The first two parts of this essay dealt with two reasons the missional turn matters: the mainstreaming of missiology and theological innovation. After the missional turn, local churches have begun to think theologically like missionaries, and they have begun to learn the rules of a new language game. Without specific forms of life — practices — these first two reasons often fail to result in congregational capacity for participation in God’s mission. The third reason the missional turn matters, then, is its insistence on the church’s recovery of lost capacities, which requires fresh experimentation with old habits and ancient practices.
Reason 3: Recovering Lost Capacities
The fact that traditional Christian practices are at the heart of the missional turn leads some to think that churches in which these practices are common are already missional and leads others to think that missional doesn’t mean anything new. For the latter, missional theologians insist on terminology that makes no difference for churches that already pray for their enemies, serve the poor, practice hospitality, and so on. And it is true that the term missional is not necessary — of course it isn’t! In fact, though language is necessary for playing a different language game, and missional is an extremely helpful word in this regard, the church ultimately will not learn to play that game without essential practices. Say what you want about throwing the ball; unless you throw it, being right about the rules is pointless.
The point for missional theologians, however, is that churches have lost critical capacities for engaging in God’s mission. Most churches have never stopped praying for guidance, reading Scripture, or acting charitably, yet many fail to develop a meaningful engagement with their communities and neighborhoods. At the same time, core practices like friendship with marginalized neighbors, giving and receiving hospitality, and communal discernment are notoriously absent from the regular life of many churches. Either way, at stake in the theological innovation called missional is the creation of congregational capacity for participation in God’s mission. This capacity is the difference the missional turn makes. To this end, missional theology restores old habits and ancient practices to the economy of God’s mission and contends they are indispensable for becoming responsive, faithful participants in God’s mission.
The language associated with these practices in a variety of missional theologians’ writings is experimentation. Despite the venerability of the practices at issue, their intentional, communal undertaking requires exploration and creativity. The formation of habits and instincts is itself a contextual process. The practices that cultivate missional capacities must confront concerns and constraints that vary from location to location. A key value of the missional turn is, therefore, the freedom to fail. As congregations and communities make the missional turn, experiments are bound to meet with mixed results. For example, practices of hospitality — which is arguably the most prominent in recent missional literature — that ultimately create missional capacity in a local church are built upon the good failures of previous experiments. Participation is not success or effectiveness but loving, hopeful faithfulness to both the character and purposes of the Triune God. Churches that come to embody such faithfulness have made what is arguably the only shift adequate for witness in the post-Christendom, postmodern era.
Cultivating Missional Imagination
All three of these reasons the missional turn matters — the mainstreaming of missiology, theological innovation, and the recovery of lost capacities — are the major components of what many refer to as the cultivation of a new imagination. Between Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (1978), Gordon Kaufman’s The Theological Imagination (1981), David Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination (1981), Richard Hays’s The Conversion of the Imagination, and James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom, every corner of Christian theology has been awash in concern about imagination for decades (though surprisingly few authors have focused on imagination per se — what it is and how it changes). The missional conversation is no exception. The language of imagination resonates with church leaders, because they know instinctively that what is at issue in their congregations is not just thinking new thoughts or doing new practices but coming finally to imagine God, church, and world differently. Communities embody an imagination (worldview has been the predominate cognate concept in missiology), and both theology and practices are tools for cultivating a new imagination. This is ultimately why the missional turn matters: it is the cultivation of a theological imagination out of which the church can live faithfully in the twenty-first century. The theological innovations that set the board and the ecclesial practices that equip local churches to play a missiological game are what faithfulness in our context requires.
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, rev. ed. (Baker Academic, 2013).
Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Gospel and Our Culture Series (Eerdmans, 1998).
Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Eerdmans, 1995).
Alan Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Allelon Missional Series (Baker, 2011).
Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Baker Academic, 2007).
Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Baker Academic, 2011).
Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP Academic, 2006).