What does it mean when a church declares itself a “Missional Church”? This is a fairly recent movement found mostly within Reformed and Baptist circles, though it is embraced by many non-denominational churches. It is a movement that seeks to redefine or re-envision the Church and its mission. Today, I’d like to take address the topic of the “Missional Church Movement”. This is the result of my personal research on the topic, because I just needed to know what this whole thing was about. I have done my best to cite sources friendly to the movement and provide links to those sources for your own reading. Your feedback is most appreciated on this one, it’s a little bit outside of my wheelhouse.
Recent History of Missional Church Movement
Let’s begin with an excerpt from an article from GotQuestions.org that is supportive of the Missional Church Movement.
“Missional” or “missional living” is a Christian term that in essence describes a missionary lifestyle. Being missional includes embracing the posture, the thinking, behaviors, and practices of a missionary in order to reach others with the message of the gospel. The term “missional” gained its popularity towards the end of the 20th century with the influence of Tim Keller, Alan Hirsch, and others, as well as the Gospel and Our Culture Network. Their basic premise is that all Christians should be involved in the Great Commission of Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20).
Essentially, the idea of being missional teaches that the church has a mission because Jesus had a mission. There is one mission which says that the “missional church is a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world. In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is mission. When the church is in mission, it is the true church.” Yet there has been some confusion regarding the term “missional.”
Alan Hirsch, one its proponents, says that “missional” is not synonymous with “emerging.” The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. “Missional” is also not the same as “evangelistic” or “seeker-sensitive.” These terms generally apply to what he calls the “attractional” model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God’s agent in the world, but should not be confused with the whole.
Hirsch also says that a proper understanding of missional living begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By His very nature God is a “sending God” who takes the initiative to redeem His creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because the church is comprised of the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. However, most people believe that missions is an instrument of the church, a means by which the church is grown. Although Christians frequently say, “The church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”
Though many churches have mission statements or talk about the importance of having a mission, where missional churches differ is in their attitude toward the world. A missional church sees the mission as both its originating impulse and its organizing principle. It is patterned after what God has done in Jesus Christ, that is, to be missional means to be sent into the world; not to expect people to come to us. This idea differentiates a missional church from an “attractional” church.
The attractional church seeks to reach out to the culture and draw people into the church. But this practice only works where no significant cultural shift is required when moving from outside to inside the church. And as Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, the attractional church has lost its effectiveness. The West looks more like a cross-cultural missionary context in which attractional churches are self-defeating. The process of extracting people from the culture and assimilating them into the church diminishes their ability to speak to those outside. As a result, people cease to be missional and instead leave that work to the clergy.
Missional represents a significant shift in the way one thinks about the church. Being missional means we should engage the world the same way Jesus did—by going out rather than just reaching out. Missional means that when a church is in mission, it is then the true church. [Continue Reading…]
A couple of thoughts that jump out at me when reading through this article. First, it seems to be a very current write-up focused on distinguishing “Missional” from “emergent” and “seeker-sensitive”. It also highlights the “attractional” model of implementing church activities and campaigns designed to make the church attractive to potential church-goers. I think is important for any modern-day church movement to recognize the blatant errors of the seeker-mergent movements and to properly distinguish themselves from those movements. However, defining a movement by how it isn’t one of the bad movements, falls short for me. The biggest problem with this article is that it seems to define a man-made term “Missional” like a slogan or a vision statement for an organization. That’s fine for a parachurch organization or even a church small group or group activity, but if we are talking about defining the Church, the argument needs to be exegeted from Scripture.
Older History of the Missional Church Movement
The document formed by Tim Keller, Alan Hirsch, et al, was not created out of nothing. They gave the movement a name, but much of the theological and ecclesial groundwork for their Missional Church is grounded in the 1950s inspired largely by the work of Leslie Newbigin. To get a better handle on the history of what would become the Missional Church Movement, I recommend reading Historical Perspectives on the Missional Church Movement: Probing Lesslie Newbigin’s Formative Influence by Michael W. Goheen (pdf). It is a lengthy document, but well worth reading if you are in a Reformed Church who defines itself as Missional. It does a good job of describing the differing paradigms of “emergent” (Johannes Hoekendijk) vice “missional” (Leslie Newbigin).
There are two important years in the development of a missional ecclesiology that provide a structure for our reflection – 1952 and 1998. 1952 was the year of the Willingen meeting of the International Missionary Council (IMC). It was then that the theological framework (although not the term) of the missio Dei was clearly articulated. An important part of this formulation was the recognition that mission was central to the church’s being. The church’s identity was to be found in the role it played in God’s mission. The next stage, theologically speaking, should have been to articulate what this missional identity looks like in the ecclesial structures of the local congregation, ecumenical church, and cross-cultural missions. Unfortunately, this next stage was blown off course by the powerful secular winds of the 1960s that can be associated, within the church itself, with the name Johannes Hoekendijk.
