[Missional Monday 1] What is missional?

This is the first post in a series about how congregations can become more missional in how they understand and carry out ministry in their community. Missional is popular. A lot people are using the word, but I’m not always sure how clear they are on its meaning.

A simple way to get a little bit better of a handle on this word is to substitute “missionary” for “missional.” I’m sure there were good reasons for choosing missional over missionary, probably related to some of the cultural baggage associated with missionary, but the two words are both derived from the root word “mission” and essentially mean the same thing.

“Missional living” becomes “missionary living” and

“missional church” becomes “missionary church.”

At it’s heart being missional is about placing God’s mission at the center of the life of the individual and the center of the church’s existence, where it was surely meant to be all along. Let me unpack that a little.

call to be missional the_t_nv

The central belief of those of us who affirm a missional/-ary theology is that it is the nature of God to act in the world and that His action is in furtherance of His purposes. Ultimately, God is the initiative-taker, and nothing happens absent His first acting.

The church has been brought into being by the action of God with a distinct charter and purpose. In like manner to the way in which God sent His Son into the world to redeem a people through his perfect life, atoning death, and overcame sin in His resurrection, the church is sent into the world with a message. Jesus says as much, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (ESV).

That message is the gospel, the good news or glad tidings of Jesus’ victory over sin and death and this ushering in the kingdom of God. As Jesus ends His earthly ministry, He launches the church:

6Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Mt 28:16-20, ESV]

Encapsulated in a relatively few words are the entire mission of the church. We are out into the world to:

  1. make disciples (which includes evangelism and discipleship),
  2. to administer the sacraments,
  3. to catechize and instruct Christians in godliness,
  4. and to do so in the fellowship and with the power of the risen Son of God until time is no more.

As the church goes it must go with a certain type of posture. This is critical. As the church goes into the world, it must go as a missionary.

One of the central observation of missional theologians is that we have reached, as a culture, a tipping point–we have become a culture that no longer privileges Christianity. Clearly American culture is not monochromatic so the degree to which we are secular varies by region. Even in the south, I think, it is fair to say that Christianity is no longer privileged by the culture. It is no longer the assumed religion of everyone.

As the church is going, it is going into something new: a post-Christendom culture. This is a cross-cultural journey as so requires several things:

  1. Interpretive acuity: as Christians engage culture, we have to learn to interpret it. What are our culture’s deepest values? What are our gods? What is missing? Who is missing? How do we relate to one another?
  2. Wisdom: we have to be able to be aware of what we know and what we no longer know. For this journey, things written a thousand years ago in pre-Christian europe will be more helpful than something written by a 1980s church growth guru.
  3. Humility: we’re not the “it thing” anymore. In some ways, people are beginning to look at the church like they look at the Rotary Club–they’re not even sure they know what it is. Even if you invite them, it won’t be enough to overcome the growing barriers. I’m not talking about the false humility of progressive Christians. I do not believe that the Gospel has changed–we preach the same message yet vary the context and the means.
  4. Attentiveness: a cross-cultural encounter requires attention to observe and thereby learn more about the culture in which you find yourself. The missional church and the missional Christian will be making perpetual observations about their city, their culture, and factoring that into their engagement with it.
  5. Curiosity: one of the biggest reason I love to travel is because I’m curious about all manner of things. Missional Christians have to be curious about what makes our friends and our cities tick. We want to enter into their mind and see what they see not simply to convert them, but because there’s inherent value in coming to see the world through another’s eyes.
  6. Flexibility: we’re going to have to be flexible in our definition of success, in our way of doing and being church, and in a whole lot of other things. Christians who worship abroad often encounter practices that are uncomfortable and, for the most part, are able to live with the tension. God is asking us to become uncomfortable in certain ways in order to truly be missionaries for his gospel.

In my next post, I’ll explore the difference between “missional” and “attractional” as two distinct ways of understanding the ministry of the church and of the Christian. I’ll argue for something I call “hybrid church,” that is a blending of missional and attractional ways of doing church. 

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