Written in June, 2019. Updated.
While finishing my book (e-book only $2.99!) Thrive, the bibliography reminded me of overwhelming lack of representation in the movement. At one point there were ZERO authors of color in the list. There was one woman. In fact, despite the magnitude of reading material on the “missional movement”, during my writing I can’t remember coming across a single leader of color. (Soong-Chan Rah was the closest but he doesn’t write specifically on missiology.)
“Missional” in the West was and is built by white men. White theologians, white pastors, white institutional Christianity. It’s a movement by white men, for white men. The entire movement is dominated by whiteness. What does this mean for the shaping of things to come and why does it matter? Homogeneity lacks foresight to build a way forward for all.
This reality in formation of the movement is not a 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 like Ed Stetzer, Mike Frost, Neil Cole, Dave Fitch, Alan Hirsch (although he’s Jewish), Lance Ford, Hugh Halter, Reggie McNeal. Note the theme?
If you look at the movement today, it’s the same guys.
Let’s take a quick step back. By using the term whiteness I am referring to structure. Whiteness retains the dominant racialized system built to ensure white people remain 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 was the most active, albeit the most commercial, expanding who gets heard (and it’s good work).
What’s the problem? I’m not suggesting white theologians are the problem. Exclusivity is the issue.
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 the missio Dei. Mission becomes the core function of the church 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 initially garnered momentum as a reaction away from western Christian consumerism. Missional started to attract (ironically) churches, particularly white Protestants, seeking answers to unmitigated decline. Turning consumer congregations into active priesthoods devoted to mission was the solution. However, despite the call unto movement there are still few multiplying movements in the churches/denominations that have actively participate. It’s hard work. 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 individuals to find their APEST giftings and the body will 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.
Jesus said deny thyself and follow me. That’s a testament against individualism. Give up your self to follow Jesus, and the way of he is one rooted in community practices unto justice. (Matt 5; Rom 1:16; Rom 5; etc., etc.)
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 often lacks understanding of what Good News looks like in our world today. It’s not incapable of witness, but inherited privilege makes it 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 a church existing for the sake of non-believers is folly.
…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 a notion the church is “better” than the world is if you come from an experience rooted in abject privilege (that whiteness develops and maintains). In my worldview the love we have for one another and for God cannot be separated from the activity of the church to the “other”. The Gospel must include both. In fact, if your church has no participating measure with the ministry of reconciliation, and no this is not just about individual souls but systemic issues of injustice, then you’re not Christian at all (1 Cor. 5).
Let’s use another example. A chief characteristic of missional is to re-orient to local. Stop commuting 30 minutes to a church building, stay in your place. But most neighborhoods in North America have been red-lined into existence. Which is to say, they are racially segregated on purpose. This is not a subject missional has answers for because a) the movement thought leaders are white guys who haven’t experienced racialized injustice; b) the movement itself focusses again on individual accommodation and not how the church as whole can repair broken systems in their midst.
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 necessity of righting systemic injustices be it the environment, land, reconciliation, race, etc. Mission must be fundamentally connected to the righting of systemic wrongs and not just saving individual souls. That’s not Good News unless you sit in privilege and have little to be liberated from. We must find ways to participate in the kingdom 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. This again speaks to the West, and not how similar movements play-out in developing nations.
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. Missional is still emerging and in order to survive it must continue to iterate into something new.
We must respond to culture shifts by reorienting the church unto a mission that embodies neighborhood presence with decisive action to right injustice. Institutional whiteness needsd to be de-centered and new thought leaders need space. De-centering means moving inherited privilege to the side in favour of new cultural intelligence from minority voices to point us forward.
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.