Does the Missional Church have a Future?

Jan 24, 2016Blog, Church, Mission, Missional0 comments

The missional conversation has been going on for a few decades now. Today, missional churches are springing up all over the globe.

The missional vision is a wild, expansive, culture-shaping, kingdom-focused vision. It reframes our understanding of mission, the church, the world, and how we read Scripture. It presents us with a missional gospel that changes and defines everything.

The missional vision is a wild, expansive, culture-shaping, kingdom-focused vision. Click To Tweet

But the missional church has problems. Too often, missional language is overused, domesticated, clichéd, misapplied, fashionable and imprecise. Missional churches often suck at evangelism. Missional theology needs fresh direction. Missional hermeneutics are embryonic, and rarely picked up in theological colleges or ministry training. Many missional groups have become echo chambers. Missional ideas are too often packaged into how-to principles, aimed at pastors and in-house concerns. The focus on pragmatics and methodologies and models has often missed the essence of missional theology.

So, does the missional church have a future? And if it does, then what will that future look like?

The missional church only has a future if it practices forms of mission, community and discipleship that “alert people to the universal reign of God in Jesus Christ.”

And the missional church only has a future if it shapes these wild, unpredictable, counter-cultural, culture-shaping practices through global-local conversations.

Here are 8 ways the missional church can do this. The missional church has a stunning, thrilling, culture-shaping future, if it wrestles with these 8 themes.

1. The future is in global missional conversations

Mark Noll makes a striking observation. “It is as if the globe had been turned upside down and sideways. A few short decades ago, Christian believers were concentrated in the global north and west, but now a rapidly swelling majority lives in the global south and east.

If Rip Van Winkle wiped a half-century of sleep from his eyes [after awaking this past week] and tried to locate his fellow Christian believers, he would find them in surprising places, expressing their faith in surprising ways, under surprising conditions, with surprising relationships to culture and politics, and raising surprising theological questions that would not have seemed possible when he fell asleep.”[1]

The Spirit of Christ is causing a fascinating and thrilling shift in global Christianity. Western Christians can no longer claim to be the center or heartbeat of the global church. The shift toward Asia, Africa and Latin America is undeniable. These Majority World churches (some use the term Third World churches) are booming in numbers and growing at an exponential rate. Many scholars have documented this growth.

At the same time, many of the churches of the West are declining. The West is in desperate need of re-missionalization.[2]

The Western church faces its own cultural captivity. It must recalibrate itself in the light of the gospel and the missio Dei (the mission of God). This recalibration is necessary for the Western church to be missional in post-Christendom cultures. It’s crucial if the church is to pursue missional approaches to theology, ministry, service, and servantship. Missional recalibration is vital if the Western church is to stop its decline.

There’s been a recent surge of books considering the mission of the church. These examine how we might re-missionalize the church and re-evangelize the West.[3] But, North Americans have written most of these books. Australian, European, and British authors have written many of these books too.

It’s time that we embraced a new narrative. The future of the global church in mission isn’t found in exclusively in the West. How could we even think that, when all the exponential growth of the church is in the Majority World? Western churches and theology and mission aren’t the future. We’re a part of the future. But we’re not the future.

The future of the global church exists in dynamic and global conversations.

We need to move from a Eurocentric and Americentric view of mission and the church, to one that prioritizes, respects, includes, and hears the whole global church. These conversations must be multivocal, multicultural, multi-peopled, missional, and glocal (global and local). They must involve people from the Majority World (Third World), First Nations, indigenous cultures, and the West.

The church needs to replace Eurocentric & Americentric worldviews with global ones Click To Tweet

The future of the missional church is in global missional conversations. We need to replace Eurocentric and Americentric worldviews with a global missional worldview.

2. The future is in dangerous expressions of the reign of God

David Bosch once defined mission as “alerting others to the universal reign of God through Jesus Christ.” So, a global missional movement helps the church stop focusing on itself and, instead, focus on the universal reign of God in Jesus Christ. The church needs to ask questions about itself—its leadership, theology, worship, preaching, and so on—but it needs to move beyond mere internally-oriented concerns.

