Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Missional.... Those emergents and their lingo

Missional, when I first heard it, sounded like mis-speak. It's not a word according to the dictionary and my newly downloaded Firefox upgrade spell checker (thank you, thank you, thank you Mozilla). But it's certainly a buzz word in emergent circles so I toss it out here for consideration.

Do you know what it means? What do you think its definition is? What should it be? If you were to guess its meaning, what ideas does it conjure?

The word mission has clearly been a big part of my biographical lexicon. The whole idea of missions appealed to nearly everything about me as a young twenty-something: to be a blessing to the nations as God has blessed me (us); to do the most noble, rightest, goodest, truest act, not for money or even for this-world's glory, but for God, for eternity, for truth (and to keep decent human beings out of eternal flames and gnashing of teeth) - well how could you beat that as an ENFP? The only better combo is mission and Irish rock star. (Freaking gorgeous....)

The point is (where were we again?) that the ideals of "mission" appeal to an innate desire to be of good use to others. Today's missional Christians have expanded the mission of God to global warming, the environment, voting for the occasional democrat, serving the poor, building homes for Habitat for Humanity, giving away groceries to the poor, free ESL lessons, day-care for single mothers and more. They've added a social justice vision to the idea of missions, but the heart beats the same blood.

The insidious side of the missions appeal is the need to be the one bringing the help, ergo, the one who is doing the glorious work. When the task is combined with an unwitting sense of superiority (no matter how humbly cloaked) the experience of mission Dei (I can use Latin too) can lapse into dangerous territory: the land of "I know more than you, what you need for you."

Keren, in the comments in the previous post on the "pursuit of happiness" pointed to an article by John Barlow where he states:
Having a sense of mission has served me extremely well, even better than I thought it would when I wrote Adult Principle Number 15 and bound myself to purpose rather than its by-product. Often I would have been hard-pressed to define mine and it has certainly taken on many different manifestations in the course of my careers, but I have taken a lot of happiness from a sense - often grandiose and sometimes illusory - that I am, by my various actions, helping create a future that will be more free, more tolerant, more open, and more just.
And herein lies the rub. We do take a lot of pleasure in being of use (grandiose and illusory even). Bono knows that absurdity better than the rest of us (which is why he is so cuddly and adorable).

Still, for recovering mission-aholics like myself, the danger of "seeing" self in a role of Significant Helpfulness is that I mistake my happiness in helping for real help. In other words, I don't know how to be content when others lead the way, shape the future, change the course of their lives nearly as well as when I have a hand in doing it for/with/to them.

For me, the Gospel and postmodernism have flipped all that on its head. The addiction to being of use, to being in a role that changes lives, that brings love, that serves, that acts as change-agent, that "embodies the heart of God for all peoples".... all of that feeds a dangerous self-concept that says "my life has meaning insofar as I impact yours for the better." That means I have to determine the better for your life and be about impacting it.

Grad school showed me how addicted I've been to mattering, to being important in someone's universe. I recognized what a truly lousy listener I've been in a "global" way, in a specific way. I show little interest, for instance, in what Muslims are doing to make the world a better place and think about them in terms of their deficiencies, what they do wrong. I thought my role in racial reconciliation was to be a leader, to figure out how to fix race problems in my city. Then I found out that blacks would like me to shut up and listen for a change... and let them take the lead. What a notion!

Here's a thought. Instead of white churches attempting to create churches that "welcome blacks," what if those whites closed up shop and attended black churches? They could be members and let black pastors and congregation members lead. That would be a whole lot different than having a mission of "racial reconciliation... over at my white church led by my white pastor."

Postmodernism requires us to see that our angle of vision cannot be the only and right one for everyone. The formerly silenced get to lead, speak, take the initiative. We deliberately make space for that to happen in our own lives, if we are to be true to the values of tolerance, openness, generosity. I don't know how to do that and be a change agent in other people's lives at the same time. Postmodernism encourages us to stop teaching and start learning.

So I ask: What if serving and loving and giving meant giving up my right to have a mission? What if the detox program for junkies like me (in order to get a glimpse of what Jesus might have been about) is to give up my right to matter, to make a difference? Maybe letting someone else be in charge and figuring out how to fit in is more "missional" than planting a church or starting a dialog group or leading someone to Christ? Wouldn't it be a total flip if we let someone lead us to yoga.... really lead us not so we could find its errors and use those as opportunities to pounce with the 'good news' but so we might grow and be benefited by that person's gifts? Period.

