Pastors are an angsty bunch, just like teenagers. I would know because I am one and I spend time with other pastors! Teenagers can often feel a deep anxiety about their lives. What am I doing with my life? Does anyone care? Etc. Etc. And, from what I’ve experienced myself and what I’ve observed in other pastors, pastors are often filled with similar angst. Typically, the thought process goes something like this: “The church is terrible! Our church is spiritually immature! We’re not making disciples! I’m spending all my time managing the machine rather than making disciples!”
Usually such thoughts flood a pastor’s brain after a long day of meetings or being mired in the minutia of planning a ministry event. As a result of the angst, some pastors have decided that the institutional church is no longer the best way to invest their time. They have attempted to forge new models of ministry which focus less on the “show” of a Sunday morning service or focus more on organic disciple-making.
The Missional Turn
These pastors have taken what I call the “missional turn” in their ministries. They have turned away from the organized, institutional way church has been done and seek to reorient their ministry activities around evangelism, mission, and disciple-making. They often eschew formal structures or institutions. In fact, many come to believe that the institutional church is actually a barrier to disciple making. These missional pastors and thinkers have levied many different criticisms concerning the institutional church. For example, they claim the institutional church is…
- Too focused on Sunday morning worship. They often criticize all the time, effort, and energy put into Sunday morning services. The easiest target for missional thinkers is the “attractional” model of massive American megachurch. Too many megachurches seem almost solely focused on attracting people to attend their worship services rather make disciples. Furthermore, it’s true that some American megachurches traffic in spectacle and downright unbiblical practices.
- Too focused on programs rather than people. Missional thinkers believe that most churches run too many programs and that these programs do not develop real disciples. They claim that pastors and/or ministry leaders end up focusing more on managing the programs than developing people in their faith.
- Too slow and bureaucratic. Another complain about the institutional church is that it is too slow and bureaucratic. They argue that institutional churches do not rapidly multiply disciples or making changes to fit with the times takes too long. In their view, smaller, “organic” communities can rapidly multiply and provide a better context for deep “life-on-life” discipleship.
- Too beholden to a building. A deeper criticism of the institutional church is that it is too beholden to a building. Many missional thinkers believe that the emphasis on “going to church” and the church building is a remnant from a Christendom mindset. These missional thinkers argue that churches should ditch the building and meet in homes or “third spaces” (like coffee shops) instead. They often question the whole idea of a paid clergy as well as a leftover from a bygone era of Christendom.
Now, the tricky thing about the “missional turn” that some pastors make is that there is a grain of truth in all of their criticisms. Some churches are definitely too focused on Sunday morning worship, prioritize programs over people, very slow and filled with bureaucracy, and tied too closely to a building. And yet. And yet, there are even more and deeper problems with the missional turn.
Problems with the Missional Movement
While the intentions of the pastors who make the “missional turn” is admirable, I believe there are some serious flaws in adopting the missional mindset wholesale. In other words, I still believe the institutional church is the best place to make disciples. Here are a few problems with the missional movement:
- They get the central purpose of the church wrong. Missional thinkers essentially place evangelism and works of justice at the center of the church’s life rather than worship. Missional thinker Ed Stetzer has written, “While it’s common for people to say, ‘The church has a mission,’ a better way to talk about mission is ‘God’s mission has a church’.” Stetzer essentially “functionalizes” the church as if her primary purpose is to advance the mission of God. But the Scriptures rarely functionalize the church. The common metaphors of the church are the family, the body of Christ (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12), the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5; Revelation 19), and the new Israel (the new people of God) (1 Peter 2). These are not primarily functional metaphors. Instead, they are “identity” metaphors. Furthermore, if we talk about the “central” purpose of the church it seems evidence to me that worship is central. The foremost command of the Christian life is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:30-31). If we put anything other than God at the very center of our lives, whether individually or as a church, it would be idolatry. Obviously, we cannot pit worship and mission against each other as if they are antagonistic. You will not have worshippers without mission, and you won’t have missionaries without worship. But John Piper seems to get the priority right when he claims that “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” Even in the Great Commission, the mission of making disciples advances through the sacrament of baptism as practiced by the institutional church: “make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
- They oversell movements and undersell institutions. Quite frankly, movements come and go, but institutions last. Sure, the institutions in America have taken a beating in recent years. But organized, institutional structures last the test of time better than loosely organized “movements.” One of the foremost proponents of “disciple making movements” has essentially admitted that the rapid multiplication disciple making movement has failed. It’s true that movements can often bring renewal to institutions, but rarely do they replace them. And if a movement ever replaced an institution, the irony would be that the movement itself would then become an institution! Institutions are more durable. Look at the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. While I believe Catholic theology is in error, the Catholic Church has been around for over a thousand years and will probably be around if the Lord tarries another one thousand years. Furthermore, institutional Protestant churches have been around for over five hundred years and will likely be around for another five hundred too. Therefore, investing in long-term institutions like a local church is a better investment of time, effort, energy and money than ethereal movements.
- They don’t fully appreciate how dysfunctional and unhealthy unaccountable smaller groups of community can be. The problem with decentralized, “organic” communities is that little to no accountability can exist for the leaders of those communities. Larger organizations can have unaccountable leaders as well (see Driscoll, Pastor Mark). But from my observation, at least in New Jersey, many “home” churches are run by men who were disgruntled with their organized church because the pastors were holding them accountable for something. So they then decide to do “church at home.” And it gets weird. At least small groups that are attached to an actual church run by qualified elders and pastors have some pastoral oversight to guide the groups.
- They don’t actually produce more and better disciples than institutional churches. The final reason why we should not embrace the missional movement fully is that it doesn’t actually produce more and better disciples than institutional churches! As one pastor has put it in his critique of the missional movement: “What has [the missional movement] got us in the last ten years? One of the most startling and sharpest church attendance declines in the modern era and virtually no progress in evangelism to speak of.” And I think that one of the reasons why the missional movement struggles to make disciples is the same reality is all pastors have to deal with: people have to work. Just because your church is a group of twenty people that meets in someone’s home doesn’t mean that you are going to be able to spend a lot more time with them than pastors of institutional churches. It’s not like a bunch of men are just going to be sitting around and doing nothing all day during the week. In fact, if they are, then you probably have a bigger problem on your hands! The plain fact is that making disciples is a hard, long, and slow process and that reality is true no matter what form the church takes.
I hope that some of the angst of disciple-making can be relieved for pastors when they can see that just because we’re pastoring in institutional churches does NOT cut off our ability to make disciples. In fact, I believe the opposite is true: the institutional is actually the best place to make disciples. I hope to look at why the institutional church is a great place to make disciples in another post.