Reggie McNeal says we are playing catch up to the Holy Spirit, who is at loose in the streets. In his 2003 groundbreaking work, Present Future, McNeal shared six core realities that signaled a need for revising our notion of church. In his newest book, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, McNeal advances the discussion to focus on three significant shifts that will enable a congregation to become a truly missional church. The three shifts are: 1) from an internal to an external focus, 2) from running programs and ministries to developing people as its core activity, and 3) from church-based leadership to community-engaged leadership. Grace and Peace Magazine asked Reggie to respond to a few questions we had about his recent book and what it means to be missional. Many of you will remember Reggie McNeal as one of the keynote speakers at the M7 Mid-Quadrennial Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.
Grace and Peace Magazine: Why did you write Missional Renaissance?
RM: I had observed enough to move past deconstruction and make positive comments on moving a congregation and church leaders in a missional direction. I also wanted to advance discussion about “scorecards.” We need a new scorecard to reflect multi-dimensional aspects of missional ministry that push beyond the old scorecards of “how many” and “how often” that have so dominated the church scene in America. If missional means anything at all, it certainly signals a behavioral shift. If we don’t change what we reward, we won’t get different behaviors.
G&P: What does it mean for the church to move from an internal to external focus and how long does this transition take?
RM: Some people see this shift as the sum of the whole missional movement, but there is more to it than that. It is not a true either/or. You are always going to have internal issues and internal concerns. The key is to put more weight, energy, and resources into being external. The key word is focus. Does everything we do have an external focus? Whatever we are planning (calendar, programs, staff, etc.) starts from an external perspective.
If you only track church-centric activity and celebrate the number of people who show up for in-house events, you are just reinforcing the wrong thing. Our church culture is bent; it is inward, program-driven, and institutionally focused. To be missional, you have to change your church’s focus. This shift requires a different kind of culture. The way you change culture is through language. Language creates culture. You have to talk about different things and talk about them in a different way. In addition, you have to introduce new traditions and celebrate them.
With existing congregations, you are looking at a multi-year transition. We pastors and spiritual leaders get impatient. We think a church will adopt a missional approach by Christmas. That reflects our own lack of understanding how long it takes people to shift their culture. I tell all of my clients that your church will never vote to go missional. Like the children of Israel wanting to go back to Egypt after the Exodus, most churches prefer the problems they are familiar with over the unintended problems that arise with a new course of action. That is the nature of people. You can’t push this thing through old organizational dynamics.
You have to think virally. Mission is a virus, and you are trying to cultivate a pandemic that will reach critical mass.
You have to think virally. Mission is a virus, and you are trying to cultivate a pandemic that will reach critical mass. It can heat up quickly, particularly if a church is facing death, or if there is a huge crisis. I tell pastors first to be the change they want to see, because people will not think these things are significant until they see you do them. The next thing is to find people who are susceptible to the virus and get them exposed. Once they are contagious, expose them to other susceptible populations. Then, create opportunities and venues for people to act missionally.
I encourage every church to connect to their community by getting involved in a school. Go to the one closest to you, or where your people work, or the one in the poorest part of town—but connect to that school! It gives people a way to behave. Get them mentoring in an after-school program. Then, start telling stories about the mentors and the kids they are dealing with. You just have to start talking, and it will build momentum. It might take time, but it will be received more naturally that way and keep you from a lot of confrontation. A pastor I was working with wanted to re-write the church’s by-laws and governance from a missional point of view. I asked him why; people will come out of the woodwork with all kinds of objections. You just want to bring out those who are susceptible to the virus and get them out there being missional and spread that around.
G&P: In the second missional shift, what is the issue with program development, and can you elaborate on what you mean by people development?
RM: This shift is one of the more difficult to understand. When your focus is on developing people, you can still have programs, but you customize your programs to fit the needs of your people and not the other way around. The truth is that people don’t grow the same way. Anybody who has more than one kid knows that. A peopledevelopment approach requires customization.
Every church I work with asks people what they would like to see God do in their lives, how they would like to serve others, where they see God at work—this is a very customized approach. We have to increase our bandwidth of spiritual gifts to give people more ways to get involved.
A people-development culture is also much more intergenerational than some of our program models. We need to help seniors figure out how to pass along their wisdom to teenagers, and our seniors need to hear the life stories of our youth to help them believe all over again and be encouraged.
A people-development culture is life-centric as opposed to curriculum-driven. It is helping people make sense out of the lives they are already experiencing. The bottom line is you cannot have a missional congregation without missional people. You can have a lot of organizational accomplishments, but if you don’t create a culture where you are actually growing, developing, shaping, and coaching people into becoming followers of Jesus, you have chance of becoming missional. This is foundational.
G&P: The third shift is a move from church-based leadership to community-engaged leadership. What does this mean for clergy?
RM: Over the centuries, we have shrink-wrapped the notion of call and vocation down to fit primarily the clergy. The Christian movement, during the first three centuries, was a street movement. The missional movement is a street movement. As clergy, we have to re-conceptualize ou role. We are not to see ourselves primarily as church managers (not that management isn’t necessary). If that’s our primary focus, we’ll get stuck in the mode of thinking that asks, “How can I make the worship service better? How do we offer better programs?” If you see yourself as the leader of a movement, your job is to serve people in every domain of our culture—to be the church right where they reside.
Missional followers of Jesus have shifted the understanding of church from a noun to a verb. I grew up in a very church-centric institution. I thought the church was a certain address, something I supported, something I wrote checks to, something I invited my friends to, something I am encouraged to participate in (which is the goal in a program-driven culture), etc. In the New Testament, you do not find the admonition to invite your friends to church. There is no such thing as church outside of the people of God. It is a way of being in the world and a way of seeing yourself as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus. If we don’t start being the church everywhere we go, we are going to miss those people who won’t come to our churches. This is fundamental to being missional.
