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Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission, Part Three: The Challenge of Being Missional

This is the third of an eight-part series on Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission. You can read part one here and part two here. Today, I want to focus on The Challenge of Being Missional.

What is the greatest challenge for the church or individual who wants to be missional? The first step is to determine what it means to be missional. What is the biblical meaning and theological foundation for this term? A group of us worked together to write up a Missional Manifesto, which you can find here.

The reality is that the term is used in different ways all across the theological spectrum. Sometimes people use it in ways that we as Evangelicals find problematic. Some people who claim the term do so to promote social justice over (or instead of) personal evangelism. Others who have adopted the term have too narrowly applied it to the call to be a missionary to their local community (intentionally or unintentionally taking the focus off cross-cultural missions). Then there are some who use it to describe a new style of ministry that downplays an emphasis on programs and events. There are many views.

How should we define the term missional? And, where are we going to find what it means to be missional?

The starting place should be with what the Scriptures say about God as sender and His purpose for sending as a place to begin. As Christians, we generally agree that we are “sent.” But, affirming this is only a small first step. Being missional means having one’s identity shaped by being “sent.”

We have too long lived with a wall between our public and private lives. Our Christianity too often and too easily gets identified with our private life, our behavior, and our church activities. So, privately and perhaps even corporately as a church, we know that we are sent. But, the truth has not captured how we live. We too often engage our community as consumers and/or as a necessary evil. We rarely engage our community as a missionary. One of the problems in the church is that when we talk about the necessity to engage our community as a missionary, members hear requirement to put something else (another church activity) on an already crowded schedule. In that, the challenge is revealed. It is not about adding something else. It is about being something–a missionary–as you go.

The other issue that we struggle with is God’s purpose. What is the role of the church in God’s sending of His people, and how does the church relate to the kingdom in this process?

As evangelicals, we need to be aware that “missional” is a problematic term for some older evangelicals because they know their history. For this reason, we should listen to their concerns, and learn from their experience and wisdom. And, they should hear us when we’ve said that we understand their concerns and agree. They should also hear us in the way we use and define “missional” and why we believe the term is useful. (But, now I am meddling.)

In the 1960s and 70s, leaders began talking about a church built around and for the missio Dei, “God’s mission.” As a result of this broader emphasis, some people began walking away from some of the fundamentals of what it means to be Christian. Some began to devalue the local church, and adopted a fuzzy definition of Kingdom and the redemptive purpose of God. They abandoned things like sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and the importance of church planting. In the name of the missio Dei, they lost the message of gospel proclamation. That was the wrong step to take.

We need a better perspective of the idea. When we talk about being missional, it is with the biblical understanding of what it means to say God is the Sender. Though he is not widely given credit for it, the late Francis DuBose is the first person to write using the term in the way we use it today.

DuBose was the head of the World Mission Center at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. His book God Who Sends: A Fresh Quest for Biblical Mission (1983) reintroduced the word and concept into the evangelical landscape (largely importing the concept from the mainline use of missio dei and making it palatable for evangelicals).

Chuck Van Engen, professor of Biblical Theology of Mission at Fuller Seminary and former missionary to Mexico has, in recent years, been important in giving context to the term “missional.” Yet, it was Missional Church, edited by Darrell Guder, that would introduce the concept to most readers. Later, leaders like Tim Keller, Reggie McNeal, and Alan Hirsch have had great influence in the missional movement.

Helping define term will help us understand why that matters and how it influences out task of gospel proclamation. More on that in the next installment.

Next, I will focus on the missional idea in Scripture. Feel free to discuss and weigh in on the challenge of being missional.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and he has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates. He serves at his local church, Highpoint Church, as a teaching pastor. Dr. Stetzer is currently living in England and teaching at Oxford University.