Viola On Missional

I am not really looking for a fight, but as my kids are fond of saying, “He started it!” :)

Just to let you know, this is intended to be a friendly discussion and to further dialog within the missional conversation.

I noticed Frank’s tendency to contrast his message to generalizations about missional thought in his online writing, so I was not surprised to run across this in his latest book. To be fair, this is an insignificant portion of the book. However, the fact that I encountered it in the preface set the stage for how I experienced the book.

It does not matter to me whether someone identifies with the term missional. However, I do take issue with statements that broadly misrepresent missional thought.  For example:

Here is the tragedy. Few christians speak about God’s eternal purpose today, few unveil the ageless purposes of our God, including scores of missional books.

Agreed that this may not be the emphasis, however I do not believe it is lacking in the overall heart or understanding of missional thought.

The engine of being missional is not religious duty, guilt, condemnation, or ambition.

No it isn’t. I have not seen being missional presented this way and would also reject the idea of being missional taught from this perspective.

A great deal of missional thinking today(?) sees the church as a voluntary association for the saved.

I don’t know what this means and why it is being attributed to missional thought.

Any missional endeavor that doesn’t put the church front and center falls short of God’s central thought.

Purpose and identity are inextricably linked in our understanding of who we are as the people of God.

Failure to understand that God’s ultimate purpose begins in Genesis 1 before the fall, not in Genesis 3 after the fall has been the fundamental flaw of much of the modern day missional movement.


From what I understand, these are Frank’s concerns:

  • As we rethink the mission of the church, he “fears it will lack depth and focus if God’s ageless purpose does not fuel it.”
  • We must, “embrace his love. Only then will our mission have spiritual grounding. This is the first step toward fulfilling God’s ageless purpose.”
  • “The secret to Christian living is to live by an indwelling Lord.  Only by such living can we ever hope to fulfill God’s mission and purpose in the earth.”
  • “It seems to me that spiritual things have replaced the person of Christ…He is the…incarnation of all spiritual truths.”

I appreciate the uniqueness of Frank’s perspective.  I believe that the emphasis that he brings to missional thought is important.

In the spirit of valuing the diversity of spiritual gifts and expression, I would challenge Frank to give missional authors and speakers the benefit of the doubt that they likewise embrace the centrality of Christ and understand the importance of all missional activity being deeply rooted in the indwelling love and life of Christ.

In describing the commission of the church as a dimension that is central to the church, Frank basically describes the essence of being missional.

  • The church carries on the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ.
  • Jesus showed what the kingdom of God is all about by alleviating human suffering and showing forth what the future kingdom of God looks like…reversing the effects of the curse.
  • The church, His body in the world, carries on this ministry.
  • It lives and acts in the reality that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the world today.
  • The church is commissioned to proclaim and embody the kingdom now.
  • The church’s mission has to do with how she displays the Christ who indwells her to those outside of her… how she expresses Christ to the world.
  • The church exists…to be a blessing…to bring good news…to be a light to the world.
  • The church shows that the Jesus who walked this earth is the same Christ who has taken up residence within her members.

Those are some fabulous missional thoughts Frank!


20 thoughts on “Viola On Missional

  1. “Failure to understand that God’s ultimate purpose begins in Genesis 1 before the fall, not in Genesis 3 after the fall has been the fundamental flaw of much of the modern day missional movement.”

    This one baffles and frustrates me. It was in the missional conversation/movement that this truth came alive for me.

    At any rate, an excellent, fair and friendly push back. Well done, Grace.


  2. I would agree that it is probably unfair to color everyone who claims some kind of alignment with “missional” with the same brush (and how would we quantify this anyways?)

    I do wonder though, to what extent does our underlying Christology affects our approach to missional-type living and community? Can we take the same basic missional philosophical framework and end up in radically different waters simply because we have different views on Christ’s own purpose and mission? Viola puts emphasis on adoption expressed in community perhaps. Others have put emphasis on the justice of God. Others on the glory of God being displayed. Others on the kingdom-reign of God and defeating the works of the devil. It would seem this would logically take people in very different directions.

    And if so, what does it really matter? Are these differences important or not? Are they just different flavors that get expressed by people of unique experience and situation?

