Missional Misgivings and Malformed Metaphors

December 2, 2008 at 12:42 pm 13 comments

Missional Misgivings

As I continue my study of all things missional, Out of Ur published an article today called, Dan Kimball’s Missional Misgivings: Small, indigenous churches are getting lots of attention, but where’s the fruit?

Dan Kimball is a long time friend and I value his thinking, but I am concerned in this discussion about fruit that it is impossible to really compare apples to apples. Here’s an idea:

Mega-church of 2000 sees 20 new converts in a year (that means possibly 20 people have led someone to Christ) – that’s 1% fruit

100 house churches of 20 people see 20 new converts in a year (that means possibly only 20 of the 100 house churches see one convert) – that’s still 1% fruit

1 house church of 20 people over 20 years sees one convert – hard to calculate percentage here, but you get the idea.

Just as it is difficult to measure the missional effectiveness of one person’s life – we don’t have a goal of leading X number of people to the Lord in our lifetime and may only learn of the fruit after we die – these smaller missional bodies may have a similar effect, never seeing the fruit of their labor in their lifetime.

I appreciate Dan’s questioning but if we are going to try to get a good picture of the efficacy of the missional movement in relation to the mega-church, we would require a larger sampling than a few small churches.

Malformed Metaphors

I was recently contemplating the use of metaphors as Jason Clark, my instructor for my Missional Ecclesiology course at George Fox Seminary, challenged my thinking asking,

How can we theologically and within the churches understanding of church in history, handle the metaphors people like Alan Hirsch are proposing without becoming captive to sociological idealism?

Do the Bible, the church in history, and theology help us use these emerging metaphors more rightly?

After all, we can look back and see what happens when the church adopts the formation metaphors of culture that produce something other than Jesus, but at the time we were enamored with them.

Here’s a discussion Jason had concerning metaphors a couple years ago that was worth reading.

In reading “The Forgotten Ways” by Alan Hirsch last month, and following up with “Reimagining Church” by Frank Viola this month, I am seeing the metaphor of DNA used by both authors. I think we are on safer territory with most of the organic metaphors for the church than we were with the big government or big business metaphors that have shaped the church in the West historically, since much of the metaphorical emphases for the church in the New Testament are living images – body, bride, family, living stones, vineyard.

I am also a proponent of the use of chaos theory in understanding how God works but have concerns that many people talk about chaos theory but know very little about it (like me!). My husband was really into fractals and chaos theory as an undergrad math major, so I have learned a little about the mathematical foundations for chaos theory and believe it is a relevant framework not just for interpreting sociological systems, but much of what we see in any kind of living system.

While we must depend on the Biblical text to guide and inform our use of metaphor, we must also be careful not to be taken captive to historical metaphors that may have been handed down through church history or theological studies that have been shaped by world system metaphors, such as government and business. We see the metaphor of the body used in the New Testament for church, and I believe this metaphor will be relevant for all time and should not be ignored or replaced by other systems metaphors.


Entry filed under: church, Missional.

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. cindyinsd  |  December 2, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    I’m just musing here, but what is fruit? I did a search of the NT, and though you could make a case for fruit being disciples in a couple of verses, in most cases the metaphor obviously refers to the kind of people we become as we mature in the Spirit.

    Could you take this idea a little farther and say that the seed is in this fruit, and when this fruit is planted, that seed is what produces new vines or trees, which in due time also produce the peaceable fruit of righteousness, in which are more seeds . . . ? So is our success at mission really a result of our becoming mature and producing the fruit of the Spirit and planting it into the lives of others?

    God bless,


  • 2. kathyescobar  |  December 3, 2008 at 7:46 am

    hey elizabeth, i read this on a couple of blogs last night & i really don’t like these kinds of weird measurements, personally. why are we measuring converts? and is that the only measure of missional effectiveness? i don’t think that is what he is saying but i do think that is what gets implied when these things get tossed around. real mission, the incarnation of Christ, lived out & expressed in all kinds of beautiful and radical and creative ways, cannot be measured. thanks for writing. happy studying to you!

