Pop Culture Missiology and the Romanticism of Missional Living (Part 1 of 2)

There is no doubt that complacency runs rampant in the North American Church. This has spurred on a call to missional renewal and greater faithfulness to rediscover the way of Jesus. However, I wonder how much of the current rhetoric of what it means to follow Jesus and live the missional life is steeped in a romanticism that ultimately frustrates those seeking to follow Jesus in everyday context and ordinary ways.

Sure, Jesus performed miracles and confronted the religious elite. We like that Jesus. He is like a radical rabbi gone rogue. He also walked with God in the ordinary. Sharing ordinary meals with ordinary folks in ordinary places. His disciples were a band of ordinary men and women (though we like to romanticizing them too). Perhaps some good ole’ fashion historical study would help us see that Jesus walked with the common folk and the common folk were “common” because they were, well, common. Then Jesus told us to do the most common thing possible, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

6a00d8341cae3d53ef011278faec7328a4It seems that isn’t sexy enough for us North American missional thinkers and theorists. We have to lift up provocative terms like “radical” and “maverick” and so on to get our point across. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Many Christ-followers in North America have grown complacent and complicit to a dressed-down version of Christianity. You might even say this dressed-down version is the new “ordinary” and we must push against it to cast a clearer vision of the gospel of God’s kingdom. I get it. When necessary I do it. But I think there is an inherent danger present in this rhetoric that we must be aware of and I hear it in the frustrated voices of many that drink deeply from the wells of missional living.

The danger is that our reaction to the complacent and complicit can tempt us to set the bar so high that the everyday Christ-follower can’t reach it and experience what some describe as missional living.

They walk right passed their next door neighbor and into the woods to find the homeless woman (which I believe deeply in by the way, I just encourage both). They want their gatherings filled with the utter most marginalized (as so do I) and miss the banker sitting next to them who feels isolated and alone as his life quietly falls apart. Most often we rail against certain forms of church, namely the “institutional Church” with all her seductive entrapments, and persuade people to a more missional expression, like missional communities or house churches. But we fail to emphasize the raw essentiality of the “one another” texts of Scripture which when embraced, makes community more Christ-like and missional, regardless of form.¹ Instead, those living in these “more faithful” expressions of a missional faith grow frustrated because they cannot figure out how to include their children, or they feel a lack of generational diversity. Soon these expressions look less like everyday relationships–a mixture of old and young with ethnic and socio-economic diversity–and more like themselves. In a book or blog it sounds great, but in the living room or at the coffee shop where they meet it looks less glamorous. Their frustrations show it and they are apathetic or worse, wounded and cynical.

The ThinkerBut the thinkers and theorists write on and conference after conference speak on of our need for a radical and untamed Christian faith pushing far beyond the ancient ordinariness of missional living so that the everyday Christian is unable to experience the missional life unless they perform the grandiose gesture for the radical and maverick Jesus. Consequently, the gritty ordinariness of the missional life is being trumped by the romanticized versions of missional Christianity most often perpetuated by the thinkers and theorists often not living as daily practitioners of a faith easier to write and speak of than live in the gritty ordinariness of everyday life in the rhythms of stable community.

Does God expect us to offer only grand sacrifices or the daily sacrifice of a worshipful life lived in a community of worshippers attentive to His work in, among and through them? Has God’s presence and mission become so illusive that He is no longer concerned with your co-worker, next door neighbor, or second cousin?

The unintended result of romanticized missional speech is at best we miss the gritty ancient ordinariness of our faith, or at worst we promote a works-based gospel of fundamentalism dressed in new language.

I miss the royal Son of God who became the Nazarene son of a carpenter that recruited ordinary folk to proclaim and demonstrate a shared ordinary life, rooted in His kingdom for the good of all–the common and the uncommon folk.

My hope is that we will remember that it was in the gritty ordinariness of life that the extraordinary happened–God put skin on and made His dwelling among us, as one of us, alongside of us. And it still happens like that today, anywhere His everyday people are participating in His life in the most ordinary of ways.

Someone recently asked me what I mean by the “ancient ordinariness of missional living.” I’ll offer some thoughts and examples based on personal experience in a follow up post soon. In the meantime feel free to push back.


