Missional: More Than a Buzz Word
In an earlier post I shared three theological distinctions that I believe are necessary to bring clarity and explanation to the use of the word “missional.” Today I want to move the discussion toward practical issues in congregational life.
However, before considering steps that may be taken to help move a church in a missional direction it is necessary that we challenge our basic theological assumptions about who we are as faith communities in God’s Kingdom. Without such theological considerations we run the risk of simply attaching the word “missional” onto everything the church is already doing rather than gaining a fresh perspective to see more clearly what the missional church is all about.
Therefore, I want to begin by elaborating on the three theological distinctions discussed earlier and then add five practical reflections on how to best foster a missional posture within a new or existing faith community.
1. The Missional Church is about the missionary nature of God and His church.
The church is a vital part of the missional conversation. However, the church must not be seen as “a place where religious goods and services are provided,” but instead it should be understood as the “gathered and sent people of God.”
Scripture is replete with language that speaks to the missionary nature of a Triune God. God the Father sends the Son, and God the Father and the Son sends the Spirit, and God the Father and the Son and the Spirit sends the church. In the Gospel of John alone, Jesus describes Himself more than thirty times as “one sent.” In the final climatic sending passage in John’s Gospel, Jesus sees himself not only as one sent but also as one who is sending: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
The Missional Church recognizes the purpose of the church is derived from the very nature of God which in turn compels it to be sent as a missionary people, individually and collectively.
2. The Missional Church is about the church being incarnational rather than attractional.
Those with a missional perspective no longer see the church service as the primary connecting point for those outside the church. The missional church is more concerned about sending the people in the church out among the people of the world, rather than getting the people of the world in among the people of the church. Others have described this distinction as a challenge to “go and be” as opposed to “come and see.”
Missional churches see their primary function as one of actively moving into a community to embody and enflesh the word, deed and life of Jesus into every nook and cranny. Eugene Peterson’s “incarnational” rendering of John 1:14 in the Message paraphrase illustrates this well when it states, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”
3. The Missional Church is about actively participating in the missio Dei, or mission of God.
Many times we wrongly assume that the primary activity of God is in the church, rather than recognizing that God’s primary activity is in the world, and the church is God’s instrument sent into the world to participate in His redemptive mission.
This distinction clarifies the difference between a church with a missions program and a missional church. A church with a missions program usually sees missions as one activity alongside many other equally important programs of the church. A missional church, on the other hand, focuses all of its activities around its participation in God’s agenda for the world.
As the sent, missionary people of God, the missional church understands its fundamental purpose as being rooted in God’s mission to restore and heal creation and to call people into a reconciled relationship with Himself. It is God’s mission, or missio Dei, that calls the church into existence. Or in the words of South African missiologist David Bosch; “It is not the church which undertakes mission; it is the missio Dei which constitutes the church.”
Fostering a Missional Posture
So what will it take for the church to foster a missional posture? We must first begin with deep reflections and dialogue surrounding the three theological distinctions mentioned above. Beyond these three points there are at least five practical, yet no less important considerations.
1. Start with Spiritual Formation
As mentioned above, God calls the church to be a sent community of people who no longer live for themselves but instead live to participate with Him in His redemptive purposes. However, people will have neither the passion nor the strength to live as a counter cultural society for the sake of others if they are not transformed by the way of Jesus. If the church is to “go and be” then we must make certain that we are a Spirit formed community that has the spiritual capacity to impact the lives of others.
This means the church must take seriously its responsibility to cultivate spiritual transformation that does not allow believers to remain as adolescents in their spiritual maturity. Such spiritual formation will involve much greater relational underpinnings and considerable engagement with a multitude of spiritual disciplines.
2. Emphasize the Priesthood of All Believers
Martin Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers was that all Christians were called to carry out their vocational ministries in every area of life. Every believer must fully understand how their vocation plays a central part in God’s redemptive Kingdom.
I think it was Rick Warren who made popular the phase “every member is a minister.” While this phrase is a helpful slogan to move people to understand their responsibility in the life of the church, God’s purpose for His church would be better served if we encouraged people to recognize that “every member is a missionary.”
