In part one I explained that when I am asked to define the word “missional” I usually say that I have a short answer, and a long answer. The short answer is that the word missional is simply the adjective form of the noun missionary. The long answer involves considering three theological distinctions that I believe are at the core of understanding the idea of missional church.
The first shift in thinking that must take place relates to our understanding of the missionary nature of God and the church. When we think of the attributes of God, we most often think of characteristics such as holiness, sovereignty, wisdom, justice, love and so on. Rarely do we think of God’s missionary nature. But Scripture teaches that God is a missionary God—a sending God.
What’s more, the Bible is a missionary book. Scripture is generated by and is all about God’s mission activity. The word mission is derived from the Latin missio, meaning “sending.” And it is the central theme describing God’s activity throughout all of history to restore creation. While often overlooked, one remarkable illustration in Scripture of God’s missionary nature is found in the “sending language” that is prominent throughout the Bible.
From God’s sending of Abram in Genesis 12 to the sending of his angel in Revelation 22, there are literally hundreds of examples that portray God as a missionary, sending God. In the Old Testament God is presented as the sovereign Lord who sends in order to express and complete his redemptive mission. The Hebrew verb “to send,” shelach, is found nearly eight hundred times. While it is most often used in a variety of non-theological sayings and phrases, it is employed more than two hundred times with God as the subject of the verb. In other words, it is God who commissions and it is God who sends.
Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of sending in the Old Testament is found in Isaiah 6. In this passage we catch a glimpse of God’s sending nature: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” To this Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me!” (Is 6:8). Further, in the prophetic books it is interesting to note that the Old Testament ends with God promising through the words of the prophet Malachi to send a special messenger as the forerunner of the Messiah: “I will send my messenger” (Mal 3:1). Then the New Testament begins with the arrival of that messenger in the person of John the Baptist, described in the Gospels as a man sent by God (John 1:6).
In the New Testament, sending language is found not only in the Gospels but also throughout the book of Acts and each of the Epistles. The most comprehensive collection of sending language, however, is found in the Gospel of John, where the word send or sent is used nearly sixty times. The majority of uses refer to the title of God as “one who sends” and of Jesus as the “one who is sent.” All the way through John’s Gospel we see God the Father sending the Son. God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit. And God the Father, Son and Spirit sending the church. In the final climactic sending passage in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that he is not only sent by the Father, but now he is the sender, as he sends the disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn 20:21).
With this sentence Jesus is doing much more than drawing a vague parallel between his mission and ours. Deliberately and precisely he is making his mission the model for ours. Our understanding of the church’s mission must flow from our understanding of Jesus’ mission as reflected in the Gospels. Geoffrey Harris states it this way:
The Gospels reflect the fact that mission is the essence of the Church’s life and not just an aspect of it. The life of Jesus is invariably represented as being enacted in the world at large (and not in religious settings), among ordinary people of all sorts (and not just among believers) and, in particular, as reaching out to those beyond the normal scope and influence of the religious establishment Jesus’ early nickname, “friend of sinners,” is transformed in the Gospels from a term of abuse into a badge of honour and respect.
The sending language in Scripture not only emphasizes the missionary nature of God, but it also stresses the importance of understanding the church as a sent, missionary body. God is a missionary God who sends a missionary church. As Jesus was sent into the world, we too are sent into the world.
At the core of the missional conversation is the idea that a genuine missional posture is a sending rather than an attractional one. My friend Linda Burgquist likes to point out that Jesus did not assign the seventy to become a core group that would function as a new “come-to” structure; he instead sent them out by twos to engage the surrounding towns and villages. Likewise, we should be sending the people in the church out among the people of the world, rather than attempting to attract the people of the world in among the people of the church. This is a crucial distinction because most people in the church today do not think of their congregation in a sending, missionary manner.
The church is to see itself as a people called and sent by God to participate in his redemptive mission for the world. The nature of the church—rooted in the very nature of God—is missionary. Rather than seeing ourselves primarily as a sending body, we must see ourselves as a body that is sent. The church still gathers, but the difference is that we gather not for our own sake, but for the sake of others. Or better yet, for the sake of God’s mission. We come together regularly as a collective body to be equipped through teaching, prayer, worship, and study and then to be sent back out into the world as an agent of the King.