Buzzword Spirituality and the Mission of the Church

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missional_all spelled out“Missional” is a popular, buzzy, fuzzy word. It’s relatively new as far as terms go (so new, in fact, that my spellcheck doesn’t even pick it up). I’ve noticed over the past few years that seemingly every church under the sun has applied it to its mission statement: “We are a missional church…” they claim. Framed that way, it’s a word that implies a great deal—we don’t just do ‘mission,’ we’re missional. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?

But these ‘missional’ claims always ring a little hollow to my ears. I never know what these churches mean. Do they mean that they are actively engaged in evangelism? Do they mean that they actively seek opportunities to share the gospel? Because the churches that highlight the word ‘missional’ to describe themselves seem to mean, not that they are a church seeking to model their community life after the image of the Triune God (what ‘missonal’ technically means), but that they are a church seeking to catch the wave of the latest method for popular evangelism. ‘Missional’ is, indeed, a plastic word, and plastic words (in case you don’t know) are words that can be molded to mean what the user wishes them to mean. Churches use the plastic word ‘missional’ because it can be molded to fit their aspirations, and my instinct tells me that the majority of churches who affix ‘missional’ to their statement of identity do so for a variety of less than savory reasons, two of which I’ll point out now.

Evangelist_on the streetFirst off, I think the church has been head-over-heels for ‘missional’ stuff because, quite frankly, to be ‘missional’ is a great deal easier than having to do evangelism. After all, ‘evangelism’ is a frightening word, full of terrifying implications. It embodies the introvert’s nightmare (you mean I have to talk to people?!). What is more, we’ve met our share of ‘evangelists’ who own their own revival tents and hand out gospel tracts as tips at restaurants. We are eager to distance ourselves from “those kinds of people.” Add to this the fact that, as a movement, we have been stung by the relativist claim that there is no absolute truth, and are fearful of presenting the truth of Christianity as the truth. As a consequence of all these, we have retreated to an easier spirituality, a fuzzy, plastic spirituality. We can be ‘missional’ without having to do evangelism. We can live the gospel out without having to talk to anyone. We can obey Jesus without having to do the stuff he talked about. We can ignore the costly, real work of sharing the gospel and glut ourselves instead on buzzword spirituality.

Another reason for the popularity of the ‘missonal’ movement is because ‘missionality’ is the latest thing, and if there’s one thing churches are suckers for it’s the latest thing. “If only we get the right tools,” we reason, “the right people, the right equipment, we’ll finally be able to do kingdom work successfully.” And ‘success’ here really means numerical success. “If only we add this latest technique, we’ll really start to shine!” It reminds me of the pastor who attended a Willow Creek conference in order to learn from those masters out in Barrington, Illinois what it means to be church. When he got home to his congregation he felt he’d uncovered the secret to success. That secret? To convert their pews to movie-theater seats. This is a silver-bullet, lottery-ticket theology, ignoring the real work of the gospel in favor of quick-fix cure-alls and theological magic ointments.

Billy MaysSo when I read about a church that is ‘missional’ what I see between the lines is a group of people who are entrapped by culture—a culture of numerical success, a culture of quick fixes, and a culture that fears the spoken gospel. I see a group who, when they claim to be ‘missional,’ might as well be saying, “Hey, we’re evangelistic but in a culturally cool way.” In fact, I can almost hear echoes of Dr. Evil in the background announcing pathetically that he’s hip, he’s cool. I see a group who are attempting to amend the disobedience of the church in relation to Christ’s mission by appealing to new terminology—as if this word, ‘missional,’ will finally get people to comprehend the full implications of the gospel: “Oh, you want me to be missional! I get it! Now I can finally start obeying Jesus.” And I see a church that is desperate to be relevant, finding itself shifted more and more to the cultural outskirts, inwardly appalled by the broad, yawning chasm between Christian belief and modern culture. Here, then, is finally a term which can bridge the gap! Here is a word that can strike against crusty tradition! Here is a term that can finally get the church to do the work that Jesus told it to do all those years ago! And it can all be yours for three easy installments of $9.95!

