Missional Church as Unitarian

Throughout the ages the church has been tempted to get things down to “one.” It makes things easier, and a truly Trinitarian faith is not easy to believe, and a Trinitarian way of being church takes discipline to maintain against the pressures of the day.

To the left is the famous Ikon by Anton Rublev, known as The Divine Hospitality. It refers to the story of God’s visit to Abraham, in Genesis 18. Of course we also see in it The Holy Trinity.

That theology expresses how I want to do church and be church, and it’s what the historic Reformed Church order is designed to reflect.

The Missional Structures Task Force report proposes a staff-directed and centralized kind of church. (More like Michelangelo?)

The ideology to support this is something called “missional church.” This ideology has been working its way through the denomination for a decade now. It started with the slogan, “Mission is one.” Its new version is “missional church.” But the ideology is the same — to collapse the church to a single task and a single purpose. You identify the purpose, and the purpose drives the church.


It has a simplistic appeal. Discipline is never as attractive as ideology. Orthodoxy is never as appealing as heresy, because heresies reflect the notions of the day. Universalism has that appeal (that there’s a single purpose of God) and Unitarianism has that appeal (that there’s a single person of God).


The small “c” unitarianism in the Reformed Church is to collapse everything into mission.

But you can’t collapse “worship” into “mission” any more than you can collapse “mission” into “worship.” As J.-J. von Allmen wrote many years ago, “mission” and “worship” are as united but distinct as the two movements in our blood pressure, the systolic and the diastolic. They are always together, but they are ever distinct. Think Trinitarian.


On this Pentecost we will repeat Psalm 104, and be reminded of the Leviathan, the sperm whale. As von Allmen wrote, the church is like a whale, and it needs to do two things which are distinct but which require each other. First, it needs to rest on the surface and breathe the air, which is what the church does in worship. Second, it needs to enter the water and live and eat and breed and travel, which is what the church does in mission. To collapse the one into the other is to drown the whale.


Why is the RCA going crazy for this functional unitarianism of the “missional” church? I don’t know all the reasons. Some of them are well-intentioned but misguided, like Urban Renewal was in ’60’s, or DDT, or asbestos insulation.


I suspect that one motive is control. Administrators and bureaucrats like to keep things simple, and they like to gather power (which does help them do their jobs!).


When we first repeated the slogan, “Mission is One,” we were all excited. We thought this would be a positive thing, that the same RCA devotion to Missions would now be extended to Urban Ministry. If “Mission is One,” then our struggling urban churches would get the same attention and support as our mission fields.


Duh. Were we wrong. What’s turned out is the opposite. Urban Ministry is not even mentioned by our General Secretary any more, and our mission fields are suffering the same diminution and declension as our urban ministries! Our assets on the mission fields are being sold off in order to balance the GSC budget.


It turns out that “mission is one” was less a vision for ministry and mission than a vision for the centralization of the denominational structure. That’s certainly been the result. I suspect it was always the design. And we’re worried that it’s the real design of the Task Force report, for which “missional church” is being used as a cover.


Some people are suggesting that it’s in order to make the assets of urban churches available to the GSC in the same way that the mission fields assets have been used. If the Task Force report is adopted, there will be nothing to stop that from happening.


We do well to remember that during the century of the Nicene Creed, many of the Church Fathers suffered greatly for their Trinitarian Orthodoxy. How many times was Athanasius put in jail? Chrysostom was killed by his parishioner, the emperor. We who are dissenting from the current RCA regime are being marginalized, but it’s hardly much suffering; in fact, it means we have fewer meetings and don’t have to fly through Chicago or Detroit, and we have more free time to pray or go to the opera or both.


But if we are marginalized from our own denomination, we get to be right there at the Table of the Holy Trinity.


Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great.

Thou art clothed with honor and majesty,

thou coverest thyself with light as with a garment.

I will sing to the Lord while I have life.
I will sing praise to my God while I have breath.

2 thoughts on “Missional Church as Unitarian

  1. Terrific material for the upcoming Trinity Sunday. A couple years ago we spent an entire session on the hospitality icon with our Classis bookgroup. It was a good experience!Indeed, the Unitarian Universalist Society is insistent that it is NOT a Church. Of course, I like to kid the local pastor that he is Trinitarian, none-the-less:Universalist-Unitarian-Society can be aligned quite concvincingly with Father, Son, Spirit!

  2. As usual, Okke, you notice play in words before anybody else.Somewhat similar is the way a Seeker put it to me two years ago. She said, “Can you tell me about God, and Jesus, and all that stuff?” Incipient Trinitarian.

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