While finishing my book Thrive, the bibliography struck me. At one point there were ZERO authors of color in the list. In fact, despite the magnitude of reading material on the “missional movement”, I can’t remember coming across a single leader of color. (Soong-Chan Rah was the closest.) This reality isn’t a complete surprise when you consider the voices behind how “missional” came to be. Early theologians who shifted missiology like Barth and Newbigin; missiologists like David Bosch and Christopher Wright; theologians and GOCN (Gospel in our Culture Network) members like Darrell Guder, Craig van Gelder, Alan Roxburgh; and the early popular thinkers in the West like Ed Stetzer, Mike Frost, Neil Cole, Dave Fitch, Reggie McNeal. Note the theme?
“Missional” in the West was and is built by white men, and almost exclusively at that. White theologians, white pastors, white institutional Christianity. The entire movement is dominated by whiteness. What does this mean for the shaping of things to come and why does it matter? Likely, homogeneity builds blindness thus lacks foresight to see a way forward for all.
By using the term whiteness I am referring to a power structure. I’m not suggesting white theologians are the problem. Exclusivity is the issue. There is a dominant and racialized system built to ensure white people are the prime benefactors and voices. What I’m pointing out isn’t new by the way. Dave Fitch wrote about this SIX years ago. Six years yet I still struggle to name leaders of color at the forefront of the missional conversation. The Verge is the most active, albeit the most commercial, expanding who gets heard (and it’s good work).
Missional may have awesome theory, particularly for discipleship formation, yet the application of said theory lacks cultural awareness.
At the heart of missional ideology is the re-orientation back to re-join the missio Dei. Mission is the core function rather than an outreach done in far away lands. Participating in the mission of God is the chief activity for all and discipleship the vehicle. In many ways the movement garnered momentum reacting from western Christian consumerism. Missional started to attract churches, particularly white Protestants, seeking answers to unmitigated decline. Turning consumer congregations into active priesthoods devoted to mission was the solution. But here’s where things get tricky. Despite the call unto movement there are few multiplying movements. There is some revitalization but few self-replicating discipleship movements (maybe we just need more time).
Part of the reason why includes how far the application of missional theory goes. A lot of leadership formation appeals to rugged individualism (the same problem in consumer Christianity). Just build the individual leader or APEST gifts in a congregation then the body can move forward. But that approach, even if done well, is incomplete. It must be tied to bigger things than just leadership development or individual formation.
Witness to Whole Gospel
To revitalize the church we have to confront the problems in its foundation. One reason for decline is tied to the inability to bear witness to the world. Missional thinking developed in institutional whiteness lacks an understanding of what Good News looks like in our world today. It’s not incapable of witness, but it is blind to where the church must embody incarnate presence.
Let me explain by using an extreme example. A recent Christianity Today series criticizes the missional movement as a whole. The author holds the very notion that the church exists for the sake of non-believers in utter disdain. From one of the articles,
…it does not appear that the church was created for the world, as many assume. If anything, the world was created for the sake of the church. [My opinion] is that the purpose of the church—the family of God—is not to make the world a better place, but to invite the world into the better place, the place called church.
The only way you could hazard the faintest notion the church is “better” than the world is if you come from an experience rooted in abject privilege (that whiteness develops). In my worldview the love we have for one another and for God (in worship) cannot be separated from the activity of the church to the “other” because the Gospel is both. (This is similar to related arguments against social justice. A post for another time.) God doesn’t need the church nor its permission. The kingdom goes with or without a participating church. Nonetheless, it is still our duty to bear witness of the hope to come. What the hope is, the SIZE of that hope, is what I’m saying missional “whiteness” is blind to.
The formation in whiteness subtly designs a worldview meant to protect a way of life. It therefore can’t picture a way forward because it can’t see past its own privilege.
New Missional Core
Privilege won’t speak to the absolute necessity of righting systemic injustices be it the environment, land, reconciliation, race, etc. Mission must be fundamentally connected to the righting of systemic wrongs. It is the work of ushering in the kingdom in the here and now. Had there been more marginalize people, people of color, and women at the table during the formation of early missional thinking, one wonders where the movement would be. I surmise it would have had a greater impact in a world desperately searching for better. Although missional has attempted to spur the immovable institution, those shifts have been incremental and usually surrounding leadership capacity, church planting, and discipleship formation. I suppose these elements could be inextricably tied to a Gospel that understand righting wrongs here and now is half the battle. But it largely has not.
I’m speaking in past tense, missional is still an emerging reorientation and in order to survive it must continue to iterate into something new.
We must respond to culture shifts by reorienting to a mission that embodies neighborhood presence with decisive action by the church previewing a better world in the here and now. Institutional whiteness in missional thinking is a problem because it leaves the movement incomplete. A de-centering of power structures and thought leaders needs to occur. De-centering means moving inherited privilege to the side. That menas we require new cultural intelligence from minority voices to point us forward.
That’s not to say we need to run out and replace all of the current voices with new ones. We don’t need to exclude white thought leaders in favor of minority ones. But we may need to replace white thought leaders at the table to make space for different gifts and abilities.
There is, however, a third way. In my mind increasing the number of minority voices in the missional conversation may not be the answer. It may be too late. Rather, perhaps it is time to raise the next generation of leaders, leaders of color specifically, who will reimagine the next wave of whatever missional becomes, to lead the church as a whole forward.