The beginnings of a non-directive approach to mission and evangelism | Ian Mobsby [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]


Ian Mobsby

In this short article I hope to unpack the basis and approach to a more non-directive approach to mission and why it is important for the church in our increasingly post-Christendom, postcolonialist context.

I also seek to address why it is so important for contemporary missioners, evangelists and pioneers to feel comfortable with taking such a non-directive approach to mission. I hope this slightly provocative contribution will promote reflection on practice and catalyse the importance of dependence on God.

Getting beyond being control freaks

Thomas Merton helpfully commented:

Modern humans believe they are fruitful and productive when their ego is aggressively affirmed, when they are visibly active, and when their action produces obvious results. [1]

The challenge for most missioners, pioneers and evangelists is that they are expected to make things happen. [2] They are required to deliver missional programmes with SMART goals to justify the cost of their income on a fixed-term contract through innovation and birthing a new expression of the church, usually in some form of difficult context. Accordingly, most pioneers that I meet are activists who are at their happiest when they are doing this. Not only does this bring all the great potential problems of work addiction, but it also comes with the very great danger of “needing to be in control” through being busy and being “a success”. I know this to be true because this has been my personal experience for a large part of my being an ordained pioneer priest in the Church of England.

Richard Rohr reminds us of the danger that as pioneers we are called to a life of “contemplation and action” or “prayer and action”, depending on your tradition. Sadly it is often the case that pioneers struggle with their prayer life and tend to focus on doing, because many of us are doers and not listeners. Being silent and being prayerful doesn’t fit with a busy work schedule. Many of us struggle with prayer and being control freaks, because we have experience of being burned by God or being burned by the church. This then creates the context for us becoming controlling because we basically then do not trust God with our lives.

There are insights to be taken from the 12-step movement of recovery from addiction, which tells us that our health is dependent on surrendering our lives to our “higher power” if we are to find healthiness and well-being through non-controlling behaviour. Indeed, all addiction is, to some degree, created because of the inability to let go of being in control of some aspect of our lives. Being unable to surrender our lives to God, to not be able to trust God, results, I believe, in many pioneers making themselves their own “higher power” and therefore, in effect, a form of egoic God, as Thomas Merton affirms, which will not only do harm to ourselves but will also do harm to the very projects we are seeking to lead and serve. Again, I know this, because I have made this mistake repeatedly. It is unsurprising then that so many activist pioneers struggle with prayer, because prayer requires obedient submission and surrender to God, and that our success and desire to please our paymasters and to some degree a notion of the transcendent God is the result of being activist control freaks. If we are not careful, we can, through our activism, set up an unintended “idolatrous aspect” to our vocation, which will not end well. Ironically, the most effective mission initiatives will occur when the pioneer is able to submit and surrender to God, and where the personal identity of the pioneer is not dependent on the outcome of the mission being a success. This is exacerbated by the reality that funders focus on expected success rather than faithfulness. This is a major challenge, when so much of our mission, particularly in the Church of England, is dependent on strategic development funding (SDF) bids. These “SDF” submissions are written like business plans, where pioneers are put in the extremely difficult position of delivering on God’s mission with short-term fixed aims and objectives. The mission itself is often set in extremely difficult contexts, where the very outcome measures of such bids almost expect the pioneer to be God, making commitments that it will be almost impossible to deliver. This is because so much of our strategic planning is based excessively on “mission as business planning” rather than as dependence on God. The squeeze on pioneers internally and externally then is significant. Externally, to meet the outcome expectations of projects, and internally, an inability to trust and let go and surrender to God regarding aspects of the pioneering vocation.

So how does the pioneer respond? As with all cultures, Christians are called to be in, but not of, expressions of contemporary culture. So how do pioneers exist and survive within the commodifying capitalist market systems that the church has absorbed to fund innovative mission? Clearly the first thing must be for the pioneer to submit and surrender their lives and their work to God, and the second is to remember that God’s mission is God’s, not ours.

