This is the first in what will be an eight-part series on Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission. I want to reflect on how our churches can participate in the mission of God, but before doing that, it is always key to be sure we understand what we mean when we talk about being missional.
The word “missional” has gone viral. Even Wikipedia has an article about it. The article is not half bad. One thing has become apparent, as “missional” has grown in popularity, and that is, people use this term differently. “Missional” is like a Rorschach Inkblot Test for many believers, where people are asked to describe what he or she sees in random inkblots.
We have found that the Rorshach Test tells a lot about what a person is thinking and feeling. The same is true for all of us engaged in the missional conversation. For most people, how we define and use “missional” is shaped by our concerns about what is wrong, or what is right, with the church today.
For some people, the adjective “missional” describes their deep hunger for God to do something new for lost people outside the safe confines of the local church’s walls. Others see it as a call to adopt a missionary posture in their own community and culture. There are others who use the term to describe a shift in church programming from a “come and see” professional presentation to a “go and tell” community based and relational approach. Then, there are those people using the term who are merely parroting it because it is trendy.
The buzz around this term leads some people to look upon it with suspicion, thinking it is simply a new Christian fad. Some of that is going on, for sure. Nevertheless, I would contend that “missional” is a useful term, and the missional “buzz” is not all bad. It is a helpful term that allows us to rethink who we are as agents of the Kingdom. As culture changes, we are often faced with the need to change our own vernacular and conversations. New words–like missional–create new questions and deeper dialogue.
We need a shift in the conversation. I am amazed at how many churches (all models, sizes, and locations) are having the same (and often tired) conversations about how many people showed up to attend their services, classes, and events. New churches talk about it. Older, more established churches talk about it. Traditional and contemporary churches talk about it. Sometimes it sounds like the most important thing is how many attended our services and programs. Lots of warm bodies make us feel better about ourselves and what we are doing. Thus, attendance is the primary scorecard for most churches. And, I would add that budget is the close second. We seem content with this as the scorecard. But the term missional is slowly shifting the conversation away from discussions on attendance and budgets to commission and relationships. So, new words are not bad things, because new conversations are needed to engage the new circumstances of culture.
As the new conversation begins, we need clarity with our terms. For some, the word “missional” holds out the hope of a new strategy to boost sagging attendance numbers. From my perspective, that is the “buzz” around the term and not its impulse for the church. My point in this chapter is that we need to remove the “buzz” in order to fully explore the meaning of “missional.” To do this, we need to understand biblically and theological what God’s mission is and how we are called to live it out in our churches and contexts.
Missional is a way of being that leads to a way of acting. The missional church is made up of Christians who are called through God’s gracious redemption to live for Him and His great mission throughout the world and who are sent out to be co-laborers with God to accomplish His mission in the world. This is the mission that God sent His Son on, and it is the mission that He sends His people on. So, missional Christ-followers and missional churches are joining Jesus on mission. They care about the things that Jesus directed us to care about: serving the hurting and loving others (the Great Commandment), and seeking to proclaim the gospel to the lost (the Great Commission).
If missional churches are joining Jesus on His mission, it includes much more than God’s heart for the lost people groups among the nations and your lost neighbor, but being missional should never be pursued in way that excludes, lessens the emphasis upon, or fails to see that what is ultimate is God’s heart for the lost. In the name of “missional,” we must not lose a focus on just how great the Great Commission really is. Part of being a missional church is to be passionate about what matters to God. So, missional churches should care deeply for the ta ethne’ (tribes and tongues) of their community and world. Not only does this mission matter to God. It is the mission that we were created for. God created the world with people who bear His image, and commissions them to fill the whole earth with worshippers of Him. Therefore, it is no surprise that the status quo of the bigger, busier church leaves many (rightfully) dissatisfied. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves–and rightfully so, for we were created for that. And, I believe a global evangelistic engagement in our communities and into the whole world is a significant part of the answer.
The missional idea begins with God as a missionary God, for He is “The Hound of Heaven” (which is the title of Francis Thompson’s now famous poem). From when God searched for Adam (Gen. 3:9) to when Jesus knocked on the Laodicean church door (Rev. 2:20), our triune God has never waited in anticipation for mankind’s attraction to Him. Rather, He seeks people. Eugene Peterson simplifies the concept explained in Romans:
There’s nobody living right, not even one, nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God. They’ve all taken the wrong turn; they’ve all wandered down blind alleys. No one’s living right; I can’t find a single one (Romans 10:10-12 MSG).
Too many churches and Christians ignore the biblical theology of a sent church and God as a missionary. The institutional church is not the dispenser of salvation. It is the message bearer of that salvation. We criticize Catholics who consider the church a vehicle of grace, yet we embrace an “invest and invite” mentality that requires people to show up on Sunday morning in order to receive the message of new life. The churches that are exclusively working in a solely attractional model may have a passion to see people experience transformation, but it seems to me that they are missing the inherent flaws in the attractional mindset.
One obvious flaw is that most people who are far from understanding the gospel typically do not attend church. Thus, using a church service to reach them is less effective than living on mission as a Christian for their temporal and eternal good. Statistics consistently confirm that Americans do not and likely will not attend church services. Researcher David T. Olsen believes 17.5% of the U.S. population attends a Christian church on a given Sunday [David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008, p. 28]. Other scholarly studies come up with a similar number.
The attractional-only church, whether on purpose or unintentionally, conditions everyday Christians to feel no responsibility to have Gospel-focused, spiritual conversations. The “invest and invite” church makes the institutional church (contemporary or traditional) and their trained platform leaders the dispensers of salvation. If people need to go to the pastor to meet God, someone is confused about “who’s who” in the gospel story and its proclamation.
In the next entry, I will consider where the Great Commission fits into this discussion. For today, feel free to weigh in and discuss as we begin the conversation.