Why Missional Expressions Disappoint

Photo by Nicolas Lobos

In 2017, my family announced that we were heading to the Greater Boston area to start a new church work. We didn’t totally have all our plans vetted out at that point, but as time went on it was clear that we were going to take a missional approach to planting. Such a decision was met with quite a bit of push back, and we were forced to spend well over a year clarifying our dream of microchurches and missional living to those who were supporting us. At every step in the process we’ve been dismissed or had naysayers.

Now, my phone rings constantly.

This sudden change isn’t because we’ve somehow become a major success story or are suddenly experts. In fact, quite the opposite. We spent a year doing nothing but living as missionaries, and have since launched just two microchurches. We have a few more being trained up to launch in the coming months, but it is all humble, slow work.

No, we’re being bombarded because suddenly the word “microchurch” has captivated the larger church world. Some of this is no doubt attached to COVID leaving the American church with little answers, as many churches were stripped of all the things they’ve done well, namely Sunday mornings. Alan Hirsch compared this to the game of chess, and that like good chess players the American church is having learn to play without their “queen.” Suddenly, unable to gather people in large, programmatic ways, churches are turning to all sorts of places including microchurches and missional expressions.

More than that, though, is the love affair with new ideas in the American church. Pastors and church leaders are all about attending conferences and reading books to be introduced to ecclesial innovation, looking to imitate the success in their own congregations. I’ve been there and done plenty of that in the past myself. Now, microchurches have entered that “new” territory. In fact, not a week goes by that some church leader doesn’t ask me if I know about Brian Sanders or The Underground in Tampa, FL, and if I’ve seen the documentary (I have, by the way, and it is really good).

These two forces have collided in the last six months and now I can’t hardly stay on task due to fielding daily inquiries from curious pastors about how to do microchurches. While I could not be more excited that decentralized, missional forms of the church are suddenly on everyone’s radar, I do have a really huge fear. What is it? That this will simply be a fad that will be dumped when results don’t meet expectations.

What I see happening currently is attractional churches running to missional expressions of the church as a new “silver bullet.” These concepts are being taken ahold of the same way that ideas from a North Point Drive Conference or Willow Creek Summit have previously been embraced. Pastors want to learn the key concepts so they can quickly make a new program or pathway to unveil as the “next thing” to their congregation. One pastor even told me recently, after just discovering the ideas, that he wanted to “go microchurch” in the next few months.

Setting aside the problems that someone who consults on organizational change would point out about this, it highlights my concerns. Missional expressions require radical paradigm shifts. Anyone who is unwilling to recognize and wrestle with those paradigm shifts, and simply tries a plug-and-play approach to missional forms of the church, will end up sorely disappointed.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are a few ways this will happen:

1. Missional expressions will disappoint your megachurch dream.

The church growth movement has greatly influenced almost all of us in ministry today. If we’re being honest, even when talking about being kingdom-minded, we still really want to be part of building large, influential churches. The spotlight shines brightest on these churches, and it is hard to fight the desire to chase after what they have. There’s nothing wrong with these churches and bigger isn’t bad, but that mentality really isn’t compatible with the missional expression reality.

To embrace missional expressions is at its core a total reimagination of the scorecard metrics that most of us employ. If you try to sprinkle some microchurches in your church when all you celebrate is Sunday attendance and offering, you’re going to struggle to see what is happening as exciting. At the end of the day, doing ministry this way is about raising up disciples, releasing them, and allowing them the space to do ministry in the everyday stuff of life. If you embrace it fully, your volunteer numbers for programs are likely going to dwindle. Your budget numbers might not leap forward. Even more shocking, if they truly capture the vision they might not come as much on Sunday mornings.

If you’re unable to make these shifts, whatever you start will ultimately disappoint you or simply end up becoming a church small group with a new, catchy name.

