Thoughts on the Missional Movement ~ Part Three

The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism
and the Precipitation of the Missional Movement

Part Three: Principles of Paradox, and Magnetic Attractions
and Repulsions in the Making of a “Missional Movement”

Part One looked at how different people have been viewing the fragmentation and re-formation of the “missional” movement. Part Two expanded on how there are six streams in what seems to be the next generation after “evangelical” – Emergents, Progressives, Evangelicals, Emergings, Neo-Reformeds, and Missionals – and how they seem to be identify with the “missional movement.”

As I mentioned in an earlier part of this series, I have been in all six streams (or their earlier prototypes) during my Christian experience. By that, I don’t mean just an occasional visit now and again, but extended periods with years of participation. As I’ve experienced a stream by immersing in it, I’ve come to see the pluses and minuses of it, and made adjustments. I think missional will end that series. It seems to integrate more of the pluses of all the other streams and fewer of the minuses. It’s complex, but it makes sense to me. Actually, I’ve been more missional than I realized for nearly 40 years … so, no wonder I didn’t fit in so well in so very many ministry situations before!

And since missional is my home base for “faith and practice,” I’m curious about how elements within these streams might connect or disconnect in a larger missional movement. So, my new questions arise (as always) more from reflections on concrete experiences I’ve had as an insider in them – not from reading books on abstract theory about how movements work or how things should be in the “ideal” church. And right now, I’m wrestling mostly with questions about where various streams will find their entry points into marrying with the missional movement, and what points or perspectives will prove barriers.

Here in Part Three, we’ll explore how “missional” often equates to a “third way” of paradox – those situations where polar opposites co-exist, and on the surface of things that doesn’t seem to make sense, but underneath it actually does. (I need to tell you up front why it’s paradox is crucial to understand, and that’s, because the ongoing worldwide paradigm shift is moving us toward paradox as the dominant way of processing life. If we don’t “get it” soon about paradox, we’re sunk. We won’t be able to navigate the present or the future.) We’ll also look at how paradoxes create “missional magnetic impulses” of attraction and repulsion that affect whether these streams can form a movement in the long run or not. In Part Four, we’ll look at how various discipleship systems and stances toward culture typical within the six streams compare and contrast, and provide either bridges or barriers for collaboration. So … take it slow, here we go!

Introducing Paradox as the Hub for a Missional “Movement”

The missional stream has gradually drawn in individuals and groups originally found in the other five streams in the post-evangelical world. That’s a natural part of the fragmentation and re-formation process. There is something they resonate with that draws them into a missional mindset – or helps them discover they already were missional but didn’t label themselves as such before. But what in particular makes missional have a wide appeal, even when those draw toward it can’t find complete agreement with it?

Perhaps the key thing is that the missional paradigm is very paradoxical. It has a strong “both/and” way of processing information. That gives it the possibility of having a larger base to work from – because it doesn’t have to choose EITHER this OR that polar opposite when Scripture gives a base embracing both. It’s more holistic, more systems oriented. Here are some examples of these missional paradoxes:

  • Missional has strong stances on both personal morality and social ethics, so it doesn’t really fit the traditional dichotomy of either conservative or liberal.
  • It is comfortable working in an in-between zone where individuals are always seen in the context of social connections – so it is neither strict individualism or communalism.
  • It sees disciples as being sojourner guests in a culture who also act as ambassador servants to/in their host culture as in-person demonstrations of the Kingdom of Heaven incarnating here on earth. So, it is neither isolationist (separating itself from culture as if we were not called to serve) or dominionist (trying to control culture as if we were not called to sojourn).

Do those parallel tracks make sense, even though they don’t typically appear in the modernist Church as it has been for the last century especially? As I see it, missional paradox often looks like a “third way” that bypasses a lot of the conventional labels. But it also gives a more balanced and participatory framework. I like to think of paradox as creating a large “LEGO hub” that can serve as a landing site for many different kinds of aspects from other streams without it being too contradictory. It can host a more comprehensive and more coherent movement precisely because of paradox.

The Problems of Paradox …

However, many people have trouble navigating paradoxes. After all, the Western world of the last 500 years has been focused on an “either/or” paradigm – which is about as opposite as you can get to a both/and perspective. Either/or wants to divide things apart to analyze and categorize them; both/and wants to hold things together to see the relationships in systems. Either/or reduces things to their component parts; both/and keeps them in their whole-being state.

