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Missional Church: “Three Theological Emphases for a Missional Congregation: Theology with a Cosmic Aim” Part I

March 24, 2011

My class on “Leading Missional Churches” is a major paradigm shift for me in many ways.  I’ve struggled with “fitting” in church for some time now, and this class is answering a lot of questions as to why this is so.  The missional conversation does not begin the question, “What does the church do” but asks the prior question, “What is the Church” in its essence.  Of course, both of these questions are related, because “The church does what it is.”  However, typical of Western pragmatism, western churches have tended to jump to what the church does before it makes sure it understands what it is meant to be.  If you’re want a good introduction to this “discussion” check out Craig Van Gelder’s The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit.




In recent discussions on the church, a number of scholars, missionaries, and pastors have increasingly—and for good reason—focused on the “missional” nature of the church.  Far more than the most recent “trend” in church models, the missional discussion does not begin with the question “What is the best way to do Church,” but asks the prior question, “What exactly is the Church?”  Related to this is an even more important question:  “What is God’s purpose in the world, and how does the Church fulfill or join with God in that purpose?” The answer to these questions may seem obvious, but upon deeper reflection, they are as profound as they are important.  When one goes to his or her local church on Sunday morning, sings a few worship songs—or hymns, listens to a sermon, gives an offering, and returns home, presumably this person has done so because he or she thinks it is an important—maybe even a central—part of the spiritual life.  But, does such a person ever really ask why they “go” to church?  Does this person ask what their local church exists for, or why there is a church in the first place?  What about the word “church”?  What does it even mean?  Paul speaks a great deal about the “body of Christ,” Peter mentions the “people of God,” and Jesus says he would establish His church, but besides a few mysterious phrases how does this impact what happens on Sunday mornings?

These are the main questions the missional movement seeks to answer.  In short, following the lead of Karl Barth in the 1930’s many theologians, ecclesiologists, and missionaries have demonstrated a great need to identify the nature of the Church in the mission of God.  Prior to this point, missions was seen as a “function” of the church, yet as Darrell Guder notes, with the work of Barth and others a distinct shift occurred “from a primary focus upon the church and its expansion to a focus upon God as a missionary God.”[1] This shift led many to recognize that the Church does not “do” missions, it participates in the mission of God—a mission that was happening long before the existence of the Church.  Therefore, in the words of Peter Van Engen, the Church—and the local church by extension—is by nature “God’s missionary people.”[2] It is not a gathering of separate individuals, a select few of whom take on ministerial and missionary responsibilities, while the majority attend church as casual observers; instead, it is the corporate gathering of missionary people who are the recipients of God’s redemptive purposes and who exist to fulfill God’s ongoing mission in the creation.

Though a brief discussion of development of the idea of a “missional” church is necessary as an introduction, the purpose of this essay is not to outline the historical development of this paradigm shift in the self-understanding of the church’s identity.  Nor is it to explain in detail what a missional church looks like or how it functions.  Various other writers (more qualified than myself) have done this in great detail.[3] Instead, assuming that this understanding of the Church as the missional “people of God” participating in God’s mission is correct, in this essay I intend to offer several theological emphases of a missional church.  Just as beliefs shape decisions, so a congregation’s theological emphases will inevitably shape how that congregation sees itself and what it does.  Therefore, regardless of the current intellectual climate in many evangelical churches in which the tendency is to retreat from serious theological engagement, a missional church will necessarily take theology seriously.  I offer the following emphases to such a missional-minded church.  My working thesis is as follows:  Because missional churches find their identity in the Missio Dei, they must understand the cosmic implications of God’s mission.  All three theological topics are chosen because they express God’s cosmic aims (in a way other theological options do not), and because the practical implications of each of these emphases directly influence the ministry of the missional church.

[1] Darrell Guder, “Missional Theology for a Missionary Church,” Journal for Preachers 22.1 (1998), 4-5.  Peter Althouse expresses the importance of this shift as well:  “As early as 1932, Karl Barth…claimed that mission is the activity of the Triune God.  This theological volley shifted the focus of missions as a function of the Church, in which professional missionaries proclaimed the gospel in foreign lands, to missions as the theological reflection on the activity of the triune God,” in “Towards a Pentecostal Ecclesiology:  Participation in the Missional Life of the Triune God” in Journal of Pentecostal Theology 18 (2009), 231-232.

[2] Charles Van Engen, God’s Missionary People (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Baker Publishing House, 1991), 27.

[3] See Van Engen’s God’s Missionary People for an excellent introduction to the understanding of local churches as missional.  Also, for a thorough explication of the biblical basis for missional churches, see Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People:  A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan, 2010).

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 10, 2013 3:47

    I really had to show this particular post, “Missional
    Church: Three Theological Emphases for a Missional
    Congregation: Theology with a Cosmic Aim Part I You can take everything I have.
    .” with my best close friends on facebook itself.
    Isimply desired to spread your fantastic writing!
    Thanks, Timothy

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