Thoughts on the Missional Movement ~ Part Nine

The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism
and the Precipitation of the Missional Movement

Part Nine: How These Frameworks Play Out in Our Overall Attitudes, Styles of Interaction, and Community Connections

Review and Preview

In Parts Seven and Eight, we looked at two key issues in how the organizations we create either enhance or hinder discipleship.

  • Access to Discipleship Systems – Is our entry/intake system radically inclusive, temporarily tolerant, or radically exclusive?
  • Discipleship Activities – Is our discipleship system grounded in license, liberty, or legalism?

Another way to consider these concerns is how they work (or don’t) to keep people in the game, so to speak. Have we established an open system, a “centered set” that enhances cooperation around what the Holy Spirit is doing in someone’s life, to keep people engaged and cooperating with God’s principles and His providence? Or have we created a closed system, a “bound set” that creates a competitive environment to shut out and shun those who don’t measure up to “God’s standards” (a term we often use to hide our own idolatrous ideals)?

In Part Nine, we’ll look at some details of how these open or closed systems affect individuals, relationships for peers or partner organizations, and community dynamics – again, using images to illustrate the concepts.

Who’s In and Who’s Out? – Discipleship Access Issues

I’d like to revisit the question: How would our church or ministry look if it related to all kinds of people the same ways that Jesus Christ did? Oddly, that question about access to discipleship doesn’t seem to be a question that every Christian organization even wants to answer – at least, not overtly. However, they do demonstrate their answer by the ways they act. And unfortunately, too many churches, ministries, and Christian agencies seem to be about “spiritual eugenics” instead of about welcoming people to find out about Jesus Christ and grow in their faith.

I know … that’s a stark and even shocking metaphor! If you know anything about eugenics, then spiritual eugenics sounds horrible. And you’re right, it is! But, unfortunately, it is also an apt analogy.

The early eugenics movement was supposedly about having a stronger, healthier population. That sounds good, but it devolved into creating idealized standards about purity and performance. And history has recorded how 20th-century movements influenced by eugenics promoted everything from sterilization to euthanization of people from particular races, or with developmental disabilities, or from particular enemy cultures. People who don’t measure up are outsiders. They are devalued and disrespected, marginalized and minimized.

From a missional perspective, this sort of negation of our humanity is unconscionable. It denies any role we would have about being peacemakers. It contradicts our basic mission imperative to disciple all peoples, because all individuals bear the image of God who created us – despite our being fallen, imperfect creatures. I would even go so far to say that this imposition of exclusion is a form of spiritual abuse – misusing spiritual authority to harm others.

What kind of access to discipleship does our environment demonstrate? Here are some questions to explore, and then some of my thoughts on different systems appear in the chart that follows them.

  • What kind of goals do we inspire or squelch in our congregation participants?
  • What main emotional responses does our approach draw out or put into people? Guilt? Shame? Fear? Relief? Sense of safety and protection?
  • What roles do leaders play in shaping the environment? Are leaders too absent, too prominent, too dominant?
  • If we’ve got conditions for attendance, what are they? And where do we get them from? Are they primarily from the Old Testament? Gospels? New Testament?
  • If our leaders and our theology statements quote the Old Testament a lot, how might that mean we are expecting the Church to be more like the theocratic nation of Israel that rules our neighbors, than like a body of sojourning ambassadors in a host culture? Do we expect to give access only to those who comply with the Mosaic Law – or with our doctrinal statements, or our leaders?
  • What about conditions we set for people’s ministry involvement. If some people are discipled by learning through working together, since for them believing starts with belonging, can our organization offer anything to them?
  • How well do we hold truth and love in tension? Are we okay with imperfection? Too relaxed about sin? How do we relate falling short with access to discipleship – if at all?
  • Do we journey with people as they go on a unique walk with Jesus from their starting point or do we expect them to conform to our starting point and our particular programs?
  • Where do challenging people to grow, to develop correctness, and to accept correction fit in with how we relate with one another? Are all of those good things? How might they be overdone and thus badly done?
  • If people come into our group but eventually it is clear that they are not really moving forward, what do we tend to do?

(Click on the chart to bring up a screen that gives a more clear view of the text and images.)

Chart 3 Discipleship Access Key Details

After you’ve considered Chart #3 on Access to Discipleship, think through these questions:

  • What one access approach you feel most describes the congregation you associate with?
  • What aspects of your community’s approach most resonate with its description in the chart? Why do you think that is?
  • What aspects of your community’s approach least resonate with its chart description? Why do you think that is?
  • What other observations do you have about the chart, how it compares and contrasts the three approaches, any descriptions that seem excessive, or perhaps elements that need to be added?

What’s Okay and What’s Not – Discipleship Activities Issues

I’d like to revisit the key questions I posed earlier on discipleship activities: What would people’s journeys toward Jesus Christ look like if they connected with our learning community of disciples? How would/should being part of us affect them in their identity and status, character and values, behaviors and beliefs?

