Missions and the Missional Church

Winter and Newbigin

                    Ralph Winter & Lesslie Newbigin

Kind of a weird title, I know.

If I were tracing the genesis of the “missional church” I would point to Lesslie Newbigen. Newbigin was a Presbyterian missionary affiliated with the Church of Scotland (you can check out his biography here). Newbigin returned to Europe after ministering in India with the view that Europe had become a “mission field” in the years that he was away. Instead of being the source of sending missionaries, Newbigin encouraged Christians in the West to see themselves as missionaries. The Western church, he urged, needed to think and act like missionaries do.

European Christianity had fallen into a “Christendom” model in which the state, the culture, and the church conspired together. However, during the 1960′s and 1970′s, Europe began to rapidly secularize. The result was the state and culture began to conspire against the church. The antidote, according to Newbigin, is the missional church. A church which did not assume that the culture was in agreement with Christian ideas. A church which sought to minister from a position of weakness rather than strength. A church whose task was to be “missional.”

During the same time that Newbigin was encouraging the adoption of missional church ideas, missiologists in the USA were  pointing out the need for the sending of missionaries. This is what we typically refer to as “missions” in churches. Ralph Winter popularized the idea of the unreached. These were not simply people who were not Christians; they were people who lived in cultures where there was little to no Christian witness at all. Unless somebody went to live among them, they would not have a meaningful and culturally appropriate explanation of Christianity. Whereas Newbigin’s England had declining numbers of Christians, Winter’s “unreached people groups” had none at all.

Further, Winter emphasized a distinction between “sodalities and modalities.”A sodality is a “go structure” with a highly defined mission to achieve a goal. A modality is a “nurture structure.” It is predominately designed to care for, educate, develop, and spiritually grow its own members. Winter observed that throughout history, churches (and their denominations) often stagnated the growth and development of the church. When this happened, sodalities would spring up and unleash innovation on the church forcing both change and growth. Winter pointed to the rise of Catholic Orders, volunteer missionary societies, and parachurch organizations as evidence of sodalities.

Newbigin’s argument is that the church should itself be a sodality. The church should be a “go structure.” Winter suggested that this was not likely to happen. It hadn’t happened historically and the remaining task was proof in itself that churches tend to be insular.

“Missional” has entered the mainstream in American churches. When this terminology first began to be used in the US it often referred to “emerging churches.” These were churches that were using (and seeking to reach) a postmodern worldview. Many of these emerging churches were frowned upon by the more conservative evangelical churches because of their willingness to discuss (and some would say compromise) on long held orthodox interpretations of the scriptures. Particularly in Europe, emerging churches were setting the pace for church growth and outreach. As often happens in a movement, the more radical concepts behind the emerging church appear to have been tamed. What pracitical differences now lie between “missional” ideas and those from the “Church Growth school.”

I am concerned that “missional” thinking, while a step in the right direction, does not step for enough. Newbigin argued that the church should look past its own walls and into its context (for example, its neighborhood) in order to redeem the culture in which it finds itself. That is great. The Great Commission, however, is a global commission to teach, disciple, and baptize. It is not merely a charge to reach your own culture. Could it be that the “taming process” is producing a form of “missional” which is parochial and provincial? This plays into Winter’s charge that the church is really a nurturing modality, concerned with its own welfare.

Is your church struggling to be both missional and missions-minded?

You aren’t alone.

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