What is the Missional Church and Why Does it Matter?

Recently, a reporter from a Christian journal — writing on the topic of the missional church — asked me "What is your definition of the word missional?" This seems to me a very important question, especially if, as some scholars suggest, a proper recovery of this concept may hold the solution to the crisis within the North American church. It's so important that its answer may provide the foundation for the reformation of the church in America — namely who we are and the purpose for which we exist.

To be sure, the American church has been bombarded with numerous human schemes and strategies that purport to render the church more effective; each new paradigm is accompanied by technical-sounding terms intended to communicate the latest trends in so-called marketing science. So, too, the term missional has been occasionally co-opted by those driven to maintain pace with the latest trends, techniques, and strategies. As J. Todd Billings writes in Christianity Today, "In many cases, the phrase missional church simply puts new clothes on old trends, such as the seeker-sensitive church movement, the church-growth movement, and so on" (J. Todd Billings, "What Makes a Church Missional?," Christianity Today, Mar. 5, 2008).

Some see the missional church as meeting people where they are and thus want to reinvent the church for postmodern culture. This is often associated with some (though not all) expressions of the emergent church. (I am not criticizing the whole of what comes under the label emergent church. There are, I believe, some very positive aspects present in this movement that are seeking to be missional in the sense I am describing.)

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I am not stressing the term missional in either negative sense but rather seeking to understand how this term conveys a more important concept that is rooted in the very nature of God. I share in the growing consensus that the problems facing the American church—cultural irrelevance, the marginalization of biblical truths, and missional ineffectiveness—do not emanate from methodological deficiencies but from theological and spiritual weaknesses. I would add that the situation has become so serious it demands a radical rethinking of our most basic assumptions. In times past, such thinking proved necessary to the recovery of orthodox Christianity and it seems necessary for the church in America today.

So, then, what is meant by the term missional church? David Bosch offers a good starting point: "Mission [is] understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It is thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology. The classical doctrine of the missio Dei as God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit [is] expanded to include yet another 'movement': Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world" (David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991], 390).

By contrast, the American church has largely come to operate under the paradigm "if you build it they will come." This has resulted in a deviation from God's mission—this larger story of what God is doing in the world (the missio Dei)—to a view of the church's mission that is centered on the institutional growth and maintenance of the church itself. Under the former, the church serves as God's instrument, sent into the world to both work for and bear witness to what God is doing in the world (not what the church is doing in the world for God). The latter conception of a church-centered mission rather than a God-centered mission has led to the managerial and therapeutic revolutions within the church, in which pastors are now the professionals who are hired to meet the needs of its members and develop strategies and initiatives that will grow the church. Thus the church becomes the purveyor of religious goods and services and its members—the "sales team"—are expected to identify and bring in prospective customers. The more programs and amenities the church has, the more value it has to offer; success is measured more by numerical rather than spiritual growth.

This self-centered notion of the church and its mission is further reinforced by a modern reduction of the gospel. We continually preach and teach that we are to share the gospel with others by providing them an opportunity to invite Jesus into their lives. This serves as the "sales pitch," which is frequently nothing more than a come-to-Jesus-and-be-happy proposition.

However, the good news that Jesus taught was the gospel of the kingdom, in which mankind, because of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection, is invited to enter into his life, his kingdom. There is a cosmic dimension to the good news of God's kingdom come into the world. Dr. Mark Roberts rightly connects the gospel of the kingdom to the mission of God, which is "to undo the dire effects of sin, to bring reconciliation between us and God, and to extend that reconciliation to all creation" (Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts, "The Mission of God and the Missional Church,"

The gospel of the kingdom is much bigger than us individually or our personal salvation. While there is a profoundly personal aspect to one's salvation for which I am deeply grateful, this is but a part of the larger redemptive mission of Christ. In the quotable phrase of N. T. Wright, it's the mission of "putting the world back to rights." It is this mission into which the church is, by grace, invited and empowered to participate—to bear witness to the in-breaking reign of God that was inaugurated at the cross by living as God's called people, distinct from the world, representing an alternative to the fallen world, a new way of living.

In short, the missional church is a church that is surrendered to the redemptive mission, methods, and purposes of God in the world, rather than a people who gather for their own sakes. Next week, I will explore the practical ways in which I think this missional mind-set can be expressed personally and corporately in the world.

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