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.

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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.

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. Often, those critiqued by the authors of Missional Church are now themselves claiming to be missional.

For example, church-growth specialists have long wanted churches to create mission statements, so some church-growth consultants now claim it is missional to try to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of ministry. Yet the original meaning of missional church referred to God's mission in the world, not to management advice for accomplishing our own projects. Indeed, the mission of God doesn't fit the formulas of measurable results and effectual outcomes. It focuses instead on the church living into the coming reality of God's new creation.

For others, the missional impulse has been translated into a consumer-oriented mentality—again, an approach that the authors of Missional Church explicitly reject. Some pastors I know are being pressured with missional language to focus their preaching on felt needs. Thus, preaching on "How to Be a Better Spouse" or "How to Be Financially Successful" is considered missional, while preaching straight through a book of the Bible, a common Reformational practice, is seen as an old habit of Christendom. When our needs set the agenda, how can we learn to embody the gospel that is not just our story, but first and foremost God's? The seeker-sensitive mentality reflects a profoundly different ecclesiology from that of Missional Church, which claims that God's people need to rediscover the centrality of God's action in shaping our witness to the world.

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Another use of the word missional makes it synonymous with the kingdom of God. This connection is not surprising, as Missional Church speaks about the mission of God as the kingdom of God—something larger than the church of which the church provides a foretaste. Yet this emphasis can become reductionistic.

For example, Brian McLaren, one of several Emergent church leaders who self-identify as missional, focuses so much on the kingdom "message of Jesus" in the synoptic Gospels that he sidelines other scriptural themes. Most significantly, he doesn't take into account that no one can see the kingdom apart from being "born of the Spirit" (John 3:1–8), and that the church's identity is centered in the person and proclamation of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:1–11; Col. 1:24–29). Hearing McLaren and others, the kingdom often sounds like nothing more than a set of ethical activities in which anyone—Christian, Muslim, or atheist—can participate. The centrality of Jesus Christ himself can be eclipsed by the ethical "message of Jesus." Whereas Missional Church sought to free Scripture from its cultural captivity, some kingdom theologies reduce the gospel to a fashionable cultural creed of ethics, inclusion, and social action.

Certain missional-church authors have also developed a dismissive view of church history. For example, Alan Hirsch claims that from A.D. 313 to 1996, the church was dominated by a sterile and unbiblical "Christendom mode." Not surprisingly, thinkers who take approaches like this see most of church history as bereft of valid, externally focused models. (Never mind the great monastic missionary movements of the Middle Ages, or the bold cross-cultural efforts by people like Matteo Ricci and Francis Xavier.)

Among the commonly cited deficiencies of Christendom are the Reformational marks of the church. Allegedly, concern for true preaching of the Word and right administration of the sacraments leads to an unhealthy focus on the church's internal life. With the ministry of Word and sacrament de-centered for a vague notion of "mission," strange forms of experimentation can result.

For example, in an attempt to be on the cutting edge of being missional, one church recently gave an indiscriminate invitation to baptism. Have you been baptized before, as an infant or an adult? Are you a seeker who has not yet confessed the faith? No matter. Come forward, and we will baptize you.

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By taking the Christendom critique of church history to extremes, some churches play into the consumeristic mentality that Missional Church decried. Biblical and ecumenical teaching that baptism is a sign of initiation, for instance, was abandoned in favor of contemporary hunger for new experiences.

Finally, a stream of authors treat the missional church as a kind of magic tonic for unity that will allow the American church to overcome doctrinal differences. In Leadership Journal, Tim Conder suggests that the "activism" of missional churches can overcome the theological debates and divisions of the past. Likewise, the editor of The Presbyterian Outlook suggests that being missional is a way to unite mainline Presbyterians and overcome the painful rifts between theological liberals and conservatives. Theology divides, but mission unites, or so goes the mantra.

Yet when some Presbyterians think mission involves advocating for peace among world religions by denying the uniqueness of Christ, while others think mission involves evangelism of all nations, how escapable is theology?

With so many variant views, the term missional church now needs something like an FDA label: Warning: Contradictory and conflicting views of the church inside.

Maturing in Mission

American evangelicals have a history of ambivalence toward the church. We have long been entrepreneurs for the gospel, starting parachurch ministries that fill in the gaps for local congregations. The blessing of this has been evangelicalism's vibrancy; the curse, uncertainty about what the church is and why Christians should bother with it.

As a young person, I received evangelism training from a well-known missions group. We were told to speak of Jesus, but to avoid talking about the church. The church has hurt people, after all, and its history is littered with stories of oppression and abuse.

Unfortunately, this approach to evangelism constricts biblical truth. In New Testament terms, it is impossible to belong to Jesus Christ without becoming members of his body. Salvation never happens between just an individual and Jesus. When we are united with Jesus, we are simultaneously incorporated into the church. We don't trust in the church itself for salvation. But neither do we overlook its place in the revealed, gospel message of God.

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So how can the missional church overcome its tendencies to domesticate an expansive, biblical vision? Missional Church suggests that Americans first need to look at how their various church traditions can inform a missional identity.

We need to ask questions like: What does it mean to be missional and Anglican/Episcopalian? The Anglican Communion can contribute a rich, liturgical heritage to the missional church, while a missional vision can maintain such rich liturgy as an instrument for God's kingdom.

What does it mean to be missional and Reformed? The Reformed emphasis on the power of God's Word and Spirit can give the missional church a more fully biblical theology, while a missional vision can remind Reformed believers that the Word is sent evangelistically into and for the world.

What does it mean to be missional and Lutheran? The Lutheran tradition's theology of the Cross can bring a much-needed Pauline emphasis to the missional church's theology of the kingdom, while a missional vision can remind Lutherans of the centrality of the kingdom reign of God.

What does it mean to be missional and Mennonite? The Mennonite tradition of "the way of Jesus" can sharpen the missional church's vision of itself, while a missional vision can keep Mennonites culturally engaged in God's mission to the world.

A vision for the missional church will push against parts of our historic traditions, just as these traditions will critique parts of the missional vision. If we want to hear God's Word in its fullness, we must recognize the need for both old and new traditions. The language of the missional church can be dangerous when it becomes just another excuse to dismiss the Spirit's work throughout the vast sweep of church history. Yet thinkers like D. H. Williams and James K. A. Smith, as well as the ancient-future movement (see "The Future Lies in the Past," CT, February 2008, p. 22), are helping evangelicals overcome such chronological snobbery. The Holy Spirit has united us not only to Jesus Christ but also to his body, which spans the globe and history.

Thus, we should not be surprised that God's new work in mission is also an old work. For we are not shaped primarily by the spirit of the 1950s, the 1990s, or 2008, but by the eternal Spirit, who has been shaping and sending witnesses to the gospel for thousands of years.

J. Todd Billings is assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Related Elsewhere:

In "Stopping Cultural Drift," Simon Chan outlined a theology of the church for stopping evangelical cultural accommodation.

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