Is your church becoming missional, or simply a more active version of itself?

We perform what we can imagine. That is, we make choices, evaluate consequences, and act in keeping with the world that we have imagined. And some of that imagination is shared, or social. We share narratives, or deep imaginative structures, that give our actions meaning and significance. Charles Taylor and others refer to this as a “social imaginary.” The social imaginary keeps us from driving on the left side of the road, encourages us to take our hats off and cover our hearts between the eighth and ninth innings of baseball games as someone sings “God Bless America.” It’s what tells us that markets are good and institutions are bad, what causes us to both fetish-ize and be ashamed of power. It’s what allows us to criticize the sermon and teaches us that the most important thing that happens in worship happens in the interior of the individual.

So, churches have shared imaginations as well. We have imagined the relationship between God, church, and world in ways that authorize certain actions and make others problematic. We’ve imagined our lives in ways that allow us to see and say some things and that blinds us to others.

So, if the term “missional” is something real, if it marks something other than the status quo, then it must proceed from a different shared imagination. Otherwise, it may only be a louder, more passionate benevolent paternalism, or worse, a longer list of things to do for people who are already doing too much. I fear that most uses of missional by congregations indicate the latter options, and not a shift in imagination that authorizes new actions.

A social imaginary is not simply a set of ideas we hold. It’s a complex of ideas and practices that are held together as meaningful in the imaginary. So, a new imagination will require an exploration of ideas, but also practices–a way of life–that cause us to handle and see the world differently.

I can pinpoint certain theological shifts that make a missional imagination more likely. To get missional lift we will have to break free of the gravitational pull of classical theism and and its attendant substantialist notions of Trinity. We will need to be less Christocentric and more Spirit oriented. Missional becomes a greater possibility within a more robust eschatology and a cruciform Christology.

I could add to this list of theological repairs needed. But my hunch is that I just lost a lot of readers. And those who propose the need for a missional shift make the mistake of engaging the existing imaginary here, at the level of ideas. Not only do we lose the eye-glaze battle with most church members, but changing the way we think about things doesn’t make much of a dent in a social imagination in and of itself. Karl Weick, the leading name in the literature on sense making, suggests that new information rarely causes us to make new sense of things. We simply absorb ideas into the way we’ve already imagined the world.

The real action at the level of shifts in the social imaginary comes at the level of practices. It is through the actual handling of the world, of attending more closely to life as it happens between us and among us, that we get push at the level of imagination. There are several reasons for this, the biggest being that reality is not simply what we impose on the world. Reality bites. It surprises us and we have to account for the surprise (if we are attentive).

So, I’ve learned to talk about this more concretely in ways that get more traction with people. Much of it has come from the learning I’ve done in and with congregations through my work with Church Innovations, especially my collaboration with Stephen Johnson (my partner in crime). Stephen and I have identified seven competencies that we think put you on the path to missional, rooted in practices, that hold out the hope for a shift in a church’s social imaginary. Let’s see what you think.

It could make the difference between becoming missional or simply a more active version of yourself.

Living in a story bigger than justification by faith

One of my grad students recently attended lectures by NT Wright at Oklahoma Christian University. (Kudos to OCU for getting Wright). These presentations hit my student after a course he took from me this semester, “Gospel and Cultures.” This course is a sea change for most students due to the fact that the default definition of gospel for most people is some view of substitutionary atonement. It’s a little jarring for some to realize that this is not the way Scripture talks about gospel. Instead of the gospel being a theory about how an individual has their sins forgiven, it pretty consistently refers to an announcement (news) that the coming of Jesus (notably his death and resurrection) marks a dramatic turn of the ages in which the future reign of God is breaking into the present–the Kingdom of God.

