Becoming Missional

Becoming Missional July 5, 2012

I hear it all over the place, and I’ve had pastors ask me to define “missional” and I’ve had college students say “that’s SO missional…” and so it’s time to take a quick look at the term and then at a new book by Don Everts, Go and Do: Becoming a Missional Christian.

I begin making a few negatives clear: missional is not a new, fancy, PC, shorn of its weaknesses version of the word “evangelism.” Neither is it equivalent to social justice, and neither is it what many missionaries do. And it’s not counter-cultural, anti-church churches or house churches or outside the box churches. Yes, “missional” has been captured by many who are former “evangelism” people who know this term is more acceptable. But this term has a special meaning, has been worked on hard by scholars like David Bosch, Lesslie Newbigin (picture), Darrel Guder, John Franke, and David Fitch, and I’d like to offer a brief sketch of what it means:

1. It’s about God’s mission in this world.
2. It’s about God’s mission in this world in Christ.
3. It’s about God’s mission in this world in Christ in view of the Age to Come/Kingdom of God.
4. God summons humans to participate in God’s mission by becoming oriented to God’s mission, to others, and to the world — in the context of the (local) church.

The result of this is very, very important: nothing can be called missional until the mission of God is defined, which means nothing can be called missional until it is connected to Jesus and the kingdom of God/the Age to Come, and nothing can be missional if it is not shaped through the local church. Missional gets its start when we discern what God is doing in this world and particularly what God is doing in our community and what God is calling the ecclesia to do in light of that big mission of God.

Don Everts, instead of defining God’s mission, in Christ, in view of the kingdom of God, states — rather well I think — that being missional is getting caught up in God’s mission. That’s good, but this only works if we get “God’s mission” defined well, which I’m not sure Everts does.

Everts sketches what the life of a missional Christian looks like, and he does this very well: he breaks it into Anatomy and Geography. This is an excellent primer on what it means to be other-oriented with a view toward (apparently soterian) evangelism. He contrasts the missional Christian helpfully with other “kinds” of Christians — like the Safe Christian and the Successful Christian and the Happy Christian.

For Anatomy, we are to have Sober eyes, Servant hands, Ready feet, Compassionate heart, and a Joyful soul. For Geography, we are to have a purposeful family, relational form of evangelism, in the context of a thriving church, carry out urban mercy (he focuses on city), and global partnerships. In each of these Everts sketches good and solid teachings, both from the Bible and even more so from his personal experience. We are treated to one good story after another of what it means to be other-oriented.

But in my estimation this book lacks the key ingredient of an eschatological orientation that frames what God is doing in this world, both required for one to call something missional, and the places to begin for that eschatological vision include 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, texts like Phil 2:5-11, and esp Revelation 21-22. When we ask What is God’s aim in all this? we begin to see what “missional” means. Until then, “missional” gets co-opted by other topics, however important, like evangelism.

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  • Dr. McKnight,
    Thank you for the definition of missional. It is a good reminder, especially “in the context of the (local) church.” The other day, my pastor, who just returned from a two week mission to Guatemala, commented to me that our congregation is lacking in the area of being “equipped for mission.” My question is, if we can define the mission of God in general terms can we similarly define being equipped for mission?

  • Helpful clarifications, Scot. Why do we have such a tendency to turn profound, well-considered theology into Christian fads?

  • Add Christopher Wright’s “Mission of God” to the list of great works on what it means to be missional, i.e. participate in God’s mission.

  • Bill Sahlman

    Scot, Having been first introduced to these ideas by the likes John Franke, Dave Dunbar and Brian McLaren, I agree with your intro wholeheartedly — saying what missional is not. When you describe what it is, can you say more as to why these early writers you mention/and yourself feel it must be linked to the local church? Seems to me, the local church may, at times, be the last place where “missional” can be played out. Unless you agree that any group of two or three focusing on faith; on the Christ, constitutes the local church. I can’t help but wonder, if small experiments of being in our communities (blessed–to be bea blessing) won’t come from those who take time and effort away from a local church and go “out” and live and love… with the view to the coming age.

