The “missional community” movement has been gaining steam in several areas of the Episcopal Church, and it’s not just another rhetorical strategy aimed at motivating parishes and their leaders to engage in evangelism and grow their churches.

The missional community contrasts itself directly and emphatically with “attractional churches”: ministries that through their programs attempt to attract people to come to a fixed campus and the buildings thereon for worship, formation, and fellowship (i.e., parish churches as they exist today). We are told that this cultural moment is so epochal, so radically transformative, that the parish church and the sacramental life that sustains it are living on borrowed time — dead men walking, as it were — and a new way of “being church” is required if there will be any Christian witness in the Digital Age West. New staff, reallocated financial resources, and spent political capital are inaugurating and supporting the missional community as the future of the Church, not just in the Episcopal Church, but also in the Church of England and elsewhere.

But I think this approach to ministry will not be able to deliver on its nearly messianic promises because it fails on multiple levels: descriptive, functional, and theological.

As an example of “missional community” rhetoric, attitudes, and theology, I will address a memo sent as a part of a clergy survey in the Diocese of Texas, along with a recent issue of the diocesan magazine, Diolog: The Texas Episcopalian 6.3 (September 2016). In the pages of the periodical, Bishop C. Andrew Doyle, Jason Evans, Missioner for Missional Communities, and others lay out their thinking on missional communities and what makes them essentially different from the “traditional congregation” (Doyle, p. 7).

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In her editor’s letter, Carol Barnwell, Communications Director for the diocese, admits that “missional communities are challenging to define because they can take many forms,” but asserts that they are different from “outreach ministries” and that “there are basic guidelines to help us determine what is, and what isn’t, a ‘missional community’” (p. 4). Here we find a basic problem of the missional community movement: when it no longer defines itself over against traditional parish life, it loses its force.

Taking the memo as the “basic guidelines” to which Barnwell refers, what are the defining characteristics of missional communities?

First, they “tend to be small gatherings of people.” Okay, that would cover the Bible studies and book clubs I have in my parish, and if “small” means up to 20 or 50, that would reflect many family-sized Episcopal churches.

Second, they are “led by either lay or ordained persons and small teams.” Bishop Doyle adds, “they rely on healthy, well-equipped lay people who have been trained to create and serve within a local community” (p. 7). Once again, traditional churches check that box.

Third, missional communities “grow their ministries out of the organic life” they share (memo). I would like to think that at my parish, St. Dunstan’s, our ministries grow out of the organic life of the relationships within this family of faith, and the life of the body of Christ that we share.

Fourth, in the missional community, Christian “formation arises holistically from worshipping, serving and learning together in shared fellowship” (memo). Bishop Doyle says that “the full life of the Church in missional communities is often expressed through service, fellowship, sharing meals, Christian formation and worship” (p. 7). I cannot see how this would not describe my parish, and many others, and I cannot perceive how one could deny many parishes this description without uncharitable insult.

Fifth, missional communities “meet in public spaces, secular places, private homes and a variety of non-church facilities” (memo). Has anyone done parish youth ministry lately?

Sixth, Bishop Doyle sees the “one priest + one building = 1 congregation model” as being full of “economic stumbling blocks” (p. 7). Missional communities, on the other hand, are “financially sustainable” (memo). I will simply observe that St. Dunstan’s is so financially sustainable that we throw off $10,000 a month to support the diocesan office and its ministries, and have money to support other charities and ministries as well. I suspect this is true of various parishes, while many small, so-called “missional communities” are long-term drains on diocesan finances. (I will note this point more fully in the next post.)

It is not difficult to detect a prejudicial negative judgment on the parish church in the writings of the missional community movement, not least in Diolog. Fr. Evans writes in his essay:

[T]o be a missional people is to be a people continually watching for God in the world around us. The places, practices, and moments where we experience God most acutely are intended to remind us of who God is … of what God has done for us. In remembering these things, we behave and think differently. We approach the world around us differently. (p. 20)

I couldn’t agree more! Although I would speak with a different vocabulary, I would accept that as a positive description of what we are trying to do in my parish and, again, I suspect the same is true in other parishes as well.

But Evans would deny that my parish is attempting to be “missional” as he defines it here. He begins his essay with a negative evaluation of King David’s “fixation” with “building a home for God” and asserts that David was operating on a false “notion that the Creator of the cosmos needs a home” (p. 20).