Now, again, as I’ve had to often in posts like these, this doesn’t mean that the salvation of the individual isn’t important to God. Nor does it mean that the coming of Jesus doesn’t bring forgiveness of sins. It simply means that these are subsumed under a much bigger understanding of salvation–an understanding that is more in keeping with the biblical testimonies. Salvation means ultimately that God is all-in-all, that his glory is restored to all God has created, or as Ephesians says it, “all things, whether in heaven or on earth, will be gathered up into Christ.” It means that there is the possibility of one new human family “in Christ.” It means that creation will be “set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” It means that human lives can live free from the powers that impinge and distort our lives, and live instead by powers that will endure into the eschaton.

So, salvation is not so much a status that we own, but a realm that God owns in which we participate.

Now, I share with my students what I in turn received from others, including NT Wright. I was relieved that my student recognized in Wright’s lectures things that he had read for our class. In an email about his experience, he made the following statement:

So after our gospel discussions in class, hearing NT Wright say that Paul’s central message is not “justification by faith,” and reading your baptism posts on your blog, I have a question that is constantly on my mind.  One of the reviewers of Wright’s new Paul book (Dr. Thompson from ACU) asked a great question.  Now that we have this new view of Paul and his writings, what does this look like “on the ground” for the church?   

So, let me see if I can spend some time on this question. And let me begin with a caveat. We’ve been organizing church around a more individualistic notion of gospel and salvation for quite some time now. It will take us some time to figure out where this impulse will lead. I understand the need for the question, but I’m always a little struck that when encountered with something new we feel the need for a certain mastery over it before we lean into it, i.e. “What does this look like?” Not, “How will we learn to trust God in this time of transition?”

Let me start, though, with a scene from last night at Starbucks. I was sitting uncomfortably close (within my introvert perimeter) to a young couple having a very passionate conversation about God. She was a winsome evangelical. He was a skeptical something-or-other. She was giving this her all, because it seemed to me, they were serious about each other, but she could only marry a Christian. This was an all-or-nothing moment for her and she was pulling out all the stops. And she was getting creamed.

She was not getting creamed because she lacked the intellectual ability or because he was a better debater. She was getting creamed because she had a story that’s tough to defend. It wasn’t just that he disagreed with her. He was offended by her view of God.

Her story was predictable. All of us are sinners, and it takes only one to make us unacceptable to God. And there’s hell to pay, literally. God can’t simply forgive us our mistakes. He has to have a victim before he can forgive, a blood sacrifice. So, he sends his own son to die for us, to appease his otherwise unappeasable wrath.

For the young man, this made God a monster. It failed for him precisely at the level of being moral. God really can’t forgive me for a mistake unless someone dies? With all that’s wrong with the world–disease, war, hunger, slaver–God is obsessed with who I sleep with? He kept telling her that he was a good person who cared for others and took care of the earth and cared about global issues of justice. God was going to send him to hell for pre-marital sex? (He did seem a little pre-occupied with sex).

Now, I won’t take time to dissect the particulars of her story or the problems with his critiques. I want to look at the starting place in her story. Her story had as its center the problem of individual sin. Everything flowed from that premise. As a result, her rhetorical strategy began with isolating him in his sin and warning him of the grave dangers to him personally. 

Now let’s try on a story that doesn’t begin with the individual as the issue. What if she had started this way: we live in a world that is totally screwed up. Sex-trafficking, poverty, disease, environmental disasters. We’ve made a hash of it. (He agrees). And being a really good person isn’t the answer. We’re both really good people and know a lot of other really good people and we fix some things and some don’t get any better and some get worse (He agrees). Even science, which makes our lives better in so many ways, also threatens to wipe us from the face of the earth (He agrees). And my question is, where is God in all of this? (And he agrees and hopes you have a satisfying answer). The Christian story says that God has revealed his power in a story of selfless love, which is the opposite of what the Bible calls sin and identifies as the root of this whole mess. God’s solution to the problem is not power as “control over” the contingencies of this life. Rather, the Christian view of the world is that God suffers with us, joins us, endures with us, and works for justice through paths of faithful love. Love, not as an emotion, but love as a way of always acting for us. And ultimately, this is the power through which all things will be made whole. The death of Jesus on a Roman cross is a demonstration that there is no power or circumstance that places us outside of his love. And his resurrection from the dead says to us that the powers of sin and death don’t have the final word. And the church is a group of people who live by the power of this selfless love, which the Holy Spirit gives to us, and who live in resistance to all other powers that would shape life in distorting or unjust ways, who live as a sign of God’s future where all things will be made whole. This takes more than just good people or moral people. Christians hardly have that market cornered, but it takes people who share a commitment to this way of being in the world. And when you live this way with others, you learn to recognize the unmistakable ways that God shows up, like those moments of power when we learn to forgive each other the way God lavishly forgives us. And when I live in this story, I find myself being transformed by the love God. The way this world gets on you and in you and contaminates you and weighs you down with shame and guilt and condemnation is defeated. And this transformed way of life survives everything, even death. (There’s lots more, but this is a blog).

