Missional Church (Sep-Dec 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mark Love
September – December, 2005

We’ve heard of “purpose driven” and “seeker sensitive” churches. These descriptions have found their way into our church-speak glossaries and are now thrown around casually in conversations about congregational life. Well, it’s time to add another term to your glossary: missional church. Your spell-check will tell you “missional” is not a word. It is not likely to show up in your Webster’s abridged dictionary. However, “missional church” is a phrase increasingly showing up on websites, in articles, and in conversations concerning congregational ministry. What do people mean when they use this language?

The phrase “missional church” simply suggests that the church finds its calling within the mission of God. On the face, this statement seems both overly obvious and conspicuously vague. “Of course the church is about the mission of God! Wait a minute. What do you mean by mission of God? Is that defined anywhere? What is God’s mission?”

It does seem obvious that the church should be interested in the mission of God. Often, however, the way congregations function reveals a different conception of what the church is all about. As George Hunsberger points out, churches primarily think of themselves as a place where certain things happen. This understanding of the church has come from a variety of influences. For instance, Luther believed the church exists wherever the Word is proclaimed and the sacraments are observed. This important understanding of the church’s ministry led many of us to think of church as the “place” where these things happen. Luther’s influence is but one that has led us to this persisting “place where” view of the church—a view betrayed by our language. We “go to church” because we think of church primarily as a place.

In the American church experience, the “place where certain things happens” notion has been wed to the twin cultural values of consumer capitalism and individualism to produce a church that functions primarily as “a vendor of religious goods and services.” Here the church attracts “members” by addressing the expressed needs of individuals. We often evaluate the experience of church (almost exclusively thought of in terms of going to corporate worship) by what “I got out of it,” or by how much “I enjoyed it.” The measure of a church’s effectiveness is the spiritual progress or enjoyment of the individual. A missional church, in contrast, sees the church as a community sent on a mission, or as a missional outpost for the reign of God. As will be made apparent below, this shift from a “vendor” orientation to a missional church orientation carries dramatic implications.

The conceptual move from “vendor of religions goods and services” to “outpost for the reign of God” is necessary, proponents of the missional church suggest, given the dramatic cultural changes we have experienced recently in North America. We minister in a post-Christian context—a time when the culture no longer knows our language, honors our stories, or privileges our symbols. In this new context, our churches must recognize the need for a missionary engagement within the North American culture. We must reorient our ministries to reflect the mission interests of God.

But what is meant by the mission of God? This question could be answered in a variety of ways given the rich and textured witness of Scripture. For instance, some choose to define the missional church in relation to notions of the kingdom of God prominent in the gospels. Others might define the mission of God in Pauline terms using the language of new creation or new humanity. Still others might capture the Johanine language of sending to express the mission of God. The biblical possibilities are numerous.

Despite, however, the diversity of biblical language and concepts, certain features appear consistently enough throughout Scripture to provide a broad, working definition of the mission of God. God works to create a distinct community to participate in his life for the sake of the world. Notice in this definition that God’s mission is not primarily to save individual souls. While individuals who embrace the mission of God receive the blessing of salvation, God’s work is most clearly seen in a contrast community that bears the marks of God’s redemption. From this perspective, mission is more than just evangelism or service. The mission work of God also includes the formation of a visible community demonstrating the reign of God.

Notice also from our definition that this community does not exist for its own sake. The church exists to participate in the life of God. The identifying marks of the church are faith, hope, and love, because these and other virtues allow the church to resemble the God who called it into existence. These characteristics also propel the church into the work of God. The community exists in relation to God’s concern for all of creation. The very qualities that create the church lead it into the world for service and proclamation. Just as Jesus gave himself for the sake of the world, so the church abandons its instincts of self-preservation to serve others. Here, the church does not exist as an end in itself, but measures its existence in relation to the mission of God. Mission is not something the church does, but characterizes the very essence of the church. As Darrell Guder states it, “Our challenge today is to move from church with mission to missional church” (Missional Church, p. 17).