God’s mission, not ours

At the time of writing this article, I have been completing doctoral ethnographic research. I have been listening to those who would self-identify as being “spiritual not religious” who are de- and unchurched people with a strongly negative stereotype of the church as being irrelevant when, in reality, they had had little experience of it or had given up on it. Regarding those who have given up on church, many respondents of the research talked of the effect of fundamentalism in controlling forms of the church, or leaders and pastors who were in their view overly controlling. At the same time many have a yearning or thirst for spiritual things, of which I am certain; many are being unsettled by God the Holy Spirit to explore existential questions that have the potential to take them nearer to God. My great sadness is less with the “spiritual not religious” but more with the narrowness and often unavailability of pioneers to resource such mission.

At the heart of God’s mission call is the truth that we are called to serve God in God’s mission. As it so wonderfully says in 2 Cor. 5, often entitled “the ministry of reconciliation”: to join in with God, as God restores all things back into right relationship with God. This is the heart of mission; not just conversion or restoration, but communion – that all people, all things are being restored into active and unbreakable relationship with God. When all mission and evangelism is understood in this way, it gets exciting again. This is why I am still so positive about the fresh expressions initiative with its deep Trinitarian understanding of mission as catching up with what God is already doing, and where prayer is about joining in with God. When mission is understood like this, it gets away from the terrible distortions of commodified and capitalist notions of mission and gets back to the relational and the transformational, which are the root of the gospel narrative on God’s mission. So it is far less “conversions per £ spent” and much more reliant on guidance and being led by the Holy Spirit, indeed the Holy Trinity, creating the opportunity of building ecclesial communities out of contextual mission. So how do we understand this more relational approach to mission?

Missio Dei, Missio Trinitatis, Missio Ecclesiae

In Bevans and Schroeder’s groundbreaking work Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today and their chapter on “Mission as Participation in the Mission of the Triune God (Missio Dei)”, they quote several authors, reminding us that mission is God’s job description, and that the Trinitarian understanding of the missio Dei might hold out a new direction for mission theology. [3] Further, they remind us that God is a relational community of Father, Son and Spirit who are constantly involved in the world. [4] This relational centredness to mission is key to pioneers – that there is mission because God loves people, which lies at the heart of the pioneer vocation. [5] However, often people forget the cascade and the connection between the missio Dei, missio Trinitatis and the missio ecclesiae. The mission of God becomes the mission of the Holy Trinity, the depth of perichoresis (inner dynamism of God in the three persons) of a God living out perfect love, perfect justice and perfect inclusion. Through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, this becomes the mission of the church, the missio ecclesiae. In this reading of theology, therefore, the pioneer is joining in with an understanding of “communion-in-mission”, where the nascent gathering of a missional community in context seeks to catch up with what God is already doing, where God the Creator, the Father is the life-giving fountain of love, through the ministry of God the Redeemer, the Son, through the power of God the Sustainer, the Spirit. This Trinitarian understanding of mission liberates the pioneer from having to be the constant activist, to becoming instead the wise discerner, who seeks to follow where God leads. I love this approach, as it completely takes the pressure off having to be in control and lets the pioneer surrender mission to be directed by God as the source. So we do not need to try to be too clever to argue people into the kingdom, we don’t have to be supercool, hip and trendy to win souls, and we don’t have to be uber-busy with all sorts of events and training to intellectually force people to make a choice.

All these examples, for me, name the pressures of forms of mission that come from a pressured “business approach”, which loses the point, largely because it assumes the secular business “scarcity” world view rather than the God-given “abundance” world view of the Gospels.

Critiquing commodified and business approaches to mission

The greatest challenge then is how we, as pioneers, seek to form missional communities that are countercultural in that they are not just about nice coffee shops or endlessly revamping forms of worship services. Rather, the focus should be on spiritual freedom, empowerment, radicality at the heart of the gospel and the insights of liberation theology for all people, no matter what their economic or social context. My concern for pioneers is that there is a lot of talk in these circles about metaphors from businesses – the stories of Kodak, The Body Shop, John Lewis and Apple. What about the stories of radical Christian communities like the Celtic monastic saints, the Desert Mothers and Fathers – why do we dumb down on the likes of St Benedict, St Francis and St Clare, for example? I think the other insight I have is that the form of faith we sometimes project is really dumbed down. I yearn for depth of discipleship that requires a depth of prayer and a true hunger for God; as Thomas Merton says, the pursuit of the true self, not staying with the shadow or false self that colludes unquestioningly with the unhealthiness of a market society. A more ancient future perspective. My overall reflection is that we are too enmeshed in a capitalist unrestrained market society, and not asking enough the countercultural questions around spiritual freedom as Jesus did. We do not need endless more trendy forms of attractional worship services, but instead how do we invite people into a transformative experience of life led by God? It is interesting that some forms of Buddhism have been able to retain this life-changing perspective in contemporary culture where Christianity has not, because we are seen as being part of the problem by many de- and unchurched people. So our pioneering and our pioneering imagination needs to get beyond commodified “business-shaped” expressions of mission and dig much deeper with forms of mission and ecclesial community that have the same DNA as church but are radically visionary, contextual and counter to the market society that enslaves many.

