So what is the big deal about "missional"? Why is this term even needed?
The term missional was not coined by marketers trying to sell religious books. While there were forerunners to the missional concept such as Leslie Newbigin and David Bosch, the seminal work that introduced the term was Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. In this work, written by the Gospel and Our Culture Network, the authors were seeking to describe the fundamental sent nature of the church, particularly in light of what the church in North America had become-a vendor of religious goods and services.
The term missional is from the Latin word, missio, which means "sent." From this term we derive the words "missionary" and "missions." While these terms are not translated as such in English Bibles, they could be, for they are roughly equivalent to the generic use of the term apostolos, or apostle, which also means one who is sent. See Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Silas (1 Thes. 2:6), and Andronicus and Junias, who were “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:6). All of the gospels and the book of Acts have versions of the Great Commission, in which the disciples, which represent the church, are sent into the world (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:8; Lk. 24:45-48). John’s gospel particularly brings out the concept of sending.
- 21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn. 20:21)
- 7 But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt a in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment (Jn. 16:7-8).
The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and the Son sends us. Thus, mission is rooted in the very nature of God. God is a sending God, and we are a sent people. The authors of Missional Church state this: “’Mission’ is not something the church does, apart of its total program. No, the church’s essense is missional, for the calling and sending action of God forms its identity.” –Missional Church
What are we sent to do? Well, Jesus, of course is our model for mission. And from Jesus’ own words, he came to do at least these three things: 1) seek and save the lost; 2) serve and give his life for others; and 3) proclaim the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God. The church is missional when its life and mission is modeled after the life and mission of Jesus Christ and does these things. There is much more, of course, to being a missional church, but this is a starting point.
So why is this such a necessary concept? Well, for centuries the church failed to see itself as being in a mission context. Under Christendom--where there was a blending of church and state and everyone was viewed to be Christian--churches were not set up aroudn mission. Their structure, budget, etc. was set up to be religious vendors, serving existing Christians. In the 18th century and on, there was a revival of "missions," but this was relegated to reaching the lost overseas.
In 20th century, the number of Christians and church goers began to shrink. With this environment, churches began to market themselves to Christians, seeking to attract more “consumers” (who were already Christian) for their product. Reaching the lost and serving the community was forgotten or relegated to a small sub-section of the church. Meanwhile, America became more and more unchurched.
The writers of Missional Church saw this environment and what the church had begun and wrote this work. They saw the need to “send” people across the street, as the US is now the 5th largest mission field in the world. By using the term missional church they wanted to help reshape people’s imagination from what the church had become—an inward-focused, vendor of religious goods and services to consumeristic Christians—to what God had intended for the church—to be a people whose purpose was to fulfill the mission of God. They write:
'Mission' means 'sending,' and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God's action in history . . . It has taken us decades to realize that mission is not just a program of the church. It defines the church as God's sent people. (p. 4-6)So why keep the term?
- It helps people to check their idea of what church is. It does not exist for itself, but for God’s purposes for the world.
- It helps reshape the imagination. There is incredible power in language, which postmodernism has taught us. This term helps people imagine what the church is supposed to be.
- It provides an opportunity for teaching. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it provides a teaching moment to share God’s original vision for the church.
- It challenges the status quo. People may be comfortable with what their experience of church has been. They may not want anything to change in the church, because the rest of their lives have so much change. But change is absolutely necessary. We now live in a world in which for the first time in modern history we have 6 generations alive at the same time. The amount of information in the world doubles nearly every years. If we are to stay current, we must change. And God’s people have always grown the most when they have gotten outside of their comfort zone—when they are in the desert or facing persecution.
- It puts up front and center what the church is called to be—the people of God on mission. By referring to ourselves as a missional church, there should be no ambiguity as to what our central purpose should be. Those who are most excited about mission will get this. Those who are most consumeristic or believe that the church exists to serve itself will be the most resistant.
I recognize that missional church is a conceptual thought, and those that are intuitive, conceptual thinkers will be most drawn to it. Those that are more concrete thinkers will need to have more explanation. But this is good, as it provides a teaching moment. As I give Missional Outreach seminars around the country, I encourage people to use the term, as it is helpful, but to also explain the concept in many different ways. Always, of course, we should point people back to the life and mission of Jesus.
For myself, this is a profound part of my journey. I can remember reading Missional Church in 2000 as a part of, of all things, a congregational ministry class. Having grown up going on mission trips with Let’s Start Talking, it struck me, that this was exactly what the church was supposed to be. That we must see North America as a mission field, and all that we do should focus upon this mission. I know others that were struck by this as well.
Are some people jumping on a missional bandwagon and using the term in ways that they do not understand? Sure. But whether the term itself does or not, missional is a profoundly biblical-theological concept that will stand the test of time. And as for me? Well, I was missional before missional was cool. And as one who has led two churches directly in becoming outward-focused, and as one who gives missional outreach seminars around the country and attend conferences on this around the country, I can say that it is a term that helps reshape the imagination and motivate many people towards mission. It is not the only way to get across the concept, but it is a helpful term.
We absolutely cannot stay with the status quo. Church attendance in the US is 18%-20% and falling. Read my last blog post for additional stats. If we keep people in their comfort zone, we will continue to fail to reach the world for Christ. And our own children will suffer for it.
What do you think are good reasons for using the term missional?