January 18, 2021

Missional Isn’t A Bad Word

eds.jpg“The question is familiar: “What do you mean by missional church?” Even though the term is now used everywhere, there is still confusion about it. As we begin this book, here is a brief description of what we mean by the phrase.

God is about a big purpose in and for the whole of creation. The church has been called into life to be both the means of this mission and a foretaste of where God is inviting all creation to go. Just as its Lord is a mission shaped God, so the community of God’s people exists, not for themselves but for the sake of the work. Mission is therefore not a program or project some people in the church do from time to time (as in “mission trip,” “mission budget,” and so on); the church’s very nature is to be God’s missionary people. We use the word “missional” to mark this big difference. Mission is not about a project or a budget, or a one-off event somewhere; its not even about sending missionaries. A missional church is a community of God’s people who live into the imagination that they are, by their very nature, God’s missionary people living as a demonstration of what God plans to do in and for all of creation in Jesus Christ.”
The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church To Reach A Changing World by Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk

The Missional Leader : Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World (J-B Leadership Network Series)Don’t believe everything you hear. Missional isn’t a bad word.

The other day I received a newsletter from a church in another state that I was very familiar with more than a decade ago. Looking through the newsletter, it occurred to me that everything I was reading in 2006 was identical- absolutely, totally identical- to what the church was doing years ago. Every program, every activity, every emphasis- all of it was a clone of the church that I knew. Aside from the date, names and a few incidentals, nothing had changed.

I suspect that if I had gone back 20, 30, even 40 years, I would be looking at the same pattern. It wouldn’t surprise me if the church made no real changes in the next twenty years.

What is going on when a church with a seminary trained staff, lots of financial resources and good facilities is doing the exact same kinds of ministry for half a century? How have they managed to create a church that seems to be existing primarily for its own survival? How do the people of God live in a community for decades and create something resembling a museum more than the “Jesus movement” of the New Testament?

According to many critics of “missional” churches, this church might be doing everything right. In their refusal to change, they could be loyal to the Gospel and to the primacy of preaching and Bible study for Christians. They may be refusing to be trendy; they could be resisting the pressure to be purpose driven and conform the message of the church to the “needs” of the audience. They quite possibly should be commended for not “remaking” themselves into anything new.

Such criticisms, and many others, are common in missional-critical circles. I understand this criticism, and would probably affirm some of it. Still, it is the Gospel that should shape our churches, and as John Macarthur said so well, if a church is “Ashamed of the Gospel”, nothing else matters.

The church above is typical of SBC churches who were shaped during the denominational ascendency of the 50’s and 60’s. In those years, the denominational hierarchy laid out the plan for being the ideal Southern Baptist congregation. The denomination developed the structures, resources and personnel to support churches in a whole cafeteria of programs and approaches.

I remember a class in seminary where a pastor was telling us how to plan our preaching. His suggestion: take the denominational calendar, and preach to support all the various emphasis and offerings. In other words, denominational programming, and denominational decisions, should drive the life and worship of a church. If it should drive preaching and worship, it is no surprise that it would determine everything else.

What does this discussion have to do with missional churches? Everything, especially for those of us who were brought up in those kinds of churches and told that following the denominational blueprint was the way to do ministry in every church, no matter its setting or challenges.

This Southern Baptist Convention has the largest missionary force in evangelicalism. Most SBC churches have a strong value of supporting missions in various ways. In that missionary awareness and support system there is something that has influenced thousands of young evangelicals: Missional thinking and missional methodology.

A missional church is a church that intentionally follows a missionary vision of itself and a missionary strategy for its existence. It is a church that looks beyond denominational programs and to the New Testament for its understanding of itself. It is a church that, like its missionary force on various mission fields, shapes itself around the Gospel in a particular setting, and determines its missional life not from a denominational blueprint, but from the vision nurtured and cultivated by its own leadership team and small groups.

Missional churches are NOT abandoning the Gospel! They are not compromising on Biblical priorities. The question many missional critics need to ask is if they are aware of their own blind loyalties to ways of doing church that come “down” from someone’s version of the Vatican?

There is a profound difference between reshaping the message of the Gospel to fit in with the preferences of the audience and incarnating the Gospel within a culture in a way that removes barriers and establishes as many points of meaningful contact as possible. Missional churches, like good missionaries, do not bring the same methods and approaches to every situation, While the Gospel does not change, and the basic shape of Biblical ministry is based on clear New Testament teaching, this does not mean that all churches look the same, approach ministry the same way, or “do” evangelism in exactly the same way.

I doubt if many of the critics of missional churches would find it commendable if a Southern Baptist church in the rural south ventured to Africa to start a church that was a clone of their own culture. Those critics would not object to missionaries seeking to create an indigenous church that looked like its culture rather the culture of the missionaries. Yet when church planters pursue this approach in the cultures and subcultures that exist in North America, it seems difficult- even impossible- for some to see what is happening in the context of missions and missional thinking about evangelism and planting churches. Instead, it is presented as a compromise of the Gospel. This is puzzling.

