What Makes a Church Missional?

July 14, 2016

That word “missional” … it’s everywhere, and it’s overused, and we’re not quite sure what it means, and Microsoft Word underlines it in red because it doesn’t think it’s a real word. What is it? It depends on who you ask.

Of all the literature I’ve read about “missional,” here are four principles that seem to be shared:

  • God is a missionary God who sends the church into the world
  • God’s mission in the world is related to the reign (kingdom) of God
  • The missional church is an incarnational (vs. attractional) ministry
  • The internal life of the missional church focuses on every believer living as a disciple engaging in mission (Priesthood of all believers)

The church I work with isn’t perfect in this regard, but we do strive for it with great intention. Below are a few thoughts on how we live this out, framed as questions.

Who is God to you?
The Trinitarian nature of God is where we start. The Trinity reveals God’s mission of reconciliation as participation in a communal, creative, reconciling movement in the world. The Trinity is social, reciprocal, mutual, and participatory. The Trinity sets the tone for everything else we do.

Who does the work?
The primary missionaries and caregivers to the community both outside the walls of the church and inside are the people, not the pastors or staff.

What are the roles of the pastor and staff, then?
It’s basically Ephesians 4:11-13. “… to equip God’s people for works of service.”

What do your committees do?
Nothing, because we don’t have permission-giving committees.

Recently, someone shared a burden she has to help women connect with each other. She wondered if we could start a women’s ministry committee. I said “No, we don’t have committees. How about if you and I meet and talk about what you really want to accomplish and then I’ll help you figure out the next steps.” This sounds risky, because it is. But it’s less risky than creating a committee where good ideas go to die.

One of the things that will keep your church from being missional is the idolatry of control. The Kingdom of God is a risky endeavor. Read the book of Acts.

What’s your rationale for this reckless behavior?
We believe that God is doing something in people’s lives. One of our highest priorities is to help people listen for what God is saying to them, and then help them make a plan to do something about it. This comes out of our belief in the Priesthood of All Believers. If every believer is a priest, then every believer has a calling.

How do you decide what to say yes to, and what to say no to?
Great question! You’re on to something here. If you try to do everything, you’ll end up doing nothing. We work very hard to follow our Mission and Vision as well as our 3 core values. These guide our decisions, shape how we use resources, and help us to build our scorecard to see if we’re succeeding.

The key is to have a mission, vision and values that are inherently missional. Not just any old statement will do. It has to push you outward, to the frontiers where the missio Dei (God’s mission) is active. Some of these frontiers will make you uncomfortable. They lie in places that we won’t go to of our own accord. That’s why you have to follow God’s leading through your statements of purpose and calling. They must guide you and your community to take the risks you should take together for the sake of God’s expanding reign.

What are these “missional” statements of purpose and calling?
Mission: Helping people find their way back to God.

Vision: To remove barriers that keeps people from turning to God. (See Acts 15:19)

Values: We are better together.
We will reproduce at all levels.
We will focus on the outsider.

How do these statements make us missional?
Well, the statements alone don’t. If we live them out, however, we will be missional.

If we keep our focus on helping people find their way back to God, who alone can heal them and fulfill the true longings within them, then we remember that God is at work in them, and ahead of us. We also remember that human participation is important, not an illusion. We find that most of the time, people aren’t anti-God or anti-Jesus. They simply experience a barrier that needs to be removed. Often, the barrier is created by us when we are more interested in trying to control God’s Kingdom than we are in helping people learn how to live in it.

Our Core values are probably the best explanation of how we define a missional church:

We are better together.
The Kingdom of God is collaborative. Look at all of the unlikely partners that Jesus invited to join him. We work strategically with partners who may not share all of our opinions, but who share our core convictions. This requires us to be humble, ask a lot of questions, and assume that other people have wisdom that we need. God is working ahead of us in other people and organizations both inside and outside of the Church.

Reproducing at all levels.
We want to reproduce disciples, leaders, teams, ministries, churches, and networks of churches. The Kingdom of God is a growing, multiplying endeavor. To do this, we have an intentional leadership pipeline, some clear strategies about helping people cross the line of faith, preferred methods and tools to help people become disciples, an evolving plan to plant more churches, an equipping and empowering culture, etc.

I’m 36 years old. When I’m 50, I’d like to look back at these next 14 years and see the Holy Spirit producing fruit in the lives of people I have coached, equipped, and empowered. I want to see the Kingdom of God advancing through their lives, not just through my own.

Focus on the outsider.
The Kingdom of God is advancing through the Holy Spirit’s work among people who aren’t already a part of it. Churches naturally tip toward the people on the inside. If you focus on insiders, your church will die. Naval gazing creates stasis, which leads to death. We are constantly asking ourselves how the outsider experiences what we’re doing. We ask, “Who isn’t here? What do they need? What barriers are keeping them from turning to God? What might God be inviting us to do about those barriers?”

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it will give you a sense of the culture we are trying to create in our organization. God is working within, through and ahead of us.  We want to join because where God is working, we find vitality.

Isaiah 43:19 reports God as saying, “See, I am doing a new thing.”

We could spend the rest of our lives unpacking these seven words. But here are two observations to get us started.

First, God is doing! God is active! God is up to something!

Second, it’s new! It’s always new! It’s new every single morning. Because creation is constantly changing, so is God’s approach to bringing people into God’s reign. The missio Dei is eternally new, creative, and unexpected.

We want to join in God’s new thing, which turns out to be the oldest thing in creation.

About the Author
  • Tanner Smith is a pastor with the Harbor Churches, a growing network of congregations in southwest Michigan, where he lives with his kindhearted wife and 3 spirited children. Like most people, Tanner thinks almost all authentic tacos, friendship and imagination are under-appreciated.

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