The Ethics of Missional Church

[1] I have two aims in this essay. First, I would like to respond to the self-confidence of the missional movement with a set of questions that raises the level of self-awareness and self-critique.

[2] Second, I would like to bring to awareness in the professional ethicist community that there is a wide-open field of inquiry (missional ethics), with very little systematic work having been done in the field.

[3] In spite of some protestations that “missional” is now mostly a damaged piece of theological jargon weakened by its ubiquity, I tend more to the view that we are just now, in tentative and halting fashion, in the early stages of discerning what “missional” actually means. We have not made the shift to a fully missional era (if we ever will). Right now at best we are simply observing the effects of a shift to a higher commitment to missional thinking in our theological discourse and church practice.

[4] It is still somewhat unclear what piece of real estate the term actually parks itself on. Some consider it to be a blanket term for making disciples and changing lives with the gospel. Others emphasize it as a term describing the sent-ness of the church, or the sent-ness of individual Christians. Others approach it as a fresh, and fruitful, approach to biblical interpretation. (For a great, and perhaps the most comprehensive example of this, see Christopher J.H. Wright’s The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative.)

[5] So the term “missional” has been proliferating, and this is not a sign of its stagnation, but rather a sign of its increasing stability and usefulness. (For those new to the conversation, consider viewing this pdf from Christianity Today’s leadership journal that categorizes some recent books on missional leadership, missional communities, and missional discipleship:

[6] In spite of the missional movement’s driven and over-arching emphasis on Christian practice, there seems to be a dearth of literature on the ethics of mission I define ethics as discourse about practices. In this sense, it is bringing to awareness some of the assumptions implicit in the call to “be missional.” So, for example, most people might assume ethics is about whether to drink beer or not. But ethics is actually discourse about how you would come to the decision on whether drinking beer is acceptable. Contextual, deontological, teleological ethics, and so on.

[7] The missional movement is nothing if not prescriptive and likes to offer plenty of instructions on how the church must change or die. Anywhere “oughts” are being lofted encouraging communities to change their practices, clearly ethical reflection is busily in play–but a dearth of direct reflection on “missional ethics” would seem to indicate at the very least either a lack of critical reflection bringing the tools of ethical discourse to bear on the missional movement, or at worse perhaps a protected, valorizing status for anything labeled “missional.”

[8] In fact, although this is probably over-stating the case, virtually all of the missional authors I’ve read in recent years lack the self-awareness I’m encouraging. They all assume missional is the way to go. No one doubts whether they should “be missional.” And most books tend to mention that there are non-missional pastors out there who raise doubts, but those doubts are wrong-headed, etc.

[9] None of which is to say that I am against the missional impulse. Perhaps in this admittedly bloggy essay, I’m just trying to out missionalize the missionals.

[10] I’d be happy to be proved wrong on this point. However, the only resource I have found that is readily accessible on “missional ethics” is a forthcoming collection of essays by Andy Draycott and Jonathan Rowe entitled Living Witness: Explorations in Missional Ethics, collected from a conference on the same topic in 2011. For these authors, missional ethics concerns all the ways in which Christian ethical practice flows out of, supports and advances the wider mission of the church to proclaim the gospel.

[11] That’s an interesting thesis but doesn’t quite get at the true heart of “missional ethics.” To me, the above definition seems to extract ethics from mission, and then to observe how ethical practice impacts mission from the exterior.

[12] What interests me, and what I hope to alert readers of JLE to, is the need to do reflection on missional ethics all the way down, signaling the ways in which missional is itself an ethic.

[13] Even more pointedly, we need to ask the question, “Is missional ethical?”

[14] The good news for ethicists–here’s a wide-open field for intellectual inquiry. Fallow fields await, ready your plows! A few dissertations are probably in order.

[15] The bad news for me–this post is a foray into mostly uncharted territory. I’ll probably make major mistakes and overlook crucial categories.