    If you are saying, you hope, eventually, the local church would come on board,… I would echo that. Sometimes “they” have see and critique a rogue group of heretics before change occurs.

  • Great treatment of an often ill-treated subject. Good word Scott.

  • scotmcknight


    Yes, missional folks are sometimes hardest on the local church, but that means a certain kind of non-missional local church usually; and alternative forms of church (but be careful) can be missionally sound, but grabbing coffee with a friend is not a local church. The kingdom vision of Jesus morphs — more on this some day — into the ecclesia of the early church. So forming local kingdom communities, churches, is the core of what missional will be and where missional is designed to play out.

    And one more: notice that I said “in Christ.” Sometimes kingdom and missional get disconnected from “in Christ” and become benevolence in society. Not the same thing.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Anthony (3)

    Amen to Wright’s “The Mission of God” as well as his “Mission of God’s People”. 

    Very important topic Scot. Thanks for the reference. 

    The coffee with a friend, while not church, can of course be missional. 🙂

  • John W Frye

    I like this post! I’d like to gently push back on Bev’s observation (comment # 7) where she writes, “The coffee with a friend, while not church, can of course be missional.” Is that “of course” a given? Isn’t there a necessary communality to missional? Individual acts of relationship building with a view to conversion have their place, but missional by definition in and through the local church is community-driven. I say this because missional is very reconcilation-oriented and the diversity of reconciled relationships in the church are a necessary and vital component of missional. Am I off track with this?

  • RJS


    Bev is a he … I only put this out to keep things straight.

  • Bev Mitchell

    RJS (9)
    You blew my cover 🙂 just when I was thinking about waxing lyrical on how great it is to see an increase in female names among the commentators here. Of course, I can still do that, in fact, just did. Do others have the same impression? It is truly fine, in any case!

    John (8)
    The “can” was meant to modify “of course” – or vice versa, I’m not sure. 🙂

    You bring up an interesting point of definition that I had not considered. In my view from the cheap seats, anything a Christian does to show the love of Christ to another person, especially a non-Christian, is considered to be missional. There may well be a more strict definition, but I have a strong affinity for the more homely one.

    P.S. The “cheap seats” reference is not meant to be snarky. Rather, it defines my amateur status (theologically) and my very much not high Church upbringing and inclination.

  • scotmcknight


    I want to clarify my comment about coffee just a bit: I see “missional” in terms like 2 Cor 10:1-6. The point is not that it can’t occur over coffee, but going out with friends is not missional until it is swamped by God’s mission in this world.

  • After years of reading about it, attending conferences on it, and so forth, I’m done with it until hard solutions are presented to accompany the angst against the local church. At this point it feels esoteric, like the hipster coffee shop that refuses to acknowledge anyone other than its own. Until then, I’ll keep plugging along as the pastor of my congregation.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks. I assumed that is what you meant.

  • Warren Smith

    Responding to #6: “Yes, missional folks are sometimes hardest on the local church, but that means a certain kind of non-missional local church usually.” And what kind of church would that be? Who decides? How do they decide?
    Responding to #12: I agree, Derek. I would add “narcissistic” and “solipsistic” to your “esoteric.”

  • Scot, I agree with you that the missional movement as understood properly by you here is of vital importance to the church catholic. And I believe the legacy of Newbigin is important to guard and engage and promote. We have to keep the central, rich biblical,theological and missiological insights front and center to the conversatin. These are the reasons I am concerned that central missional figures have endorsed and encouraged Alan Hirsch’s recent claim that the missional movement must become an apostolic movement which for him means a “revolutionary” 5-fold ecclesiology. I have highlighted these concerns for the missional movement in this essay for Books and Culture:

  • Paul Chou

    I am a firm believer of Christ-centered Gospel! I need to understand why you wrote the statement “and nothing can be missional if it is not shaped through the local church.”

    thank you.

  • scotmcknight

    Paul Chou, God’s work in this world, if it is in and through Christ, will be also through the Body of Christ.