Maybe he buys it, maybe he doesn’t. But the point is a different starting place makes a huge difference. By moving the primary issue from the individual to creation and history, the story unfolds in a different way. And you might tell it differently than I did. For instance, Paul doesn’t tell it precisely this way. But he’s starting with a different audience. I was starting with the young man at the Starbucks. This variety of audiences is one reason the Bible doesn’t tell the story only in one way. If the Bible doesn’t, why should we? And I’m convinced that if we place ourselves inside of a different story, it will change the ways we do things as well. More on that.

Johnny Cash, Outlaw, Sufferer, and the Gospel

Richard Beck’s latest posts on Johnny Cash reminded me of a very similar piece I wrote about five years ago on my old blog site. Like Richard, I have had times of fascination with Cash and his attempt to hold together the images of outlaw and saint that occupy his music. Anyway, as this post reveals, I mark a late shift in Cash’s life where the image of outlaw is less pronounced, and I think this in turn makes for both better theology and music.   


Rick Rubin is one of my heroes these days. He’s a record producer who makes everyone sound great. I’m enjoying Jakob Dylan’s solo cd these days, a Rubin product. Though I haven’t heard it (really, I haven’t), he also did the new Neil Diamond cd that debuted at #1 (I did see Neil Diamond at Starbuck’s in Malibu a few weeks ago. So, there’s that).

To me, however, Rubin’s most amazing achievement was with Johnny Cash, late in Cash’s life. Rubin produced the American Songbook series. There were some Cash originals in the mix (e.g., Unchained, The Man Comes Around), but most were covers, and some were spectacular. He covered acts as diverse as U2 (One), Depeche Mode (Personal Jesus), Soundgarden (Rusty Cage), Tom Petty (Won’t Back Down), and Nine Inch Nails (Hurt). Cash’s version of Hurt is particularly gripping.

I’m of the opinion that the American collection is Cash’s best work. I like the early Cash (Walk the Line, Still Miss Someone, Ring of Fire) and the later Cash. The middle years, I can do without. And part of it, I think, is due to the conflicting images Cash tried to hold together. He cultivated both his image as an outlaw and a saint. He sang Folsom Prison Blues and Rock of Ages, trying to be simulataneously sinner and saint. As a result, in my opinion, he couldn’t find his voice and his life was a mess.

I’m currently studying at a Lutheran seminary. I know the way that a particular reading of justification by faith has produced a strong theological tradition that emphasizes humans as simultaneously sinners and saints. At one level, this is undeniable, and there are healthy gains that come from regonizing both.

This is a tough tension, however, around which to sustain an identity. The outlaw image tends to prevail. Romans 7 typically kicks Romans 8’s rear, experientially speaking. Moreover, guilt and shame are not the only human issues addressed by the cross. Which brings me back to Cash.

Rubin has written about the first time he ever saw Johnny Cash. Cash had to be carried down a set of stairs into the recording studio. He was crippled and nearly blind. Rubin thought he had made a mistake to throw his lot in with Cash. Until they handed Cash a guitar and he started singing. Those who have listened to the America cd’s know that his voice is not the same. It’s not as strong. It’s a little ragged at times. But it is nonetheless powerful. It carries forward all the years and experiences of his life. You can hear both the pain and the hope.

