Interview with Reggie McNeal, Author of Missional Renaissance

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Reggie McNeal's new book, Missional Renaissance, calls for a new alignment of evangelical Protestantism with Christ's mission to restore creation. McNeal writes about how local churches should reorient toward having an impact on society. He praises the recent phenomenon of "missional communities"—small groups with a dedicated purpose—springing up to address particular social ills. He claims that what's happening today in the church may change the institution as much as the Reformation.

We recently had a chance to speak with him about his book and the "missional movement" of which he is a prominent leader.

Why does the church need to concentrate more on mission or becoming "missional"? Hasn't the church always been missional by her nature?

The term "missional church" would indeed be redundant if the church knew its mission. We have thought we were about building the church and inviting people to participate in it as the doorway into the kingdom of God. That is, we've thought that the church had a mission. The truth is that God's mission has a church. It's His Mission, not ours. The work of the church comes out of God's redemptive mission in the world.

What are the three major developments that need to take place in order for the church to undergo the missional transformation you are advocating?

First, we must move from an internal to an external focus. The church does not exist for itself. When it thinks it does, we've created a church-centric world. Our perception of reality is skewed. By external focus of ministry I mean we radically reorient to understand that we exist primarily to do ministry beyond ourselves.

Second, we need to move from a program-driven agenda to a people-development agenda. Over time, the North American church has largely become a collection of programs run by staff or lay leaders. While we will certainly continue to have these programs, I believe a new, people-development agenda will base its sense of accomplishment on how well its people are doing, not its programs. If you start with people, the programs then serve the people, not the other way around.

The third shift is really a leadership response to the other two. It will require that leaders move from a maintenance or institutional model of leadership to a personal model—a "movement model" of leadership. Leading a movement is very different from leading an organization.

Christianity was largely a street movement in its early days, when it turned the world on its head. Once we institutionalized it and put it into the hands of the clergy to run, then we lost the virility of that movement. It became all about institutional management. We have to return to the kind of leadership that's required in leading a street movement, if we're going to recapture that energy.

Can you give me an example of what becoming externally focused looks like?

Externally-focused congregations will typically release more of their money into local community investment—public schools, social agencies, and so on. The church's major initiatives will be to bless community. Adopting schools or providing other social services. Things like that.

In terms of becoming more interested in developing people rather than programs, you speak a lot about coaching. Is "coaching" like spiritual direction, or is it something different?

I don't use the words "spiritual director" because we, in the West, compartmentalize our lives into secular and sacred, and "spiritual director" implies some kind of soul work. In "coaching," I was looking for the broadest word to describe the work that needs to happen. Many times life-coaching will encompass spiritual formation. It also deals with such matters as how an executive can best work with his board or helping a family find employment.

You say that church leaders should think of themselves more in the vein of Hollywood producers as opposed to directors. Why are so many clergy threatened at the prospect of the laity taking initiatives without them? Are there any real hazards involved?

Fear and control drive most ministry decisions in the North American church—fear of what will happen if we do or don't do something. Fear and control are evil twins.

I find that many clergy have been trained in a culture that encourages them to take ultimate responsibility for the church.

In reality, clergy are not ultimately responsible for the church—the Spirit is responsible, and Jesus is responsible. Church leaders too often don't trust the Holy Spirit and Jesus to look after the church; we've put ourselves in that roll.

Yet history shows us time and again how the Spirit and Jesus have cleaned up and taken care of things after the church has strayed into excesses and heresies.

The idea that we as clergy are in charge forms an unbiblical contract with our parishioners where everything has to pass through clergy—thought and permission-giving. We as clergy have to re-orient our notion of this whole church leadership business and lead by example. It's a very different way of thinking about what leadership is.

You speak of the new "missional communities" with great admiration—can you provide a definition of a missional community? What are they?

I haven't defined them yet. I think it's still too early. I think—I hope—there is a coming pandemic within the church that will manifest itself as missional communities: smaller groups of people that will form spiritually centered communities around public projects, life passions, even workplaces—the things that really connect us.

Missional communities will probably range from twenty to thirty people, enough to give synergy to the group for external kinds of projects and engagement. These groups will then reproduce—even on a viral scale once we get enough traction.

Isn't the impulse of the missional communities similar to the monastic impulse or other intentional communities that we've seen in the past? How will these missional communities address the issues of authority over which so many such efforts have foundered?

Missional communities aren't so driven by reform or personal development as many of the monastic communities were. What really lies at the heart of missional communities is an external focus, synergizing people around doing good for others. It's a different quest—a mission-driven kind of quest that forces people to express faith. It's not so institutionally fettered.

