What Are Missional Churches?


What are missional churches?

<!– by Rebecca Barnes –> by Rebecca Barnes 08 Apr 2008

Ten years of describing the latest in church trends as missional and yet we still don’t know what that means. Maybe the term is intended to function that way. Perhaps the mystery is part of the charm.

J. Todd Billings, assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., admitted the vagueness of the term, then took a stab at defining “missional” recently for Christianity Today.

“Some use missional to describe a church that rejects treating the gospel like a commodity for spiritual consumers; others frame it as a strategy for marketing the church and stimulating church growth. Some see the missional church as a refocusing on God’s action in the world rather than obsessing over individuals’ needs; others see it as an opportunity to ‘meet people where they are’ and reinvent the church for postmodern culture.” Billings writes.

Whatever the meaning, the term is plied with multiple definitions by people who prefer it to describe either their own church or the way their church should be.

Billings’ broad definition of missional is, “… a sense that the church is not primarily about us, but about God’s mission.” In this definition he concurs with the work of Craig Van Gelder, whose book “Ministry of the Missional Church” I reviewed recently for Church Central.

Van Gelder is also a professor—currently of congregational mission at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and a former professor at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., and holds degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of Texas at Arlington. Maybe you’re beginning to think as I am that higher degrees are a requirement for comprehending this term missional.

Van Gelder categorizes churches as: corporate, established or missional. He further defines missional as a spiritual social community called to God’s mission in the world.

That seems as vague as ever.

Enter pastor and church consultant Barry Winders, whose self-published work entitled, “Finding the Missional Path,” may clarify missional by what it is not. Winders provides a concise and informative chart illustrating all the various ways churches can become distracted from their original mission—making disciples. See if any of these are familiar, either in your own institution, your house church, or in the congregations where you consult:

Missionary church – sees leaders as fundraisers and members as givers
Maintenance church – sees leaders as recruiters and members as clubbers
Seeker-sensitive church – sees leaders as presenters and motivators and members as seekers
Consumer church – sees leaders as producers and members as consumers
Church growth church – sees leaders as programmers, assimilators, analysts and members as participants
Activist church – sees leaders as catalysts and members as activists

I wish Winders had a correlative prescriptive chart for churches that are models to follow. I wish Van Gelder or Billings had more of a definition. Billings can only conclude by warning Christians that missional means about as many things as evangelical.

“With so many variant views, the term missional church now needs something like an FDA label: Warning: Contradictory and conflicting views of the church inside,” Billings writes.

Van Gelder ends up defining missional as differing from other church growth and health trends such as purpose-driven or emergent, because it is more than a strategy to help struggling churches. Instead, he writes that missional is a community led by the Spirit of God. While that definition includes more types of churches than it excludes, it informs clearly on why this term missional is so nebulous and yet so attractive at the same time. I mean every healthy church wants to be a part of the Spirit of God’s work in the world. And the Spirit is notoriously difficult to pin down in something as small as a working definition.


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