3. Create a New Scorecard
The church must move far beyond measuring success by the traditional indicators of attendance, buildings and cash. Instead we must create new scorecards to measure ministry effectiveness. These new scorecards will include measurements that point to the church’s impact on community transformation rather than measuring what is happening among church members inside the church walls.
A missional church may ask how many hours has the church spent praying for community issues? How many hours have church members (including staff) spent with unbelievers? How many community groups use the facilities of the church? How many people are healthier because of the clinic the church operates? How many people are in new jobs because of free job training offered by the church? What is the number of school children who are getting better grades because of after-school tutoring the church provides. Or how many times do community leaders call the church asking for advice?
Until the church reconsiders the definition of ministry success and creates new scorecards to appropriately measure that success, we will continue to allocate vital resources in misguided directions.
4. Search for Third Places
In a post-Christendom culture where more and more people are less and less interested in activities of the church, it is increasingly important to connect with people in places of neutrality, or common “hang outs.” In the book “The Great Good Place” author Ray Oldenburg identifies these places of common ground as “third places.”
According to Oldenburg, third places are those environments in which people meet to interact with others and develop friendships. In Oldenburg’s thinking our first place is the home and the people with whom we live. The second place is where we work and the place we spend the majority of our waking hours. But the third place is an informal setting where people relax and have the opportunity to know and be known by others.
Third places might include the local coffee shop, hair salon, restaurant, mall, or fitness center. These places of common ground must take a position of greater importance in the overall ministry of the church as individuals begin to recognize themselves as missionaries sent into the local context to serve.
In addition to connecting with people in the third places present in our local communities, we need to rediscover the topic of hospitality whereby our own homes become a place of common ground. Biblical hospitality is much more than entertaining others in our homes. Genuine hospitality involves inviting people into our lives, learning to listen, and cultivating an environment of mercy and justice, whether our interactions occur in third places or within our own homes. Regardless of our setting, we must learn to welcome the stranger.
5. Tap into the Power of Stories
Instead of trying to define what it means to be missional, it may be helpful to describe missional living through stories and images. We can capture the “missional imagination” by sharing what other faith communities are doing and illustrate what it looks like to connect with people in third places, cultivate rapport with local schools, and build relationships with neighbors.
Moreover, we can reflect deeply on biblical images of mission, service and hospitality by spending time on passages such as Genesis 12:2, Isaiah 61:1-3, Matthew 5:43; 10:40; 22:39; 25:35 and Luke 10:25-37.
The greatest challenge facing the church in the West is the “re-conversion” of its own members. We need to be converted away from an internally focused, Constantinean mode of church and converted towards an externally focused, missional-incarnational movement that is a true reflection of the missionary God we follow. This conversion will not be easy. The gravitational pull to focus all of our resources on ourselves is strong. My prayer, however, is that a clearer understanding of the word “missional” will help to form us and ultimately move us in the proper direction.
To read what others are saying about the word missional, check out the following links:
Alan Hirsch, Alan Knox, Andrew Jones, Barb Peters, Bill Kinnon, Brad Grinnen, Brad Sargent, Brother Maynard, Bryan Riley, Chad Brooks, Chris Wignall, Cobus Van Wyngaard, Dave DeVries, David Best, David Fitch, David Wierzbicki, DoSi, Doug Jones, Duncan McFadzean, Erika Haub, Grace, Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Jeff McQuilkin, John Smulo, Jonathan Brink, JR Rozko, Kathy Escobar, Len Hjalmarson, Makeesha Fisher, Malcolm Lanham, Mark Berry, Mark Petersen, Mark Priddy, Michael Crane, Michael Stewart, Nick Loyd, Patrick Oden, Peggy Brown, Phil Wyman, Richard Pool, Rick Meigs, Rob Robinson, Ron Cole, Scott Marshall, Sonja Andrews, Stephen Shields, Steve Hayes, Tim Thompson, Thom Turner