s, and he highlights a range of people involved. This is particularly intriguing, because there was no way of knowing at the time that some of the more obscure people would potentially become Christian “celebrities” in their particular evangelical/missional stream, and that some of the seeming celebrities might fade into obscurity. Fascinating to read his research and conclusions, with a decade more of hindsight to evaluate now what he was seeing then!

So – back to the Young Leaders Network. This nationwide network was started by Leadership Network as a response both to (1) the changeover in leaders from Boomers to GenXers (or more accurately, to the “stained glass ceiling” that Boomers put in place to block Xers from leadership), and (2) the cultural changes from modernity to postmodernity. In those early days, this was usually called “GenX ministry,” then that morphed into “postmodern ministry,” and then was called “emerging ministry.” Young Leaders eventually and officially became called Emergent with their own site (Emergent Village) after a brief stint starting in April 2001 as an in-between network called Terra Nova. It focused on arts, justice, leadership, and theology, and those themes were integrated into Emergent.

Emergents, Progressives

Emergents have turned out to use (in my opinion) a more heavily deconstructive, theoretical approach to theologies and ministries that they see befitting the postmodern paradigm shift. In my experiences of the past 10 years since Emergent started, men and women who consider themselves as holistic, paradoxical, and missional have had a difficult time connecting with people in the Emergent movement. The dominant information processing styles between the two streams are quite different. Emergent’s emphases on abstract concepts, systematic theology, and dissection through deconstruction don’t sit particularly well with a missional emphasis on concrete action, organic systems, and transformation through reconstruction. Even though Emergent had a lot of the “right parts” (arts, justice, leadership, theology), those weren’t always integrated or cross-pollinated. I remember having and hearing critiques like, “Your art project was a separate installation from the rest of the leadership events – why was that? Do you use arts in your justice work, or do you promote justice in your leadership theory?”

Perhaps the biggest hang-up for Missionals is that Emergents seem to orbit around deconstruction and dialogue, so there may have been a lot of apparent activity but ultimately little forward trajectory. There was and is some common ground, though, in the willingness in both streams to be creative and experiment with ministry forms and structures. Also, Missionals and Emergents and Progressives all have an interest in social transformation as part of a Kingdom theology. Still, Emergent seems to have far more in common overall with Progressives and post-liberals – the next generations originally from a mainline church or otherwise liberal theological bent. These two streams seem to resonate on the views about specific political issues that relate with social transformation.

But I do have to agree, though, with something my friend Becky Garrison tweeted recently:

“@SarahNMoon: Progressive Christians more than any other group I’ve been a part of canNOT accept criticism. The worst at listening.”

Becky commented that this observation was “spot on.” And I’d say that I see a significant lack of listening as common in my experiences overall with Progressives, along with Emergents and Neo-Reformeds. Just sayin’ … It too often seems their minds are made up, and there is no room to dialogue. Which would mean there’s not necessarily room for productive collaboration. I find that ironic, as I hear Progressives and Emergents talk about change often enough, but don’t always seem to want to listen to those they think need to be changed. (I “get it.” I spent a number of years as a politically correct liberal – which doesn’t mean I’m now a politically correct conservative. I’m something else, a third-way “cultural creative” who doesn’t fit well in any polarized camp.)

Evangelicals, Emergings

And, speaking of change, that may be what Emergents and Progressives find as common ground with two other streams: the more classic post-Evangelicals and the more ministry-experiment-minded Emergings. Both the post-Evangelical and Emerging streams hold a lot in common with more mainstream evangelicalism helmed by the Builder and Boomer generations. But, both these kinds of “missional” Evangelicals and Emergings are generally more reliant on the changeover to GenX leaders and now are moving toward Millennials. They are also more culture-savvy and attempting to adjust at least some to be more contemporary in styles of worship and ministry.

A story that I think is relevant here comes from a discussion I had almost 15 years ago with someone I connected with at one of the Young Leader conferences in the late 1990s. My friend observed that East Coast GenXers/postmoderns seemed more willing to experiment with theology but not with church structures. Meanwhile, West Coast GenXers/postmoderns were the opposite – more willing to mess with ministry methods and structures but not experiment doctrinally very much.

So, in their own ways, Left and Right Coasts kept relative continuity with the overall heritage of evangelicalism – but with some “pomo upgrades.” In fact, sometimes these updated forms of evangelicalism refer to themselves as “vintage” churches, having enough continuity with the past to be comfortable, but enough orientation toward change to (hopefully) be survivable in the face of unavoidable global shifts.

It seems to me that Evangelicals and Emergings are more on the post-conservative end of the theological spectrum. They may also be more conservation-/continuity-minded in terms of church organizational structures. (For instance, more into hierarchical leadership pyramids than likely found on the more ecumenical and “flat structured leadership style” in the post-liberal wing of things.)

So, for those reasons, they may be relatively uncomfortable with the Progressives and Emergents. But can the “real Missional” maybe be a moderating influence to bring all of these together? That’s a good question, and Part Three will focus in on that – also potentially including Neo-Reformeds in the missional mix.