    I am not asking to be a rhetorical nuisance – I am really curious, and would love some different perspective here as I have struggled through these questions …

  3. Thanks Jamie,

    Great questions alex! I’m headed out the door at the moment, but that is the direction that I would love to see this discussion go.

  4. Reminds me of a speaker I heard very recently, who had a super-agenda of getting all of his listeners to adopt the Open Theism approach. He brow-beat everyone with the “failures of the church” with such broad brushstrokes that only those who agreed with Open Theism could rightly be seen as Christians.

    His main point by the end was that we all needed to embrace our Sonship and know that we are completely embraced and accepted by God — as if nobody but Open Theists understood this.

    There’s a big difference between being passionate about what you believe (and if you’re not passionate, why bother believing it?), and trying to demonize all who do not agree with your position with misrepresentations and broad brushstrokes.

    (steps off soapbox…)

  5. thanks for the respectful engagement with issues in Frank’s book.

    robbymac, man… if only i could hear a sermon preached on that! incredible.

  6. Hmm. I wonder if Frank is reacting to some of those who claim to be missional but don’t really get it… the MINOs. Still, as a part of the missional conversation, I expect Frank should understand that and would have clarified it in the book (which I haven’t read yet), so it’s disappointing to see these sweeping criticisms of the missional movement. Maybe we aren’t reading the same missional voices, or he’s somehow confusing the “emerging” generally with the more narrowly-defined “missional”.

    With Pagan Christianity, Frank started a list of responses to critiques on his website, where he offered some needful clarifications. Hopefully he’ll do that with this book and these criticisms of the missional movement.

  7. I have just recently read the book: “From Eternity to Here” and I must say that I just don’t see how anyone could get out of that book that Viola was “slamming” or in anyway being negative about the missional movement.

    In fact, as far as I know, Frank is very much involved with the missional movement, speaks at missional conferences, and has many missional leaders endorsing the book.

    Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsh, Shane Claiborne, Leonard Sweet, and Dan Kimball are all very well respected leaders of the missional movement. And they all (and many more) have endorsed this book. They obviously feel that the book is an important and unique contribution to the missional conversation.

    I have personally read many books and blog articles on the missional church. I do not see that Viola is attacking the movement at all. Rather, I see that he is making a much needed (and often neglected) contribution to the overall discussion.

  8. The great thing about your post, Grace, is that the great variety of opinions can be shared and greater insight can be gained. Surely, this is the intent … to seek to clarify.

  9. jamie,
    A purpose that is greater than personal salvation is an important emphasis in missional thought. I have also seen this as a strength of the missional conversation.

    Definitely. There isn’t a standardized missional gauge. I believe there are core defining values, but a variety of emphases and practices that reflect the uniqueness of the Spirit’s expression and gifts within the Body.

    I believe that Frank’s emphasis of mission being rooted in an understanding of God’s eternal purpose is an important and valuable contribution to the conversation and a necessary emphasis to keep missional activity from being solely a sociological project.

    Could you repeat that en espanol? Just kidding.
    Nice to see you around.

    Thanks david.

    brothermaynard and peggy,
    Clarifications would be good. Based solely on these statements I was not sure whether Frank considered himself part of the missional movement, not that he has to be either. There are plenty of valuable voices in the Body of Christ whose contribution is in other areas.

    First let me say that I did not say that Frank was slamming or attacking the missional movement. However, the few times he mentioned it in the book, it wasn’t favorably.

    As a friend (hopefully still) of Frank and “a friend of missional”, I was sorry to see the above statements in Frank’s book.

    There was very little in the book that was specifically about “the missional movement” although the entire theme of the book contributes to the revelation of the purpose of the church in the earth, which I agree is vital to understanding missional thought.

  10. Maybe behind it is nothing more than the very human desire to be heard as a distinct voice rather than part of a multi-voice missional choir. If any of us wanted to publish a book, we may also be thinking of ways to be seen as unique – if not for increased sales then at least for the sake of feeling good about ourselves.

    Then again, Frank may actually read these comments and be quite amused (hopefully) what others are reading into his comments.

  11. Grace,
    As you are a friend of Frank’s, I think you’ve done a great job of asking appropriate questions of what he’s written in his new or updated book. It would be very good to see Frank respond here, as your blog is one of the best places for “missional conversations”.

