Other People’s Thoughts: From Undercurrent to Mainstream?

IMG_0300Among the refreshing waters of the missional church movement, a few voices are drawing attention to an undercurrent of concern. This concern surfaced a few times in the converstations surrounding the A Missional Reading of Scripture conference last week. One person, who was following the various #MRSC13 tweets, simply asked about the demographics, noting that the speaker list was primarily (though, not exclusively) white, males. This same theme was lamented by Danielle Rowaan (‏@DanielleRowaan“Hoping that as we dream of a better missional future for the Western church @ #MRSC13 we include the voices of women. #alwaysreforming Voicing a similar perspective, Kyuboem Lee (@kyuboem)  tweeted: “Q I wish I could’ve asked @ #mrsc13: How can missional convo esc fate of academic fad if not done w subdominant cultures in urban contexts?” 

There certainly are concerns about whether the missional conversation will ever be fully accepted within the academy. For example, why has the missional conversation primarily remained within the field of biblical hermeneutics and not yet shaped significant conversations within liturgical studies, Christian ethics, or discipleship? Perhaps, however, the more pressing challenge is one of who’s voices and experiences of missional theology-in-action will be recognized, valued, and included in missional conversations. How do the undercurrent voices of women and “subdominant cultures in urban contexts” participate equally and fully within the mainstream of the missional church movement?

This week’s Other People’s Thoughts draws attention to two recent posts that stirred my thinking on this question.  One deepened my sense of the critique and the other encouraged some questions that may move us forward.

A Deepening of the Critique

The first post comes from Natalie Burris (@natalieburris), who as a white suburban woman, laments and critiques the lack of acknowledgment and engagement that predominately white, suburban, missional churches have shown toward the historical development of the suburban environment, including the racist assumptions and preferences that facilitated the divided (and divisive) growth between urban and suburban communities. She contends, as Effrem Smith has previously, that the European-American dominated missional conversation has yet to consider the historic roots and expressions of a missional theology and practice within the North American context, particularly within black and urban missional churches. Kyle Canty expressed a similar concern earlier this summer in one of his posts. What Burris, Smith, and Canty are doing is drawing attention to voices that have given rich expression to contextualized missional understandings of the story of scripture, focusing on the tangible implications for responding to situations of injustice, racism, distorted and disadvantageous economic structures, disparate and disparing education systems, and absent health care in their own communities. In other words, from their perspective, the missional church movement so often tauted as a new hermeneutic has been practiced in the streets and alleys of our cities long before Newbigin articulated the first seeds of the contemporary missional perspective.

While I am somewhat leery of diminishing the current missional church conversation among predominately white, suburban churches based on the historic development of the suburbs, I find myself quite in agree ment that there is often a naive hubris rooted in the assumption that missional hermeneutics are a completely new discovery. The mision integral movement with Rene Padilla and John Perkins’ leadership in Mendenhall, MS and within CCDA have both operated with a missional hermeneutic of scripture that has seen the church’s existence formed by and directed toward God’s mission here and now. The sporadic inclusion of these missional voices within the current conversation of the missional church movement is troubling.

There is no doubt that Newbigin provided a critique of the church in Western culture through the lens of a missional reading of scripture, forging an ecclesiology (study of the church) where the church is seen as the hermeneutic (interpretive lens) of the gospel. And while a particular interpretive tradition continues to develop following him, there are other strands of a missional hermeneutic and practice that are developing among those who pay attention to Perkins and Padilla. The voices of students and practitioners within these traditions are often missing from current mainstream missional church conversations. The critique that there are important voices from the broader missional church movement missing from mainstream missional church conversations is an important critique to which we need to listen and respond. The missional church movement is broader than Newbigin and those who have followed him, even though conference and workshop line ups seldom show this reality.

Questions for Moving Forward

The second post is by Natalie Frisk (@NatalieFrisk), a youth pastor with The Meeting House in Hamilton, ON. While not speaking directly about the missional church movement, her reflective comments on women in ministry seem to me to offer a potential direction for this conversation. Frisk takes the angle that one of the challenges facing women in ministry is a lack of confidence that is intertwined with a lack of role models. As she continues her post, Frisk transitions to taking a next-generation look at her own life, seeing the opportunity to serve as a role model for her daughter and her daughter’s friends as part of her calling in ministry today. She concludes her post by commenting: “I want my daughter to look back on this post someday and, with confidence, laugh at the silliness of this conversation. I want her to be part of a generation that is so far beyond this discussion that she can’t relate to it.” 

It’s this multi-generational view on women-in-ministry that is sticking with me as I think about how to respond to the critiques of the missional church movement. The broader acceptance of a missional hermeneutic and the growth of the missional church movement today are important. I am thankful for the line up of academic-practitioners that many were able to hear and engage with this past week (see my previous two posts). Their love of scripture, their insight into aspects of postenlightenment/postmodern culture, and their competent capacity for strengthening the missional identity of God’s people should not be diminished. But their voices are not enough and do not represent the broad scope of the missional church that the Spirit has been raising across the church universal. To that end, I have little doubt as well that we need to develop a more robust history of the missional church movement that includes women, representative participants of its contemporary development within “subdominant cultures in urban contexts” and the majority world church.  

But coming back to the multi-generational idea, I wonder if we would also benefit from asking questions about a longer term vision. What is our hope for the missional church movement in our children’s and our children’s children’s generations and what can we do now to increase the capacity for that hope to bear fruit in their lives. More specifically, what can we do now to broaden the voices – both in terms of historical development and social location – contributing to the missional church movement so that the voices of women, persons from subdominant cultures, and the majority world church will be in the center rather than the edges of the missional church dialogue for the coming generations? 

On one level at least, I believe this means that as we gather at conferences, as we teach courses, as we structure retreats and cafe’s we need to look for speakers and contributors who can serve as role models for those who currently find themselves on the margins of these conversations. I’ve seen this happening in the grassroots gatherings already and some glimpses of it in a couple of the larger conferences. And that is reason to give thanks. Yet, I also recognize the need and opportunity for a greater diversity of voices going forward.  Frisk’s vision that her daughter will find a post about women-in-ministry odd seems a fitting trajectory for this conversation as well. That those voices that now offer an undercurrent of concern will be so fully and naturally in the mainstream of the missional church conversation that our children and their children will look back on this time and find it odd that we found it necessary to have these conversations and ask these kinds of questions.  

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