“Missional” is one of the buzzwords used in the church these days. Type it into your word processor and you will see one of those wavy red lines under the word, indicating that it is either misspelled or not recognized. Missional is like a proper name, such as “Manskar.” It is a word that like a label for a family. While each member of the family is unique, they are also known by a common name that denotes certain traits.
If you try to find “missional” in the dictionary you will not find it. But you will see its root word, “mission.” This root gives us some clues for the traits and behaviors to be expected from a family known by the name, “missional.” The Oxford English Dictionary contains eight definitions. All of them are illuminating. But the first four are sufficient to help us understand the meaning of the name “missional.”
The first meaning is: “The action or an act of sending.” The rest of the definitions all relate to sending or being sent into the world to witness and serve. The second meaning is “A sending or being sent to perform some function or service.” The third tells us that mission is “the action of sending people forth with authority to preach the faith and administer the sacraments.” Finally, the fourth definition says a mission is “a body of persons sent to a foreign country, especially for the purpose of conducting negotiations, establishing political or commercial relations, watching over certain interests, etc.” All of these definitions describe aspects of a missional people.
The church is called by God to be a participant in God’s mission in the world. A close reading of Scripture reveals that the church is not a community with a mission; the church is part of God’s mission. Mission describes its character and its purpose. Jesus described this well in the Sermon on the Mount when he described the community centered in his life and teachings as being like salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). Saltiness describes the character of salt. It naturally improves the quality of what it touches. Salt helps to preserve foods because that is what salt does. Light illumines and reveals because that is what light does. The church, as salt and light, is by nature a witness to, representative of, and participant with God and God’s coming reign on earth as it is in heaven. When the church is the church, these things characterize its life and work in the world.
The church is missional because God is missional. Scripture reveals that God sent the Spirit (“a wind from God” – Genesis 1:2) to bring order out of chaos and begin the process of creation that lead to the formation of humankind. The man and the woman were then sent to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (Genesis 1:28b, 31a). God sent Abraham and Sarah to the land of Canaan. God sent Joseph to Egypt to save the people from famine. God sent Moses to the lead the Hebrew people from slavery to freedom and the land God promised. God sent judges and prophets to lead God’s people and to speak truth to the powers and principalities of the world.
In the New Testament we see that God the Father sent the Son into the world to become one of us (John 1:1-17; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20). The life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God’s mission in the world. Following Christ’s death and resurrection the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to live and witness and work in the followers of Jesus. The Spirit lead the people into the church that would become “the body of Christ for the world.” God the Father, Son and Spirit then sent the church into the world to be the witness to and participant in God’s mission in the world.
What is God’s mission, also known by the Latin, missio Dei? The word that best describes God’s mission is shalom. You may know that shalom means peace. But it is much more. Shalom describes peace that is born of righteousness and justice that bring reconciliation, healing and wholeness to human bodies, souls, and communities. Shalom describes a world where all people are well housed and fed, all have access to education, work and a living wage; life, liberty, and property are respected and protected by just laws; all have access to health care; and all are free to pray and worship. Jesus describes God’s shalom in his inaugural sermon:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to
bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus further describes God’s shalom to John’s disciples who asked if he was the Messiah:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:4b-6).
Shalom describes the coming reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. The goal of God’s mission is to bring to earth and all its people the fullness of God’s reign of shalom. This is captured in John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said,
“See, I am making all things new.”
A missional church prays and lives Jesus’ prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” A missional church is a community that works to be salt and light for the world. It is a people who are being formed in a way that compels them to be channels of grace for the world. Because of their living witness to God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ life in their neighborhood, city, or town is changed for the good of all. And, because the people are witnesses and workers of God’s love and justice in the world, others will be drawn to the missional church.
Missional is a name that reveals much about the character of a congregation. It tells us that the congregation is an outpost of the coming reign of God. Christ and his mission are at the center of the congregation’s life and witness. There is both a centrifugal and centripetal flow of people and energy. The people are intentionally formed as disciples of Jesus Christ and equipped to be his witnesses in the world under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They are compelled by faith and the Spirit’s power to serve with Christ in the world as participants in his unfinished work of preparing this planet for the coming reign of God (centrifugal flow). Conversely, because of the difference the congregation’s missional presence makes in the community people are drawn to it (centripetal flow). Many people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They also want to know and experience God and his love for the world. Missional congregations tend to attract such people. They also expect and are prepared to welcome and receive them as fellow pilgrims seeking to live as citizens in God’s coming reign.
Membership in missional congregations is intentional and responsible. There is an extensive process of Christian initiation and catechesis that prepares persons to take the vows of membership contained in the Baptismal covenant. Members are given very clear expectations for living and growing in faith, hope and love. These expectations are contained in the Baptismal covenant and the Book of Discipline. The congregation provides the means for members to live into the expectations and responsibilities of membership. They take seriously their promise to “do all in our power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”
I hope you see by now that missional congregations understand that “mission” describes what the church is rather than what the church does. Such congregations know that the church is a living breathing organism before it is an institution. This means that the church is the people who have been called into community by Christ through the power and leading of the Holy Spirit. This also means that missional congregations understand that the building in which they gather for worship on Sunday morning is not the church. It is simply the place where the church meets. When the people leave the building they take the church into the world. In a very real sense, the people see themselves as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). As they live their lives members of missional congregations are Christ’s representatives in the offices, factories, schools, fields, jails, hospitals, and streets of their world.