What Is “Missional?”

A pastor friend of mine who leads another church in the region is working on a Ph.D. in theology. As part of his research, he’s studying the missional church movement. He asked me this week if I’d be willing to answer the following four questions… I thought I’d share my answers here in case they’re helpful to others.

  1. How would you define “missional?”
  2. What are the most significant correctives that American evangelical churches should hear from the missional movement?  (i.e., What are we doing that we should cease doing?)
  3. What are the most significant positive contributions that American evangelical churches should hear from the missional movement?  (i.e., What are we NOT doing that we should begin doing?)
  4. Who should we be reading to help us gain from the missional movement?

My answers:

  1. “Missional” is an adjectival form of missionary… The idea is that God’s people are a missionary people, and so we are always on mission in the world – we seek to “live missionally.” Ed Stetzer wrote a whole series of blog posts on the etymology of the word if you’re looking for more depth.
  2. The big push from the missional movement is that American churches need to stop pretending we still live in Christendom. Most of American evangelicalism’s strategies and tactics were built for a world in which Christianity was the dominant cultural narrative (i.e. even if people were unconverted, they were familiar with the Bible and the basic Christian worldview). In the last 40 years the culture has radically shifted… Christendom is dead. The Western world hasn’t been in this situation since Constantine’s Edict of Milan (circa 313 AD). This calls for a wholesale rethinking of our ministries. In Christendom, perhaps we could expect people to ‘come to us.’ Now, we must ‘go to them.’
  3. American churches must begin to engage the culture. They must start seeing mission as an identity and not an activity. They must prepare people for mission in the world – for living distinctly as the people of God in every aspect of life, as a means of witness. To say it another way: we must train people to see all of life as mission, rather than just evangelism or bringing non-Christians to church as the whole aim of mission.
  4. Alan Hirsch, Neil Cole, Hugh Halter – those guys are all great thinkers. But for the most robust theology and missiology, I would start at the fountainhead – Leslie Newbigin. If you haven’t read his stuff before, drop everything and go buy The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Newbigin is a brilliant missiologist AND a top-shelf theologian. His book is one of the top 5 in shaping my whole life and ministry.

Then I challenged my friend this way:

You framed your questions in a way that pits the “missional movement” against “American evangelical churches.” And I see what you’re getting at sociologically. But I am not comfortable with “missional” being a movement or “slice” of evangelicalism. Properly understood, missional IS evangelicalism (or should be). It’s a question of foundational ecclesiology.

To be a Christian is to be part of God’s called-and-sent people (1 Peter 2:9). ALL Christians are SENT people (John 20:21). So a proper understanding of the gospel affirms that mission is not something we DO; it is a part of who we are. As the Father sent the Son (incarnation), so the Son sends the Spirit (Pentecost), and the Spirit sends the church (mission). We often say it this way at Coram Deo: “You don’t go to church; you are the church.” I think this is a foundational gospel/ecclesiological issue that people MUST understand. We’re not talking about tweaking a ministry philosophy or adapting some practices. We’re talking about how people understand their identity as the people of God.

For more on the meaning of missional, you can watch my session from the Omaha Church Planter’s Quarterly.

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