The future of the missional church is in finding wild, courageous and innovative ways to “alert others to the universal reign of God through Jesus Christ.” The missional vision is the vision of the gospel. It’s an expansive, stunning, scandalous, culture-shaping, kingdom-focused, thrilling vision. But it isn’t otherworldly. It’s lived out in the messy, dangerous, costly, demanding dimensions of life. It’s lived out in relationships, meals, sacrifices, laughter, tears, friendship, proximity, courage and vulnerability. It’s lived out in the unglamorous but sacred moments.

Sure, it involves worship, preaching, teaching and other ecclesial matters. But it also includes loving our neighbors. Being peacemakers. Fighting for justice. Resisting discrimination and fear. Embracing the “other.” Welcoming the stranger. Opening our homes, families and lives. Engaging in a pluralistic context. And passionately witnessing in word and deed in every place we find ourselves.

There is no real distinction between “being good neighbours” and “evangelism.” Credible missional thinkers have always argued for the complementarity (and synergies) between the two. Some have become “evangelistically shy,” but those people missed the heart of the missional conversation along the way.

Proclamation, posture, presence, and practices have always gone hand-in-glove in any good missional theology.

Proclamation, posture, presence & practices go hand-in-glove in missional theology. Click To Tweet

The future of the missional church is in missional expressions of the universal reign of God through Jesus Christ. This involves exploring surprising and scandalous forms of missional community, practices, witness, etc., that force us to ask tough questions about what it means to be a missional church.

We need a full, courageous and robust engagement with critical cultural issues. As we do this, we seek to alert the world to the universal reign of God in Jesus Christ.

This cultural engagement will be dangerous. It’ll make us and others uncomfortable. People will get angry and offended. Religious institutions won’t know what to do with us or may cast us aside. But we must embark on this dangerous cultural engagement nonetheless. It’s the only way we can witness to the kingdom.

Cultural issues that we must engage include: gender, aid and development, marginality, poverty, pluralism, undocumented immigrants, Muslim-Christian relations, politics, economic rationalism, public theology, witness in a digital age, arms control, the gun culture in the US, “black lives matter”, fair trade, free trade, GM food, G8 politics, human population, conflicts in the Middle East, creation care, terrorism, educational inequalities, domestic violence, nationalism, justice, Palestine/Israel, reconciliation, Third World debt, human trafficking and slavery, child soldiers, same-sex relationships, world hunger, consumerism, globalization, and more.

3. The future is in expanding missional theology

If missional theology is to have a future, it must put indigenous and Majority World and Western voices into conversation. This results in a robust missional theology.

Missional theologies focus on the missio Dei. God is missional. He shapes the missional nature and forms and activities of the church. The church doesn’t have its own mission: it joins in God’s mission.

Vinoth Ramachandra challenges us to see that missional theology must bring together the church’s ‘being’ and ‘doing,’ ‘theory’ and ‘practice,’ ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical,’ ‘evangelism’ and ‘social action,’ ‘individual’ and ‘social,’ ‘sacred’ and ‘secular,’ and ‘justice’ and ‘mercy.’[4] And, missional theology examines its associations with power and privilege and “the center.” It’s concerned for the poor, silenced, marginalized, vulnerable, forgotten, and oppressed. It constructs a theology of hospitality and welcome and embrace.

We shape missional theologies in conversation with other theologies. These include biblical, historical, systematic, womanist, liberationist, Reformed, interfaith, trinitarian, postcolonial, renewalist, sacramental, and ecological theologies (and more!). We refuse to do missional theology in isolation from other theologies and cultures. We enrich our missional theology through ecumenical and interfaith discussions. After all, many of us live in pluralist contexts.

We ground our missional theology in New and Old Testament scholarship. And we do this because of our passion for Scripture. We construct a missional theology that engages cultural and communication theories. We interact with post-liberal, neo-Reformed, neo-Anabaptist, and contemporary renewalist (i.e. Pentecostal and charismatic) thought.

Missional theology is a multicultural banquet that does not preference one cuisine. Click To Tweet

Missional theology is a multicultural banquet that does not preference one cuisine. (At times, it will privilege the voices of silenced and marginalized people, because of the church’s historical neglect). Missional theology helps us understand Christ’s hope and plan for his worldwide missional church.

4. The future is in fresh missional readings of Scripture

Missional readings of Scripture have matured and thrived during the last couple of decades. This literature seeks a missional interpretation of the nature, formation, message, and application of Scripture. Missional interpretations of Scripture pursue sophisticated approaches to biblical interpretation. They show the relationship between the missional Trinity, the missional Scriptures, the missional kingdom, and the missional church.