Missional churches take this process seriously. They do not approach missional church planting and ministry as a flippant exercise, even if some changes are from certain styles of formality to certain kinds of informality. I listen to many missional preachers. There is no doubt they spend more time culturally connecting with the listener than “traditional” preachers. This is not a flaw when pursued missionally, and not as entertainment. Missional churches may relate the Gospel to the interests of a particular subculture, but there is nothing more compromising about having a regular discussion of movies or an outreach to the tattooed than there is in having a ladies sewing circle or a church basketball league.

Missional churches are frequently approaching pastoral leadership in ways that focus on the mission “on the ground”, and not the insights of an academic preparation in seminary. Pastors are coming from within congregations. Training is taking place within mentoring relationships. Networks of missional churches are forming to meet needs for leadership development without becoming denominational hierarchies telling churches how to “do church”. Missional churches are emphasizing church planting, and resisting the logic of the inevitable megachurch, a development that every concerned evangelical should applaud. It is not at all unusual to hear missional churches state that they do not want transfer membership or even to become large.

Critics of the missional label equate missionalism with the “seeker sensitive” movement. This is foolish and uninformed.

I recently saw an ad for a megachurch advertising seven different services for seven different target audiences. The megachurch was offering these various worship styles not as an expression of community or of the central core identity of the church, but as a way to draw in a diverse audience and get larger. This is typical of the seeker sensitive approach.

Missional churches, on the other hand, do not try to be all things to all people in a marketing influenced approach. They seek to be a witness to the Gospel incarnated in culture and participating in culture. Missional churches typically have a cultural “feel” that identifies them, but diversity within the body of Christ is important to missional churches in ways that seeker sensitive churches do not attempt.

Seeker churches market culture for church growth. Missional churches inhabit culture. Seeker churches face the tendency to morph the Gospel into a product. Missional churches seek to bring the language of culture into the dictionary of faith. These are very different approaches, but to the prejudiced and uninformed critic standing outside a missional church, it may appear to be a marketing approach.

The critics of missional churches often have an enormous blind spot to the existence of their own culture. The loudest critics of missional churches seem completely unaware that there is not a single hour spent in church that is not immersed in culture of some kind. For example, there are very distinctive preaching styles here in Eastern Kentucky that are assumed to be evidence of the anointing of the Spirit. Many of these mountain preachers would find John Macarthur or John Piper to be devoid of the Spirit, based upon their perception of culture. These preachers don’t “see” the culture that influences their own preaching. They are like fish denying the water they swim in.

Many missional critics are working from a cultural model they have inherited from various historical places in evangelicalism and fundamentalism. A competent church history class will make it clear that those who are pointing accusing fingers at the culturally aware are generally the historically and culturally unaware, but not in any way the culturally transcendent.

In fact, missional critics seem prone to believe that the reformation model covers all the bases. Teach a church reformed theology and the rest will take care of itself? While it is possible to point out outstanding examples of reformed missionaries, the reformation churches have never been the great missionary sending churches…and the reason is because the reformation churches often have a deficient articulation of missional theology.

Even today, reformed churches pursuing a missional approach are often viewed with suspicion. The reformed watchblogs consistently pronounce the jury still “out” on missional pastors like Mark Driscoll. What is the problem? If a PCA church plant doing a missional approach doesn’t look like critics think a church ought to look, what exactly is it doing wrong? Where are churches like City Church in Nashville and All Souls Fellowship in Atlanta going wrong in their methodology? By taking their urban environment more seriously than someone’s idea of what the “Calvinists on the Corner” ought to look like?

Missional churches believe the church is God’s missionary movement in history. Wherever it is, it is the missional movement of Jesus. Missional churches are “doing” missions projects or missions trips. They are finding ways for Christians to penetrate the culture around them. A good example would be the family driving twenty miles to a megachurch that has a menu of programs for their children. A missional approach would ask this family to begin to imagine how they can remain in the neighborhood, perhaps create a network of Christians in the immediate vicinity who share similar concerns in parenting and could create opportunities for spiritual and social activities in the community.

Missional churches are frequently small. They are made up of neighborhood groups. They prominently feature opportunities to be part of servant ministry in the community. There is often only a single rented facility, and technology may be used to facilitate communication and fellowship. Relationships have priority over programs, and institutional values may seem secondary or invisible.

Critics of missional churches frequently talk about the ecclesiology of missional churches as if they have departed from Biblical essentials. What is surprising about this is that, in line with the spirit of the reformation, the Puritans and the best of evangelicalism, most missional churches have simplified ecclesiology in a purposeful rejection of the “denominational corporation” model and other secular models in favor of an ecclesiology that puts the people of God as the primary identity of the church. How this is an assault on Biblical ecclesiology escapes me completely.

[Some of the most hurtful criticisms of missional churches come on the level of ridiculing age, dress and personal appearance. This kind of “playground bullying” reveals the insecurity of the critic, and is not helpful in any way.]

