There has been much conversation in recent years about the “missional church.” What is it? To an outsider, it must sound like a church getting involved in communal living or nuclear disarmament! Others may be put off by what seems to be the trendiness of the whole thing. But when understood, the ideas are revolutionary and powerful, though not new. Some have called the missional church model “non-traditional.” Our church plant, GraceLife, has certainly been labeled that. I have to laugh, though, at such a description, because by biblical definition, the modern-western-attractional church is non-traditional. The missional church is actually what we see modeled in Scripture, especially the Book of Acts (2:42-47).

This topic is of crucial importance. We live in amazing times. We are literally on an off-ramp of an era that has lasted for over 1700 years*. When Constantine declared Christianity the church of Rome in 313 AD, the age of “Christendom” began. This blurred lines between state, church, and culture, essentially placing the church at the center of society. This was good and bad. It certainly created grand cathedrals and large congregations, but it also created the possibility of a Christian faith that was cultural and not actual. However, over the last 250 years (and especially the last 50), the western world has moved out of the Christendom age into the post-modern, post-Christian era. The western church as a whole, however, is not seeing this shift and is still trying to assert itself as the center of society, failing to see that our society isn’t paying attention. The Body of Christ must recognize this shift, and keep in step with the Spirit. The church must return to it’s primal state, where it is defined more by its mission than by its buildings, just like the early church was.

On a more personal note, this conversation about missional church has largely taken place outside the charismatic movement, a movement that I grew up in, and still have many ties and friends in. This has left many charismatic pastors lost without a compass, attempting to implement archaic or dysfunctional methods and frustrated with the results.

So let’s dive in, but first, a few disclaimers.

First of all, the term “missional” was hijacked by the Emergents (as opposed to “emerging”). To the Emergent, the missional church tends to refer solely to social justice and has no gospel-preaching mandate. To be truly missional means that the gospel is the center of the mission. So please don’t be put off by the term itself if your understanding of the term is liberal.

Second, I do not intend to indict any friends or enemies with this blog. I’m just trying to describe the missional church as I understand it.

So what is it?

Linear vs. Heirarchal*
The missional church must begin with a gospel-centered theology. That means that grace shapes the entire culture. This results in an ecclesiology (how a church gathers) that is far more linear than heirarchal. Because the missional church understands grace, it also understands the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9). It understands that we’re all sheep, from the pastor to the baby Christian. It understands that Christ Jesus is the Chief Shepherd and though there are under-shepherds (pastors, elders, deacons, etc.), all are still sheep (Hebrews 13:20). The elder (pastor) sees himself at the bottom of a pyramid, serving, helping, building up to spiritual maturity, not creating a heirarchy where he is at the top, creating a co-dependent culture where those below access God from those above.

Typically the heirarchal church model is heavily-influenced by the secular corporate culture. The senior pastor is the CEO star and genius and everyone on staff and in the pews strive to make the organization a success. The missional church tends to have a functional plurality of leaders who seek to build a series of discipling communities.

Incarnational vs. Attractional*
The missional church seeks to “incarnate” Christianity through a series of loving, relational, authentic communities and by seeping into every nook and crack of society for the sake of the gospel. This stands in contrast to the attractional church, which tends to be Sunday service-driven, reaching people through its highly-produced gathering in a religious environment. In a sense, the missional church says “Go!” and the attractional church says “Come!” Buildings are crucial for the attractional church, where the missional church can function with or without one. This is not to say that Sunday services are unnecessary or unattractive for the missional church, but they are not the primary organizing structure—the missional communities are.

An example of incarnational versus attractional at GraceLife is an event we’re hosting called “Avon Live.” This is an open-mic night that we’ve opened up to artists, poets, and thinkers far and wide. We are strictly trying to avoid the typical attractional mentality of being a “Christian coffee house” because we simply want to engage our community relationally by setting them up to look good. A classy local restaurant (Avon Inn) has opened their doors wide for this event, shutting down their dining room for the night so we can take it over. They make good money from us, have lots of exposure, and we get to meet people from the community. Our rules are: “No preaching” and “Anything goes” (within moral reason).

We’ve been contacted several times by well-meaning Christian artists looking to be our feature artist for the night, but creating a “churchy” environment is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. We don’t mind Christian singers sharing their music or even sharing a testimony, but we want them to contribute as a member of the community, not as a church talent show. By creating a “proximity space” where the church and the world can collide*, we’re creating an environment where relationships can begin and the gospel can be seen and heard.

Another family in our church community just opened a bakery to be missional (Sweet Arts in Avon). One of our elders and a friend started a baseball team in a local Rochester league. I’ve heard of others in missional movements opening shoe stores, art galleries, running support groups for alcoholics, etc.

Culture vs. Programs
The missional church seeks to have as a culture that which the attractional church has as a program. Where community might be a polished program of small groups in the attractional church, the missional church seeks nothing but authentic, and sometimes sloppy, community. The same can be said of evangelism. I recently said to the believers at GraceLife, “Do you really think that when Acts 2 says ‘house to house’ that it means the early church had a community group program? I really doubt it. They liked each other! They wanted to be together. They had authentic community that flowed so effortlessly that they literally began to do life together.” This so profoundly affected their worlds that people were coming to Christ every day (in the early church). That means the gospel was preached every day through missional community.

May the Lord lead us and give us “grace for grace” that we might find ourselves in the rhythm of the Spirit. These are exciting and sobering times, and I’m aware that some will not make the change because “that’s not how things were done in the past.” Others are so committed to mortgages, institutions, and traditions made of men that it will be impossible to make the shift. But in the end, Jesus said he would build his church and I’m quite sure he’ll do just that in exactly the way he wants.

Here’s some tweets I posted during this last week as I’ve meditated on missional church:

The #missionalchurch seeks to assimilate itself into society for the sake of the gospel, not separate itself for the sake of religion.

The #missionalchurch sees discipleship as something that happens in the context of community, not simply by “professional” clergy.

The #missionalchurch is a return to primal Christianity before the age of cathedrals and heirarchies. #gracelife

The #missionalchurch isn’t about visiting Jesus on Sunday morning, but is the incarnation of Christianity in real community. #gracelife

The #missionalchurch says “go” not “come.” #gracelife

The #missionalchurch is defined more by its beatitudes than by its building. #gracelife

Acts 2:42-47: The #missionalchurch is not a community group program, but a culture of relationship and community. #gracelife

* I gained some insights from the book The Shape of Things to Come, by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch

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