What is a missional church?

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.

5 Replies to “What is a missional church?”

  1. An important point Stafford and one you make well.

    In many ways the key to understanding Keller’s concerns is to note his comment, “Most traditional evangelical churches can still only win people to Christ who are temperamentally traditional and conservative.” These are people who already accept the Christian world view and its values, for them there is no debate about this and one way of understanding evangelism in this context is, helping people to move from, ‘believing that’ Christianity is true, to, ‘trusting in’ the person of Jesus.

    Western culture however is changing, it no longer self-identifies as ‘Christian’; Christendom is gone, and the western church can’t keep on assuming that it is understood, even on it’s own doorstep. Neither is Christianity automatically respected nor is the church simply dismissed as irrelevant, often it is deemed intolerant. The context for evangelism has changed, the evangelical church is fast becoming a culture within a culture (hence the application of the term ‘mission’ to what we do at home) and one of our biggest challenges is to figure out how to be salt and light, to act justly and love mercy, to communicate the gospel without necessarily imposing upon people our particular cultural expression of Christianity. Perhaps it is even reasonable to suggest that too often our ‘traditions’ mask the gospel and that in the end to become more ‘missional’ is actually to be more biblical.

    Seem to me that ‘Passion for Christ, Compassion for People’ is as good a summary as any.

  2. Good thing to be debating – especially for those of us who aren’t in the heartland’ any more. It sometimes makes decision making in the church difficult given that the church, PCI that is, is still dominated by the old christendom model. it further makes a common understanding of ministry a frustrating pursuit. In all of this discussion we seem to miss the word ‘servant’ and the value of ‘service’. Is that part of being a missional church – serving the locality in the name of Christ? I’m thinking that would be a very adequate mission statement actually.

  3. I sometimes wonder if we exploit the “temple courts” (cf Acts 2:46) enough. The early church liked to “hang out” in the very public environs of their place of worship, and their very acts of open fellowship attracted the unbelievers. Assuming the average person who passes our church would be apprehensive to come in to a meeting, is there a way in which we can be more open and transparent? Are there things we could be doing to encourage them to “taste and see” that the Lord is good?

  4. Well here’s a real interesting thing I’ve been reading in Kenneth Bailey’s ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.’ pub. SPCK.

    I was going to try and summarise him but his words are better then mine. Commenting on the story of ‘the woman at the well’, he describes one of the ‘surprises’, as he calls them, in the encounter.

    “The Surprise of Intentional Self-Emptying

    Contained in this dramatic action (that of requesting a drink) is a profound theology of mission. Jesus so totally humbles himself that he needs her services. Jesus does not establish his initial relationship with her by explaining how she needs him and his message. That will come later. Rather his opening line means, ‘I am weak and need help! Can you help me?’

    A babe in a manger is an ultimate expression of the one who comes in need of those to whom he comes. The incarnation affirms this profound theology. Even so here with the woman; as an adult engaged in ministry, Jesus lives out this same theology. His request is genuine. He is thirsty and has no leather bucket.

    In our day, a style of mission appears to continue to flow from the developed nations to the developing world that affirms the strength of the giver and the weakness of the receiver. We in the West go with our technology, which is often the point of our greatest strength and often reflects the developing world’s greatest weakness. This tends to stimulate pride in the giver and humiliation in the receiver.

    Essentially the missionary must come as a bearer of the Gospel. When he does that, he will be both giver and a receiver… and all his other gifts will find their proper place.

    Jesus was ready to serve, and his self-emptying was so total that he needed to be served.”

    Really, I suppose, he’s saying that as we serve others we need also to learn to be vulnerable.

  5. The first accademic to use this term “missional” was Darrel Guder (the Dean of Princeton Seminary) – His book “The Missional Church – From sending to being sent” is the premier read on this subject.

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