Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 (online here)
One of the most popular buzzwords being tossed about by church leaders today is “missional.” What does it mean—“missional”?
Sometimes, when I read the literature, it seems to mean misusing an adjective as a noun. You find all sorts of sentences like, “Missional is more than a movement; missional is a whole way of thinking.” To me that’s like fingernails on the chalkboard, like saying, “Thrifty is a way to save money.” Being thrifty is a way to save money, and so are thrifty habits. But “thrifty” is not a noun, and neither is “missional.”
Grammatical fussiness aside, what does it mean to be missional? To be missional is to focus on God’s mission with and through us, on how we’re here in order to be sent somewhere else to make a difference. It means that the high point of our Sunday worship isn’t waiving hands around over bread and wine, but the dismissal: “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.”
In the literature we’re told that the church becomes missional when it focuses on outsiders more than insiders, when it places personal growth over program development, and when it celebrates infecting others with God’s love over adding them to its memberships rolls. Instead of first asking how we can get people here so we can minister to them, the missional church first asks, “How can we get ourselves out there so we and they can share in God’s ministry together?” There’s nothing wrong with trying to get people here—that’s still important. But the missional church starts with getting us out there.
And that means changing the way we keep score. In fact, we’re told over and over again in the literature that the missional church “has to develop a new scorecard.” That’s even the subtitle of a book: “Changing the Scorecard for the Church.”
On the whole, I welcome that. It means that a ministry might be thriving even when its membership and pledges are not increasing, and that’s a very familiar idea to those of us who have to make a year-to-year case for campus ministry. When you’re set up to lose at least a quarter of your membership every year, and when none of your members has a steady income, you’re going to look like a total failure on the church-business-as-usual model.
But now maybe all we have to do is say, “Hey, look, we’re being missional!”
The same goes for the Episcopal Church and other self-styled progressive churches: our membership and pledges may not be increasing, but if you look at us through missional eyeglasses, we may be in better shape than we thought.
Thanks be to God!
I do appreciate missional scorekeeping, but maybe you’ve already picked up from my tone that I’m also a bit exasperated by it. I do believe it points to a fundamental truth of Christ’s gospel: a faith that celebrates the living presence of an executed criminal will never be satisfied with everyday measures of success. But still, missional scorekeeping seems to allow us to make a success story out of whatever happens. And you have to wonder if we’re making things too easy for ourselves.
Whatever you think about that, if you want to find a text to back up missional scorekeeping, today’s Gospel lesson seems a perfect fit.
Jesus sends out seventy unordained followers with minimal funding to the towns of Samaria. He gives them a message to share, and I hope you noticed that the message is not, “Come and join us.” Nor is it, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” Instead it’s a message about what’s already happening, a message that meets people more or less on their own terms: “Peace! The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Or to put it another way, God’s all-embracing love is already at work. Even when people don’t welcome it, the message is the same: God’s all-embracing love is already at work.
It’s a great message. I believe it’s as true today as it was then. But it’s exasperatingly true, to say the least. When Jesus sent these people out, he was on the way to his own shameful-looking execution. Sure, rumors later circulated that he wouldn’t stay dead, but most of the public ignored them. His followers were persecuted, that is, until they got enough power to start their own persecutions. From Jesus’ day down to the present the world has been filled with violence, too often in Jesus’ own name, and in the face of all that we’re asked to believe that God’s all-embracing love is already at work, that it’s been at work for at least 2,000 years. It sounds suspiciously like missional scorekeeping, making a success story out of whatever happens.
When the seventy return, they and Jesus celebrate their success, only once again the terms are exasperatingly intangible. “Lord,” they say, “in your name even the demons submit to us!” Great. Let’s see some film footage of that. Jesus says, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Let’s see some footage of that. We don’t know if any Samaritans welcomed their message at all. It certainly sounds like they didn’t bring any new followers back with them. But we’re told that some pretty dramatic things still happened, even if nobody else could see them. Sounds like more missional scorekeeping, doesn’t it?
But we’re missing something here. Yes, in a way, it is about making a success story out of whatever happens. But it isn’t about us making a success story out of whatever happens. It’s about God making a success story out of us, and everybody else, whatever the accomplishments and failures turn out to be. God’s all-embracing love is at work by turning whatever we do or don’t do into a new way forward. Devastating things may happen. Everything we thought we could count on might fail us. We will definitely fail ourselves. But God will make a new way forward—always—and already we are a permanent part of that.
Jesus tells the seventy to stop celebrating what they did or could do and start celebrating what God was already doing with them before they even set out. All-embracing love had already embraced them, and nothing they or anybody else did or failed to do could undo that.
It’s really a bit misleading to call this a new way of keeping score. It’s more about not letting scorekeeping, missional or otherwise, get in the way of trusting God’s relentless embrace. There are no guarantees, no certain predictions, about what’s going to happen with the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, with GraceUnlimited, with Episcopalians, or even with the Church in general as we now think of it. The only guarantee is that God’s embrace will remain relentless. And so it will.
Missional scorekeepers know that. They’re trying to get us to be more willing to risk giving to causes when we don’t know if we’ll ever see a tangible return on our giving. They want us to see how giving to faithful causes that might well fail is already a return on our giving. And that’s a lesson that I, at least, need to relearn just about every day, if not more often. It doesn’t help us predict anything. But maybe that’s OK. Have you ever noticed how often pundits’ forecasts turn out to be dead wrong? That, actually, is one of the safest predictions.
In today’s world where it seems nobody knows how to keep score, God sends us out with an exasperatingly true message: all-embracing love is already at work, turning whatever happens into a new way forward. Devastating things may happen. Everything we thought we could count on might fail us. We will definitely fail ourselves. But God will make a new way forward—always—and already we are a permanent part of that.
Let us go forth in the name of Christ. Thanks be to God.