If you spend any amount of time in the various subcultural bubbles of Christian life, you’ll probably brush up against overused phrases.
One such term that quickly slipped into buzzword territory is “missional.” Gaining traction several years back with a host of pastoral forerunners, living missionally quickly became what everyone was talking about. Church small groups changed their philosophies, and people began rethinking how they shaped their lives outside of Sunday morning.
Missional living became seen as the next big thing, and quickly. However, the problem with buzzwords is that they come and go, and often, the idea they represent comes and goes with them. It seems that in the past year or so, the same people working the word “missional” into every sentence suddenly stopped talking about it. The frequency of the term slipped from buzzword territory into near non-existence. It’s time we reclaimed the idea of living missionally without using it just as a watered-down church term.
To be clear, I believe missional living is not just important, but fundamental to understanding the calling Scripture lays out for believers. To be a missionary is more than driving across the U.S.-Mexico border, starting a nonprofit organization or inviting your neighbor over for dinner once a week.
Scripture’s treatment of living missionally is distinctively stronger than our cultural treatment has been. Therefore, we must recover what a Christ-centered understanding of mission is before we can truly understand how to properly live on mission.
Missional Isn’t a New Idea
Like lots of ideas in a culture driven by rapid trends and quick-fix solutions, missional living became, for many, a fresh means by which to fix the problems in our churches and in others. It became another alternative trend in the church that would sweep past the obsolete practices we’ve been holding onto when sharing the Gospel.
However, when the rubber met the road and missional living didn’t quite pan out to be as immediately effective as we imagined, a lot of us dropped it. The newness of the method wore off.
But missional living isn’t actually a new idea. According to missiologist, Michael Goheen, “We need missiology that works out from the theological starting point that the Church is missional by it’s very nature—wherever it is.”
This history-enveloping casting of mission for the Church reminds us that living missionally began much earlier than the 20th century. God called to Himself a people out of Egypt in Exodus, established them as a distinctive nation among others and gave them the responsibility to be a blessing to others in light of the blessing they had received. What is more, the New Testament emphatically extends this call to the Church today. Living missionally has been God’s intention for His people from the beginning.
In many cases, as we sought to live missionally, our good intentions became sour reactions. These reactions were often pointed against the inward-focused habits of churches that marginalized the non-believing community. We grew sick of the insulated and legalistic communities turning a blind eye to the suffering world. We got worn out with the program-driven churches that rarely got into culture and met people where they were.
As this reaction expanded, it became rooted in the power of living missionally as a demonstration of a better way to live rather than a dependence on the Holy Spirit’s work to change others. As a result, we lost true semblance with the character of Christ and began merely reflecting the cultures around us.
What is more, the aim of mission became focused exclusively on evangelism techniques and lost the fuller picture of what biblical mission is. Lesslie Newbigin reminds us, “When Jesus sent out His disciples on His mission, He showed them His hands and His side. They will share in His mission as they share in His passion…and give to Him the service of their lives.”
We need to remember that mission is not about us. It’s not about showing people that we’re different from other Christians. Mission is built then, now and forevermore on the power of Christ’s work and the cosmic scope of that work.
Missional Methodology vs. Missional Identity
Misunderstandings and reactions aside, the biggest reason “missional” became a buzzword is because we separated mission from who we are. Missional living lost its transformative allure when it became a method rather an identity.
When we forget whose mission we’re actually on, it becomes easier to miss the aim. At the core of who God is, we find a missionary. As the parable of the lost coin reminds us, God comes after us with insistent determination. He sends us His Son as the ultimate picture of a missionary: encroaching foreign territory, becoming like us, and making the way for us back to the Father.
God’s character is, in every way, missional. When we understand God’s character, we understand a piece of our own character and role as God’s covenant people. If God is a missionary, it follows that Christ has the authority to command us as His missionaries to go into the world.
When our missional identity is intact, the power of living missionally flows from who we are rather than what we do. We must partner with God in His mission, not drag Him into ours. When our mission flows from who we are, the fruit of that mission carries with it more depth of meaning. It doesn’t need to fit into a particular methodological mold, it must simply live out, with cosmic momentum, the healing work of Christ into a broken world.