This isn’t just gathering biblical proof texts for the church’s mission. This is tracing the missiological themes and narratives that run throughout Scripture.

The missional church needs to find fresh ways to read Scripture missionally.

George Hunsberger notes four differing streams of emphasis in Western missional hermeneutics. These four streams intersect and enrich each other. No one stream is adequate without the others, if we desire a vibrant and substantial missional hermeneutic.

The first stream emphasizes the missional direction of the biblical story. It focuses on the missio Dei as the unifying theme in the entire biblical narrative.

The second stream emphasizes the missional purpose of the Bible. It considers how the biblical texts equip the church for witness.

The third stream emphasizes the missional locatedness of the readers. It shows how Christians can read the Bible faithfully in their contexts and locations.

The fourth stream emphasizes the missional engagement with cultures. It examines how the mission-shaped gospel of Jesus Christ serves as an interpretive matrix. We use this interpretive matrix as we put the biblical tradition into critical conversation with our human context.[5]

But the missional church needs a fifth stream, which emphasizes global missional conversations. Like each of the four streams, a global missional hermeneutic intersects and synergizes with the other streams. It’s inadequate without the other streams. And they’re insufficient without it. It needs the other four streams to produce a robust missional hermeneutic. And they need it to generate the same.

This fifth stream emphasizes global missional conversations. A global missional hermeneutic asserts that the global and local church must interpret the Bible glocally. We only achieve robust missional hermeneutics through global conversations. And these conversations must incorporate global themes, local considerations, glocal dialogues, diverse cultures, multiple confessions, many theological traditions, both genders, etc.

This fifth stream of missional hermeneutics compels us to wrestle with the multi-voiced and multi-peopled nature of the church and missional interpretation.

5. The future is in Spirit-empowered mission

Amos Yong says there are 400-plus million renewalists in the Majority World (renewalist = Pentecostal, charismatic, and other such groups). This number is likely to grow to around 710 million by 2020, and 1 billion by 2050. 76% of all renewalists in the world live in Asia and Africa and Latin America.[6]

Clearly, the Spirit is empowering the global church for mission. We see this most clearly in the Majority World (Third World). Not everyone will self-identify as Pentecostal, charismatic, or renewalist. But we should all seek the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enables us all—regardless of the Christian tradition to which we belong—to witness to Jesus Christ and his gospel.

Spirit-empowered mission sees the Spirit beyond the church. It celebrates and releases the Spirit within the local congregation. It joins with the Spirit as he brings justice, peace, hope, and mercy. It enjoys the Spirit in creation. And, it looks for—and points toward—the Spirit in the world. The Spirit-filled missional church seeks to be salt and light and a city on a hill, within a Spirit-infused world. It recovers its Spirit-empowered mission.[7]

In technical terms (skip over such terms if you like!), the missional church needs a missional pneumatology and a pneumatological mission. That’s a mouthful! But I believe it’s true.

Spirit-empowered mission alerts others to the universal reign of God in Jesus Christ. It’s embodied in our love for our neighbor, in our rigorous thought, in our missional practices, in our passionate prayer, in our care for creation, in our political holiness, in our personal ethics, in our commitment to justice, and in our Christian spirituality.

6. The future is in missional education

The missional church has a future as it develops missional approaches to education in training. This education happens in formal, semi-formal and informal settings.

Let’s consider formal settings for the moment. Most Western theological education is neither global nor missional. It doesn’t place missional theology and practices and equipping at its core. It tends to sideline mission to a faculty, course, or institution. And it fails to help faculty and students hear and respond to global theologies and voices. Outdated Christendom perspectives characterize Western theological education. Furthermore, it’s mostly Eurocentric and Americentric.

Missional education takes a completely different approach to most systems of theological education. It considers the mission of God to be the organizing principle for all theological education and ministry training. It places missional theology and practice at the center of all theological and ministry education. Missional education prioritizes missional and globalized theology. It does this as it develops its spirituality, ethics, people, structures, systems, curricula, buildings, fieldwork, ethos, pedagogy, methods, and mission.

