Welcome to the Christ and Cultures Gathering website

What it means to be a Missional Church

What it means to be a Missional Church


The word Missional is now like the word ‘gospel’.  When the word is used it is really a sign that does not actually tell you what missional or gospel is.   Nothing has been said until the word or the sign is spelled out. It is really telling to ask what is a ‘missional church’, or what is the ‘gospel’ and listen carefully for the response.

The web site I looked at recently, “friend of missional”, includes this cautionary quote.  “But first a necessary word of caution for those who wish to explore and understand what it means to be the missional church or people.  Alan Hirsch rightly states ‘the word “missional” over the years has tended to become very fluid as it was quickly co-opted by those wishing to find new and trendy tags for what they themselves were doing, be they missional or not.’”

This very website goes on to state ‘Missional’ is a shift in thinking, and lists 13 characteristics of missional, gives a Description of the Missional Church with twenty seven dot points, states what the Missional Church is not in a further nine dot points, finishing with a further fifteen dot points to describe what the Missional Church does looks like.   By the end I was spitting chips at this miss mash of catchy dot points that confirmed Hirsch’s observation.  The site also had a dodgy history of the term mission as well.

At this stage when the Synod is stressing the importance of the UCA being resourced to be a missional church it is vital that there be some clarity as to what missional means.

Mission instead of Missions

The word mission has been around for awhile, the word missional more recently.  What is the accepted meaning of the term mission?  Without going back too far it is sufficient to say that the Church we grew up with considered itself missional.   Many of us here have been on Beach Missions, and Preaching Missions and Working parties that were a mission to help a particular group in Australia or in another country.    In the period 1960 to 1980 a radical change in the understanding of mission emerged through Vatican 2, the World Council of Churches, Lausanne, and Pentecostal meetings.  The change can be stated succinctly.  It was the move from missions to mission.  Prior to this time the church was involved in sending missionaries (missio is Latin for the Greek sent).  The church was the sending agent for missions.  After this time it was realized that it is not the church that sends missionaries, but the Triune God that sends the church to the world.  God is the missioner.

It is a simple but huge change.    It is the church that God sends.  This is the church as the people of God, or a congregation, or a group of people responding to God’s call.    The very nature of the church as God’s people is integral to the sending.   In this ‘Mission of God’ the church can be a witness to God’s love in Christ, a sign of Christ’s love, a sacrament of God’s Spirit in the world.

Here is the fundamental change.  No longer is the church in the centre, God is in the centre.  The key questions are what is the way the message needs to be shared with the particular context the congregation finds itself placed in.   The church becomes the bearer of the message to the community of which it finds itself a part.

This is the witness of the New Testament.

In John 20:21  Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you.  As the father sent me (missioned me) so I send you(plural), (mission you (plural)).  When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them. “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” NRSV.

It is the same with the Great Commission.  All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore (more correctly going) make disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matt 28:18)

The missional question, the mission of God question then, is how is the Love of God in the ministry of Jesus Christ to be presented by a particular people in a particular time and place?   It is the relationship between the message and the context that is essential.  Maybe by reflection first, or as a result of action, the second question arises.  How is this message to be shared in a globalized, crosscultural, inter-related cyber world.

In a missional setting  congregations or groups of people need to both reflect on the message and the context in which they find themselves.   There is then a complication.  What happens if those in ‘mission’ put themselves at the centre rather than God at the centre?

In 1985 I was given the privilege of a world wide mission tour.  Recently I came upon the summary of that trip I made for myself in my journal.  “Surprised by the lack of direction of the Church with regard to its mission.  It was all circle the wagon train stuff.  There was an overwhelming lack of expectancy in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Man is the subject of discussion.”   Twenty eight years later not much has changed.

The Church in the Centre

It is plain that for a long time congregations have been formed with the focus on the church at the centre of their life. It is still true.  Why is that the case?    I have spent the last twenty years trying to find out why that happened.  Why is it that the best way that people can talk about the life of faith as one of commitment?  There was a massive change in the way the message about Jesus was preached at the beginning of the democratic era.  The focus was on helping the individual to follow Jesus.  The development of the Sunday School focused on the decision to follow Jesus.  The preaching focused on the individual making a commitment to Jesus.   For awhile it brought the message home to each person after years of formal state religion, but in the long term in a democratic time it leaves each of us at the centre of our religious world.

