Interview: Missional Church Expert on the Shift to the Outside World

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of The Christian Post or its editors.

The term "missional church" is frequently mentioned and promoted, but relatively few people actually understand what it means. Proponents of the movement claim it is the biggest development in Christianity since the Reformation.

Reggie McNeal, a missional leadership specialist, spoke to The Christian Post last week about what the missional church looks like and why it may be the answer to declining church membership in the United States.

His new book, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, was released in February 2009.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

CP: At first it might appear that the missional church is something new, but could you argue that it was the original definition of the church and we're only going back to the original form?

McNeal: I actually have people say that to them the missional church is a redundant term because the church is missional in its core DNA. I could not agree more. However, when you are trying to do a corrective or signal a corrective, you often have to talk about what something is not so you can finally get around to saying what something is. So in that case that is why I'm sure we continue to use the term missional church.

I do think that we have finally moved pass deconstruction to begin to say what it is and not just what it is not.

CP: Does someone reading your book have to wait for their church to go missional or can they go missional as an individual?

McNeal: Absolutely. The answer is yes. The long answer is yes, the short answer is yes. In fact, I encourage everyone that I've talked to that comes up to me and says, "I want to do this but I don't think my church is ready," I give them the same piece of advice: "Go do what it is you want to see done, and look for people around you who are susceptible to the virus." That's a favorite metaphor I use. I mean missional is a virus so look for people who are susceptible to it and take them to go with you to go adopt a classroom or whatever you are feeling called to do. And when they get exposed and infected, then plot on how you can infect others. You don't have to wait for the group you are a part of, or the church you belong to to go missional.

I can add one more thing to that. However, I will say that over time we'll need to be around people who share this value set because it is a competing value set with a member of a corporate church set of values.

CP: Where did the program-oriented church go wrong, becoming what you describe in your book as something that people outside actively despised, not just ignored?

McNeal: I think the assumption of the program-oriented church is if people would participate, if we can assimilate them, if we could get them to participate in our activities, then somehow by doing all that they would turn out to be magnificent, devoted followers of Jesus. The problem is that assumption hasn't panned out. What we produce are wonderfully, committed church members, but not necessarily committed to a kingdom agenda. And so I think we took away from people. We asked them to outsource their spiritual formation and growth, that if they would just do what the church told them to do then somehow they would be growing. And I think we sold people a bowl of porridge.

CP: What will happen to the traditional church if everyone goes missional? Will there still be a role for the traditional church in the missional movement?

McNeal: Well people ask me all the time thinking that missional means every organized form of church goes away and that's definitely not what I'm saying. In fact, I think congregations if they were missional they would be so jazz, there would be so much energy, that there would be plenty of reason to get together and gather. In fact, some of my friends, for instance, act like the attractional church cannot exist in a missional context. I don't see attractional versus incarnational as an either/or. I think the traditional church that is gathering every seven days and they have a worshipping community, if it was missional then it would be changing the content of what they are doing together but they would still come together. The worship would be much more of a celebration of God's work this week, however, as opposed to historical recitation of God's work in the past.

CP: What factors are contributing to making the missional church movement so popular?

McNeal: I think that even in spite of an economic downturn there is this enormous altruism that is just a flood of people wanting to do good. Extreme home makeover or people setting up foundations to help people who have been ravaged by some tragedy, or stores donating 1 percent of their profit to goodwill overseas. It is not just Oprah, Bill Gates, or Bono, it is pervasive in our culture - a desire to do good. We know altruism is up with our kids, the millenials. So I think there is an enormous stream of good will to tap into that once the church goes out and gets into the streets will be able to see lots of people who are joining in. We can start to call the party instead of being the last float in the parade. So that is one thing afoot.

The second thing that is growing in our culture is people's desire to grow. They want to grow, to reinvent themselves, they want to add to their skills. This in turn calls the missional church, which is largely a people-centered enterprise as oppose to a program-driven enterprise, this really sets up a stage for the missional church.

A third huge cultural force is this rise of spirituality. Even though one in six Americans list unaffiliated as their affiliation, there is still an enormous rise of spirituality in America. That begs the missional church to be in the streets with the Gospel in plain language, not a Gospel of come to church but a Gospel of Thy Kingdom come and abundant life.

CP: You sometimes jokingly tell churches to stop evangelizing. What should they be doing instead?

McNeal: I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but actually it's a relief for most congregations when I say quit evangelizing since they're not doing it anyways. Because when the church members evangelize, they think marketing, they think confrontation, they think something artificial and not fun, just hard to do. So I say look, let's go back and recapture what it is to be the people of God. So I tell people let's have a blessing strategy instead of an evangelism strategy and let's just watch what happens to evangelism when we have a blessing strategy. Because the whole point of having a blessing strategy is talking about intentional acts of kindness, not random acts of kindness. Intentional acts of kindness that causes people to pause and to wonder why would you do this.

I'm very specific when I work with churches. I do give them questions to ask that open the door. It is a simply question, "How may I ask God to bless you," because we know that God wants to bless people and we know that is our job, going all the way back to Genesis 12 when God calls Abraham and that was the covenant he cuts with Abraham. That is our spiritual history; we're supposed to be the blessing people. So I work with congregations to show them how to do that.

CP: In your book you talk about Christians going out into the world and "acting" out what they believe. But at the same time, can you clarify if you believe that missional Christians also need to go back into the church and learn the Gospel and the Bible's teachings? Some people would question if missional people just act or do they actually also learn about the Bible too?

McNeal: Thank you for giving me the chance to answer because some people don't hear things I say all the time. First of all, people have heard way more truths then they ever lived out biblically. But secondly, I never said that people shouldn't learn. In fact, the whole point of a people development agenda as opposed to a program driven agenda is that one thing people need in their personal development is to anchor and center their lives around truth. In the congregations I work with in the missional church we take following Jesus including understanding spiritual truth much more seriously. Because you have to be informed and you have to be energize by truth in order to live your life as a mission trip.

The Pharisees, they were wonderful Bible scholars, but Jesus says the problem was that all their Bible studies wasn't getting people to Him. And so, I prefer we engage people in life and import Scriptural teaching into those life situations as opposed to the other way around.

CP: A new study came out this week that found people claiming no religion has doubled since 1990 and the percentage of Christians overall is declining, mostly from mainline denominations. Is there anything to take away from this study in terms of relating it to the missional movement?

McNeal: I sure can. I think it says an industry based on "come and get it" is not penetrating the culture. We are going to have to figure out how to be the church where people all ready are as opposed to setting up a separate church domain in our culture and expecting people to identify with it.

CP: Is there anything you want to add?

McNeal: It just occurred to me that as long as we continue to think about church as a what - that we are asking people to support, to identify with - I think we are going to get diminished results. And we've been doing church as a what, something outside of me - down the corner third and main – mainline this or evangelical that. I mean church as a what allows all these ways of slicing and dicing and putting people in file cabinets.

The New Testament and the missional church define church as a who not as a what. Church as a who allows for a much broader expression of the Church, because it means that as a follower of Christ everywhere I am the church is. I begin to look at church as a verb, a way of being, not a noun, something I belong to outside of me. So it is a way of life and I think that the missional church is leading us towards that and I think it's time because it addresses people's disaffection for institutional religion.