What is the Missional Church?
I’ve closed the Friend of Missional website that got its start in 2006. So we don’t lose that material, I’m posting the main content here.
What is Missional – A Short Answer
“Jesus told us to go into all the world and be his ambassadors, but many churches today have inadvertently changed the “go and be” command to a “come and see” appeal. We have grown attached to buildings, programs, staff and a wide variety of goods and services designed to attract and entertain people.
“Missional is a helpful term used to describe what happens when you and I replace the “come to us” invitations with a “go to them” life. A life where “the way of Jesus” informs and radically transforms our existence to one wholly focused on sacrificially living for him and others and where we adopt a missionary stance in relation to our culture. It speaks of the very nature of the Jesus follower.”
What is the Missional Church?
One important note before you continue: On this website, the term “church” refers to the people of God; the called out ones; those formed for his dwelling and bearers of his presence in the world. It doesn’t refer to a building, denomination or physical location. So when you read “church,” think of yourself and your faith community, not that building you go to each Sunday.
In an article titled, “The ‘Missional Church’: A Model for Canadian Churches?” David Horrox writes, “The church should stop mimicking the surrounding culture and become an alternative community, with a different set of beliefs, values and behaviors. Ministers would no longer engage in marketing; churches would no longer place primary emphasis on programs to serve members. The traditional ways of evaluating ‘successful churches’ – bigger buildings, more people, bigger budgets, larger ministerial staff, new and more programs to serve members – would be rejected. New yardsticks would be the norm: To what extent is our church a ‘sent’ community in which each believer is reaching out to his community? To what extent is our church impacting the community with a Christian message that challenges the values of our secular society?”
Dan Kimball in “The Emerging Church” (Zondervan, 2003) describes the missional church “as a body of people sent on a mission who gather in community for worship, encouragement, and teaching from the Word that supplements what they are feeding themselves throughout the week.”
Both Horrox and Kimball capture much of the essence and heart of what it means to be missional, but can we probe deeper and articulate a more definitive understanding? I think we can and what follows is an imperfect attempt to explore and develop our appreciation of what it means to be missional.
Missional is a Shift in Thinking
But first a necessary word of caution for those who wish to explore and understand what it means to be the missional church or people. Alan Hirsch rightly states that “the word ‘missional’ over the years has tended to become very fluid and as it was quickly co-opted by those wishing to find new and trendy tags for what they themselves were doing, be they missional or not. It is often used as a substitute it for seeker-sensitive, cell-group church, or other church growth concepts, thus obscuring its original meaning.” As a result, missional is often looked upon as just another phase or program. But we error when we do so for missional is more than just another movement, it is a full expression of who the ekklesia of Christ is and what it is called to be and do. At its core, missional is a shift in thinking. This shift in thinking is expressed by Ed Stetzer and David Putman in their book, “Breaking the Missional Code” (Broadman & Holman, 2006) like this:
- From programs to processes
- From demographics to discernment
- From models to missions
- From attractional to incarnational
- From uniformity to diversity
- From professional to passionate
- From seating to sending
- From decisions to disciples
- From additional to exponential
- From monuments to movements
And let me add a couple more to Ed’s list:
- From services to service
- From ordained to the ordinary
- From organizations to organisms
Making this shift can be difficult for many (particularly Evangelical Americans), but to fully appreciate what the missional church is, we must look outside of our traditional understanding of how we do church and realign ourselves with the biblical narrative. So, as you consider the following “description,” don’t attempt to understand it within your traditional framework, shift your thinking.
Description of the Missional Church
- The missional church is a collection of missional believers acting in concert together in fulfillment of the missio dei.1
- The missional church is one where people are exploring and rediscovering what it means to be Jesus’ sent people as their identity and vocation.
- The missional church is faith communities willing and ready to be Christ’s people in their own situation and place.
- The missional church knows that they must be a cross-cultural missionary (contextual) people and adopt a missionary stance in relation to their community.
- The missional church will be engaged with the culture (in the world) without being absorbed by the culture (not of the world). They will become intentionally indigenous.
- The missional church understands that God is already present in the culture where it finds itself. Therefore, the missional church doesn’t view its purpose as bringing God into the culture or taking individuals out of the culture to a sacred space.
- The missional church is about more than just being contextual, it is also about the nature of the church and how it relates to God.
- The missional church is about being — being conformed to the image of God.
- The missional church will seek to plant all types of missional communities.
- The missional church is evangelistic and faithfully proclaims the gospel through word and deed. Words alone are not sufficient; how the gospel is embodied in our community and service is as important as what we say.
- The missional church understands the power of the gospel and does not lose confidence in it.
- The missional church recognizes that it does not hold a place of honor in its host community and that its missional imperative compels it to move out from itself into that host community as salt and light.2
- The missional church will align all their activities around the missio dei — the mission of God.