I don't trust the word "missional" in the hands of Christians because Christians are hooked on power. Power makes mission into a drug that feeds self-importance, no matter how many toilets you scrub to show God's love in a practical way.

The Gospel is about divesting oneself of power. If we give up our right to change the world and instead find those nooks and crannies where we can shut up and listen, learn and be changed, support and admire the good works of others, we might not only find happiness, but get the heart of the Gospel tossed into the bargain.


Steve said...


Great thoughts! You had it all just right until the very end --

"I don't trust the word "missional" in the hands of Christians because Christians are hooked on power."

Just as I painted with a brush too broad about the potentially spoiled kid from La Canada (sorry!), you have painted with a brush too broad about Christians.

I would hope that my theology is not about power, or about reaction-formation to fear in my life, but rather about living out a reflection of a Love far more mysterious than I am able even to articulate. A love that does not need power, and that casts out fear.

I am happy to sit on the floor and learn from others. And yet, I hope I would be granted dignity by others to, at some point, share some of the things of the Kingdom. Want to go to Yoga class with me?

julieunplugged said...

Point well-taken. Call me jaded by experience. I am certain that there are those for whom power is not the goal... :)

Dancingirl365 said...

Much of what you say is what I've been thinking more and more... "giving up my right to have a mission." My context may be different than yours, but what you're saying here applies. As far as I can see I'm to love - that doesn't always mean being warm and fuzzy and sometimes loving precludes any rights I might think I have, such as the right to a "mission." And I'm short on time, so can't say all I'd like to now, but did want to say that!

One minor disagreement... I don't think it's just Christians who love power. I think we all (as humans) love power. That's why the gospel is topsy-turvy in our eyes.

brian said...

There's a lot of good stuff in your post, Julie. But, just like when I was listening to the 21st Century Buddhism PodCast and a couple of the guys starting ripping on capitalism and how it is inherently evil because many (most) manufacturers also try to create a need for their product, I think maybe you've gone a little too far. The subject of the talk was Craving and a couple of the guys were painting all people who provide products and services as a part of the problem. But, there are times when there is a need that a product will fill. And, in those cases, the provider is doing a good thing.

I see a parallel between these two things. Christians often try to create a need for the "gospel" and other things we have to offer. And, I think that's where you're going with this. We often need to just shut up and listen. And, we should not try to give things to people who are not interested in having them. OTOH, I don't think we should become fearful of sharing and helping because others have gone too far and imposed on people who really would rather have been left alone or needed help in a different way.

Rebecca said...

Point well-taken. Call me jaded by experience. I am certain that there are those for whom power is not the goal... :)

The above sounds a bit too much like, "I'm sure some of them don't beat their wives" for me.

It's a big world. It's a big religion. I bet a LOT of Christians are hooked on power.


That out of the way, you make some very good points and points that I have pondered from time to time. I see much of the action called for in my own (UU) background as coming from a 'we have to go fix it for them' viewpoint.

I can answer for why they don't close their church and go to a black one though (I offer this without further comment):there is no black church even vaguely resembling a 'liberal' much less Unitarian church in town.

julieunplugged said...

Becky, I do agree with you that the hunger for power is universal. I am not as convinced that the need for mission is. Mission linked to power can be deadly (sometimes it can be effective like nothing else). I like what you say about love and giving up rights.

Rebecca, is this line yours or an attempt to restate how mine came across:

It's a big world. It's a big religion. I bet a LOT of Christians are hooked on power.

Dave said...

"Missional"... interesting that you should seize on that particular term. It always seemed like a fake word to me, something created not so much to convey meaning as to indicate that people who use it have read the right books... I don't see myself ever calling something "missional" in a straightforward manner, but I know it's not up to me to determine whether or not the word will actually catch on.

I guess the meaning is somewhat akin to how "intentional" relates to "intention" - that is, an act done for the purpose of serving or advancing "mission," the coinage of which was made necessary by the limitations and drawbacks of the word "missionary" and the clunkiness of a term like "mission-minded."

