As the missional church movement matures and develops, we may well ask not only “What is Missional Theology?”, but what is the form of life taken up by disciples looking for a missional way of following Jesus? In short, “What is missional spirituality?” This article to sketch a thick description of that kind of spirituality to answer that question.
Missional spirituality begins with the commitment of Jesus’s disciples to participate in God’s ongoing work in the world. Flowing theologically from an understanding of God’s intent for the world and the nature of God’s own mission, the church owns a way of life of living into that story, and we call the particularities of this way of life our spirituality—that sometimes fluffy word simply refers to the way we nurture and live out our faith. A range of practices and postures flesh out this spirituality, and these fall loosely into a handful of categories.
1. Practices that form the individual and community of disciples in the image of Jesus.
Jesus models the kingdom, as one whose life represents full participation in God’s mission. He is the new human par excellence, who has restored the possibility of the image of God in humanity.
Practices representing this formative element of missional spirituality:
- The celebration of Communion, which continually draws the church into the selfless way of Jesus, by reenacting his story. It reinforces the church’s anticipation of his coming, and teaches the community of disciples to recognize the image of Jesus in each other.
- Practices of Hearing the Word form disciples through the testimony of God’s people in the scriptures. The scriptures nourish our capacity to think theologically, and invite us to live in a larger narrative context by seeing ourselves as living within the story of God. The scriptures provide ways for Christians to understand God’s intentions in creation, the consequences of human evil, and the nature of God’s intervention in the world to save us.
- Baptism inducts the individual into the community of people who proclaim the Lordship and commit to live by his story and way. It provides a defining memory of the new identity we are given as the people of Jesus.
- Friendship between disciples shapes them as they extend each other grace and practice companionship.
- Prayer connects disciples (individually and communally) with God. In prayer, disciples reach out to God, and also listen to God’s leading by the holy spirit. By connecting in prayer to God, disciples both express their own hearts, and expose them to God’s heart. In the process, we allow their wills to be conformed to God’s own will.
- The discipline of fasting helps disciples separate from the tyranny of their own desires or assumptions about needs.
- Common Worship gatherings, in which disciples pray, sing, and listen to the word together, allow the church to solidify its fellowship as being based in a common identity before God. The habit of Common worship gatherings, provides a consistent reinforcement of the church’s attention to the substance of its faith.
- The Giving and Receiving of Teaching is a way of thinking about all of the different ways Christians provide instruction to each other, both informally and formally. Within the community of disciples there are many kinds of teaching exchanges ranging from moral and scriptural teaching, theological and historical instruction, to practical guidance for living wisely. We might even consider the production and consumption of various media as falling into this category, allowing for the spread and reception of more specialized, developed ideas. Technologically, we may supplement (but not replace!) more intimate, face-to-face forms of teaching through these time and space shifted forms of media (like books, online courses, podcasts, or this blog!). It’s important, over time, that the church takes care to nourish communities that provide the more localized forms of teaching.
- The cultivation of virtue through mutual encouragement and guidance. Several of the things listed above fit into this, but it’s worth saying clearly that much of the best formation simply happens as people in some sort of mutual relationship encourage each other and have the opportunity to provide and receive guidance.
2. Practices that help the individual and community and bear the fruit of the Kingdom of God.
All of the formative practices of missional spirituality prepare us for practices which produce the fruits of the kingdom of God—the results of God’s reign in our lives. In other words, the practices described above develop within us the capacity to act in certain ways, but it remains for us to give an account of the kinds of actions that characterize missional spirituality.
It must also be said that the line between these two categories of practices is a thin one, and we can certainly expect some practices to fulfill both the formative and fruit-bearing functions. For example, prayer both prepares a person by shaping their being, but may also exemplify an obedient responsiveness to God, which is also a fruit of the kingdom. On the other hand, Service, which I’m listing below as a fruit-bearing practice, also reinforces the inclination to serve and helps disciples move into solidarity with the people they serve, and thus contributes to their spiritual formation as well.
- Hospitality means making space for other people, whether that be physical space where they can come and feel comfortable, or social space where they can come and enter into nurturing relationships. Hospitality in missional spirituality stretches beyond the boundaries of having people in our own homes (though this remains a powerful tool of hospitality!), as we take a mentality of hospitality into the community. We become people who create space for others, everywhere we go. As we practice hospitality, the relational nature of humanity is redeemed, and we become less defensive, fearful of each other, and adversarial —this is all fruit of the kingdom of God.
- Generosity. Opportunities to share what we’ve received with our neighbors allows us to push back the threat of scarcity that plagues our world. It also loosens our own grip on our possessions, and helps us live out of a perspective of abundance and plenty. This contentment, and the generous sharing that fosters it, are both fruits of the kingdom of God.
- In Service, we offer ourselves to another person, or to a community. It also demonstrates humility, the willingness to defer our own desires to another person. As we serve, we also make fruitful use of the skills and talents we’ve been given. God’s kingdom is made real and concrete as people offer themselves to each other, and in this way imitate Christ.
- Reconciliation is the practice of repairing fractured relationships, whether between individuals or groups within a community. This is one of the most difficult missional practices, as people are often deeply committed to their factions and the grievances that they have against others. Furthermore, most disciples (and people!) are woefully inexperienced in the art of reconciliation. Nevertheless, reconciliation is a prime fruit of the kingdom, and bears incredible witness to the power of God’s reign in the world.
- Simplicity and Restraint demonstrate and cultivate a spirit within disciples that is not compelled strictly by pleasure and possession. Disciples hold these things lightly, and are free to live unattached to the things God entrusts to them, while also giving thanks for the experiences of this life. These practices witness against our cultural obsessions over materialism and the escapist pursuit of pleasure. They are a sign that has gracefully delivered Jesus’s disciples from slavery to these things.
