Editor’s note: The first post in this two-part series was “Missional missteps in Texas?”
In my previous essay, I described how the missional community movement fails to describe itself coherently, except as a negative judgment on traditional (or, to use its term, “attractional”) parish life. Now I will turn to the fatal flaws within the missional community’s functionality and to its theological deficit as a description of the Church.
I believe that the missional community model will fail in the medium to long-term (though short-run startups will continue to be celebrated as if the eschaton has arrived), precisely because it lacks the virtue that its proponents most gleefully assert for it: sustainability.
An article in Diolog 6.3 (September 2016), the Episcopal Diocese of Texas’s magazine, describes a new missional community that has “a different look and feel than a regular new church plant” (p. 8). It meets in private homes — a fairly standard step for new church plants, it seems to me — or in a Taco Bell or at the location of a food truck used by the members of the startup. The latter seems to be the new element.
A layman of the community described what he sees as the missional advantage: “the absence of a large campus to maintain, mortgage and operating infrastructure provides a benefit for the mission of this Christian community.” This arrangement seems “much more reminiscent of first century Christians” (p. 10).
Passing over the accuracy of the apostolic analogy, what the article does not mention is the considerable financial and institutional support that the missional initiative received from the very substantial church that gave its priest his start (and salary) and provided the nucleus of the mission’s lay leadership. It also has received support from the diocese. In other words, this new community was not a spontaneous, organic happening in the body of Christ, but received everything necessary from an attractional church and depends on it still.
I am sure being relieved of the burden of supporting a priest and his family make it much easier for the folks involved in this project to do what they do. But this missional community is decisively not sustainable, if one means by that self-sustaining.
The Episcopal Diocese of Texas has hired two full-time staff members to assist in the development of missional communities (one of them also has responsibility for the other 152-odd congregations of the diocese), and recently made an announcement that traditional churches will no longer be eligible for strategic mission grants for projects in evangelism, welcome ministry, etc. Rather, all those resources have been shifted to the support of missional communities. No attactionals need apply.
One must observe that this is a whole lot of support for communities that are described as “financially sustainable because of low overhead costs [italics mine]” (memo). Here’s the rub: the overhead has not disappeared; it has merely been shifted to the diocesan office.
While the missional communities may not themselves have any property or paid staff, their existence is maintained by a very large glass office building in downtown Houston and several fairly expensive professionals who work there. That is a shell game, not sustainability.
Many non-denominational churches are started every week. Some succeed in growing their membership. They all seem to want to buy property and build on it as soon as they can manage it. I wonder why? And I wonder how they do it? Perhaps the proponents of missional communities should find out.
But growth that actually leads to sustainability does not seem to be the goal of the missional movement. Bishop Doyle, in his essay in Diolog, writes that he is looking to sponsor “small batch Christian communities.” He raises up “microbrewer[ies], artisan chocolatiers, local bakeries and coffee roasters” and local farmers’ markets as models for the missional movement (p. 10).
Artisan chocolatiers. Craft beers. Cool beans. Fresh organic fruit. Evidently, missional communities are to model themselves on the economic enterprises of affluent urban niche consumer and leisure life. This is not a model that is going to trend toward diversity in anything but preference. This is doubling down on Episcopalianism as a boutique expression of liberal Christianity.
Even in the case of “success,” the missional model is flawed. According to the survey memo, missional communities “create their own structures based on the type of community that they are creating,” and they are “free to incarnate being Episcopal in non-traditional ways.” Additionally, they “are designed with no intention of sending people to established churches.”
No vestries, no sacraments (or lay people “do” the sacraments), no prayer book liturgies. Missional people leave parish churches, and they don’t come back.
Okay, got it. So let me pose a hypothetical situation (actually, as I understand, one that has played out in the Church of England again and again). A very gifted layperson or young clergyperson leaves a traditional church to start a missional community. They succeed at gathering a growing number of people. Maybe they receive funding from the original congregation, maybe from the diocese. They get coaching from the diocese. The community keeps growing and reaches a level where it really is sustainable in that it can pay its own bills. Momentum is high. The leader is effective and admired, with every sign of being a great church planter.
