Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Missional Character of the Church

The Missional Character of the Church
Adam Ellis

     According to Brian McLaren, in his book A Generous Orthodoxy, the term “missional” was coined in the 1990’s by the “Gospel In Our Culture Network”.  McLaren explains, “The term as I understand it, attempts to find a generous third way between the conservative and liberal versions of Christianity so dominant in the Western world.  The conservative version is preoccupied with the “personal savior” Gospel…and the liberal version has lost something vitally important in their engagement with modernity”.  In actuality, the term is rather self explanatory.  In contemporary vernacular, a church that is “missional” defines its identity or focus primarily in terms of it’s mission from God, in and to the world.   To some, this may seem like one option among many for churches seeking to define their identities.  To others, this may seem wrongheaded or simply a “passing fad.”  However, I believe that the theological roots of the missional character of the church run deep in the narrative of scripture.
     In the beginning, (Genesis 1 & 2), God created people in his image, to care for the world around them.  God very clearly has a dream for where he wants the creation project to go and people have a role in getting it there.  The participation of human beings in this project, however, gets derailed in Genesis 3.  Even so, God does not give up on his dream.  Many years later, God makes a covenant with a man named Abram. Genesis 12 reveals that a key to this covenant is the idea that Abram and his descendants will be blessed by God and will be a blessing to all people.  The story proceeds from there with the people of God seaming very interested in being blessed, but noticeably less interested in being a blessing.
     The prophets continually attempted to point the people of God back to their mission.  Repeatedly, they scolded the people of God for their treatment of the poor and oppressed.  Over and over again, they challenge God’s people on their lack of compassion and concern for justice.  In the book of Isaiah, most notably in chapters 61 and 62, the prophet paints several pictures of God’s realized dream for his world and his people.  Interestingly, in the New Testament, Jesus quoted from this same passage, stating that it is fulfilled in him, when he “officially” began his ministry.   In Jesus, God (The Son) comes to earth as the “true human” to (among other things) show human beings what it looks like to be the people of God. Jesus further went on, in Matthew 25:31-46, to paint a picture of “judgment day” that points more to “involvement in mission” than “beliefs” as the primary criterion for judgment.  In the Gospel narratives, he continually refers to the idea of the “kingdom of God” or, synonymously “the kingdom of Heaven”.  While, in churches of Christ, these phrases have traditionally been interpreted as also being synonymous with “the church”, I think they are better understood in light of Jesus statement in the Lord’s Prayer.  In that prayer, Jesus says, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:10).  God’s “kingdom” is the extent to which his will is being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  The “church”, therefore is not synonymous with the “kingdom’, but rather is a catalyst for the Kingdom of God.  It is an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven.  When Jesus gives the disciples “the great commission” in Matthew 28, he seems to be passing the torch back to a community of people…from the true human back to human beings.  As I often tell the teenagers I work with, “Jesus took our place on the cross so that we could take his place in the world.”
     So, what does all of this mean for the church?  In a lecture at the 2005 Emergent Convention in Nashville TN, Brian McLaren explained that in pluralist society, a religion is no longer judged as valid based on whether or not it is true.  It is judged valid based on whether or not it is “good”.  This is not to say that Christianity should no longer be concerned with “truth”.  It does, however, point to the fact that our claim of truth is completely irrelevant to the world around us if we are not viewed as “good”.  While that idea might initially seem to be “getting the cart before the ox” or letting culture define us, I believe that it points to an important truth and opportunity.  A community of believers, who sees itself as blessed by God in order to be a blessing to the world, is good news, even to non-adherents.  Rob Bell explains in Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, “If the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”  Because of it’s involvement in the pursuit of God’s dream, the church should be good news to everyone, regardless of their differing religious beliefs, politics, or race.  For too long, the church has seemed to focus exclusively on it’s benefits for it’s members.  This seems, to me, far short of the Biblical image.  The Church is the Way of Jesus.  It is the Body of Christ.  The Church does not pursue privilege or power.  Rather, the church pours out it’s life for the sake of the world.  At her very essence, the Church is a community of believers on a mission from God.  As Mark Driscoll eloquently states in The Radical Reformission, “…neither the freedom of Christ nor our freedom in Christ is intended to permit us to dance as close to sin as possible without crossing the line.  But both are intended to permit us to dance as close to sinners as possible by crossing the lines that unnecessarily separate the people God has found from those he is still seeking.”

  • Bell, Rob…Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005

  • Driscoll, Mark…The Radical Reformission.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004

  • McLaren, Brian D…A Generous Orthodoxy.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004

  • McLaren, Brian D…The Gospel In Pluralist Society.  Nashville: Youth Specialties Emergent Convention, 2005

  • Wright, N.T…The Lord and His Prayer.  Grand Rapids: Eeardmans, 1996


Jovan said...

"If Jesus took our place on the cross, so we could take his place on the earth." - then aren't those who take his place on earth first born into his kingdom? I think God's will being done on earth goes far beyond social reform (not that this may be what you may be suggesting- but i guess that what i think.) It involves spiritual transformation. Those who do his will call him Lord or vice versa. I think kingdom is synonymous with church. Just my thoughts. I may change my mind next week. Grace and Peace!

Kenny Payne said...


Good thoughts... if you want to read some of the Gospel and Culture stuff firsthand go to and especially check out the article by Miroslav Volf. It will rock your boat...

Jovan said...

Wait... you may have meant this when you said "the church is a catalyst for the kingdom..." The church is synonomous with Kingdom but not in every case. The kingdom includes the church but the entire kingdom is not the church. Grace and Peace!

Matt Wilson said...

If one looks at the Kingdom circle (if you want to call it a circle) or influence or what the kingdom is apart of within that you would see the work of the "church". My personal feeling is that we look at it as two completly different things: there is the work of the church and then the work of para-church organizations (camps, shelters, ministries, etc). A healthier way of looking at the kingdom would be the including of all these things (and more) with in the "realm" (circle) of the kingdom. I don't know if I made any sense but I would look at it as the church is within the kingdom.

Kenny Payne said...

If by Church you mean a certain group with a sign out front then it is difficult to define the precise relationship between the Church and the kingdom. However, if your definition of church is expanded to mean all people (and groups of people) who operate under the "effective will of God" (I think that is Willard's term - if not please forgive)then the definition is not so tricky. We are just so used to using divisive and judgmental terminology when referring to God's people that we fail to comprehend both the "depth of the love of Christ" (Paul's words) and the amazing reach of grace (Kenny's words). Skeptics doubt that there is any concentric area between visible churches and the invisible kingdom. Optimists think that the cirlces are totally concentric. I think there is a great deal of concentricity, but that there are also "pockets of surprise."