2. Missional expressions will disappoint your desire for control.

Part of our church growth mentality has been about creating very centralized structures with large amounts of organizational control. Thom Rainer’s Simple Church has been the playbook for most fast growing churches for sometime. This has a ton of benefits and has obviously allowed churches to move forward at warp speed without drifting or being distracted from their core vision.

That’s the opposite vision of missional expressions and microchurches. These are decentralized structures that will require you and your leadership to release control and embrace messiness. I would argue this is wonderful, as the the folks we minister to are full of beautiful ideas and missional impulses that lay dormant. Awakening these will of course cause issues and sometimes even allow them to walk-out ideas that we think aren’t worthy of being pursued. Some of the communities they build will do things that make your leadership cringe, and sometimes will create problems that you wish you didn’t have to manage. But the “priesthood of all believers” being realized as everyday, normal people innovate and follow the Spirit where they live life is worth any of the messiness that comes with it.

If you’re unable to release control, though, I’d encourage you to be honest about it now or you’ll end up disappointed.

3. Missional expressions will disappoint your vocational cravings.

Let’s be real, we live in a celebrity church age. As I said before, we can say all the right things, but many of us have plenty of secret longings to gain influence and notoriety through ministry. We want to preach, communicate, lead worship, etc…on large stages at a high frequency. It feels good to do so. In fact, I’ve had to look myself in the mirror plenty in the last decade and understand just how these longings have motivated my ministry.

If you aren’t honest about these motivations in your life and ministry, stepping into missional expressions of the church will really be difficult for you. To use a sports analogy, shifting this direction in ministry is like going from star quarterback to assistant coach on the sideline. It’s no longer about getting really great players around you to run your plays so you can look awesome, it is about training and pushing your players onto the field to run a play without you. I’ve personally found it to be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Nothing sparks joy in me like watching someone realize God’s dream for their life and wake up to being used by him where they live, work, or play. But this is only good news once you’ve let go of those secret longings inside.

If you’re unable to release them, though, I’d encourage you stay in a different paradigm of doing ministry or you’ll be disappointed.

4. Missional expressions will disappoint your expectations of pace.

Interconnected to the previous ideas is our deep desire for quick results and visible change. Our churches have embraced much of the business world’s view of success with expectations of large percentage growth each year that is up and to the right consistently. Most ideas don’t last longer than a year or two if we don’t see the needle move in a large way, as clearly something has to be wrong. We even fire pastors if growth isn’t happening quick enough.

Now, I’m not going to debate this mentality, though I’d like to. Instead, I will simply say that ministry in the missional, microchurch space is slow going. To stop and disciple people to rethink church and their participation, and then to help them navigate how to live on mission and build community in the everyday stuff of life is tough work. It’s harder work than anything else I’ve done in ministry. To underestimate the time and difficulty involved is going to leave you greatly frustrated and onto the next thing.

If you and your leadership haven’t already stopped and named this, collectively accepting a long-range plan, you’re probably going to end up disappointed.

Does this sound like bad news? I hope not.

I can only speak from my own experience, but what drew me to doing ministry this way was my exhaustion with the “next big thing” ministry models I had always employed. In many ways, I ran to missional expressions because I had decided that “silver bullets” weren’t working anymore. I was hungry for something simpler and more rooted in the everyday stuff of life, an ancient form of doing church that would be good news for my neighbors and could involve everyone. That’s what we’ve done. While our work remains small, the fruit that we see has been some of the most beautiful ministry I’ve participated in.

That said, I’ve had to recognize my tendencies to steer back toward my old mentality in ministry. Left unchecked, I try force new wine in old wineskins. Thankfully, I’m in a completely different paradigm of doing ministry and didn’t try to shift an existing church this direction. My gut feeling is I would have struggled through all that I have named and more I had tried to do so.

So, while I believe in missional expressions and think they have much to offer in the post-Christian world, they also shouldn’t be embraced haphazardly. Don’t make these a program or your next “thing.” Go slow, get help from seasoned practitioners, and be honest with yourself at every stage along the way. If you do, you might get to see God doing something unexpected.