I taught my sons to fly a kite the other day. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and the wind was just right for it. They are old enough to know how a kite should fly but not old enough to have flown a kite themselves, which means that their understanding of how to fly a kite was completely wrong.
When you watch someone fly a kite, what you see is a hand holding the string and a kite flying high up in the air. It is not clear from indoors what the mechanism for flight is, and it is easy when you are learning to try to find the wind and misread its direction, sending your kite in a tail-spin into the ground.
The trick to flying a kite is to find the wind and then work against it. You might think that flying a kite requires working with the wind, but it is actually the force of the wind blowing against the kite that creates the lift that sends it upward into the air.
Why am I telling you this?
Because I think kite flying might be an example of church leadership and its current temptations. The question that occurred to me was, what if the cultural resistance we perceive when trying to fly our ministry-kites is because we are facing the wrong direction? What if “missional identity” has primed us to misunderstand cultural pressure and to believe the culture could be won, and that our job was to win it? And what would happen if we turned around to face the wind?
“God is a sending God, a missionary God, who has called His people, the church, to be missionary agents of His love and glory. The concept missional epitomizes this idea.” This opening salvo, from the “Missional Manifesto” published in 2011, is largely unproblematic. Indeed, this is some of the challenge with critiquing the “missional” movement. Who wouldn’t want to influence the culture for the gospel? Who would object to the church seeing herself as “on mission”? Doesn’t this describe a body of believers who see their task as properly evangelistic, which is one of the chief identities Christians have always shared?
The core of a “missional” churchly identity is the idea that God himself is “on mission,” and so has sent the church also to be “on mission.” The role of the church here is primarily to reach the world. They are the “sent ones” who are sent just as God has sent the Son, as witness to himself. There is a nice parallelism here and it is not a theological falsity to say that “being sent” is a core Christian commitment.
You’d have to be significantly jaded to find too much awry with this definition of missional. Since Lesslie Newbigin’s influence, the mission movement has increasingly realized that the church in the West is the new mission field, and that our recognizing ourselves as sent to the culture is the only way to retain Christian presence in the West. (Whether Newbigin himself at times longed for Constantinian Christianity is an interesting question). “Missional” churches primarily pass an identity or form to their members. They know themselves as those who are sent to the culture, to make it more Christian (or at least to make more Christians, if their cultural impact be limited). Worship fosters mission.
Though “missional” remains a primary model for the American church, there has been an increasing awareness that we may be in a “post-missional” moment. The basic gist is that as the forces of secularism increase, the potential for missional engagement shrinks. At the same time, the forces of secularism themselves increase in strength, so that those inclined to be “missional” increasingly are influenced by the cultural assumptions they ought to be criticizing. (Is The Emotionally Healthy church the U2charist of yesteryear?)
The concern I have with “missional” church identity is that it often yields an identity that is missionary and a strategy that is primarily contextual. Christians become missionaries and not Christians– doers and not those with a changed identity themselves. (“Well at least a lot of people met Jesus there!” they reflected of Mars Hill). Contextual strategies seek out places where “the culture” and “the gospel” have places of synchronicity. If we take Aaron Renn’s impressionistic but I think largely correct “Three Worlds” as a map, the missional moment was the neutral world. The call was for Western Christians to meet secular Americans where they were at, sometimes literally (church in a pub!), sometimes figuratively (leading discussions about racial justice or mental health in order to “meet a need”).
The idea that the church needs to contextualize its witness to the particular strengths and witnesses of its location remains uncontroversial in my mind. My concern is not that either mental health or racial justice are bad things. My concern is that neither of these things are distinctively “churchly” things. The mission of the church, therefore, has been altered by its effort to be “on mission” in a post-Christian world. When you seek to identify the space of congruence between culture and gospel, in order to leverage that space to communicate the gospel, you risk communicating something other than the gospel.