Over the later years of his life, pain was Cash’s constant companion. And his song choices dealt less and less with the theme of the outlaw, and more with the image of the sufferer. As a result, Hurt and When the Man Comes Around sit comfortably together on the same CD. They are of a piece. And they carry deep pathos. You don’t doubt that Cash is singing about something real.

When Christians try to engage in public speech, often we divide the world around the issue of guilt (it would be an improvement to talk about shame, though this is another post for another time). This leads us into the often confusing and potentially hypocritical dichotomy of sinner and saint. It can be a tough conversation to get off of the ground, and one that in my opinion misses the real significance of the gospel. We run into the same confusing categories that Cash did in his lost middle years.

The gospel of a crucified God, however, has great resonance with suffering, and suffering cuts across every human life in ways that demand an account of God’s presence in the world. Part of Cash’s appeal in his later work was due undoubtedly to Rubin’s genius as a producer. But part of it has to do with his move away from outlaw/saint to sufferer/saint. I think we might learn a thing from Johnny Cash.

Observations on a chord/nerve struck

Well, yesterday’s blog was widely read. I’m not used to that. My audience is typically fairly narrow, consisting mostly of family members. In fact, yesterday was so unusual that wordpress actually sent me a message alerting me that people were actually reading my blog! I kid you not.

So, evidently, the post struck a chord, or perhaps a nerve. And I feel like today I need to say a few things by way of response or  clarification.

First, I was overwhelmed and moved by those of you who shared parts of your story with me. Some were stories of staying with varying degrees of change in women’s roles. Some were stories of leaving, which were sad and wrenching to me. It was important that I hear again the stories of pain. On the other side of the issue, I heard stories of loss. With all the changes, people have lost their church. And those stories need to be given attention. But they don’t carry the same weight as the stories of pain. The stories of pain in this case are largely the stories of women, and it was good for me to hear them again. I was grateful for them all. I am convinced that God works in human lives, and so the stories we tell each other are important in knowing God.

Second, it occurred to me at several points during the day that I needed to clarify some things. I want to be clear that when I say that things are happening at Rochester College, ACU, and Pepperdine (and other places I’m sure), that this doesn’t mean that there is some big agenda that each has for women in Churches of Christ. I do know that Rochester and Pepperdine practice full inclusion in the life of the institution. Women and men can do the same things in the life of the University. But these institutions are also respectful of congregations and their varying practices. I know, having directed ACU’s lectureship for seven years, that this is a tough balance to maintain. My point here is that decisions have been made at a practical level for the life of the institution that do not represent an active agenda for changing churches.

Third, I want to be clear that in my own practice of ministry, its not my goal to have everyone think like me or to have churches do what I think is right. My goal is to create an environment in congregations where the Spirit of God can move and the congregation can discern together what it is that God is calling them to. None of the congregations that I have served fully embody my doctrinal preferences and that shouldn’t be my standard for success. The ability to talk about things in open, careful, and honest ways, however, is a goal of mine. If it is not even possible to talk about issues related to gender, and other topics, then I can’t in good conscience serve there.

Along those lines, I was particularly touched by those who said they couldn’t go as far as me in their views, but wanted to know how I dealt with the places where they got stuck. I like these better than the responses of those who flung Bible verses at me. Actually, these responses amuse me. What are they thinking? Poor Mark. Just doesn’t know his Bible very well. I’ll help him out. These verses are so simple that they will clear things right up and he’ll see the error of his way. I am tempted to respond, “thank you. I was unaware of those verses. Never mind.”

Actually, the point many of them seem to be making is that I don’t take the Bible seriously enough, or that I am satisfying myself and not God. Clearly, I don’t think that’s what is going on. I care just as much as they do about doing God’s will and just as much about taking the Bible seriously. In fact, in practice, I think I take the Bible more seriously because I try to take it on its own terms. I try to let the actual phenomenon of Scripture dictate how I read Scripture. Most of my auditors who felt I’m not taking the Bible seriously start with assumptions that the Bible itself doesn’t support, e.g. that the Bible’s message is simple, univocal, flat, without diversity, not subject to interpretation.

