Making the Missional Turn

I used to have an allergic reaction to the word missional. Church fads promoted in the Christian publishing and church conference circuit had made me become a bit jaded on the latest and greatest insights for my congregation. So I lifted my nose to all things missional. But as I began to work with others who had been using this term, I began to realize it was not a program, curriculum, or conference. Something much deeper was being probed. Missional is simply what the word presents itself as: an adjective. Something that describes the way the church is when it’s really being the church.

Missionary People
We are a missionary people of a missionary God: one who is free and already on the move independent of our actions, yet inviting us to join in the mission. We are sent-and-sending people. The Son is sent to us and the Spirit sends us to the Father, from whom we are sent to seek the lost. But at times we have thought of our churches as destinations and enclosures. It’s as if we’ve locked ourselves into our own churches. So it’s up to us to turn from being a “vendor of religious goods and services” to becoming the seeking and sending people of God.

I noticed I had made a turn in my thinking one summer when two church denominations with which I had been working each engaged in self study. Each denomination asked its members to describe where they had seen God at work. The results were revealing. In both groups the responses were about what the churches were doing—youth programs, new worship styles, community involvements, and a variety of other activities. It sounded like busy church people doing good things. But what I didn’t hear was an answer to the question, What is God doing? The lines easily blur between God’s actions and our activities; hence, we confuse our initiatives with God’s call, our decision with God’s will, and our point of view with God’s promised and preferred future. The end result is dangerously close to a form of atheism or idolatry. God becomes an afterthought to bless the good things we are doing. My turn in thinking felt a lot like repentance.

Starting with Scripture

Back in the 4th century, Constantine I adopted Christianity as his imperial cult, and people came to identify Christianity with the will of the ruling elite. When we are freed from Constantinian assumptions, the word of God is not an inside story that is bewildering to the outsider. Scripture, missionally viewed, is no longer just an “owner’s manual” for maintenance of the individual believer or the corporate fellowship. Rather, Scripture shakes us from maintenance to repentance; it requires us to turn around and get involved in the mission of God in the world (Luke 4:18-19, 21b; 10:1).

Scripture then, is the beginning point for making the missional turn. Approaching the Scriptures with openness toward being changed requires humility. It is not about doing an exposition of the text as we’ve been trained, but being exposed by the text. It is breaking free from an intellectual attempt to claim the meaning of the text, and instead allowing the text to read our lives. Clearly within the shared memory of Quakers is the expectation that as we gather around the text as a community empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Scripture speaks to us and transforms us in the creative power of Jesus' own voice.

Collaborating with Jesus
The missional turn is shaped and empowered by Scripture. As is revealed throughout the Gospel stories, being sent means collaborating with our teacher, Jesus, and learning from shared experiences. The intention of God’s shared missionary venture is stated in Luke 10, Mark 6:7, and other passages. The “sending” passages in John’s Gospel (e.g., “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” John 20:21b NLT) make it clear that God is a seeking and sending God—first sending Jesus, who sends the Holy Spirit and then will send a community into God’s continuing mission. The Scripture reveals a God engaged in mission. To seek, and then to join in the mission of God (the missio dei), is our calling.

For many, the missional emphasis has transcended thinking about “programs.” In fact, today there is skepticism of programs borne of exhaustion. For congregations across North America, the United Kingdom, and much of Europe, the collapse of Constantinian Christendom has resulted in bewilderment, imagination, and a renewed need for discernment.

One point of the turn is that congregations are reacquainting themselves with other sent ones. Alan Roxburgh’s book The Sky is Falling calls for community to form among those in the traditional and emergent church. Bridging organizations are being imagined, encouraged, and experimented with. For instance, I serve in the Boise Presbytery as a Mennonite-Quaker (that mutt pedigree is why they enlisted me), teaching and forming pastoral missional leaders for shared mission in the region through multiple denominational and non-denominational groups. In a neighboring community, the ministerial alliance moved from being a mutual forum for support to being a group that initiated community-led service to needy families. It became a venue for church and local government cooperation. Each of the Christian traditions represented in these settings brings its own uniqueness to share with others. It’s out of an appreciation of the various gifts that a type of resilience and empowerment flows as we each bring tools for missional engagement.

Another aspect of the continuing turn is being a particular people living as a contrast-community. People whose world has not reeled and shifted feel little need for turning or transformation. However, most all of the established churches in the West have been marginalized since the end of Constantinian Christendom. Some still try to keep the ground from shifting. A mainline denominational leader I know jokingly says, “When 1958 comes back, we’ll be ready.” Well, it won’t come back.

The new setting calls for a community in contrast to the prevailing culture—a community not tied to affluence, where justice is sought out, where all persons are afforded dignity, and where peace is broadcast. Where there is no contrast there is no mission.

A third point in the missional turn is a renewed and vigorous openness to the reign of God. As one dwells in the biblical text, it becomes clear that God is at work. The apostles draw attention to God’s reign, not their own efforts. Those able to see that God is already present in mission can point to things God is doing in the world. Once when talking with some non-Christian friends about the ability to hear God, I found they did not believe a certain politician’s claim that he could hear God telling him what to do. When I mentioned that Jimmy Carter claims to hear from God, they all expressed openness to that kind of God. They believed that peace, compassion, self-sacrifice, and truthful speech were expressions of the kind of God they could trust. God did the mission work in that conversation. As long as we keep an eye on God who is free and on the move, all we have to do is announce his presence and activity.

The missional turn is made as a community formed by Scripture and listening to Christ discerns the ways in which God is already at work. This is a turn that cannot be made alone; the need for partners on this missional journey cannot be understated. Even at times when we might feel alone, we carry with us the conviction of a community formed by the sent and sending God.