Missional: The Mercurial Shibboleth

Irreligious Thought #3: The whole “what/who is missional?” conversation is weird to me. Shouldn’t we pick words that have been around awhile to get worked up about?

Let me start by saying I am not interested in criticizing those who use the term ‘missional’ per se. They are too respected by me. Too many sincere. And far too many worthy of emulation. The kind of men and women I’d prefer to point to other than myself. Plus I have used the term and will continue to use the term.

But I do think the discussion about who/what is missional is weird. Strange. Off-kilter.

And not because we should not care about the things people say we should be doing in order to be ‘missional.’ I just think it is weird I am being asked to be missional at all.

There seems to be disagreement on the meaning of the term. All of us who use the term ‘Trinity’ should be fine with the use of words not found in the Scriptures to describe those things we see in the Scriptures. But people do not argue about the word ‘Trinity.’ It’s been around a while. So people argue about whether there is a Trinity or not.

But ‘missional’ is pretty new. And hip. No one was using this term when I was in Seminary 10 years ago. We talked about church-planting alot. And we talked about missions, evangelism, apologetics and mercy ministry. But the term was yet to be en vogue.  Now it is used without definition and argued over fairly regularly. And what is mind-boggling is how it is now a descriptor for faithfulness. This is where it gets weird for me and I have trouble understanding it at all.

We have this descriptor – missional. It means different things to different groups of people. It is a new term in the history of the church. It is a litmus test for others – “They are not missional, therefore they are not faithful.” Inevitably, there are arguments about not only who is and who is not missional but what the actual term means.

Let me say, perhaps it worth getting to the bottom of. The subject – regardless of the meaning of the term – has some significance. This is not what is weird about the whole thing. What is weird is that it seems possible the term will move out of usage before we even get a handle on it. It’s got a mercurial quality about it.

Let me add a few closing thoughts:

– First, is ‘missional’ replacing another term? Is there a synonym? Are we describing something which already existed and had a term to describe it or does the word reveal some innovation?

– Second, Maybe we should stop using ‘missional’ as a litmus test. I see no harm in describing your church or ministry as such. But using it to downgrade the faithfulness of others seems rather presumptive while such a new term still unfamiliar to large swaths of the global church. It’s mercurial quality demands this also.

– Third, the word has already become a shibboleth. If you say it with confidence, you are good to go in some circles. Do we really want to trade in words this way?

– Fourth, we may already be there, but the word will soon be marketable. In other words, it will be used to sell books, music, tickets, curriculum, etc. (Prediction: T-shirt with ‘Got Missional?’ on the front.) We need to stop and think.

None of this means, we should stop using it. I should not look down on those who use it. Again, I use the term. But I have to use it knowing it is not a term everyone gets. It certainly cannot be term I would argue over.

Here is the entire list of Irreligious Thoughts.

Thoughts At Christmas For the Rest of the Year: Part 2, "The Impossible"

Part 1, “The Waiting”

Stories have a way of telling us things we could not have heard any other way. Eugene Peterson calls it “telling it slant” (using Emily Dickinson’s words). We are not always happy to see things about ourselves when told outright. But stories reveal our heart’s motives – sometimes through the heroes and often times through the villainous. They show us the sins we hold dear. And stories can reveal the virtues we lack. Reading the story of Mary, the soon-to-be-mother of Jesus, did this to me.

I started running recently. A few months ago – all to lose weight and get in shape. When I started I was not happy to be doing so with the wrong gear. For one, my shoes are at least six years old, I bought them from the LL Bean “clearance store” back in 2004 and have been cutting grass in them for a number of years. Also, I really wanted one of those cool Under Armour shirts. In Blue. It felt impossible that I could get to my initial goal of losing twenty pounds and running 5K with such pitiful gear.

But I did.

Twenty-five pounds lost later and now able to run more than 5K and thinking about a half marathon this Spring, I now laugh at my thoughts of what was possible. I looked at my circumstances and my problems and thought, “impossible.”

