Syncretistic Missional Ecclesiology: The Failure of Missional Church

Missional Church is in full swing. In classic American fashion, we’ve created a whole industry around it—Networks, Conferences, Books, Blogs, Seminars, Schools, Workbooks, Degrees, and so on. Missional is becoming common parlance among American evangelicals. But at the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding. What kind of impact is missional church making?

Ed Stetzer reported a disappointing trend in 2008 of continued decline in conversions, church growth, and church starts. Church plants are popping up everywhere, but not faster than established churches are closing their doors. It appears that The Next Christendom isn’t returning to the shores of the West anytime soon. In fact, according to Gallup, cultural Christianity is on the decline. Are we to then assume that the missional church movement is a failure, a fad?

There are several reasons why Missional Church isn’t working. Here I will focus on one reason—syncretistic missional ecclesiology. Syncretistic missional ecclesiology (SME) is the fusion of missional church with institutional church. In other cultural contexts, syncretistic ecclesiology combines Christian church values and practices with other religious institutions like Buddhist temple life. Here we are concerned with the American context, the resurgence of missional church and its unhealthy integration into the institutional church.

Institutional Missional Church

Although many leaders and churches have embraced missional language and theology, they are still having trouble translating mission into their own communities. Why? Because church plants are fusing missional ecclesiology with their prior experience of institutional church. The nature of missional church requires more than cosmetic adjustments to our inherited forms of church. Missional ecclesiology requires an entirely new way of thinking about church, from the bottom up. Church plants and established churches have failed to recognize this important point. As a result, they have created a syncretistic ecclesiology, blending institutional church with missional church. This syncretism is both theologically and practically defective. Sometimes the blending of institutional and missional church is only functionally defective, prone to failure. Other times it is theologically defective, prone to heresy and correction. Here we will primarily focus on functionally defective SME.

Syncretistic Missional Church Practices

How do you know if you are approaching mission institutionally? Here are a few ways:

  • Institutional mission relies on preaching, teaching, and writing to implement missional ecclesiology.
  • Institutional mission adopts a program of mission during a set season of the year to implement missional ecclesiology.
  • Institutional mission focuses on evangelistic and social justice events to implement missional ecclesiology.
  • Institutional mission sees mission as a line item in the church budget, not mission as the whole budget.
  • Institutional mission views mission as an implication of the gospel, not as part of the gospel.

While these institutional approaches are not bad, they are not enough. Church leadership and practices must be consonant with the nature of mission. The nature of mission is Spirit-initiated not man-made, organic not institutional, training not just teaching, relational not programmatic, gradual not instant. What we need is not institutional mission, but intuitive mission

Intuitive Missional Church

Intuitive mission relies on the intuition of the Spirit through the guidance of the Word to embed a gospel that is missional. It is not primarily concerned with implementation but with cultivation of DNA (see Hirsch’s Apostolic Genius). Intuitive mission is soaked in the Spirit’s guidance. It discerns missional leadership patterns in Scripture. It understands that mission is gospel-centric. It approaches mission as something to be cultivated. Here are some ways to know if you are practicing intuitive mission:

  • Intuitive mission relies on Spirit-led prayer that begins with repentance over the sins of institutional, individualistic Christianity in neglecting the mission of the church and diminishing the glory of Christ.
  • Intuitive mission discerns missional leadership patterns from Scripture instead of uncritically implementing business models of leadership.
  • Intuitive mission cultivates missional DNA through personal and communal forms of training instead of relying primarily upon professional, monological communication.
  • Intuitive mission spends lots of time with people not programs, so that we have networks of relationships in which we can authenticate the gospel we preach.
  • Intuitive mission does “everyday things with gospel intentionality”, instead of seeing mission as either an evangelistic or social justice event.

If missional ecclesiology is to sufficiently permeate our churches and change our point in history, then we will have to do a better job of spotting our institutionalism. We will need to rigorously weed out unhealthy syncretistic missional ecclesiology. Throw out institutional mission while retaining our rich traditions. Cultivate intuitive mission practices that remain faithful to the gospel and force a gracious, deliberate, and discerning reworking of institutional mission. It is a difficult process. I fall back into my inherited patterns of ecclesiology all the time, so pray for me. I welcome your help. Let’s push mission all the way through our churches, by the grace of God, to see his gospel permeate every aspect of life.