What Does Missional Mean?

by / Comments Off on What Does Missional Mean? / 215 View / May 3, 2016

Everything is “missional” these days. A quick Google search on “missional” nets such phrases as missional living, missional leadership, missional theology, missional communities, missional wisdom, missional women, missional marketing, (and my favorite) missional wear – where you can purchase t-shirts, mugs, greeting cards, pint beer glasses and even missional license plate frames. So just what is this missional movement? Let’s start with an illustration and move on to try and define it.

Not too long ago I visited a good friend, Ben, who lives in a major city. Ben is a professional man, has a master’s degree, is married to a fine, educated wife and has young children. He and his family have lived in various rural and suburban settings. They have many choices of where to live and raise their kids. Prior to my visit, Ben and his wife made the decision and commitment to purchase a house and move into a poorer part of the city. It was quite a commitment to live in and become part of this lower-economic community.

While visiting Ben and his family at their new home one afternoon, he and I walked to the corner market to try a Coke imported from Mexico. “You gotta try it! It has a wonderfully nuanced flavor.” Ben convinced me. As we headed out the front door of Ben’s new, older home, he noted that I had parked at the curb in front of his neighbor’s house. Ben asked if I minded moving closer in front of his house because, “soon my neighbor will be coming home, and he parks at the curb in front of his house. It is the only place he can park since he has no garage.” My friend had taken notice of his neighbor’s routine and displayed a sensitivity to him.

On our walk we greeted a preteen sitting on his porch across the street. Ben knew his name and promised the young man they would get together soon to begin teaching the boy guitar lessons. Ben had learned through previous conversations with the boy that he wanted to play the guitar, and Ben has been playing for years. I was also informed the young boy had no father.

As we made our way the few blocks to the corner store, strolling sometimes on sidewalks, other times along cracked curbs and over potholes, Ben relayed stories of the neighborhood he had learned in the months he had lived there. We found our Cokes inside coolers covered with sales posters in Spanish, among other drinks I did not recognize nor could I read. We filed through the narrow aisle to the cashier, a beautiful young lady with a dark roasted coffee complexion, who Ben greeted by name. She knew him from the neighborhood.

My friend and I meandered back through Ben’s neighborhood, enjoying our drinks, catching up on news, yet all the while Ben was not aware of my admiration for the way he and his wife have committed to living out their faith in response to all the Lord has done for them. My Coke did indeed taste especially and wonderfully blessed that warm afternoon.

Missional is not as much a program as it is a focus or mindset. Taking its lead from the Father who sent the Son (John 20:21) and the Father and Son who sent the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 15:26) and the Son who sends His followers (John 20:21), missional is focused on sending. It happens outside the church walls, where people live, work, shop and play. It is relational. Just as the three Persons of the Trinity are divinely relational, people were originally created in the image of God, and being relational is in our spiritual DNA. Therefore, relationships are vital to the work of the Lord among the people He loves. In fact, Lutherans celebrate, believe and teach that the grace of God is at work in the Sacraments, in His Word and in “the mutual conversation and consolation” of His people; it’s a very relational concept (Cf. Article IV of the Smalcald Articles).

Missional is also focused on the community. The Sacraments and the proclamation of the Word are largely celebrated within the walls of the church in the midst of God’s people; consolation and conversation happen in the market place, at soccer games, band practices, dance recitals, in the break room, at the café, even in the little corner market with Spanish posters advertising sales on vegetables.

Ben is missional in his sensitive awareness of his neighbor’s parking habits, in a little neighbor boy’s desire to learn how to play the guitar, in shopping at a neighborhood market. He sees himself as sent by our Lord Jesus to the impoverished neighborhood, to people with few options or opportunities. It is his hope and prayer that many of these neighbors will know the grace of God and will join in on the weekly devotional time and Bible study held in his home. Meanwhile, he is building relationships with his new neighbors in his new community, earning the right to participate in conversations and consolations when the Holy Spirit will bring “good news to the poor,… liberty to the captives,… sight to the blind,… and liberty to those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

Rodman MacIlvaine, a non-denominational pastor in Oklahoma, has given this definition of the missional church: “A missional church is a unified body of believers, intent on being God’s missionary presence to the indigenous community that surrounds them, recognizing that God is already at work.”

Another way of viewing this is more ancient and appears very early in the Scriptures, just as we leave the prehistoric first 11 chapters and begin the historical section when God blesses Abram. In Genesis 12:1-3 we read this poetic blessing, rising as a crescendo, revealing God’s ultimate purpose for Abram and all of us who come in the same grace-founded and faith-based relationship, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  This is the mission of God – to bless everyone through His own people, first the sons of Abraham, then all of Israel, then the church, to love and bless all of the people of the earth. The greatest blessing is to be in an eternal, saving relationship with God, through Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

This missional purpose of all of God’s people is broader than evangelism is commonly understood (door-to-door cold calls), and more eternal than social action, but it encompasses both. It is beyond the attractional posture of Church Growth and not simply a program.

