What is a Missional Church?
I have to confess that I don't like the term "missional." It is not a word most people know. Those who do know it either think it implies that you like missions or that you water down your message to reach the most people (what used to be called "seeker-sensitive")
But, "missional" is just too perfect. In that simple move of turning a noun into an adjective, it makes the point: the church doesn't just do missions; missions is what it is by its very nature. For the church to be the church, it must understand its purpose as bringing redemption to the world.
The weakness of old "seeker-sensitive" churches was that they understood this to mean that we must change everything a church does into a program for gaining conversions. Throw off anything that might seem odd or unattractive to an outsider.
At times this meant abandoning important elements of church life like sacraments or theological teaching. The extreme examples forced a compromise in the message of Christianity, avoiding sticky subjects like the exclusivity of Christ or the reality of sin.
Missional, on the other hand, doesn't seek to change what the church does to make it evangelistic, but rather realizes that everything the church is called to do is already evangelistic. Confessing sins, practicing sacraments, even preaching through books of the Bible are the very means God uses to reach the nations.
Missional, of course, is not a new way of doing church. It was there from the beginning. Look at one of the earliest examples we have of the church being the church: Acts 2.
Awe came upon everyone... All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together with one accord in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And day by day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. Acts 2:43-47
This small window into the everyday life of early Christians demonstrates the unique power of the local church. By practicing the ordinary elements of church life, God was using this community to add to the number of those who were being saved. Here we see that the church isn’t just an institution that does missions; the very nature of the church is missionary.
Today the church is often seen in a support role. It trains, equips, funds, and sends individuals to do the real work of ministry. It is the place to be fed, not the place of salvation. Framed as such, church attendance can feel uncomfortable to conscientious Christians who do not want to appear self-serving. It is better to be out there doing ministry, than to be recipients of ministry.
Scripture presents a radically different and more vibrant view of the church. Jesus describes the church as actively raiding the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18), holding the keys of the kingdom of God (Matt. 16:19), the place where sins are forgiven (Matt. 18:18; Jn. 20:23). Paul not only claims the Christ is the head of the church (Col. 1:18), but also that the church is the very fullness of Christ (Eph. 1:23). The church is where the action is.
To clarify, it is the church not the preacher who is the subject of these lofty statements. Pastor-centered churches produce a congregation that behaves more like an audience than a community. The worship service becomes a theater performance; evangelism becomes taking people to hear a preacher with charisma.
God has a much richer vision for the life of the church. It is as the church lives out the practices found in passages like Acts 2 that we see its true nature. Christians living in community, bearing each other’s burdens, devoting themselves to the apostolic teaching, sharing the communion, praying, singing, and caring for each other. In short, they were embodying the gospel to each other. Or better, Christ by the Spirit working through the community was loving each member.
This wasn’t, however, a private club. They were living out this community in public. How did others become saved? The assumption is that they were included, invited, present, while the church acted like the church.
If that is true, then the church, in everything it does, should act as if the whole world is watching. Rather than an “us versus them” view of the world, the church loves and serves the world. It understands that all people, no matter their background or hostility to Christian values, are potentially the children of God. It avoids insider jargon that can obscure the saving word of God. It does not compromise its faith and practice, but it also refuses to be dismissive or condescending to people who do not believe. And, it remains committed to the mission of redemption, not becoming distracted by culture wars.