This leads to another observation. The changes in my views came less because I discovered some novel way of exegeting a text. My hunch is that I would largely agree on the substance of individual texts with people who hold a different view from me (though not all). The difference lies in the questions and concerns I bring to the text which are more properly theological than they are exegetical. In other words, the question “how is God related to texts?”, not just “what does this text say?” is the difference maker for me. So, those who disagree with me are right to point out that our differences lie in what we think of Scripture. The fact, however, that they hurl passages at me with which I am very familiar expecting that this bare act alone should suffice in turning me from the error of my ways suggests they don’t understand how Scripture is important to me.

So, it occurs to me that the most helpful thing for me to do in helping others understand my position is not to unpack specific verses, but to talk about the shifts that I have made regarding how I read Scripture. I think a lot of people have an intuitive position on the role of women, but don’t really know how to deal with Scripture texts that don’t support their views. I think I can help with that. (By the way, those who hold a restrictive view on women also have intuitive views that can’t be supported by certain Scripture texts). My posting frequency has been way down lately and is bound to remain that way for awhile. So, be patient with me (it is a fruit of the Spirit, which is somewhere in the Bible), and hopefully I’ll trace the journey in ways that will be helpful.


Clarification on My Comments About Preaching and Change

I committed the sin of bloggers–making a point without sufficient nuance. And a reader was right to call me on it. I made the overheated suggestion that if you are seeking change within your congregation, you shouldn’t preach a sermon series about it. One reason I offered for this is that significant change doesn’t occur because people get new information. So, why preach? Or blog? Fair question.

I stand by my overall point and for all the reasons suggested in the post, but let me clarify.

Changing a congregational practice is what I have in mind. Clearly preaching can change things. It can change minds. It can change hearts, and both of these are elements for congregational changes in practices. But both often fall short of affecting the changes the preacher is hoping for, and the reason for this is that this strategy–preach us into new practices–is naive.

Most of us have been conditioned educationally to think in terms of information to application, or to move from theory to practice. We live in what James Smith calls a Cartesian anthropology–that we understand what it means to be human primarily in relation to reason. We are reasoning creatures, so what changes things is the information we receive. We’ve been socialized in that anthropology, according to Smith, through the shape of our educational experience.

But change, particularly change in shared practices, involves more than changing our minds about things. This requires deeper, cultural change. 

I’ve experienced in my own preaching the wall that people who write about sense making or diffusion of innovations identify. I remember once deciding that our practice of the Lord’s Supper was fundamentally flawed given the nature of what a table accomplishes. Easy enough. I’ll just preach a brilliant sermon series on it, have a discussion about it, and we’ll make the requisite changes. I had been at the congregation a long time and knew that the congregational trust level was high. This would be a snap.

And the sermon series was brilliant. People agreed in theory with the thrust of the sermons. But when we talked about actually making changes in our practice we hit a brick wall. No, we hit a roadside bomb. What happened?

Well, first of all, what people valued about their practice went beyond a reasoned explanation of that practice. They did things during the Lord’s Supper that their grandmother had taught them, or that they considered godly, reverent, and above all inward. They associated inwardness with spiritual, an effect of a Cartesian anthropology. And most of this was assumed or tacit, not subject to reason. What about my brilliant sermons with which they seemed to agree? They were simply able to fit the information in their sermons into their already constructed frame of reference. To change would require that their frame changed.

How does that happen? Well, there are things that cause people to have to make new sense of the details of their lives. But according to people who understand these things, ideas are rarely strong enough to overcome the frame. But surprises or significant anomalies are.

Most anomalies, things that lie outside of our frame of reference, we ignore. We can function without having to make sense of them. But a few cause us to reconsider the whole deal. People might have strong views of marriage and divorce that are not subject to critique, until their daughter divorces the guy who beat her. People can have strident views on homosexuality until their child tells them that they are gay. You get the idea. These experiences that surprise us or shock us throw us into new sensemaking loops.

