It’s Easier to Talk About Missional Living Than It Is to Live It Out

One of the things we’ve all heard a lot of talk about is what it means to be missional. It’s a relatively new word that has emerged into the conversation over the last few decades. It serves to remind the people of God that we are to live on mission.

While the word “missional” has emerged fairly recently, as a concept, it is actually built on theological ideas that date back a lot further—that themselves are built on the scriptures. It is part of a discussion about being shaped by the mission of God and serves as a reminder that the people of God are to live on mission.

Francis DuBose was the first person to use the word “missional” in a book with the modern definition. I won’t go into all of the details of the development, but if you are interested, you can read Mission Shift or other missiological on the subject.

But, suffice it to say, missional has become part of the mainstream conversation.

Mainline to Evangelical

In the mid last century, the mission conversation was dominated by the mainline traditions. However, over time that began to fade and much of that influence was lost (though later reengaged by people like the Gospel and Our Culture Network). While it has been influential elsewhere, the idea and emphasis was picked up in evangelical circles, which is what I will trace.

Evangelicals began to say, “Well, we need to live as agents of the mission of God. We need to shape and focus our ministries around the Missio Dei.”

And as evangelicals talked about these things, missional became a helpful adjective in front of things. It became missional church, or missional communities, or missional engagement.

From Concept to Culture

In the midst of this conversation, thinkers and writers began to frequently speak of missional and it became, in a way, an evangelical term. In fact, it became so well-used, “missional church” almost became an evangelical cliché.

As with many new phrases in the Church community, it almost became overused, and was hijacked to label things incorrectly. I actually heard one person talk about missional lighting.

Misuses of the Term

“If we could just have our lighting be more missional.” When I first heard this, it disturbed me because I didn’t have missional lighting and I now wanted missional lighting. But then it was disturbing because I realized you can’t slap missional on anything and determine the element is focused on the mission of God.

So as people began to write and to think on some of these issues, some used the word oddly and others pushed back on that meaning. Eventually, a group of us put together what was called The Missional Manifesto.

We gathered together Alan Hirsch, Tim Keller, J. D. Greear, Linda Burgquist, Dan Kimball, Eric Mason, and others. We wanted to discuss what we mean when we talk about being missional?

Of course, discussions alone don’t change a culture. People began to ask, “Well, what does it really look like in practice?”

Church and Culture

The concept of being missional started to be fleshed out in the context of church and culture. Inevitably, the question began to be asked, “How do we see missional ministry expressed in a local church setting?”

Part of the answer to that question arose as local church practioners began seek ways to help their people to live on mission. Many pastors looked around at other churches and in their own pews and found too many churches were filled with passive spectators rather than active participants in the mission of God.

Certainly, one way we would see this mission focus is that Christians would be engaged in serving as agents of God’s mission. Yet, the normal practice of the Christian life seemed to be one where we watch the show rather than engage in serving.

Missional Disconnect

We did a study at LifeWay Research of over 7,000 churches from all different denominations. We found that the majority of people in the majority of churches were unengaged in meaningful mission or ministry.

Leaders were asking how they could affect change. People were writing books and offer seminars on it. In the midst of all that, we began to hear a conversation that was becoming more common among churches. “How do we break down some of the divides that hinder people from serving?”

One of the divides I’ve written about is the one between the pastoral leadership and the congregation, what I have called the “clergification” of the church.

It has developed almost as a caste system for the clergy and lay people. “I’m clergy, so I’ve got my function and my role. And lay people, they don’t do, they kind of lay around.”

Part of the solution to this problem comes from the leadership. Unfortunately, having excellent, capable leaders has often resulted in disempowered, underwhelming servants. And I’m convinced that when pastors do for people what God has called the people to do, everybody gets hurt and the mission of God is hindered.

The Future of Missional

What is needed are excellent capable leaders who equip and empower the people of God to live out the mission of God within the context of their church and the culture around them, who will then raise up and empower others to do the same.

There has been a lot of talk about living in a missional way. In what way is the conversation helpful on the street level? In what way does the conversation come up short? How have you seen people not just talking about being missional, but living in a missional way?

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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