What is Missional Theology?

WHAT IS MISSIONAL THEOLOGY?

“Missional Theology” has found its place in the vocabularies of both the academy and the church, but it can be difficult to pin down exactly what the term “missional” means. Because of the term’s broad usage in a variety of different settings, and the different shades various authors and practitioners insist upon, many people still find themselves asking, “What is missional theology?”

Let me begin to answer that question by clarifying that missional theology isn’t one particular concept, but rather a constellation of ideas that come together in a comprehensive conversation about God, the church, and what God has sent the church into the world to be and do. The publication of Missional Church launched the missional conversation in 1998 with a core of ideas that has remained significant 1, although like all good conversations the ideas have taken on different nuances and directions as new voices from the church and the academy have joined in the discussion. I’ve reviewed Missional Church elsewhere; here I’d like to offer a distilled version of missional theology as an introduction for those who are joining the conversation now. Essentially, missional theology is a movement that offers a theological shift, a sociological recognition, and a set of distinct church practices. Let’s take each of these categories in turn.

A Theological Shift

At the core of missional theology is a different way of thinking about God, the church and mission. Although there is a constellation of ideas involved in that theological shift, I will confine the conversation here to three critical emphases: the agency of God in mission, the nature of God’s intent for creation, and the importance of the reign of God.

The Agency of God

The authors of Missional Church perceived that the church often spoke of missionary work as an activity that the church carried out. Van Gelder writes that the church developed foreign mission structures throughout the twentieth century with the goal of carrying the gospel into other parts of the world, holding the mindset that God had given them this evangelistic mission in the great commission. This emphasis undergirds a “church-centric” view of mission that “views the church as the primary acting subject responsible for doing something on God’s behalf in the world.”2 In response, the missional church has pivoted towards an understanding of mission that proclaims that mission is, first and foremost, rooted in the identity and nature of God. Guder describes this “theocentric” understanding Christian mission: “We have come to see that mission is not primarily an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.”3 The location of mission within the nature of God’s own being results in the perception that God is always at work bringing about the mission, and sometimes in ways that the church is unaware of, and which are located outside the church’s activity. This already brings about the possibility that the church may look to recognize and discern God’s activity outside of itself, but also points towards the great theological question: What is the mission of God?

The Missio Dei: God’s Intent for Creation

There may be many paths of answering that great theological question, which rises to the significance of the meaning of creation and the intent of all of God’s interactions with creation. In the missional conversation, the quotation above already offers a possible trajectory, referencing “God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.” This is perhaps enough of a departure from theologies that view creation as tangential to God’s intent to warrant our attention, but we may be more particular in the direction of missional theology. Missional theologians and practitioners often describe God’s intent for creation by recognizing and describing a particular narrative arc within scripture. The basic line of that narrative may be described like this: God’s intent was for creation to be full of life and goodness (whatever goodness might entail is an important question), but creation is corrupt because of human collaboration with evil. Nevertheless, God pursues that intent, restoring corrupted creation through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and will one day bring about the final restoration, reconciliation, and recreation of all things. This process has already begun in the in-breaking and spread of the reign (or kingdom) of God.

The Reign of God

Thus missional theology understands that it is by God’s own divine agency, in which the church of Jesus participates by the Spirit, that creation will return to God’s intent. At the invitation of Jesus, the church enters into God’s reign, learning to live under God’s kingship. This line of theology has much to commend it, not the least of which is the way it refigures the church’s identity. In this view, the church, comprised of disciples of Jesus, is not simply a collection of people who have accepted a promise of salvation and await a rewarding afterlife, pending good behavior. Rather, the church is a community that represents God’s kingdom in the present. It embodies the reign of God as a community, and is sent into the world as the kingdom’s servant and messenger. It is both a foretaste of God’s kingdom and an agent of that community—and both of these facets of its being are ways of participating in God’s own mission. Thus, missional theologians see mission as not simply an activity of the church, but as a feature of its very nature and being. Mission is not confined to the pursuit of (distant) proselytes, but is wrapped into every moment where the church lives in alignment with the will of God. As disciples practice love and peace with each other and also with their neighbors, they are about the work of the mission of God. They also naturally invite others to join them in living in the kingdom of God.

A Sociological Recognition

Along with this theological orientation, the missional conversation, particularly in North America4 contains a specific sociological recognition. A second broad feature of the missional movement grows from a certain analysis of the social situation of the church, particularly in western contexts, and even more particularly in North America. The first paragraph of Missional Church closes with a sentence that signals the trajectory of this conversation:

“On the other hand, while modern missions have led to an expansion of world Christianity, Christianity in North America has moved (or been moved) away from its position of dominance as it has experience the loss not only of numbers but of power and influence within society.”5

The importance of this claim for the direction of the conversation can be further seen from the structure of that seminal work; after the introductory chapter, the next two are devoted to making the case of the shifting position of the church due to cultural trends and the evolution of American religious practices. Although various writers within the missional vein may approach this sociological claim with different emphases, here I will describe two recurrent themes: the loss of Christianity’s privileged status within society, and critique of the church of Christendom.

The first of these emphases, the loss of Christianity’s privileged status, refers to a sense that society was once structured so that the church held a powerful voice in the public sphere, but that the church has been pushed to the margins as the construction of a secular, pluralistic public sphere has evolved. Taking Leslie Newbigin’s lead, the missional conversation argues (and more lately, assumes) that the modern western cultural assumption is that no religion should be permitted to make ultimate truth claims in public. It is more readily apparent that there is tension and conflict between North American culture(s) and the church at the levels of worldview, values, and praxis. Thus, the church can no longer assume a de facto partnership with the broader culture in which the church helps people become better citizens and the culture forms people as good disciples. In the current cultural reality, the missional movement has claimed, the church cannot continue to make the same assumptions about the starting places of conversations with its neighbors about Christianity as were held under Christendom. 6

Missional Church furthers this point by describing how the church, having been blocked from the public sphere, increasingly focused its message on a private, interior sort of religious life.7 The authors argue that as the churched culture either collapsed or was eroded in the second half of the twentieth century, morality based on faith was generally rejected or marginalized in terms of its fit for public debate, and faith commitments could only be leveraged for personal decisions.

