The term missional showed up on my radar again with the book edited by Darrell Gruder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998). It is an attempt to help the American church realize that if it is going to become a faithful participant in what God is doing it can not just send out missionaries. It has to become a missionary itself.
Subsequently dozens of books have been written trying to unpack and apply the term. Sometimes the missional church concepts get blended with those of the organic church or the simple church movements. Occasionally, the more random and eclectic thinking in the emerging church movements becomes a part of the mix.
Theologically, the late Scotsman and missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989) established a lot of the framework for the missional movement. He was a part of the Gospel and Our Culture movement which sought to apply the lessons learned on “foreign mission fields” to the increasingly plural home mission contexts. In a very real sense the missional emphases are an extension of the Gospel and Our Culture movement.
Another missionary who has turned some of his attention to the Western context is Irishman Christopher Wright. His tome The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, (Eerdmans, 2006) provides the comprehensive biblical foundation for missional thinking. More recently his book The Mission of God’s People: a Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, (Zondervan, 2010) seeks to help the church apply the content of the first book.
Two very accessible missional church titles are Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One, by Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren (Baker Boos, 2009) and Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church by Reggie McNeal (Baker Books, 2009).
The purpose of this brief essay is to define “missional” in fairly basic terms and then to describe what I see as the characteristics of a missional church.
So, what IS missional? In a nutshell missional is two things.
First and foremost, it is a recognition that God is by nature a missionary God. From the beginning he has been on a mission to bring reconciliation and healing to his rebellious and broken creation. The mission is not an “add-on” that the church came up with to extend it’s geographical and cultural influence but it is inherent to God’s relationship with the world and indeed, it is the gospel itself.
Secondly, being missional in our approach is a matter of recognizing that God has already been at work in any given context before we arrive as his missionaries. In other words, we are not doing mission work on behalf of God; we are instead participants in what he is already doing. So then, part of being missional involves discovery -- figuring out what God seems to be up to with every person and group in any given place and situation.
What then does that look like in practice? What is a missional church?
1. Since the assumption is that God is already at work in any given context the first task of the church is to ascertain what he is doing. This means that the missional church is a listening and observing church.
We can determine some of what God is up to through our understanding of scripture. But there is also a local context. What kind of people seem to be congregating? How do they relate to each other? Where might doors be opening for agents of the kingdom of God? Missionaries talk about this as the exegesis of culture.
Mission-minded people understand that this is a highly relational process -- hanging out, meeting people, developing connections, being involved in lives... In most places it will take years to get a solid sense of what's going on.
This passion for understanding how God is at work locally often means that standardized products are unacceptable. Yes, some things can be adapted. But often adaptation itself leads to distortion so there is a prejudice against (and sometimes cynicism toward) cookbook approaches to ministry.
Miissional church planters working in highly structured denominational systems may encounter difficulty because they’re not keeping up with a predetermined schedule and set of benchmarks. They’ll most likely want to rethink each step of the denomination’s formula along the way. It can create tension.
Leaders trying to move established churches in a more missional direction are going to create frustration. Congregants often measure success in terms of numbers of people in the crowd or the types of events. They’ll want to implement the cool programs that they see working somewhere else without necessarily first asking whether that is what God is up to here.
Missional leaders will need a steady hand, lots of patience, and the ability to cultivate imaginations.
The narrative imagination of scripture challenges our assumptions about what God is up to in the world and reminds us that leaders can do great things when they align their expectations with God’s. An important role of a missional leader is cultivating an environment within which God’s people discern God’s directions and activities in them and for the communities in which they find themselves. The biblical narratives are full of stories about places and people without hope who become centers of the Spirit’s creative, world-changing activity. This can still be the case. For congregations and leaders who feel they can’t compete, keep up with, or emulate the example of growth and success held up for them at conference after conference, this is exuberant, life-giving news. These stories demonstrate not some optimistic wishful thinking but a conviction about the God we encounter in Jesus. We, like the people in these biblical stories, are invited to cultivate our imagination to see the possibilities of what the Spirit wants to do in and among the people we are called to lead... (The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World by Alan J Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, Baker Books, 2006, 16-17)2. The missional church recognizes that the way people enter into the church is the way that they develop as disciples.
If we use entertainment or events to “hook” people for Jesus most of them will have difficulty transitioning to a more substantial life of discipleship. In the long-run they become religious consumers expecting more and more religious services to meet their perceived needs. They do not have much tolerance for the messiness of mission and expect the church to provide ministry for their children, worship “experiences” to refresh their emotions and their souls, Bible studies to feed their appetites for the Word, and even mission trips to validate their sense of place in God’s kingdom.
Do not misunderstand. There is nothing wrong with having children’s ministry, worship experiences, Bible studies, mission trips, or an orderly well-managed congregation. These can all be quite helpful. But often these means become the ends. That is, we have trouble getting beyond them to actually living out the kingdom of God that Jesus initiates. These things can become channels of Jesus’ agenda but more often they are perfunctory or obligatory tasks done to keep the members happy with little regard to their overall kingdom impact. The focus is internal to the church rather than external toward what God is doing beyond.
