Is the “Missional” Church Just a Fad?

Is the “Missional” Church Just a Fad? September 1, 2011

Part 18 of series:
The Mission of God and the Missional Church

At the beginning of this series, I mentioned that the use of “missional” to describe the church is becoming so common as to be at risk of losing its distinctive meaning. This whole series has been an effort to clarify what it means for the church – and for individual Christians as well – to be missional.

The fact that people use “missional” in such a wide variety of ways has led to a misunderstanding of its true meaning. This has led some faithful Christians to reject as unbiblical the whole notion of being missional. Though I share their concerns, I’d encourage them to look more closely at what it really means for the church to be “sent” by God to do his work.

But, could it be that all of this missional language is just a fad? The church has a way of making a big deal out of something for a while, only to forget about it later. In the 90s the big deal was “cell groups” and “seeker-sensitive” worship. Now you rarely hear those phrases, for better or for worse. So, will “missional” go the way of  “cell groups,” and “seeker-sensitive”?

Since I don’t claim to have prophetic gifts, at least in the “tell-the-future” mode, I can’t answer this question with any certainty. But this question does give me a chance to say something crucial about the missional character of the church. No matter whether we use the word “missional” or not, I think I’ve shown in this series that the church is meant by God to be essentially missional. Or, to make it more particular, every single church should accept its identity as a missional community, a group of people who have been sent by God to do his work and share his truth in a given place, as well as to share in his global mission.

Thus, the church is necessarily missional in a way that differs from how it might or might not be cell group based or seeker sensitive. In fact, one might even argue, on biblical and theological grounds, that the church should not be cell group based or seeker sensitive. But on those very same grounds, it seems to me very clear that the church is to be missional at its very core. In a sense, every single church has been “sent” by God to do God’s work. Every church should recognize its missional identity and should act in faithfulness to this identity.

Of course, I’m the first to admit that this doesn’t always happen. Many churches, perhaps most, are more committed to self preservation and meeting the needs of members than to mission. But I hope and pray that more and more churches will move away from this inward-looking posture to one that is truly and fully missional.

Will the word “missional” remain an active part of our vocabulary as Christians? Who knows? But let me close with a story that might help to answer this question.

When I first heard the church described as missional, and when I came to understand what the word “missional” meant, I was 100% supportive of the idea. But I didn’t like the language. “Missional” sounded strange to my ears, and I feared that calling the church missional would be confusing. Many people would assume that the missional church is one committed to overseas missions, to sending and supporting missionaries, rather than to local mission, to spreading the good news of Christ in one’s own neighborhood.

Mike Regele, a good friend of mine, was a strong advocate for the “missional” label. Once, while we were having breakfast together, he said to me, “I hope for the day when I’ll hear in my own church the fact that we are missional.” I responded by saying, “I’m with you completely when it comes to the idea, but I don’t think I’ll ever use the word ‘missional.’ It’s just too confusing.” Mike wasn’t happy with me, but he accepted my conclusion.

Two years later, I preached a series of sermons on the church as a missional community, making it very clear to my own congregation that we were to be a missional church. Mike was happy. More importantly, I believed I was using an appropriate word to educate and challenge my people to be who they were in Christ.

Yet, a couple of years later, I was in a conversation with my staff and used the term “misisonal.” One of my key staff members spoke up: “What is all this missional stuff about? I just don’t get it.” I found that I needed to explain, once again, what I meant and why it mattered.

So, it seems to me that the word “missional” might have legs. It might be around in ten years, maybe even in a hundred, because it captures something essential about the church. But whether or not the word “missional” sticks, my hope and prayer is that the church of Jesus Christ, and every single individual church, will recognize our essentially missional character, and will be fully invested in the mission to which God has sent us. May this never pass away as some sort of temporary fad.

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