The late ’90s had “postmodern.” The first part of the 21st century introduced us to “emerging.” But over the last few years, there has been no bigger buzzword in Christianity than “missional.” It’s a word that has exploded into the popular vernacular of preachers, theologians and seminary professors. It has graced the covers of almost every major Christian publication. It has spawned books, seminars, conferences and endless blog debates. A growing number of congregations now describe themselves as “missional churches.” And proponents of the idea believe you and your church would do well to do the same. But what does it mean?

Definitions of the word are as diverse as the spectrum of churches brandishing it as a label. The ambiguity of “missional” has been compounded by its utter ubiquity. The term sometimes seems like an umbrella for anyone who is pro-social justice, active in urban church-planting or domestic missions, or skeptical of megachurches (though many megachurches now consider themselves missional, too).

Most who discuss the idea agree that “missional” is some kind of important moment in contemporary church history — even if the average Christian on the street likely has little idea what missional is and why it’s such a big deal.

So … why is it such a big deal?

Missional 101: The Church Does Not Exist For Itself

Most definitions of what it means to be “missional” start with the basic premise that the church is not primarily about us, but about God’s mission in the world.

Originating from the Latin phrase missio dei — which means “the sending of God” — “missional” conceives of the church as a primarily movement-oriented body that was not created for itself, but for the glorification of God through the spreading of his gospel to others. Our God is a God who sends. He sent Jesus to earth, who said in John 20:21 that “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” As followers of Christ, we exist in this sending tradition.

This, of course, is not a new idea — and that’s the point. Proponents of the missional movement say they seek a return to the mission-mindedness of the early church, which has been gradually lost as churches have become more inward-focused and “missions” has become a separate category altogether. Being missional is about bringing the church and mission back together. Missions isn’t just one of many programs or purposes of church. It is the core, overarching, motivating logic for all that we do. A church exists neither for itself nor its parishioners, but for the kingdom and mission of God.

So what does this mean for the church today? Statistics from a recent Leadership journal survey of nearly 700 evangelical pastors indicate that it means quite a lot. The research uncovered several trends and shifts over the past 10 years that fit into what might broadly be labeled “missional thinking”: More pastors now believe that the gospel is advanced by demonstration and not just proclamation, and more pastors say that the goal of evangelism is to grow “the” church rather than to grow “my” church.

Rather than a megachurch mindset of building bigger churches and attracting larger crowds, evangelical pastors are increasingly focused on making and sending out disciples, establishing partnerships with other churches to advance the gospel in a more cooperative, flexible, mobile manner.

Missional 201: Missional in Historical Context

Common usage of the term “missional” can be dated to the release of the book Missional Church in 1998, written by Darrell Guder of the Gospel and Our Culture Network. The term, Guder has noted, was intended to stimulate a theological conversation about the fundamental nature of the church — as being missionary by its very nature.

In his contribution to the 2005 book, The Community Of The Word: Toward An Evangelical Ecclesiology, Guder describes missional in this way:“Rather than seeing mission as, at best, one of the necessary prongs of thechurch’s calling, and at worst as a misguided adventure, it must be seen asthe fundamental, the essential, the centering understanding of the church’spurpose and action.”

But why now? Why is the missional movement gaining momentum at this point in history, and what is it reacting against?

Gary McIntosh, a church growth expert and professor of Christian ministry at Talbot School of Theology, believes that the missional movement is a reaction of younger Christians against various trends in recent church history.

“Every generation has to in some ways rebel against the generation before them, in effort to create their own identity, their new ways of looking at things,” said McIntosh. “The missional movement is a way for the young generation to identify themselves against the excesses of the baby boomers’ church.”

The missional movement comes out of the desire to rebuild the credibility of the church by engaging and serving the culture, McIntosh believes. It’s about looking at the church with a broader “kingdom” lens, as informed by diversity, tolerance and global awareness.

This broader lens turns “missions” into a more all-encompassing idea that informs every activity of the Christian life, situated not primarily in parachurch organizations but in churches themselves and every individual Christian life.

