Understanding the missional church

The term missional church has become a buzzword in Christian circles—meaning different things to different people. When some hear the term they roll their eyes and think, Yet another church-growth fad. For others, their heart beats a bit faster, envisioning a church that is more evangelistic or more holistic or more involved in the community or more outward-focused. 

Where did the concept originate? Is it just another pragmatic program or strategy? Is anything really different about this approach to understanding the church?

By the late 1980s, theologians and mission experts were increasingly aware that Western culture was becoming post-Christian. Church and Christian values were no longer dominant in society. Yet the Western Church, for the most part, continued to work under assumptions of dominance.

Missional church advocates propose that if the Church is to have an impact on lives and communities in Europe and North America, it must engage culture much the way foreign missionaries do when approaching people in cultures without Christian influence. This demands a rethinking of how we evangelize and relate to the broader community as prophetic witnesses.

This proposed rethinking was greatly influenced by the writings of the late Leslie Newbigin. Early in the 1990s, a group of theologians and pastors formed the Gospel and Our Culture Network as an attempt to further explore this challenge. The GOCN’s 1998 publication, Missional Church: A vision for the sending of the church in North America, marked the first widespread usage of the term missional church.

Missional vs traditional?

The missional conversation goes much deeper than strategy. In fact, most advocates of the missional church idea are opposed to programmatic or formulaic approaches. Rather, the core concern and motivation is a rediscovery of the biblical teaching of the Church as a missionary people.

More traditional understandings of the Church have tended to see its purpose consisting in a number of tasks such as edification, teaching, fellowship, evangelism, etc. The Church’s mission in the world is viewed as one of many commands.

In contrast, missional church ecclesiology roots the identity of the Church in the character of God and His mission: the missio Dei. In fact, the word mission stems from the Latin term for sending. Jesus made it clear: “As the Father sent Me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). God sent His Holy Spirit to indwell believers and to empower them to be His witnesses and the agents of His mission (Acts 1:8).

Missional church advocates often ask, “Does God’s Church have a mission, or does God’s mission have a Church?”

In missional church thinking, the Church does not merely send missionaries; rather, the Church itself is sent as God’s missionary. Mission is not something that happens only in faraway places, but wherever God’s people find themselves and live as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). In this sense, every Christian is a missionary, a sent one, an agent of God’s love, righteousness and reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20).

With this understanding, mission is not merely one of many important things that a church does in obedience to Scripture. Rather, mission defines the church’s existence—participating in God’s mission in the world.

Defining your terms

Since the appearance of GOCN’s Missional Church, a plethora of books and conferences have used the term missional. Not all of them reflect the above understandings.

Most participants in GOCN are from mainline churches, so they often advocate a broader understanding of mission, one that lacks a clear emphasis on proclamation evangelism and global missionary sending. Others, such as those in the “emerging church” (of which many evangelicals are critical) have also adopted the language of the missional church. These factors have made some evangelicals reluctant to embrace missional church concepts.

However, a diverse group of evangelicals—including Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsch and Tim Keller—recently authored the “Missional Manifesto,” which attempts to clarify an evangelical understanding and address misunderstandings.

Missional church ecclesiology does not entail a specific strategy for ministry. Still, the dual emphases on the church as God’s missionary people and on the need to engage Western culture have far-reaching implications. Many churches have become inward-focused and self-serving. Missional church teaching calls the church to direct its energies outward, equipping and mobilizing every believer to be “on mission.”

The missional impact of the church must also go beyond evangelism alone to intentional kingdom influence in the larger community, reflecting the justice and compassion of God.

Missional church teaching reminds us that the loss of such a vision and the failure to pursue it intentionally compromises the nature of the church and its divine calling in the world.

Craig Ott occupies the ReachGlobal chair of mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is coauthor of Encountering Theology of Mission and of Global Church Planting, and is one of the framers of the Missional Manifesto.

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