I pastor a small to medium church sized church in a middle class suburb in Sydney Australia. Over the last year or so we have been moving from a mostly attractional model to a more missional model in the way that we ‘be’ and ‘do church’. As you can imagine, if you have tried to engage in this kind of journey with your church, you know that it’s not an easy one. Paradigm shifts are never all fun and what sounds exciting on paper, in reality turns out to be a bumbling, stumbling along kind of process. Avery Dulles in his book Models of Church says about paradigm shifts
‘…the transition from one to another (paradigm) is fraught with difficulties. Each paradigm brings with its own favourite set of images, its own rhetoric, its own values, certitudes, commitments and priorities. It even brings with it a particular set of preferred problems. When paradigms shift, people suddenly find the ground cut out from under their feet. They cannot begin to speak the new language without already committing themselves to a whole new set of values that may not be to their taste. Thus they find themselves gravely threatened in their spiritual security.’ It’s destabilising to have the ground crack and move beneath you. Naturally, during our transition there have been many good, valid, concerned and concerning, sharp and confused questions from the people in our congregation regarding ‘missional’. However one which I did not expect was the question ‘But aren’t we already doing this?’ That one stopped me in my tracks when it was asked. ‘Aren’t we already missional? ‘We are already doing the missional thing’ were some comments coming through. It made me realise as many have already, that the word has entered our vernacular without being clearly explained and has as a result morphed into meaning something else.
I’m kind of thankful that I came into the missional conversation late and that I entered into it looking firstly at missional theology rather than practice. Here I found the beauty in missional theology and its function as a ‘purifying’ agent to the consumerist church. I read Newbigin, Craig van Gelder, Darrell Guder, Vanhoozer, Hunsberger, Roxburgh primarily instead of the practitioners of today. I think as a result my understanding of missional is more about what the church is rather than what the church does. The church in essence is an expression of and a vehicle for the Missio Dei. So the church, like God, is missional in essence. This then shapes everything we do not just our outreach activities but everything. Being missional is not about doing more activities that are outward oriented but it is a way of being as God’s people. To me it’s more about the formation of God’s people rather than the idea that we need to step up in serving our community and world, even though it includes that as well.
So that’s why I think that the formation of a missional people is the most important thing in the missional conversation. Historically we have polarised formation (or discipleship/spiritual formation, call it what you like) and mission/outreach/evangelism. We have said things like ‘we need to be formed into disciples first and then go out on mission’. Some Christians have even said things like ‘I’m more into discipleship not really evangelism. I’ll leave that for others to use that gift’. Or alternatively as I’ve said, because we have misunderstood missional we end up doing missional activities without thinking through a proper discipleship process. That leads to burnout coming from a primarily activistic and pragmatic orientation. We know this has always been a false dichotomy but the happy truth is that missional theology brings these two characteristics of God’s people together. It’s not that one comes before the other, it’s not that one needs to be emphasised more than the other. Mission and discipleship happen simultaneously as God by his Spirit relentlessly engages in the process of the formation of a missional people- his church.
So based on a missional theology, what does the formation of a missional church look like? Firstly what comes to mind is that a missional church is kenotic. We know that Christ ‘emptied himself’ and served us as he was sent into the world to die for us. This self sacrifice, loss of control, surrender, humility is to be our way of life as a missional people. Secondly a missional church is Trinitarian. The Father sends the Son into the world, the Son sends the church into the world and the Spirit empowers the Christian to be the presence of God in the world. This unity, mutuality, hospitality and interdependence within the Godhead are a model for the church in the way that we relate to one another in community and in our world. Thirdly a missional church is incarnational. God was embodied in the person of Jesus sent into our world. His ‘strategy’ was incarnation, becoming an intimate presence that touches our lives with love. Lastly a missional church is pneumatological. In other words it takes the Holy Spirit seriously. God is already on his mission and it is up to us to discern where he is moving in order to engage with his activity.
What would it look like to establish practices around these four characteristics of a missional church so that the people of God are shaped and formed into a missional people? Does it mean practicing self surrender as a daily discipline? Would it mean building better community to reflect God’s Trinitarian nature? Could we take the Holy Spirit more seriously and learn as a community how to better discern the presence of God? Must we think through how to more profoundly embody and incarnate the presence of Love in our community? To me this goes beyond mere missional activity and instead invites us to enter into that subversive alternative story which is the story of the kingdom of God.