church doing mission or missional church?

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21).

Currently there is a lot of talk about ‘mission’ in the Western Church. Of course, as with any widely spoken-of subject, there are positive as well as negative aspects to this somewhat renewed interest in what might be called missiology. Renewed fervour in mission is of course positive, though misplaced or ignorant zeal can be as harmful as apathy or indifference.

One major problem, I think, lies in our tendency to separate mission from the larger story we find ourselves in, positioning it instead solely in our local context. This was one of the major issues inherent in the missionary explosion of the last couple of centuries – Western Christians equated taking the gospel to the ends of the earth with Westernising other ‘pagan’ cultures. Indeed, they viewed the institutional church of Christendom as identical with the objective of mission, and thus mission was not merely about forming the Church of Jesus Christ, but also about forming Christian communities that resembled those of Western culture.

I suspect though that mission is meant to find its anchor point somewhere else. I think we can find the core of missional theology in one simple reality… 

God is a missional God.

Simple? Yes.

And no.

I mean, it does sound simple. So why don’t we grasp it? I think it’s partly because we have made a golden calf out of our institutional structures. When we talk about mission we often think of activities that we ‘do’ that are a part of our institutional programs. The problem, of course, is that in doing so we make the survival and extension of our institutions the priority.

But maybe Jesus isn’t at all interested in the survival of such institutions. After all, such institutions are at best the vehicle for and witness to the gospel proclaimed by Christ, and isn’t the proclamation of that gospel the ultimate goal?

Apparently not always.

But when we come back to God himself, perhaps we can perceive a more complete picture of mission. We see that the Triune God is himself a community of love – Father, Son and Spirit – and that as this love is lived out and expressed in this divine community it gives rise to the desire to see such love extended outside this Triune relationship into creation. This is the basis of mission.

And so Jesus is sent into creation to rescue it; it is the love of the Triune God that sends the Son into the world. This sets a missional pattern that, according to John 20:21, continues in Jesus then sending his people into the world as he himself has been sent. Thus mission is not something that begins with the Church, but with God himself. It is God’s mission that we are sent to accomplish.

Now, if the institution of the Church is not the goal but the instrument of this mission, what does that mean for God’s people? It must, of course, mean that mission cannot be one of the programs of the Church that fits into its otherwise chief concern for institutional survival; let us call this (sadly all-too-common) model a Church doing mission. Instead, the Church should see mission as being at the very core of its purpose and reason for existence. The Church is meant to be defined as a sent people; it is defined by mission.

This is a Missional Church.

I would go as far to suggest that a church that is not missional at its very core cannot really be called the Church. This includes a church that attempts to fit mission into its programs without having God’s mission to rescue creation as its definitive aspect.

This is obviously a huge challenge to the pervasive methods and structures inherent in our Western churches. But I believe this is a brief expression of a truly Trinitarian theology of mission.

I would love to hear your thoughts.


Posted on October 8, 2009, in Church/Ecclesiology, Mission, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Your question asking can the church really be the church if it’s essence/nature isn’t understood as missional reminded me of this quote from Winn:

    “The doctrine of the church which we have found in John seems to me to call for some revisions of our conventional ecclesiology.

    The time-honored notae ecclesiae, the marks of the church, are preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. Says Calvin: ‘Wherever we find the word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a Church of God.’

    [However] if we are on the right track in these studies, then surely the preeminent mark of the church is engagement in mission to the world.

    If mission defines who Christ is, and if Christ sends us as he was sent, then mission defines who we are. We can preach the word and celebrate the sacraments in all solemnity, propriety, and purity, but if we are doing nothing to speak the words of God and to do the works of God in the world, if we have no concern for liberation, justice, compassion, and peace, can we claim the name of church? I think not.

    – A Sense of Mission: Guidance From the Gospel of John by Albert Curry Winn

  2. Brad,

    Thanks for that quote, it was not only brilliant, but also encouraging. Hope to hear from you some more!


  3. Hey Matt,
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this too, especially in having such a clean ecclesiological slate with Vox. The more I think about Jesus the more I realise that he did everything in the context of mission; his discipleship, his worship, his community were all done on the road as he travelled and ministered to people’s needs. I am trying to work out how to facilitate that sense of movement and purpose into the structure of our new group. It was good to hear your perspective matching up with everything I’m reading about church planting.

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