Another way to consider paradoxes is as those conundrums where two things look like they should not co-exist, but in fact they do. Physics, for instance, has light as involving both particles and waves. Biology has natural systems where processes of living and dying go on simultaneously. Theological paradox gives us a way to understand that Jesus Christ is both God and human yet without sin. It’s the way that allows us to live within the tension of being both sinners and saints, who are broken image bearers yet shining shards simultaneously, and capable of both great good and horrific harm.

And when I talk about tension, that is a crucial point. Either/or demands that we pick one polar opposite as if they were options; both/and requires us to reflect on both opposites together and act accordingly. To be holistic and paradoxical in an either/or world is just as excruciating as it will be to live as a dissector and reductionist in a both/and world. The way the world is changing toward paradox will lead to relief for those who’ve been afflicted by the dividing pressures of modernity, and to affliction for those who been relieved by postmodernity of their prior position of cultural dominance.

A final note here: To be clear as possible, paradox is NOT the fusion of all things into a single essence that collapses all differences – rather, it is a view that sees things that may be distinct but not separate, two polar opposites co-existing in one person or thing. It is neither Eastern or Western, but far closer to a biblical Hebrew mindset.

So, the sooner we understand the biblical basis for paradox and get this principle on our spiritual radar, the more we will recognize it in complementary truths from Scripture that we may have thought were contradictory. And then the more accurately we can study and “exegete” our emerging paradoxical host cultures in order to “share our life and live our faith” more fully and faithfully in them.

Klyne Snodgrass on Paradox and Living “Between Two Truths”

Speaking of biblical, let me share the best quote I’ve found to explain biblical paradox and living in this state of tension. This quote is not easy reading, but I do believe it explains and illustrates paradox relatively well. Please read it carefully for what it does say and what it does not say. Read it several times, see what you think it means and doesn’t mean … and from there, we’ll conclude by looking at how paradox sets up a situation of both attraction to and repulsion from the missional mindset.

In the mid-1990s, I shared a book excerpt from Between Two Truths by Klyne Snodgrass for a newsletter to Christians involved in HIV/AIDS ministry work – certainly a ministry field filled with tensions of various kinds. I gave it a short introduction (included here) and then the quote:

Sooner or later, involvement in HIV ministry brings new tensions into our lives. Seemingly opposite, irreconcilable priorities nag and nibble away at us. Things like doing personal ministry involvement “versus” getting involved with social action on HIV-related issues. Or it heightens the contrast between two realities we already know but sometimes try to submerge: we are both sinner and saint.

How do we resolve such conundrums? What resources has God provided to live in the middle of these everyday situations that threaten at times to pull us apart?

Not all tensions are bad, says Klyne Snodgrass, who offers many helpful insights in his book, Between Two Truths: Living with Biblical Tensions (Zondervan, 1990, and reprinted more recently by Wipf & Stock) The following excerpt is from chapter 2, “A Framework for Tension,” in a section entitled, “Peaceful and Creative Tension.”

As C.F.D. Moule put it, the Christian faith is characterized by a “peaceful and creative tension.” The words, at first glance, do not seem to go together, but they accurately describe the New Testament message.

Tension in the Christian life is not like a tightrope where we must fear falling off either side. There would be no peace in that. A more appropriate image is a stringed instrument. Properly attached at the two right places, the instrument can be played. If a string is left loose, music cannot be produced. If stretched too tightly, the string will break.

Neither does such talk of tension in Christian living refer to anxiety, tenseness, or being destroyed by conflicting options. Nor is there reference to uncertainty, relativity, or straddling the fence. …

[In] the New Testament, the message of tension within the Christian faith is essentially a discussion of the grace of God. That is why the tension within the Christian faith is first of all peaceful. It is based on the grace of God that has been revealed in Christ. Here is the foundation for life.

Grace is never just pure gift, however; it is also a call to responsibility, and this is why the tension is creative.

Our peace has its own struggles. If grace tells us, “You are God’s child,” it also instructs us, “Now live like it.” We have for too long viewed faith as something we “got” at some point, but our relationship with God is a process of living with him. Therefore, the tensions we experience become the stage on which our faith is given creative expression. Working through our struggles and the complexities of life allows us to grow as individuals. …

[L]ife with Christ [isn’t] a simplistic existence. Those who think they can encompass or master life in Christ are in for a surprise. As one person put it, Jesus is an inspiring and disturbing presence. He inspires us and comforts us, but he also takes us apart and disturbs us. God accepts us as we are, which is a source of great comfort. But soon, if we are at all attentive, his presence becomes a convicting and transforming power forcing change, sometimes even painful change. As that change is effected, we know once again the comfort of grace, but the process is not over. Again and again God comforts and disturbs; comforts and disturbs. …

Accepting tension allows us to relax and accept life as it is. … Accepting tension will not remove the competing forces, but it does allow us to tell the truth about our lives. Christian maturity, then, requires that we live honestly with biblical tensions.