- Confession and Repentance, in a similar way, demonstrate that we are not defined by or bound to our mistakes. Christians need not maintain a pretense of perfection, rather they freely admit their failures, and try to do their best to correct them. We admit when we have taken the wrong road, and depend on God’s help to return to the way of Jesus.
- Forgiveness is the community’s complement to confession and repentance. We extend grace to each other, knowing that our relationship with God is built on the Lord’s grace to us.
- The Giving and Hearing of Testimony allows disciples to speak of the Lord’s grace and action through and around them. It also allows the community to be encouraged, and to give God glory for these things!
- Honoring the Least Disciples bear the fruit of the kingdom whenever we make sure that we honor those among us who are not honored or treated poorly in the rest of society.
3. Attentiveness to the world through theological lenses such as justice and righteousness, peace, or sacred dignity.
Disciples practice something like a holy watchfulness in the world. They take in what’s happening around them and carefully weigh the times by what they have learned of God. They explore the meaning of the cultures in which they live and carry with them the theological values of justice and righteousness, peace (in the sense of wholeness, or shalom), or the sacred dignity of all people. They look for ways to fruitfully engage with their culture and bring about these things in the communities where they live. They seek out what it means to respond to community problems in a way that can point towards the way of Jesus.
Different missional communities and individuals will understand these theological values in different ways, and emphasize some over others. Our attention to scripture and our engagement with the community will lead us into new understandings—I think it might be a mistake to prematurely cement our current understandings and priorities as the complete missional identity of the community. After all, continual growth and movement towards maturity is part of the missional way. However, what is unavoidably missional is that we take those theological values back into the community around us. They deeply affect the way we perceive what is happening in the world, and lead us to act and engage in particular ways that resonate with those values.
4. Responsible Stewardship of Vocations, understood as a broad range of callings given to individuals and communities.
Missional theologies lean towards the exploration of spirituality within a brand range of vocations for at least a couple of reasons.
First, the commitment to a holistic vision of God’s plan for humanity, in which God is concerned with the entirety of human life, (social, economic, political, familial, etc) certainly involves a person’s work. God’s creational intent is for humans to be in the development, ordering, and cultivation of creation—we are more than widgets, but we were created to be productive and to participate in God’s creation work of filling the world with life and goodness. Furthermore, as God works to recreate the world, our life of work is redeemed as well—not made irrelevant.
Second, Missional churches are already focused on being as intentional about what happens outside the walls as inside the sanctuary. Concerns about the work lives of Christians employed in secular environments follow naturally, as faith moves back into the public sphere—although it is expressed in a different way than in the public environments of the Christian majority assumed in Christendom.
This move towards exploring the spirituality of work finds multiple expressions beyond the simple ideas of being a witness to the faith by conversation and being a good example. This begins with the church’s public conversation about work, but distinct spiritual practices follow.
- Missional communities are learning to practice vocational Discernment, in which the individual shares vocational leanings and receives encouragement or guidance from others. They may receive confirmation from those who have seen gifts and skills that support their vocation, or who perceive spiritual guidance in that direction.
- As an extension of discernment, missional communities may practice vocational Celebration, in which the community recognizes and commissions people into their callings. Few places do this formally, although it’s easy to imagine a church that celebrates the sorts of work transitions people make and from time to time highlights and celebrates how people are finding their vocation (including, but exclusive to work!) and how that contributes to (or flows from) the wholeness they have in Christ.
- Disciples pursue excellence and diligence in the workplace, understanding that how they do their work matters. Most work worth doing is worth doing well and excellently, and fulfilling our work roles as well as we can reflects on our own higher master. However, Christians pursue excellence in their work not only because of the testimony of good workmanship (though that deserves a thought as well), but because work itself matters, and diligence is a matter of character.
- Missional spirituality also points towards the intentional use of skills and resources to contribute to the community. Good work is not only a way of providing income for a family unit, but also provides ways for the individual to contribute to the good of the community. Sometimes the ways this take place may seem obscure and ambiguous—at times disciples may need to look deeper for ways of understanding their work and its role for the community, or may need to investigate other ways of contributing. What am I contributing? Is an unavoidably important question, even if troubling. Missional spirituality takes on this challenge.
- Missional disciples also pursue their callings with Vigilant Ethics, knowing both that righteousness is a fruit of the kingdom and also a witness for the Lord’s reign.
- Occasionally, work environments create the occasion for Spiritual Conversation, which is a way for the followers of Jesus to engage their coworkers who may have insight from other ways of life, and also open to hear a perspective informed by the way of Jesus.
Where do I start?
It might be helpful to provide, after such a set of lists, a couple of helpful pointers for where people interested in this sort of life might get started.
- Engage a community of mission…and if you’re not already part of one, it only takes one or two friends to begin one. So start having the conversations about what this kind of life might loo like. You can’t do it alone, and the community begins with conversation.
- Try experimenting with different elements described above, and journal your experiences. So take a few weeks and really try to attend to the way you practice hospitality, or your sense of vocation, and write a little bit every day about how the experiment is going.
- My podcast Spiritual Steps offers bite-sized steps towards developing your spiritual life. I generally work out of a missional perspective, so those >15 min episodes might prove useful to you, and provide concrete next steps.
- You might want to begin by taking something of a spiritual inventory of your life. Instead of adding a bunch of new practices out of nowhere, begin by reflecting one where you are, then just focus on the next step in front of you. Steady and intentional growth is the way, and being honest about where we currently are is the edge on that.
- You can always do a lot worse than by simply starting with prayer!