missional church, suburbia, and getting real with others

So I live in a very nice area of northwest Houston called The Champions. It gets its name from the prominant country club and golf course by the same moniker. That theme is picked in several neighborhoods in which the streets are named for the world’s great golf courses, for example, or for great tennis champions. As I tell my clergy friends, we’re not exactly “slummin’ for Jesus” around here. And yet, we are called to ministry where we are typically unless we get more specific “Holy Spirit heartburn” about going someplace else. And, as a United Methodist pastor, I’m sent to this particular locale to help the people here grow in faithfulness to God’s calling on our lives collectively. So, here we are in the glory of American suburbia.

Then there’s this conversation I find myself in theologically and spiritually about what it truly means to be the church. Many have heard the term “emerging” or “emerging church” or “emergent church.” It’s all the rage these days…or raged against, depending. Not that I intend to dismiss it as merely trendy, I don’t. But for me, the term “emerging” and its cognates presents something of a moving target (perhaps its supposed to–who knows?). Honestly, the “emerging church” seems about as diverse theologically, maybe moreso, than my own United Methodist Church, which is saying something! Besides, the term “emerging” implies movement and invites this question: Emerging from what?

Best I can tell, there are three pretty good answers to that question–three basic groups that I can see. One group that seems to be consists of folks who are emerging from conservative evangelical churches who have not engaged culture meaningfully and dynamically in their proclamation of the gospel. These folks tend to retain their conservative evangelical theology (typically of the Baptist or Reformed varieties) while “packaging” the message in a way that does engage modern (really “postmodern”) culture meaningfully.

A second group who are “emerging” are like the first group in their theological tradition of origin (conservative evangelical and either Baptist or Reformed–Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc) and who likewise resonate with presenting the gospel in ways that engage the broader culture more meaningfully. A difference, then, between this group and the one above is that they seem to be engaging other theological traditions more meaningfully as well. They seem discontented with some aspects of the theological conversation/wrestling that does or, probably more often the case, does not happen in the churches from which they come, so they are learning to read and think alongside Catholics and Wesleyans and such. They now draw on the Early Church Fathers for spiritual help and theologians outside of their own traditions for help wrestling with the big (and small too) questions of faith and doubt. They recognize that the churches and theological traditions from which they come are a mixture of blessing and curse. There are wonderful gifts but they have serious limitations as well.

A third group comes from theological traditions who would tend to be open to the theological searching of the “emerging church movement” and who are emerging from church traditions that are heavily organized and thoroughly beaureacratic. The United Methodist Church and other mainline Protestant denominations are good examples of this. This group is looking for more organic models of being and doing church that can be more responsive to the mission of the church in the rapidly changing world in which we live, something that massive beaureacracies are by nature unable to do.

There are plenty of folks who would probably be interested in nuancing one of those descriptions to fit themselves better, but I think those hold up well enough to provide a basic handle on the discussion.

A word, however, that is surfacing alongside “emerging” is “missional.” Being “missional” is a distinctive feature of most emerging folks. And, for myself, as the name of this blog indicates, I resonate with the term “missional” more than the term “emerging” because it seems more straightforward to get a grasp on–churches and persons committed to be led by the mission of God revealed in content and method in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ–than “emerging.” So, I spend time thinking about what that means really, to be committed to be led by the mission of God revealed in content and method in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Moreover, I spend time thinking about what that means for me in the place I am currently sent to serve and lead.

Really, what on earth does “incarnational” ministry look like in the land of plenty? These are the parts of town Jesus seemed to avoid for the sake of other places of deeper need. What does it look like to be shaped by the content of Jesus’ teaching and the doctrines that illumine for us his purpose and saving significance AND to be shaped by the methodology of God in Jesus? God’s method in Christ is clear–give up everything in order to bring good news to those in deep need here on earth (check Philippians 2:1-11 for Paul’s brilliant description).

But what do we mean by “those in deep need here on earth?” Aren’t we all in deep need spiritually speaking? This is certainly true, but Christ did spend more time among the rural poor than anyone else, all the while training his disciples and other hangers-on in God’s perspective with every opportunity available. A cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that the wealthy and privileged are least likely to “get it” when we’re talking about learning God’s perspective.

Which brings us back to this quandry I’ve got over how to be “missional” in American suburbia. How does one take up one’s cross and carry on the ministry of Jesus in the land of plenty? I’m working on that (and not a simple, glib answer either–an answer that takes the gravity of the question seriously).

I do think arriving at an answer starts with openness, honestly, and vulnerability in community. And in that, I am blessed. Our Sunday School class (when I’m able to be there and am without other responsibilities during that time) has been able to exhibit these qualities as of late. Two subjects have provided the right amount of discomfort as to help us with this. First, prayer. Guided by Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?, we are opening up and getting real about our faith and doubts and struggles with the mystery of God and his ways. Prayer, ethereal though it seems, is one of the rubber-meets-the-road subjects in the Christian faith (or any other I suppose) in which the true state of our soul is laid bare if we dare to be honest about our feelings on the subject, if only to ourselves. People have graced the conversation with candid struggles and experiences, allowing us to be more real about where we all are. The second subject is giving and stewardship. Our church is entering a capital campaign, so the annual stewardship emphasis is a larger production. Alongside vision awareness gatherings and a sermon series, we are doing stewardship bible studies during Sunday School and offering small groups for it. Money, taboo though it is, quite obviously provides enough discomfort to either chase us back into our shells or draw us into deeper levels of intimacy with each other as we get real about our spiritual journeys and walks with Christ. Good stuff. Today was day one of the stewardship study; two more to go.

Somehow, I think we will discover the path to a truly missional existence anywhere, but particularly in the ‘burbs, runs through the place where the community begins to get real with one another about our lives in God. That’s the place where we are most ready to meet Christ as he really is, which means hearing the gospel on its terms better than we ever have.