I’ve not found anyone who says it better about paradox than Klyne Snodgrass does in this book. It helped me understand that for every God-given mandate there is empowerment. For every temptation, a way of escape. For every “embassy” He establishes, He gives fortitude to endure. As Klyne Snodgrass suggests, may we be doubly anchored and cinched up rightly tight so our “string” can “sing” for God’s glory!

Magnetic Attractions: Connecting from Streams into a Missional “Movement”

Okay – so, let’s assume that there are many in-between stances in missional that appear to be logical contradictions, but actually are paradoxes. So, if people from other streams are initially drawn into the missional paradigm, it is likely based in an attraction to a half-of-a-paradox position that is most similar to their home stream. Here is a set of basic examples I see where the five other streams find some degree of common ground with the missional movement.

  • Emergents and Progressives tend to resonate more with the social transformation aspects found in the missional movement. They often notice organizational, systems forms of evil that lead to injustice, and they respond.
  • Evangelicals and Emergings and YRRs (Neo-Reformeds) tend to resonate more with the personal salvation aspects of missional theology. They often notice personal problems people are having, and they respond.

Given the profiles I provided of these various streams in Part Two, what other points of connection or attraction do you see? (You didn’t think you’d get away with no homework, did you?)

Magnetic Repulsions: Disintegrating a Missional Movement back into Separate Streams

Some who previously considered themselves “missional” find they don’t really fit there, and are leaving. That’s also a natural process in the cycles of fragmentation and re-formation that go with a global paradigm shift.

And there are also various kinds of disagreement among these six streams. Many of the points of contention deal with a specific stance toward culture or on cultural issues. For instance:

  • The missional movement typically demonstrates the parity (equal value) of men and women in the Kingdom.
  • This contrasts with some groups that are more committed to gender complementarity (especially the Neo-Reformeds, often Evangelicals, and sometimes Emergings). Complementarianism holds that men and women have very different roles in home, church, and society, but the basic difference is that men are to lead and women are to respond. In some of the more concentrated versions, this view leads to patriarchy, where women are supposed to be subservient to men in all realms of life. This patriarchalism view seems more prevalent among Neo-Reformeds.
  • Others hold to an egalitarian view (especially Progressives and Emergents), where men and women are equals with equal access and opportunity in terms of home, society, and ministry service.

Missional isn’t exactly a muddy middle way, but it seems to me there is a different emphasis. It is more general about men and women being peers in partnership for ministry service and in community, than about specific gender roles in home, church, and society (which easily lead into the same old debates over power politics of gender). I’d suggest it is possible to demonstrate gender parity, yet not be either a complementarian or an egalitarian. (For an example, see this sort post from David Fitch on Why I am Not an Egalitarian: Postmodernity Did it To Me.) Maybe that’s because the missional integration point is living out the Kingdom and ministry, not culture and politics. BUT the missional way often doesn’t coincide with what is “politically correct” for left or right, liberal or conservative. So, missional gender parity may not go far enough for the egalitarians’ tastes and it may go too far for the complementarians – and so set up an eventual repulsion away from missional for some individuals and groups.

Similar homework: Given the profiles in Part Two, what other possible points of disconnection could you see between various streams and missional paradoxy?

Key Points in Review

  • Paradox is a “both/and” way of processing sets of issues or things that seem like they should be separate, but in reality are connected.
  • This makes a paradoxical system more holistic … it keeps all the parts intact instead of dissected off.
  • The postmodern global paradigm shift is moving us toward a more paradoxical mindset, so we need to at least understand it – and especially where it resonates with biblical principles and practices – even if we don’t fully embrace the emerging paradoxy.
  • A paradoxical perspective creates the probability of both attractions and repulsions simultaneously to people who hold other views.

Last thought for this post: We are in difficult times. This paradigm shift turns things upside down for everyone. We find that our perspectives are incomplete. Our former touchstones of security and our positions of power disappear. We face culture shock, grief, and even depression from the stresses of change. Hopefully we can find grace toward both ourselves and others to learn how better to navigate the world as it now is …

Part Four concludes this series on the missional movement by focusing on possibilities for working together among various elements from the six streams. It will consider missional paradoxes of discipleship and culture, and then detail two sets of ministry approaches that seem to create more probability of fragmentation than collaboration. These include the set of (1) incompatible discipleship systems of welcoming and affirming, welcoming and mutually transforming, welcoming and conforming, and rejecting and condemning; and (2) incompatible cultural systems of legalism, liberty, and license.

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