Has the Missional Conversation Devolved?

I was struck by how many affirmed that the missional conversation was now a series of books about church growth and health or romantic notions of ideal church types. It’s a disappointing aspect of a movement that began with such promise raising questions about the value of the missional conversation.
--Alan Roxburgh, reflecting on a consultation with leaders in the Denver Area (UMC) 

Has the missional conversation come to this? Has it been derailed and coopted, at least in the popular awareness of it, by the same old same old church growth, church vitality and church types conversations we've been having in North American Protestantism for the past century or more?

Of course part of the answer is, "Yes." And part of that "yes" is inevitable in a market economy. What gets press gets impressed into our minds. And what gets press is typically those who dominate the press, who have large publishing contracts, show up on the right shows and podcasts, and generate a sense of "guruship" the most effectively.

And what gets published and remains in the press is what is or is at least thought to be "popular." And what is most popular-- as it has ever been-- is the promise of a quick fix that will turn whatever condition you have around if you just buy it. Marketing 101. 

So yes, in the marketplace of perception, the missional conversation has come to this. 

But that doesn't mean the missional conversation IS this! 

It's not.

And the missional conversation is unlikely ever to sell well or get the breakthrough that its populist proclaimers (wrapping it around their real goods-- which are as attractional and anti-discipleship as ever) have gotten.


Our work doesn't make headlines. It's too small to be seen on most radar screens. And in this environment it's hard to start it and hard to maintain it-- at least until it takes root, and that takes years. Years-- not 40 days or three months, or even a quadrennium. When Alban and others note it takes at least six years for real pastoral effectiveness to emerge, they're still only talking about effective institutional leadership in congregations. Double that, and we might be closer to the right scale to see significant results. Maybe. If we work at it every day and diligently do so over all that time, bringing others on board with us along the way as we can.

Roxburgh talks about this as investing the time and effort to develop "parallel cultures" in his book, Missional Mapmaking

Now, we can certainly see significant results in the lives of individuals and small groups of Christians sooner than that-- but not in congregational cultures. My sense has continued to be that if we invest well in both, maybe just maybe we could move the dial back from 12 to maybe just 6 years on the congregational scene... that is, if we invest heavily in missional groups connected to but not programmed by the congregation. Roxburgh is not alone in being leary of this "parachurch" approach, fearing as many do that it's just one more way of outsourcing congregational work. But I've noted that in fact the core work of discipleship and mission got outsourced centuries ago-- and remains that way. If it will impact the culture of congregations now, it has a far better chance of doing so if developed in healthy connected ways from the outside than trying to generate it inside alone.

So yes, the missional conversation has been coopted.

That just means we need to keep working, keep talking and keep pulling folks into the real thing-- not a veneer covering the 'same old thing'-- ourselves.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards