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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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

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Why Failure to Live on Mission is a Worship Problem

Sometimes we think the way to engage people in mission is to make sure we get the right information to them.

  • If we just preach the Bible, people will evangelize.
  • If we show people the commands in Scripture to care for the poor, people will develop a heart for mercy ministry.
  • If we make people aware of our need for more volunteers, people will sign up.

In other words, we perceive a knowledge problem. People need to know how to apply the Scriptures better, and once they know what they need to do, they’ll do it.

Not So Fast

But this isn’t the way long-term change takes place. Most of the time, when we are marked by missional apathy, it’s not that we don’t know what we ought to be doing; it’s that we don’t want to be doing what we ought to be doing.

In our efforts to increase missional fervor, we can get so focused on giving people more information, or better application, that we forget that our main task is to lead people to exultation. That’s a fancy word for “worship.” We exult, we delight in the Savior, we revel in him. Exaltation of the Savior leads to exultation of the saints.

Lack of mission is rarely a knowledge problem; it’s a worship problem. We don’t have any trouble talking about the things we love most. Whenever we find something worthy of attention, we talk about it.

The same is true of our relationship with Christ. The more we are in awe of his worthiness, the more likely we are to speak of him to others and serve others in his name.

Weighty Truths and Heartfelt Worship

Sometimes people worry that the rough edges of Christianity will lead us to avoid serving our neighbor and sharing the gospel. So we play down some of the harder truths of the gospel, not denying them of course, but not giving them their proper weight.

The reality of hell is an example. There are all sorts of ways to downplay the truth of one’s eternal destiny; the most common is simply to not speak of it, or to recast salvation as dealing more with this life than the next.

But what happens when the reality of hell is no longer grounding our talk about salvation and the gospel? We miss out on a moment of worship.

What Makes Us Marvel More

Consider this scenario. You’re walking with a friend, not paying much attention to where you are headed. Suddenly, your friend grabs your arm and yanks you backwards. At first, you are annoyed that you’ve been stopped so suddenly. But then your friend points in front of you. Sure enough, he had a reason. You were about to step off into a ditch, where you might have broken your foot or sprained your ankle. Your annoyance turns to gratitude for his “saving you” from possible harm. You thank your friend and move on.

Consider the same scenario, except this time your friend doesn’t pull you back from a ditch, but a cliff. You were about to fall to your death, hundreds of feet below. What would your reaction be in this situation? Not just a word of “thanks.” You’d be crying and hugging your friend, overflowing with gratitude for the way he just saved your life.

In the same way, when we minimize the severity of God’s judgment for sin, we are less inclined to stand in awe of the marvelous salvation Christ has provided for us. We think we’re pushing aside an obstacle when we neglect the reality of judgment. But what we’re actually doing is pushing away one of the truths that most leads us to worship. The reality of God’s grace is all the more amazing the more we see our sin and what it deserves.

Feel the Truth

A gospel-centered teacher isn’t satisfied to see his people learn truths about God. A gospel-centered leader wants them to feel those truths. To feel the full weight of God’s provision for us in Christ. To have the heart’s affections stirred to worship the loving God who has saved us by his grace and incorporated us into his family.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax

My name is Trevin Wax. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My wife is Corina, and we have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). Currently, I serve the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. I have been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. I frequently contribute articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. I also enjoy traveling and speaking at different churches and conferences. My first book, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, was published by Crossway Books in January 2010. (Click here for excerpts and more information.) My second book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope(Moody Publishers) was released in April 2011.

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COMMENTS

What say you? Leave a comment!

Debbie Ash — 01/24/15 11:58 am

I am so glad to have come across your message -- this is sobering and good. Thank you!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.