The Dwelling Place has always defined itself as a missional faith community. Granted, we’ve been labeled an emergent church which I don’t care about because people love their categories and will use them to embrace and vilify you. Defending the emergent church or being missional is not part of my mission. In fact, arguing over the emergent church, its theology, etc. sounds like arguments that few but the inside care about (I get that arguments like these and things like the “ontological Christ” are important in some circles—and I know it’s hard to get our missiology correct if our theology is suspect—but in the final analysis, the bulk of my conversations are not with inside folks).

Generally, I’ve seen three models of what folks call emergent church. So most of the time we’re trapped between the traditional crowd believing us to be “different” to the point of being suspect and emerging/emergent folks playing “more emergent than thou.” Basically, the thing I’ve taken away most from the ongoing emergent conversation is the idea of rethinking what it means to be the church. As a faith community, is our chief responsibility to focus on how to teach and transmit faith? Are we to be a social service provider, a religious service provider, and follow a business model? Are we to build grand testaments to our empire and hope to attract people to our weekly production?

Basically I’ve been stung by two recent articles. The first by Alan Hirsch called Definining Missional. He recovers the roots of what it means to be missional this way:

Missional is not synonymous with emerging. The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. Missional is also not the same as evangelistic or seeker-sensitive. These terms generally apply to the attractional model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God’s agent in the world, but we should not confuse this with the whole.

A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one” who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”

On the flip side, I was equally chastened by Dan Kimball’s Missional Misgivings. Most on point was this criticism:

We all agree with the theory of being a community of God that defines and organizes itself around the purpose of being an agent of God’s mission in the world. But the missional conversation often goes a step further by dismissing the “attractional” model of church as ineffective. Some say that creating better programs, preaching, and worship services so people “come to us” isn’t going to cut it anymore. But here’s my dilemma—I see no evidence to verify this claim.

… some from our staff recently visited a self-described missional church. It was 35 people. That alone is not a problem. But the church had been missional for ten years, and it hadn’t grown, multiplied, or planted any other churches in a city of several million people. That was a problem.

Church ought to be put together in a way that makes sense. The missional model is more focused on deploying people, not attracting people. Drawing people out, finding their gifts, figuring out their callings, then sending them out to be a blessing in the world. In other words, we need to be about the doing.

The model of church that makes the most sense for me is family. Sundays are the family meeting, including the family dinner (Communion as our soul food). But we aren’t family just on Sundays, but have to be family during the week also. Families are hard and are re-defined with each addition. We don’t assimilate new members (to make them “one of us”) as much as add their gifts to our own. There is no privileged place and we learn and are taught in midst of life. We build communities of hope, full of hopeful possibility and people living from a place of hope.

And families grow. The goal of parents is to raise their children to be able to start their own families. It is anticipated, planned, and celebrated. You start your own family, you don’t take your brothers and sisters and begin a family.

Before I strain that analogy any further, I’d say missional churches operate from an organic paradigm , without a predetermined ministry method but rather letting their context determine their ministries. The environment should draw out people’s affinities and nurture people’s giftings. And the leadership should cultivate that environment. If you have the environment right, fruit happens naturally.

Believing in deep ecclesiology means that I’ve come to terms with the idea that there needs to be room for all kinds of church expressions, from the attractional model/mega-church to the niche church/coffee shop model. I know I’ve been quick to criticize mega-churches and touting how we’re “not about numbers”. At the same time, if we don’t grow, but rather remain static, we’re a collection of friends hanging out discussing spiritual issues, which isn’t bad, but not all we’re called to be.

I’m still waiting this wondrous conversation between the races promised by the emergent church, but I find that true across the board when it comes to the church. In the mean time, we’re to be communities of faith, hope, and love. We can have all the faith we want, but without love, it’s worthless. It’s sad that I have to remind myself that this includes loving my fellow Jesus people.