Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What is a Missional Church?


A comment to my last article caused me to think. The writer asked about the word "missional." Now I have heard this word bandied about much in recent years. My suspicion of the word no doubt arises from its seeming novelty. It was the same with the word "disciple." It went from a noun to a verb to describe what the church should be doing, as in "disciple-making," taking its cue, I think, from Matthew 28. The point then was we needed to have disciples not just "members."

"Missional" is supposed to be a term describing what is related to the mission work of the church, or of a missionary. However, in popular usage, the meaning has morphed into something quite different. Now it's about "contextualizing" the work of the church, which to my ears sounds like another call to change the historic aspects of its work and worship.

In an article entitled "What is a Missional Community," Jason Zahariades writes:

"However, in a missional community, the church is God’s sent people. That means when everything is stripped away – the building, the events, the activities, the leaders, and other identifying markers for the church – the people are the church and church is the people. Therefore, wherever God’s people are corporately or individually, there is the church. Church is at home, in the car, in the restaurant, the beach – wherever God’s people find themselves in their daily lives."

Is this the new definition of the church? If so, it falls far short of the truth. In Article VII of the Augsburg Confession we read: "The church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered." Notice in Mr. Zahariades' definition the church is identified with the believer alone, not with the means of grace that sustains his faith and and his life in Christ. It has been common for people over the years to use the excuse not to attend church saying that they didn't have to go to church to be a Christian. Then someone says something foolish about worshiping and communing with God out in the woods. Missional communities fit nicely into this old model.

Yet is this what the first believers did? No. They came together in community gathered around the Apostles' Doctrine, the Prayers, and the Lord's Supper (Acts 2:42.) Word and Sacrament. But where is the Word and the sacraments in the "missional community"? And for that matter, where is the called servant of the Word, the public minister of the Gospel, the pastor? Not essential either. Church is just where you happen to be at the moment. Or at least that seems to be one exaggerated aspect of this new movement.

Within some Lutheran circles the term "missional" seems to be driven by the emphasis on outreach as the prime identifying mark of the church. Thus, activities and congregations are judged as to whether they are "missional," or as the older phrase put it, whether they are "maintenance congregations." The idea being either you want to change and grow, or you want to remain numerically stagnant and eventually die. Often the emphasis (as you can see in the article quoted above) is on human action not divine work (Law vs. Gospel.)

Personally, I am concerned by this term and the implications it appears to make. So, for now, I'm going to avoid the term. I'll stick with the old ones. Words like Word, means of grace, sacraments. Those still work for me.

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