Thursday, September 09, 2010

What is Missional?

This article, and some to follow, includes excerpts from my paper “Missional Worship in the Gathered Church.” This was originally posted on 9/7/2010 as a prelude to this post on the missional idea, but it disappeared into cyberspace somewhere.

A common buzzword in ecclesiology today is “missional.” You don’t have to read very much to realize that there is a lot packed into this word, but not all agree on what should be packed into it, or more precisely, how it should be played out in the church. Missional involves varying views of the Kingdom of God and varying views of how the church is related to the kingdom. It talks about how God is at work in the world, what God is doing, and how people should be involved in that work.

There is a tendency among some to judge the value of a word or idea by looking at who predominantly uses the word or idea. Some are hesitant to use the word because of who else uses it. In this case, missional is a word frequently used among the emerging type churches and ministries. It is frequently connected with a lack of orthodoxy and a heavy emphasis on social justice. It is also frequently connected to what is known as “incarnational ministry,” that is, that we as believers are to “incarnate” the gospel, just as Jesus did when he came to earth. This makes some wary of the word.

Yet I think that the idea is pretty simple and useful, even if we don’t like the word missional, and even if we do not agree with the doctrinal aberrancies and the social emphases of some who use it.

The idea of missional is based on the idea that God is a missionary God. This incorporates a number of facets that center on the fact that God is active in the world through both his incarnation and his people. Missional thinker Alan Hirsch says “By his very nature God is a ‘sent one’ who takes the initiative to redeem his creation.”[1] Gibbs and Bolger say “God is a God who redeems, a God who seeks and saves … there is only one mission—God’s mission.”[2]

Mission embraces an even larger point. It is not simply that God sends, but that God is at work (on mission) accomplishing his purpose which is to bring glory to himself through the redemption of sinners, the building of his kingdom, and the restoration of creation. In his mission, God has taken the initiative to come to man to reconcile him, and now God calls man to join Him on His mission. “Fundamentally, our mission (if it is biblically informed and validated) means our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s word for the redemption of God’s creation.”[3] To be missional means to participate with God in God’s mission.

Mission is closely connected to the biblical theology movement which emphasizes the storyline of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration (or sometimes consummation). Since God’s mission is redemption with a view to restoration, the disciple’s mission is to participate in God’s work of redemption in anticipation of the ultimate restoration. In this sense, mission emphasizes the Kingdom of God and is consequently inseparable from eschatology.

Yet at the same time, missional thinking does not demand a particular eschatological view. Though most missional thinkers embrace some form of the “already/not yet,” virtually all agree that the church is living in and speaking to the “not yet.”

This is seen in the common theme that exists in missional writing of living in a post-Christian era—a time and culture in which the Christian worldview is no longer dominant. This is often traced to Leslie Newbigen who returned to England after years of missionary work in India to find that British culture had changed drastically. This change meant that now Christians must be missionaries to their own cultures, just as “foreign missionaries” who went to a new country, learned a new language, new customs, and a new culture, and then preached the gospel into that culture in a way that it could be understood.

Christians are therefore to live in their culture as a missionary redeemed by God and sent by God to that particular historical and geographical context to be used by God in his work of redeeming and restoring his fallen creation to himself. In this, everything that the Christian does is a part of mission. For the believer, to live is to live on mission for God and the gospel. The church is to equip and encourage believers to live on mission, doing life together in the mission of God for the sake of the “not yet” by which they are surrounded.

[1]Alan Hirsch, “Defining Missional,” Leadership Journal (Fall 2008), le/2007/winter/2.34.html?start=1, accessed 6 June 2010.

[2]Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), p. 50.

[3]Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), p. 23.

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