We must shape missional education that’s focused on joining with God in his mission. This equips students and the church for mission. It equips the whole believer to take the whole gospel to the whole world. It’s Christ-centered and gospel-focused and biblically-grounded. It develops learning communities. It grows through glocal conversations, and by engaging global theologies and voices. It engages with ideologies of unbelief. It meets post-Christendom cultures. And, as David Tracy points out, it integrates the three “publics” of academy and church and society.

7. The future is in caring for justice and for the earth

Leonardo Boff once wrote, “The earth is crying out and the poor are crying out, both victims of both social and environmental injustice.”[8]

The missional church needs a fresh passion for justice, liberation and creation-care.

This begins with theological reflection on mission, stewardship, sin, ecology, violence, redemption, etc. We need an eco-social theology of mission. We need new approaches to production. And we need a socio-environmental ethic that is attentive to the dignity and wellbeing of humans and the environment.

Missional theology sees connections between politics, theology, ecology, poverty, oppression, and spirituality. When we see these, we can start addressing social and environmental injustice, as we do justice and mission together.

The missional church has a future as it embraces fresh concerns for the poor, the wronged, and the earth. Seek the liberation of the oppressed. Practice prayerful contemplation and politically engaged spirituality. Be welcoming and hospitable. Invite all into the life and ministry of the church. Be passionate about caring for humans, animals, nature, and the planet.

Don’t just give aid or engage in service. Address the systems and powers and structures of injustice.[9]

Doing justice and caring for creation are kingdom agendas.

I cannot see how any credible theology of mission (or missional theology, or proposal for a missional church) can be constructed that neglects the centrality of creation care (including a robust eco-theology). The church cannot join fully with God in his mission while it neglects its stewardship and responsibility to God’s creation.

No credible missional theology neglects the centrality of creation care Click To Tweet

8. The future is in cultivating missional disciples and spirituality

Missional spirituality is a life of communion with God in Jesus Christ. This is expressed individually and in community. And it is expressed through an active engagement in the world, as we seek to love God, love our neighbor, and alert the world to the universal reign of God in Jesus Christ.

The missional church has no future without a renewed focus on developing missional disciples. This discipleship is rooted in Scripture. Missional discipleship is formed through habits and practices, in community. Missional discipleship is trinitarian, Spirit-empowered, relational, holistic, integrative and missional. It rejects religiosity. It’s open to learning from other cultures, while being appropriately critical of the influence of culture.

Missional disciples unite proclamation and practices and presence/proximity. They integrate things that should never have been separated. Proclamation and presence. Word and deed. Truth and compassion. Prayer and action. Contemplation and witness. Evangelism and social action. Personal and corporate. Missional spirituality is holistic and integral.

The missional church has a future. This future is realized as it joins with Jesus in his mission. Jesus’s mission calls us to a wild, expansive, culture-shaping, kingdom-focused, active and passionate engagement with the world.

Graham Hill

Dr Graham Hill is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. He’s the author of “GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches” (IVP, 2016), and 3 other books.

© 2016 All rights reserved.
Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites, or in any other place, without written permission is prohibited.

 

[1] Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). 19­–20.

[2] Patrick J. Johnstone, The Future of the Global Church: History, Trends and Possibilities (Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica, 2011). 99.

[3] For examples of such books, see: NextReformation Top 50 Reading List: http://nextreformation.com/?p=11081. Missional Church Network Top 40 Reading List: http://missionalchurchnetwork.com/missional-reading-list-top-40/.

[4] Vinoth Ramachandra, “Integral Mission: Exploring a Concept,” in Integral Mission: The Way Forward, ed. C.V. Mathew (Kerala: Christava Sahitya Samithy, 2006). 45–46.

[5] George R. Hunsberger, “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping a Conversation,” Missiology 39, no. 3 (2011).

[6] Amos Yong, The Spirit Poured out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005). 19–20.

[7] Graham Hill, Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012). 205­–29; Frost in Ashley Barker, ed. Following Fire: How the Spirit Leads Us to Fight Injustice (Springvale: UNOH, 2008). 33–41.

[8] Leonardo Boff and Virgilio P. Elizondo, Ecology and Poverty: Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, Concilium (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995). xi.

[9] Leonardo Boff, Saint Francis: A Model for Human Liberation (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1982).

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  1. Healing Our Broken Humanity
  2. Global Church
  3. Salt, Light, and a City (second edition)

 

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