What Have We Learned? Missional Theology in Practice
*This is part 7 of the Laity Leadership Institute Missional series with Senior Fellow Darrell Guder, who is the Princeton Theological Seminary Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7
In the introduction to his 1998 landmark book Missional Church: A Vision for Sending of the Church in North America, Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Darrell Guder identified multiple crises in the American church: “diminishing numbers, clergy burnout, the loss of youth, the end of denominational loyalty, biblical illiteracy, divisions in the ranks, the electronic church and its various corruptions, the irrelevance of traditional forms of worship, the loss of genuine spirituality, and widespread confusion about both the purpose and the message of the church of Jesus Christ.”
These issues represent “a fundamental crisis, not just a question of strategies gone wrong or a couple of cultural challenges. …We are in serious trouble because we’re not thinking biblically about who we are and what we’re for as the church of Jesus Christ,” Guder said when The High Calling interviewed him at Princeton Theological Seminary where he is Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology.
In a series of six articles, we highlighted Christians who exemplify the missional theology Guder advocates as an antidote to the dire situation he sees, beginning with Guder himself.
Fourteen years after World War II, Guder began doctoral studies in Germany.
“My experience there was actually the experience of the trauma of the whole society realizing, after two horrible wars, that Germany was a country in which the traditions and structures of Christendom were disintegrating,” said Guder.
This revelation started the missiologist on a path that eventually led him to study how the church in the post-Christian west can regain its missionary footing.
“I’ve never felt that I had an exciting story to tell because I just went through the open doors and did the work that needed to be done,” said Guder. “At age 51, I finally knew what I was going to be when I grew up.”
That’s when he was called to an academic chair in missiology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Everything he had ever done coalesced.
“My passion as a theologian of mission is teaching future servants of the church so that they’ll be equipped to equip congregations to lead lives that are worthy of the gospel,” said Guder.
Branding expert Karen Dougherty has helped many Christian organizations, including Women of Faith, communicate and fulfill their missions more effectively. Her vocational calling emerged when she was a student at Wheaton College in Illinois. A professor there told the story of a Christian radio station whose management didn’t care that a listener survey revealed nobody was tuning in to hear its message. They thought their only responsibility was to transmit it.
The Great Commission is not merely about spreading the gospel in words, it is about embodying the gospel message—its hope for transformational renewal—in our work, said Guder.
With this perspective in mind, Dougherty recently created a slogan for a Christian radio station that was very much interested in connecting with listeners and making a difference in their lives.
“The idea that we came up with is that the station is there to help fortify people’s faith every day,” she said.
Rick Archer was a rising architectural star in Washington, D.C. when the Word of God convicted him as he struggled with the call to take a sabbatical so he could learn about Jesus and what it means to be his disciple.
“The story of the rich young ruler who went away sad because he wouldn’t follow Jesus hit me like a ton a bricks,” said Archer.
The Bible is the Holy Spirit’s chosen instrument for missional transformation, said Guder. “It is really only authoritative when it’s open and working.”
With a transformed perspective, Archer later co-founded Overland Partners, an architecture firm in San Antonio, Texas. The firm’s mission is “to model how we should live and influence the world through the practice of architecture.”
“If a big idea needs a building, that’s us,” he said. For example, Overland Partners has designed facilities for the homeless throughout the United States, including the largest homeless center in the country.
David Greusel is the principal architect at Convergence Design in Kansas City, Missouri. He has designed stadiums for major league teams including the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros, but suffered for years under dualistic evangelical theology that said designing buildings is not important.
“It’s all going to burn anyway,” Greusel heard from Christians. “The only thing that lasts is the human soul.”
In the last decade, he has realized that designing buildings for people and communities is his vocational calling. More than just creating spaces though, his design style confronts the nihilistic philosophy that has dominated architecture for much of the last century.
“I’m convicted that the modern movement grew out of a set of assumptions about life, reality, and human nature that as a Christian I disagree with. One of those underlying assumptions is that tradition is always bad, authority must always be challenged, and rules were made to be broken. As a credo I don’t think that fits well with the biblical understanding of human nature or reality or life,” Greusel said.
Missional theology is always and essentially ‘local,’ Guder explained. Just as missionaries seek to make the gospel meaningful to different people in different contexts, Greusel seeks to make his work relevant to the communities where his designs are implemented.
Jack vanHartesvelt is Managing Director of Alvarez and Marsal Capital Real Estate. In addition to reorganizing failing companies, he buys, builds, and oversees the management of major hotels.
“I was pretty good at negotiating, but part of it involved deception. It involved saying I wanted something when I didn’t really want it, just so I could give it up later and get something I really did want,” vanHartesvelt admitted.
“It’s a game. Everybody seems to play it. I could play it. I was good at it, but at some point, I decided it was wrong,” he said of the moment he decided to begin negotiating deals with all parties’ best interests in mind.
“The Christian individual is defined as Christ’s witness… God’s Spirit, working in mysterious and gracious ways, empowers this very human and very fallible witness to be the means by which people hear the good news and are invited to become followers of Jesus,” wrote Guder in his book The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness.
Jack vanHartesvelt’s decision to become an incarnational witness to the gospel involved considerable risk, but has had far reaching consequences.
Christian Andrews was in his sixth year of studies at Princeton Theological Seminary when he walked away from those studies to help a small group of Christians reach out to youth in his home town of Red Bank, New Jersey.
“They wanted someone to live in this town and facilitate their doing the work they felt called to—not someone to come and do ministry for them, but to equip them to do ministry,” he explained of the work that eventually became ORB Community Church.
Many teenagers hung out in a local park, so Andrews spent a lot of time there getting to know them and teaching them the Bible without pressuring them to convert.
“God’s love is not withheld until someone meets a certain set of criteria, but is extended even—in Paul’s words—while we were enemies,” he said.
“ORB is one expression that fits Guder’s understanding of what the church is,” said Andrews. “It was a group that was what it did, and what it did was it tried to share the gospel with people who didn’t know it, and it was built up as a group in order to do it.”
Missional theology isn’t just another marketing idea that publishers have come up with to sell books. It is a way of embodying the gospel message so that others might see and believe.
What have you learned from this series and how will you implement its lessons?
*This is part 7 of the Laity Leadership Institute Missional series with Senior Fellow Darrell Guder, who is the Princeton Theological Seminary Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology.