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What is the Missional Church

What is the Missional Church



What is the Missional Church is not a single question…


For me, there are actually Four questions or lenses that I use to shape my approach…


  1. What is the missional church?                                                                                                   What is happening that we have this obsession                               with the term ‘missional’, particularly as some                                             grammatically corrupt kind of twenty-first century                                 adverb about praxis: how we ‘do’ or ‘be’ church?


One senses that this version of the question                                                         starts with an emphasis on the Missio Dei – God’s

mission, to which the Church is called to join in                                           on…


2. What is the missional church?                                                                                                    Then there is the tug back to a more manageable                                     and familiar discussion, where the question is                                            about The Church, with missional being used as                                                 an adjective to describe the nature or chief

characteristic of ‘church’.


It is under this version of the question that we                                            contemplate the idea of the missional God whose                                   very nature is to inspire a missional church.

This is where the line comes from that says:

It is not that the Church of God has a mission, but                                that the Mission of God has a church.

                        This morning Dean made a bold accusation:

                        It is The Church that wants to stay at the centre…


The contrast between these two was summarized by

Darrell Guder  in 1998…


“The ecclesiocentric understanding of mission has been replaced during this century by a profoundly theocentric reconceptualization of Christian mission. We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation. ‘Mission’ means ‘sending’ and it is the central biblical theme describing the purposes of God’s action in human history.”



3. What is the missional church?

A trendy catch-all phrase of increasing popularity,                                     necessary for essays and book reviews that                                                        implies that I identify with up-to-date                                                                      developments and have dynamic energy for

naming things as missional for the sake of others                                      but I shouldn’t just be bundled into the emerging                                                 church crowd.


4. What is The Missional Church?

‘The Missional Church’ also refers to a 15 year                                          period of books, conferences, conversations and                                                 and networks.


[4] There is a YouTube video of a conversation between Rick Bolger and Alan Roxburgh discussing ‘What is the Missional Church’… It is part is a series of YouTube conversations between missiologists from the US (and a few from the UK) who are part of a stream of thinking that has had some energy developing around it for about fifteen years now…


During that time, there have been around ten to twelve key influential books published exploring ‘the missional church’ and around thirty to forty books hopping on the bandwagon and appropriating the term ‘missional church’ without necessarily engaging with the key themes or challenges raised by the core group of thinkers.


That core group of thinkers includes: Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, Craig Van Gelder, David Dunbar, Tim Keller, Ed Stetzer, Martin Robinson, William Storrar, Darrell Guder, Dwight J Zscheile, Dan Kimball, David Horrox, Rick Bolger and Alan Roxburgh.

(Notice – they are pretty much all men?)


They draw from the writings of David Bosch and Jurgen Moltmann…



Mission is not primarily an activity of the church,

but an attribute of God.

God is a missionary God



It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill the         world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the        Father that includes the church.


I have just completed my first twelve months in a new setting: I am now the Minister-in-Placement in the city of Newcastle. My parish is called Hamilton-Broadmeadow with two Congregations (one of about 75 weekly attenders and another of 10); a monthly Samoan Fellowship and two Faith Communities, one being primarily for Seeker Baby Boomers who are returners to church, and the other being a new Emerging community in its infancy… It was launched in October last year.


There are also three next-door-neighbour congregations who are currently vacant and together we are trying to hold a conversation about what mission and ministry might look like in the city of Newcastle in the future.


On the other geographic side of us is Adamstown, an inner-city suburb, where Rev Dr Rod Pattendon has also been for about a year and is making great inroads in creative arts ministries, peace and reconciliation work and engaging alternative culture.


Of the ten communities I have just named, none of them have an obvious path for being church beyond the next three years. None could be thought of as financially stable. It has become untenable for us to explore how to perpetuate church as we have known it. We are in a period where experimentation and the need for change is urgent, but where people do not necessarily understand why or how to go about it. Indeed, our structures, budgets, 5-year strategic mission plans and consultation processes seemed designed to delay any possibility of initiating real development before the current generation dies out.