[16] But with that caveat in mind, I offer the following, not quite as a standard set of theses on “missional ethics,” but more like a reconnaissance mission. Field notes, if you will. Perhaps the list will encourage you to begin your own list. It’s a good summer activity, to examine and review an approach to ecclesial practice and theological inquiry at a meta-ethical level, flagging some of the dangers, celebrating some of the opportunities and, as a happy by-product, adding to your list of summer beach reads.

[17] (1) What if there is no “in” and no “out”? A goodly portion of the missional conversation seems to imply there is an “us” (those being sent) and a “them” (those to whom the sent ones go). One way of defining missional is by an antonym–attractional. In other words, missional is the opposite of attractional church, attractional being again an “us,” this time tasked with drawing in the “them” (the called ones). Either way, there is an “in” and an “out”. Some missional practitioners nuance this by emphasizing things like centered set thinking, where there is no perimeter or border, but a continuous flowing out from a center, but even in this picture, depending on how willing we are to go down the road of apophatic conceptions of God, it is fairly clear that we are often over-confident on our sense of ourselves as the insiders with a gift to give, and others as the outsiders who greatly need the gift we have to give.

[18] (2) Is missional colonialist? Given the prominence of post-colonial reflection in the academy, I continue to be surprised more of it hasn’t been brought to bear on missional thinking. It ought to be. Post-colonial discourse is designed to destabilize Western assumptions and give voice to subaltern and marginalized groups. Given how sensitive missional theology is to marginalized voices, in fact with the goal of reaching subaltern groups and voices, it seems imperative that missional practitioners listen to the warnings post-colonial theory has to offer about the effects those sent in mission will have on those to whom they are sent (or think they are sent). On this point, I think some of our missionaries have done some incredible reflecting, so I refer us to those resources:

[19] (3) Whose mission is it? In spite of the fact that theologically the average missional practitioner would emphasize that it is God’s mission, and missionaries are “sent” by God, it is incredibly easy to slip over into presuming the church, or the individual Christian, to be the active agent of mission. Inasmuch as missional practitioners perceive themselves as active agents of mission, they are in danger of various abuses, the first and most important one of which is violation of the first commandment.

[20] (4) Which direction is the mission? What if we are the ones in need of a missionary? Most missional discourse presumes to know who is being sent, and who is receiving the sent ones. But what if just the opposite is the case?

[21] (5) Is all our talk of “missional” simply or mostly just old wine in new wine skins? It is fairly clear that much of what purports to be “missional” is actually just a slightly modified version of older practices invoked out of anxieties arising from our experience of life in a numerically declining church. It is not surprising this is the case, first of all, because the anxiety is very real, and appropriate, and second because, as I mentioned early in this essay, we are still in the early stages of the shift to missional thinking, so at this moment we are observing the effects of the shift to missional thinking and practice rather than observing life fully in a missional moment.

[22] All of that being said (I stop at point #5, and allow it to resonate as a concluding field note), much of our missional discourse has yet to embrace thoroughly radical and genuinely strange forms of being sent. Consider the emerging churches’ embrace of Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ; see Many curated worship events in this tradition make use of this concept and its underlying philosophical accoutrements. Although not everyone is going to sympathize with a semi-anarchist approach to church such as this, the approach does draw attention to the many ways current institutional structures exhibit problematic ethical constructs “all the way down,” as it were. In a context like ours, worship and church events that are inspired by this approach offer a new perspective on old problems.

[23] For another short piece on emerging church and TAZ, see The reviewer writes,

We should look to create “Temporary Autonomous Zones” (TAZ), which contain a glimpse of a transformed world. We need a new sort of church “that abandons careful strategy and instead embarks on a tactical adventure from one eruption of TAZ to another.” Christians should “create festive, hospitable, healing and creative places…which, like the lover in Song of Songs, leave those touched by them aching to know more.”

[24] Which sounds great, and I at least for one would like to see more, much more of this. It would be one sign that missional has truly taken root among us.

[25] Until, that is, emerging TAZ’s become the new colonialism, at which point we will be back to some of the same questions as above, questions that are generative and faithful precisely in their iterativeness.

Clint Schnekloth

Clint Schnekloth is a pastor and author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He also blogs at