The J-Curve and the Missional Church

Over the weekend I participated in a cohort meeting for the Partnership for a Missional Church. The ACU-hosted PMC cohort is a group of Churches of Christ (two from Abilene but most from the DFW area) who are partnering with Church Innovations to work through the process of becoming a more missional church.

As Church Innovations defines it (in one diagram they use), a missional church is both nonconformist and engaged with the world. But this push--engagement--and pull--nonconformity--is difficult to implement. It's a complex dance between church and world. A missional church, seeking to interface with and serve the world, is going to find itself in lots of novel predicaments where older patterns of church life will not be effective. New patterns of Kingdom living will need to be established. But what will these new patterns look like?

In then end, this process is going to be scary and unsettling. Becoming a missional church is no linear process. And this insight over the weekend reminded me of a political science book I had just read.

In his book, The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, political analyst Ian Bremmer plots nations from around the world on a graph charting both their openness to the wider world and their stability in the face of internal or external political shocks. After plotting modern nations Bremmer noticed that they fall along a curve with a J shape:

On the left side of the J we have closed, totalitarian countries--such as Iran and North Korea--who have achieved a modest degree of stability due to their authoritarian controls. On the far right of the J curve we have very open and very stable societies such as America and other liberal democracies around the world.

A couple of observations about the J curve. First, note that right side of the curve is higher than the left side. That is, openness, if it can be attained, produces a much more stable society. In contrast, although authoritarian regimes can through sheer military control gain some stability, their very techniques (e.g., control of media) limit the degree of growth the nation can hope for. Authoritarian countries will always, therefore, underperform.

A second feature of the J curve relates to the first. Note that the slopes of the curve differ on the right and left sides. The slope on the right side is very shallow. This indicates that very open societies, like America, are also very stable. It would take quite a lot disruption to destabilize America. By contrast, the slope on the left side of the J curve is much steeper. This indicates that a totalitarian regime, although currently stable, is also very fragile. If a coup were to occur, or if there were some other internal or external disruption, a totalitarian regime can quickly descend into chaos. Like Iraq did.

But here is the big point of Bremmer's J curve, and this is the same point that will occupy us: The path toward openness and greater stability is not a linear process. You'll notice the curve dips ominously between the right and lift sides.

Bremmer's point for American foreign policy concerns this dip, this J shape. Since the path toward greater stability via increasing openness is no linear trend, the American government must take care when it attempts to undermine totalitarian regimes by encouraging openness. This is due to the fact that, before the gains of openness are observed, a county on the far left side will quickly destabilize, abruptly descending into chaos. Like Iraq did. In short, you can't quickly undermine the totalitarian infrastructure and easily replace it with a more open form of government. There is that dip on the J curve that needs to be carefully anticipated and negotiated.

Bremmer's concern is this: Once a country is destabilized and has fallen from the high left side of the graph into the low pit of instability it has a choice to make. Will it continue on the route toward openness and the long-term gains of greater stability? Or will its courage fail? Will the nation, in the moment of chaos, turn an about-face and quickly run back up the left side of the J curve? Because, as we observed before, the left-hand slope is much steeper. Which means that, in the midst of chaos, reasserting a little more authoritarian control (decreasing openness, moving leftward on the openness axis) will reap you quick, short-term gains in stability. What happens, then, is that the country, instead of moving toward greater openness, simply replaces one authoritarian regime with another. The nation fails to travel successfully through the dip in the J curve and stays stuck on the left side of the graph.

In short, it is very hard and complicated for one country (like America) to move other nations (like Iraq, Iran, or North Korea) from the left side to the right side of J curve.

What, you may be asking, does the J curve have to do with becoming a missional church?

Lots, I think.

I don't think moving from being a traditionally structured church to becoming a missional church is a linear process. I think it is more like the J curve.

Let's revisit the J curve but relabel the axes. Let's label the X-axis Openness/Responsiveness to the Call of God in the World. This axis measures the degree to which the church is open and responsive to God's prompting and guidance in ministry efforts for the sake of the world. If a church is low on this axis that church is not responsive to new works of God. This is not to say the church is bad or ineffective. The programs of this church might be robust and flourishing. But these programs are more about serving the members (church as spiritual mall) than about following God out into the neighborhood and larger world.