A good example of this is that Paul has been cut down to the five verses of the Roman Road.  Have you decided to commit your life to Jesus.  “Which Gospel” p59.    Rom 3:23, all have sinned, Rom 5:8 God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Rom 6:23 for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ, Rom 10:9 If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, Rom 10:13, For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.    Make your decision to call upon the Lord.   And in the process the church and culture and the world are ruled out of the purpose of God.

[Strangely enough the fact that commitment of disciples does not feature in the New Testament never seems to be noticed.    It is God who grasps us rather than we who grasp God.  Jesus chose his disciples.  Paul is clear that in the cross and resurrection God has chosen us to be washed clean and set free to be part of the people of God who witness to the reconciliation God has made possible and the implications for our life together as a community in the world.]

If salvation or becoming a Christian is about having my sins forgiven and attending church, then I come as an individual.    The local congregation becomes the first and for most the only reference point.  Other groups and councils of the Church are virtually non-existent.    The church remains the centre of attention.  That is where we worship God and are nourished for the week.  So often it also becomes God’s house.  It is the horizon for the individual Christian.   And we then talk about doing outreach to those who do not come. Such a large percentage of  the hymns we have inherited are about me and God’s love for me.    The prayers are about us and the world out there.   What is really important is the worship and the sanctuary.   I have a picture from the NCLS of the church with the moat around it and the bridge across.

Well strangely enough there is very little in the New Testament about worship.  And nowhere does the early church call the place of worship God’s house!  Yes worship is mentioned but it is assumed for a group of people, a gathering, who together are sent to be reconcilers, to live in the power of the Spirit and discover Jesus Good News, the gospel as it is in the Lord’s Prayer. “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”

While the message matters, and love for the world matters, it is an overstatement to say it, but in practice the critical issue becomes the need to raise the money for worship to continue.   The way through is to create leaders who are able to convince more people to come to church so that the church is able to be about its ministry.  Budgets and the need for good leaders of the congregation become the catchcry.   The goal is for more people to join the congregation to grow the church or at least keep it viable!!

So easily the minister and the congregation are caught by declining numbers and the movement of the church to the edge of society.  The profound desire to keep worshiping creates a sort of co-dependency that locks the attention of the congregation into its own life.

Do not get me wrong.  There is a lot of experimentation, and the church in many places is relating to the community, caring for the community.  But where are the congregations or groups of people that have a message that can bring life to the Australian society?    The big issue is the message and the crosscultural world in which we now find ourselves. God loves you is not good enough.  We are Christians who worship a Trinity.  A trinity who sends us together as a people in love to the world.  A Lord whose ministry is to the margins and the nation.  Not just a God who loves us and wants us to worship him and do outreach to get others to join us.   When that is the dominant belief, then it is hard to get beyond our own issues and our desire that people will come and join us.


There is much written about the need for the renewal of the congregation.   There are many books which look back to the New Testament and seek to recreate the church without realizing that it was the church in a particular context within the Roman Empire.   And many more books call for a return to the Reformation roots of the church, whether reformed or Anabaptist depending on the background of the writer, without realizing that this renewal came within the world of Christendom which now is passing away.   And again if only we took heed of Wesley and Whitefield and preached for conversion, without realizing that this happened in a time when nearly all believed in God.

For awhile I was strongly influenced by those who talked of the emerging church, or fresh expressions until I read in many of the writers, the sub-text, that it was the church that needed to be renewed.  The focus was once more on the church in the centre.  There are important truths here, but most are locked into reacting to the form of the church that is now current.

How then did the current form of the church come to be?

