In 1888, the intrepid Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen made the first crossing of the previously impenetrable island of Greenland. He was only 27 years old. Other more famous explorers like Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and Robert Peary had previously attempted the crossing, setting out from the inhabited western coast and trekking eastward for about 160km (100 mi), before being forced back by the freezing mountainous conditions.
Nansen tried a different and more treacherous strategy. He started from the wild and uninhabited east coast and undertook a phenomenal one-way journey towards the populated west. It meant that he had no line of retreat to a safe base; the only way to go would be forward, a strategy that suited Nansen’s dogged personality completely.
His ship struggled to make landing on the craggy east coast, but once finally unloaded, Nansen and his crew of five others set off westward.
There was no plan B.
If any of his crew complained about wanting to give up, he could honestly tell them the only option was to press on toward safety.
It feels like that to me with those currently baulking at continuing the missional conversation. I hear some complaining that the results aren’t commensurate with the talk (whatever “results” might be in this situation); others suggest the missional movement is all a bit passe now; some publishers don’t want authors to use the word in their titles.
But I find myself, like Fridtjof Nansen, asking, “What’s your plan B?”
What are we going to turn back to? Hasn’t the church tried every iteration of the business-as-usual model? Church growth theory. The contemporary worship scene. The charismatic movement. Neo-Calvinism. Better worship, better preaching, better small groups, more spirit-led ministry, more Bible teaching, more this, more that.
And all the while, sadly, the church continues to decline, dramatically in some places, less so in others.
In Britain, the scale of the Church of England’s atrophy was starkly set out by figures presented to its general assembly recently that show church attendance will continue to fall for the next 30 years.
In the US, the Southern Baptist Convention continues to experience a membership freefall, prompting some to ask whether America’s biggest denomination is on the slippery slope to extinction. Even the megachurches – the exemplars of church growth theory – aren’t reversing the decline. In the US today there are more megachurches than ever before, but there are less people attending church than ever before. It’s just not working.
So if we abandon the missional paradigm, what’s your plan B? Even more better worship? Even more better preaching?
It’s like we’re halfway across Greenland and there’s no way back. There’s no hope back there. The only way is forward. The only way, as far as I can see is for the church to embrace its missionary vocation and to allow the mission of God to shape and catalyze all that we are.
The missional conversation isn’t a fireside chat about new forms of worship or a more attractive model of “doing church.”
It’s a revolutionary manifesto about God’s people finally coming to see themselves as a sent people – not merely sent to drag others back to a church service, but sent into every nook and cranny of contemporary society to alert everyone to the beautiful, peaceable, joyous, constructive reign of King Jesus, and to sow the values of that reign into the culture we find ourselves in.
This has implications for worship and discipleship, but also for business, politics, town planning, the environment, farming methods, proper use of resources, art, architecture, healing, education, and more. The church has no plan b. It must not retreat from the world, but should be a bridgehead into it.
Tom Wright once wrote, “If it is true, as I have argued, that the whole world is now God’s holy land, we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central.”
Let’s not listen to the voices complaining about the missional movement. Let’s resist the temptation to turn back to the old formulas that seem safe, but which we know no longer work. We need to stay the course until every Christian – ordained or lay, female or male, rich or poor – knows themselves to be a sent one, contributing to the restoration and renewal of all things and pointing others to Jesus.
I’ll leave the last word to the undaunted Dr Nansen:
“Never stop because you are afraid. Never keep a line of retreat: it is a wretched invention. Sure, the difficult takes a little time; but the impossible only takes a little longer.”