Let’s use the STAR to guide us toward greater missional appreciation. Just as the stars guide the seafarers during the dark of night, the STAR will give us some directional understanding of missional.

Missional is SENDING. Just as the Father sent the Son “that whoever believes in him should…have eternal life” and the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit, and Jesus sent out His own followers, believers are sent. They are sent out into their communities, empowered by the same Lord who blessed Abraham.

Missional is TRINITARIAN. Just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit worked together in the salvific blessing and empowering sending process, God’s people go. They go into the communities to which the Lord has placed them; schools and offices, playgrounds and mechanic shops, corn fields and sky scrapers, basketball bleachers and concert halls. The love of God the Father who created all,  God the Son who came to reconcile all to Himself and God the Holy Spirit who works in His people and works in the hearts and minds of those not yet His people, continues Their work so that “all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Missional is APOSTOLIC.[1] We confess that we “believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church” in the Nicene Creed. In the title of our creed there is an apostrophe in the word apostle. Know where it goes? Right after the ‘s’.  Know why? Because it is the confession of God’s apostles, all who are ‘sent’ in the apostles’ teachings. As we observe Peter the apostle in Joppa in Acts 10, we witness an extraordinary event. Peter, by way of a vision, is sent to the home of a Gentile, an officer of the occupied forces none the less. But the Holy Spirit is moving in Cornelius, and Peter is sent to where the Spirit is at work. The “Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word”, and they were baptized. The Spirit was at work in Peter the apostle. He was working in Cornelius preparing him to receive the word from Peter and baptism. Being apostolic means, like Peter, observing the Spirit’s work, offering that which our Lord passed on to His apostles, and being used by the Holy Spirit in the mission of God.

Missional is RELATIONAL. Just as God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in divine relationship, and we are made in God’s image, we are relational. It is a basic attribute from our Trinitarian God. To be missional is to seek out and develop relationships, personally and congregationally. It means going to where people are more than trying to attract people to where they aren’t.

Missional is Sending, Trinitarian, Apostolic and Relational. This STAR can guide us in an appreciating the missional movement.

This is discipleship, to nurture and sustain spiritual maturity together in a community of faith. Click To Tweet

Mike Breen, an Episcopal priest and a leader in the Missional Movement, cautions us that the missional movement will fail if discipleship is not intricately applied. “We are a group of people addicted to and obsessed with the work of the Kingdom, with little to no idea how to be with the King.” We must mature in God who has revealed Himself in Christ. Our lives are animated, enlivened in baptism when the Spirit creates true life, and this enlivened spirit is nourished by the Holy Spirit with real food of bread and wine, flesh and blood given for us. The missional person receives strength for work from Christ’s Word, spoken, splashed and ingested. This is discipleship, to nurture and sustain spiritual maturity together in a community of faith.  Breen warns us, “The missional movement will fail because, by-and-large, we are having a discussion about mission devoid of discipleship.” According to Breen we must better develop disciples AND a missional (STAR!) culture. The good news is that the same Spirit which guided Peter and worked to prepare Cornelius’ heart is still at work in His apostles today, blessing “all the families of the earth.” And so we can sing the popular spiritual song with Keith and Kristyn Getty, “By faith the church was called to go; in the power of the Spirit to the lost; to deliver captives and to preach good news, in every corner of the earth.”


[1] Apostolic here brings together two understandings. It is a verb used in the New Testament (apostello) to send. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21 ESV). In fact many are referred to as apostles in the New Testament (the ‘brethren’ in 2 Cor. 8:23, Silvanus and likely Timothy in 1 Thess.2:6-7, Andronicus and Junia in Rom. 16:7. And leaders in the Early Church reference such people as Apollos, the Samaritan woman, the women at Jesus’ grave, Stephen and Mark as apostles). Just as Jesus sent (apostlized) his disciples, he continues to send out (apostlize) the modern disciples of his church. This use is dynamic.

Apostle also grew to reference the original apostles and their teachings. In this reference we understand the authority of the Apostles’ teachings as received from the Lord.  This use is static.

In this article we are understanding the term in both senses, as a verb dynamically referencing God’s people who are sent. And as the static reference to the teachings of the Apostles’ which we proclaim, teach and share in “mutual conversation and consolation”. As a Lutheran appreciation of the Missional Movement we can bring back together both the dynamic, verbal aspects of apostello and the unchanging confession of the Apostles.