Friday, January 19, 2007

The Missional Church

Just to confuse you a bit more, many people who are thinking about how the church is changing are using a new term called "missional" to describe the charactaristics of this new way of doing church. Jim Thomas writing on the Urbana website ( writes a good summary of what missional means and what missional churches look like (and what they don't). I thought I'd quote portions of it here to give a bit of an overview.

The Missional Church
by Jim Thomas

There is much talk in the (North) American church about being missional. This word implies at least two theological and ecclesiological (i.e. church related) course corrections. On the one hand, missional hints at moving from church as a “club” for Christians, to church as Christ’s body, sent by God to reconcile the world to Himself. On the other hand, missional means moving from missions as an activity in which a few Christians are sent to foreign countries to convert unbelievers, to mission as God’s most basic purpose, intended for all believers.

Two of the leading threads in contemporary church thought are called ... emergent and missional. 
The emergent and the missional church movements share a conviction that mission is the heart of the church; that the meaning of mission in contemporary society needs to be recovered; and the need for new manifestations of mission that break free of some traditional models which are either no longer effective, or worse, have become a negative witness.

The essence of their message is the importance of both word and deed in witness, and rejection of the liberal/conservative split over how to witness to the kingdom of God. Liberal churches have traditionally emphasized social justice as witness and the here-and-now of God’s kingdom, but they have deemphasized verbal proclamation. Conservative churches have placed nearly all of their weight on verbal witness and the “by-and-by” of God’s kingdom, while shunning social change and justice. Integral mission underscores that God’s kingdom is both present and future, and in the absence of deeds and lives reflecting the nature of that kingdom, verbal proclamation falls on deaf ears.

Characteristics of missional churches

Minfred Minatrea studied a number of missional churches. He defined missional churches as “Reproducing communities of authentic disciples, being equipped as missionaries sent by God, to live and proclaim his kingdom in their world.” He noted nine practices that they have in common (with my explanatory phrases in parentheses):
1. Having a high threshold for membership (high expectations for believers)

2. Being real, not real religious (being transparent, authentic, with one foot in “the world.”)

3. Teaching to obey rather than to know (a practical faith)

4. Rewriting worship every week (Creative, participatory Sunday morning services)

5. Living apostolically (each believer as a missionary)

6. Expecting to change the world (aggressively engaged in transforming communities)

7. Ordering actions according to purpose. (Ruthless aligning of resources with mission)
8. Measuring growth by capacity to release rather than retain. (Not megachurches but multiplying churches)

9. Placing kingdom concerns first (in contrast to denomination first. Thus, cooperation with other churches)

Common Deviations from Missional
To further clarify what a missional church is, we can describe a number of common alternative models.

Missionary churches. Some churches are described as “missionary churches.” They are noted for sending a lot of missionaries to foreign countries, raising funds for missionaries, holding missions conferences, and featuring missionaries prominently in the Sunday services when they are in town. In this perspective, however, the missionaries are a subset of the congregation. In a missional church, every believer is regarded as a missionary and church life is oriented around the implications of that view. Thus, missional churches significantly “raise the bar” in terms of mission. Also, since the term missionary carries such strong mental images, some of them not very positive, an alternative to saying that every believer is a missionary is to say that every believer is to live missionally.

Church growth. One might think that churches that are focused on growth in numbers have evangelism as their mission. While this may be true for some churches subscribing to the church growth philosophy and practices, there are some aspects of the church growth school that run contrary to missional church philosophies and practices. For one, missional churches focus on kingdom growth rather than church growth. They are more likely to focus on planting new churches than in enlarging themselves (though they do not shun numerical growth as a by-product of being missional), and to measure growth by “the ability to release rather than retain.” Kingdom growth often means collaborating with other churches. Church growth, however, often occurs at the expense of other churches and creates competition rather than cooperation. The church growth school promotes “the homogenous unit principle” which says that people want to become part of a group of people like themselves. This principle is thought by many to be counter to the biblical mandate for cross-cultural unity. In addition, one study has shown that multi-ethnic churches grow faster than mono-ethnic churches. Finally, a church that is remaining stable in size while also releasing people to other and new churches is growing in a sense. It has to be bringing in new people all the time to compensate for those who are leaving.

Maintenance churches. Minatrea refers to these as conventional churches. McNeal describes them as churches with a “club” mentality. They are churches that have made themselves their purpose. Their priorities include maintaining established programs and practices, in large part because they are established, and keeping people coming to the church in order to maintain the programs. The church building (enlarging and maintaining it) is often a key goal or priority. At the risk of overstating the nature of maintenance churches, I would place in this category churches that have a self-absorbed spirituality. That is, churches focused on orthodoxy, tradition, or health and wealth messages. (This is not to say that more traditional churches cannot be missional.) A related category of spirituality is what I would call "knowledge-centered." This is a church that elevates analysis and knowledge of the Bible but does not exhort and practically enable people to an active Christian life-style. Information (by itself) is seen as a necessary and sufficient witness, and believing it brings salvation and the Holy Spirit, leading in turn to a transformed life.

As we commit to becoming missional churches, we should expect some bumps. Becoming more missional will require "organized abandonment" of some policies and programs that do not align with our mission. There will always be tenacious advocates of any program we either abandon or radically change, and people who will take issue with every dollar diverted in another direction. To travel this course successfully, church leaders will need a clear vision of where we are headed and why, resolve to stick to decisions, and a strong community among themselves to help deal with the arrows that will fly. But the price we will pay will be worth the goal we are aiming for, a church that is working aggressively to: follow Jesus as Lord; manifest God’s kingdom to an unbelieving world; and work with the Holy Spirit in drawing people into his kingdom.

1 comment:

Missional Jerry said...

welcome to the conversation