My interest in ‘the missional church‘ is in pressing the pause button on asking the ecclesial question of how to be church, until we have given some intentional spiritual energy to recognizing the missional God, calling and sending us into missional discipleship.


Mike Breen… on the web-blog ChurchLeaders.com declares that the missional church movement will fail, because it is too interested in church and mission and neglects discipleship.

He claims that on the Internet today the ratio is 100:1 of discussions about church and mission compared to discipleship, yet, this is tantamount to admiring the body of the engineless porsche or ferrari… with disciples there will always be mission, but the missional church cannot function without disciples.


Of course, this implies he is actually engaging in the second question of defining the purpose of church as a community of disciple-making… according to Breen, we should place all our ecclesial resources at the service of disciple-making and mission will result.


The thing is, in Congregational ministry in the Uniting Church, we seem to spend 99% of our energy on disciple-re-forming and precious little time on making and initiating new disciples.

Even a decade at ELM and taking the lead nationally in discipleship formation taught me that our core work at that time was doing discipleship re-formation rather than responding to the commission:

Go, Baptize and Make Disciples of all nations ... (Matthew 28:19)


Evangelism has been a ‘dirty-word’ for years… how dare we impose our extreme religious preferences on others?


We should respect the beliefs of others and shut up. In some kind of post-colonial guilt-trip, we have become ashamed of any attempts to testify to a relationship with Jesus Christ. We have come to think that testimony is about our personal stories and fifteen minutes of fame, rather than about glorifying the God whom we worship.


I have found it is so easy, in the day to day work of Parish life, to default to behaviours and practices that are based on other people’s memories of the good old days of being church, rather than actually dealing with the mission-field we find ourselves in today.


So, I find the studies challenge me to be wary of the ecclesial blindness that could set in by taking too much comfort in rules and regulations that assure me of a Manse and a Stipend despite the aging demographic, not only of my congregations, but also of my Presbytery. I am not talking just about aging in years, but also becoming stale in attitude.


As I sat in a recent Presbytery meeting, I wondered if any member of Presbytery had been baptized in the last decade?

Ask the same question at your next Presbytery meeting…

            Where are the signs of fresh life?

            Where is the Spirit working?

            Where can we sense inspiration?


Are we actually experiencing the breathed life of Spirited community as church, or is our experience of ‘church’


I mentioned before that the list of writers in ‘The Missional Church’ movement has been male-dominated. As I immersed myself in the literature over the last couple of years and sit on their blogs, I find there are women, but they are not concerned so much with naming what this missional church is…

Like a bunch of collective fathers at a BBQ, the fellas are trying to shape and name The Missional Church through labels and categories, the concerns of women seem to be around…

who is the missional church and how should we care for her?

how does the emergence of this maturing character change how we operate the household of God?


This is being explored in

New Zealand, under the banner of:            “Emerging Church”…

And in the United Kingdom, under the catchall, “Fresh Expressions”…




62 years ago Richard Niebuhr published “Christ and Culture” and it is fitting that at events under the banner of Christ and Cultures, we should recollect where some of the thinking came from.


Niebuhr outlined five viewpoints:


Christ against Culture.

Christianity rising above the dying pagan culture.

Christ of Culture.

Christ’s Spirit engaging culture.

Christ above Culture.

Culture being a time of preparation for the real experience of Christ beyond the present.

Christ and Culture in Paradox.

The struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between promise and fulfillment.

Christ Transforming Culture.

The story of God’s work and humanity’s response.

The focus is less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. There is more concern with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.


60 years ago, Lesslie Newbigin would publish Household of God” (1953). The next quarter century would see his emphasis on the our call to be a

Sign, witness and foretaste of God’s dream for the world.

He described the need for a Three-way conversation: gospel, culture, and (then) church in  “The Open Secret” (1978).


He was a key voice in promoting:

            Missio Dei               =            The Mission (work) of God

David Bosch picked up Niebuhr’s theme of transforming in a key work, “Transforming Mission.” (1991)

Bosch also extended some of Newbigin’s ideas…  moving from ‘sign, witness and foretaste’ to “Sign, Sacrament and Instrument” (1991:374). In his way of thinking, mission is not as aspect of church-life, but every aspect of church experience can be understood within a missional framework.


