Has “Missional” Become an Excuse?

Not all churches suddenly trying to be missional have gridlocked leaderships or frustrated ministers—but many do.

I’ve observed an occasional correlation between those trying to be missional and those frustrated with the internal turbulence in their congregation or own soul. Of course, not all churches suddenly trying to be missional have gridlocked leaderships or frustrated ministers—but many do. You can’t tell from what they write in books or articles. You can’t always tell from what they say behind a microphone. You have to hear them talk “off the record.” I don’t have anyone in particular in mind as I type, but I can think of a number of examples in which missional becomes a last resort for a leader or leadership that can’t find their way out of gridlock or that theological dark place.

Consider the functioning of a traditional family. If mom and dad can’t get along, they often focus on the kids. This may relieve tension in the mom and dad temporarily. Mom and dad may also think it’s what’s best for the family as a whole. However, it tends to really mess up the kids, as they become those in whom the stress of the marriage surfaces. The same can be said of those in whom the stress between Christians surfaces.

When leadership and congregation, preacher and elders, one-half of the church and the other half, are at odds, it’s easy to feel the need to do something to break the cycle. It’s normal to feel the need to refocus. As long as churches are continuing to work diligently to reconcile with one another and shape a common vision, this can be a way of building common ground, temporarily. However, the lost, the broken, the poor—they cannot be where we work out our congregational stuff. They need not wait for us to get our act together. Yet, if we seek “missionality” to the exclusion of working diligently on our issues, we aren’t being missional. We’re using missionality as an excuse—as an avoidance behavior.

I’m not suggesting any of us do so intentionally. I think it’s subconscious. I think it’s rather natural … but also wrong.

Missional, done right, is incarnational and thus requires a clear picture of Christ, as well as emotional and spiritual maturity. It requires a clear vision of Christ to avoid mutation into moral but secular activism or do-goodism loosely attached to theology. Following Jesus faithfully for the sake of the world requires we pay attention to the work of reconciliation with one another even as we try to “be missional.” Perhaps we should look at our unity as a “missional move.”

If we, in our frustration, try to be missional (even if we’ve always thought it was the right way to go), we risk making “identified patients” of those we encounter in all of our efforts to share the common good. Family systems genius Edwin Friedman says “the identified patient is not ‘sick’ but simply the one in whom the family’s stress or pathology has surfaced.” It’s why child-centered families tend to produce unhealthy kids … and why the more we focus on culture, the more upset with us they seem to become. These are of course generalizations, but I believe them to be accurate.

Could it be the hostility of culture we feel now has less to do with our doctrines than with the consequences of our inability to deal with our own anxieties? To what extent, I wonder, has culture become the identified patient of the church’s internal wars? To what extent is their hostility toward the church a result of the anxiety we’ve transferred. Have they become an avoidance behavior for us? I pray not.

This isn’t a knock on the missional movement, which has much to commend it. It’s also not a knock on the frustrated. Ministry frustration is among the most life-sucking, depressing kinds. It’s just a warning to us all not to use “the lost,” “the poor” or the need to be missional as a way to avoid dealing with our own junk. If we want to be missional, let’s be missional. Let’s not make missional an excuse.

Let it begin with me.

This article appeared here, and is used by permission.

Tim Spivey
Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California, a fast-growing plant launched in 2011. Tim is also the purveyor of New Vintage Leadership, a blog offering cutting edge insights on leadership and theology and the author of numerous articles and one book: Jesus, the Powerful Servant.