Why the Missional Movement Will be Good for the Church…and ‘Fail’ Anyway

If you’re not familiar with the missional movement, it’s probably best just to ignore this post.  You could google it and read a couple of things, but I’m speaking here to a problem within the movement, and if you’re still wondering what “missional” might mean, you’ll just be borrowing trouble.

Still here?  Well, then here we go.  The ‘good for the church’ part is easy.  On the one hand, we have churches with varying degrees of good, solid teaching who really think that if they just keep doing that, people will come to them.  It’s not happening, and it’s not going to — at least not fast enough to replace the ones that are leaving, moving away, dying off.  A renewed missional emphasis will get the church out of its siege mentality and return it to being an army on the march.  You can’t prevail against the gates of Hades from inside a castle; you’ve got to get out there and swing the battering ram. The missional movement brings this emphasis in spades.  This is a Good Thing, a return to the concerns and character of Jesus Christ, and through it, the missional movement will be one of God’s instruments for returning His church to greater effectiveness in the world.

On the other hand, the missional movement insists on defining itself as over against ‘Christendom.’  Various caveats attach to the use of the word in an attempt to avoid getting skewered for being sloppy, but…the use of the term is sloppy, and worse.  It’s fundamentally wrongheaded, and the caveats are an attempt to patch a ship that ought to be scuttled and replaced.

The first century church was on mission, but as the Roman world became Christian, the church got a little complacent.  God moved in the unwashed Germanic hordes next door, which woke the Roman Christians to their responsibility, and started one of the largest and most successful missions efforts in Christian history.  At the end of that mission effort, Europe was Christian for 1000 years: the phenomenon we know of as Christendom.  Even by a fairly minimal definition — the Church in the central position of power and influence in society, say — THIS WAS A GREAT THING!!!!  When a missions effort is successful, you get Christendom, the church at the center of power and influence in society, because all the people of power and influence are Christians.  This is an anticipation and partial realization of the Kingdom, and again, we pray for His Kingdom to come, so there’s no reason to complain when God answers our prayers.  (Sure, the people in question are fallible and the realization of Kingdom is only partial — but so what?  Your personal realization of eschatological perfection is only partial, too, but you don’t on that account stop walking with God.  No, you celebrate the successes, repent of the failures, and move on as best you can.  As with individuals, so with societies.)

Moreover, Christendom became the launch pad for the great missions movements of more recent history, which carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the uttermost parts of the earth.  That was a triumph, and we have Christendom to thank for it.  The North American church in particular ought to be aware of this, because we live in the uttermost parts of the earth.

Using ‘Christendom’ as a word to describe what’s gone wrong with the church is just lunacy, and this is where the missional movement is dropping the bowling ball on its own toes.  A missionary opposing Christendom is a missionary opposing the success of his own mission.  Seriously, think about how you would respond if you heard a bunch of Buddhist missionaries going on and on about how the whole Buddhist thing went off the rails when entire societies converted to Buddhism.  Huh?

Jesus took Europe by storm, and here we have a part of His Bride that’s unhappy about it.  Come again?  At best this is just cluelessness; at worst, it’s sedition against the Kingdom, and the only good thing I have to say about it is that it’s well-intentioned and utterly unwitting.

But it’s still sin; specifically, it’s ingratitude.

Yahweh don’t dig ingratitude, and this is where my prediction for the future of the missional movement comes in.  It will die off, because, unable to celebrate the victories of the past, it will in the end be unable to celebrate its own success.  What does not get celebrated, as Reggie McNeal is fond of pointing out, does not get done — and so one way or another, real success will not be forthcoming, because it is not valued.

Not that this is a huge problem.  Like many other movements that have come and gone in the Body over the last couple of millennia, this one will leave its residue — good and bad — and pass.  The children or grandchildren of the missional folks will take commitment to mission as a matter of bedrock necessity, and also begin asking how they can seek the redemption of the power structures of human society, rather than just railing against Christians who are involved in them. If the Lord tarries, we will yet have more earthly and imperfect portraits of how good a Christian kingdom can be.  And in the end, no matter how much some of us oppose big government and Christian involvement in same, Christ’s kingdom will come, and of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.  Maranatha!


2 Responses to Why the Missional Movement Will be Good for the Church…and ‘Fail’ Anyway

  1. Tim,

    That’s exactly where I am today. Though I would word my prediction a little differently. It goes something like this: People will leave traditional church for missional community just long enough to gather what the mindset is all about. Once they’re immersed, there will be a secondary ministry back toward Christians in the traditional setting and they’ll be perfectly blended.

    Sometimes you need to separate from something just long enough to figure out why it has to be left, to hear the voice of God, to obey it.

  2. Tim Nichols says:


    Elegantly put. Time in the ‘wilderness’ — whatever that looks like for a particular individual — is essential to hearing God. We all need it. Where we go from there depends on what we hear; we don’t all wind up hermits, thank God.

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