The Missional Quest - A Book Review

12.10.19 | Book Reviews | by Rick Jensen

    THE MISSIONAL QUEST; by Lance Ford & Brad Brisco
    a Book Review by Rick Jensen

    In this era of decline in the number of Protestant congregations in the West no question is more pressing than how churches can reverse this decay and remain relevant.
    Keenly aware that clergy, laity, church boards, finance committees and denominational executives are in a quandary as to how to reply to this question Brian Brsico and Lance Ford provide helpful answers in their book The Missional Quest. The authors offer two key insights in their book. The first has to do with a choice to function with an exclusively commercial and secular formula for reaching “prospective members,” what the authors call the attractional paradigm, or a more intentionally, relational means of reaching outsiders they call the missional quest.
    1) Ford and Brisco strongly suggest churches need to forfeit the attractional paradigm to reverse this long-standing decline. The assumption that if churches “build it, they will come,” as in Field of Dreams, no longer works. Excellent greeters, amazing signage, fine preaching, and great programs, while having their place, of course, no longer attract many potential newcomers to their church. The heyday 1950’s, when the post WWII herd complex brought Builder parents and their Boomer children to worship in droves, is long past. According to religious surveys, the fastest growing segment today is the “Nones,” persons with no religious affiliation. The attractional paradigm, in which churches approach the issue of growth as “vendors of religion,” has a declining number of “buyers.” Brisco and Ford make it clear that many churchgoers and clergy assume this paradigm is standard operating procedure without ever giving any thought to its ineffectiveness.
    In its place Ford and Brisco urge churches to adopt a missional paradigm. The difference in these two paradigms is illustrated in Hunt’s portrait of Christ Knocking at the Door. Active church folk have traditionally interpreted this portrait as Christ seeking welcome entry into the church. This is the attractional-oriented church, which asks the question: “How can our church be more attractive and inviting? “ But those who operate from the perspective of the missional-oriented church interpret the portrait as Christ seeking “apostles,” persons willing to step outside their cloistered, introverted congregations in order to discover and meet the manifold needs of the non-churched. This “missional quest” is best illustrated in the active verbs Jesus uses in his Paraable of the Last Judgment: “fed,” “visited,” “clothed,” “welcomed.” This missional orientation asks a different set of questions: “How can our church become more actively engaged in the lives of individuals in our community? What needs among our neighbors are being ignored which we might address?”
    Ford and Brisco emphasize the apostolic calling of the church as Christ’s “sent” community. Basing their emphasis on scripture, they understand the church as sent by Christ to meet the concrete life-needs of outsiders: So, God sends Moses to Pharaoh to proclaim and execute release of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. The Holy Spirit sends Jesus’ disciples from Jerusalem, into Judea, and Samaria to the ends of the earth, with the implicit understanding this sending is not just to win converts, but to meet real human needs in oppressive Roman society. As churches attempt to make themselves more attractive to outsiders, they lose touch with the hurts that infect the lives of so many of the “Nones.” Nones read this exclusive attempt to attract more members as yet one more sales-pitch from just another organization more self-interested than concerned about improving lives. They see this attractional approach as another sign of religion’s irrelevance to the chaotic world they inhabit.
    2) A second dimension Ford and Brisco emphasize in their book has to do with the church’s misunderstanding of its present place in history. As suggested above, many church members operate as if it were still 1955 in America. In 1955 a wise politician included his (there were very few “hers” then) religious credentials in order to get elected. Americans in general associated faithfulness with good citizenship and vice-versa.
    This flawed understanding reflects nearly two millennia of Roman Emperor Constantine’s co-option of the church in order to advance his own political agenda, when Christianity began to become the most dominant force in shaping western civilization. From approximately 30 CE until Constantine 314 CE the apostolic period, the church was viewed as renegade, as a political, cultural, and legal outsider. With Constantine, the church became mainstream and remained so until Boomers began leaving the church in large numbers following Vietnam and Watergate. This falling away from church gained momentum with GenXers and gathered even more steam with Millennials and the growth of the churches of the ultra-conservative Evangelical Right Megachurches the majority of them despised. The text’s authors indicate today’s mainline Protestant church now finds itself not on the cutting edge or at the center of contemporary society, but on the margins.
    Yet, the authors understand that many church members still function as though America is stuck in the long-standing Constantinian Age, which remained vital until the moral, social, political and spiritual chaos of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Ford and Brisco make it clear that many churches are stuck in a Constantinian worldview of Christ and culture in an unhealthy symbiotic relationship. Many GenXers and Millennials interpret this coziness between Christ and culture as the church abandoning its role as a prophetic witness of Christ’s call to justice, service, and mission. Younger adults look to the church to be an authentic critic of society, a force that makes a tangible difference in both the spiritual and material needs of all people. Instead they see a co-opted partner in discriminating against the growing diverse populations in America and around the world.

    In a nutshell, the choice Ford and Brisco put before their readers is continuing failure in the church operating with an “attractional” paradigm not a “missional” paradigm. They ask their readers to rethink this present period in church history as a moment when the church should no longer anticipate respect from a society, which is now post-Christian. Church members are no longer central players but marginalized, where ironically enough, the church can have more influence the more its members’ understand themselves as a part of a sent-apotstolic community charged with addressing the day-to-day needs of its neighbors.
    One frustration the text leaves its readers is how to translate this missional paradigm into specific action. Though the book tells several compelling stories of this paradigm in action, it is not a “How-To” manual. For those who like their new purchases to come with instructions, The Missional Church is not much of a practical guide.
    Nonetheless, the book is worth its price in providing a new paradigm, which provides great hope in these challenging times. For all churches of all faiths. The book makes for a great six week group study, as this reviewer discovered while serving another Disciple church in this Region. There it was well received and is catalyzing follow-up work in that church. If nothing else The Missional Church opens eyes to a helpful way of understanding, being, and doing church at this pivotal time for churches in the early decades of the 21st century.