Reggie McNeal is one of the key thinkers and authors about the future of the church. He spent more than 20 years in local congregational service, was founding pastor of a church and has worked within his own denomination. Now he is serving with Leadership Network, working with missional strategies and issues. His newest book is The Missional Renaissance (Jossey-Bass). He recently visited with Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: As much as anyone out there right now, you have your finger on the pulse of what’s happening within the church in America today—the issues and trends, the challenges. Can you paint a portrait for us of where you see the church today?
McNeal: As soon as you used that image of “finger on the pulse” I really had an image of multiple patients. I mean, the church is so all over the map now. There’s a pulse of the institutional church, then there’s the pulse of spirituality in America, which also has enormous implications for the church.
Churches are very busy, scrambling to justify just about any position or approach to ministry that they’re taking. There is a growing disconnect between people who are working very hard to make sure church is done better, versus people who really are changing the conversation about the church—about its role in the world and its role in the conversation that it’s having with the world.
You can stay very busy inside standardized, traditional churches, and there are plenty of people still to populate those and keep those things running and support them. Some of my predictions have been fairly dire as we look ahead a generation. To use the analogy of oil, for right now it seems there’s enough oil still to be processed the old way; but there are other pockets of Americans saying we’re going to need alternative technologies to reach shale oil and sand oil.
There are deeply embedded pockets of our population that never are going to come to church no matter what the church does. I’m trying to help existing churches explore how we reach those pockets of Americans. As we know from the Pew study last year, the most comprehensive look at American spirituality, one out of every six Americans now is unaffiliated. It’s the fastest growing company of people in terms of their spiritual identification—”unaffiliated”; and I’m not just talking about Christian here…
Preaching: These are people with no religious affiliation.
McNeal: None. That’s one-in-five men; and if you peel it further back, for age 29 and younger it’s one-in-four. We can continue to do church and reach people who want to be church people; that’s good. I work with churches every week, but I’m beating the drum to help us understand there are entire populations of people we’re missing. We’re the largest English-speaking mission field in
the world; we’re going to have to figure out a way.
It’s fascinating that you’re dealing in the area of preaching. That was a tried and true technology—preach it and they will come—proclamation as the way to share the gospel. Now we’re trying to figure out if demonstration has eclipsed proclamation in terms of setting up the conversation. I’m not talking about a lack of need for proclamation—I strongly believe in that. I still preach every
week (sometimes when no one is listening!), but demonstration may impact how we do proclamation, in order to be engaged missionally.
Preaching: It seems like the past generation of high-growth churches has drawn heavily from people who had some contact
with the church in the past but now are unchurched.
McNeal: Or under-churched…
Preaching: Now, as you say, there’s a whole new group—and it’s growing rapidly—for whom church is just meaningless to them as a concept.
McNeal: Certainly in its institutional framework. It’s not that the idea of church is unappealing; this is what I’ve been trying to help church leaders understand. As a matter of fact, what I’m arguing for is that in the missional church movement, it’s a shift away from
talking about church as a “what” to church as a “who.” Once you move to church as a “who” you have a much broader bandwidth of expression, of Jesus followers.
I was just last week with a group of churches, including other domain leaders out of their cultures, sitting in Oklahoma. I’ve been working with them for awhile. There’s a president of a company—you would know it if I shared it with you; it’s a craft company, pretty successful. They just started their first church in one of those stores because he got it! I’ve been saying for years that we need a church in every Starbucks, every Wal-Mart, every McDonald’s, every Barnes & Noble; because that’s where people are. To do that you have to shift your notion of church from the “what” to the “who.” This guy gets it—he’s a missional follower of Jesus.
He was disappointed because only a hundred people showed up at this first church! I told him, “Steve, I hope we have a million failures at this rate—let’s accelerate this failure rate, please!” I’m very excited about what the possibility holds for the church. I’m not thinking about the church as a collection of churches—that’s churches as “what”—but the church as followers of Jesus across all
domains of culture, assuming their rightful place in being the ongoing incarnation of Jesus in the world.
Preaching: Doing that is a matter of helping existing congregations change their concept of what it means to do outreach—that is, not necessarily going to a new location and starting a new congregation, putting bricks on the ground, but it may be a matter of having a Bible study in Starbucks.