You've highlighted a peculiar and insidious paradox that has settled into the core of so many missions efforts - not only church-sponsored, but other forms, both religious and secular. It's the notion that a central organization, led by a (typically) wealthy and well-connected hierarchy, is necessary to make the changes for the better in whatever problem area is being addressed. Since it requires "clout" to make things happen, the best way to do that is to ratchet up the rhetoric, convince other, unaffiliated "mission-seekers" that our organization/movement is the best one to make the difference, and if you really want to generate the best results, cast the problem as an urgent, end-o'-th'-world crisis that is on the brink of spiraling into flat-out chaos if WE don't do something about it NOW!

This posturing leads to people really believing what they are saying (natural enough if one doesn't take the time to reflect postmodernly on the fact that millions of others who disagree are doing and saying their own version of the same thing) and in the process we take on that burden of responsibility that in many cases supplies the reframe that allows us to persevere and function in the face of rejection or other adversity. Without that motivation, a lot of us would be inclined to say, "ahhh, why bother, what diff does it make? who cares anyway?"

I work for a mission-oriented organization (I told you I wouldn't use the word "missional!") and I even generate fund-raising proposals (letters to donors, grants, etc.) so I'm highly aware of how necessary this "sales pitch" is. I do sincerely believe in the work we do (helping traumatized children to heal and re-orient their lives) but I do flinch a bit at times at the heart-wrenching appeals that some of my colleagues and predecessors make. I try to stay realistic, humble and avoid the overtly manipulative style of getting people to donate. And with the direct-care staff I train, I try to directly address the tendency toward messianic thinking that is an occupational hazard in the mental health field. I urge staff to see ourselves as simple participants in a long-term process that will continue in each of our clients' lives well beyond the short time we work with them. I tell them to beware of investing too much in short-term, dramatic results and fixes and to find their satisfaction in just doing the best they can for the sake of a larger purpose, which is to provide compassion, empathy and security to kids who've known very little of that in their lives to this point. And that a big part of our work involves the changes we go through as human beings in the process of serving a difficult, challenging population, discovering our own internal resources, having our presumptions poked and prodded, sometimes severely, emerging with God's help as wiser, stronger, more capable and resourceful people at the end of the process.

To that extent, I think "missions" remains an important and relevant work, but the emphasis on humility and our own smallness in the overall project needs to stay in front of the "missionaries" as often as possible.

julieunplugged said...

What Dave said. :D

Your comments clarify, bring light and underscore all the various threads of thought I didn't articulate well enough in my original freewriting post. I so agree about humility in the process and I liked how you unpacked the idea of "power" to mean wealthy, well-connected hierarchy.

What I find disconcerting about the current reorienting of the evangelical task to social justice is that the rhetoric remains the same as it did in evangelicalism and missions. There is a triumphalism in the enthusiasm. I read things like "Christians are the ones who ought to be making the difference." That makes it sound like the efforts of others before them are inferior to what Christians could and would do if only they took on the mission themselves.

I know that it would be easy at this point to split hairs further and to remind me that there are Christians who don't see it this way. But the thing is, the emergent movement has emerged right under my nose in my corner of the evangelical market. Jon even worked for one of the popular writers and helped edit his books (Joe Meyers). So I'm reacting not from a general impression but from a closer relationship to the spirit of the communications as I've read, heard them expressed and watched them develop. I'm not an expert, but I'm not a sidelines observer either.

So I am happy to limit my thoughts to emergents or traditional evangelicals, if that helps temper them more appropriately.

Ish Engle said...

Julie, you wrote, "I read things like "Christians are the ones who ought to be making the difference." That makes it sound like the efforts of others before them are inferior to what Christians could and would do if only they took on the mission themselves."

Wow! I NEVER would have read that in to that sentence, and I still have problems taking it that way. I hear it as a call to responsibility -- ie "Jesus expects His followers to make a difference." -- not as a slam on the efforts of others.

I am perplexed at the idea that a rallying cry, a call to duty, could be taken as an intentional insult. I don't mean to be mean, but it seems you have to want that statement to hurt for it to be hurtful. I know I must sound like I'm attacking you, and I DO NOT intend to be, I am just overwhelmed that a statement that says, "Christian remember your duty," could be taken as a broad scale insult to non-Christian society, and even to a sector of Christian society. Wow.

