“Missional” is a common buzzword in ecclesiology today. You don’t have to read very much to realize that there is a lot packed into this word. But not all agree on what should be packed into it, or more precisely, how it should be played out in the church. “Missional” involves varying views of the Kingdom of God and varying views of how the church is related to the kingdom. It has to do with how God is at work in the world, what God is doing and how people should be involved in that work.
There is a tendency among some to judge the value of a word or idea by looking at who predominantly uses the word or idea. Some are hesitant to use the word because of who else uses it. In this case, “missional” is a word frequently used among the “emerging” type of churches and ministries. It is frequently connected with a lack of orthodoxy and a heavy emphasis on social justice. It is also frequently connected to what is known as “incarnational ministry,” the idea that believers are to “incarnate” the gospel just as Jesus did when He came to earth. This, too, makes some wary of the word.
The idea of missional
Yet I think that the idea is pretty simple and useful, even if we don’t like the word “missional,” and even if we do not agree with the doctrinal aberrancies and the social emphases of some who use it.
The idea of missional is based on the idea that God is a missionary God. This incorporates a number of elements that center on the fact that God is active in the world through both His incarnation and His people. Missional thinker Alan Hirsch says “By his very nature God is a ‘sent one’ who takes the initiative to redeem his creation.”1 Gibbs and Bolger say “God is a God who redeems, a God who seeks and saves…. [T]here is only one mission—God’s mission.”2
Mission embraces an even larger point. It is not simply that God sends, but that God is at work (on mission) accomplishing His purpose which is to bring glory to Himself through the redemption of sinners, the building of His kingdom, and the restoration of creation. In His mission, God has taken the initiative to come to man to reconcile Him, and now God calls man to join Him on His mission.
Fundamentally, our mission (if it is biblically informed and validated) means our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s word for the redemption of God’s creation.3
To be missional means to participate with God in God’s mission.
The biblical theology connection
Mission is closely connected to the biblical theology movement which emphasizes the storyline of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration (or sometimes consummation). Since God’s mission is redemption with a view to restoration, the disciple’s mission is to participate in God’s work of redemption in anticipation of the ultimate restoration. In this sense, mission emphasizes the Kingdom of God and is consequently inseparable from eschatology. Yet at the same time, missional thinking does not demand a particular eschatological view. Though most missional thinkers embrace some form of the “already/not yet,” virtually all agree that the church is living in and speaking to the “not yet.”
This agreement is evident in the common theme in missional writing of living in a post-Christian era—a time and culture in which the Christian worldview is no longer dominant. Many trace this theme to Leslie Newbigen, who returned to England after years of missionary work in India to find that British culture had drastically changed. The change meant that Christians must now be missionaries to their own cultures, just as “foreign missionaries” formerly went to a new country and learned a new language, new customs, a new culture, then preached the gospel into that culture in such a way that the message could be understood.
Christians are, therefore, to live in their culture as a missionary redeemed by God and sent by God to a particular historical and geographical context to be used by God in His work of redeeming and restoring His fallen creation to Himself. In this, everything that the Christian does is a part of mission. For the believer, to live is to live on-mission for God and the gospel. The church is to equip and encourage believers to live on-mission, doing life together in the mission of God for the sake of the “not yet” which surrounds them.
But what does “missional” mean?
One of the key issues in the missional conversation is the idea of mission itself. In fact, it is probably the key idea. And simply put, it means “going out.”
The problem is that missional means different things to different people. Missiologist Ed Stetzer likens it to a Rorshach test (the one where they show you a random inkblot image and ask what you see in it). As Stetzer says, what you see in “missional” depends on your theological commitments. It is, in some strange irony, the hermeneutical union of authorial intention with post-modernity. When someone says, “I’m missional,” I ask “What does that mean to you?” or “What do you mean by that?”
Almost all who use the word “missional” use it with reference to the missio Dei, the mission of God. (I say “almost all” because there are probably some who just see certain big names using it and jump on the bandwagon with no clue of the actual meaning—because it sounds cool.) Some see the missio Dei as predominantly social in nature—the reformation of societal structures of injustice, oppression, and poverty. For them, this is largely unconnected to the church and the “word of the gospel” (as opposed to the supposed living out of the gospel through working for societal change). For them, this is the working out of the Kingdom of God apart from the church. They emphasize the horizontal relationships and see salvation as more corporate than personal—the redemption of societal structures that reconcile people to each other rather than the redemption and reconciliation of lost sinners to God through Jesus (e.g., Brian McLaren).
Others see this as primarily (or at least equally) proclamational in nature, that the gospel must be proclaimed, not just lived. They would reject the saying, “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary.” They would say, “If you haven’t preached the gospel, then you haven’t preached the gospel.” Words—the message of salvation in Jesus alone—are inseparable from the mission. Most would quickly add that words alone are insufficient for the gospel and point out that the preaching the love of Jesus to the lost without living the love of Jesus around the lost is hypocritical and is not missional living (e.g., Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller). Such living ultimately hampers the proclamation.
The Kingdom of God
Some of the historic evangelism conferences of the 20th century addressed the issue of the relationship of the church and the Kingdom of God. T.V. Philip offers a brief summary of some of these conferences here. One example from this chapter: At Madras in 1938, there was a strong emphasis that “church and mission are inseparable.” Missionary E. Stanley Jones objected to this on the grounds that it removed an “absolute conception” from which to live and serve in the world. For him, the Kingdom of God was absolute (perhaps ultimate) and the church was relative. The usefulness of this in understanding the issue is that most missional thinkers see the Kingdom of God as having priority over the church. The church is the sign or the instrument of the Kingdom of God (cf. Stetzer). It is not an end unto itself. It is a tool for something bigger.
I say that to say that a large part of “missional” deals with the conception of the Kingdom of God. In this sense, missional thinking is very similar to (though, in my opinion, not identical to) incarnational ministry: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Missional thinkers typically look to Jesus as the model for ministry (an idea I believe is significantly flawed—which I will argue for later). We are at work in the world with God (on-mission with God) to bring about the Kingdom of God just like Jesus. The mission is to work with God to bring about the Kingdom in some limited or small way now, looking for the consummation when God finishes the job, so to speak.
Thus, we are to live in the world like Jesus did, “showing and sharing” the love of God like Jesus did in His ministry. This incarnational focus becomes one of the driving forces of missional for many people. This relationship between the Kingdom of God/life of Jesus and the church age is one of the major factors in missional thinking that has been given insufficient thought, in my estimation.
But let me go back to the beginning of this post. To be missional is to be sent. I think that is an entirely biblical concept—that the church has been sent into the world to preach the gospel so that the church is built of the people whom Jesus purchased with His blood. The reason that the church must go to all nations is because Jesus purchased people from all nations (cf. Matt 28:18-20; Rev 5:9).
The irony is that missional thinking is “new,” but in some ways really isn’t all that different from what many believe the church is supposed to be: a group of believers that comes together for worship, instruction and fellowship, and scatters for evangelism.
Missional thinkers typically reject seeker driven models of ministry. The contrast they draw is between attractional and missional. The church, they believe, should be missional—going out to them; not attractional—asking them to come to us.
Alan Hirsch says it this way:
Missional represents a significant shift in the way we think about the church. As the people of a missionary God, we ought to engage the world the same way he does—by going out rather than just reaching out.
1 Alan Hirsch, “Defining Missional,” Leadership Journal (Fall 2008), http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2007/winter/2.34.html?start=1, accessed 6 June 2010.
2 Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), p. 50.
3 Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), p. 23.