We staff to a program model. Staff meetings are shaped by assessing how the programs are doing. In the typical church way of thinking, we think of our church as a collection of programs. “How is our worship doing? How is our Youth Ministry doing?”
G&P: The subtitle of your book is “Changing the scorecard for the church.” Does this mean numbers aren’t important, or are you saying the missional church is about measuring different things?
RM: It is about numbers, but it’s about counting different things. You have to use metrics differently to get at other kinds of important processes and dynamics. For example, you can measure the number of people you are praying for outside your congregation. I am working with a congregation that is determined to have a prayer champion for every public school teacher in their city. That is a number you can track. Another congregation has adopted all of its town police officers. Another church has determined they will drive the number of hungry children in their school system to zero. Because of that commitment, they are now processing over three tons of food a week into over 1,000 backpacks that are going home on Friday, so that the kids have food to eat on the weekend. You can measure the test scores that are going up where schools are implementing this backpack food program, or how trips to the school nurse are going down. All of these things have number implications. It is just figuring out how to celebrate different numbers, so that you see how your mission field is impacted by your involvement.
I work with 30 different churches as part of our missional renaissance leadership network. From those 30 churches, we have 128 volunteers that produce 2,407 volunteer hours that serve the community in some capacity every day. Once you start reporting these numbers, you get different behaviors. You have to start celebrating things that are happening away from your local congregation, if you intend to be a missional congregation.
G&P: Is there a danger that missional churches can be too accommodating to culture to the extent that they lose their prophetic voice?
RM: This is a great question. I would like to go back to the New Testament and ask people, who understood the culture more—the Pharisees or Jesus? Who, when they spoke, had people light up and say, “We get this now!” The answer is Jesus. Jesus prayed that we be in the world, not of it. I ask people all the time, would you rather be culturally irrelevant?
Unfortunately, we have churches that too often are of the world, but not in it. I think that is our far greater challenge. I tell people all the time our churches are way too secular for our culture. Our culture is God-intoxicated. When you look at movies, celebrities, and the entertainment culture, it is God-intoxicated. When our President gives a speech about the oil crisis and talks to the country about prayer, it is not a hard culture to reach. It is just that we are doing church conversations instead of God conversations. When you think in terms of programs and not people, you generally have conversations that go like this: “Hey, you ought to come to our church. You ought to hear our preacher. You ought to come to this church activity.” We have all this stuff to bring them to, when people in our culture are desperate for God.
G&P: More and more Nazarene churches are collaborating and partnering together to meet human need. Many Nazarene churches are also partnering with other mainline and non-mainline churches in their communities to reach people. Would you see this as an expression of the missional movement?
RM: People who get what it means to be missional have more in common than they do with people of their own denominational tribe who don’t get missional. Missional is one of the ways that Christians are finding affinity.
In the old world, the focus is on distinctness and parts. In the new world, it is about connectivity and relationship.
The old affinity was limited to polity and doctrine that came out of the Reformation era in Europe. As this got expressed in the modern era, we tried to figure out how we are different from everybody else. Our identity was based on our differences. Now, it is not about how different you are, it is coming alongside shared affinities. In the old world, the focus is on distinctness and parts. In the new world, it is about connectivity and relationship.
G&P: Is economic challenge or a depressed economy any kind of impediment to creating a missional church?
RM: I think it is a great motivator. What we are seeing in this great recession is people doing more good than before. Americans reported 100 million more volunteer hours in their communities than last year. There are over 60 million volunteers in the U.S. doing work in their communities. It is a remarkable thing. I’m thinking right now of two churches that have decided to change their scorecard from how much money they take in, to how much money they give away. One of our client churches took in three quarters of a million dollars in one day (the largest offering in their history), but gave every dime away to people who had lost their jobs. I think this is the time for the church to re-orient its priorities and put it on people. There is not a better time to go missional than right now.
G&P: How do you see evangelism working in a missional church?
RM: I am convinced a lot of evangelism will occur in the missional church through community and economic involvement, but we have to get over some things. For example, the attractional model of church says if we get it just right, they will come. The reality is there are people who will not come to church, no matter what you do. The good news is this never was the Great Commission. It’s not “Come and get it!” It’s “Go get them!”
The best apologetics we have is not in arguing for God’s existence, but in letting others know why we serve. Our people just need to share the fulfillment they have when they love their neighbor as an expression of their love for God.
G&P: How has the missional renaissance advanced since your book’s publication?
RM: I used to present missional ideas, and people would argue with me. I don’t get that anymore. People are just desperate for understanding and want to move forward. They know the jig is up on the old stuff. They are now glad there is something they can do about it.
At the end of the book, I talk about the green edge of the movement and to be on the lookout for missional communities. This is happening, and at a far more rapid rate than anyone could have anticipated. Missional communities are springing up everywhere as a new life form in the Christian taxonomy. They are built around affinities of the work place, geography, and are neighborhoodbased, etc. They are non-clergy dependent. They are a very organic and extremely exciting development. They are also quite capable of operating under the umbrella of an existing church. Congregations could sponsor dozens of missional communities that could touch and reach people who would never come to church on Sunday.
G&P: What advice would you give to church leaders who are not yet comfortable with the missional movement?
RM: I would have them re-read the book of Acts and try to imagine what it was like to play catch-up to the Spirit, which is what the church had to do in the first half of that book. That should encourage them that even for people who have been with Jesus everyday, we can be out-distanced by the Spirit. I want them to understand this is not the first time this has happened in the church. It happened when the movement got going. The Spirit is running wild in the streets and is calling us to catch up.
REGGIE MCNEAL is a Missional Leadership Specialist for Leadership Network