I will not remark on the quality of Evans’s biblical interpretation. Let me simply observe that this is the lens through which the diocesan missioner sees churches like my parish. We are a category mistake. We want to somehow contain God (if that were possible), and we obscure the desired vision of God that Evans seeks.

Though admitting that there are “thin places” such as the Washington National Cathedral, he says that “these places” and the “moments” we have in them “are not the end but a means.” I agree! But I see the church’s sanctuary and all that goes into sustaining it and gathering God’s people around it to be a means to the end of communion with the Triune God.

Evans, however, would see me as an idolater, one who would lift up my brick and mortar building as an end in itself and the object and recipient of my worship. The parish, its fabric, and its corporate life are obstacles to being “thrust … out into the world” where we will experience “God at work.” The parish is the ochlos, the “crowd” in St. Mark’s Gospel, which obstructs access to Jesus, who is not in the midst of the Church’s sacramental life but “out there.”

I will provide a contrasting theological vision of the Church in my second essay. For now, I will close with Evans’s clear indictment of parish life as most of us live it: “An unmissional people approach these places (church buildings), these moments (church services) and these practices (the Eucharist) and go back to their lives unchanged.”

Does Evans have the facts or the experience to make such a generalization about the parishes of the Episcopal Church?  One wonders if he grasps the offensive character of his charge.

In the meantime, St. Dunstan’s and her people will continue to fulfill his description of “a missional people.” We will “go out into the world, reminded of who God is and searching for God at work in their communities” (p. 21).

Or, as Bishop Doyle writes,

Wherever people build relationships, worship and serve together in Christian community, aligning their fellowship with God’s movement in the world over the course of time, there you have found a missional community. (p. 7)

I couldn’t have depicted our life at St. Dunstan’s better myself. “Attractional,” then, simply functions as an epithet and antonym without meaningful descriptive content.

About The Author

Since 2006, I have served as the leading pastor (rector) of St. Dunstan’s Church, located in a northwestern suburb of Houston. Prior to coming here, I had the privilege of serving on the staffs of the Church of St. Michael & St. George, St. Louis, and then the Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.

I have a BA and MA in history (Stuart England and colonial America) from Stanford and an MA from Yale, also in history (American religion). This simply demonstrates that a lot of resources can be thrown at a problem without solving a durn thing. I went to seminary at Yale Divinity School, where I: (1) came to Jesus, (2) stayed with Jesus. This demonstrates that with God all things are possible. My wife, Kate, and I were married in 1996, and we have three sons ranging in age from 9 to 15, which is why I can’t have nice things.

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Ben Miller

Good food for thought.

Jason Evans is not ordained, by the way.

Rob Price

Thank you for pointing that out: I swear I looked at the website and article, and my mind simply supplied the prefix. My bad.

Thanks, Ben. That’s been corrected

Rob makes some excellent points about what a parish community looks like. Strong parishes are missional by their very existence and the ministries they do both inside and outside their walls.

John A Miller

With respect, I think this response to the original compilation may be overly defensive. I don’t think anyone is saying that a traditional parish church cannot be “missional,” but rather that missional ministry need not only be attached to a parish church.

Interesting analysis that reminds us of the importance of considering our missional work from the smallest to the largest of churches and deeply appreciating the analysis we just learned from my new Diocese (Colorado) which teaches in the CDI that we need to balance our prayerful, formational, engagement, emergent and adaptive strategies to further the Kingdom— it seems the “missional” church meaning is used for all sorts of things— and maybe emergent is a better term and then the other elements can be considered. Thought provoking piece.

Stewart Clem

My ears always perk up when I hear about “missional churches” or people who want to “rethink church”. But, like Fr. Price, whenever I dig a little deeper, I find that these terms mean absolutely nothing. At best, these “defining characteristics” simply describe things that any traditional church can (and should) strive for. At worst, they’re condescending and sound like they were written twenty-five years ago. Serious question: Do the “missional community” people in TEC not realize that this is basically a bastardization of the “emerging/emergent church”? Or are they consciously trying to mimic it in order to compete with… Read more »

John A Miller

With respect, I think this response to the original compilation may be overly defensive. I don’t think anyone is saying that a traditional parish church cannot be “missionary,” but rather that mission all ministry need not only be attached to a parish church.