Missioner/pioneer as curator

Both Jonny Baker and Mark Pierson have written extensively about curating worship that is missional coming out of the alternative worship movement. [6] I would like to extend this concept further, to talk about the pioneer as a curator of mission and evangelism. Curation of mission is a deliberately open-ended approach to facilitating some form of mission experience that draws on the Trinitarian approach to mission being God’s, not ours, which therefore aims to provide opportunities for people to explore matters pertaining to Christian spirituality and faith on their terms, and in their timing. This approach assumes that God is seeking to enable people to experience the reality of God and God’s presence with them through the Holy Spirit. It is this approach that I am drawing on as a basis to the doctoral research I am conducting, in exploring how a dialogical approach enables those who self-identify as “spiritual not religious” to explore spirituality as an effective activity for them to break down negative stereotypes concerning Christianity and open up opportunities to discover the faith on their own terms. My colleagues and I have been running an event called “Searching: Soul”, utilising the “MeetUp” social media app as a way of facilitating dialogues in bars and pubs in central and south London. In such an approach there is nothing to sell, no clever thought you have to get across, no course, no apologetic, only space and room for people to explore. It is so basic but I have seen it work wonderfully, as it allows God to do what God does freely. In these groups a subject is chosen, each participant shares for five minutes without interruption, clarification questions are asked, and then open discussion occurs over a beer and food. This approach is entirely the opposite of the pioneer being in control, as it surrenders that control to those who attend and to God. It prevents any attempt to be a control freak, and therefore frees up the pioneer to pray and discern where God is in the conversation and seek to share wise words into the dialogue. I am hopeful that the beginning of a more open-ended approach to mission where the pioneer is called to be a missional curator is possible, and that there will be further applications of this approach to be explored in our increasingly post-Christendom, post-secular postcolonialist context.


Now that we find ourselves in a pandemic situation where the market society model has all but collapsed, many people are asking questions about such a cultural norm. As I have stated in this article, the pioneer is somewhat trapped in a church that is deeply enmeshed in our market society and has to navigate the internal and external pressures of such a situation that can result in pioneers becoming activist control freaks. It is my contention that a more Trinitarian approach to mission affords the opportunity for a more open-ended God-led approach to mission. This means the pioneer can utilise an approach of mission curation to facilitate mission experiences that are relevant and effective in our increasingly post-Christendom, post-secular and postcolonialist context. As a practitioner–researcher in this field, I am convinced that this approach will prove effective with mission engagement with those who define themselves as “spiritual not religious”. The challenge now, therefore, is to explore other applications of this more open-ended, non-directive form of mission approach.

Ian Mobsby is the assistant dean for fresh expressions and pioneering in the Diocese of Southwark and currently pioneering south of Blackfriars Bridge in central London. He has founded two monastic communities and an alternative worship community and is currently the guardian of the new monastic Society of the Holy Trinity. Ian has authored and written extensively on mission and spirituality and is currently completing a research PhD exploring mission with the “spiritual not religious”.

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[1] Thomas Merton, Love and Living (New York: Mariner, 2002). Adapted to ensure inclusive language.
[2] From here on when I say pioneers, I also mean missioners and evangelists.
[3] Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 292.
[4] Ibid., 287.
[5] Ibid., 303.
[6] Mark Pierson, The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of the Worship Leader (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2012); Jonny Baker,
Curating Worship (London: SPCK, 2010).

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