McNeal: Exactly, and it’s going to require that we shift the score card, because in the old churches of “what,” unless it showed up
at church we couldn’t count it.
Preaching: Nickels and noses.
McNeal: Right. “How many, how often, how much?” You know, just the standard. My goodness, I worked for a denomination—I know how you get those numbers sometimes. The truth is, we’re going to have to start rewarding different behavior and start celebrating Kingdom kinds of engagement with people who don’t show up at our standard gatherings. So it’s much more of a celebration of the church deployed.
While we give lip service to that, the truth is that as long as we only keep celebrating what we collect and what we can amass, we’re going to continue to get behaviors that ignore the energy and the enormous work of God that’s already way past the church now. The Spirit is not waiting on the church to get it, you know. I mean, He’s gone wild; He’s jumped in the streets. We’re in a God-intoxicated culture. So its absolutely wide open for us if we can see our way to get out the door and into the streets.
Preaching: That’s a good point for me to ask you about your newest book, The Missional Renaissance. What are you trying to
McNeal: I’m trying to do three things, actually. One is to give some characterization of what it means to be missional. I don’t say definition of missional, because when you define it you kill that sucker; but it seems like everybody’s talking about missional. I mean, if you want to get a book published, you write about missional dog training or something and you get a book deal. There’s so much talk that we’re really, I think, very much in danger of losing the essence of it, because now everything’s missional so nothing is; and there’s already some push back to that.
I’d like to try to capture at least the characterization that gives some form, some definition to what that really means. For me, it’s the people of God partnering with Him in His redemptive mission in the world. We don’t have time to unpack all of that; but you can hear that it’s a “who” and a movement. The focus of it is beyond us; it’s in the world. It’s not something we do but something we join, not something we create but something we discover. All of that has huge implications. So I’m trying to do that, give it a little bit of theological reflection.
The second thing I’m trying to do is say: “OK, if this is missional, what is the signature DNA if you want to paddle toward the
missional movement?” Let’s say you’re the pastor of Fourth Hole Swamp Baptist Church in the middle of nothing or on the way to nothing, or you are in a downtown tall-steeple church. Either way, you want to go toward this mission. How do you start? How do you embrace this? In the book, I give what I think are the three big shifts that you have to make. They have implications
paradigmatically in how we see things but also have huge implications for how we do things.
That gives leaders a common language they can work out and work through with their own leaders, their own core leaders as they try to get to this place, as they’re trying to reach critical mass. I was just with a congregation over the weekend, and that’s exactly what I did: I met with the staff, then I met with the lay leaders; and we talked about these three shifts. It now gives them a common language; and as you well know from your studies of organizational behavior and culture, until you change the conversation, you don’t change the culture.
The final thing I’m trying to do is to give some scorecard suggestions for how we literally can change the scorecard, expand the scorecard so that we can celebrate the dimensional depth and richness of the missional expression.
Preaching: Many churches and leaders who talk about being “missional” tend to be young, new-church starts; for the pastor of
the existing congregation, how does that pastor help create a missional vision for the congregation?
McNeal: That’s a great question. Honestly, some of my colleagues tend to measure in deconstruction; and I kind of think people are tired of that. I know the folks I work with every week have Sunday coming, and that’s a huge difference if you already have something here. So that’s where my heart goes; that’s where my energies have gone. How can I help those folks? There are several suggestions:
One is you’re going to have to shift or change whatever you were taught about change. You’re not going to bring your church a motion to vote to go missional. If you put it up for a vote, the church is going to vote to go back to Egypt because “We know the problems we had there. We know how to go bankrupt or whatever, so we’ll just ride that sucker down.” So you’re not looking for majority vote. I think this will unfetter and unparalyze a lot of leaders who are looking at their congregations and counting noses—”How can I get 55 percent or 80 percent for this?” No, you’re looking for critical mass.
What you do is begin to expose people to missional engagement. You really want to study epidemiology—how do you spread a virus? Because missional and Kingdom perspective is viral—people get it, they catch it. They normally don’t think their way into it. It’s really something that captures their hearts after they’re exposed. This is why Jesus came about doing Kingdom kinds of stuff—”Go and tell John that the lame are walking, the blind are seeing.” This is stuff that’s happening so people say, “Whoa, the Kingdom age has arrived!”