[Leslie Newbigin] authored the Willingen statement; he was a significant voice in opposition to the Hoekendijkian vision of the church and mission; he was the inspiration behind the 1998 publication of Missional Church; and he remains the recognized father and, for many, the tacit authority in much missional and emergent church literature. A fruitful question might be to ask how faithful the missional church conversation has been to Newbigin’s original vision.
The final statement adopted by the Willingen assembly was primarily the work of Newbigin. It was entitled “The Missionary Calling of the Church.” It begins: “The missionary movement of which we are a part has its source in the Triune God Himself.” The most important legacy of Willingen is the concept of God’s mission found in this statement. This provided a framework for gathering and relating many theological and missiological insights that had developed over the first half of the 20th century into a consistent missional ecclesiology. Mission has its source in the love of the Father who sent His Son to reconcile all things to himself. The Son has sent the Spirit to gather his church together and empower it for mission. This church is sent by Jesus to continue his mission and this defines its very nature: “There is no participation in Christ without participation in his mission to the world. That by which the Church receives its existence is that by which it is also given its world-mission. ‘As the Father has sent Me, so send I you.’”
Hoekendijk and others believed that the reigning ecumenical view of mission was too Christocentric and needed to be Trinitarian, and was too church-centric and needed to find its center in the world instead. The contrast can be made in this way: the traditional paradigm of mission that developed from Tambaram to Willingen found its primary focus in the ecclesial community that had its origin in the work of Jesus Christ and continued his mission in the world; the new paradigm featured a shift in missional focus from God’s work through Christ in the church to His providential and salvific work by His Spirit in the world. The traditional paradigm is Christocentric and ecclesiocentric; the new paradigm is pneumocentric and cosmocentric.
[Read the full document here]
Okay, so I’ve tried to include snippets of the document that summarize the split between emergent and missional thinking. The article presents the Missional Church Movement as one that started in 1952 but was hijacked by what we know see as emergent theology of the secular waves of the 60s. The article then catches up with the book written by Tim Keller, Alan Hirsch, et al in 1998, citing that moment as an attempt to reach back to the Newbigin’s foundational work. Despite the author’s detailed efforts to distinguish between the good of Newbigin’s theology from the hijacking of his work, in the end we have “Missional” appearing in churches that are indeed seeker-mergent.
Concerns with the Movement
The glaring issue I have with this movement is its attempt to define the mission of the Church by trimming back what it is now or what it has become and reshaping it by examining our modern context. While it seems Newbigin’s writing was grounded in Scripture, there seems to be little work currently being done to ground it in the New Testament prescriptives of what the Body of Christ, the Church, is to be about. If the movement were truly confined to Reformed churches, one might consider the theological underpinnings to be covered in by their Confessions. However, the emergent church is clearly outside of Reformed theology, thus in order to rightly define the Missional Church Movement it needs to be rightly exegeted from scripture outright.
Michael Horton wrote a thoughtful and engaging critique of the Missional Movement in an article for Modern Reformation Magazine. In his article, his primary concern is with the practical implications of a Church that defines itself by what it does in the world, and how such a redefinition might lean heavily toward monasticism.
Some of us remember the Tears for Fears song, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Yet the mantra today is more about changing the world than ruling it. Lots of younger Christians are tired of spiritual consumerism and evangelism pitches about inviting Jesus into your heart so you can go to heaven when you die. There has to be more to Christianity than “soul-saving.” Isn’t there something in there about “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”? About a new creation? Don’t we sing “Joy to the World,” anticipating the blessings of Christ’s kingdom extending “far as the curse is found”?
Nevertheless, a legitimate question can be raised as to whether this newfound interest in creation redeemed is still guided by a paradigm that owes more to monasticism than to the world-affirming piety of the Reformation. [Continue Reading]
Personally, I’m tired of “evangelical movements”. Growing up under NAR thinking, I’ve had my fill of being tossed about by every wind of doctrine… jabez prayer, spiritual warfare, purpose drivenness, triumphalism, dominionism, radical christianity, promise keepers, etc. I’m not the least bit interested in creating a new word for Church, or some marketing campaign for why people should join my church as opposed to their church… none of that. I don’t care what you call your church. What I do care about is what is preached from the pulpit, what is studied in your home groups, and what whether your congregation behaves as one body of believers. For me, the word “Missional” has become as unreliable as “Evangelical”.
Ephesians 4:1-7 (ESV) | Unity in the Body of Christ
1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith,one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
In Christ Jesus,