Mary started out thinking the same thing. I mean, it was a good question, “I know you are saying all these great things about what my son will be and do, but there is one little problem… ummmm, how do I put this lightly? (Whispers) I’m a virgin. Sooooo, how could this be possible?” But God, not put off by such circumstances and problems answers through Gabriel, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

When you look at Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ real close, you start thinking God is doing some incredible stuff through what looks like an impossible situation. Through the scandal of a pregnant unmarried teenager, “all the nations will be blessed.” Through an event sure to draw judgment from gossipers “he provides mercy from generation to generation.” Through a backwoods town, Nazareth, “he shows strength with his arm.” Through the poverty of Galilean peasants “he scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Through a baby “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” Through a child who depends on his mother’s milk “he has filled the hungry with good things.” Through a virgin he will make a baby and fulfill the promises he made to his people.

It’s pretty incredible. But we don’t really believe he can do this kind of thing. Most of the time. Most of the time we think everything must be just right in our lives and and in our churches. Belief is not enough to change us as individuals and the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments is not enough for our churches.

Our spiritual lives need super-spiritual crazy experiences and our churches need audio and visual excellence. We think we need lots of extra stuff, you know, to help out the Sovereign God of the Universe. Who created everything. Out of nothing. We think we need something else and we need to remove everything that looks like a problem – for God to work. We think we need the best preaching and the nicest worship space. We think we need new songs or old songs. And lots of resources.

God began the most significant act in history through what looked like an impossible situation and we think we need more gear.

We are not like Mary, at least the Mary after the Angel reminded her what God was capable of. Maybe we need a reminder. You know, God has been doing this for awhile. A huge family making up a nation from two really old lovebirds. Armies defeated by lamps and jars. Marching around a wall and taking out a city. Five smooth stones. More clay jars.

And it did not stop with Mary. The Disciples had to have thought, ‘impossible’ while Jesus’ limp and bloodied body hung with shame upon a Roman cross. The circumstances were bleak. The problem stood before them in painful stark relief. Their hopes – dashed against a rock that looked like a dead man’s skull. And yet through this, far more was accomplished than they could have ever imagined during the three years while they were dreaming of him vanquishing the foes of God’s people.

Through what looked impossible the One, Who, by the way, makes all things possible, did the unimaginable. He rescued not only those who had followed him. But all who had rebelled against him and looked to him for salvation. And even now those who look at their own black hearts and think ‘impossible’ can be rescued when they with Mary believe, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

The God of the Mundane

(This post in it’s original form is here . It has grown a little.)


Perhaps I am missing something. It is possible.

Most of life seems to be pretty ordinary, mundane even. Mundane tasks liter our days and swallow our hours. We open our eyes, close them again, rub our faces and look in the mirror. Shower. We then shave our faces or legs. We all dress every morning, undress every evening. And throughout the day, regardless of sun shining or rain drenching, we must do mundane things over and over. Usually without thought we take on these tasks.

And I have not even mentioned the decisions, moral and practical coming our way in every lane we drive in and cubicle in which we answer the phone. None are earth shattering. Telling the truth here, a kind word there and on any given day not losing your patience with spouse, children, boss, teacher, and neighbor gets no press. No one will notice the steadiness – the victory over the rebellion we all know lies within. More than likely after not losing your temper, you will look out the window of your kitchen/cubicle/office/drive-through teller window and long for something beyond the mundane.

It is hard to imagine you are being spiritual in the midst of all this mundane stuff life throws your way. How do you feel spiritual when you are scrubbing grape juice out of your 6 year-old son’s white shirt? My guess is you prayed God would give you super-human mom strength so you would not have to return to target to replace the only unstained shirt he has.

Brewing coffee and writing legal briefs and making change are what you get paid for but it feels terribly unspectacular and never spiritual. In fact, it feels small, mundane and far afield from the radical lives of the missionary biographies you started to read.

The church may not be helping.