Tom Steffen, professor of intercultural studies at Biola and director of the Doctor of Missiology program, sees missional as representing the fourth era of modern missions, following the coastlands era (1792–1865), pioneered by William Carey; the inland era (1865–1935), pioneered by Hudson Taylor, and the unreached people group era (1935 present), pioneered by Donald McGavran.

“The first three eras were very youth-oriented, with young people getting in to it for the long term, for their career” said Steffen. “But when you get to the fourth era, missions includes everybody — from youth to retirees — and it’s everything — whether you’re in business, medicine, teaching, community development, etc. It’s everything now.”

Missional 301: Missional in Practice

Though it may be correct to say that the missional mindset broadens our category of missions into nearly “everything,” it would be a disservice to the term to not point out that, in practice, the missional movement has some very specific practices and traceable characteristics.

One of the distinguishing features of a missional church, for example, is a general orientation towards “going out” rather than “bringing in.” More and more churches are conceiving of themselves not as inert, stationary objects for people to come to for a “church experience,” but as mobile, adaptable missionaries committed to going out and meeting the community and culture where they’re at.

“We want to change the mindset from expecting people in the community to just come and check us out to the realization that we must go out and be the church in the community,” said Jay Williams (M.Div. ’86), pastor of care and concern at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, Calif.

“Sometimes before we get the message out, we have to build relationships and credibility. Good deeds create good will so that we can spread the good news.”

For Williams’ church, this new emphasis recently parlayed into the establishment of a church plant in south Fullerton, where partnerships and service opportunities with the community can be more easily established.

Church-planting in general has seen resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to the missional idea. Church-planting networks such as Acts 29 and NewThing are springing up, as more and more Christians are seeking to extend the (not necessarily their) church’s reach in as many places as possible.

Feeling the call of church-planting, Talbot graduates Thien Doan (M.Div. ’02) and Tom Demorest (M.A. ’05) planted City Lights Church in downtown Long Beach, Calif., in the fall of 2006, with help from Acts 29. The church, which meets at the Cesar Chavez Community Center, exists not to rescue the community of Long Beach, but to be a part of it, insists Doan.

“Every single week, we tell people that the reason we are here is to participate in the transformation of our city,” said Doan. “It’s not about us. We feel that we are missionaries — all of us — and that the causes of the city are our causes as well. Our goal is to make a difference in our city.”

This sentiment is a missional trademark — the notion of really engaging with and serving the local community — and it looks different from church to church.

Tim Theule (M.Div, ’96), senior pastor of Grace Church in San Luis Obispo, has made it a goal of his 78-year-old congregation to serve the community and live the gospel as much as they proclaim it. The church, located in downtown San Luis Obispo, has opened its facilities up to Chamber of Commerce meetings, city music festivals, even annual firefighters’ awards banquets. The church’s worship center and gym (which they call a “community center”) are constantly being used by people in the community for meetings and events. All of it, says Theule, is motivated by the idea that the church and its resources are not primarily for the church itself. They’re for the community.

This is not to say that the message is being lost. While these pastors are putting more of an emphasis on serving the community, they’re also still concerned about bringing in converts and transforming souls.

Dave Detwiler (M.Div. ’89, Th.M. ’97), teaching pastor at Branch Creek Community Church in Harleysville, Pa., describes his church (of more than 3,000 members) in both seeker-friendly and missional language.

“We are looking to go out, but also still bring people in. We believe in both,” said Detwiler, whose church contains a food pantry to meet local homeless needs and sends out groups every Monday night to work with a homeless ministry in Philadelphia.

This emphasis on the community and civic partnership hints at another core value of missional churches: cooperation.

Being missional is about seeing the church for the global, diverse, interconnected thing that it is. Its emphasis on church planting, networking, partnerships and communal action stands in contrast to the “my church is bigger than yours” mentality of competition and proprietary individualism. In the missional age, the thinking is, “We’re all in this together.”

