“Missional Renaissance” by Reggie McNeal has been assigned as reading for an upcoming clergy conference. Apparently it’s something of a best seller in church circles. To be fair, I’m only up to page 27 out of 175, not counting the conclusion and preface of pages xi through xviii. My guess is that this is a book that has about thirty pages of solid material, and what is good is probably very good, but already I am both suspicious and offended.
What piqued my suspicion was the preface. In a few short pages Mr. McNeal announced that his brand of missional thinking was as great or greater than the Reformation and would free God from the little box into which he was forced by the Enlightenment. Other movements such as the Emerging Church are just fads compared to missional ministry. Wow! Moreover, he managed to cram in a large number of current and slightly stale management buzzwords. I tend to think of buzzwords as lazy excuses for not thinking, or not being able to articulate what one is thinking about: getting ‘it’ vs not getting ‘it’, tectonic shifts, deconstruction, on the screen, tipping point, what gets rewarded gets done, scorecard, critical juncture, hunker down. Not bad for a few pages of preface. At least he didn’t use paradigm shift. I’ll give him credit for that.
To the extent that the first twenty-seven pages of the book have something to say about what he calls missional, it’s good solid teaching on what it means to be the body of Christ at work in the world and why it is essential that followers of Jesus be competent, inspired and encouraged to do that work. I need to be reminded of that and have much to learn from those who do it well. In some ways McNeal’s particular take is not all that different from the Social Gospel movement of a hundred years ago, except that he hates the word movement and would deny that his is a movement of any kind. Rauschenbusch would be proud just the same.
What I have found offensive is a succession of unsupported statements asserting that the Church, denominations, congregations and most clergy know almost nothing about this and have been stuck in a post-Constantinian model of being church. When I read that most, or many, think or act in this or that way with no argument to back it up, I am convinced that a straw man is being set up to be knocked down making way for the author’s new and revolutionary idea. Would’t it be better just to get on with the great new idea rather than wasting so much ink asserting the stupidity and ignorance of the previous millennium up to and including the present generation? Besides, he has some idea that the pre Constantine Church was lay driven, harmonious, spontaneous, non-denominational and more authentically following Jesus. It’s a wonderful vision but I don’t think it came from Paul, Ignatius, Clement, etc.
Not long ago I read a piece by a local missionally inspired minister. Most of it was a rant about how moronically out of date the national church is, proven by the annual parish report that must be submitted each year. The writer claimed that the only things the institution cared about were butts in the pews and money in the bucket, while they are about the business of being missional, which, obviously, nobody else is. OK, annual parish reports are a pain, but they are just crude thermometers. Like the thermometers under one’s tongue, they provide a rough indicator of whether one might have an infection. They do that fairly well, so get over it. That’s one of the problems with books, and movements, like this. The only thing one needs to do to prove that they “get it” is to verbally abuse those who are alleged not to “get it.”
For me the bigger problem is the faddishness of it all. Clergy will come away from the conference revived and enthusiastic to go home and be missional. Being missional will be the word of the year. Everyone will be into it. Nothing will change. It isn’t that there is not real meat here. There is. It’s just that it will be reduced to another buzzword. I mean we can run it up the flagpole and see who will salute it, or put it out on the porch and see if the cat licks it up because, after all, we’re not selling steak, we’re selling sizzle, and that’s the bottom line.