    Frank is rather new to the “missional conversation,” as it were and I’m not sure that Len Sweet or Shane Claiborne would claim to be active participants in this “conversation” – though they have much to offer all of us in the Body of Christ.

    Clark Pinnock and Grey Boyd are seen as two of the principal proponents of Open Theism. Google away. :-)

  12. mimou,
    I’m not sure, but I might be one, unless someone can tell me why I shouldn’t be one. I did google it, but still don’t understand.

    I think distinction and uniqueness are great. In fact the gist of my post was about appreciating the diversity of spiritual expression within the conversation rather than narrowing it down to one perspective.

    Thanks Bill. I appreciate your perspective since you seem to always have a finger on the pulse of what is happening in all things missional both at the conference level and at the grassroots level.

  13. Good criticism indeed. Bill notes that Viola is new to the missional conversation, yet he talks about ‘scores’ of missional books.

    That sort of confirms what I initially thought about reading the quotes you posted ( I’ve not read the book–which might adjust things).

    Seems to me like he is not responding to the present missional conversation as much as the more extensive evangelism movement of the last 50-60 years, the sort that Campus Crusade epitomized. I recognize a lot of Viola’s criticisms in my exposure to that approach in the church I went to growing up. I don’t see these nearly as much in missional stuff… though, truth be told it is possible there are hints of this going around.

    Two of these quotes stick out to me for comment: “A great deal of missional thinking today sees the church as a voluntary association for the saved”

    How does he define the church? I suspect there’s a well developed perspective on church here that goes beyond the missional/evangelistic contexts. Is he dealing with a sort of cosmic understanding of the church? Is he saying church is involuntary and we join who is closest. His critique would sound more plausible coming from a Roman Catholic, who can affirm more of the involuntary aspects of an established, non-choice related, church.

    and “Any missional endeavor that doesn’t put the church front and center falls short of God’s central thought.”

    The church is God’s central thought? Again, I sense a rather high view of church that would seem more likely a Catholic or Orthodox view, given their history. Who defines the church? Front and center? Seems like there are a lot of other aspects more front and center. Such as Jesus. And the Holy Spirit. And, indeed, even helping those who are oppressed. The church is the gathering of those who put those things front and center, not the front and center itself.

    I suspect, though, these quotes are more understandable in their contexts.

  14. Grace, It’s probably better if I’m anonymous today. I was part of a missional church for quite a few years and would like to comment on some of the Viola quotes. I have not yet read the book, but I do understand the sentiments. The church I was part of had extremely close ties with the some of the most influential missional leaders and thinkers. The pastors were leaders at the national level and beyond. We offered missional courses in a big way. This was not one of those add missional to the package type of deals but was heart and soul missional and I saw some incredible personal sacrifices along the way.

    In spite of all that, I and many others experienced “religious duty, guilt, condemnation, or ambition”. This was not part of the theory, but it certainly was part and parcel of the experience. I don’t think that this makes Missional bad, its just flawed like every other attempt to define Christian life in black and white terms. I can easily see how we can go from fairly benign theory to ghastly control in a few steps. What looks good on paper, becomes confining and judgmental by the time it makes its way down to the grass roots level. Missional is particularily susceptible to this because its all about doing in a world in which nothing ever gets done. I should point out that the goal of being missional is to help others to be free of religious duty, guilt and condemnation—-but I was in the inner circle and saw it all. I’m ashamed I ever participated. I’m not making this crap up or exaggerating. If anything its understated.

    “Voluntary association for the saved”? I’m thinking that Frank is thinking that the main purpose that missional people gather is to be volunteers. Yup, I’ve experienced that. The measure of spiritual growth was always quantifiable performance. The more you volunteered, the more you were lauded.

    “church front and center”? We were told to get on with our mission in the midst of what could only be described as the absolutely worst type of church implosion that can possibly exist. Details are grave and disgusting. Mission, not church, was always front and center.

    “God’s ultimate purpose begins in Genesis 1”? This was not taught in our church. The concept of purpose and meaning in our lives was all about redemptive mission, and nothing to do with how we were created to be in relationship with God and creaters in his image. Our sole value was in our mission. Everything else that we did was only a prelude to mission.

    These were most of the primary issues that I had before I split, and at that point I’d never heard of Frank. Those quotes described my experience. I wanna bet that my experiences are not isolated, and that wherever leaders define for others the mission that God has for them, the same experiences will be present.

