A counselor once told me he had just one problem with a particular book: “I wish I had written it myself,” he said. He meant that in that book, the author had expressed all of his own most crucial beliefs about personal growth.
I’ve never felt that way about a book before. Usually the material (at least some of it) has been new to me, or else (rarely) it has been very familiar but not terribly close to my heart. Having read The Present Future now, however, I think I know what he meant. Reggie McNeal has found a way to articulate many of my most urgent concerns for the way we do church.
The core of it is what he calls “The need for missiology:”
I am proposing that missiology come into prominence, both as a theological pursuit and as a guiding operational paradigm.
And just what is missiology? It’s what effective Christian missionaries study and practice. They make it their business not only to understand the timeless gospel message, but also the culture in which they are ministering. They understand that communicating effectively means much more than learning the language. Effective missionaries are lifelong learners of culture, working to understand where their people currently are so they can lead them to a true, yet truly enculturated, understanding of the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. They understand that the core of the Good News can come wrapped in different packages and expressions.
Years ago I was a member of a denomination that was facing what seemed like quite a puzzle: it was growing overseas but shrinking in North America. At the time I said, “That’s not hard to figure out at all! Our people in other countries know they’re missionaries; their churches know they’re not clubs, they’re mission bases. If we just applied here what we know there, we’d grow here again too!”
Our church, like so many others, was operating from what McNeal calls a “refuge mentality.” Western churches’ work has changed over the past few decades. It is a missionary enterprise now. If there was a ever time (which is arguable) when our culture was predominantly Christian, that time has decisively ended. If there was a time when churches could count on drawing new people in just by being there, that time has ended. If there ever was a time when churches needed to go outside our walls and seek to effect community transformation, that time is now.
Other themes in McNeal’s book also resonated strongly with me. “Sunday schools” and other small groups need to move beyond head learning and into the proverbial streets, to meet community needs in the name of Christ and thus practice what we’re learning. Otherwise it’s questionable whether we’re actually learning anything at all. I’ve tried initiating this kind of outreach at my church, but either because of my weakness as a leader, or the church’s inability to take up a new paradigm, it fell flat. If a whole church resolved to move that way together, a group would have a far better chance of succeeding in ventures like this.
This takes vision, a clear sense of purpose. McNeal emphasizes that as well. As a mission organization strategic planner, I’ve learned that a clear sense of direction is by far the most crucial element of any plan. This is not about the “how” but the “what” and the “who:” what is it that God wants us to accomplish in our community and in the world? Who are we now, and who is God calling us to be? In some settings is the only level of long-range planning that’s practical, for the great pace of unpredictable change typically forces frequent re-adjustments of the “how.”
If I had one concern regarding McNeal’s book, it would be in his approach toward apologetics and the life of the mind. In context of the whole book, McNeal is probably on a fine track with this; he recommends churches create “Chief Learning Officers” as staff or high-level volunteer positions. At the same time, he rightly points out that many Christians and churches are too much “head” and not enough “hands.” The answer, though—and I hope McNeal’s readers understand this—is not to learn less, it is to apply more, and especially to apply more in context of the community.
McNeal opened the book with a warning: don’t read it if you’re not ready to be challenged regarding change the way you think about church. I urge you, fellow followers of Christ, to be open to that change. See what McNeal has to say, and see what difference it might make in your church. This book was recommended to me by two pastors at our church, as we are moving through a time of transition. I have high hopes we’ll make progress with it in a new and exciting direction.
The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church by Reggie McNeal. San Francisco: John Wily & Sons, 2003. 172 pages. Amazon Price US$16.47.