For many of us, this phrase is incomplete unless we add “incarnational” somewhere. “Mission” is the going out, “Incarnation” is the going deep and taking roots in a particular location. Until we do both these things we are not really “sent as Jesus is sent” (John 20:21) in and among real people in a real culture.
In 1994 Australian theologian Charles Ringma offered this description of “missional church.” I still think it is one of the best summations I have seen.
“The missional church vision is not a programmatic response to the crisis of relevance, purpose and identity that the church in the Western World is facing, but a recapturing of biblical views of the Church all too frequently abandoned, ignored, or obscured through long periods of church history. It is a renewed theological vision of the church in mission, which redefines the nature, the mission and the organization of the local church around Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom. Missional churches seek to respond to God’s invitation to join Him in His mission in and for the world, as a sign, a servant and a foretaste of His Kingdom.”
1. “not a programmatic response” – In contrast to many visions of church renewal or church growth, we must move beyond pragmatism. Missional church is not a solution for declining attendance or reduced giving. It is not a new outreach program, or indeed any kind of program at all, but rather a rediscovery and reappropriation of biblical views of the Church that have long been obscured. One implication is that we have some work to do to declutter and unlearn before we begin building. Colin Greene writes, “To turn the missional language into a type of church identity is to miss altogether the Newbigin conviction that a missiological engagement with Western culture requires a break with Christendom presuppositions altogether and indeed, at heart, refers not to church identities but to a dynamic new form of public theology and praxis.” (Metavista)
2. “a renewed theological vision” – “Renewed,” not a new discovery but a reaching back to something that was lost. Missional church is a renewed theological vision of the church in mission, and primarily a recovery of biblical identity around the good news of God’s reign. As some scribe put it, (Bosch?) “it is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a Church in the world.” Our modern penchant to reduce the gospel to personal salvation or to the purpose of the church (as if mission were our possession) does an injustice to every theological category we know: Pneumatology, Christology, Soteriology, Missiology, Eschatology, Ecclesiology, Theology etc. The work of NT Wright and others in re-opening the discussion around the meaning of justification in the work of Paul and a reappropriation of covenant language with reference to the gospel is helping us move beyond the narrative that has self at the center. Indeed, the challenge is an alternative “social imaginary.”
3. “church .. redefined.. around Jesus proclamation” – While mission precedes ecclesia (missio Dei) once the ball started rolling the movement is circular, interwoven like the double helix – church and mission. Church is “community in mission,” and mission produces shalom communities. But it is also critical to note that missio Dei means “Trinity-in-mission.” If we miss this piece we reinforce the cultural lens of individualism and then easily reinforce the privatist and dualist approach that is killing us. Here too “covenant” has a place.
4. “sign, servant and foretaste of His kingdom” Again, it is the kingdom that is primary. Jesus did not come preaching the Church of God. But here too there is a dialogue: church and kingdom are neither identical nor separable. Who paints this picture better than Newbigin, with the Trinitarian lens: “The concern for mission is nothing less than this: the kingdom of God, the sovereign rule of the Father of Jesus over all humankind and over all creation. Mission.. is the proclamation of the kingdom, the presence of the kingdom and the prevenience of the kingdom. By proclaiming the reign of God over all things the church acts out its faith that the Father of Jesus is indeed ruler of all. The church, by inviting all humankind to share in the mystery of the presence of the kingdom hidden in its life through its union with the crucified and risen life of Jesus, acts out the love of Jesus that took him to the cross. By obediently following where the Spirit leads, often in ways neither planned, known, nor understood, the church acts out the hope that it is given by the presence of the Spirit who is the living foretaste of the kingdom.” (Newbigin, The Open Secret, 64)
All this moves us beyond the formula – Christology –> Missiology –> Ecclesiology. We must start with Theology – thinking about God. As Moltmann put it, “there will be a modern [recovery] of trinitarian thinking when there is at the same time a .. change [in reason] from lordship to fellowship, from conquest to participation, from production to receptivity… free for receptive perception of its Other.” (Trinity and Kingdom)
In terms of practice, there is a synergy – a powerful dynamic – emerging at the intersection of those who are connecting the missional agenda with disciplines of resistance — practices of spiritual formation in covenanted local expressions of kingdom life. From this synergy new life is emerging and something new may yet be born:
1. the recognition that missional is not a set of tactics for church growth
2. engaging local narratives as against the de-contextualized intellectual abstractions of modernity
3. a commitment to sustainable mission around spiritual practices and rhythm of life – inward, outward..
4. a commitment to place and finding the spiritual in the ordinary – an incarnational and sacramental vision – rather than the BHAGs and hype of ecclesial gurus
Shane Claiborne: “Brace yourselves! God is getting ready to do something really small!”