1. I do believe some forms/expressions of the Church are healthier than others. Where I am we are what some call a “mixed economy” as we gather in large gatherings in what some might say looks like an “institutional” church and embrace what some call a parish church expressions, or what some call “house churches.” My suggestion is that in our deconstruction of the Church we must offer guidance toward a faithful reconstruction, and do so with the Christian in mind who did not and may not ever read the likes of Barth, Bosch, or Guder.

 

About Fred

I am a follower of Jesus, the husband to Alison Glenn, daddy to my little man Ian. I am a son, brother, friend, bi-vocational pastor of Williamsburg Christian Church, ethnographer, activist and justice seeker, founder and president of 3e Restoration Inc, adjunct professor at Regent University, and mission specialist of church renewal with Mission Alive. I received my B.S. in Ministry/Bible at Amridge University and my Masters of Religious Education in Missional Leadership (MREML) from Rochester College. I am currently working toward my Doctorate of Ministry in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary.
This entry was posted in Christian living, Church, Social Justice, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Pop Culture Missiology and the Romanticism of Missional Living (Part 1 of 2)

  1. gibby espinoza says:

    So, Fred, what exactly caused you to write this? I’ve not seen the romantization of the missional life. The missional life I’ve seen is messy, painful and victorious. I’m curious about your motivation.

    grace and peace…gibby

    • Fred says:

      Hi Gibby, thanks for asking. I must not have been as clear as I thought in the post so I apologize so I will make a more concerted attempt in my reply, making this a bit longer than I would like. As to motive: just sincerely thinking and sharing what I’ve been processing in light of several years now of not only studying but, like you, living in the trenches of missional community as one who has tasted it in varied expressions (for various reasons) and now as one who has the joy of witnessing disciples make disciples where the last, least and left-out are not only included but empowered and released for God’s glory. I am listening to the folks who have read the popular books and who are in the daily rub of sorting out what it means to experience missional living in their varied contexts. My hope is to offer a word that spurs honest reflection and pause to whoever feels the need to do so, which began with myself. Personally, and after my own reflection and listening, I had a broad audience in mind. From missional thinkers and thought-leaders to academics, to theorists, to practitioners and anything in between, really. I was not aimed at a particular group or subgroup or tribe.

      Obviously you know I would agree that missional living is messy, so I am not suggesting otherwise. Choosing rootedness in beloved community; to walk into the woods and sit with a homeless man for hours is messy; investing time to extend gracious hospitality to the neighbor you don’t like at all, or have anything in common with at all;walking with a person steeped in religiosity quick to execute judgment on others while you seek to offer grace and mercy is hard. All messy. All hard. All are varied expressions of the discipled life and living on mission with God.

      Ultimately I wrote this post because I feel that though the missional life is messy we talk about it in such a way that we have made it complicated. And it just isn’t. It is hard, but not complicated; simple, but not easy. In my experience, and it is only my experience I am drawing from as I do not want to generalize, this can leave many to believe that missional is ultimately an event versus an ordinary way of life. I see it in many forms/expressions of church, from the traditional/institutional to the community meeting in a pub or coffee shop. Some think missional is a form/expression/type of a gathering, which is really another event. Or some missional becomes another word for “outreach,” which you see in a great deal of places or hear in conversations. Or missional is reduced to a form/expression of Church that is “missional” so long as it “reaches” a certain type of people/people group the institutional church is unable to reach, which when they do it becomes a clear sign that it has thrown off the baggage of religiosity and/or christendom. Or “missional” is reduced to simply an adjective–missional church, missional community, missional discipleship, missional living–and loses its deeper theological implications and instead is built bottom up from an ecclesiological foundation rather than a missiological one (or Christological or Trinitarian one, for that matter). Or at the very worst, “missional” becomes something a person or group of people can embrace without the belovedness of rooted community that does the hard work of nurturing one another-ness. At this point missional can become another word or brand and as in my examples above, a movement and way of being and doing as Christian community in the North American context becomes principally an activity.

      Like I tried to say in the post, I wonder if many of us are setting up missional living as something other than ordinary–and ordinariness that clings to an eschatological hope so tangible and subversive that it changes the way the employee sees her co-workers; the way a husband sees his wife; the way a student sees his classmates; the way the rich see the poor (or vice versa); the way the Christian sees her fellow Christian. But instead–and I hear this from many places–missional becomes something else, another compartmentalization of her life that causes her to walk right past the co-worker whose marriage is falling apart and into the words to spend time with the homeless women, then into her worship gathering held either at a church building under candle light or in a pub, and she calls that “missional living.”

