What does "Missional" mean?


A couple of people responded to my post last week by asking me to define what I think missional means, at least when I use it.  So here goes:

Being a missional church means participating with God in what God is doing in the world.

There are a couple of assumptions buried in that definition that bear explaining:

God is active in the world. My mom used to teach Grade 1 and I have visited her class on occasion.  It was fun watching 6 year-olds suddenly realize that my mom had a life outside of the classroom.  “You have a son?  You have a house?  I thought you lived here in this classroom!”  Because the kids never saw my mom outside that classroom, never thought of her outside that classroom, they thought, acted and lived like she didn’t exist outside of that context.

I’m sure that we all agree that God is not caught inside of our church buildings. No building can hold God (Acts 7:48-49) but most of us live and act as though God lives at church and we visit Him on Sundays. How do we describe our work week?  Like a perilous run through temptation and oppression relieved by a respite on Sunday.  I hear people all the time talk about coming to church to “recharge their batteries.”  Church as a fueling station assumes that God (and life and energy for the journey) is only found in the church building.  The church building is God’s domain.  The big, bad, Monday – Saturday world belongs to the Devil.

What if God lived everywhere and was actively engaged in the salvation of the world? (Consider Eph 1:3-10)  What if God was involved in the events of your neighbour’s life setting you up to provide comfort and care in a time of need? That is what being missional is all about.  It is living in anticipation of what God is actively doing in your surroundings.  It’s living attentively.

But how can we see what God is up to?  That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing (that’s a subject for another blog post entirely).

The Church is not the mission of God. We have slipped into a backwards way of seeing the church. For too long we have believed that setting up the Church was point of Jesus dying on the cross.  The church then, has a mission: to go and add everyone in the world to the church.

Missional theology corrects this misunderstanding:  David Bosch writes, “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.” (see p. 389 of Transforming Mission). Jurgen Moltman adds, “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.” (p. 64 in The Church in the Power of the Spirit)

The church doesn’t have a mission, God does.  Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of that mission and, as we are added to the community of faith that believes in the word of Jesus Christ, we begin our participation in that mission.  Alan Hirsch describes the church as “agents of God’s mission” (see p. 82 of The Forgotten Ways). God’s mission comes first, and the church is part of that mission. More about missional theology, church, and our need for control later.

This radically changes how we view power and influence.  If the church was the point of God’s interaction with the world then shrinking churches is a HUGE problem.  It means that God is losing the struggle for control of the world!  On the other hand, if God’s mission is moving forward and the church is shrinking, that means that the church (or more accurately, our part of that church) is becoming less and less involved in God’s mission.

One thought on “What does "Missional" mean?

  1. Hey Noel,
    Thanks for the definition. I like some of this but can we make a distinction between God’s mission and the churches? Further can we make a distinction between the saved and the church (as God sees it). The idea that we need to see ourselves as a part of what God is doing is great but we can’t fail to recognize the means that God has decided to use. It seems that salvation for man was the point of God’s mission but again we come back to church and salvation. If the church is the body what role should it have except to carry out the will of the head just like your body carries out your will. One last comment related to the phrase missional theology and that is I am always a little put off by attaching a descriptor other than biblical to theology.
    Thanks for your work (on this site and elsewhere),
    God bless


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