As for authority, we need for existing congregations and church authorities to legitimize this expression of Christianity so that these missional communities can operate under the umbrella of the existing church. People shouldn't feel like they've left the church to be a part of a missional community. I tell my clients [churches] that they could form dozens of missional communities and never impact their bottom line, because these are going to reach people who would never show up at their church on Sunday anyway. Their responsibility will then become training and coaching the missional community leaders, which forms the authority connection as well as the service connection.

I'm wondering if you have pastors who sometimes out of frustration ask you: "Reggie, do you know how much money we have to raise per month? Do you know how fast I'm running just to keep the operation afloat? How can I run any faster?" Do you get questions like that?

I always get questions from clergy who are frustrated at not being able to get to the primary call that they gave their lives to fulfill. Some tell me, "Reggie, we'd do everything you say if we didn't have a mortgage." The mortgage becomes the tail that wags the dog. Some feel trapped, and ministering out of a sense of being trapped has about as much joy to it as feeling trapped in a marriage. Then we wonder, as leaders, when we're ministering out of something besides joy, why the people around us aren't joyful.

Let me pursue this just a little bit more. So many intentional communities in the past start with the "best of intentions." But people love to fight. They degenerate into squabbles, even in stable institutions. So how will these new missional communities handle those inevitable conflicts?

We may not escape that dynamic. I think that missional groups should be formed around covenant, which will make the connection between group members much more meaningful even than church membership does. They will have to work on relationships and authenticity among themselves as well as with the people that they're trying to impact. They will still have the same kinds of relationship challenges, and these may be even more apparent because there won't be the institutional varnish that frankly keeps a lot of things held together in churches—that sticky varnish without the real bonding underneath.

When you say covenantal, do you mean there should be founding documents to which people ascribe?

Yes. At least some expectations need to be shared and spelled out up front. No one should be shocked about what is expected of them later on. The group should state up front: "This is what you can expect by participating with us." Whatever each community decides should be its DNA. Things go bad when people are surprised. I've seen that people will live up to things when they've been spelled out up front.

How can the church as a body play her role as the guardian of orthodoxy without a denominational or other structure?

Well, the church does that now. Apart from established denominations, we also now have dozens of churches with thousands of people that are not connected to any larger denominational structure, and they maintain orthodoxy by maintaining orthodoxy. Here again, we see evidence of the Spirit superintending the church. Just because a congregation is not connected to a larger group doesn't mean that it's automatically headed toward a heretical tendency.

You say that the experience of the church in every age influences and, in fact, enriches the way we look at doctrinal issues. In this regard, you specifically mention soteriology—the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ. How might the "missional renaissance" change or enrich our understanding of salvation?

I grew up in a world where if someone claimed to be a believer in Jesus but didn't sign up for church membership somewhere, that claim was suspect. It was almost Tertullian: "Outside the church there is no salvation." It's true in terms of the Universal Church, but the problem is we have hacked the Universal Church up into denominational entities and organizations. I'm thinking a more missional soteriology may allow for many, many followers in Jesus who may not necessarily congregationalize but who will live very intentional lives of blessing and following Jesus.

There's a profound confusion in the contemporary church between the role of the clergy versus the laity. You speak eloquently about how evangelical pastors have wandered into the trap of confusing "cultural transformation" with building an alternative culture within the walls of the local church. But isn't there a trap as well in the clergy continuing to think that cultural transformation is their job rather than the job of the laity? Shouldn't the clergy—as Eugene Peterson advocates—concentrate on worship and the transformation of their people and send out their people to transform society?

The role of clergy as leader involves creating a culture where people are developed and deployed as missional followers of Jesus. As a leader, I'm not exempt from also being developed and deployed, with my primary concern being "have I created a culture where that is occurring?" So now my scorecard is not how many people are participating in the training, but how many people are actually deployed. In every real sense of the word, the church already is deployed. This is about releasing the church in every domain. It's already there, but now someone has to be paying attention to that happening in the lives of our lay people. That will be the leader's roll.

When you speak of the activities of those churches "going missional," you most often cite activities that would traditionally be described as "acts of charity": reaching out to the poor through soup kitchens, jobs programs, micro-finance, etc. But doesn't that leave the really big problems like disease, systemic poverty, and the creation of just social orders untouched? How can we create "missional communities" that have the scale to take on such problems?

Well, if I've used missional church examples that leave an impression that justice and mercy and large-scale social factors are not being addressed, I've used too shallow a description, because God's mission addresses everything that sin has damaged. If we're partners with Him in that mission, we'll be concerned about issues of justice as well as issues of hunger, marriage, integrity, and spiritual discipline. Everything across the sin-damaged spectrum.

As you point out, evangelical Protestantism is recapturing the sense in which words and deeds go together—that neither really can survive without the other.

That's right. It's sharing the truth in love, with both parts equally important. We can't fully serve people without truth, and we won't get the chance to serve people if we tell them the truth without love. Who'd want to hear it?