What surprised me is there is so little attention given to the most important time when the existing shape of the church was put in place, not forgetting that it built on previous eras of renewal.   It is that immense change that occurred in 1786 when Jefferson separated the church from the state and set in motion the denominational form of the church that is a consequence of the democratic revolution in politics.   If every person is equal and free then each person must be free to join the church they choose.   It is in that development that so many of the dynamics which we take for granted in the church were put in place.   And it is there that the message of individual commitment to Jesus that is still at the heart of the denominational church was shaped from previous expressions of the good news.

When I retired, I look back over forty years of serving God through Christ’s mission.   I came to the conclusion that the fact of the mission of God had not penetrated the life of congregations.   My reluctant observation is that the individual gospel of Jesus as my savior (A god and me relationship) still triumphs over Jesus as Lord ( A God, world, church and me relationship).   It set me further on this exploration of the denominational church

New Synod Structures

Perhaps it is not surprising then that I am vitally interested in the major changes  underway in the development of a Hub for an educational resourcing network with the focus on equipping and developing fully engaged disciples, providing resources for theological reflection and ways of growing practical and spiritual ministry capacity across the Synod.

My life has been spent in some form of this task.  I want to be part of such resourcing, but I want to know what shape this ministry takes, and what form of the church is being envisaged in terms of God’s mission.  Especially what is the importance of the message, and the importance of our context in these developments.  Some pertinent questions.

1. It is strange that Paragraph 3 & 4 of the Basis of Union are not cited to provide the theological framework for the rationale as a basis for the discussion of ministry and mission.   When the importance of solid theological resources is seen as essential it is stated, “At every point, however, the theological awareness of the church must be shaped in interaction with the context, the imperative of resourcing discipleship, and an openness towards becoming a new expression of church as befits the times, as a ‘pilgrim people, always on the way.’”   In par 3 the quote continues, ‘a pilgrim people always on the way to the promised end’.   The key is that the theological awareness of the church is shaped by the promised end that ties its awareness of its life as the church Built Upon the One Lord Jesus Christ.    It raises a caution for me when the emphasis is about the task of shaping, and resourcing, and openness as befits the times and the pilgrim church is cut free from the basis.

2. I note that the aim is to grow theological reflection and ways of growing practical and spiritual ministry capacity.  Why is the word ministry used and not mission?   Yet in the rationale it is stated that “If the Synod fails to resource the wider church for its missional task, then the church will have a very limited capacity to deliver on this calling.”   Is the task of equipping and developing fully engaged disciples able to reflect theologically and grow forms of practical and spiritual ministry more about ministry than mission?  There is a need to spell out what is involved in using this word ministry.  Is this internal within the congregation and various groups, as an attempt to make the church more effective in its ministry.  For many this can, it does not have to, but it can, lock the church into the internal life of the confessional church.  How did those who read the document and voted on it understand this when congregations are still coming to terms with the mission of God?

3. What is highly significant is that the proposal moves quickly to an organizational solution to implement how this will be done.  The Hub effectively centralizes in the Synod the responsibility for providing these resources to the Synod.  In a time of financial difficulty it seems to offer the chance to focus delivery in such a way as to bring about change.    In doing so, the Synod moves to centre stage in promising resources and now having to deliver such resources with fewer personnel in the UME resourcing team and the UTC faculty.    What a task!    Resources have always been available, but in the past it has been the provision of ordained ministers to congregations that provided a decentralized system of resourcing, augmented by the Boards.   This now has the danger of being centralized and hierarchical in the way it operates.  It is a network, but who makes the decisions and how accountable are they?

4. In a church with a covenant with the Aboriginal Islander Christian Congress, and a declaration that it is a multicultural church, how are these vital elements represented in the hub as part of the discussion re directions and resourcing.

5. Though the faculty and the resourcing team are involved in the direction setting in terms of the hub how will this happen in practice?

5. The new expression of church will “ensure that resources for theological reflection and spiritual formation are available to all, as well as developing resources to equip everybody with with greater practical ministry capacity ( in matters such as understanding communities, developing pastoral skills, growing capacity, exercising effective leadership, sustaining life-giving spiritual practices, engaging change, establishing and nurturing new initiatives, etc).”  At the core is this development of greater practical ministry capacity.   My concern is that it will, by the dynamics in the congregations and other groups, be limited to just that, developing practical ministry capacity within the denominational church rather than the church discovering that it is not in the centre, but a sent community with a message and a context that is far greater than church growth. There is a danger that this will all remain confessional within the church and the very fact of the church having a public voice in the land will be one of the things that will not be at the core of the resourcing.

