What Makes a Church Missional?
The terms missional and missional church are barely 10 years old, but already they bring up more than half a million hits on a Google search. Churches are inundated with missional books, missional websites, missional consultation groups, and missional speakers. Yet the meaning of the term remains unclear.
Some use missional to describe a church that rejects treating the gospel like a commodity for spiritual consumers; others frame it as a strategy for marketing the church and stimulating church growth. Some see the missional church as a refocusing on God's action in the world rather than obsessing over individuals' needs; others see it as an opportunity to "meet people where they are" and reinvent the church for postmodern culture.
Clearly, we need to examine the range of perspectives hiding under the term missional if we're to make use of insights learned in the missional-church discussion.
Back to Beginnings
A 1998 book titled Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America was the first work to introduce the concept of a missional church. The multi-authored book grew out of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, a group of professors and pastors that sought to bring the World Council of Churches' discussions of missio dei ("the mission of God") and Lesslie Newbigin's missionary insights to bear on North America. According to Missional Church, the American church had been tied to a "Christendom model" of Christianity, wherein the church focused on internal needs and maintaining its cultural privilege in society. The decline of Christendom provided the church an opportunity, they said, to rediscover its identity as a people sent by God into the world as gospel witnesses.
Such ideas often provoke resistance. After pastoring a church for several years, a friend of mine started recommending changes. Instead of leading the entire service herself, she involved various church members. She also suggested that the church advertise in the yellow pages and think of ways to reach those without a church home.
The response of the church's board of elders surprised her. "Leading the Sunday service is what we're paying you for," they said. The elders also objected to any attempts to make the church's life more visible to the community. "You need to pay attention to our needs." Although church attendance was dropping, the elders were locked into an internal mode, fixated on members' desires rather than on God's ministry in the world.
I wish my friend's experience were unusual, but it's not. In response to the perennial problem of self-absorption that plagues many congregations, the authors of Missional Church emphasized that everything the church ought to be and do is mission: "Missions" should not be one church program among many, but the church's core identity as witnesses sent by God into the world. Missional Church authors were not merely "redesign[ing] the church for success in our changing context," or seeking a pragmatic "method and problem solving" approach to ministry. Instead, they sought to diagnose the cultural captivity of today's church, including its obsession with marketing and technique. More importantly, they painted a theologically rooted vision of the church as a community called to participate in God's mission in and for the world.
Warning: Confusion Ahead
Since that time, the market machine has spun out many conflicting definitions of missional church. In general, these definitions share a sense that the church is not primarily about us, but about God's mission. But consensus breaks down over what God's mission is and what it means to participate in it.