And when we start people down this internally-focused road, they do not easily make the turn onto a more missionally focused path.
Reggie McNeal writes:
...the missional church is the people of God partnering with God in his redemptive mission in the world. This understanding of the church is both liberating and sobering. It is liberating in the sense that we realize we don’t have to manufacture the work of God in ourselves or in the world. God is doing the heavy lifting. This means that we can quit trying to drum up a breeze by generating a lot of frenetic church activity and instead hoist our sails to catch the breeze that’s already blowing.
At the same time, this understanding of who we are as the church (not what we are -- a place or a religious vendor) carries great responsibility. Our job is not to ‘do church’ well but to be the people of God in an unmistakable way in the world. We are the aroma of Jesus in the cemetery of decaying flesh. We are to be different in the hope we offer, in the grace we exhibit, and in the obvious sacrifice of love we display in dealing with others. (McNeal, 24)Practically speaking, this means that the best entry points into the life of the church will be built around an experience of God’s mission -- building a Habitat house together, painting over graffiti in the community together, developing redemptive relationships with marginalized people together... Socialization, proclamation, and catechization can occur within that mission context more readily than mission-reorientation can occur in a context where socialization, proclamation, and catechization are the primary focus.
Again, the lines of distinction are never clear-cut. But we are quickly learning from the younger generation in the West that they are underwhelmed by our well-structured attempts at entertainment, our solid preaching, and our discipleship training programs. They perceive that what we are doing is too narrowly focused. And often they are right.
Thirdly, a missional church is tuned into the whole mission of God.
It has not always been the case but in the 20th century American evangelicals became reactive to what they perceived to be salvation by social activism. So they worked hard to distance themselves from anything that did not involve a simple decision-focused proclamation of salvation by accepting Jesus as Savior and then memorizing (or at least being exposed to) the biblical truths that support “the Christian life.”
Any other forms of activism were suspect in the 20th century -- in spite of the fact that the previous generations of evangelicals had organized themselves to abolish slavery in America and England, to support women’s suffrage and rights, to develop the public education system, to establish the medical care system, to care for orphans and widows, and to advocate for temperance.
These major social endeavors grew out of the evangelical conviction that Christians are to be salt and light in society. The neatly defined categories of proclaiming the gospel, making disciples, advancing justice for the socially marginalized, and caring for the poor simply did not exist. They were all integrated parts of the one and same mission. The idea that there could be a personal gospel apart from the social gospel is a modern invention of the 20th century.
In the missional church we recognize that the church is called to participate in the whole mission of God. We see that in Christ we become the advocates for personal and social reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). We see that love of neighbor is as important as love of God (Mark 12:29-31). We see that “neighbor” most certainly includes, and even starts with, the marginalized -- the least and the most vulnerable (Luke 10:25-37; James 1:27). To ignore part of the mission is to ignore a big part of what God is doing in his world.
Finally, the missional church is a sent church.
Historically we’ve used the term “apostolic” to describe both the content of the church’s faith and its sentness. (The word “apostle” means “sent one” or “messenger.”) The ideas are indistinguishable, for the apostolic faith is rooted in the Holy Trinity sending one of its own to pitch a tent in the world, to become one of us, to sacrifice his life for us, to be raised to new life for us -- and then to send us out as his partner in mission.
When we are participants in what God is doing in the world we embrace the commission to “go.” (Matthew 28:19) Some of us are sent cross-culturally. All of us, together and individually, are sent somewhere beyond the walls of where the church gathers for worship and fellowship. That is our identity -- sentness.
It is understandable why one of the four “Al’s” in the Covenant is Missional. Our forebearers called themselves “mission friends” and when the denomination organized itself, the Evangelical Covenant Church was originally called the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant Church. They saw themselves as sent out to live out the evangel (good news). They preached wherever anyone would listen -- downtown, rural chapels, Africa, Alaska, China... But they also started orphanages, schools, hospitals, and homes for old people. That’s what mission friends did because they sensed that was what God was doing in their midst. They acted missionally and the call to the church today is really no different. The context has changed significantly but the mission itself has not.
There are other characteristics often associated with the idea of being missional -- ideas that naturally flow from what I've described above. We could talk in terms of authentic community ("Connectional" in the four "Al's"). We could unpack the idea of identifying with the community in which we serve -- and blessings what we see as consistent with Kingdom of God values. We could talk about de-programming the church so that people are freed up to engage in the non-church community. These are all implied in the term "missional."
I wish that I had the imagination to fill my brief essay with stories of how this all works. I suppose, though, that if I did then it would no longer be brief. Perhaps you will be satisfied with these illustrations that were posted on YouTube a few years ago.
Tim Keller has a slightly different way of describing missional. But we're on the same page.
And then there is Michael Frost's classic talk -- well-worth the hour it takes to watch.