Dave Harder quotes Ben Sternke who asks an important question: “Why do missional ventures fail?” Why do some efforts which look so good on paper, and which make sense in relation to both the Gospel and the cultural context, simply fail miserably?

It’s not tough to come up with an answer. We know a lot more about systemic change and complex adaptive systems than we once did. We know that trying to graft a third eye or third leg onto an organism will probably not increase its adaptive strength. Likewise trying to plant mango trees, no matter how wonderful they are, in Edmonton Alberta is not a good idea.

There are some systemic issues which are critical in thinking about change. One of the big ones in missional shift is decentralization. Decentralization is the operationalization of a fundamental biblical truth — the priesthood of all believers. It is the operationalization of the reality of the indwelling Spirit, who is given to root the identity and then empower the sentness of God’s people (John 20:21).

Without decentralization, the church will remain overly dependent on professional missionaries, at a time when we need to recover the dynamics of a missional movement. But before we can actualize a living priesthood, we need to do some equipping — the whole thrust of Ephesians 4 and the five-fold gifts. In Making Sense of the Organization Karl Weick writes,

whenever you have what appears to be successful decentralization, if you look more closely, you will discover that it was always preceded by a period of intense centralization where a set of core values were hammered out and socialized into people before the people were turned loose to go their own “independent, autonomous” ways.

Nothing new here, but a helpful reframe in terms of dynamics. The church exists in a rhythm of life which mirrors the life of the Trinity — inward in love and outward in mission. Weakness in either of these movements results in a lop-sided and limping Body. As Jim Wallis put it in his landmark book, “Both [vision and nurture] are key to community. Without nurture, a community will exhaust itself in pursuit of a vision. Without vision, a community will become stuck in self-preoccupation and will travel in circles. With only vision a community soon loses any real quality of love. With only nurture the community soon forgets what its love is for.” Call to Conversion, 128

The inward movement is centripetal; the outward is centrifugal. Both are strongly related to the center. In reality, a decentralized movement does not affect the center itself, it is merely a phase of relationship. Inward and outward are merely representing a different relationship to the center. (btw, we could cue all the thinking on bounded and centered sets here also).

And there is one other piece that is helpful in thinking about this dance. (Rhythm, dance, music — time to start singing eh?) That other piece is the intrinsic interweave of community and mission. Hirsch and Frost coined missional DNA (mDNA). And the growing experience of many who walk this path is that without a covenant expression of Gospel life, mission is not sustainable. Writing of missional orders (a ‘rule’ of life) George Lings put it like this:

“An Order has the strategic chance to embody that church and mission are intrinsically connected; they act as a double helix, with both intertwining and growing. The essential linkage between church and mission is first rooted in Trinity as Community-in-Mission. This is played out in New Testament language that sees church as both sower and fruit of the gospel. Fruit is the precursor to more seeds. No sooner is church the consequence of mission, than it becomes also the conductor of mission. The New Testament also tells us church is more than the bearer of the message, it also embodies the message. This is related to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit who gives us a foretaste of what we proclaim.”

See also “The Missional Church Fieldbook