Nov  2017 14
From Missionary to Missional

Among many kinds of Christians, the word “missionary” elicits disgust. By today’s moral and ethical standards, and not only today’s, their bad connotation of “missionary” is deserved. Missionaries—some from centuries ago, and some from much closer to the present—were often colonial agents, used in service of stealing land, people, labor, and natural resources.

They understood themselves to bring God, salvation, and enlightenment to peoples who sat in darkness. Along with colonial magistrates and corporations, they sought to overwrite indigenous culture with the colonizer’s ways. They drew sharp lines between the sacred culture they brought and the secular, even demonic, cultures they wanted to eliminate, all in the name of Jesus.

Multiple Catholic missionary orders and increasing multiples of Protestant missionaries spread the European Reformation and Counter Reformation battles around the globe. I understand the contemporary disdain of what “missionary” has meant and, even today, can mean. Read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, on the folly of this kind of missionary.

However, when I think of what it means to be a pastor in the U.S. today, the word “missionary” keeps coming to mind. Why?

First, there is an important scholarly stream named “missional church.” In this understanding, the church does not have a mission, the church IS mission. God has a mission in and to the world, God is a sending God, and the church is an expression of God’s mission. In this theological framework, the word “missionary” could mean simply one who joins in God’s mission. This missional perspective seems awfully important at a time when what has paraded as “Christian culture” is dying or changing radically.

Second, missionaries see themselves, and are seen by the people they serve, as Other, or as bringing something Other into the culture. A pastoral leader being seen as somewhat Other is a good thing. When I was in seminary, we were instructed that clergy needed to join the culture of the congregation they serve.

Thus, when I was a member of the parsonage family in a rural Illinois town, one learned the conventions of what to wear and how to help prepare the annual ham supper. In Oklahoma, a pastor bought a pair of boots upon learning she had been appointed to a panhandle congregation. But in administration classes we were also admonished not to join the culture fully. It is better for a congregant to see you as somewhat foreign rather than simply “as one of us.”

When testing how apt an understanding of pastoral ministry is, consider this combination of factors:

  • The U.S. population is de-congregating, in terms of how frequently even those who call themselves religious gather for worship.
  • The U.S. population is becoming less religious.
  • The U.S. population is becoming less Christian.
  • Many, many formerly mainline congregations are at the tail end of their lifecycles. They were expressions of what Gibson Winter in the 1950s called “the suburban captivity of the churches”: the full-service program church that existed primarily for helping parents raise well-adjusted children, weaving friendship networks, and providing religious and moral dimensions to their adherents’ lives. As these churches aged and families no longer sought them, these congregations did not know how to reach out to new neighbors who were not like them, become attractive, or engage in mission.
  • The most dominant expression of Christianity in the U.S. for the last nearly 40 years is the Christian Right, a circle overlapping elements of (but by no means identical with) evangelicalism, fundamentalism, nationalism, and the post-Barry Goldwater (meaning more southern) GOP. With the current push from some leaders in the Christian Right for naked, patriarchal, mostly-white nationalism, we see the tearing of the former Christian Coalition-types into naked nationalists and evangelical Christians who resist that America First direction.

Considering these factors, I wonder if it would behoove pastoral leaders and the people who call/appoint them to understand pastors as missionaries. If you can’t live with the word “missionary,” then let’s find a term that works. How about “missional leader”?

I realize the following is an ideal-type understanding of what being a missional leader can mean—but so is every other term we associate with clergy leadership.

Here are the advantages of thinking of pastors like missionaries or missional leader:

  • Missional leaders do not assume the people they serve are Christian, and therefore they will encourage and love people into faith rather than attempting to forge them through jeremiads preached against their alleged incompetencies in Christian practices.
  • Missional leaders must observe the culture carefully, participate to the extent they can in order to experience the culture from within, listen deeply, and draw tentative understandings and conclusions that need to be tested.
  • Missional leaders are constantly looking for ways to present and re-present the Gospel that connect with the local culture.
  • In a missional church understanding, God is already present and active in the culture before the missionary arrived. The missionary does not bring God or the Truth. The missionary learns the culture deeply enough to say “Look, there it is!”, rather than, “Look what I’ve brought to you!”
  • The congregation expects a missional leader to bring perspectives and practices the congregation does not have, rather than expecting the pastor to be “one of us.” If the pastor is only “one of us,” it is less likely the community will experience sufficient conflict and tension to move anywhere.
  • As missionaries needed furloughs and sabbaticals from the challenges of the mission fields, so do missional leaders. One of the most dangerous situations for any congregation is for pastors to see and treat congregations as arenas to fulfill the pastor’s needs. The flip side, also very dangerous, is for congregations to disempower themselves by projecting their unmet needs unto an enabling pastor. Missional pastors and the congregations they serve need time apart in order that each is reminded that, while they have a common mission, the pastor and the congregation are not the same entity.

Finally, we in the so-called Christianized West need to change our picture of who comes to mind when we hear the word “missionary.” There are an indeterminate number of missionaries criss-crossing North America from other parts of the world.

As North America becomes less outwardly Christian, it is more and more seen as a field ripe for harvest. This time around, however, the missionaries may more likely be from Nigeria or South Korea than from North Carolina.

It may be time to re-form the picture of who is a missionary.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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