Another fragment from Young Leaders became what is often referred to now as the Young, Restless, Reformed (YRR) movement of Neo-Reformed theologians, pastors, and church planters. Unfortunately, some members of this movement have become known for their authoritarian leaders, high levels of staff turnover (frequently due to internal issues of conflict and control), overuse of church discipline, rigid gender roles, theological legalism, and lawyer-vetted membership covenants that are dicey and problematic. (Hence a provocative name for people of this theological persuasion was coined by the author team of Dee Parsons and Deb Martin of The Wartburg Watch – a “spiritual abuse survivors” blog that focuses on cultural trends affecting the Church. They call these aggressive and too-often spiritually abusive Neo-Reformed types the “Calvinistas.”)

Also, there are reports online of YRR leaders going into existing churches and non-profits, and “converting” or conforming them to their particular point of view. These reports have shown up primarily in spiritual abuse survivor blogs. I’ve been watching this for a few years now, and my gut instinct is that the number has been increasing significantly. What this means is that despite a church name or doctrinal statement “sounding” evangelical or missional, subterfuge may have gone on underneath. I expect this practice to become the subject of exposés and even deeper documentation over the next few years – perhaps even lawsuits – in an effort to contain the negative impact of this aggressive version of Reformed faith and practice.

Neo-Reformeds often apply the term missional to who they are and what they do. However, I see significant differences in the deepest levels of paradigms between them and Missionals in how they process information and their subsequent views of salvation, sanctification, and stance toward culture. I have posted an intermediate-level profile analyzing some of these key features in Definition and Description of the Term “Calvinistas.” (See especially the sections on Idealism, Power Structures, and Mission and Stance Toward Culture.)

These features may look similar on the surface to what passes as “missional,” and they use language that sounds the same. But, actually, when you look deeper, their paradigms embody critical differences that produce Neo-Reformeds discipleship systems that are irreconcilable with those of Missionals. (More is forthcoming in Part Three on my perspective of four distinct and incompatible models of congregational approaches to discipleship systems.) And so, out of all the streams, I think Neo-Reformeds have the least probability of surviving as part of a cohesive, long-term missional collaboration or movement.


In my thinking, the “real” Missional stream provides a hub for a Kingdom-oriented movement that is distinctly holistic, paradoxical, and cross-cultural. To copy-and-paste from my missional synchroblog post of 2008, some of the critical values for followers of Christ in a missional paradigm are these:

  • We value integrating all systems for biblical, theological, and cultural study for us to learn how best to interact in ways that allow contextualization to any culture. In part, contextualization means letting the everyday issues and concerns and needs of people in our neighborhood or other social setting create the agenda for our responses. However, within that, we will seek to empower instead of rescue, show compassion without compromise, and come alongside instead of control.
  • We value ongoing relational-incarnational presence within our neighborhoods over the occasional event-attractional possibilities at some other location.
  • We value setting all theological divisions and disciplines in a larger framework of redemptive transformation. This requires us to develop strategies, structures, models, and methods with sustainability, anti-toxicity, and cycles of change and rest involving persons, cultures, and the earth.
  • We value setting all lifestyle issues in a larger framework of respect and mutuality where individual and corporate participation are always held in dynamic tension. This includes sustaining our community by considering the potential consequences for future generations of our current decisions. Also, as a learning community, we seek to listen to one another, discern as a body, and learn to interpret together the observations and perspectives of all members.
  • We value God’s providential provisions to use through the gifts of both individuals and the community. Every person “leads” through their spiritual gifts, though not all are called to be leaders. The contributions of any individual are never quenched by the group for the sake of conformity, and the actions of any individual are never allowed to lead to chaos in the group for no good reason.
  • Life is meant to move toward Christlike transformation as individuals, and toward its communal manifestation as Kingdom Culture as groups. Therefore, discipleship is the largest framework for transformation because it includes and leads both to evangelism and social activism.

What does all this mean – why is it even important? If we value embodying/incarnating Christlikenss in our relationships in the community and not just in the church, then our stances toward salvation, sanctification, and society are all significant elements in that. And, as we swirl about in the middle of the vortex of a changing cultural context, these stances need even more clarification to make sense in the world as it now is.

That’s the general importance of it all. More specifically, I think the paradoxical missional paradigm could better serve as a “hub” for interconnecting individuals, ministries, and churches from all the other streams, when I just don’t see the reverse as true. The Church no longer is dominant in the Western world. And no other post-Christendom fragment is poised to create and conserve a new kind of common ground like the missional paradigm can. It has the inherent potential for becoming a movement. And a movement has “big trajectory” that goes somewhere, not simply supplies a “big tent” where a spectrum of people gather.

These times are exciting, but scary; poignant, but risky. How will we in these diverse streams potentially integrate our differences as strengths, instead of only as sources for discord? Which all means there is likely even more sifting and shifting ahead …

To be continued in Part Three: Attractions and Repulsions in Forming a Coherent/Cohesive Movement.

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