Question: what would keep this leader and his/her congregation in TEC and under obedience to the bishop? Remember: no vestry, maybe a monthly open table discussion (with a kitchen cabinet making real decisions, of course). No one to sue, no property, nothing “real” to lose. No pension, or barely vested. If the leader is not ordained already, the congregation can create its own structures, presumably including a means of ordination (how do non-denoms do it again?). If the congregation has truly imbibed the missional ethic, there would be no institutional loyalty.
Why do bishops and diocesan personnel think that they would be the baby and not the bathwater as soon as it became advantageous for a missional community to strike out on its own? The former group seems to be under the conceit that a gathering of people jettisoning all the other markers of Episcopal identity would want to keep the institutional hierarchy! There seems to be a presumption that bishops and their associates, with their not insignificant costs of maintenance, are the most attractive part of the Episcopal identity, especially for missional communities.
Now, I concede that the bishop puts the episcopos into Episcopal: I’ve been trained to be traditional, after all. But I think that if we all reflected on our spiritual journey, our embrace of Anglicanism had more to do with the liturgy, perhaps the local community into which we were blown by the Spirit at a critical time, the personal ministry of a member of the parish clergy, or something of that nature, rather than purple shirts, pointy hats, and annual sightings.
So again, why would a talented leader with a growing congregation want to yoke to a declining organization that has significant overhead costs and little benefit once one makes the transition to “attractionality”? Why would a leader return the phone call of someone saying they’re from the diocese and they’re here to help? Even when the missional community succeeds it is unsustainable as an Episcopal community.
Finally, the missional community can’t finish the journey because it only breathes with one lung; or more aptly, it only exhales. One of the most painful slights that the missional community movement offers to parishes is seizing a biblical word to describe itself — missional, which can be related to things like the Great Commission, etc. — and denying it to everyone else in the Church. Attractional is not a biblical word. They are pneumatically inspired; we are sociologically described.
The move is, I admit, a rhetorically effective one, but it does not go unnoticed. When I hear the word attractional come out of the mouth or pen of the missional partisans, I hear an epithet — an intentionally diminutive descriptor. They might as well say, “Your little old churchy church.”
So here’s the theological problem with these labels and practices, and why they are biblically unsound. Yes, the followers of Jesus were sent to be his witnesses in the world, but a careful reading of the New Testament reveals that they did that precisely as ekklesia: as a gathering, a congregation, a group of people whose lives were — dare I say it? — attractional enough to cause others to want to join them.
Their unity was not formed by their lives in the world of commerce or social affinities (including religious ones), but by coming together as holy ones, hagioi, saints who were set apart from the world for special use and who marked that difference by celebrating the Eucharist. St. Paul did not urge the Corinthian Messiah-people to bring their mysteries and koinonia to the marketplaces or the shrines of Athena, Roma, or Augustus — surely there were many people who could be found there! — but rather to leave those places and habits of mind behind to be people that could be a new Israel in the world.
Even the meat markets and, heaven forfend, the gymnasia would be problematic. And yes, the apostolic church did not have church buildings, per se, but when they met in someone’s home, the host didn’t set the rules so familiar to them from their life in the world; the rules were set by the example of the Messiah Jesus (1 Cor. 11:17ff). It was his meal, and for the time being, at least, his house — a domus Domini.
It is to this essential reality of the ekklesia tou theou, the Church of God, that the parish church bears its understated and beautiful testimony. The parish — fabric, as well as people — tells a story about who we are in Jesus, which meeting willy-nilly here and there in Taco Bells or foodie conclaves in Austin simply cannot tell.
The missional community movement can remind us of the importance of reaching out into the world to serve it: to put on our aprons and wash its feet. It can remind us of the apostolic journeys in which the Holy Spirit exhaled Peter to the house of Cornelius, Philip to the wilderness road through Gaza, Barnabas to Antioch, Paul to Rome. The Church — and every parish in it — is sent into the world as apostles to witness to Jesus’ love (as our eucharistic liturgy commands us).
However, if we would not be sectarians (even of a liberal variety), we must remember the entire narrative of God’s Word: that the Church is eschatological, as well as apostolic. The Church is also inspired, breathed in by God, gathered together in his heart, in Acts 11, and Acts 15, and finally and most profoundly in Revelation 22, where the holy ones of God will assemble around a Lamb and Lord so kalos — so attractive and beautiful — in his glorious love that he will bring all peoples together in one big batch and make them new.