Truly, it is amazing how people can live in the same world and yet be worlds apart.

julieunplugged said...

Ish I thank you for another reading of the paraphrase I cited. It is entirely possible that my reading is created by my experiences and that yours will lead you to read it differently. I was reading an interpretation of my writing the other day and was floored at how it was being presented. I couldn't believe she got "that" from what I wrote.

I want to offer one example with which I am deeply familiar that shapes my reading.

I'm a home educator. Back when home education got started, the grassroots movement was specifically inter-faith and non-religious working together for the sake of changing the laws to allow for homeschooling. The Christians worked with the Jews, the secularists worked with pagans and so on. The movement was about educational reform, not about education as a way to disseminate faith to your children. That aspect of home education was a private choice/matter.

About the time evangelicals caught on to the homeschooling movement, they torqued it to suit their specific aims of rejecting public secularism in the government schools and set up their own lobbyists, activists and curricula that would cater to their kind of home education. Some of their efforts actually undermined the more grassroots attempts to make home education about education, not religion.

Yet in looking at homeschooling today, the group most identified with it is the evangelical world because it became the dominant voice and source of new recruits. In fact, non-Christian home education has only started to grow in the last five years again because it became nearly impossible to find secular co-ops and home education materials.

The founders of the movement have written extensively on how they feel the movement got hi-jacked and co-opted into religion which was never the intention.

A similar kind of thing has happened (so I'm told by a church member) with a mega church here who has taken on the inner city as its mission, literally by passing the work being done (and has been for years and years) and doing it in ways that those long term organizations find detrimental to their work and experience.

I guess what I am trying to say is that working for justice is wonderful. I just wonder if there is some danger in working for it when we associate "Christian" with the justice effort. Why do we need to do it "as Christians" in a "Christian" group?

What if Christians joined existing works in progress without organizing again on their own? Is there something distinctively Christian that must be added to the work of social justice, education or politics? Seems the appearance of condescension might be lessened if Christians did band together with others in the role of volunteers and recruits rather than organizing and leading their own brands of green peace or soup kitchens.

It's something I wonder and think about.

Rebecca said...

>>Rebecca, is this line yours or >>an attempt to restate how mine >>came across:

>>It's a big world. It's a big >>religion. I bet a LOT of >>Christians are hooked on power.

Oh dear. I must have been more even more tired than I thought when I typed that. And now I'm a bit at a loss for what the heck I was aiming at in that obviously fractured sentence.

The thought was something like this:

It's a big world, it's a big church so that kind of generalization just can't be made. Some Christians are hooked on power, some aren't.

And it was meant to be my thought. Sorry for the confusion.

I one hundred percent agree with the 'why start a new effort instead of support existing ones?' thought. It is a sin the way people will see a problem, think, for some reason, that they are the first ones to ever notice it and rush right in, sometimes not even bothering to see if they are duplicating efforts. AND without considering if there is some way they can quietly underwrite local efforts, etc.

As for the thought that Christian aid should only be channelled through Christian efforts--spare me.

R. Michael said...


I can understand your views based upon the history Christianity had had with missions and the somewhat condescending way that we have treated others in our attempt to "help" them...yet what is the alternative? I am afraid that if I have to get my need of significance out of my motives for missions then I would accomplish nothing...so I have learned to live with the fact that I may be doing something "good" for others but there is a part of me that is doing it for me...to that I say "so what"...I cannot obsess over it and I cannot totally fix it either.

A theology based upon the absence of our ability to accomplish what I call "kingdom" things (I personally like this term better than missions because it is more biblical) without acknowledging that these things may be tainted with personal ambition (power)is incomplete...again emphasizing the tension that your favorite Irish rock star is so fond of repeating.

Ish Engle said...


I see your point, now, and actually am in a lot closer agreement. I think that we (the Christian community) are mandated to be active agents of change in the world (toward what God intended the world to be (house that for an open can of worms)), but that doesn't mean we need to reinvent the wheel. If a secular agency is effecting change, then why shouldn't followers of the Way opt in, instead of opting around?

Yes, many "christians" are power-hungry rogues in disguise, but Jesus warned us AWAY from power -- we are to be servants, not masters! Followers of Jesus should be making a difference for the better, and often that means working with those who don't know Jesus. And there should be nothing wrong with that.