Let me make a suggestion to those who are struggling with the idea that missional churches are a bad thing. Ed Stetzer, a missiologist for the North American Mission Board, has a site called New Churches that contains a vast bibliography of missional church material. There is much to be learned here. I do not assume that anyone will be convinced, but I am hopeful that a most helpful Biblical concept can be rescued from becoming synonymous with a denial of the Gospel.

It should be the prayer of every person who loves the Gospel that life will be missionalized by that message. The church is not a classroom or a lecture hall. It is not a franchise of seminary wisdom or denominational blueprints. It is the people of God, penetrating every culture, nation, tribe and language group. It is the Gospel taken into culture and expressing the Gospel in ways that culture can understand…without compromise or surrender of the truth and power of Jesus Christ.


  1. wow iMonk…that perhaps said it better than anything I’ve heard…

  2. Michael, what I think you touched on in so many words is fear. When I read the various watchblogs, especially in their reaction to the emerging church, in all the criticism, in all the accusation, in all the attacking of straw men, I sense fear. Barna’s conclusions and exhortations in Revolution may be off, but the data itself says it all. People are leaving established churches for other forms.

    The emerging missional church, for all its flaws, is one of the only things I see that is addressing the problem by seeking ways to proclaim the gospel here – in this culture – where we so desperately need it. Our affluence and apathy are killing our souls, and all the study of the fine points of theology are worth squat if people don’t first come to grips with the eternal Kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    I hope more people hear about men like Ed Stetzer, Andrew Jones, and Mark Driscol, and through them, Jesus.

  3. You saved me from having to write this article myself. 🙂 Thanks, Micheal. I am one of the younger evangelicals you mention who were raised in a highly missions oriented environment. We weren’t SBC, but as a rural blue-collar Bible church, we were close! I read books like “Peace Child” in which the author Don Richardson rethinks the concept of the (*gasp*) atonement and finds a way to present that truth in terms of the tribal culture. Subversive stuff. Now I’m all grown up and I read about people doing the same stuff (though less radical IMHO) in North America and I have a hard time seeing how that’s so dangerous and terrible. Yes, I’m reading the critics (read D.A. Carson this very morning), and I know they have some points, but overall they seem to be missing the big point. We have to incarnate the gospel wherever we are because the gospel itself is not limited to any one person, language, or culture.

  4. Histrion (Jay H) says

    Michael writes: I doubt if many of the critics of missional churches would find it commendable if a Southern Baptist church in the rural south ventured to Africa to start a church that was a clone of their own culture. Those critics would not object to missionaries seeking to create an indigenous church that looked like its culture rather the culture of the missionaries. Yet when church planters pursue this approach in the cultures and subcultures that exist in North America, it seems difficult- even impossible- for some to see what is happening in the context of missions and missional thinking about evangelism and planting churches. Instead, it is presented as a compromise of the Gospel. This is puzzling.

    I don’t find it puzzling at all. From the point of view of those church planters, those people in Africa need to be introduced to Christ, whereas the people of America know, or knew, Christ and are simply in rebellion against God. Therefore, what would be culture in Africa is sin in America, and the response is therefore different: gently guide one, while pummeling the other with commands as to what he or she should be doing differently.

    Our outreach to students at Christian universities, as detailed in the previous blog entry, seems to be an example of the latter approach.

  5. I visited a self-described missional church a year ago in my area. It was a vast change from the more traditional church I was formerly a member. I pondered what they were about but ultimately thought it wasn’t for me and joined it’s “mother” church on a different part of town.

    In this year my views on worship and form have been challenged and expanded. Now I can’t seem to get this missional church out of my head – especially since its so close to my house (a poorer area) vs. across town (in an affluent area). I find a mental tug-of-war going on.

    The teaching of the planting church gained my confidence that they are true to the gospel, to accurate theology, etc. Doubts about these things were part of the reason I didn’t feel the missional church fit my family to start.

    A lot of the things I’ve read on your website in support of missional churches make sense to me. Could you please comment about my remaining doubts?

    (1) How do these churchs feel about the primacy of teaching. I’ve always embraced that faith comes by hearing the word. Dumbing down the message or reducing the sermon to 15 minutes is unnecessary for any culture and unwise. When I visited the missional church mentioned, I recall leaving witht the feeling that that is what happened.

    (2) I’m white, married, 41, with two young kids. I wonder what kind of church experience my kids would have in a missional church. I embrace the missionary mindset of impaciting my community, but do I sacrifice my kids on that alter?

    (3) Obstacle three for me is who the church is for. I don’t want to be in a church that exists only for themselves, but I have the impression that missional churches exist only for the unsaved. As a (self-described) mature Christian I wonder about my growth. Do missional churches nurture believers? One statement that I heard years ago sticks with me: Church is primarly for beleivers to worship & praise God, to be edified and equiped to go out and impact their world. I fear that missional churches have this equation backward.

    (4) When I first became a christian in my late twenties, I resisted a lot of the thoeloges. However, the church today seems so anti-theological that they aren’t even equipped to recognize error. Why do missional churches resist seminary training?

    Thanks for your patience. I am truly trying to sort these things out and determine if God is calling me to a missional church. Your comments about my questions/thoughts are appreciated.

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