Synchroblog: Missional Church In Traditional Church Contexts

Rick Meigs called for a synchroblog today on Missional Church. I only have time for some brief thoughts, but here goes.

I’m defining missional church as an incarnational approach to mission. Mission is inherent to the nature of the Trinity, because love reaches out beyond itself to others. We see that most of all in the incarnation of Jesus. Although I am an evangelical, my theology cannot solely be around the Cross, as if everything else about Jesus – his birth, life and teaching – were just an interesting prelude. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, then the risen Christ said to the apostles (and, by implication, us), ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Therefore the manner of Christ’s coming is a pattern for the mission he calls us to share, just as his cross is not only the means of salvation but a pattern of discipleship as we take up our own crosses. The church is thus constituted by mission. To accomplish this, the ascended Christ sends forth apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic ministries as well as the pastoral and teaching ministries to which we are used.

This presents an enormous challenge to those of us rooted in a Constantinian tradition of church. The long term effects of making the church not only respectable but ‘official’ has affected more than the ‘established’ traditions of church, and even – I would venture to suggest – many of those rooted in the Radical Reformation. ‘Official church’ at its worst treats all citizens as default members of the church. Even without that scandalous assumption, it makes church a natural place to go for rites of passage. It has cultivated a mentality that people ‘come to church’. This leads to ‘attractional’ models of church, where we implore people to ‘come to us’. It also leads to a truncated view of ministry, purely of the pastoral and teaching offices, because if everyone is already a Christian, that is all that is needed.

Therefore missional church raises questions of the nature of the church, of models of mission and of church leadership.

Firstly, the nature of the church is questioned, because while it has been defined in terms of the company of Christ’s people, traditional theologies have then moved onto elucidating ‘the marks of the true church’. For Protestants, these have been about the preaching of the Word, the administration of the two gospel sacrament and – in the case of the Radical Reformers – the application of church discipline. Others have made particular forms of ordained ministry key matters, such as bishops in the so-called historic succession, and communion with the Bishop of Rome in the case of Roman Catholics. For Catholics, lacking the last category makes other groups ecclesial communities but not proper churches.

Missional church changes all this. It affirms the epithet of Emil Brunner that ‘The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.’ Mission is the nature of the church. We don’t simply engage in mission in order to maintain our numbers: we participate in the mission of God, because that is our spiritual DNA. Thus mission is not the preserve of enthusiasts or the particularly gifted, even if some have a clear calling to evangelism; it is at the heart of what it means to be church.

I venture to suggest, therefore, that it is wrong to say that ‘worship’ is the prime activity of the church. Instead, glorifying God is: that encompasses both worship and mission. When we define worship as the church’s primary calling, we end up – especially with a Constantinian inheritance – spending time amongst ourselves, rather than ‘incarnationally’ in the world.

Secondly, missional church calls into question models of mission, and here I mean it questions the attractional approach to mission. Older generations in traditional churches, who still by and large set the agenda, grew up with a culture that knew more of the Christian story, where it was not unusual to go to church. Mission became, as I said, ‘come to us’. But that only works if there is an existing natural affinity for church. Mostly, that does not exist in the UK any more. We are three generations away from that. I do not want to deny for one moment the idea that the goal of mission is to incorporate people into the Body of Christ, but coming to join the body may not be the first step it once was. Instead, incarnation means that we go onto other people’s territory, where they feel comfortable, rather than we (in our fear?) asking them to come to where we feel safe. Jesus certainly never pursued a ‘safe’ agenda. He did teach and heal in synagogues, but much of what he did was outside.

Therefore if missional church means that mission is central to who we are, then, the next thing that follows is that the mission to which we are called is something we engage in the world. We share God’s love in word and deed in society. We demonstrate God’s love. We seek to be an example. We aim to earn the right to speak about Christ and his claims on people’s lives in the world, rather than at guest services or seeker-sensitive worship.

Thirdly, this all has implications for how churches are led. We ordain to ministries of word, sacrament and pastoral charge. These are all fundamentally pastoral roles. There is nothing unworthy in any of them. However, in themselves they are incomplete. Also, by elevating these we marginalise the apostolic call to church planting and networking across Christians, the prophetic call to bring God’s word to the world and the evangelistic mandate to call people to discipleship. The people with these gifts and callings end up as mavericks, and are then criticised and rejected. But then we wonder why the church has little impact in society! Could there be a link? I think there is.

For me, then, this is a call to expand our notion of ordination (if that is what we practise) and leadership. We have to be careful about it, because some of those who consider themselves ‘apostles’ or ‘prophets’, for example, can end up on ego trips every bit as seriously damaging as those of abusive pastors. It is not therefore simply a case of individual calls, although it will involve that, carefully tested to ensure there is a Christlike servant approach at the heart of the person. But it is also about welcoming these ministries in the heart of the church.

There we go, that’s about as much as I have time to type today. It is hardly comprehensive, but what I have said lays out in summary form some of my passions on this theme.

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