The move to a missional church perspective will require dramatic shifts in congregational life. Take, for instance, the practice of evangelism. In vendor churches, evangelism appeals to seekers focusing on their individual needs. Salvation is portrayed as a personal experience where God is invited to become a part of “my life.” In contrast, evangelism rooted in notions of the mission of God invites persons to abandon lives focused on their own interests to join the work of God for the sake of the world. Instead of viewing salvation as inviting God into “my life,” missional evangelism invites participants into God’s life—a life that is communal by its very nature. Salvation, therefore, may be personal, but never private. Vendor church plants might seek locations where the church can grow the fastest. They value homogenous churches—churches where people look the same and share the same interests, concerns, etc—because these churches grow the fastest. Missional church plants might prioritize locations where God is most interested in having people present for the work of mercy, faith, and justice. Because the mission of God involves breaking down barriers created by human societies, missional churches value diversity. In its rich variety, the church demonstrates God’s mission to create a new humanity.

The dramatic implications of a shift to a missional understanding of evangelism could be played out in relation to several other aspects of congregational life as well. Worship, leadership, service, and community would all be transformed in a move from a vendor to a missional model. This is the burden of the missional church movement. Can the implications of these shifts be described with sufficient clarity and practicality to make a difference in the real doings of congregations?

Many are devoted to helping churches understand the nature of this shift. Most notable is the Gospel and Our Culture Network (www.gocn.org). The GOCN is a loosely connected, trans-denominational network of ministers, professors, and other church leaders held together by their common concern for a missional encounter between gospel and culture in North America. They publish a quarterly newsletter, host consultations, and publish books all devoted to encouraging missional churches. GOCN books like Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998) deal with issues related to gospel, church and culture. Currently, the GOCN is developing surveys that would allow congregations to assess their missional readiness. Future publishing projects include books on gospel, Scripture, and worship. Also notable is the series of books by Trinity Press International published under the heading Christian Mission and Modern Culture, a series that now includes over twenty titles. Brazos Press, a new division of Baker Book Company, is aggressively publishing books related to issues of encountering a post-Christian culture. The missional church dialogue is currently robust.

At this point, assessments of the missional church movements are premature. However, it is a term worth inserting into our church glossary for several reasons. First, the missional church is a theological response to our rapidly changing ministry context. Too many responses to this new day in ministry are purely pragmatic and, as a result, too accommodating to the culture to be missional in any significant sense. The urgent issues confronting our churches in this dramatically changed context are primarily spiritual and theological, not methodological. Second, while theologically driven, the missional church takes very seriously the need for a new cultural engagement. Status quo churches simply won’t fare well in this new ministry day. The missional call is a call for the transformation of our churches, a call worth heeding. Finally, the ministry agenda of the missional church is friendlier to the historical commitments of Churches of Christ. The missional church’s high ecclesiology stands in contrast with church growth and seeker sensitive models for ministry which tend to elevate the individual above the community. Church of Christ commitments to baptism and the Lord’s Supper find a friendlier reception where the community is emphasized above the needs of individuals.

Conversations about the missional church have found their way to ACU. Students increasingly find missional church readings required in their ministry classes. The Doctor of Ministry curriculum has been shaped in part by issues related to gospel and culture. Professors discuss the language and concepts of the missional church over coffee—some proponents, others skeptics. George Hunsberger, director of the GOCN, Pat Keifert and Alan Roxburgh have visited our campus and spoken to faculty, students, and ministers about the missional implications of the reign of God. Though our spell check still refuses to honor the word missional, it has become a part of our ministry glossary and deserves the attention of both the church and the academy.New Wineskins

 

Mark LoveMark Love is an Assistant Professor of Ministry and the Director of Ministry Events in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. Prior to joing ACU he spent 17 years in full-time congregational ministry (the last 11 in Portland, Oregon). He is dedicated to helping churches and leaders define their ministries missionally. E-mail him at [love@bible.acu.edu].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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