How Theological is the “Missional Church”?

“Missional” has been a buzzword in evangelicalism for a number of years now. It’s been the safer alternative to “emergent.” People from pretty much any evangelical perspective — and beyond — can gather around the notion that God is a “missionary God” and that a primary–if not the primary–purpose of the church is to witness to and serve those outside the church, with a special focus on immediate and surrounding neighborhoods. Missional churches seek to be driven by the specific “DNA” of the locality in which they find themselves. They pay close attention to the socio-cultural contexts in which they minister, orienting their activities, their values, and their vision around what they take to be God’s redemptive purposes in those contexts.

Karl Barth, the eminent Protestant theologian, was a major influence on the origin of this movement. A lecture he gave to a missionary conference in 1932 became a touch-stone for the twentieth-century turn to “missional.” He spoke there of the “actio Dei” (a phrase which eventually morphed — by others — into the Missio Dei–now a motto of the missional church movement. For Barth, God is a God whose being is in becoming. God acts; his action involves a sending. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit into the world to en-act the reconciliation of God with humanity, grounded in God’s freedom to elect humanity for salvation in Jesus Christ. Similarly, but derivatively, the church has been “sent” by God into the world as witnesses to God’s reconciliation.

In his interesting essay, “The Church in Karl Barth and Evangelicalism: Conversations Across the Aisle,” Kimlyn Bender argues that Barth united the doctrine of salvation, the mission of the church, and the significance of the wider culture (world) into a holistic theology of the gospel. Salvation cannot be sharply distinguished from the creation of and the mission of the church. The church does not exist as its own end, but as a (flawed) means to a greater, wider purpose in God’s reconcilation with the world.

Paul Chung, in Reclaiming Mission as Constructive Theology, details the origin of the modern missional theology movement in Barth’s trinitarian theology. He gives a tip o’ the hat to Christoph Blumhardt’s influence on Barth’s fully-orbed understanding of the gospel as necessitating outward, social witness. The social outworking is grounded in Barth’s trinitarian theology of mission, which  “becomes more holistic, dynamic, and socially and critically engaged in the public sphere” (109).

In short, Barth’s deep theology of the church (which upholds the significance of the church, but in a relativized way since it is subservient to and in service of the Kingdom of God), has a unique ability to provide the church with a deep theological rationale, not only for its missional activity, but for its continued existence.

Reading about the origin of the modern movement in the theology of Barth — and theological missiologists — makes me wonder how much of the missional church / missional theology movement is currently grounded in a deep theology?  How pervasive, within the movement, is a reflective (and critical) theological articulation of the church’s existence–in relation to the trinitarian God and to the fully-orbed nature of the Gospel? I don’t know the answer to this, but it does seem that “missional church” could easily become a catch-phrase which works well for marketing, but would not have much staying power if it is not grounded in a deep theological perspective.

I’d be interested in hearing from those of you who are involved in “missional” churches. How theological is the missional church?


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  • Hi Dr Roberts! Our church is definitely missional (in fact, our mission is to “increase the Kingdom of God in our communities by reaching Isanti County with the good news of Jesus”). And our missional orientation stems back to 1)the late 90’s, before missional/emergent was trendy; we came out of the “seeker” movement to reach lost people, and we’re the “community” church, 2)our lead pastor’s evangelical & service gifting, and 3)our church’s sense of calling to love the hurting and the broken in our community in word and in deed. I am striving to develop deeper biblical and theological perspectives in our people, so that they can experience a greater sense of intimacy with God, find greater strength for life, and deeper foundations for mission. On the positive, I would say our church holds a few, strong, solid theological convictions, a small “core.” On the negative, I would say that it lacks the theological breadth that helps make sense of human life and activity in our community, and offers a simplistic understanding of the gospel that is dissatisfying to many. I don’t claim this to be true for all missional churches! One of the ways I hope to develop theological depth in our church is by “debriefing” people after their missional activities; providing theological reflection in community after a shared experience is a great way to learn!

    • Kyle Roberts

      Hey Bryce, thanks for sharing your experience. Sounds like you are doing some great things there. I’m intrigued by this comment: our church “offers a simplistic understanding of the gospel that is dissatisfying to many”. Do many people express their dissatisfaction with their (or the church’s?) understanding of the gospel? Or is this just a “sense” that you have? Is the leadership (more broadly) aware of this? This seems to be an issue many evangelical (gospel?) churches need to tackle with some intensity in coming days. People need to understand that the gospel is not just about their (individual) eternal salvation…

  • Thanks for posting this, Dr. Roberts! I shared my thoughts/reflections on the question over on my Missional Shift blog, which resides in the Progressive Christian channel here on Patheos. I’d love to hear your response to what I’ve written over there! Here’s the link:

  • Adriene B

    I recall Ray S. Anderson saying pretty much the same thing about the charismatic movement when I was at Fuller Seminary. Where’s the theological thinking? How can the movement continue without deep theology? He did some theological work regarding Emergent movement too. (I’d expect a strong Barthian perspective from him, although I haven’t read this particular book.)

    Perhaps the doing and experiencing of what God is up to in the church and the world is SUPPOSED to precede the deep thinking about what it all means. Perhaps it is fine that there are many more practitioners than theorizers.

    • Kyle Roberts

      Adrienne, thanks for your comment. Yes, I suppose we ‘professional’ theologians will always want to see more theology (whether or not the desire is widely shared — or even legitimate). However, I’m not quite sure that ‘practitioner’ and ‘theorizer’ is a desirable distinction to have in terms of church leadership. Pastors, I think, should be attempting a good bit of both (if ‘theorizing’ is theologizing). And not just for and by themselves, but also helping their congregations to think theologically about their practice. Ultimately, the practice (‘praxis”) is, in some sense, the most important thing (the doing, not the thinking). But the pendulum has swung quite in the direction of praxis in the contemp. evangelical church — and I think we’re suffering for it.

  • As a Lutheran Christian, my understanding is that the church is, by definition, “missional” because it is the Holy Spirit who “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth” (Martin Luther). At issue here, though, is the extent to which we may call any particular local congregation “missional.” When we use this word as a descriptor for a a congregation without carefully defining it we run several risks. One is that the definition may tend toward the secular; e.g., we know a church is “missional” if we can measure the results of the “mission” in terms of nickles and noses. Another risk is that the “missional” church may engage in all kinds of “outreach activities” that do little more than help us look busy. An even bigger risk is that once we figure out what a “missional church” looks like we also have the means to determine whether any particular church is “missional” or not. While this result may provide fruitful grounds for consultants eager to provide resources to help a church become “more missional,” is this the direction we really want to go?
    Yes, we do need a vigorous theology about the mission of the church and the place of each individual congregation in that mission. We need such a theology to help keep us centered in the will of God as Jesus was. We need such a theology to keep us free from wandering off into tracks that look good to the human eye, but are only human after all. We need such a theology to remind us that it is only through the work of God Himself that we can be the church He has called us to be.