History of Organisational Changes

It seems that the genesis of much of this push toward developing more practical ministry capacity has been derived from a review of the history of theological education in South Australia as was documented in the study of our President Andrew Dutney in his 2007 book, “A genuinely educated ministry”.   In it he looks at patterns of ordination in South Australia in the period 1995-2005.   From it he agrees with the 2007 decision of a Standing Committee of the Presbytery and Synod of SA that

The theological college undergo the organizational and cultural changes to ensure that the church has the ministers and lay leaders it needs through a new educational model to shift the emphasis from forming scholars to forming mission practitioners. (my summary in the words of the resolution)

The book was rushed to provide evidence for the Synod plans already underway., and I with him regret that there was not time to develop these three studies into a more holistic argument.   He agreed that the studies he did for the book showed “the evidence strongly suggests that the current crisis (in SA re numbers for ministry) is quite specifically organizational in character and does not reflect a spiritual malaise in the Church.” (p9)  Two initial comments about this proposal.  First, the candidates from Pacific and Asian congregations with the candidates from Anglo-Celtic congregations meant that the crisis in South Australia of not having sufficient ministers and lay leaders did not happen in New South Wales.   Second, note that the contrast between forming scholars and forming mission practitioners in the Standing Committee proposal is not questioned.   As a candidate in South Australia it was never the case from my experience and observation that candidates were formed to be scholars.    Indeed in my own case, having spent from 1974 – 1999 in serving in the field of mission and evangelism in Australia, it was then that I moved to the task of theological reflection upon what had been happening.

What is more concerning then is the assumption that the South Australian crisis “is specifically organizational in character and does not reflect a spiritual malaise in the Church.”

The inference from this proposal of the Synod is that the situation in which the Church finds itself is to a large part due to the training of ministers to be scholars.  The study and the issues need to be put in a larger context. The results of the NCLS show that adult attendance halved from 1950 to 2000 in the Protestant, the Anglican and the Catholic Churches..    The only group to buck that trend were smaller ‘other churches’ who declined nearly 20% with a surge in the late 80’s that has since fallen away. “Build My Church” P Kaldor et al. p.22.

Maybe SA has found the golden key that will unlock the twenty-first Century state of the church!   Knowing the state reasonably well I have not seen any signs of a radical change in the church in the last five years.  Somehow there seem here to be enormous oversimplification of a complex issue.

Resourcing The Missional Church

I take issue with the conclusion that a change in organization to produce mission practitioners, and engaged disciples is the ‘answer’ without addressing a number of other important matters which are, if not a spiritual malaise in the Church, certainly show evidence of important theological and spiritual warning signs.

In nearly all denominations, since Darwin, Freud, Hubble, and the globalization of the world, there has been a polarization in the faith between most who have uncritically accepted a commitment based private biblical faith, and those who critically evaluate the biblical faith in terms of today.   What is common to both is that this faith or belief is an individual faith, shaped by the individualism of the democratic revolution of the century.  What is common to both is that attention is focused on the church, its survival and its growth.  We put ourselves in the centre.  When will move beyond this schizophrenia in our faith, and discover again the communal faith that allows us to be uniting within our diversity as we discern the purposes of God?  How important it is to hear again what our source documents are saying in the need for a communal faith.

Now we are in a new post denominational setting, in which individuals are realizing that we live in an interdependent one world planet where we are part of the creation and the future depends upon the sort of communities that we create or are part of.   How do we help people of faith in our congregations move from an “I-my Faith” to a “Member of a sent Community Faith”.  This is the setting in which new emphases in the context help us then to find new resources in the source documents for expressing God’s action in our midst.