Missional 401: The Church, the Kingdom

Being missional is a way of living, but it’s also a way of conceiving of the church and the kingdom of God. In short: The missional movement asserts that the church is and always has been an apostolic action first and an institution second, serving its function by extending itself in motion between the kingdom and the world.

The sense in which the kingdom is present now is in the Holy Spirit’s action through the church in the world, notes Mark Saucy, professor of theology at Talbot.

“The Spirit does a work in an individual and corporately. And in the process of that, the image of Christ has kingdom, earthly, physical ramifications,” said Saucy. “He is making us into what Adam was supposed to be. Adam had a mandate to rule and subdue the earth, to have a horizontal focus. As the Spirit renews that within us, we should have impact socially and culturally, not just in our vertical relationship with God.”

It is the Holy Spirit working through us as Christians — as the church — that bridges the gap between the kingdom and the world. This is the mission of the church — missional at its most basic level: the present extension and embodiment of those “powers of the age to come” that Hebrews 6:5 speaks of. The kingdom is not a palace for the pleasure of Christians alone; it is a force of transformation and renewal for the world.

People often read John 18:36 as saying that Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world,” but as the influential British theologian N.T. Wright pointed out in a recent Christianity Today interview, what Jesus actually said is “My kingdom is not from this world.”

“That’s ek tou kosmoutoutou,” said Wright. “It’s quite clear in the text that Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t start with this world. It isn’t a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It’s from somewhere else, but it’s for this world.”

This idea that we are to be for the world undergirds the core of the missional movement, spawning a newfound passion for social justice, community service and earth-based mission-mindedness.

But this is also the chief source of the missional movement’s controversy.

Missional 501: Some Reservations

Though more and more churches and Christian leaders are getting on board with the missional movement, many still express reservations about whether “missional” will inhibit or deemphasize evangelism and the proclamation of the gospel in its push towards service and demonstration of the gospel.

A recent article in Leadership titled “Missional Misgivings” by Dan Kimball, an early proponent of the missional movement, expresses some of these reservations. In the article, Kimball wonders whether missional churches are actually seeing any increase in people coming to Christ, and whether it is ultimately better to be part of a Christ-centered megachurch where souls are being saved rather than a no-growth church that is doing a lot of good things in the community.

It all comes down to a fundamental debate — about the relative importance of evangelism versus social justice — that has divided the church since the fundamentalist-modernist split in the 1920s when the “soul” gospel became divorced from the “social” gospel.

It’s a debate that looms large in missions today — whether the soul should always be prioritized over the social, or whether certain contexts require that primacy be given to addressing social issues first and evangelism second.

Though most missional leaders argue that evangelism and social justice issues should be equally important for the church, several Biola professors interviewed for this article expressed concern that the balance is frequently a tenuous one.

“My fear is that even if you try to maintain a balance, it is so easy to forget about the redemption of individuals through Jesus Christ,” said McIntosh. “It’s always easier to paint someone’s house than to talk to them about Jesus. I think (being) missional is a good thing — we certainly need to engage our communities and cultures. But in the long run, I fear that we will do a lot of good things but not talk as much about Jesus.”

Mick Boersma, professor of Christian ministry and leadership and director of field education and placement for Talbot, echoed this sentiment. He pointed out that the church has always been called to both purposes, even if they might seem in tension.

“You can go out and do a lot of good things, but that won’t save someone’s soul,” he said. “It’s both/and, and it always has been. It’s like walking a high wire. Though it takes a lot of energy and concentration, and the tendency will be to fall to one side or the other, we still have to stay on the wire.”

For younger generations of Christians, the “evangelism versus social gospel” dichotomy is not that much of a dichotomy at all, says Murray Decker, associate professor of intercultural studies at Biola. Decker suggests that the question this generation asks is “Why do we have to choose between ‘Do we win ’em’ or ‘Do we feed ’em’?” For them, it’s natural that the church must be about both.

