Why fundamentalists do well in missional churches

I’ve noticed that people with fundamentalist backgrounds tend to do well in missional churches.  Now I know “fundamentalist” is a broad term and “missional” is a broad term, but I need to say something, right?

Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism was a movement that grew in part as a reaction to theological liberalism. Fundamentalists were a group of people who believed in the “fundamentals” of the faith. All well and good. But the problem is, post 1960’s, they began to see themselves as very separate from the culture.

Speaking of this phase of fundamentalism, Justin Taylor, in his very helpful article about the history of fundamentalism, defines post 1960’s fundamentalism as follows:

“Within this fourth phase, a somewhat legalistic form of Christianity develops. Strict regulations become unwritten laws. Any capitulation to popular culture is synonymous with the sin of wordiness. Throughout most of the 1970s suspicion was raised against anyone who wore sideburns, long hair, beards, flair-bottom pants, boots, wire-rimmed glasses, or silk shirts”

The line from the fundamentalist was clear. We are not like the world. Which is good, but what the fundamentalists fail to ask is, “in which ways are we not like the world?” They create their own subculture and alienate people who do not act like them. In the quest to protect the Bible they ironically end up perpetuating extra-biblical restrictions

I grew up in a church like this. We had a position of separatism from the  broader culture, but how we were separate was defined in part by extra-biblical regulations. It was looked down upon if you went to the movies, drank, danced, got a tattoo, dated, or wore jewelry. We were also a church made almost exclusively of first and second generation Indian-Americans, so a lot of the lines were blurred between what was a sin against the Bible and what was simply against Indian culture. (Which is likely how dating made the above list)

But the fundamentalists (and my church) did do certain things well. We were taught the Bible. We memorized verses, we fasted, we were expected to show up at least twice a week to meetings. We had competitions where we recited verses, answered Bible trivia, and saw who could flip to a particular reference in the Bible the fastest. (In retrospect, the Bible reference thing probably wasn’t as helpful as everything else.)

Though we had a strong base of Bible knowledge, but what we didn’t do well was evangelism. Our stance towards the outside world could be often characterized as one of fear and even hostility. We had it morally together, and the outside world was there to corrupt us. For example, the main category we had for evangelism was giving out tracts. And not even clever ones. We did not want to form relationships or get involved in the lives of others. We weren’t trained on how to share the gospel with those in our school or workplaces. “Tract distribution” was on the calendar and often that was the extent that we affected the world with the gospel.

Forming/Discipleship/Influencing

This is where Mark Sayers comes in with very helpful categories. He divides Christian training into formation, discipleship, and influencing patterns. (Sayers, Reappearing Church p.158-159)

He says that formation patterns are what it means to be a functional human being, drawing on the wisdom of Proverbs. A well formed Christian will work hard, prioritize physically showing up, delay gratification, take responsibility, and will honor his word.

Discipleship patterns are practicing the spiritual disciplines. Praying, reading the Bible, fasting, corporate meeting for worship. These things shape you into being more and more like Jesus.

Lastly, is influencing patterns. This is how you address the culture. learn to speak the language of the people around you. find out what they think is important. How you learn to partake in their life and find the unique way that the gospel connects to the problems and issues of everyday life. He says that this is accomplished by “sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, by serving the economically poor, and by operating in our vocations filled with the presence of God.” (Reappearing church, p 158)

The missional church

A missional church is one that is defined largely by the mission of God. They would say the church exists (at least in a large part) to further the mission of God on the earth. The emphasis moves to how does the gospel affect everyday life. A  missional church is one that specifically teaches its members to engage with the culture, to speak the gospel, to see themselves as those who go and spread the kingdom of God.

However, this is where Sayers critique comes in. He argues that often the western church does not realize the deformative aspect of the culture. We don’t realize that the world has often formed and discipled us without us knowing it. And because we have been exposed to and often take in the culture much more indiscriminately than the fundamentalists, we have not been formed as we ought.

This is why I think fundamentalists do so well in missional churches. There is a degree of formation and discipleship that has already happened in their lives, and what they need is a solid emphasis on mission. I’m thankful to have grown up in a church with an emphasis on the Bible and a church where I was expected to show up whether I wanted to or not. Those things have served me well. What has made me into into a more well-rounded Christian, however, is the focus from my current church on mission, how I can bring the kingdom of God into my current context.

So what can we do better in the missional church movement? We need to realize that we may need to be more intentional about forming and disciplining our people. We keep our foot on the gas when it comes to mission and engagement, but at the same time we need to be teaching our people the important of the wisdom of Proverbs and of strict spiritual disciplines. We need to be careful not to overreact against the excesses of fundamentalism and realize that if our movement is to be sustainable, we need to not be afraid to delve deep into formation and discipleship as we further the mission of God.