“Notions of shared public morals gave way to personal decisions of expediency, pleasure, or private judgment. Expectations of privileged position gave way to irrelevance and marginalization. People no longer assumed that the church had anything relevant to say on matters beyond personal faith. Public policy became increasingly secularized, as public morals became increasingly personalized and privatized.”8

A final step in this argument comes from Alan Roxburgh, who argues that pervasive pluralism has stripped away the church’s privileged monopoly over even interior faith. The new situation is that churches, once driven from the public sphere but given sanctuary in the private life of Americans, now finds themselves in a crowded marketplace of ideas with competing spiritual sources and authorities. 9

Missional authors respond to the church’s loss of the cultural center on a variety of levels. Most basically, they insist on the acknowledgement of this reality and its practical implications, employing their rhetoric to implore churches to adopt and adapt. Even if they grieve the loss of the former arrangement, the missional movement argues that churches must move forward and learn new ways of being if they are to survive or be fruitful in the new situation. However, a more forceful vein of rhetoric argues that the new situation is in and of itself good, that it provides the opportunity to abandon distorted and corrupted forms of ecclesiology in favor of a model that more aptly represents not only this sociological shift, but also theological reality. This critique of Christendom may vary from critiques about its missiological distortions, its collusion with secular power, its hubris, or its oppression of others. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch vigorously advance a critical perspective of Christendom in The Shaping of Things to Come, referring to the Christendom model of ecclesiology as an idol and a virus, which can’t help but spawn churches that carry in their DNA its critical flaws.10 Their text is essentially a response to three specific flaws, namely that the church of Christendom is attractional, dualistic and hierarchical. Churches that recognize the unsustainability of the Christendom model, they argue, are thus freed to create communities that represent alternatives to these flaws, practicing incarnational mission, messianic spirituality, and apostolic forms of leadership.11

A Set of Church Practices

Frost and Hirsh viewed these three practices as an extension of the twelve hallmarks of missional churches identified by the Gospel and Our Culture Network.12

  1. The missional church proclaims the gospel.
  2. The missional church is a community where all members are involved in learning to become disciples of Jesus.
  3. The Bible is normative in this church’s life.
  4. The church understands itself as different from the world because of its participation in the life, death and resurrection of its Lord.
  5. The church seeks to discern God’s specific missional vocation for the entire community and for all of its members.
  6. A missional community is indicated by how christians behave toward one another.
  7. It is a community that practices reconciliation.
  8. People within the community hold themselves accountable to one another in love.
  9. The church practices hospitality.
  10. Worship is the central act by which the community celebrates with joy and thanksgiving both God’s presence and God’s promised future.
  11. This community has a vital public witness.
  12. There is a recognition that the church itself is an incomplete expression of the reign of God.

Along with the practices suggested by Frost and Hirsch, these practices begin to outline a different set of church practices than what might be considered the norm in North America previously. At the risk of overly distilling the lists (and the other lists they represent!), let me offer two distinct directions for these practices: Developing a Contrast Community of Disciples and Engaging the Church’s Neighbors.

A Contrast Community of Disciples

As a result of its theological convictions and perception of its sociological reality, the missional church sets out to prepare its people to live differently than the people around them. It seeks to intentionally form people by practices that implant them with the story of God and prepare them to live out values like love and justice through practices like hospitality and reconciliation. The missional church wants people to learn the gospel so that they may practice the gospel, working for good, loving sacrificially and persevering hopefully in ways that mirror the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is what marks the internal life of the church—ministry that forms people to live as God’s people, sent into the world.

Engaging the Church’s Neighbors

Externally, the missional church pursues relationships with its community and engages the needs of the people it shares life with. It enters into partnerships with people who work towards making the community whole, and joins those who seek to infuse new life into places of hurt and brokenness. The missional church knows that as it engages these neighbors it must speak a word of the gospel, but it also seeks to listen. It expects that God may indeed use the community to shape the church, even as the church shapes the community, and knows that its own practice of the kingdom of God is not yet a perfect expression. By becoming a vulnerable neighbor, the church demonstrates the gospel of Jesus, and always seeks to deepen its own faith, even as it shares that faith with its neighbors.

Footnotes

  1. Darrell Guder, ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998). See my review of the landmark work Missional Church here.
  2. Van Gelder and Zcheile, 21, 24.
  3. Guder, 4.
  4. It’s interesting that much of the missional literature assumes a North American context, given the importance of the insights of Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch, both of whom worked outside this context.
  5. Guder, 1.
  6. Whether or not these assumptions were actually valid even under Christendom is a question to be explored another time.
  7. Guder, 54. Alan Roxburgh deepens this argument by demonstrating how churches not only survived by becoming the caretakers of private faith, but for some period of time thrived as they continued to possess a religious monopoly on this private space. Alan J. Roxburgh, The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality. (Harrisburg, Pa: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1997), 6-13.
  8. Guder, 54.
  9. Roxburgh, 12-14.
  10. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, Revised and Updated edition. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013), 29, 34.
  11. Frost and Hirsch, 48, 49.
  12. These hallmarks can be found in Treasure in Clay Jars, Ed. Lois Barrett, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004). The GOCN is the parent network of scholars that published Missional Church.