A good discussion began last week because of the fact that no Christian wants to say they are not “missional.” I already explained a little bit about how I got into the missional discussion in the first place. In a hope of clarifying what is meant by missional, here are 10 things that missional is not.
Cynics looks at the Missional conversation, and call it the latest trend. However, there are two features which differentiate it from being “seeker sensitive” or “purpose-driven” or “emergent.”
First, the Missional Church is simply the human expression of the Missio Dei. This is the idea that throughout the trajectory of history, God has been on a mission. This is most clearly articulated by Jesus when he says “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” God sent Noah to preach, Moses to form, Israel to model, the prophets to witness, Jesus to save (among other things), and the Apostle to establish. Now God sends his church. James and Peter were sent to Jerusalem, Paul to the Gentiles, and Thomas to India. Patrick was sent to the British Isles, Francis of Assisi to the Muslims, and the Wesley Brothers to England and the Americas. I do not have time to speak of John Wycliffe, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Alexander Campbell, William Seymour, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Brother Andrew, John Wimber, or Rick Warren. This is just what God has always done. As is often said, it is not that the church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church.
Second, the Missional Church is also a recognition that missionary principles must be applied in the West, as well other mission fields. As Jesus was God Incarnate in first century Judea, missional communities are the church incarnated in a certain time and place. The current missional conversation was kicked off when Lesslie Newbigin returned to England from India, to find his homeland was just as much of as “mission field” as the south east. Modern missionary principles were first articulated by Ramon Lull in the 13th century. However, they can be easily seen in Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill. Moreover, the Missional Church sees the incarnation as the ultimate act of “mission work” and Jesus as the ultimate missionary.
2. For Christian Hipsters
Hipster culture is the incarnation of post-modernism, where irony exists as an end unto itself. Hipsters tend to be found in coffee shops and reading philosophy. They listen to obscure indie music, like DIY projects, and get their news from John Stewart. Hipsters went mainstream and now skinny jeans can be found anywhere. Even seminaries.
There are Christian hipsters. Those who want to ironically mock the Christian music of the 90s they were force fed in youth group. Evangelicals who discovered they’re okay with alcohol and dancing. They moved to Portland (or Austin) because they read Donald Miller 10 years ago, and have been reading either Hauerwas or Piper ever since.
Missional thinkers seek to understand their culture. Hipsters usually understand culture because they enjoy mocking it. So the resonance is understandable. But if you relegate the missional conversation to 20-somethings in skinny jeans, you’ve missed the point that God is sending his whole church to the whole world. For the missional church to succeed, it must speak to the urban poor, for the aging boomers and for the bike-riding, mustache wearing gentrifiers.
3. Owned by Neo-Reformed or Neo-Anabaptists
Newbigin was an Anglican who retired in a Reformed church. His writings were repopularized by Darrell Guder, who teaches at a not-exactly-evangelical seminary. Over the last few years the term has been latched on to seemingly everyone, from neo-Reformed groups to charismatics to liturgicals.
However, there is a lot of star power and momentum behind neo-Reformed churches these days. When the neo-Reformed groups like Acts 29 began using the term, it was easy to think that “missional” was just one more their ideas. However, there are others. Often, they were the ones who felt a need to distance themselves things “emergent,” but were still committed to reaching their culture. Others find themselves entranced in Anabaptist theology, except for the Amish-style cultural exile.
This wide range of groups who call themselves missional simply reflects a growing acknowledgement of a need to think differently about the role of the church in the West. Whether it’s Acts 29 and GCM, or Ecclesia Network, Missio Alliance or forward thinking seminaries like Fuller and George Fox, I am happy to see so many embrace the term.
4. Going to Revive Your Dying Church
Wondering why your church is dying? Why aren’t the kids showing up any more? There are a lot of reasons. And yes, the fact that your church is not missional is one of the reasons it’s dying. But you can’t flip a church and suddenly make your church missional.
Think about the people you know who aren’t a part of your church. (If you don’t know any, that’s the first problem.) Does your church have anything to say to them? Is it equipped to serve them in their brokenness? If your answer is no, the question is why not? Many churches are content with maintenance. They are organizations that maintain the music they like, they politics they like, they programs they like. Many churches are only interested in improving what they already like doing.
Reaching a completely different segment of the population would like require dismantling what your church does now. If your church suddenly became missional, you’d probably kill it.
5. A Way to Rebrand Your Favorite Your Pet Ministry
It seems like the term missional is being pasted in front of everything from clothing lines to parenting techniques. This is a branding strategy. Nobody showing up for Sunday School? Let’s try calling it “missional Sunday School.”It’s not that Sunday school can’t be missional. But, as we said before, it only becomes missional if the Sunday School is (1) is in line with the Missio Dei and (2) is incarnationally representing God’s mission to a specific people in a specific culture. Now, that’s a Sunday School I’d get up early for.
6. A program you can institute
There was a time when the answer for everything in a church was to “create a program for it.” It’s easy to imagine such a church hiring a “Pastor of Missional-ness” to create a new missional ministry. The best possible result in such a situation is that a few people in the church would start living on mission. But that wouldn’t make the church missional. Becoming missional means changing the entire trajectory of your church to focus on living out the Missio Dei in your time an place.
7. A new way to say “Evangelism”
Leading people to a point of conversion, or evangelism, is necessary to the work of the missional church. But so is creating justice. So is living in as a unique counter community. So is worship. Evangelism takes place within the missional church, but it is not the mission of the church. Churches that use the word “missional” as an attempt to rebrand old techniques, especially old bait and switch evangelism techniques, are avoiding the hard work of exegeting culture and making disciples.
8. Lacking Discipleship
A good argument has been made that the Missional Church is bound to fail because it is not centered around discipleship. I’m the first to tell you that Jesus’s big idea was for people to actually try to do what Jesus said. While this statement gets attention, it is a false dichotomy. Discipleship is the #1 task of the missional church.
Perhaps this gets confusing because missional people also like to talk about ideas such as “exegeting culture” or justice or community. Jesus sent his disciples to make more disciples. More than one disciple in the room together is a missional community. The effect a missional community has on an a given time and place is justice. This results is new disciples who are sent to a new time and place. In other words, being a missional church looks like going to a specific place and making disciples.
9. Opposed to missions
One truly confounding misconception is that missional church is somehow opposed to traditional mission work. But if a missionary understands the world we live today, they can’t escape the reality of globalism. The world is interconnected in an unprecedented way. The decline of Christendom has mad it clear that the U.S. and Europe now need the same type of mission work that Africa and Asia do. And yes, that may occasionally mean sending less money to establish overseas works in order to support a new missional effort in the West. Or it might not. But the fact is, the church is growing a lot faster in the global south than it is in the traditional seat of christendom. Churches from the global south now send missionaries to Europe! The missional church realizes that 21st century missions go “from everywhere, to everywhere.”
10. The End All
Missional is the best way I know of to understand what God has always been doing, and where we fall into it. But, yes, the current terminology will probably be overused and fall to the wayside. Who knows if there will be any “missional churches” in 20 years or even 200.
But there will be a God on a Mission.
Whatever you want to call it, I hope you join Him.
I also hope you’ll join me to talk about this more at the Missio Alliance gathering in April.