Someone asked me the other day, “So, can you tell me what ‘missional’ is?” My mind raced, and I hesitated for a second. I knew what missional was. In fact, I hear the word, read the word, and often use the word in my writing. But a concept like “missional” is hard to describe, explain, and articulate, especially in any succinct way. But since missional is a bedrock concept in the Bible and is central to what the church does, it is worth investigating a little bit.
Missional: The Concept
Fundamentally, “missional” is not a movement (per se), not a network, not an affiliation, nor even a strategy. It’s a biblical concept. “Missional” goes back to something called Missio Dei. Missio Dei is a sophisticated and intellectual-sounding way of saying “Mission of God” or more precisely “Sending of God,” which is what the Latin phrase means. Missio Dei is a theological truth that understands God as having a mission. His mission is manifested in the way that He sent Jesus in the power of the Spirit to redeem mankind. His mission is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s mission is seen throughout the story of the Bible, throughout the course of history, throughout the ministry of Jesus, and contemporary manifestations in the church. The Missio Dei has profound implications for Christians today. Thus, “missional” is living a Christian life according to this overarching principle of Missio Dei, the sending of God.
Missional: The Practice
Obviously, missional is a lot more than just a conceptual trend, inspired by a theological idea. Yet it is important to begin with that understanding, because the theological component of missional is crucial to truly being missional as the Bible defines it. When it comes to practical outgrowths, Christians have done just about everything in the name of missional.
Missional became popularized by the Emerging Church movement. The Emerging trend in Christianity is committed to actively engaging their postmodernist culture. Thus, they embraced missional living. To the emerging church leaders, the primary role of the church is not to set up missionary compounds and hold evangelistic rallies. Instead, they are committed to living like their culture, and helping to meet the felt needs of the culture–the problems of segregation, abuse, marginalization of people groups, poverty, etc. For them, the mission of missional is primarily meeting the temporal needs of society. After all being missional involves putting faith to work in everyday contexts.
The Emerging church is riddled with major problems, incipient heresy, and fundamental flaws. Yet their emphasis on missional is a worthy one. They had redeemed a lost theological concept. After all “church” isn’t merely a place where Christians come in steeple-bedecked buildings filled with wooden pews. The church is a God-ordained institution on a mission–a mission to obey God’s great commission to make disciples.
A missional understanding of the church means that every Christian should be taking the message of the cross to his or her community. Missional living is more than inviting a nonbeliever to come to one’s church building to hear preaching. It is about living in such a way, speaking in such a way, and engaging in such a way, that we spread the life-saving news of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection to everyone with whom we know.
Missional is a Really Big Deal
It should be evident that being missional is huge. It recalibrates our core understanding of what the church is. Our ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, should be closely aligned with our missiology, the doctrine of mission. Driscoll writes that “churches are becoming missionaries in their communities, [but] do not focus on strategies and formulas that have worked among people who live in other areas. Instead they find strategies that help them connect with the people in their context.” Missional is a really big deal because it defines what the church is, stipulates your role in it, and translates into the nitty-gritty of how. Missional is a profound concept, and it affects everything.
Obviously, not everyone is in total agreement about missional. Due to its shady beginnings (Emerging church) and contemporary delusions (social gospel), some people are afraid of missional in any form. Others are all-embracing of anyone or anything with the label missional, going so far as to forge relationships with apostates and nonbelievers. Others have fallen in the bramble of a failed contextualization–hurtling headlong into worldly (read: sinful) lifestyles in an attempt to engage their culture.
The problem with “missional” is trying to define the mission. Whenever you start waving around cool-sounding terms that have little to no consensus about the definition of those cool-sounding terms, problems will result. Words like “gospel,” “kingdom,” “reformed,” and “missional” are great words. But one of the reasons why they’re so “great” is because people attach their own pet meaning to them. For example, a book I read recently was purportedly about the gospel. Apparently, to the author, “gospel” was about giving our money to humanitarian agencies. I am all about giving one’s money to humanitarian agencies–especially Christian ones that bring humanitarian outreach with its proper ally, Christ-centered proclamation–but giving one’s money for famine relief, clean water, and AIDS relief, is not the gospel, in and of itself. Definitions are important. Defining the mission of missional is important.
Breaking Through Controversy: Being Thoroughly Missional
The same problem–proper definitions–faces churches who want to become missional. What’s the mission? It goes back to the Missio Dei. What is God’s mission? To bring Himself glory through the triumph of His Kingdom and the redemption of mankind. What was Jesus’ mission? To give His life as a ransom. What is our mission? It should be obvious. It is the same mission that we’ve had every since Jesus commissioned His apostles–“Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21-23; and Acts 1:4-11, see article on this topic). Meeting social needs is not our primary goal, important as that is. Yes, missional should involve Christlike compassion, social justice, and meeting physical needs, but it should be coupled with the primacy of the disciple-making mandate.
Missional is simply living in obedience to the commission. It’s really not that complicated. Being missional requires biblical thinking, strategic planning, and prayerful dependence upon Him whose mission we are fulfilling.
- Book: Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community, by Ed Stetzer
- Article: The Missional Church, by Tim Keller
- Video. (Note, you may also want to read Kevin DeYoung’s follow-up comments to this video.)