95% of what I’ll say here will apply to 80% of churches and 5% just applies to my church, the wonderful, colourful, still needing to evolve Jesus Army. There’s definitely something here for everyone though.
Language is very important as it has a role in creating and influencing culture. Considering that, it’s worth noting two vastly different understandings of a phrase we’ve started using to describe ourselves: ‘missional church’. This one’s probably more important than we think.
To some of you I may be preaching to the converted, or teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, as they say, but I’ll just say it all.
What’s been called ‘the missional conversation’ is a reformation movement similar in consequence, I believe, to the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement of the 60s – 90s, although far more hidden in nature; it’s changing things more like leaven than like fire. It’s not a fad or a mere method but a spiritual zeitgeist, central to many vital fresh expressions, as James Normal wrote in his recent post Lies, damned lies and church decline statistics.
So What Is ‘Missional’?
The well established definition of ‘missional church’ in this conversation is that it:
1. Puts Missionary Identity First
It understands the church’s ultimate purpose as joining God in His redemptive mission on earth, the missio Dei. The Father sent the son who sends the Spirit and the Church to make renewed disciples, so we’re all sent. We’re an apostolic church or a disobedient church. The church isn’t just a sending agency but a sent agency. ‘Missional church’ therefore, describes the very underlying nature of the church, not just some of its activity; it’s first an identity before it’s ever an activity. If we are to be a missional church everything we do must be brought in line with our mission, not have the tail wagging the dog, not seeing evangelism as conscription in order to find people to support the work of the church.
As C.S.Lewis said:
“…the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.”
That’s the mission of church: discipleship. Note the distinction between ‘the mission’ and ‘missions’.
2. Emphasizes Incarnational Ministry
…versus attractional/extractional ministry. Attractional models, where evangelism = invitation, work OK in a Christian society where people don’t have to travel a great cultural distance from their context to ours, but incarnational missiology makes the missionary travel the cultural distance so is right on cue for our increasingly post-Christendom context. It’s more about “go and be” than “come and see [Jesus brotherhood]”, more about bringing Jesus to people than bringing people to Jesus.
We’ve been very good at doing “a light and city set on a hill” but not so good at being “the salt of the earth“, even though we clearly see salty friendships do more than lighty events. Attractional/extractional has been our traditional model with evangelistic events, large community houses we bring people back to, kingdom businesses (as opposed to business as mission) and our own different-rhythm diary. All of these things are good, but they’ve firmly been of the attractional and extractional emphases rather than of incarnational (among the people by default) and multiplicative (easily reproducible) emphases.
What Is ‘Missional’ Not?
In the video above Hirsch says most people jump to the conclusion that missional just means ‘more evangelism’. This prevalent misunderstanding has two barbs:
- People who aren’t evangelistic think “cool, but this isn’t me. I’ll let the evangelists get on and do it”, so they switch off.
- Evangelists think “I’m already doing it”, so they switch off. Or they get keen thinking everyone should be an evangelist then they plan a few extra evangelistic trips and events and miss the greater consequences of a truly whole-body-of-Christ missional mindset incorporating every ministry.
When we call ourselves a missional church we usually mean we’re a church that likes to go out on missions, rather than is missionary in nature with every ministry and form of church working together for that central purpose. Hence, the missional/incarnational impulse and disciple-making purpose that absolutely, categorically must inform all that we do will be blunted. This ‘only evangelism’ misunderstanding misses the greater implications by miles so threatens to impede what I believe God wants to do among us.
Although we have amazing foundations (seriously, I’m excited about our potential, we’ve so nearly got it, but so not quite) we’re not yet a missional church and I’m concerned that if we call ourselves one thinking we’ve arrived we’ll frustrate what God wants to lead us into by voicing His direction using misunderstood words.
What’s For Us, Now?
I believe Jesus’ salt and light metaphors in Matthew 5 express the paradox of a scattered and gathered church: engaged but not diluted, gathered but not hidden. All churches have unique emphases so some will specialize in one or the other (though all should manifest both) and God takes us all through seasons, sometimes deepening, sometimes reaping.
But like the groundswell of discontented dreamers around me I’m convinced we’ve only just scratched the surface of what it means to join a wild God in His mission on earth. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what it means for our Jesus communities to be truly salty, for mission and discipleship to drive all we do and for us to see genuine out-of-our-control Jesus movement rippling across the UK, Europe and to the ends of the earth.
The future church is not large, uniform, distant (culturally or geographically) or rich. The future church is small, varied, very local and very generous. It’s simple. It devotes itself to the apostle’s teaching and to prayer. It grows vivaciously like mustard. I speak of this future church in present tense because it’s shoots are already appearing.
And ultimately our missionalisation (yeah I think I just made up a word) is more important than anyone’s personal preferences and dreams because today’s post-christian culture demands it. We will have a future as a sent people or we won’t have a future.
Let’s understand the language we use and God’s will expressed through it with unity of mind, as well as unity of heart.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
What do you think?