September 21, 2020

Missional Leaders: Right There All Along?

guy.jpgHmmmm. He doesn’t look like he’s trying to be cool.

Is this the face of the controversial and misunderstood missional church leader we keep talking about? Could it be that “missional” leaders have been right there all along, but our hang-ups on the subjects of culturally compromised churches led by twenty-somethings have fogged our vision?

Years ago, I was at an associational meeting listening to “Don,” the pastor of a local mission, talk about his ministry. Don was in his 50’s, and had a long career pastoring bi-vocational, rural churches. He was again working in a rural community, and his “church” was little more than a storefront that involved a small group of mostly elderly community members. He was sponsored by a larger church, who paid his salary to do ministry at the mission.

Prospects for “church growth” in his setting were extremely small for many reasons. Many missions like Don’s exist because those who attend cannot or will not come to the “big church” in town, often because of issues with health, money, perceived social stigma or lack of “nice” church clothes.

His supporting church had him on a shoestring budget, and polity in the SBC frowns upon going elsewhere for more funding. His physical and staff resources were meager, even non-existent. (“That piano doesn’t work. Let’s send it to the mission.”) It would be highly unlikely that any couple or family looking for a church home would pass by the larger, full-service churches in the area (yes, people drive long distances to go to church in Kentucky) in order to support what was happening at this mission. He would never have nice music, decent instruments or a young, energetic staff.

Don’s storefront mission was, however, a bright light of Christian witness, service and presence in the community, even if it was small. Ambitions to be a “growing church” could be there, but the reality in five years was more likely to be very similar to what it was now. In the mindset of our denomination, which you can encounter at any denominational gathering or from any denominational publication, growth is everything, and Don’s mission, while it was certainly important to the few people who attended, would never be on the radar of “growing, evangelistic churches.”

The reason I remember Don, however, is because of what Don was doing with his ministry and how he was doing it. Don told about about what he did with the opportunity to be a “minister at large” in the community rather than just a church employee. He was part of several mercy ministries in the area. He had a regular routine of going to nursing homes and hospitals to visit anyone he could, whether they were church connected or not. He did counseling. He mentored other bi-vocational pastors. As an older man, he encouraged those of us who were younger. He was active in jail ministry and the police called on him as an unofficial chaplain. He coordinated the local network of church food and clothing ministries.

Very few of these activities resulted in numerical additions to Don’s storefront mission. Much of what he did was accessing resources in the community and plugging people in need into those resources. He represented Christ in the community more than he represented his church or denomination, and I have to say that impressed me. Actually, it struck me as a different way of looking at ministry, one that wasn’t coming from the Vatican in Nashville or the latest cultural ideas of ministry. (This was the same time Eugene Peterson was turning my ideas of ministry upside down.)

What I was seeing in Don was one of my first glimpses of what I now recognize as a missional leader. With all the caricature that’s standard fare in discussing the emerging, missional movement, the truth is that these ideas have been out there for a very long time in men like Don, in Henri Nouwen’s work, in missionary leadership thinking and in wise, Jesus-following pastors who understand the Kingdom of God is both bigger and smaller than denominational headquarters told you at the last pastor’s conference.

Dr. Dan Morgan- from the SBC’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary- recently listed Seven Characteristics of Missional Leaders:

* They grasp the importance of leading like Jesus.
* They don’t assume a friendly environment in which to carry out church life.
* They work opportunistically rather than routinely.
* Their focus is on the Kingdom, not preservation of an institution.
* They foster relational structures rather than institutional structures.
* They disciple with a view towards deployment on mission, not servicing the organization.
* They believe the Kingdom is bigger than the church.

Hmmmmm. Don was doing exactly that all those years ago. He didn’t call it missional or emerging. He wasn’t twenty-something. He didn’t listen to loud rock music or have David Crowder’s hair. But this is almost exactly the kind of ministry path he was following.

One of the reasons I am interested in this subject is the collection of missional ministries that have been here in Appalachia for many, many years. Christian Appalachian Project. Alice Lloyd College. Red Bird Mission School. And on and on. The SBC has a regional ministry that assists many of the missionals in our area: The Appalachian Regional Ministry.

I believe much of what is truly “missional” has been part of the best minsitry strategies for many years, and questions of church growth, contending for the truth, the interaction of church and culture, etc. have been worked out on the ground by men and women like Don who realized this wasn’t going to be First Baptist Church. So what was it going to be? Maybe an outpost of the Kingdom.

For more on missional leadership, don’t forget Roxburgh, Romanuk and Gibbs’ book.


  1. For several years I attended a church like the one described here (minus a leader like Don). It was one of two very tiny white frame churches in the middle of a rural “inner city” (small town but big problems) I saw the potential for a mission like Don’s, but nobody was interested–certainly not the church leadership. They were all very good people but they were waiting for something else–an influx of middle class folks that would come when a proposed housing development finally arrived (it’s been 5 years since I first heard talk of this and it’s always just 2 years away from happening). They did knock on a few doors inviting the locals to church but the church had long ago developed a reputation for ‘fussiness’ as one man put it-and no one saw any reason to come. Finally our pastor left for greener pastures. The choice for a replacement came down to a young former youth minister from a big church who would bring a bunch of people with him from the big church—nice, middle class church folk from a nearby developed town. The other was a guy who sounded alot like Don–only this was an energetic octagenarian. He was a friendly, country guy (good match for the locals) and loved visiting in the community and in nursing homes. Guess who was picked?

    Yes, the church has now finally started growing in numbers. They’ve added a steeple and nice lit up sign out front. But no sign of mission. Maybe they are waiting until they have the resources from all these new ‘healthy’ people to start ‘programs’ to reach the drug addicts, alchoholics, abused people in the local neighborhood. They have one member sitting in jail, one of the few locals to join, a young hispanic man who tried to commit suicide last year. His mom told me that since he started sinking back into drinking and drugs–and now jail, no one from the church has come asking about him. They did baptize him and they did bring his family some food at Thanksgiving.

    My current church (medium sized, evangelical)seems much more missions minded but just as clueless about ‘going forth’–they are mainly into trying to get people to come to them. (Unless you count one week mission trips to foreign countries as ‘going forth’.)

    Maybe I need to stop searching for a truly missional church, complaining about my church, and waiting for things to change. Maybe I need to just start ‘going forth’, on my own–like Don.

    Thank you for your post on this, Michael. Reading this and thinking about it helped me work through a problem that has been bothering me for some time.