These issues were directly addressed at the 2008 American Society for Church Growth conference, held at Biola on Nov. 13–15. The conference — themed “Balancing the Great Commission with Great Compassion” — featured speakers such as Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay research. In his talk, Stetzer made the point that many younger evangelicals who are currently proponents of social justice are unaware that their predecessors’ quest for the social gospel ultimately led them to abandon the proclaimed gospel.

“The world will praise you when you speak of justice, but they will condemn and resist you when you speak of Jesus,” said Stetzer. “And so eventually it becomes easier just to speak of justice to receive the world’s praise. There will always be the stumbling block of the cross.”

In addition to these concerns, the other major reservation about the missional movement is that it does harm to our concept of “missionary” as a distinctive vocational role in the church.

With the missional view, everyone becomes a missionary, said Steffen. “But when everyone is a missionary, no one is a missionary.”

This is Decker’s one reservation about the missional approach. He believes that “missional” might erode the fervor towards the vital crosscultural outreach that still needs to be done.

“There are over 2 billion people who have never heard the name of Jesus, and they will not be reached without major new initiatives to cross a geographic and cultural barrier,” he said.

“The gospel will not get to these places by osmosis. Someone has to go. My fear is that when everybody is a missionary — whether you work at Starbucks or in a lab — we lose the idea of missionary as being a specific task that needs to be done. I’m glad that we are being more missionally engaged in our communities, but the task of missions is something qualitatively different; and more than that, there’s got to be a priority to it.”

Missional’s Legacy: A Lasting Impact?

So, will the missional movement have a lasting impact? Or is it just a flavor-of-the-week buzzword, like “postmodern” or “emerging”? Will the next buzzword be “post-missional”?

Gary McIntosh sees missional as a word that has resonance now but perhaps will not in future generations.

“Every generation is going to redefine things to fit them, their understanding of the world,” he said. “To people under 40, the term missional sounds like theirs. But the next generation might see missional as having baggage and will want to come up with a new term.”

Either way, it is clear that, for now, the missional moment is an important one for the church. It’s about getting back to our core purpose in history, which is mission-focused in the first place, noted Saucy. The church is called to fellowship and worship, but everything must be in the service of mission, said Saucy.

Whether we call it “missional” or “mission” or some other term, the idea is the same: Christians are not meant to be lifeless defenders of some stationary faith.

We are on a mission, sent forth, active harbingers of a gospel that cannot help but be sent out and spread for the transformation of the world.

What Makes a Church Missional?

Missional churches are perhaps best understood in relation to “attractional” or “seeker-sensitive” type churches. Keep in mind that these lists of qualities represent the extremes of each position; many churches have attributes from both lists.

Missional Attractional/Seeker
“Go out” mentality “Come in” mentality
Typically smaller churches Frequently large or mega-sized
Often in urban settings Often in suburbs
Small budgets, few paid staff Large budgets, many paid staff
Thinking holistically Emphasis on disparate programs
More organic, bottom up More corporate, top down
Priesthood of all believers Clear demarcation between pastors/laity
Emphasis on action/demonstration Emphasis on words/proclamation
Everything is mission-oriented Missions one among many programs
Goal to grow “the” church Goal to grow “my” church
Younger congregations Older, baby-boomer congregations

Reading List

For further exploration of the missional movement, check out these essential books.

  • The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission by Lesslie Newbigin (Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder (Eerdmans, 1998)
  • The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost (Hendrickson, 2003)
  • The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out without Selling Out by Mark Driscoll (Zondervan, 2004)
  • The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies by David Fitch (Baker Books, 2005)
  • Breaking the Missional Code by Ed Stetzer (B&H Academic, 2006)
  • The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church by Alan Hirsch (Brazos, 2007)
  • The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit by Craig Van Gelder (Baker Books, 2007
  • Compelled by Love: The Most Excellent Way to Missional Living by Ed Stetzer and Philip Nation (New Hope, 2008)
  • Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement by Will Mancini (Jossey-Bass, 2008)
  • ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost (Hendrickson, 2008)