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What is a missional church?

July 19th, 2009

It’s a new word, and some of us are still trying to figure out what it means for a church to be “missional”. How is it different from being evangelistic? Or just biblical? Tim Keller gives us a clue about the importance of answering this question as he comments on the nature of our post-Christian world.

One of the reasons much of the American evangelical church has not experienced the same precipitous decline as the Protestant churches of Europe and Canada is because in the US there is still a “heartland” with the remnants of the old “Christendom” society…In conservative regions, it is still possible to see people profess faith and the church grow without becoming “missional”. Most traditional evangelical churches can still only win people to Christ who are temperamentally tradtional and conservative. But …this is a “shrinking market”. And eventually evangelical churches ensconced in the declining, remaining enclaves of “Christendom” will have to learn how to become missional. If it does not do that it will decline or die. We don’t simply need evangelistic churches, but rather “missional” churches.”

Clearly the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, in its ministry in Northern Ireland particularly, operates in part of the heartland of the old Christendom. But if Keller’s analysis is correct, we will soon need to adopt a different approach if we are to survive. I haven’t yet figured out all that is involved in being missional rather than merely evangelistic, but clearly a commitment to one’s own area and community is crucial.

In a recent book, Vintage Church, Mark Driscoll picks up on the words of Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 29:4-7

Driscoll says that being missional involves loving the people and the place where God in his providence has placed us. For God’s people in Jeremiah’s day it meant living in the hostile and godless environment of Babylon. They longed to escape from Babylon and to leave. But God called on them to put down roots there and make a difference by showing the gospel to those who were their enemies. There was no question of them hiding in their own ghetto.

It meant, too, that they became stakeholders in that culture, building houses and planting gardens. Rather than distancing themselves from the culture or remaining only loosely connected, they are called to commit themselves to their culture and to seek its improvement. There is a sense in which it is a call to be committed to an area for the long-haul.

In particular, there is a call to honour God in family life and to maintain biblical standards with regards to marriage and the raising of children. Being missional has something to do with maintaining and promoting chastity and faithfulness in marriage and seeing those principles replicated in our families.

And it means working for the common good of everyone, not just fellow Christians. That clearly means acts of kindness, generosity and mercy, especially to those who are in need. It means looking for ways in which the entire community can be blessed and served, and not not just one group prospering at the expense of others.

So being a missional church is broader than just doing evangelism. It includes personal and community renewal, justice, and cultural transformation. It is more than sending a short-term mission team to some distant location. It means working to show the love and compassion of Christ in our local community as well as to the ends of the earth.

A missional church is a messy church. Just like the early church, it must struggle with marginalisation in its society as it is surrounded by all kinds of different spirituality, paganism, and immorality. In one sense, all the New Testament epistles are missional letters intended to help local churches get on or stay on mission with God. That’s why the churches in the New Testament are frequently messy and don’t always get things right in terms of doctrine or practice. Like them, we need to recognise that there is much work for us to do so that we can be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

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