In Dr. George Hunsberger’s last lecture at Western Theological Seminary he asked the question, “What difference does it make when you put the word missional in front of the word church?” (1) The question is timely as “missional” seems to be used to describe almost anything. We have missional communities, leadership, cohorts, cafes, and countless books which claim it in a title. In the lecture I was reminded that the term is not a fad or an attempt for relevance in our current ecclesial milieu. Rather, “missional” is an adjective that serves to “accent a quality of the church” and found its permanent place in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933. I was first exposed to the missional quality of the church in 2000 while reading Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. (2) The missional quality of the Church is derived from the missionary nature of God and how God calls the church to participate in his mission. This quality has continued to captivate my imagination with a robust picture of the gospel and the Church. “Missional” has reached a tipping point in our ecclesial nomenclature, and its wide use often seems to diminish those qualities that so captivated me. If missional can mean anything, then its powerful impact on shaping our understanding of the church is functionally minimized.  Dr. Hunsberger’s lecture articulated nine affirmations of “missional” which are ascribed to the core qualities of the identity, focus, and vocation of the Church. These affirmations offer needed clarity on the contours of “missional” and what it means when placed in front of “church.”

In relation to the identity of the Church he offers these three affirmations: missional is a… “characteristic of the church everywhere,” “a dimension inherent in our calling,” and “something that the Holy Spirit makes true about us.” The missional quality of the church is not something that must be established externally by a new approach or program but is a Spirit created core quality of the Church. The body of Christ is not divided into missional or non-missional. All churches of different expressions, models, styles and histories discern and practice how to live into their missional identity. Recognizing missional as a core identity unites the church and creates a posture of mutual submission as we learn from each other how to live into our missional call.     

In relation to the focus of the Church he offers these three affirmations: missional is a… “contrast to notions and practices of ‘church’ that are consumer driven,” while “positioning toward the intentions and actions of God in the world,” and serves “as a corrective to an individualist and private version of the gospel.” Describing the missional quality of the church is never a critique of numerically growing churches. Rather, missional critiques the assumption that increasing numbers is justification of the rightness of a church’s practices. This challenges practices of the church which mimic a posture of consumerism resulting, intentionally or not, in a church as vendor of religious services. The gospel focus is then often reduced to a privatistic understanding of a transaction that takes place between an individual and God, not a robust understanding of God’s activity in the world beyond the church walls.

In relational to the vocation of the Church, he offers these three affirmations: missional is… “a recovery of community as the people of God,” offering “a guide to the practices, gestures, and expressions of the gospel,” and “recognition of our public location as witness to the reign of God.” The missional quality of the church shapes the public practices of the community of believers to reflect God’s Kingship and his mission. Missional is a communal vocation not simply located in the individual or only experienced within the walls of a church.  Hunsberger further clarified it this way, “Being a missional church is all about a sense of identity, shared pervasively in a congregation that knows it is caught up into God’s intent for the world. It comes from hearing, one way of the other, the still small voice that says, ‘You are mine. I have called you to me. I join you to my compassionate approach to the whole world for its healing. You are witnesses to what I have done and what I will yet do.” (3)

In the next few weeks months, I will unpack in greater detail each of the these missional affirmations with the desire that we will develop in what it means when we put the word missional in front of church.