Some of you may have read Dan Kimball’s “Missional Misgivings” article over at Out of Ur. If not, let me get you up to speed. Kimball argues that missional advocates — at least one he was on a panel with — believe that the mega-churches (sometime called “attractional”) are dying and that younger people in the city are not interested, that missional advocates criticize attractional churches for not seriously engaging discipleship, and that missional churches have an unproven track record. In the end, Kimball suggest that the pressing matters of evangelism in the local church are what motivates him “missionally.”
First, let me say, that I like Dan Kimball and his book, “The Emerging Church” made a lot of sense for me at a crucial time. Unfortunately, many folks have misused Kimball’s work, brought in candles and sofas to their worship gatherings, called it emerging and complained that it didn’t work. That was a misuse of his work, and he deserves better. That being said, I had some great misgivings about his “Missional Misgivings”.
My first misgiving, is that Kimball, as many others have done, is bilateral in his understanding. Like the critics he critiques, Kimball, falls into the trap of seeing missional and attractional as opposed to one another. What Christian would argue that Jesus is not attractive? This, from my read, is not what people mean when they use the term “attractional.” It is not a question of missional vs. attractional, but rather a question of direction. At the end of the day, is more of your energy and resources used to bring people in or send people out. In a healthy churches both are happening. And to speak to their leaders of those churches as if attracting and sending were opposed to one another would be foreign concept. Therefore, Kimball’s argument — and that of the missional leader he is responding to — is fundamentally flawed.
Second, Kimball places more import on numbers than I, quite frankly, think is appropriate. Don’t get me wrong, evangelism is crucially important, conversions are important. Essential. But Kimball’s review too easily dismisses two communities — a self-described missional church of 35 and a small house church — because they did not “multiply” or “plant”. I understand the complaint, but is Kimball suggesting that a house church that feeds the homeless somehow represents the Kingdom of God less than the mega-church down the street who is “converting” people? Here’s where reading the gospels can be helpful. Kimball is equating conversion with the totality of kingdom work. However, I kind of remember Jesus saying something to the Pharisees about going to extreme measures to convert people to a version of religion that didn’t reflect God’s people-priority, would make them twice the children of hell…or something like that. A better way to say this may be this: If you’re converting people to a religion that’s not dealing with the homeless, that may not be a God-focused religion.
There’s more to representing the kingdom than the head count in the pew. Perhaps, crazy as it may sound, the path is actually narrow. It’s easy to make caricatures here, but does Kimball want to say that a church that converts a lot of people but doesn’t do as much for the homeless is more of what God intends? My point is simply this: Different communities represent the Kingdom in different ways, they have different strengths.
Scriptures call is a big one, don’t we have room for all of us to offer our gifts without saying, “Your priorities aren’t my priorities, so I’ll dismiss you?” Kimball says he’s not a numbers person, yet that’s all his article is concerned with. He says missional churches don’t have a proven “track record” with “measurables.”
Third, a natural by-product of Kimball’s numbers focus, is that he misrepresents what missional ecclesiology is about. I don’t want to get into the nuances of missional church here, but there’s much more to missional than growing your church, and there’s more to it than “social justice” or “outreach” too. Sadly, this is how Kimball understands “going missional” (along with too many others). Rather than go into all that, I would point you and Kimball here to listen to Patrick Keifert describe what we mean by missional. Hint: It’s more than soup for the poor.
Fourth, Kimball ends his assault with these words, “I hope there are examples of fruitful (read: numbers) missional churches that I haven’t encountered yet. I hope my perception based on my interaction with the missional movement is wrong. But for now, I would rather be part of a Christ-centered megachurch full of programs where people are coming to know Jesus as Savior, than part of a church of any size where they are not.” My question for Kimball is this: Who wouldn’t?
We all want to be a part of a church where people are coming to know Jesus. Kimball’s statement is like saying, “I want to be in a marriage where the husband and wife love one another.” That statement has nothing at all to do with the merits of either mega-churches or missional churches. Are there people in both who aren’t concerned with the full witness of the gospel? Yes. Are there people coming to know Jesus? Yes. Kimball here falls prey to a classic misunderstanding of the gospel, that “conversion” is simply a transaction that merely changes one’s status before God (Read Mark Love on the challenges of Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the primary image of salvation). The assumption is that once someone has made an orthodox confession of faith (plus whatever other rituals their community practices) then they now “know Jesus.” Unless I’m unique, my experience is that most of us trust Jesus and spend the rest of our lives getting to “know” Him.
I understand what Kimball is saying, “You say you’re missional, but are you reaching people?” and it’s a good challenge to what I call the “coffee-house theologians” who take pride in their smallness and perceived purity. But his negative assertions are misplaced, and likely a reaction to some “holier-than-thou” personalities he’s encountered. He confesses that his perception is based on his interactions with people. Perhaps, Dan should extend his missional education into other avenues. I would encourage Kimball and others to investigate missional ecclesiology beyond snippets on the web, what so-and-so said and published interviews with people who know very little about the subject. As with everything, we need to seek out learned scholars and best practitioners before we pronounce the death or inefficiency of something. So here are some good places to get started.
Allelon — For Missional Leader
** Note: Please see Dan Kimball’s response to this post in the comments section!