Understanding the Term “Missional”

March 28, 2012

Continuing an evaluation of the ideas and recommendations of the Commission on Mid-Councils Report, today’s exploration delves into the concept of “missional ministry.” Some care must be taken to define the term, because assumptions about its meaning (especially among Presbyterians I observe, including seminary students) can morph it into a new form unrecognizable to those who coined it. My sense is that the writers of the MCC Report had an adequate understanding of “missional,” and the bibliography certainly reflects wide reading on the subject. No complaints there. I am raising the yellow caution flag for all the interpreters of the Report and its implications who hear “missional” and immediately translate it “missions” with all the traditional baggage that term carries.

The idea behind a missional church is a community of Christian people (not the church campus) in active discernment of what God is doing redemptively, in order to align its activity/ministry with God’s for the demonstration of God’s Kingdom to the world. Reggie McNeal put it this way:

The Missional Church is
(1) the people of God (not the building)

(2) partnering with God (aligning with God’s agenda)
(3) on God’s redemptive mission (not human pursuits seeking God’s blessing)
(4) in the world (where the people needing God’s redemption reside, work, and recreate).

The people of God do this by “living into the imagination that they are, by their very nature, God’s missionary people living as a demonstration of what God plans to do in and for all of creation in Jesus Christ” (Roxburgh & Romanuk, Missional Leader, xv).

This concept should be familiar to Presbyterians as essentially a restatement of the Great Ends of the Church, especially the last one, “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (F-1.0304).

Traditionally, the church misses its missional calling by becoming internally focused rather than externally focused, institution-centered rather than Kingdom-based, and program-driven rather than people-developing (all ideas from McNeal). When effort is expended on attracting people to the church rather than incarnating Christ’s presence in the neighborhood to form new missional communities there, the church loses its missional edge.

Further, a huge shift in thinking is required for a church member, say, to view the task more as incarnational ministry than “giving to missions.” Writing a check—yes, still necessary to sustain global mission—is relatively easy and non-involving when compared to personally embodying the gospel through incarnational ministry in one’s neighborhood of need and worldliness. This missional shift must take place for the church once again to regain its faithful and effective witness in the world around us.

So when the MCC Report speaks of missional involvement, it is urging us to look outward to the needs and plant ourselves there. A congregation with this mindset sees itself as a mission outpost sending its members out into the community as missionaries eager to establish relationships with the unchurched, de-churched, and spiritually allergic if not openly hostile people who need the gospel of Jesus Christ desperately (and probably some other things as well). Those touched by this missional ministry may never set foot in the church buildings, but “the church” (its people partnering with God for redemptive purposes) embeds itself in their midst to bring God’s life and vitality to them. The result may ultimately be a new “congregation” with a nucleus of a missional community willing to make itself at home there.

This of course puts the burden on developing disciples who can make disciples, and do so without the traditional props of “church” (i.e. a sanctuary, organ, whatever . . .). In some places, like the San Francisco Bay Area, church property is almost an obstacle to the kind of ministry that must be done. Where I live, the “churched” population is under 7%, which means that 93% of the people in my neighborhood are not affiliated with nor touched by an organized congregation. The only way they can be exposed to the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ is if I (and my missional community) embody it in their presence. This is what “missional” means to me.


2 Responses to “Understanding the Term “Missional””

  1. Linda lee Says:

    Thanks for another great post, Mary. You are appreciated.
    Reggie McNeal also talks about spiritual formation and apostolic leaders. To be truely “missional” in the
    New testament sense means learning to rely on the Holy spirit, living in the word (learning,preaching and teaching), and giving ourselves to prayer. I believe the church members cannot go beyond the church walls until they understand what it means to obey and be submissive to the Holy Spirit’s leading and know the power of God’s word to save and transform. When was the last time your church taught or expected members to be evangelistic? Or even How to pray?
    Further more, maybe I realize what bothers me most about
    this middle governing body report. There seems to be an attitude that what needs changing is the structure of the institution to enable us to be “missional” and accept adaptive change including a new vocabulary. It is as if dedicated members of the church haven’t been missional. The truth is that we do not need a new postmodern vocabulary or reinterpretation of what is the mission.
    We only need to realize the need for the People inside the walls of the church to be intent on teaching/learning God’s word and know how to draw near to God and to draw others to God. Yes, everyone can do social justice mission, but when will the church take responsibility to teach how to bring righteousness justice and the gospel message of forgiveness and power for transformation ? The world is so hungry, starving for these simple truths that only a relationship with Christ can provide. The church just needs to make teaching Scripture and evangelism a priority. Until this happens, this new definition of “missional church” will not succeed.

  2. Jodie Says:


    I love your summary of the meaning of “missional”. Really I do.

    I would like to emphasize the personal nature of item number 2. When we read in Scripture of what God did and is still doing in Jesus Christ, we read where God begins: “For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son…”

    Partnering with God begins with partnering in His passionate giving love, love that would not hold back one’s only child, even. It’s worth pausing there for a moment to absorb such a thing, as an act of prayer.

    Our own starting point must also be an act of unrestrained devotion. An act of giving all that one has to an undeserving other, and then more. It’s a partnership of love.

    Now I know you don’t learn how to be this way over night. For a ravenous consumer society, it’s the most unnatural way of being that we can imagine. But, as my mother used to say, good manners begin at home. Maybe, if we practiced on each other first, we might begin to embody the life-giving Gospel you speak of, and begin to treat the world with the love God has for her.

    What do you think, any chance?

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