Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Loyalist Thought About "Missional Polity"

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has an important task force working on a new "form of government" document. They are guided by the idea that the church has a “missional polity.” The idea is that the church does not have a mission, but that its very essence is mission. The church is part of God's mission to engage the world.

I can almost grasp what it means to say that being is doing -- that the church is what it does. This is akin to my colleagues who talk about "doing theology," a concept (a metaphor, really) that I can almost grasp. I could be convinced to embrace the idea, I think, with more understanding.

But the sociological insight about the church that most of my work has been based on is that the loyalists at the center of the church are loyal to the institution as it actually is. They like the specific congregation they go to, the familiar ways that their presbytery works, and (most of the time) the lumbering steps and counter-steps of the General Assembly. The first mission that the loyalist is committed to is making sure that the actual church is still there tomorrow to do whatever other work it does. For loyalists, the church is an institution with a mission, even if in some larger sense it "is" a mission.

10 comments:

Quotidian Grace said...

"Missional" is one of the words on my PresbySpeak hit list. Like you, maybe I could get behind it if I what it signifies better. Then there's the possibility that it covers up some fuzzy thinking.

Anonymous said...

All it means is that the church's movement reflects and is empowered by God's movement- primarily outward, toward others, in acts of self-giving love. Many "missional" ideas can be traced to Lesslie Newbigin, and others whose work came on the scene 15-20 years ago.

There's actually quite a lot of good theological thinking that has come from grappling with the Trinity and Incarnation.

Dana Ames

Gruntled said...

What is the difference between the "church's movement" and the church as an institution carrying out its mission?

Stuart Gordon said...

Gruntled:

Anonymous is helpful - to get a grasp on this, it helps to know Newbigin and the scholars of this generation who have been influenced by him. The Gospel and Our Culture Network is a prominent group of Protestant scholars doing this work. They have a web site www.gocn.org.

The thesis includes a few fundamental convictions: mission is God's, not ours. Whatever mission we do, we're doing as we try to catch up with God at work in the world. In a related manner, we confess that the Spirit of God is not limited to the church. Rather, the third person of the Trinity is active in the creation independently of the church. The church seeks to discern the Spirit's presence, testify to the Spirit's presence, and participate in the Spirit's work. This is the institutional church trying to catch up with the "missio Dei."

While no one would pretend that a "missional" church can avoid becoming an institution, what missional thinkers are trying to do is move the church from trying to preserve itself as an institution to giving up its life in service to the mission of God.

Michael Kruse said...

The contrast is often made between the attractional church and the missional church. The attractional church does things to attract people IN to the congregation to join them in the activities they are doing. The institutions are primarily about faith community and preserving their way of life.

The missional church sends people OUT into the world to be Christ in all aspects of life and culture. The institutions exist primarily to equip, encourage and empower people to be sent into the world to fulfill Christ's mission.

Alan Roxburgh recently interviewed Ryan Bolger at Fuller Seminary that is one of the single best interviews I have heard on the issues of emerging/missional church. (About 30 minutes)

I see missional as often being directly in opposition to the loyalists but it is not directly linked with either theological liberalism or conservatism.

http://www.allelon.org/resources/netcasts/wimc_rbolger.cfm

Michael Kruse said...

Well said Stuart!

Stuart Gordon said...

Gruntled:

One further point. Your comment about loyalists highlights a primary challenge of such efforts. You might note that the word "flexibility" is key in the report. Flexible structures are an essential element of missional thinking. Governing bodies at all levels are urged to be "permission-giving" bodies, rather than regulatory agencies.

For example, a church member feels called to start some program or ministry. The Session, rather than putting that motivated member through a maze of meetings and reviews and criteria to meet, is called to encourage such thinking and to clear obstacles to it becoming reality ("permission-giving"). The thinking goes like this: if the Spirit is at work in the church, giving gifts to its members, then the institution needs to trust the Spirit and allow the members to follow.

As a pastor, I have witnessed the tension that results from this. Institutional loyalists, for legitimate reasons, hesitate to allow members to run with any and every idea. Loyalists see their own role as preservationists of the institution. Unfortunately, institutional loyalty frequently squelches creative ministry, and demoralizes enthusiastic members.

"Flexibility" means don't make it so hard for the church to respond to the action of the Spirit that the wind blows and dies down and we never did anything.

Gruntled said...

That is helpful.

I can see a strong tension between this missional idea and any polity above the congregational. Likewise, it would be hard to have a confessional denomination (or really any denomination) and a permissive polity.

I was raised a Quaker, which embodies the missional idea you are describing. It is essential to Quakerism, though, that it remain a sect that is not responsible for the world. Mrs. G. and I became Presbyterians precisely because we are called to be part of a church that does act as responsible steward for the world.

Michael Kruse said...

I think there has to be some firm commitment to a vision and mission for a denomination. But once we establish that the institutions should be proscriptive not prescriptive. For instance, we have a very bad tendency to create a lengthy list of the duties a session is supposed to perform. Instead the charge to the session with “Go live out the mission we all agreed we share, but don’t do the following: A) violate the church’s constitution, B) the laws of the state, C) don’t violate ethical standards for handling money, etc. What we then begin to deal with is living out the mission instead of executing a laundry list of prescriptions. This provides for healthy recognized boundaries AND incredible flexibility for people on the ground to re-evaluate and adapt on the fly without someone giving permission. The overseer is to monitor the outcomes not the activities. This is precisely what we are trying to model at the GAC.

Anonymous said...

Sorry it took so long to get back- I forgot I left a comment...

An institution carrying out its mission might not be consonant with what Jesus portrayed as the Kingdom of God. Missional people are grapping with what acting in accordance with the Kingdom might look like.

Stuart's comments are good, particularly the second one re flexibility. Also Michael's. I really grok Michael's ideas about subsidiarity: the larger grouping exists to support and empower the smaller one/s (church/families, Presbyteries/churches, etc). As a fairly new person in the PCUSA (7 years) I get the impression that the denom. actually promotes the reverse of that. It's discouraging.

Dana Ames