Dan Kimball says at Out of Ur today that “Small, indigenous churches are getting lots of attention, but where’s the fruit?”
My first thought was that we’d seen this before, a year ago when Mark Driscoll said pretty much the same thing, to which I responded about measuring converts, and based on that, David Fitch explains why he misses the point. So I thought we’d already addressed this — and I thought Dan Kimball should know better. And maybe he does… because he’s got a point.
Allow me to highlight a few points of departure from and agreement with Dan’s position.
(1) Dan writes, “I have a suspicion that the missional model has not yet proven itself beyond the level of theory.” To some extent, this may be true if a large sample is expected — but we don’t yet have one. The nature of the beast is that it lives at grassroots levels and many expressions never grow large enough to attract a lot of attention. Typically, this may be by design, as some will plan to multiply and remain small. The number of well-known small church networks is not huge either, but such a model takes considerable time to develop. In defense of the theory of missional church, I have to say it has some pretty good heavyweight theologians, missiologists, pastors, thinkers, and cultural observers getting behind it. It makes sense, and on an intellectual level, the theory is sound, having been presented, critiqued, and dialogued upon at a scholarly as well as at a practical level. And there’s a good reason for the theory to get such an exceptional level of vetting: because the fruit of the praxis is going to take years — perhaps decades — to fully observe, understand, and evaluate. How long did Willow Creek run their programs before saying “oops, these aren’t doing what we thought?” With missional church, the additional vetting of the theory is precisely because we don’t want to give ourselves for years and years to something we don’t believe will have positive results in the long run. I’m sure Dan feels the same sentiment… but I think we may be looking at differing timeframes, that’s all.
(2) Next, he asserts that “the missional conversation often goes a step further by dismissing the ‘attractional’ model of church as ineffective. …But here’s my dilemma—I see no evidence to verify this claim.” He follows up with anecdotal evidence concerning a missional church and a megachurch. Here Dan’s got a good point — some of us in the missional conversation do go a bit too far in dismissing the attractional church. I may believe that its days are numbered, but they are clearly not yet over, and as long as it’s working for some, more power to them. I do hope, in making this statement, that our measures of “success” are similar enough that we can be content with the same outworkings from our efforts. Whereas I’m looking at “health” in the sense of spiritual vitality and growth of the individuals involved, some (and I’m not saying Dan) look only or mainly at numbers. Sure, megachurches are growing — but not all are healthy, and not all are theologically sound. (Can I get an ‘Amen!’?)
Here comes a caveat though. Not all attractional churches are megachurches… and not all are growing. Inasmuch as it’s hard (or impossible) to look at a few missional churches and pronounce a verdict for the whole, we cannot look at a few megachurches and pronounce a verdict for attractional church as a whole. There are some neighbourhoods and people groups among whom it doesn’t work. And there are some where it does. Let’s understand these and use the right structures for the context, shall we?
Despite the article’s somewhat provocative title, I think Dan’s main point is that people in the missional conversation are writing off attractional church. And he’s right. In this, I suggest some quarters of the missional conversation really have gone too far… and it may not be a shock to find I’ve been in that camp. But I nevertheless continue to maintain that if it’s working for them by organic measures beyond the numbers (and I can say that because Dan states in his piece that he’s not a numbers guy), then let them continue in it. But it runs both ways — if those of us toiling away at missional endeavours are still convinced after –however long we’ve been at it– that our methods are the most promising or are bearing the kind of fruit we expect, then let’s not criticize the missional “movement” (I hate that word) for taking too long, shall we?
I mean, we’re on the same side — so it behooves us to actually pray for one another and our varied efforts.
It’s possible that Dan’s article will raise some hackles, and that’s to be expected. I got my dander up for a few minutes myself, but on second glance I think my response is a little more measured, and in the transaction, more accurate. But it does illustrate something else of significance to the missional crowd: inasmuch as we have discussed the theory amongst ourselves, it appears that some on the outside don’t actually understand some of the theory we’re discussing (we should have figured that out by the confusion over what the word means, right?), so it looks like there’s still some explanation to ge done.
As well, it has been noted correctly that there is some degree of difficulty in gathering missional stories and accounts, and I can say that something toward this end took a big positive step forward today. More will be revealed in the coming weeks, but again we must realize that the kind of grassroots organization that attends missional efforts doesn’t look the same as those which attend the boardroom of the megachurch, so it it has been slow to get missional endeavours up and running and ready to report on their efforts, it will also take time for reporting structures to come together. But it will happen.
In the end, I think Dan isn’t quite measuring the missional “movement” (his word, not mine) by its proper yardstick. But on the other hand, he’s highlighted a few working points for those of us committed to the theory, and in that, perhaps we see a challenge to be met?