The term missional is overused.
It happens a lot with new words that are initially helpful. We see the word as clearly describing some admirable trait and we adopt the word, but the meaning starts to expand. People continue placing it as a label on things that were probably not part of its initial definition, and before you know it, the word now means everything.
And that is the moment a word stops meaning anything.
A friend of mine calls it verbicide, when a word becomes so popular that its range of meaning is stretched to the point that it stops being helpful. We are all a little disappointed with the way “Evangelical” gets thrown around during this election cycle.
Unfortunately, missional is one of those words. Initially, it was a really helpful modifier to describe a posture or mindset that was Great Commission oriented. It was a positive label for churches, ministries, and believers who were actually about the mission. It had meaning and it helped others see what the Bible expected. However, when there is a word out that does that, nobody wants to refuse that label. It became cool to be missional, and before we knew it, everything was being called missional. Churches were claiming they were missional, books were all about being missional, and the adjective started getting placed on any innovative idea in the church subculture.
Now, to be clear, I like the word. I would, in fact, like to recapture the word for its initial intended use. Every conceivable thing that we do as believers or churches is not missional. For that word, or any word, to mean something, there must be things that it does not mean. So, missional should not just be an adjective we attach to things to make our church sound more relevant. It should describe real aspects. So, I wanted to point out four characteristics that demonstrate a church is missional. These may not be the only characteristics, but I do believe that a missional church will at least demonstrate these four.
A church cannot be labeled as missional if it is not faithful to the Bible’s message. Too many conversations labeled “missional” are pragmatic in nature, dealing primarily with strategies or programs. Missional is not just about what you do but also about who you are and what you believe in your core. Theology and mission are inextricably woven together in the life of a church. For a church to be missional in any real sense of that word, it must know what the mission actually is. A church that does not firmly hold to the Bible’s message will never be about its divine author’s mission.
This means that a church must be confessional. Often times, in order to be relevant, churches will compromise on Biblical principles. This is out of bounds for the missional church, but it is not uncommon for a church to jettison biblical truth in order to be what it calls “missional.”
Truth is, a church may have a mission and not have the mission. There is a difference between being missional and being activist. Churches today want to claim all kinds of things as their mission, but the Bible is clear that our mission is that of bearing witness to the gospel of the kingdom and making disciples of all nations. Now, that does not mean we do not care about justice. It also does not mean that we do not reach out in Christian charity to neighbors. In fact, we deny the very message we proclaim when we do not love our neighbors as ourselves.
It does, however, mean we understand why we do those things. Peter tells us to keep our conduct excellent before an unbelieving world, so that they will glorify God. Our ethic is testimonial. There is more to the church’s mission than fighting poverty, or providing healthcare, or concerning itself with racial healing, or becoming a voice for environmental issues, or any number of a thousand causes. A church that concerns itself with a cause to the exclusion (or subordination) of the gospel message is not missional; it is activist.
Sensitive to Context
But a church cannot be considered missional if it is not aware of, and sensitive to, its context. In fact, this is most often where the conversation of being missional lands. As communities transition around churches and new neighbors look and believer very different, a church must note and react to these changes. For a church to do that, it must see its own community as a mission field. A lot of churches say that, down to having signs posted at the end of the driveway telling people they are entering the mission field. Far fewer churches shape their culture and identity around communicating to their immediate field.
In missionary-speak, this is called contextualization. For healthy contextualization to occur, though, a church must know its community in order to do cultural acquisition. By this, I do not mean know in the demographic-spreadsheet-of-census-data way. I mean the know-the-names-of-our-neighbors way. A church whose members spend considerable time with the lost people around their church can rightly be called missional. A church should know its neighbors well enough to know how to talk to them and how to love on them.
Furthermore, as a missional church concerns itself with its context, it will begin to shift its own structures and ways of doing things to better speak to that context. A missional church will throw out traditional ways of doing things if they inhibit the gospel getting to their neighbors. Church tradition, church structure, church programs will not take precedent over mission field. Of course, I am talking about structures here, I am not talking about changing the message. (See point one.)
Growth by Conversion is a Goal
Some may part ways with me here, but I feel like this is not said enough. A church that is truly missional is one that wants to grow from harvest not transfer. In other words, a missional church should do everything it can to ensure it grows more through conversion than people coming from other churches, or Christians moving in from out of town. Just about every church I can think of claims to be about this, but how many have structured their ministry paradigm around it? So many churches today shuffle disciples instead of making them.
Of course, the Lord of the harvest determines who gets saved. That is the work of the Spirit, and I am not claiming a church should attempt to manipulate this process in any way. I am saying that a missional church will dedicate more resources to reaching lost people than advertising to people that already get their language and message. Most often, this means “go and tell” ministry instead of “come and see” ministry. A big billboard about how great your church is will most likely reach people that are already Christians, people already looking for a church. Mailbox stuffers are probably going to attract more Christians disgruntled with their own church than lost people who are not interested in church at all.
I am not saying these are all bad ideas, or even that a church that periodically uses these methods cannot be missional. I am saying that a truly missional church is more concerned about lost people hearing the gospel and becoming believers than about attracting people that are already Christians, and this sets the agenda for their resources, human, financial, and otherwise. For a church that is planting, being truly missional may confront commonly held practices of launching. Common wisdom says to advertise a bunch, put up some signs, and have a big opening event to see who comes. The pressure is on a church plant today to attract enough people to become financially stable, and that often dictates the methods. Just realize, that people who are blind and dead in their sin are probably not the ones looking for your new event. You will most likely have to go to them.
Finally, a church cannot call itself missional if it is not multiplicative. Missional churches have a long view for the kingdom. They are more concerned about the growth of the gospel than simply adding to their flock, so they will send their best to plant other churches. They realize that two churches are better than one church and the more churches sharing the gospel message the better.
This church multiplies internally and externally. Internally, they have pipelines in place to identify and equip people to be leaders. This is necessary because they are constantly sending out their best. They will feel the pinch as their most faithful members step forward to be sent to other places for the sake of the gospel. Externally, they will be involved in work locally and beyond to see other churches started. This may mean using their own money to support another church. It may mean sending out some key people to begin another church in another city. It may mean saying goodbye to longtime members moving overseas. Whatever the case, this church looks past its own growth, sees other churches in their community as reinforcements not competition, and measures its success off of its gospel footprint, not how many people are sitting in their pews.