      I am not suggesting that the modern missional conversation is bad, wrong, or anything of the sort. I am only suggesting that in missional conversation that abounds let us not forget about the ordinariness of missional living. It is messy for sure, but it is ordinary. It involves running back into the woods and spending time with the homeless man, but it also involves listening to your neighborhood and prayerfully joining God in what He is doing there in the everyday places. It is grandiose and loud, but it is also small and quiet. It might absolutely involve throwing off the trappings of institutional Church but it means much much more than just gathering somewhere else in a different setting under a different style. It involves events and activities but these only become missional when these events and activities are the natural overflowing of a life lived on mission with God–attentive to His presence and work among us–where one is sharing in the trenches of beloved community where love, gracious hospitality, listening, forgiveness, reconciliation, mutual submission–one another-ness–is worked for and enjoyed.

  2. K. Rex Butts says:

    Fred,

    I love it. Missional living sounds sexy and even radical when it takes us hipster neighborhoods, trendy coffee shops and bars, back-yard barbecues with our neighbors, etc… and that is certainly needed. But what about when missional living means giving a ride to a mentally handicapped and physically disabled person, being present as a pastor with an older church that is very far from being “cutting-edge”, serving the neighborhood crack-addict whose lifestyle is repulsive, taking a walk just to pray because the missional calling seems so overwhelming, etc… This is perhaps where the missional rubber meets the missional road. It’s not so sexy and doesn’t seem so radical but it is walking with Jesus.

    This is a great post and I appreciate your effort in writing it but even more, I appreciate the fact that I know you strive daily to walk the same life you talk about in your preaching, teaching, and blogging.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

  3. Erik says:

    “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24)

    This verse just kept playing in my head as I contemplated your thoughts, Fred. Bonnie and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary last May. In honesty though, we really have been together for 18 years! We met in 1995 in a group home where she moved out on her own later that year. Our relationship continued to grow and in the later parts of 1996 I moved in with her into a small condo in the NE side of Calgary. Ya, it was not the “biblical” contract of a healthy marriage and yet God worked through it so that today we are inextricably linked to each other through faith, hope, and love!

    I share this bro, because marriage and relationship is undeniably messy in this world and in listening to so many other stories I realize that it is never practiced the same in every persons life. Likewise, missional living and discipleship is messy. Each of us is walking a life times journey in relationship with Jesus and God.

    To speak of “romanticism”, without this in marriage the relationship withers, frustrates, and can sadly die. And yet there are days that my wife and I seem to be like two people from different planets! I think this is the journey of discipleship as we seek to become more like Jesus in the holistic incarnational sense. We don’t have it fully patterned out and there are days we sense the romanticizing presence of being in His likeness and then there are days we feel the tension of being miles from the mark. This is simply life in the making.

    Over the past couple years I have found myself less and less drawn to doing or speaking the missional practice and gravitating more and more to the practice or embodiment of discipleship. Yes, I am missional of course and deeply love the theological, philosophical, and practical learnings of its praxis but, it seems to me that Jesus is far more focused on the foci and vocation of discipleship and discipling while mission becomes simply a “fuel to that fire”. Ultimately I feel we need to stop practicing missionality and discipleship as something we do and rather recognize it as who and what we are!

    Fred, for whatever reason, God has placed me in the suburban neighbourhood of a predominantly middle-class community (bankers, business owners, doctors, ect.), and yet when I look deeper into its diversity I find across the street families who only have a home because Habitat for Humanity built it for them; several neighbours who are part of the marginal community because of physical challenges, homosexual relationships, alcoholism and addiction; and sadly dew to the societies prejudices, group homes which are camouflaged for fear of community rejection. In my House Tribe our ages range from 34 to 68 and maybe not in our own tribe but in others in our network, there are several flourishing communities with children running around the house and yard. This is a missional and discipling community!

    Still, I sense the unease you are speaking of as I converse with my brothers and sisters on these issues from time to time too. It is communal sojourning of which is sometimes done in a desert of sorts. Far be it for us to say we should go back to “Egypt” less we miss the promised land! Perhaps as leaders that is a discipling moment for us to model – that missional living, and discipleship, is a culture of being… not doing.

    Just some thoughts brother!! 😉

  4. James Jones says:

    Reblogged this on Forgiveness Factor and commented:
    Fred is a master of observation.

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