June 3, 2008
Driscoll: Emerging Churches "Don't Have Converts"
David Fitch responds by addressing the nature of mission in a post Christian context.
Last year at the Convergent Conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mark Driscoll made the following remark:
And all the nonsense of emerging, and Emergent, and new monastic communities, and, you know, all of these various kinds of ridiculous conversations--I'll tell you as one on the inside, they don't have converts. The silly little myth, the naked emperor is this: they will tell you it's all about being in culture to reach lost people, and they're not.
I often hear this in places where I speak. It usually goes something like this: "We love missional theology, but does it work? How many converts have you had in your missional church?" Once again, the modernist drive to measure success raises its ugly head. Yet it does not offend me because these are important questions. I believe if we are not seeing people transformed by the gospel then "missional" in the end means very little.
So here is my response to Driscoll and others who question the evangelistic impact of missional churches:
1. First, I agree with Driscoll. There is a stunning lack of sustainable communities within the Emergent/emerging movement he addresses, and I think this is disturbing. But there is a difference between emerging churches and missional churches.
2. Regarding missional churches, it is incredibly difficult to develop a sustainable missional church (as opposed to your standard Driscollesque megachurch). Missional church ecclesiology is organic and incarnational. It does not fit easily with denominational expectations. This creates economic pressures for missional leaders. In my experience it takes 5 - 10 years to nourish a missional community into a sustainable church. This doesn't fit with established denominational models of church planting (especially evangelical).
Therefore, missional church plants generally start out with a lot of energy but often die by the end of year three. The planters have big dreams but soon burn out when the financial pressures mount and the incubation time takes longer than expected. This is why we need support systems and ways of preparing missional leaders for these extraordinary circumstances. (Al Roxburgh and Mark Bibby are working on this with their organization Allelon.)
3. Regarding emerging churches/Emergent Village, I don't believe they intend to plant churches that would lead to converts. Instead they are promoting conversations. They seek to foster critique and "reform" within Christianity. I am not denying that there are vibrant emerging churches out there in the many different streams (our church has been accused of being an emerging church). But this is not their thrust. My observation has been that Emergent/emerging people don't posses a soteriology and church/culture commitment emphasizing the idea of conversion.
4. Having said all this, I think that the missional communities that do persist probably have a higher conversion rate than the Driscollesque mega churches. Missional churches are much smaller, so 6 conversions from a group of 25 over ten years would match (or exceed) the percentage growth of a typical mega church. I think it would be interesting to measure how many dollars per conversion are spent in missional churches versus mega churches. It makes me smile knowing missional churches are probably more cost effective when it comes to conversions because we resist spending money on buildings, programs, and "the show."
5. We must recognize that "missionary conversions" take longer than megachurch conversions. The conversion of a post-Christendom "pagan," who has had little to no exposure to the language and story of Christ in Scripture, may require five years of relational immersion before a decision would even make sense. If you do not have this immersion/context, any decision that is made is prone to be little more than a consumerist decision - it is made based on the perceived immediate benefit. It lasts as long as this perceived benefit remains important. It does not lead to discipleship.
So a true missionary conversion, which I believe missional churches are after, takes a much longer period of time than the kind of conversions most often generated through a megachurch. The megachurch is largely appealing to people who grew up in old forms of church and know the Story but quit going to church many years ago. These "unchurched people" require the old messages to be made more relevant. They need to be "revived" or called back into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There's nothing wrong with that, but we should recognize there are fewer and fewer of these kinds of people left.
If we want to reach the lost souls of post-Christendom, the church in North America must go missional, incarnational, organic. We must become intertwined with those we seek to reach. But this will take time and appear to be highly inefficient in the terms we have become used to in the church growth/megachurch era.
This is why I believe that Mark Driscoll has missed the point. I think he speaks too boldly about the lack of conversions in missional and neo-monastic communities. Maybe Mark should take a survey of his own church and ask how many converts heard about Jesus for the first time through Mars Hill? How many came from other church experiences? How many are ex-Catholics who learned the entire Christian catechism and then walked away only to become Christians at Mars Hill?
I know Seattle is considered post-Christendom territory, but could the majority of converts at Mars Hill be coming from the remains of Christendom like many of the megachurch conversion I described above? This is certainly valid work for the Kingdom. But missional missiology is aimed at those lost in societies of post-Christendom with no understanding of Christ whatsoever. And this kind of mission takes longer. Failure to understand the difference is why Driscoll misses the point.