The Missional Church
What is a missional church? One would think the answer to this question is obvious. A church that practices missions, right? Or is it mission? It is not an easy task. Missiologists, ecclesiologists, theologians, pastors, and church leaders have been wrestling with this question for some time now.
Before we can answer the question “What is a missional church?” we must first tackle the thorny issue of just what it means to be “missional.” The word “missional” is used in such a variety of ways it is in danger of becoming meaningless. The term ends up being like an ecclesiological Rorschach test. More often than not, how people describe the “missional church” says more about themselves than what it says about a biblical portrait of the church.
Some have argued we should simply jettison the word “missional,” but I do not believe that is the best move. Instead, we should work hard to frame a definition. The term can serve as a guide for the church as it seeks to be a witness in its culture. As more churches and leaders engage in the missiological dialogue, defining the core terms of this conversation has become more important.
A few years ago, I collaborated with a group of missional thinkers including Tim Keller, Alan Hirsch, Linda Berquist, J.D. Greear, and others in order to provide some parameters for how we used the word “missional.” We drafted a document, “Missional Manifesto.” (You can read the full text of the “Manifesto” online here.) The preamble of the “Missional Manifesto” explains our focus:
Redeeming the integrity of the word missional is especially critical. It is not our intent (or within our ability) to define words for others, but we thought it helpful to describe and define how we are using the term—and to invite others to do the same. A biblically faithful, missional understanding of God and the church is essential to the advancement of our role in His mission . . . (emphasis mine)
This document did not end all conversations on the use of “missional,” but it did declare what a group of us believe is the best way to use it. Because so many people found the Manifesto helpful in their own ministry, it’s a constructive place to start the “missional” discussion. Before I describe the characteristics of a missional church, I will use the Manifesto to provide a framework for understanding what the term “missional” means and how this adjective modifies our ecclesiology.
The Missional Manifesto: A Framing Document
The term “missional” is effective in describing the relationship between the calling of God’s people and God’s mission. While it’s common for people to say, “The church has a mission,” a better way to talk about mission is “God’s mission has a church” (Ephesians 3:7–13). God’s mission is the starting place for understanding the church and its mission. God has placed mission in the DNA of the church.
“Missional” is useful as a theological term that orients the church to live faithfully as missionaries in their world in light of God’s mission. The “Missional Manifesto” uses nine theological commitments to provide a framework for the term “missional”:
Authority. The Bible reveals God’s nature, his works, and his will in the world. These truths are foundational for mission. Christopher Wright says, “The whole canon of Scripture is a missional phenomenon in the sense that it witnesses to the self-giving movement of this God toward his creation and us, human beings in God’s own image, but wayward and wanton” (Wright, 48). Christians must not sidestep God’s gracious disclosure of himself in the Scriptures. His thoughts on his mission shape and direct our understanding of the church and its mission. Just as God’s words and thoughts must be ours, his mission must be ours as well.
Gospel. The Apostle Paul gave the “gospel in a nutshell” when he wrote “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, HCSB). Paul’s statement that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is in “accordance with the Scriptures” reminds us that every book, passage, and verse of the Bible points to the world’s need for redemption and God’s gracious work to accomplish it for us. The gospel is the good news that God’s kingdom has come in the person and work of Jesus Christ. From Eden to the restoration of all things, the Scriptures are filled with the message of God’s great rescue of his people.
When we repent of our sins, confess Christ as Lord, and trust in him, the gracious work of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (the gospel) restores our relationship with God. Many have called this the “God-Man-Christ-Response” understanding of the gospel. A gospel-centered mission always includes calling individuals (evangelism) to place their faith and trust in Jesus. Personal response to God’s work of redemption in Christ is central to a biblically-informed view of being missional and the church’s calling in the world.
The gospel can also be captured with the story-arc of the Bible—“Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration.” The biblical story teaches God’s mission is to redeem individuals and gather them as one people who dwell forever with him in a restored creation. Emphasizing restoration highlights an important biblical theme: When God redeems people, he is bringing physical, emotional, psychological, relational, and societal healing to the brokenness of our world. Because of this, it is right for God’s people to embrace acts of mercy and justice as a part of their participation in God’s mission.
I acknowledge that there is an important difference between the gospel and the implications of the gospel. The gospel is the saving and gracious work of God to redeem people. At its core, the gospel is God’s work. Because of God’s work, the church proclaims what God has done and will do in Christ. The gospel comes in power, and has an effect on people and on the world. Individuals are resurrected from death to life through God’s redeeming work, which has inaugurated the Kingdom of God.
As God redeems his people, they are called to join his work by proclaiming what he has done, demonstrating his transforming power in their lives and faith community, and making the presence of God’s inaugurated kingdom known in the world. These are the implications of the gospel. Everything is not the gospel, but the gospel affects everything. The church cannot forget that it is in the power of the gospel that we live, and this gospel sets the direction for our lives. I have more to say about this below where I discuss “duality.”
Kingdom. The Kingdom of God serves as a central theme in the New Testament. The Kingdom is both our current experience and future hope of God’s redemptive reign. I discussed the gospel above and said the gospel is the good news that God’s kingdom has come. Since the mid-20th century, missiologists have recognized that the gospel, the Kingdom, missions, and the church are all related, and that the Kingdom is seen as central to God’s mission.
An emphasis on the Kingdom and its significance for the church’s mission has raised some concerns—historically and theologically. In previous decades, proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom has often become swallowed up “with our own utopias—with Marxism, capitalism, or socialism” (Hiebert, 34-42). The “social gospel,” “liberation theology,” and “solidarity with the poor” are examples of theological utopias of the 20th century.
To avoid these legitimate concerns, the Kingdom must be defined rightly. First, the Kingdom should be understood as the vibrant, active rule of God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Second, we recognize the reign and rule of God is manifested on the earth through the people of God (Ladd, 109). The goal of the Kingdom is to make things as they should be—a work in process until God brings all things to its completion. We partner with God in the advancement of his Kingdom through proclaiming and living Kingdom shaped lives in this present age, praying for it to be “on earth as it is in heaven.”