Going missional: what are we talking about?

by David J. Anderson

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The Venerable David J. Anderson

We hear the word “missional” a great deal these days. We hear it on the lips of church leaders. We see it in the titles of many new books. Is this just the latest buzzword or fad to hit the church?

The word “missional” has a history worth knowing and speaks to a renewal across the church worth paying attention to.

“The Missional Church” conversation emerged out of discussions in North America and the United Kingdom in the late 1980s. Much of this was initiated by the writings of Lesslie Newbigin, who had returned to the United Kingdom after decades of work as a missionary bishop in India.

He saw with fresh eyes the challenge of the church in its changed context in Western society. The days of Christendom were over and a post-Christian society had taken its place. The Missional Church conversation has very much been about how the church can approach the changed landscape in Western society. All of this is to say that the word “missional” has a history.

Being a missional church is not a program or a strategy. It doesn’t belong especially to large, medium or small congregations. Being missional is not just about doing stuff. Being missional is about who God is and what the church is called to be in the context of a rapidly changing world.

Understanding what it means to be missional begins with a renewal of our understanding of God as one who sends, and is sent, to redeem the creation. Jesus’ announcement of the reign of God was the good news that this redemption draws near.

Being missional, therefore, begins with an understanding of the missio Dei, or the mission of God. God is the primary agent of mission. The church is missionary in nature because God sends the church into the world to represent and be a sign of the reign of God, and to participate in the divine life of mission.

We tend to worry about the survival of our church. Sometimes, our thoughts and motivations for doing good work in our communities are not unrelated to this. We want to show our neighbours that the church is relevant. We would like our neighbours to fill our pews and our offering plates. We wish people would go to church.

The Missional Church conversation asks us to rethink some of this. What if, instead of asking how we can survive, we ask the basic question about what the church is and what it is called to be? What if instead of thinking about Christianity in terms of going to church, we thought of it as being the church, not only on Sundays, but in every moment of our everyday ordinary lives? If we are participants in God’s mission, then we should ask about what God might be doing in our lives, neighbourhoods and cities. How can we join God in what God is doing and seeking to do?

If you want to think about what it means for your parish to be missional, begin by having a prayerful look around. What are some of the needs in your neighbourhood? How might a biblical imagination inform your understanding of what God might want to do? How can you come alongside God and others to participate in what God is doing?

I believe this talk about being missional is more than a fad, but a genuine renewal across the church. I hope and trust that our continuing reflection on the nature of God, and how that informs the nature of the church, is not something that will go out of style.

The Venerable David J. Anderson is Rector of the Church of St. John the Evangelist Hamilton, Archdeacon of Undermount (Hamilton-Haldimand) and a recent graduate of the Congregational Mission and Leadership Doctor of Ministry program and Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. This article is the first of a short series about “Going Missional.”