When it comes to patterns our journey could take, there are three basic possibilities that our learning community can promote:

  • Orbit Around. Although there may be lot of movement, ultimately the action is locked into a very narrow arc of activity around the same starting point. Think of a tetherball and pole – it never truly has a forward trajectory, just a repeat circularity.
  • Move Forward. Despite any setbacks, ultimately there is progress ahead to something beyond where we originally were. This kind of trajectory has a starting place, an ending point, and a pathway in between.
  • Sucked In. In this version, the ending point and process of your journey conforms to someone else’s orbit. Think of a whirlpool, where you are swallowed in the vortex of their orbit. So, basically, another person or their program hijacks your journey to conform to theirs.

It may not look like rocket science, but in a way, it actually is. Spiritual transformation should be about movement – and the right kind of movement toward the right goal, even if the exact path may vary.

What kind of disciples do our interactions and learning activities shape? Here are some questions and reflections to explore, followed by a chart with some of my thoughts on these subjects.

  • What kind of follower of Christ does our learning community tend to create, in terms of goals and movement toward them? Regardless of whatever are our overtly stated methods, what does the real “hidden curriculum” infused throughout the education actually dictate that we become like?
  • What roles do other followers play in people’s learning activities and trajectories? Is it hands-off and do your own thing, challenging to change, or forcing to conform?
  • How well do we counterbalance identity, character, and behaviors? Do we integrate them all in our being “in Jesus Christ”? Or is our integration point somewhere, someone, or something else? Do we communicate that all aspects of our being and doing are up for transformation by the Spirit, or not?
  • Which one of these three bumper-sticker theology slogans best describes our overall emphasis:
    • “Come as you are, and be who you are.”
    • “Come as you are, but don’t leave as you came.”
    • “Come as you are, and become what we say.”
  • What are the differences between acceptance of versus toleration toward versus perseverance with people who are different? How do these apply in relating to people who are “in sin”?
  • How do we validate someone’s personhood without validating all of their behaviors?
  • What do you think about this statement? “No trajectory is without turning points, no journey without junctures.”
  • What do you think of using the following four elements for tracking our personal accounts of transformation in Christ – entry, trajectory, journey, and destiny? Is any element not needed, and/or is there some other element that is missing?
  • If you believe the journey pathway is (or should be) the same for all believers, how did you reach that conclusion? Or is it an assumption/presupposition, and not a conclusion?
  • In Acts 15, the question before leaders in the early Church was whether gentiles had to become Jews first – conforming to all the Mosaic Law before they could become followers of Christ. If we seek to make other people become like us before or while they follow Christ, how does that differ from what these Judaizers did?

(Click on the chart to bring up a screen that gives a more clear view of the text and images.)

Chart 4 Discipleship Activities Key Details

After you’ve considered Chart #4 on Discipleship Activities, think through these questions:

  • What one access approach you feel most describes the congregation you associate with?
  • What aspects of your community’s approach most resonate with its description in the chart? Why do you think that is?
  • What aspects of your community’s approach least resonate with its chart description? Why do you think that is?
  • What other observations do you have about the chart, how it compares and contrasts the three approaches, any descriptions that seem excessive, or perhaps elements that need to be added?

Conclusion

I see Parts Seven, Eight, and Nine as providing a kind of capstone on the meaning of missional and why some streams in contemporary North American Christianity may or may not resonate with it. If missional truly is about a paradoxical way that is welcoming and mutually transforming, then it likely won’t appeal to individuals in various other streams who remain committed to the primary approach combination that their stream has been known for, and may clarify and strengthen other streams. In my observation, these divide out as follows:

  • Progressives, Emergents, and Mainlines are most likely welcoming and communally affirming.
  • Missionals, Emergings, and Evangelicals are likely welcoming and mutually transforming.
  • Neo-Reformeds, Conservatives, and Fundamentalists are likely qualifying (or rejecting) and religiously conforming.

Again, let me stress that these approaches aren’t just the attitudes of access and activities for discipleship involving self-identified members of LGBTQ communities – they will be used for anyone and everyone. However, it just so happens that LGBTQ seems to be the current “barometer group” for indicating the environment of pressure then toward change, and what the “spiritual weather” is these days for ministry at the margins of society. They represent a key set of questions about whether their LGBTQ identity trumps an identity in Christ or not, how compatible their alternative subculture’s set of values is with Christian paradigms, and whether various beliefs and behaviors

But, I do believe we could see that change dramatically in the next 10 to 15 years. As denominational stances on LGBTQ solidify, other groups in our increasingly pluralistic society may become key indicators of our actual discipleship approaches. For instance, perhaps immigrant and refugee groups will come to the forefront, with questions about how racial or ethnic identity meshes with identity in Christ. Are partial value sets from other background cultures and world religions compatible with Christianity, and how do we tell? What beliefs and behaviors from one’s home culture and prior religion can be represented or adapted without harm to a Christian paradigm?

We will always face complex questions about Christianity and culture. The core issue for those who are missional will be whether we continue to engage such questions and embrace our neighbors who bring them to us, or withdraw due to culture shock or spiritual anemia. I hope and pray we keep on a forward trajectory as people of peace who, to paraphrase Brother Maynard, “Live our faith and share our life.”

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
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