Once you get around people who see the intervention of God like that or are engaged in helping people—whether it’s from social justice or partnering with schools, whatever it is—and they realize: “I can actually do something? There’s a church for grown-ups? I can do something with my faith?”—they get excited about it. As a leader, you look for people who are susceptible to the virus. Once they’re contagious, infectious, expose other people to that virus; and you just try to cultivate and incubate and spread that virus.
The second big piece of information I tell leaders is: Whatever it is you want to see happen, you have to do it. This is not a charge, this is not a movement that will be led by equipping people to be on the frontlines. Be done with that; and I’m not talking about equipping saints for the Lord, although we could talk about that, too. We’ve churchified that—most of the work of ministry when that was written was being done on the streets, for crying out loud, and we’re still equipping people to do church work. But this is a
movement that will be led by people, led by example.
So if you want to make a difference in your community as a pastor, then get out of the office more. Engage more community
leaders. Start giving a day a week to something that makes a difference in your community. Then begin to tell stories about it. Invite your people to join you with it. Begin to celebrate it.
In your preaching, bring more of the outside world in so you’re interviewing people more. Every pastor I’m working with, I’m telling them: One of your new scorecards is at least every other week you’re interviewing someone from in the community—a guidance counselor at a high school, a principal, the police chief, a city council person, or the mayor; and you’re interviewing them in front of your congregation. That brings the world in, that’s where the redemptive mission is being played out. The redemptive mission
is not being played out at church—we’re part of that crowd, we already got that. Where’s the mission? It’s in the world—”God so loved the world.” So how do we bring the world in to our preaching? You invite people.
Part of being missional is spiritual formation. This is the other thing people don’t get—you can run a program church off anybody if they’ll come and pay the ticket. You cannot have a missional church absent missional followers of Jesus. You just can’t. Which requires that we be much more intentional about spiritual formation. Most people get spiritual formation not by my giving them information as a preacher; I need to inspire their imagination as a journalist, not as a historian. I need to talk about the work of God
and how He’s showing up.
Here’s an example: “I’ve been talking about grief. Come on up here, Sally. You lost Ted a couple years ago; let’s just talk about it. What was it like that first week? What was it like those first three months and six months?” Suddenly everybody leans forward. All the stuff about grief you’ve been preaching—very good stuff, very biblical stuff—now it comes alive in Sally, and she’s totally believable because she’s one of us.
Those are the kinds of innovations in communication and in our proclamation that make it more incarnational. Many of our pastors think it’s incarnational preaching if it’s a story about them. Wrong. It’s celebrating God showing up in other people.
Preaching: The whole missional philosophy has a real Kingdom vision to it. Of course, Jesus came preaching the Kingdom. What
are the implications of this missional vision for preaching? In what ways does preaching stay the same, and in what ways does it
McNeal: It’s been well documented that what we call preaching is very different from what the New Testament talks about. Preaching in the New Testament setting was very apostolic. It was introducing, it was announcing good news. Most people in our churches don’t need that announcement—they’ve already heard it—so most of our preaching has been more in the teaching role of scriptural exegesis. Picking back up on what I was saying earlier, I really think there is a part of the good news that needs to be re-announced even inside the church, like Jesus preaching in the synagogues to people who already get it.
I grew up in a tradition where I was told as a church person that I was called out, but I didn’t get the other part of that—I was called out to be sent back. So there is teaching and preaching the mission of what God is doing in the world to those who are inside.
I think, too, that in a missional world we gain opportunity to speak into people’s lives. I was just with a crew, for instance, that gained access to an institution through serving. Some serve schools, some prisons; and often through service we get opportunities to speak into people’s lives inside, whether it’s a corporation or even a school, even in America, or certainly into a prison setting.
I mean, if we serve people—which, by the way, is how the church mostly grew in the first three centuries. If we serve people, we will get opportunities to speak into their lives. If those of us who have been trained as preachers can hear that—non-sermonic, but speaking truth in love; maybe it’s across the table over a cup of coffee—then we have a wealth of training that can empower our conversations. Just think what we could do if we literally were announcing more good news every week. I suspect it would empower my preaching—even my preaching inside would be profoundly altered.