This is part three of a four-part series on a question that Dr. George Hunsberger asked in his last lecture at Western Theological Seminary: “What difference does it make when you put the word missional in front of the word church?” Part 1 is an overview of the nine affirmations that Hunsberger offered to clarify how the word “missional” relates to the church’s identity, focus, and vocation. In part 2, we looked specifically at the church’s missional identity, which is formed by the Spirit and reflects God’s missionary character. Here, I address the second core quality: the focus of the missional church.
What are the focuses of missional church? First, a missional focus serves as a “contrast to notions and practices of ‘church’ that are consumer-driven.” If the church is conceived primarily as a location where certain things happen (as phrases like “going to church,” “attending church” or “checking out a new church” all seem to indicate), there can arise a subtle temptation to take a consumeristic posture of recruitment in the programs and services that the church offers. Recruitment to religious services is a movement “in,” which is the opposite direction of a missional focus that moves “out” beyond the walls of the church’s location. A missional focus illuminates the missionary, sent, and apostolic nature of the Church as “both the church’s foundation and its commission.”
Second, as the church moves out, it does so not as a collection of individuals but as a connected community formed by the Spirit. This focus of the missional church works “as a corrective to an individualist and private version of the gospel.” Church is not simply a place where individuals go to get saved so that they can go heaven or to be cared for as they grow in their individual faith understanding. This view confines church and mission to the private realm of the individual. In contrast, a missional focus calls for commitment to communal practices that both develop and give evidence to the gospel. These communal practices move the church away from programs prepared to meet the needs of the individual and move instead toward a collective action of discerning God’s call in the church’s unique context with the unique gifts of the community. The local congregation then becomes the “lens through which people see and interpret what the gospel is about and how it can be embraced.”
This leads to a third focus of the missional church: a collective turn “toward the intentions and actions of God in the world.” This is a shift from a church-centered (ecclesiocentric) to a God-centered (theocentric) view of mission. In this view, mission is not the recruitment of individuals to the programs of the local church; it is the church as a community engaging in God’s mission of renewal and restoration. The church in any place is caught up in God’s grand mission of make all things new. Mission doesn’t just happen “over there” on some distant shore, and mission doesn’t just happen “in here” within the walls of the church. Rather, the missional church recognizes the reign of Christ over all things, and collectively the church engages with God’s ongoing mission activity in their local context. Mission involves the participation of God's people, His Church, in the shalom inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This participation challenges the individualistic, consumeristic, and ecclesiocentric expressions that the church has often been drawn toward.
The missional church is not an alternative that stands against traditional or attractional models of church. Describing the missional quality of the church is never a critique of models themselves. Rather, this missional focus critiques the assumptions that increasing numbers or high attendance of programs is justification of the rightness of a church’s practices. The missional focus challenges church practices that mimic consumerism and result, intentionally or not, in the church as a vendor of religious services. The understanding of church is then often reduced to facilitating a private transaction between an individual and God. A robust missional focus, on the other hand, focuses the church toward collectively joining in God’s activity beyond the church walls and in all the world.