Over the past couple days, I read Ventures in Mission by Paul O. Madsen. It was published in 1968 during the very early days of what we now call the missional church movement. By comparison, Lesslie Newbigin, whose influence generally credits him as the founder of the movement, didn’t begin his ministry in Great Britain until 1974 and his influence didn’t spread to the United States until the 1980s. The term “missional” was coined in 1998 by Darrell Guder.
I bought this book in a thrift store bag sale. Apparently, it is a companion volume to Mandate for Mission by Eugene L. Smith, which I haven’t read.
Madsen divides his book into five sections covering encounters with people, urbanization, society, institutionalism, and self. The book’s main purpose is to provide real-life examples of missional activity. While most books with such a purpose become quickly dated, researchers studying the missional church will find this book a helpful record of early missional experiments, primarily in the United States but also internationally.
Madsen argues that rapid shifts in technology, society, and culture demand the church to undergo a radical transformation. Specifically, churches need to change from a professional ministry model to a lay ministry model, from an institutional “come” mentality to a missional “go” mentality, from teaching private spirituality to promoting social activism, and from an emphasis on individuals to targeting people groups.
The book is remarkable in that it puts forward virtually all the main arguments that the missional church movement promotes today, forty-four years later. While I appreciated Madsen’s emphasis on lay involvement and external focus, I find three things troubling about Madsen’s argument and in certain trends of the missional church movement today.
First, I am troubled by the argument that the church must change its identity due to developments in technology and shifts in culture. Sure, we must adapt to such things, but to say we need a new identity goes a bit far. In arguing what the church needs to be, the missional church tends to forget what the church has always been and will be for eternity.
Second, I find the present emphasis on social activism disconcerting. Christians have always had a concern for the poor and an emphasis on loving their neighbors. However, Madsen argues that the church should emphasize social action in place of personal spirituality. That’s like tossing out the eggs to make room for more chickens. Also, the missional church movement takes upon itself to accomplish the missio dei (“mission of God”). Thus Christians should be involved in doing everything God is doing in the world. However, God does a lot of things without asking for our help. He judges and punishes the world for sin. Are we to help God with that? If not, then why do we think He needs our help controlling climate change? Why don’t we instead talk about the missio ecclesiae (“mission of the church”)? Christians should stop trying to take part in everything they think God is doing in the world and instead focus on doing what He has told us to do.
Third, Madsen argues that the church needs to target people groups rather than individuals. We see the fulfillment of his vision in modern American evangelicalism. We have ethnic churches, biker churches, seeker churches, indie rocker churches, and churches for virtually every other segment of society. Missionaries no longer go to countries but to “the such-and-such people of” a country. While this is great marketing, where is the overall unity of the body of Christ in all this? Shouldn’t we be building a church where we are neither Jew nor Greek, biker nor automobilist, urban nor suburb? Our unity should be found in Christ, not our ethnicity or musical preference. The church needs to reach every person in society, but if we segment our ministries to target specific people groups, we surrender the unity of our diversity being lost in Christ.
I will be the first to admit that conservative Christianity as a whole has poorly adapted to cultural change, has failed to address many social problems, and has overlooked many unreached people groups. However, we need to adapt to modern culture without losing our historical identity. We need to address social problems without losing our primary focus on personal spirituality. We need to reach a diverse world without losing our unity in Christ.