Desperate consumerism in the church produces buzzword spirituality. We think we can fix our problems with new things, new programs, new techniques, and new shenanigans. Desperate for relevance and burdened with idolatrous ideas of success, we line up for seminars and spend our wages on books that will finally solve our problem of increasing irrelevance. We become missional and emergent, we form coalitions and strive to become purpose driven. Desperately we scramble to give voice to our beliefs within culture, while all our methods merely ape culture. To a world desperate for a real alternative, our efforts can only come across as the generic knock-offs that they are.

Nowhere is the convergence between silver-bullet theology and buzzword spirituality more prominent than in the world of Christian publishing. There, in that arena of print, desperate Christian authors vie to influence desperate Christian pastors. The authors want to write the next “Purpose Driven Life,” the pastors want to read a book that will make their churches grow, both groups are playing a kind of spiritual lottery. Because of this, there is no shortage of books on being and becoming ‘missional’ as a church. But far from describing the Church in the image of Her Triune, Mission-focused God, these books typically recommend the latest, greatest mission-methods-to-make-your-church-grow. In other words, what the “Church growth” movement was in the 90s, the ‘missional’ movement is today. And the critical error of both groups is in their reliance on something other than the gospel to make the church ‘successful.’ It is their pervasive reliance on both culture and consumerism that make them suspect, if not wicked. To put this another way, both movements might teach us to dance some innovative steps, but culture still controls the music.

AND_The Gathered and Scattered Church_CoverTake, for example, Hugh Halter and Matt Smay’s AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church, a 2010 entry in Zondervan’s line of “Leadership Network” books. The overall premise of the book is harmless enough—the church will become ‘missional’ as it draws together both the ‘gathering’ (i.e., institutional) and the ‘scattering’ (i.e., non-institutional) aspects of the church. All this is more or less fine (or at least mostly harmless)—the problem is that, in order to promote their agenda, Halter and Smay have to sell their method to you, the reader. Don’t overlook the importance of that word ‘sell’ here, because it is in the selling that ‘missionality’ becomes culturally driven.

For example, consider, as a starting point, the role that personality plays in this book. As I read I was struck by how much of Halter appeared within its pages—so much so that I have a stronger memory of him than I do of anything particularly noteworthy that he said. And the ‘him’ that he presents is everything our cultural Christianity is looking for in a heroic leader—a John Eldridge man’s man, a Vladimir Putin-on-a-horse, the tough guy, crew-cut, unlikely pastor. (In fact, pause and think about it for a moment—have you ever encountered a personality who wrote a book who was a likely pastor?). For example, Halter writes the following on page 29:

I feel compelled, out of my personal insecurity, to tell you that I’m a man… a real man, a man’s man. I like mixed martial arts. I often eat an entire Chipotle burrito with extra meat. I enjoy fishing, hunting, and taking the top off my Jeep Wrangler during 2:00 p.m. lightning storms in Denver. I don’t eat glass, but I do enjoy the challenge of seeing how many pieces of bacon I can consume without negative internal issues.

Why does Halter feel compelled to tell us this? And not only on this occasion, but regularly throughout his portions of the book? What is so significant about his being a man’s man, and what on earth does it have to do with ‘missional’ spirituality? The answer, of course, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘missional’ spirituality, but everything to do with the selling of ‘missional’ spirituality to culture. Thus, by means of charisma, Halter is appealing to the desires of his audience—most of which, we must presume, are frustrated male pastors who will identify in some way (or wish to identify) with such a man’s man. The implication, however subtle, is that ‘missionalism’ is manly, and what has just been sold to you is not a theological idea, but an immaterial promise.