Published by Guy M Williams

Christian | Husband, Father | Pastor | 8th-Gen Texan | Texas A&M ‘96 | Asbury Seminary ‘01 | Enjoy family, reading, running, golf, college football

8 thoughts on “missional church, suburbia, and getting real with others

  1. OK, I am a little late getting the comment in, but I think that you hit the nail on the head, Guy. In the burbs, everyone portrays peace, love, and stability, regardless of what happens when the front door is closed. The real hinderence to missions is finding a way to serve (or letting others in to do some mutual serving).

    It really is easier to find the family of 4 living below the poverty level and help them with daily life. The need is obvious.

    Of course, is there also a pride effect? Is it easier to serve those who have different and more dramatic needs so we don’t have to admit our own needs?

    More to think about….

  2. Thanks, Jay. Good stuff. I think that’s part of the resonance of the show Desperate Housewives. It’s really a show about our fear of our secrets in successful suburban America where we want to keep up appearances that we’ve got it all together. We simply don’t do transparency well.

    So, how to balance that need–looking honestly at our own souls and lives and such–with a life of service to others. If we use service to those with obviously less than us to avoid looking at ourselves and to keep our mask on, that isn’t healthy. But neither is it particularly healthy to turn too inward because of our own issues. Both seem to be their own particular brands of potential narcissism.

    So, perhaps we continue serving and pressing ourselves further out of our comfort zones while at the same time finding ways to admit to our own frailties and imperfections. In doing so, maybe we find that we become a community deeply aware of our need for God that serves out of that solidarity (with others in need of God’s mercy) and gratitude (that God has claimed us as his own). That could purify us and make us more humble, something God is definitely in favor of.

  3. Guy,

    I got here even later than Jay.

    I appreciated your post and looking at the “emergent” movement as a need for something more.

    It seems that we are all looking for a better way to express our spirituality without completely forgetting what Christianity is and the basic tenets of the faith. Too many times, the emergent movement strives so much to differentiate themselves from the reformed or main line churches, that they miss the overall point by focusing more on the warm and fuzzies and none on the other aspects of what sets Christians apart from society. We are called to be in the world not of the world, but when we begin down the path of moral relativism as a way to reach the un-churched in the community, we truly lose a little bit of what it means to be Christian.

    With the overall desire to bridge the denominational gap and focus on what truly binds us, Jesus Christ, it seems that missional churches may do a better job of that, but I still think that total lack of organization and some structure and guidance in the faith are important. Religion is only as bad as the men leading.

    I finally made the change and moved from downtown to the Woodlands. I posted that here. I can see what we are doing moving more toward the mission, but just as with your demographics at JWUMC, we have to try harder than not to reach out. We have worked closely with a few organizations recently, but there is still more to be done.

    I am glad that we are all challenged to look for more unique ways to reach out in a truly evangelical way while keeping true to the church discipline and ultimate teachings of the bible. If Jesus could do it, why can’t we.


  4. A little discussion on this over at my old blog site. Let me share here…

    Stacy said:

    What about those “emerging” folks that Spong would name Church Alumni? Would you put them in the third camp?


    I replied:

    hmm… Good question, Stacy. I’m not familiar with precisely what Spong in mind in using the term “Church Alumni” if there’s any more to it than what appears to be the case on the surface.

    That said, on the one hand I could see “church alumni” in any of the categories if they were disillusioned (or simply Gen-X angsty and confused) enough. Do you think these 3 broad categories are helpful? Am I missing something with the subset of folks you describe?

    I’m going to direct the conversation to this post on my new blog site:


  5. The Church Alumni refer to those for whom the pat answers of the “mystery of God” contradict with their educated to ask questions minds… I sent you a more lengthy article where Spong explains it better than I do!

    Anyway, as far as emergant church goes… I believe the group I didn’t see in your categories were people who desire an “educated” religious expression — an awareness of 2 creations stories and a less literal yet still Scripture appreciating experience. The folks I have encountered in this category were not GenX angsty and confused but angst ridden Boomers who have spent their entire lives in Church and only recently been introduced to some deeper/more intellectual ideas of faith… they have been faithful but now they are dealing with life long disillusionment… even to the extent of anger because of all of the pastors who have “lied” to them because we haven’t told the whole of what we learned in Seminary.

    Kinda rambling response but wanted to respond today instead of putting if off.


  6. p.s. just read your response again, yes, the three categories are very helpful but they run from center to right and leave out anything center to left, which is where the folks I describe live, breath, work and want to worship… but they haven’t found a Christian place for that!

  7. Thanks, Stacy. I got the article and look forward to reading it.

    You’re right–I didn’t mention a group of folks like those you describe. Most of the people I’ve heard of who self-identify as “emergent” fall into the 3 categories I laid out. But I guess the group you describe would be emerging from a less intellectually engaging religious experience and one that has not been open to ways of reading Scripture apart from fundamentalist/conservative evangelical paradigms.

    I do think that quite a few folks if not the majority in my groups 2 and 3 would be open to less “literal” readings of Scripture. There’s certainly a broad range within “less literal readings of Scripture” but reading back over my post, I think I more or less assumed that was the case for those in group 3 and perhaps much of group 2.

    You’re right–my descriptions clearly trend center-right. The biggest doctrinal shift has been for those moving from right to center, that is, group 2. Groups 1 and 3 are pretty much dealing with methodology. Group 1 remains pretty fundamental doctrinally yet packages it differently. Group 3 is mainline doctrinally yet wants to package and structure their expressions of the gospel differently.

    I do think that group 3 is fairly inclusive of center-left folks. But being more particular about the issues of emergent folks on the left would yield a 4th group serving as more of a corollary to groups 1 and 2.

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