Creating a Missional Culture

Over the last couple of decades there have been various streams of church development, pointing at first to how older approaches were missing the mark and losing the vision and hiding behind walls. What was wrong? How did it go wrong? Sure there were some very engaging Christian communities, but the trend was troublesome. Critiques abounded, often from people who were burned, or burning, out and were desperate to find a new way. In the midst of that, there were a fair amount of proposals, and a fair amount of attempts at rediscovering a thriving Christian vision in our era. Publishers got in the mix, and there was a flood of books, many featuring the words “emerging” or “missional.”

Those became buzz words. And buzz words attract all sorts of people, many of whom have very different ideas about what those words mean and many who don’t care, and don’t want to try anything different, just want to repackage older church growth models with new terminology, thus keeping their place on the Christian conference circuit.

Just as troublesome was the tendency to use such terminology to undermine core Christian beliefs and values altogether, making big theological or ethical moves and then co-opting the terminology to fit that theological agenda.

Lost in all of this was the reality that emerging and missional movements were, at their core, not forsaking of the Gospel or limited to trendy new youth-oriented practices involving cushy chairs, round tables, and cussing pastors. The core, the leading edge, was always about Christ. Don’t be Christians just in name, but be so in fact. What does it mean to live out the Christian life in the midst of our present society? What does it mean to pattern the church around a more holistic and dynamic understanding of the work of God in this world? Merely maintaining patterns that were, for the most part, developed in the 1500s is not an adequate pattern if we are to commit the whole of our life and community to teaching, preaching, prophesying, pastoring in, with, and among the people God is seeking out.

The trends changed. Some said the missional and emerging movements were dead, mostly because publishers lost their buzz. Men and women didn’t stop seeking out holistic patterns of Christian community simply because there was waning interest by the powers that be. Some kept writing, leading, developing, speaking, praying.

Now, we’re in a new wave of publications, and this wave has a depth of theological insight and background in healthy and thriving practices that point to a sustained movement in the life of the church. I could list a great number of books that fit into this category. Indeed, I have, in my recent dissertation.  I’ve become an expert in the literature through my study and have been around this movement for about 20 years so have a good sense of what it is like in practice.

So, why am I writing all this here? Because with all this in mind, if I were to recommend one book as a starting place and overview of the missional movement, I would point to Creating a Missional Culture by JR Woodward. Woodward here does a masterful job of combining a wide array of sources–experiences, theology, organizational theory. He pulls from his own very developed understanding as a pastor and leader of a network of missional communities, from insights of other such leaders, and provides a book that describes the goals, theories, expressions as well as any other book I’ve read. Lots of books have more narrow focus, emphasizing one element or another, but Woodward brings it all together. If you want to know what a missional church is like, what they are doing and why, then this is where you should begin.

Any critiques? I suppose that with such a wide net of sources and insights, a book like this could easily become overwhelming to those who may not have a background in leadership studies, organizational theory, or ecclesiological musings. This isn’t a book for those who are trying to find their way, it’s a book for those who understand the basic themes and could use a succinct analysis and proposal. It’s a book for pastors, church leaders, and seminary students mostly. That’s not to say that the ideas or goals here are limited to such people, more that the language and concepts are decidedly directed that direction.

As far as style, Woodward is a great writer, focused and with a varying rhythm throughout that keeps the reader from getting bogged down in one direction or approach. He mixes narrative with theory with theology with practices and, in doing this, very nicely illustrates how missional churches seek to keep all these in holistic dialogue, rather than combative disdain of each other. Here theology informs and practices illuminate, both in dialogue with each other, informing and strengthening. Woodward is a great communicator, a great student of theology and missiology, and an experienced leader who brings a trustworthy weight to his ideas.

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