    BTW, my CLB still thinks it has a mission to lead the world in discovering God’s mission and is actively pursuing this. Check your rear view mirror frequently.

  15. Anonymous,

    I don’t think Grace (or anyone I know in the missional conversation) claims the movement has it all together. In fact, part of what I have loved about it is the acknowledgment that failure is inevitable at some point(s).

    That said, and I lack more detail, what you describe of your CLB seems far removed from my understanding of missional. Or at least, there was a disconnect between ideals and practice. Being missional, while is obviously has action at it’s center, is not about volunteerism (which is rooted more centrally in programs), but about integration in worldview. It isn’t about church before mission or vice versa, it is (again) about the recognizing the inseparable nature of the two together. As for Genesis 1, our identity as individuals and community within God’s ultimate purpose is found there, so I cannot imagine it being ignored in a missional context.

    Again, I am sure there are MANY missional endeavours that end badly (or continue badly). There are also many that identify with missional thinking, but embrace it on a surface level. Missional thinking is not perfect, but you describe are not flaws inherent to missionality, but flaws inherent to human nature.

    However, your caution is well made and something to consider.


  16. anonymous, what you describe is in fact not uncommon. I come at this present conversation from a curious place. I sort of grew up in the pre-emerging world, participating in some of the earliest expressions of this particular movement in the 90s and my church burn out came from emerging/missional churches.

    Honestly, this is why I’ve been reticent about jumping fully back into another such group, unless I have particular trust in the leadership.

    What you’re saying is also at the very heart of my own efforts focusing on theology and foundational stuff as I slowly reengage, writing a lot about the Holy Spirit as the needed boundary for missional thought.

    A huge problem, and no doubt what you ran into, was there are two types of missional movement people. There are those who really do think missional and live it. And then there are those who latch onto missional/emerging thought but are really no different than their forebears in evangelistic depth. The former tend to shy away from a lot of the buzz and get on with the business. The latter tend to make all the right connections, get all the right advertising, with a sales mentality of networking and promotion. The forms of missional are there without the heart. But it’s the heart, and more importantly, the Spirit, who is important. Also, sin abounds, and the monastics taught that it is those who are particularly fruitful and doing great work who get particularly hit by pride and vainglory. It is at their peak they are given the worst temptations and in falling into that, doing what it sounds like they did, they cause the most destruction–even as they themselves don’t often get the fallout, but instead destroy lives all while supposedly going about God’s business. Evil is very good at corruption, after all.

    I, and I think others, tend to promote the hopes and essence of missional thought–trying to avoid those who play it as a game. Maybe Viola is picking up on the latter and rightly calling it out for discussion. Because I’ve seen the broken husks of far too many burned out with emerging/missional leadership–which is, oddly enough, basically violating the very essence of missional/emerging ideals by becoming hierarchical and forceful and generalizing their gifts upon everyone else. King David was reminded by Nathan the prophet about his deep failings, and he was humble enough to repent. As was Peter when confronted by Paul about falling back into old, wrong, habits. Not all leaders are. And that’s precisely why we need the prophets in emerging/missional movements to step up and be more vocal.

    At the same time, I think that’s not really being missional, and people, like Jamie and others in these comments, are living the life as it is supposed to be.

    Because of more commonly defending emerging/missional from the outside I tend to gloss over the deep inner frustrations. Your comment reminds me that maybe I need to stop doing that, even as I want to hold onto the hope and drive that I think real missional efforts bring.

  17. patrick,
    It’s a good idea to keep in mind that I may have a missional-sized chip on my shoulder.

    My understanding is that Frank’s view is that in light of the church – the bride, the house, the body – being God’s ultimate purpose, the church is always first and foremost. Therefore in the discussion of which came first, ecclesiology or missiology, the answer should always be ecclesiology – that the church most be front and center and everything else flows out of that.

    I believe we are only at the beginning of seeing the fruit of missional expression within the church. We would be wise to observe and learn from both the failures and successes along the way

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    I agree with your conclusion that missional can be as flawed as the next thing, and we should be cautious to not idealize it theoretically.

    Great thoughts! I also see the importance of understanding missional through the lens of God’s ultimate purpose. However I agree that we must hear cautions about the potential to skew things toward performance and obligation.

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