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What is the Missional Church?

January 12, 2009
S. Michael Craven
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Recently, a reporter from a Christian journalwriting on the topic of the missional churchasked 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. Its so important that its answer may provide the foundation for the reformation of the church in Americanamely 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.)

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 churchcultural irrelevance, the marginalization of biblical truths, and missional ineffectivenessdo 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 Gods missionthis larger story of what God is doing in the world (the missio Dei)to a view of the churchs mission that is centered on the institutional growth and maintenance of the church itself. Under the former, the church serves as Gods 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 membersthe sales teamare 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 Gods 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 ones 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, its the mission of putting the world back to rights. It is this mission into which the church is, by grace, invited and empowered to participateto bear witness to the in-breaking reign of God that was inaugurated at the cross by living as Gods 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.

2009 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Toby  

January 12, 2009 8:21 AM

As usual, You are on target, Michael. We have become too event/ministry/growth oriented. I see it in my church, and even in some of my thoughts. We have lost over 100 people in 4 years and we find ourselves figuring out why and developing plans to "grow" our church. I let the part of a prayer meeting last night with Ephesians 5:15-21 as a reference. We can pray (P), we can repent (R), we can petition God for things needed (Ask), but the last step is listening for God's direction and purpose for our church (Yield). Having ing programs, classes, events,etc, is inviting God to be a part of what we (man) are planning. My prayer was to look around our town, see where God is moving and become a part of what HE'S doing.

Thanks for your prospective.

Response from : David  

January 12, 2009 8:25 AM

What you are speaking of sounds like organizational democracy. There is an organization called WorldBlu that was started by a devout Christian woman named Traci Fenton. What they do is advize organizations on how to empower their people so that the people will choose to work towards a purpose that is much bigger than themselves and not just for their own sakes.

Response from : John H. Armstrong  

January 12, 2009 10:59 AM

Far too many toss the world "missional" around in the wrong way. Thanks for carefully defining it and making it clear that it is a fresh, theologically sound way to underscore the priority of the kingdom of God, which is at the heart of Jesus' mission and plan until he comes.

Missional flows out of the very nature of who God is as Trinity. He is a giving, sending, saving God who calls us to be such a community of the redeemed. Our churches think program, not identity. This is a major reason why even the word has been co-opted and abused. Your article gives real clarity.

Response from : Martin VanDyk  

January 12, 2009 11:29 AM

Thanks for your comments.

I am caught in a church community that stresses it is what mankind had to do, not what God has done.

Psychology seems to have made a significant intrusion into theology.

I can only pray that 'leaders' will not continue in 'spiritual' pictorial and musical edu-tainment.

A reformation awaits us.



Response from : Don  

January 12, 2009 9:33 PM

Once again, personal holiness - selflessness, service is what the church needs. Let God guide our hearts, and he'll see to the numbers. Has anyone been in a church lately that hasn't either just started, or in the midst of a building program? We have lost our way, and Michael you have hit it again: "pastors are now the professionals who are hired to meet the needs of its members".......

Response from : Richard  

January 13, 2009 8:55 PM

Our pastor has taught this content over the last five years, and I appreciate it greatly. But our attendance has dropped from 1,250 to around 425. We are not about the growth and maintenance of the church; it is all about theology. Without a balance more will continue to leave the back door than enter the front door.

Response from : Emil  

January 16, 2009 1:40 PM

You wrote: "The passion of this ministry is to help the Body of Christ recover the broader historic understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ, take seriously its responsibility to cultivate a consciously Christian understanding of all of life and reality--then live out and press that truth into every aspect of life and culture in an intelligent, loving way that brings glory and honor to Christ."

Our men's group is reading Is 58 this week. The chapter includes the urge to 'take the homeless into our homes." This is a hard teaching. But it seems that this is what you wish the church to do. I won't be doing this; does Matt 28 mean I am out?


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