We perform what we can imagine. That is, we make choices, evaluate consequences, and act in keeping with the world that we have imagined. And some of that imagination is shared, or social. We share narratives, or deep imaginative structures, that give our actions meaning and significance. Charles Taylor and others refer to this as a “social imaginary.” The social imaginary keeps us from driving on the left side of the road, encourages us to take our hats off and cover our hearts between the eighth and ninth innings of baseball games as someone sings “God Bless America.” It’s what tells us that markets are good and institutions are bad, what causes us to both fetish-ize and be ashamed of power. It’s what allows us to criticize the sermon and teaches us that the most important thing that happens in worship happens in the interior of the individual.
So, churches have shared imaginations as well. We have imagined the relationship between God, church, and world in ways that authorize certain actions and make others problematic. We’ve imagined our lives in ways that allow us to see and say some things and that blinds us to others.
So, if the term “missional” is something real, if it marks something other than the status quo, then it must proceed from a different shared imagination. Otherwise, it may only be a louder, more passionate benevolent paternalism, or worse, a longer list of things to do for people who are already doing too much. I fear that most uses of missional by congregations indicate the latter options, and not a shift in imagination that authorizes new actions.
A social imaginary is not simply a set of ideas we hold. It’s a complex of ideas and practices that are held together as meaningful in the imaginary. So, a new imagination will require an exploration of ideas, but also practices–a way of life–that cause us to handle and see the world differently.
I can pinpoint certain theological shifts that make a missional imagination more likely. To get missional lift we will have to break free of the gravitational pull of classical theism and and its attendant substantialist notions of Trinity. We will need to be less Christocentric and more Spirit oriented. Missional becomes a greater possibility within a more robust eschatology and a cruciform Christology.
I could add to this list of theological repairs needed. But my hunch is that I just lost a lot of readers. And those who propose the need for a missional shift make the mistake of engaging the existing imaginary here, at the level of ideas. Not only do we lose the eye-glaze battle with most church members, but changing the way we think about things doesn’t make much of a dent in a social imagination in and of itself. Karl Weick, the leading name in the literature on sense making, suggests that new information rarely causes us to make new sense of things. We simply absorb ideas into the way we’ve already imagined the world.
The real action at the level of shifts in the social imaginary comes at the level of practices. It is through the actual handling of the world, of attending more closely to life as it happens between us and among us, that we get push at the level of imagination. There are several reasons for this, the biggest being that reality is not simply what we impose on the world. Reality bites. It surprises us and we have to account for the surprise (if we are attentive).
So, I’ve learned to talk about this more concretely in ways that get more traction with people. Much of it has come from the learning I’ve done in and with congregations through my work with Church Innovations, especially my collaboration with Stephen Johnson (my partner in crime). Stephen and I have identified seven competencies that we think put you on the path to missional, rooted in practices, that hold out the hope for a shift in a church’s social imaginary. Let’s see what you think.
It could make the difference between becoming missional or simply a more active version of yourself.