  • 3. JeffMcQ  |  December 3, 2008 at 8:35 am

    I didn’t read the article, but in reading this post I found myself echoing some of the thoughts of cindyinsd: I might be wrong..but I don’t recall the picture of “fruit” in Scripture ever referring to the number of “souls won”. It is a lot broader than that.

    I think we lose sight of the fact that Jesus called us not to “win converts” but to “make disciples.” And I think mixed-up metaphors like this one can reinforce the confusion.

    Certainly the adding of people to the kingdom is important and not something we should shrink from. But considering that the rate at which that occurs can be affected by so many variables, I think a measuring stick like this doesn’t give us a clear enough picture of our spiritual health.

  • 4. Mark R  |  December 3, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    Been away for a few days – but I read that Kimball quote on another Blog titled “Hit the Nail On The Head”, your post tells me – he did not, missed it by miles!!! Tah.

  • 5. Elizabeth Chapin  |  December 3, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Cindy, Kathy, and Jeff, great thoughts on fruit and converts. While we must not narrowly define fruit as converts, we must not exclude it either. While we may express it differently, most of us have some sort of hope that those around us would see Jesus in us and want to follow along with us in some way or another. Whether we are part of a mega-church, a house church, or something else – there is something inherent to having Christ dwell within us that reveals God and blesses those around us – if we let him.

    Jeff, you mentioned winning converts vs. making disciples and the choice of convert language was mine, Dan uses growth language in his article – but it’s still growth in numbers.

    I wonder, should a lack of any growth numerically over time cause concern?

    I know this is not the only question we should be asking, and we need to focus on the fruit of the spirit and blessing others, but if I’ve got the best fruit stand in town and we’re giving the stuff away, I’d hope to have a few more customers as the word gets out – taste and see that the Lord is good!

    Mark, interesting comment. I’m guessing the way people respond to Dan’s article will be very different depending on whether they are located within a larger more traditional church or a smaller more house-like church. Personally, I am very entrenched in the mega-church world and have been for over 20 years.

    As I mentioned in other posts, the biggest failure I see in the mega-church is the lack of producing fully devoted followers of Christ who are engaged on mission with God for the sake of others. While I am often critical of the form, I have not abandoned it yet. I’d like to believe it’s possible to transform a mega-church into a missional community, but we will have to wait and see on that one!

  • 6. Deacon  |  December 14, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Usher: Hey Deak, why do humans measure the “fruit” of God’s kingdom as though it were theirs?

    Deacon: It’s all part of trying to build the best “church mousetrap”, so they boast that they’re the ones doing the “will of God”. The reward is more money, more financial independence for the preachers, the gold ring of consumerism. It’s truly the same goal whether business or church.

    Usher: But isn’t measurement equivalent to David taking a census or the ability to measure one’s worth? Isn’t that about taking His glory for one’s own? Isn’t it why the megachurches exist?

    Deacon: If the church wasn’t a business, then measurement wouldn’t be essential. But it is! Consumerism is the major lifeline of the church. Pastors who have great giftings in teaching and speaking and even truly God-given ministries cannot extract themselves from it. They cannot resist the fame, the fortune nor the notoriety our society offers them when the commercial “fruit” (large congregations, exponential growth, big money being spent on big projects) starts to become apparent.

    Usher: So how does one prevent it?

    Deacon: Lose the titles, refuse the money and build along first century guidelines. But these guidelines are not apparent to those who have been steeped in consumerism. It’s kind of like David not getting to build the temple due to so much blood on his hands. He had to defer to God and leave that to Solomon. Those who have been building the consumerist institutional church model with its stadiums and book deals and political influences (Ricky boy), cannot and will not be allowed to build with first century practices. (Even Ricky gets into it as he cannot resist selling his “God-inspired” sermons to those who are less gifted.) But there is a generation up and coming that will be able to build on first century guidelines with greater effectiveness. They have not been indoctrinated, they are smarter and less apt to follow such a hollow way of thinking, and they see through the consumerisms that rule todays IC.

    Usher: Where will they come from?

