A mistaken missional identity is a serious and common hang-up affecting churches who are wrestling with what it means to be missional. In a right spirit of trying, often we’ve simply tweaked traditional church models and identified them as missional. The problem with this is obviously that what we are defining and doing as missional, isn’t missional at all. A bad definition on a missional identity can misguide our quest and undermine our fruitfulness.
We must learn to not dress up our institutional systems with false identities, but actually address and undress those identities to learn and develop a new one that is better for this era.
In my previous blog post I explored a mistaken missional identity I called Boomerang Church. I also explained why I think a mistaken missional identity is a big deal. I’d encourage you to read that post first.
Today we are going to look at the second main missional mistaken identity that I think most institutional churches struggle with as they wrestle with what it means to be focused on missional discipleship.
In this blog post we are going to look at what I call Octopus Arms Church. (It should be noted that my very beautiful and talented wife, Katie McLain, dislikes the name I gave this mistaken missional identity).
Yesterday I suggested that the majority of churches that struggle with Boomerang Church, are small to midsized. There are large churches that struggle with that as well but I was speaking to an averaged reality. Today, with Octopus Arms Church, I think that a majority of churches that struggle with this mistaken missional identity are probably midsized to large sized churches, but any church community can struggle with it.
In fact, I can name two church plants who thought they were being missional, but were struggling with a mistaken missional identity of Octopus Arms Church.
(I feel like Jaws music should play after that line, what about you?)
Octopus Arms Church is a problem in which the Church feels a need to stretch out its resources and tentacles out and be involved with everything and anything that it can possibly be involved in. They view this as missional.
Churches with this struggle view themselves as a centering brain piece of a sending mission. They are the dreamers. They realize that the Kingdom of God is a really big place with a really big reach. It’s exciting and energizing. These churches realize that in all reality there is a lot of ground to cover. They see that there is a lot of places that the Kingdom of God could be breaking through and they are committed to making it happen for the good of mankind. In another wards, Octopus Arms Churches try to be involved in everything and anything it can be for the greatest impact and appeal.
This tends to be a larger church problem because they have a lot more resources to play with than others usually do. As these Churches move from institutional to missional they know that they need to get outside of their context to make a difference. We can agree that is right thinking. However, Octopus Arm Churches see they have a lot of resources to share and they see that as a way God has blessed them with making a difference. That might be partially true. However, often these churches can’t get over themselves do make a real difference through their actions. I believe churches that are struggling with Octopus Arms Church as a mistaken missional identity are actually just struggling with an identity of who they are.
Let’s explore a fictional but relevant tale of an Octopus Arms Church.
First Christian Baptist of the Bible is a rather large church. They have a lot of gifted and skilled people. More importantly, they have a lot of financial resources to aid their mission onward and outward of their own context. They want to be missional and they want to make a difference in their community.
They see that there are a lot of hipsters in their town. Quickly they buy property, launch a coffee shop and hire the team to run it. Everyone that goes to this coffee shop knows it is an outreach of that church. At every corner there is an ad or invitation to be a part of something at First Christian Baptist of the Bible.
Soon, they see there are other needs in their town. For instance, there isn’t a Pre-School. So, again, they buy property, launch a pre-school and hire the team to run it. It isn’t on site of their church in a traditional model way, but at every corner there is an ad or invitation to be a part of something at First Christian Baptist of the Bible.
Those things are going great and now they are looking at the issue of homelessness in their surrounding community. The leadership team imagines that all of the construction workers in their church would love to be part of renovating an old building to provide housing. The church quickly buys an abandoned hotel building and launches a homeless housing ministry.
At First Christian Baptist of the Bible there are many other great ministries too; they have a huge worship team that produces CDs, they have rental houses in the neighborhood, they have a bookstore in their lobby with all the latest and greatest things, they have free meals for the community, they have a community center, a youth center, food drives, clothing drives, toy drives, a prison ministry, hundreds of small groups, several campuses, a huge VBS program and so much more.
They won’t quit dreaming either. If they can dream it, they will launch it.