Indeed it is the mission of God which puts us into a new framework, in which the people of God are sent and are not the senders.   What is the message for our time? And to whom should we go?   The good news is not ‘that my sins are forgiven’, but that ‘ Christ brings a new creation’.     It is about repentance and forgiveness where repentance is about a change in the direction from our selves at the centre to believing in the kin dom of God.   The statement that forgiveness is God’s means toward God’s end gets a puzzled response, for too long forgiveness has been seen as an end in itself.   Yet the witness of the New Testament is clear.  We are individually washed clean in baptism to be in the new creation, sustained as a community through communion as we are sent communally into our context.  The end is knowing and being known by God, given new life in Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.    How great it is to hear those who have been grasped by the graciousness and mercy of God in Jesus Christ in such a way that their life is then given in service, witness and worship.    What a difference there is when addictions can be overcome, a hole has been punched in the dead end of death, and love can abound.   Without confidence in this transforming power of God, we in fact have little to offer, or provide as an alternative to a society that is facing forces that are greater than each of us alone, or where the pressures of work and family and pleasure lock us up in our selves.

I raise these cautions as I read the documents and wonder what they mean and how they will play out.  I reiterate that I will continue to help in any way I can with the new structures.   I do not want to the cause of church growth to continue to overwhelm mission growth.   It is a tough task that lies ahead of the hub.   Let me close with the experience of preparing a bible study for candidates at UTC for it gives a sense of the magnitude of the task.

Someone had made the comment that they would never take a subject on mission because the word mission was not in the Bible.   I had to agree that was the case, but then it seemed the person did not know that ‘missio’ was the Latin translation of the Greek ‘sent’, and sent was at the heart of the biblical account, especially in Christ’s risen word to the disciples whether in John or Matthew, and at the heart of the word ‘apostle’.    I decided in the study to focus on the passage in Matthew 9 and 10 where Jesus ‘sent out’ his disciples.

I prepared a series of readings, an information sheet, and a time for questions.  But it was in the reading that I checked the Greek and the King James Version (KJV)with the best translation available today, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  It was salutary.  The King James uses the words ‘sent forth’, and the NRSV uses the words ‘sent out’.   In terms of the cathedral of Christendom in 1611 a person went forth from the cathedral in a Christian land.  No boundaries were crossed.    In terms of the chapel of a denominational church (which a person must choose to belong to), in the language of today that person is ‘sent out’.  They cross a boundary from in the chapel to out in the world.  Yet the two Greek verbs for ‘sent’ tie in with the message of the kingdom Jesus sent them to announce wherever they were, with him or on the road.   Is this boundary an insignificant point?   Or one of immense importance!  It shows how the chapel has been made into the centre, from which ‘outreach’ is done, so that those who respond may ‘come in’.

The conclusion is that the best interpreters of the Greek have been sucked in by the individualism of a denominational church in a democratic society.  What hope does one have, teaching this, only to know that the consistent reading of scripture will reinforce what is a form of the church that denies the ‘mission of God’.  That is why questions must be asked of the plans for the future.  That is why theology and  exegesis are so important.   And unless we know how deeply ingrained is this in/out language which denies the fundamental heart of mission, then we will be found again to have misjudged the message and the context, and find our resourcing locked into church ministry and church growth, rather than be caught up in the Missio Dei, and growth of the mission.

What does it mean to be a missional Church? A missional church has good news, of a transforming God serving the society of which it is part.   It is a church family that sees its task to “go and be” with those to whom it is sent rather than announcing “come and see” what our leaders are doing here in worship.   Those who are called to resource the church will need to be clear about the message they share, how to reflect on the englobing society, and be able to do more than replace the minister with lay people in leadership positions.   It is missional leadership that the Synod needs to be clear about if it is to continue to encourage the growth of a missional church.  I want to support such resourcing of a missional church with a clear purpose that takes into account the scale of the task that we have given to those networked through the Hub.

Dean Drayton May 2013

The paper was presented at a Christ and Culture Conference at The Centre for Ministry on May 18, 2013.  It has since been tidied up for publication, picking up comments I made on the day.  The Bible Study on Mission is sourced from the book “Which Mission?” which is nearing completion.