It appears the current religious climate is one of faithfulness and spirituality measured by the eventful and the big – the bombastic. If the waves are not huge and the shifts are not seismic then we assume a kind of carnality. We have redefined radical to the point where the only radical people in the church are those who have sold everything and gone…well, anywhere. But for everyone who does not sell everything, you know, those who shop at Target, go to the beach for vacation and grab some sushi (or Cracker Barrel) weekly – is there a spirituality for them that can be called “radical?” What of homemakers and tellers, clerks and customer service representatives, doctors and lawyers – is there a spirituality for them in the midst of just living a mundane life? Is there a God for them?

We know there is a God for those who are missionaries, pastors and ministry leader; they are living lives of obvious spiritual and eternal consequence. But what about everybody else? What about those who are not pastors and do not want to be?

Am I alone in worrying there is no God for the mundane? You know for those who, in the name of Jesus, are simply faithful spouses, honest in business, love their children well and enjoy the world they live in while waiting for the next – is there a God for them?

I think we have gone awry somewhere along the way. It is no longer not enough for a husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church, he must now agonize over whether to sell everything to go overseas as a missionary. We think someone who does not want to do ministry is unspiritual. Sure, not everyone can be a vocational missionary. But according to the popular wisdom we should all want to. The only acceptable excuse is ability. Lets face it, this sounds really good and spiritual. But it’s not. It is the very opposite.

It is the very opposite because it says to those are not missionaries and pastors, “If you had the ability, you would be doing something really spiritual, like be a pastor or missionary.” The implication is of course, you are not spiritual and not doing something spiritual…unless you are supporting those people and listening to those people.

In fact, in many ways it is really hard to stay where you are. It is hard because no one celebrates the day-in and day-out faithfulness that goes unseen by the wider world by those who toil in obscurity. No one puts pictures of a mom in Tacoma on their refrigerator so they can pray for her – unless she is in ministry. It is hard because life is not easy anywhere, there is no idyllic paradise in America where sin is not pervasive and the devil is not crouching outside of custom-made doors. And it is probably hard for a few because of the guilt heaped up on them who stay and are made to think they are unspiritual/carnal/unfaithful for doing so.

Right now, someone is questioning whether I care about missions/ministry/etc. at all. You see, that is the problem. We have elevated what is seen as being spiritual and what is radical to the point where all other activity (or seeming lack of activity) leads people to think one may not care. That may be damnable. We must assume there are untold numbers of men and women spreading the gospel of grace quietly throughout their community and making it possible financially for others to go without making a big deal about it and telling everyone on facebook they are doing it.

Part of the problem may be we have made Paul our only hero and not the nameless recipients of his letters. Who would want to be like one of the unknowns when you can be like Paul? What pastor would want to be simply one of Timothy’s appointed elders, never known and never mentioned? What man would want to be simply a day laborer, who has believed the gospel and against the trends of the day treats his wife and children with dignity and affection, dealing honestly with his neighbors? What woman would want to be a nameless mother who at the risk of ridicule and inconvenience, huddles with other brothers and sisters in The Way and listens to a nameless teacher about Jesus? It is all so mundane.

It is almost like a new legalism is emerging. “Quit your job. Do something crazy. Pick up and move. If you do not or are not thinking about doing it then you are suspiciously lacking in the necessary requirements of what we deem ‘spiritual.’

The rock-star preacher thing isn’t helping either. Life seems so mundane after watching them, reading about them and then listening to them. Changing diapers and paying bills on time and being generous and holding the hand of your spouse and caring about your aging parents and having deep friendships and being committed to the church and crying with those who hurt – well, its just not crazy enough. It is so absolutely mundane. And I fear that for most, they do not worship a God who can be glorified in the mundane.

They worship a God who acknowledges only those lives described as crazy, radical, extreme and extraordinary. So not only is there no God for the mundane parts of their lives but there is no God for ninety-percent of their life. He works in the great deeds of great lives alone.  No wonder we try to buy his affection with our acts of sacrifice and the forfeiture of our dreams. Or just give up on him altogether.

Is there a God of the mundane? Is there a God who can give meaning to the mundane duties of moms, the mundane tasks of those who clock in and clock out? Is there a God in heaven giving meaning to the mundane lives most everyone leads?

I think there is.