guy fawkes maskAnother sales technique at work in Halter and Smay’s book is their consistent attack on culture. What better way to sell books to a church desperate for relevance to culture than to attack those elements of culture which are felt to be most unpopular? And what is more unpopular than the establishment? What is more unpopular than the institutional church—that crusty, tradition-bound, relic which more than anything else seems to stand between people and the gospel today? Consequently, AND is pervaded by a thoroughgoing tone of anti-establishmentism. This tone is especially ironic, given that the book is ostensibly about bridging the gap between the institutional and the non-institutional. At one point Halter talks about a urinal conversation he had with a megachurch pastor (remember, a man who can talk at a urinal is a real man’s man). He criticized the pastor, indirectly, for the wealth of the facilities they were using. That pastor, for his part, wisely reminded Halter that there was a need for beautiful spaces to glorify God. In the moment, Halter amended his opinion (ostensibly to ameliorate those institutional types who are reading his book). It’s a nice moment, but one that doesn’t actually counter the thoroughgoing anti-establishment tone that pervades the rest of the book. Just now, at random, I opened the book to page 110. There, I found this passage:

Imagine you took the thirty to forty hours a week the average pastor spends on preparing the worship service for the consumers. Consider how many people you could have a profound prophetic conversation with if you used even half of those hours helping them move beyond the weekly church service.

Am I suggesting there is something amiss with pastoral care? By no means! But the whole book takes pot shots like these at the institution, at tradition, and at Halter and Smay’s favorite curse word, consumerism. After all, what is this little passage saying? “You, O Pastor, who are spending such wasteful time on a sermon, for an archaic ‘church service,’ are merely playing into the hands of consumers.” The implications of the passage are startling—that church services are a waste, that sermons aren’t all that important, and that those who come to services to hear sermons are—gasp!—consumers. But think of it this way—if I spent 15 hours a week meeting with 15 people, that would be fantastic. But how much time ought I to spend on the one hour a week when I meet with all my people? Am I not, as a minister of the gospel, to take both tasks seriously?

But of course there is a more sinister undercurrent here. Halter and Smay are eager to lambast the ‘consumerism’ of the church (exampled, in part, in my random selection above). But have we, the readers, recognized that we are in the process of being sold something ourselves? Are Halter and Smay even aware, as they skewer ‘consumerism,’ that they have written a thoroughly consumerist book, for a highly consumerist audience, in a startlingly consumerist manner?

I don’t think they are aware of this at all—and imagine my astonishment when I read the following passage (an email that Halter sent) on the heels of some 176 pages of chest-thumping, masculine, anti-establishment consumerism bashing:

Hey Dick, I’m sitting here at the opening of the new Whole Foods over by your house… I was going to do a little writing but I’ve been sitting here fighting back tears as I watch hundreds, and maybe close to a thousand people, walking around in awe over the beautifully laid out store with free samples of incredible food, live music, indoor/outdoor seating, and friendly staff greeting people everywhere. I can’t help but picture the church providing such a place of community connection and practical goods… (AND, 179)

whole_foodsAnd so, with a crash, all the anti-establishment consumerism comes falling down around us. With it, ‘missionality’ is exposed for all the plastic meaninglessness it possesses. Churches like Whole Foods. Churches with theater seats. Same thing, as far as I’m concerned. And what concerns me more is the fact that all this talk of culture, of mission, of relevance, and of personality avoids the one true asset we have as followers of Christ. We are not selling something, we are something. And if we cannot find ways to articulate that something that we are in practical, everyday obedience, then we are doomed to a neverending pursuit of the latest, the greatest, the newest articulation of buzzword spirituality.

I have said much in criticism of Halter, Smay, and the ‘missional’ movement they seek to articulate. Perhaps it would be best if I finish by saying something positive—not about them, but about the Church and what She ought to do. I will say only this: Evangelism is a Trinitarian activity. When we go and share the gospel—which includes both speaking it and living it—we are acting in the power and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit to bring people into relationship with Jesus so they can be reconciled to the Father. We are inviting them to participate in the eternal, life-giving relationship we ourselves have because of the life, sacrifice, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This ‘invitation’ is not a buzzword, and it is not a fad. It is counter-cultural because it is deeper than culture, older than culture, and will still be here when culture is long gone. It is subversive and powerful, if only we will be obedient. It is the message of salvation for a lost world, if only we will preach it. So I challenge you—will you keep trying to dance your way into relevance according to the musical tastes of culture? Or will you let Christ play the tune, and dance as his fool before a hungry world?

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