Without recognizing it, your church mission becomes something like “loving your neighbor,” which is something you do not need to be Christian to do. Missional identity, at its worst, in its persistent strategies to “send,” can defeat its goal by choosing what is effective and efficient. In order to reach people, you need to attract them, to demonstrate to them that Christian witness matters and improves the world. So you end up with churches sponsoring Juneteenth rallies and neighborhood cleanups, vaccine clinics and foster-care bottle drives.
None of these things are bad things, and indeed all of them are things that Christian people might do out of Christian commitment. The question is whether the core identity of a church is to track the cultural wind and steer into it, providing those goods that the culture values in order to demonstrate their value and convert others to their way. Or is the goal of church is to witness to another world? Indeed, “missional identity” need not dilute Christian witness. But it inevitably tells church members the wrong thing about their identity. Are you a sent one, or are you one called to “dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple (Psalm 27:4).”
Surely, every Christian might recognize themselves as “on mission” and certainly it is not “either/or.” The critical question is whether “missional identity” makes churches into strategic staging grounds for a campaign that failed at the outset. Indeed, every Christian is most certainly not up to the task, and many themselves will be converted to the world in the process. But do you see how the persistent preoccupation with “mission” might have formed modern Christians in particular ways, ways that make us keenly tempted by contextualization and blind to the basic call of Christians to worship as the core Christian task?
What if worship is the church’s mission? What would leadership look like, if this were true?
If church is where we speak another name and witness to another kingdom, it will form us. It will call out the idols of empire and materialism and even the nuclear family, in turn — calling us to radical hospitality and generosity and common life together. But it is not a strategy but another word. As Katherine Sonderegger writes, “theology breathes another air.” It invites us to speak of God, and speech about God ought always to reflect this character. We stammer, we lilt, we bear the accent of those who have seen a different world. The world that we have spoken of is not our world. This tension is precisely the point. When we try to make the world and the church compatible to carve out the space of our witness, we translate and lose the meaning. There is a different reality, we bear witness to it there. Some of what we speak of is and ought to be incoherent in the modern world. But the Lord is in his Holy Temple, let all the earth adore him. What is true about the church is not what it does or accomplishes but the fact that it speaks a different word.
The Post-Missional Moment
So back to the kites. My boys were running around in the wind dragging their kites behind them. They were exerting and exhausting themselves, and their kites rose for a minute and then nose-dived into the ground. They were exhausted and their project wasn’t working. This was all because they were training their work into the wind, when they needed to be working against it.
In missional ministry work, it is tempting to direct our work to the culture. This is because we are desperate to be “missional” and be “on mission,” engaging the world for the gospel. If there is a political crisis, we make statements against religious nationalism. We fly a flag for Ukraine. If there is an uprising of concern about traditional gender norms, we make it clear that we too are concerned about those harmed by the rigid gender binary. If there is a dearth of young people attending our church, we try to make our church very cool for young people. We even hire ministers to attract young adults to our church!
Now the church is no place for homophobia and “cool church” might in fact be “faithful church” depending on if trads are in the room. My point here is that the missional strategy — even instinct — is to identify the place of congruence between the gospel and the culture and steer into it. This may be largely unconscious, but it need not be as strategic as full-on contextualization to be damaging. If the culture is deeply deformed by a false soteriology and the lack of a proclamation of sin and grace, then what the culture desires or cares about very well might be a false gospel. To make the gospel attractive or even coherent in such a context might mean propagating a gospel that is vacated of the very things that make it good news.
But it is not just diluting the gospel I am worried about. Rather I am worried that we miss the point of worship entirely if our goal is to be missional. “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him” — this is the counter-cultural, counter-missional word.
Going with the wind means trying to find the neutral territory that the culture understands- the missional angle — and attempting to explain the gospel to the culture in a way that it makes sense. It can also mean exhausting yourself trying to reach people and be on mission.
Before I go on, let me be clear that the mistake in my mind does not lie with Lesslie Newbigin. The error comes with those of us who in 2022 are trying to practice the method he argued for. By identifying the idols of our age, we fail to consider both their power and the degree to which we too have been shaped by them.