- The missional church seeks to put the good of their neighbor over their own.
- The missional church will give integrity, morality, good character and conduct, compassion, love and a resurrection life filled with hope preeminence to give credence to their reasoned verbal witness.
- The missional church practices hospitality by welcoming the stranger into the midst of the community.
- The missional church will always be in a dynamic tension or paradox between missional individuals and community. We cannot sustain being missional on our own, but if we are not being missional individually we cannot sustain being mission-shaped corporately.3
- The missional church will see themselves as representatives of Jesus and will do nothing to dishonor his name.
- The missional church will be totally reliant on God in all it does. It will move beyond superficial faith to a life of supernatural living.
- The missional church will be desperately dependent on prayer.
- The missional church gathered will be for the purpose of worship, encouragement, supplemental teaching, training, and to seek God’s presence and to be realigned with God’s missionary purpose.
- The missional church is orthodox in its view of the gospel and scripture, but culturally relevant in its methods and practice so that it can engage the world view of the hearers.
- The missional church will feed deeply on the scriptures throughout the week.
- The missional church will be a community where all members are involved in learning “the way of Jesus.” Spiritual development is an expectation.
- The missional church will help people discover and develop their spiritual gifts and will rely on gifted people for ministry instead of talented people.
- The missional church is a healing community where people carry each other’s burdens and help restore gently.
- The missional church will requires that its leaders be missiologists.
What the Missional Church is Not
- The missional church is not a dispenser of religious goods and services or a place where people come for their weekly spiritual fix.
- The missional church is not a place where mature Christians come to be fed and have their needs met.
- The missional church is not a place where “professionals” are hired to do all the work of the church.
- The missional church is not a place where the “professionals” teach the children and youth about God to the exclusion of parental responsibility.
- The missional church is not a church with a “good missions program.” The people are the missions program and includes going to “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
- The missional church is not about a new strategy for evangelism.
- The missional church is not missional just because it is contemporary, young, hip, postmodern-sensitive, seeker-sensitive or even traditional.
- The missional church is not about big programs and organizations to accomplish God’s missionary purpose. This does not imply no program or organization, but that they will not drive mission. They will be used in support of people on mission.
- The missional church is not involved in political party activism, either on the right or left. As Brian McLaren wrote, we need “purple peoplehood” — people who don’t want to be defined as red or blue, but have elements of both.
What the Missional Church Looks Like
JR Woodward has a perspective on success that really helps my understanding of missional. His post A Working Definition of Success provides a working definition of what missional might look like. Here it is:
- Not simply how many people come to our church services, but how many people our church serves.
- Not simply how many people attend our ministry, but how many people have we equipped for ministry.
- Not simply how many people minister inside the church, but how many minister outside the church.
- Not simply helping people become more whole themselves, but helping people bring more wholeness to their world. (i.e. justice, healing, relief)
- Not simply how many ministries we start, but how many ministries we help.
- Not simply how many unbelievers we bring into the community of faith, but how many ‘believers’ we help experience healthy community.
- Not simply working through our past hurts, but working alongside the Spirit toward wholeness.
- Not simply counting the resources that God gives us to steward, but counting how many good stewards are we developing for the sake of the world.
- Not simply how we are connecting with our culture but how we are engaging our culture.
- Not simply how much peace we bring to individuals, but how much peace we bring to our world.
- Not simply how effective we are with our mission, but how faithful we are to our God.
- Not simply how unified our local church is, but how unified is “the church” in our neighborhood, city and world?
- Not simply how much we immerse ourselves in the text, but how faithfully we live in the story of God.
- Not simply being concerned about how our country is doing, but being concern for the welfare of other countries.
- Not simply how many people we bring into the kingdom, but how much of the kingdom we bring to the earth.
Etymology of Missional
Definition: “Relating to or connected with a religious mission; missionary.”
Part of Speech: Adjective. An adjective modifies a noun or a pronoun by describing, identifying, or quantifying words. An adjective usually precedes the noun or the pronoun which it modifies.
Etymology: From the word missionalism which is a noun meaning, “missionary work or activity.”
First Usage: 1907 in W. G. HOLMES’ Age Justinian & Theodora II. Page 687. Quote: “Several prelates, whose missional activities brought over whole districts and even nationalities to their creed” (emphasis added). (Reference: Oxford English Dictionary) It should be noted that Andrew Jones has found it used as early as 1883.
Modern Usage: The first missiologist using the term “missional” in its modern understanding was Francis DuBose in his book, “God Who Sends” (Broadman Press, 1983). By the 1990’s the term began to appear more and more in such books as “Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America” (Edited by Darrell L. Guder) and the works of Lesslie Newbigin.