None of these things are bad ideas. We might be able to argue that depending on how some of them get played out that they are traditional institutional programs and not missional engagements to make missional disciples. Yet, at the end of the day none of these ideas are evil or completely unfruitful. What we do see is a failure of identity in the fact that First Christian Baptist of the Bible doesn’t know who God has called them to be specifically and relevantly. They don’t understand their context, so they encompass every context.
Now, the story of First Christian Church of the Bible is embellished and exaggerated. However, I bet you can picture a church that doesn’t know their identity and is doing more than humanly possible or more than they should.
In old seafaring stories, Sailors would talk about close encounters with the legendary Kraken. The Kraken was an Octopus like Sea Monster that would grab onto every part of the ship and drag it into the depths of the Ocean. Usually, the Ship was pulled into Davey Jones’s Locker and never seen again. It vanished quickly and quietly.
I would suggest that this is the danger of Octopus Arms Church. These churches are legendary. They are huge machines that can and will grab onto every opportune and exposed moment. This is appealing for many types of people. There is something for a lot of people in contexts like this. However, eventually the integrity and resources of the ship fail and it’s taken to the depths of Davey Jones’s locker and never seen again. This brilliant model that existed for so long fails and falls overnight quickly and quietly.
There are a lot of megachurches and Octopus Arms Churches that have seemed to have it all together that have failed and fell overnight quickly and quietly.
There actually are several problems with Octopus Arms Church in addition to not knowing their specific narrative and identity for their context.
One of those problems is that the ideas and growth aren’t organic and God inspired. A lot of times we will find that apostle-like dreamers can’t tell something good from something of God. Without accountability and maturity, these dreamers can dream up a lot of really good ideas. These ideas are contagious, energizing and new. So, they will spread every last resource thin to make sure that they happen.
All ministries and outreaches of Octopus Arms Church also tend to be machinery with little to no personal relationship or touch. Missional Discipleship cannot happen with personal relationship and touch.
Another problem is that once again the Church is the Center and not the Kingdom of God. The Church serves as the brain and it spreads its people, resources and ideas out. Yet, at the end of the day it perpetrates the idea that a few are blessed with good ideas and the rest are to be consumers or carriers of the mission dreamed up by others.
Yet another issue of Octopus Arms Church is that it is formulaic and programmed. The Church sees a void, considers a programmed response and develops an organization to meet that need. The last step becomes a hiring process to find people to run those systems and organizations. They may be people gifted in those areas that are brought in from the outside that don’t have the heart for the local context or they are people from the inside that often don’t have the heart and not the gifting. It’s more professional ministry modeling.
Lastly, in Octopus Arms Church we experience suffocation in several ways. A lot of time those who need to lead or that have ideas outside of the leadership team are suffocated out. There is not a role for other thinkers and dreamers. Also, sadly, personal ministries and community falls secondary to keep the big ministries running. Someday the mission and expansion of the Church will result in exhaustion of people and its resources, suffocating the life of the Church. As a result, the consumers move on, because missional discipleship was not a value, but rather missional need meeting.
Our neighbors might find Octopus Arms Church and all it’s doing really exciting at first. But eventually, they will feel suffocated too. Everything you are bringing to them is pointing back to the brainchild team and the church. They are sensing your life and over marketing, not a tangible presence of the Kingdom or a mirror of Jesus.
The missional Church is one that understands it’s context. It listens to the Holy Spirit for direction and creativity in that context. It empowers people to dream up their ministry, it disciples and resources them in their callings and lastly it produces more missional disciples.
I think Boomerang Church is the most common mistaken missional identity, but aspects of Octopus Arms Church are present in a lot of churches trying to make the jump from institutional to missional as well.
- How do you see your church or churches you know wrestling with Octopus Arms Church?
- What are some other things that result from this idea of Octopus Arms Church?
- How do you define missional in your context so you don’t fall victim to Octopus Arms Church?
- There are lots of scriptures that could be used to describe this wrong model of mission. Which would you use?