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Missional Church (a partial review)

May 30, 2011

The text for a missional leadership group that I am about to be a part of is Introducing the Missional Church: what it is, why it matters and how to become one by Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren. It is not intended for an academic audience however it seems me that such books are  no less in need or critical readers and theological critique. Hence I offer this theological engagement with the content of chapters 1 and 2

The main strength of Alan J.Roxburghand M Scott Boren’s book  is the contrast that they establish between two models of church, namely an “attractional” and a “missional” Church. In particular the metaphor implicit in the notion of an attractional church captures, in my view, a significant and helpful intuition about the crisis of the church in the postmodern ‘west’. I have found myself using it on several occasions since learning of it. However, for all its usefulness the attractional metaphor threatens to cause as much confusion as it does clarity thanks to the lack of definition offered by the writers. When asked what exactly an attractional church is, the respondent is offered, on page 19 at least 5 different characteristics of the attractional church, all of which seem to be possible independently of the others: it is a church that is i) focused on attracting others, ii) event focused, iii) dualistic and concerned with private spirituality, iv) trades in spiritual consumerism, and v) appeals to and reflects the surrounding culture of a particular generation.

What the authors do not offer is a narrative, in which this particular combination of symptoms is explained as a coherent account of a problem and thus why this particular array of symptoms is helpfully captured in the label ‘attractional church’. Such a narrative would not only clarify the problem encapsulated by the term ‘attractional church’ it would cast significant light on what it means to be a missional church.

It is not controversial to note that the increasing failure of ‘attractional church’ corresponds to the breakdown of Christendom. However, what the Roxburgh and Borgen do not note is that Christendom itself (or better Constantinianism as the ideology which undergirds it) was not merely some extrinsic set of circumstances whose loss we might lament and get over. It was a practical heresy and, arguably, one whose contemporary expression is an attractional church. On this view Constantinianism represents a deal with power established over a couple of centuries around the time of the conversion of Constantine. At this time the church saw the opportunities offered to them by an alignment with the empire of the time and grasped them, seeing in them the work of God in history. In other words it was thought to be a mission opportunity. The issue Jesus faced in his temptations and at Gethsemane was faced again by the rapidly growing early church. Where Jesus resisted temptation, the church effectively failed to resist. The kenotic existence of Jesus of Nazareth was effectively abandoned for an apparently more effective strategy. The result, as they say is ‘history’ – or better, one way of reading history.

The key thing to notice is that the Constantinian move represents a systematic alignment with the surrounding culture such that the church becomes a part of a wider social order. It ends up staging ‘events’ for this wider social order which is no longer regarded as ‘the world’ in the sense that Paul and John use that term, but is regarded as a ‘christian society’ in which people look to the church to play a supportive role in their lives. The role it ends up playing is the only one left to it once the ‘state’ takes care of the material conditions of political life. The church becomes a chaplain to private spiritual concerns.

Although a much fuller narrative could be offered, and has been developed by others, it is easy to see how the attractional church is a direct consequence of significant failure to follow Jesus.

In this context we can see that the persistence of the ‘attractional church’ in a time when the wider society has marginalized the church (post-christendom) is a sign of the continuation of constantinianism as a heresy after the fall of Christendom. It is Christendom in our hearts.

The problem with Roxburgh and Boren’s analysis is that alongside a poorly defined diagnosis of the problem and its roots in a failure of practical Christology, they do not offer a christological account of the alternative missional church. Instead they point the church beyond itself by means of a thin pneumatogy. Their alternative to the question “How do we attract people to what we are doing?” is “What is God up to in this neighbourhood?” The weakness of this question can be seen if we remember that a question similar to this motivated the church to take on board the constantinian synthesis. They discerned the work of God’s Spirit in the conversion of Constantine and the new possibilities of the power of empire. Thus the more theologically concrete question ‘Where is Jesus going in the world?’ is not clearly focused on. Without such a focus there is no reason why these so-called missional churches will not end up try to catch onto the next big thing in their neighbourhood and discern in it the latest ‘wave of the Spirit’. However it is not clear that catching such a wave will necessarily be missional. It may simply be a new form of attractional church for a different generation – i.e. it’s not clear how their model differs from the emergent churches they critique.

The strength of Roxburgh and Boren’s move is that it correctly highlights that the church is not ‘an end in itself’ and must always be located within the mission of God if it is to truly be the church. They are correct to see that those who see the purpose of the church as ‘church growth’ or as ‘getting new people to come to church’ have lost their focus.

On the other hand this strength is significantly weakened by both a lack of christological focus in their account of missional church and an unwillingness to offer more theological specificity to their account of a missional church. This issue is masked by their determination to avoid offering a single model or pattern of the missional church in their determination to ensure an openness to the future of what God is doing. It is almost as if missional church were not happening when the New Testament was written and that there are no guidelines given by Jesus or the apostles for those who would bear witness. It is as if the form of the life of the church described and prescribed so extensively by both Jesus and the Apostles (forgiveness of sins, shared property, face-to-face reconciliation, non-violence etc) were not itself the form of missional witness. To put it another way; the strong reaction against guidance at this point suggests that the writers assume that the New Testament offers the world a (quite abstract) message which can be embodied in an almost infinite number of ways, rather than a life and a form of life (Jesus in his cruciformity) which in turn generates new but analogous forms of life (the witness of the church). Surely modeling is implicit in the very root and source of mission “as the Father sent me, in the same way I am sending you”.

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