So, deep, cultural change tends to happen around a rhythm of action, reflection, and articulation, as opposed to a rhythm of information to application. Something happens outside of our frame, we reflect on its meaning, and we eventually venture to say what this might mean. Preaching has a different role in that kind of economy. It is not principally about communicating information, though that may occur or even be the focus of some sermons. Instead, preaching seeks to rename our experiences in light of the strange and surprising world imagined by the text. Oftentimes, the sermon is not the first word to us, but it can be a clarifying word that gives us a vivid sense that God is at work among us.

So, I should clarify my claim about preaching and change. Preaching that brings the surprising work of the Holy Spirit in our present experience into view, that helps us reflect on that experience, and name it in light of the strange world of Scripture can be a significant catalyst for change. As perhaps a blog can be.

The Holy Spirit and Peace in a Fragmented World

One of my theories is that the life we pursue together might not qualify as Christian unless it requires the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, it is a life lived in our power, a life fully within our grasp. There is no gospel in this. The gospel has to be that an alternative world is available that depends on a power beyond our own. The power for a new creation, or for a world characterized by peace, can only come into view by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, the question for reflection this week has to do with the Holy Spirit. Why does the project of reconciliation you have chosen require the Holy Spirit? Put more directly, as you have participated in the reconciling work of God, how have you experienced the Holy Spirit? This question does not require a spectacular answer. Sometimes the Holy Spirit works in the everyday occurrences of life. In fact, sometimes we will only see the work of the Spirit in hindsight, because life exhibits the fruit of the Spirit.

Still, I want to ask you to reflect in two ways related to the Holy Spirit. What do you believe is the Spirit’s part in your project? Where have you seen the Spirit at work?

I have some ideas here, especially related to the first question. But let’s see where you start. C’mon now, post. Don’t be shy.

Participation in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus

OK, this week’s post is pretty important, and leads us in thought directions to which we’re typically not attuned. So, here’s the simple statement, and then we’ll see if we can unpack it. The main way the New Testament talks about the death and resurrection of Jesus is as an event in which we participate.

Think about passages like these from Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ who lives in me.

I want to know Christ and the power of his rising, share in his sufferings, conform to his death so that somehow I might obtain resurrection from the dead.

For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.

The death and resurrection is not so much a theory for Paul (he never spells out a complete theory of how the death and resurrection of Jesus saves us), but instead sees it as the story he has decided to imitate. The “word of the cross” for Paul is a way of life–a way of life that saves us.

So, the question this week for you to consider is, how is your commitment to seek reconciliation connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus as a way of life?

The first text that comes to my mind is from 2 Corinthians. “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one died for all; therefore, all have died. And he died so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” A few verses later, Paul describes people who live like this as “ministers of reconciliation.” People who are living in the realities of the death and resurrection of Jesus live for the sake of others, and that includes seeking peace.

There are undoubtedly other passages like that as well that you could think of, and I hope as they come to mind you will post them here. But I want to focus your reflection on three questions that I think are central to allowing the death and resurrection of Jesus become the script for your life.

Jesus trusts God for his life, even in death. This is the hallmark of a life living in the death and resurrection of Jesus–trust. How does the way of life you are pursuing as a group demand trust?

Life in the death and resurrection of Jesus requires some things to be put to death. What things are you finding must be put to death for you to pursue this way of life? Another way to ask that might be, what habits and patterns belonging to this present age have been put to death on the cross of Jesus? And how do the death of these things help you as a “minister of reconciliation?”

Finally, the life of the death and resurrection of Jesus is not just about putting things to death, or taking things off. It is also about receiving “newness of life.” Part of our salvation is that we are receiving, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the new life of the resurrection. We’re putting on new things, not just taking off old things. So the question might be, what new things are we receiving from the Spirit of the risen Jesus that allow us to do the work of reconciliation?

OK, start here and let’s see how this goes. I’ll chime in as you comment.