    Deacon: Most likely from the mission field afar where they have been influenced by the pioneers who have been building overseas for years (having divorced or never accepted the consumerist model years ago). Many are missionaries leading large numbers to be disciplers, not preaching in stadiums to hear themselves and sign book deals.

    Usher: But what about all the debat going on in this hemisphere such as on this blog? Won’t these people play a part in all this?

    Deacon: Not likely. They are mostly academics and they have a very slight chance of escaping consumerism because they are yet dependent on it as well. They are about theory and debate. The difference in them is that they have never experienced building on first century principles. They write books and travel and speak. Most simply enjoy debate and their perceived award is not monetary but that of being “right” or bragging rights when their arguments find traction (determined by the measurement of their sales or how many show up at their speaking engagements).

    Usher: Is there any hope that this movement will prevail over the consumerist model?

    Deacon: For sure. But it will take chaos, destruction and great tragedy before it takes shape. Until the economy is deflated from its credit-riddled facade via collapse, war or some other form of great disruption, man will go on as he has in his IC ways. Humans don’t change easy. It takes radical transformation and radicals to hold fast to a new model that goes against the current.

  • 8. Elizabeth Chapin  |  December 14, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Deacon, I really appreciate your thoughtful, witty and insightful comments here. I especially agree with your thoughts about the up and coming generation. But I wonder about your censure of those involved in the debate going on in this hemisphere such as on this blog and whether you include yourself in this category?

  • 9. Alan Paul  |  December 14, 2008 at 3:13 pm


    While I am not those old birds defender – I have disagreed with them a few times – and I think there is some bitterness with them about all things church – and they throw a lot of stone, but I think if you read all of there stuff, you’ll find they are uncomfortably dead on most of the time. The church – in general – is simply pointless and mired in mediocrity and worldiness and has been for some time. No one should be surprised at this for we are humans and fallible and all that. And as the buzzards said, there will be no change unless God forces us to change.

    • 10. Elizabeth Chapin  |  December 15, 2008 at 12:00 pm

      Alan, I’m not sure I agree with the “God forces” idea, but there is definitely the sense both from history and personal experience, that until things become uncomfortable enough, few will change. Some studies have been done showing that change is often unlikely in many circumstances – even when facing life or death consequences, so while Deacon has a point about many in IC not being used in this change, Cindy also has a point about the possibility that some will be used in this change. I read an article by the author of “Change or Die” that was insightful about how and why people change http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/94/open_change-or-die.html?page=0%2C0. This article is aimed at corporate America and since many in the IC have become beholden to that metaphor, it could be applicable! While God was not a part of the equation in the “Change or Die” ideas, I do think God is involved in the equation for the church, but I do not believe he will force change upon those unwilling or stubbornly opposed to change.

  • 11. cindyinsd  |  December 14, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with you, Deac, on at least one point. (That’s if I’ve understood you correctly.) God might not use David to build the Temple, but I believe that He can and does use anyone, of any age, in any place, who is willing and diligently seeking to be used of Him, for any purpose He wishes to.

    He even used Paul, who did literally have the blood of believers on his hands. He’s using former pastors of ICs who have either “left the ministry” or attempted (whether successfully or not) to transition their IC congregations to house church networks. And yes, He does even use IC pastors and members who have no intention of going NT with their practices.

    We can’t put God in a box, saying He will do this, but not that (unless it contradicts His nature). God is pretty good at resisting being boxed up, as many have found who have tried it. It’s almost as if He laughs and says, “Oh, I can’t do that, huh? Okay, whatever . . . ”

    Other than that, right on, bro! 😉

    God bless,


    • 12. Elizabeth Chapin  |  December 15, 2008 at 11:51 am

      Cindy, it’s amazing how we quickly assume Deacon is a man! I didn’t find any clues to Deacon’s identity on the Deacon and Usher website!

  • 13. cindyinsd  |  December 17, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    Toche’, Elizabeth. 😆

    I really think it’s the grumpy old buzzard avatar, though, more than other preconceived notions. Not that I don’t suffer from those.

    God bless,



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