Let's label the Y-axis Missional Effectiveness.

Okay, if we make these changes I think the J curve nicely captures the transition from a spiritual mall to a missional church.

First, it should be clear, if you look at the left side of the J curve again, that spiritual mall churches do good things. They are, to a certain degree, ministerially effective. However, because these churches are not open or responsive to the work of God in the world they tend to underperform. They are not reaching their full potential. Why? Well, speaking broadly, the members of these churches are approaching church as consumers. Rather than being responsive to God in the Stranger, a spiritual mall is responsive to the needs of its members. This is not intrinsically a bad thing, but it doesn't create healthy Kingdom habits.

But let's say you want to try to open this church up to the work of God, to seek God in the Stranger. You want them to come to church, not to get their needs met, but to meet the needs of others. You want them to approach Kingdom living missionally. Well, this will involve opening the church up to God's leading and toward a greater engagement with the Stranger on the Stranger's Turf. This way of doing church will involve, to say the least, a drastic shift in ecclesial imagination. What will church be like if this is the new vision?

Whatever that new vision is, the initial experience of the church, as it moves from the left to the right of the J curve, will be one of instability and unease. While the new missional structures are being experimented with the church will feel out of sorts and confused:

Who's in charge?
Is this the right thing to do?
Are we on a slippery slope here?
Are we neglecting our own people in doing this?
Is this safe for my kids?

As this happens the church will dip on the J curve, experiencing less effectiveness as it learns, makes mistakes, and figures what generally is going on. This is the crisis point.

During this period of chaos and instability will the church lose courage? Will it continue on the path of openness and responsiveness to the call of God? The fear is that these churches will lose heart and will, like Bremmer's analysis of totalitarian nations, rush back up the left side of the J curve. They will do this by retreating back into old patterns of behavior, recapturing the solace and comfort of those well-worn ways of doing things. Things get "back to normal."

I should note that the J curve also applies to individuals. To a certain extent, I can ignore God's voice in the world and still do good works. I can teach my class at church and send some money to Compassion International. I can drink Fair Trade coffee. Those are good things, but I'm underperforming. I'm not missional. I'm not seeking to find God in the daily flux of my life. I'm not extending the hospitality of the Kingdom to the stranger.

But to open myself up to that journey my life quickly gets confusing. Should I pick up every homeless person I see? I mean, I have a job to get to. In short, during the initial phases of becoming missional, I don't have structures in place to guide my choices. I'm in uncharted territory. So what will I do? End the experiment and retreat back up the left side of the J curve? Back to that place of safety and stability? Or will I persist, establishing new Kingdom habits for the sake of the world?

In short, I'm guessing becoming a missional church (or person) is not an easy or linear process. It's a J curve. Opening ourselves to the mission of God in the world is going to cause us to rethink lots of things about how we "do church" or what it means to extend the Peace of Christ to those we share table with.

So my question for both myself and my church is this: As we travel rightward on the J curve and reach the moment of crisis, will we retreat?

Or will we follow God into His Work?

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One thought on “The J-Curve and the Missional Church”

  1. Richard,

    I like this subject very much, and hope you will spend more time on it. I am part of a church that was trying to make this "missional" transformation. At least that is what it was called from the pulpit. But in reality this move to missional was really just an argument to abandon tradition. The argument went something like this: We have to remove any barrier that would prevent a seeker from coming in the doors. Therefore, we have to play music that is contemporary, and adopt contemporary roles for women (for example). In the case of our church, this "missional" focus was really directed at Sunday morning, and while these people mean well, it nearly self destructed our church.

    This is why in this move to missional, implementation is key. With our church, I got the feeling that we were trying to put the roof on without first having the walls up. Things were moving too fast, mainly at the direction of a minority. People just started leaving the church left and right. Then the minority that was advocating this missional change left, because they were being blamed for how things were deteriorating. That left the church with a huge vacuum, since these people were the real "doers." And now I think we have swung back to the left side of Richard's J curve, out of necessity.

    I do not see it as retreating however. Rather, I think we need to put the foundation in place before venturing to the right side of the curve. Otherwise, I think the house will fall. Implementation. Doesn't matter how good the vision is, without proper implementation things will surely go south.

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