One example that Newbigin mentions is the way the role of the nation-state has replaced what was previously seen as the role of the church. In his mind, the “emergence of the concept of human rights” has replaced the medieval man’s “rights” which were defined by a network of reciprocal relations; “the man farming the land had a duty to provide troops to fight his lord’s battle and a corresponding right to his lord’s protection.”
Importantly, this meant that rights and the claim to them were finite. “But the quest for happiness”, Newbigin observes, “is infinite”:
Who, then, has the infinite duty to honor the infinite claims of every person to the pursuit of happiness? The answer of the eighteenth century, and of those who have followed, is familiar: it is the nation-state. The nation state replaces the holy church and the holy empire as the centerpiece in the post-Enlightenment ordering of society. Upon it devolves the duty of providing the means for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And since the pursuit of happiness is endless, the demands upon the state are without limit. If- for modern Western peoples- nature has taken the place of God as the ultimate reality with which we have to deal, the nation-state has taken the place of God as the source to which we look for happiness, health, and welfare.
Today we have church bodies largely preoccupied not only by internal political conflicts, in some cases, but also in propagating political ideologies of their own, in others. All of this because we have adopted the secular ideology of the nation-state as the only possible source of infinite happiness. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The theologian’s job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.” How damaging is “the assumption, so prevalent at least since Constantine, that the church is judged politically by how well or ill the church’s presence in the world works to the advantage of the world!’ To be Christian today might mean to care little about what the world thinks of your politics.
Do you see how the gospel here might breathe another air? But the missional identity has so often made us into a people who are constantly craving to know what word the gospel speaks to the culture. We preoccupy ourselves with speaking out against religious nationalism, instead of being a people who long for a different country.
When “the quest for happiness is infinite” and there is no teleology (another factor of the modern West that Newbigin identifies), the pursuit of human rights and happiness also becomes infinite. There is no natural boundary on what can be demanded or pursued, and no means to deny that pursuit to any individual. In his words,
If all hope is vested in a future that those now living will not share, and if the nation-state is posited as the guarantee of “rights” that are in principle infinite, it opens the way for the kind of totalitarian ideologies that use the power of the state to extinguish the rights of those living for the sake of the supposed happiness of those yet unborn.
The problem is not with Newbigin, who has rightly identified our culture’s idols. The problem is with those interpreters who use his “missional” identity as a means to translate Christianity to the culture without taking adequate account of the ways their own imaginations and value systems have also become captive to the culture.
Such practitioners are the ones who try to run with the wind, steering right into the culture’s desires and expectations. They wear themselves out with the futility of the effort. Western culture is so anti-Christian that there is no neutral ground. Practitioners therefore tire themselves out dragging kites that won’t fly. We are crashing our kites trying to fly with the wind selling our religious product to a marketplace that doesn’t need it. Why buy “God” when you have “self-care”, or forgiveness when you have therapy?
What came to me, watching those poor kites break their spines as they hit the ground, is that ministry efforts attempting to work with the wind are bound to fail. Against the wind, however, is where you find the actual uniqueness of Christian witness.
(I think you could argue that “against the wind” was Newbigin’s own attempt; I’m open to that argument).
Working against the wind requires identifying the idols of our age — in my mind, productivity, efficiency, mastery, and independence, the nation-state — and working to cultivate their opposite. Rest, trust, forgiveness, hope life in death, another city. All of those are cutting directly against the winds of modernity. All of those are only possible because the Lord is in his Holy Temple. In this way, worship forms mission- not the other way around.
If you are flying a kite you just stand there and let the wind take it. Your main job is to not let it get away from you, because the wind will take it. It is designed to fly by facing the wind.
You will burn out chasing the wind, trying to make missional Christians and send them to the wolves of secular culture. But that is not how you are supposed to fly a kite anyway. You need to learn to be a little uncomfortable and face it directly, feel the friction and the chill of the wind on your face. Forget your strategy. Embrace your uselessness. Cancel your programs and protests. Let your opposition to the culture’s values be what sets your ministry work alight. Believe that there is a better kingdom, and live accordingly. How does it feel to live as if your only work is worship?