Understanding Our Missional Identity

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This is the second part (part I is here) of a four part series on the question: “What difference does it make when you put the word missional in front of the word church?”[1] The coming topics will be understanding our missional focus, vocation and missional expression in the CRC.

“We are a missional church.” This is a description I’ve used in the past with great pride regarding my local church: we were not going to be like those other churches we deemed not missional. The term “missional” is often used as a badge of honor for some and is greeted with confusion or disdain by others. For some, the term might be used to describe a self-perceived hip or urban alternative to the suburban church growth movement. For others, it might mean an emphasis on evangelism. For yet others, it communicates an emphasis on issues of social justice. Of course, for all those who embrace the word, there are others who reject it for a variety of similar reasons.

As was stated in the last article, the body of Christ is not divided into “missional” and “non-missional.” After all, Emil Brunner stated, “The church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning.”

Mission is a core identity of the church and the essence of its very nature. [2] The understanding of mission is often relegated to a function of the church—something the church does or supports—rather than understood as its very essence. But the truth is that the identity of the church is rooted in the missio Dei (the mission of God) and in the understanding that the triune God is a missionary God. God’s missionary character is expressed in the forming of creation, the plan of redemption through the sending of the Son, and the act of consummation in bringing creation to a new fullness. The missionary character of God has always been intended to be evident in his people.

From the beginning when God elected a people through Abraham [3], they were chosen to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). The church is the seed of Abraham and is called to continue Israel’s original mission of being a blessing to the nations (Romans 4). The great commission in Matthew 28 is a continuation of the mission given to Abraham and extends through the church of past and present.

As Van Gelder states, “The church is God’s personal presence in the world through the Spirit.This makes the church, as a spiritual community, unique” (25). He writes further, “The church, as the people of God in the world, is inherently a missionary church. It is to participate fully in the Son’s redemptive work as the Spirit creates, leads, and teaches the church to live as the distinctive people of God.” (31). The church is created by the Spirit and sent by the Son in a continuing act of mission. Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

The story of God’s mission of redemption can’t be reduced to the private realm of the individual who believes in Jesus, says a prayer, and then waits for the day when he/she escapes this world with a chariot ride to heaven. A core identity of God’s people has always been to participate in God’s mission of redemption and being a blessing to the other, of all nations.

Using “missional” as an adjective for the church doesn’t change the identity of the church but is an attempt to remind the church of what she has always been. The term neither excludes evangelism nor becomes synonymous with social justice efforts. Being missional is not a new idea or fad; it is simply what the church is. All churches—of every nation and tongue, model and style, form and history—must discern how to live into and give expression to their missional identity.

The 100-year-old CRC church that follows a traditional order of worship, offers two Sunday worship gatherings, and supports the Christian education fund is missional. Their faithful practices have been a blessing to many, and they should be honored. May God grant them wisdom as they discern how to live out their missional calling.

The church in Syria that gathers under threat of persecution is missional. They too should be honored for their faithfulness. May God grant them wisdom as they discern how to live out their missional calling.

The new church plant that meets in a home, neighborhood pub, or local elementary school is missional and should be honored. May God grant them wisdom as they discern how to live out their missional calling.

Recognizing mission as a core identity does not bring division but unity, as we mutually submit to learn from each other on how to live our missional call. We are all the missional church.

[1] I attended Dr. George Hunsberger’s last lecture December 2, 2014 titled, “What difference does it make when you put the word missional in front of the word church?” This is the second part of a series that will address that question.

[2] These concepts are taken from Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, ©2000), 1.

[3] These concepts are presented clearly in the fourth chapter of Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God's People: A Biblical Theology of the Church's Mission, Biblical Theology for Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2010),1.

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Color me as one of those confused.

If "being missional ... is simply what the church is," as this article says, it is no wonder the word has always perplexed me.  I'm disinclined to add modifiers to words when the modifier means what the word intended to be modified means.  When others do that, I have this itch to discover the additional meaning the modifier brings to the word being modified, but it would seem that in this case there is none?

Yes, confused.

 

 

Doug,

I've found it helpful to think of missional as an aspect of one of the attributes of the church spoken of in the Nicene Creed--one, holy, catholic and *apostolic* church, an apostle being a sent one. The attribute of apostolicity doesn't only mean that we hold to the apostolic teaching but that there is a sent-ness to the church itself, missional simply being the current term.  Historically discussions of apostolicity seem to have revolved more around questions of authority and the missional aspect of it has often been overlooked.

Alan Hirsch argues that the term "missional" should be understood to refer to alignment with the missio Dei that is bigger than just the church. He likes to say that we should think in terms of the mission having a church rather than the church having a mission. In that sense, adding "missional" to "church" implies that the church recognizes and aligns itself with something bigger than itself, rather than simply assuming "missions" is a vehicle to grow itself or extend its reach into the world. This perception can accept that God might use (in addition to the church) individual Christians in their workplace, para-church groups doing relief efforts, or even talking donkeys (ala Balaam) to advance his kingdom. He loves and nurtures and sends His church into the world, but His kingdom is bigger than the church and the church must constantly align itself with whatever God is up to.

Maybe this is a paradigm shift like Galileo convincing the world that though the earth is very special, it is not the center of solar system. The sun (or, in this case, the Son) is.

 

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