Let me use the illustration of Holy Communion…

In Holy Communion…

“… the people of God…are strengthened

for their participation in the mission of Christ in the world…”

        (Uniting Church in Australia, Basis of Union, 1977:Paragraph 8)


In our local confession, people are baptised into a missionary community, where they are nourished to become missional nourishment. Christ sustains the congregation in order that they become the means of encountering Christ for others. David Bosch argues the Church’s essence is missionary. His identification of “Church-with-others” (Bosch, 1991:368); “Missionary by its Very Nature” (1991:372); “Pilgrim People” (1991:373); and “Sign, Sacrament and Instrument” (1991:374), encourages forming and nourishing community in a context characterized by diversity.


Bosch’s choice of words feel familiar to Uniting Church attuned ears, yet these phrases are rarely really explored in congregational life.


Bosch’s work prompts the following questions in relation to my own setting in Newcastle:

–       How do we address the tension between individualistic world-views and the emerging and strengtheng call to community-oriented mission?

–       Does our experience of Church reflect the Church’s missionary nature?

–       How important are liturgy and hospitality in shaping this community’s missional identity?

–       How important is our identification as local church(Bosch, 1991:378)?

–       How are our diverse groups ‘church’ within our local experience of the world? How do we understand our location, as Samoan, old, young, conservative, progressive, refugee, Asian and Indigenous members of a local community?

–       How can we make pilgrimage together?

–       Is our journey a missional pilgrimage?


Just as Dean Drayton talked earlier today about the dangers of an individual or personal approach to mission, I have instinctively shunned single-culture approaches to mission… Pentecost is not a picture of multiple monocultures… it is a picture of cross-cultural encounter, worship, empowerment and co-missioning…

According to Bosch, the movement towards ministry by the whole people of God (Bosch, 1991:467-474) requires building connections between diverse persons to identify as a people of relationship through Christ. Hospitality and eucharistic experience provide key opportunities to build such connection. At the same time, these are the very moments when different world-views can lead to tensions and conflicts around language, culture, and tradition. Bosch offers a reminder to confront syncretism and broaden perspectives about the diversity of gifts and graces within our community. He advocated the re-articulation of salvation in each missional context: how gospel is mediated relates to fresh interpretations of justice, evangelism, context, liberation, and enculturation.



Up to now, in my Congregation, this has been expressed in the statement –

              A Community of Faith that ministers Christs compassion through

              Unconditional Hospitality, Inclusive Worship and Faithful Service.


1. Who are we, that God calls us as a unique community into mission? What are our core beliefs and practices?

2. Where have we been placed? (something of the scope of mission in our region and context)

3. What are our heartfelt priorities? Where are we inclined to spend our time and energy?

4. Does our Vision Statement articulate our heart for mission? (Is anything missing? Is anything irrelevant? Is there a priority order to the elements? –  This will determine if it is adequate.)


As I encounter The Missional Church thinking, I am challenged by the questions of Roxburgh and Boren…

What is the gospel when people expect Jesus to meet their private spiritual needs but nothing else?

How can we reach people in our neighborhoods who just aren’t going to come to church?

How do I find out what God is already up to in the neighbor–hood?

What kind of church might the Spirit want to shape in this neighborhood?

(2009, Roxburgh & Boren. ‘Introducing The Missional Church’)


Fifteen years ago, in the year of Newbingen’s death, the World Council of Churches released this statement:


We are challenged by the vision of a church that will reach out to everyone, sharing, caring, proclaiming the good news of Gods redemption, a sign of the kingdom and a servant of the world.


We are challenged by a vision of a church, the people of God on the way together, confronting all divisions of race, gender, age or culture striving to realize justice and peace upholding the integrity of creation.


We journey together as a people of prayer. In the midst of confusion and loss of identity, we discern signs of Gods purpose being fulfilled and expect the coming of Gods reign.


We expect the healing of human community, the wholeness of Gods entire creation.  (WCC 1998)