For nine years I taught a course on evangelism at a small Christian college. There was an exercise I would do every year to illustrate to the students just how inwardly focused most churches are. I would divide the whiteboard into two large columns. I asked the class to list all of the programs and ministries that their church had for those inside the church. In other words, activities just for church members. They would quickly create a very long list of things like Sunday morning worship, Sunday school, small groups, prayer groups, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, children’s ministry, sports leagues, special fellowships—you get the picture. Occasionally a student might argue that some of the activities were open to those outside the church, but inevitably they agreed that each of the activities was tailored with church people in mind.
The next step was to list the ministries that their church had exclusively for those outside the church family Beyond that, I would ask them to consider any training that the church provided for members to equip them to engage those outside the church The contrast was striking In more than one case a student couldn’t name a single activity that his or her church had for those outside the church walls All of the church’s planning, finances and energy were spent exclusively on church members
The vast majority of churches in America are not missional But despite this reality, some people believe using the phrase “missional church” is redundant. “Of course the church is missional,” they quip. The truth is that it should be redundant, but it isn’t. The church in North America, generally speaking, is clearly not missional. Both individually and collectively, it simply does not consistently live out of its missional identity. Please don’t say that missional church language is redundant. It is not.
So how are we to best understand the language of missional church? Unfortunately the word missional today seems to be connected to just about everything in the church world. Missional leadership. Missional evangelism. Missional youth ministry. Missional parenting. Missional denominations. Even missional clothing! Moreover, people are using the word missional to describe “new” ways to think about church growth, outreach, social justice and discipleship.
But if we reject this overuse, what then does the word missional mean? Moving forward, how are we to best understand it? I usually respond by saying that I have a short answer and a long answer to this question.
The short answer is that missional is simply the adjective form of the noun missionary. Therefore when we use the language of “missional church,” the word missional is used to describe the church as a missionary entity. The church doesn’t just send missionaries; the church is the missionary
Now for the long answer. When considering a more theologically rooted definition of the word missional we need to examine three chief distinctions. These are the theological foundations of a missional approach, which I believe must serve as the starting point for the journey. Each point deliberately confronts long-held assumptions most Christians have about God, the church and mission. Without serious attention to each of these three points, the missional journey will inevitably end prematurely.
So what are those three foundations, or paradigm shifts that need to be considered? They include: (1) Recapturing the missionary nature of God and the church, (2) Engaging in the posture of incarnational presence, and (3) understanding the why and how of participating in the missio Dei.
If you and your church would like to process, not only these three keys paradigm shifts, but also learn practical steps to move a church into engaging God’s mission more fully, then consider joining the Forge tribe for a missional pre-conference at this year’s Exponential East event.