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Missional Church: “A Framework for Discernment: How Churches Can Join the Mission of God” Part I

April 21, 2011

I. Introduction 

In developing an informed understanding concerning the current discussion on the “missional church” it would undoubtedly be best to begin by contrasting it to the primary influence upon the evangelical church in the past few decades—that of the “church growth movement.”[1]  For some time now, the main motivation of pastors and the central criterion of church effectiveness has been that of numerical growth.  This is most evident seen in the frequently asked question how big is your church?  It seems that to be a successful pastor in the 21st century, one must have a numerically large church—after all, that means that more people are getting “saved” right?

While the evangelistic underpinnings of the church growth movement are certainly admirable, a growing number of Christian scholars and pastors have become increasingly uncomfortable with the underlying foundations of the church growth movement.  To be brief, it is suggested that this movement is light on its theological foundations and heavy on pragmatic “strategies” for increasing church numbers.  As Gailyn Van Rheenan proposes, “They [practitioners of the movement] saw the missional task as setting goals, developing appropriate methodologies, and evaluating what does or does not work rather than seeking God’s will based upon biblical and theological reflection.”[2]  Of course, the setting of goals, developing methods, and evaluation are not inherently wrong; indeed, they are necessary and good in their rightful place.  However, church growth practitioners “major” on method, and de-emphasize theological formulation of the church’s identity:  “The church growth model for ministry, therefore, develops forms and functions of ministry without establishing the theological rationale for Christian living and ministry.”[3]  The most basic questions of the church growth movement is “Does it work?” and “Will this help the church grow?”[4]  Pragmatism and doing the “right” things have won the day for many churches in the West.[5]

In contrast to this popular movement, the misisonal paradigm asks a fundamentally different set of questions as their starting point.  Rather than “Does it work?” the missional pastor asks first, “What is God doing?” and rather than “Will this help the church grow,” the missional pastor asks first, “What does God want us [our particular congregation] to do?”[6]  Though this may be a subtle change in emphasis, the implications are profound.  The church growth practitioner fundamentally relies on strategy and methods as a way growing his or her church.  He or she may or may not rely on the leading of God—but this is not a priority (at least within the church growth system), because the methods are the key.  However, the missional pastor seeks to begin with what God is doing, joining with God rather than working for God.  While methods and techniques will certainly be incorporated into the vision of a misisonal church, they are not what undergirds the vision.  In the words of Van Rheenan, missional churches seek foundationally to be “theologically formed, Christ-centered, Spirit-led fellowships that seek faithfully to incarnate the purposes of Christ.”[7]

Let is be supposed that the missional perspective is more biblically faithful to our understanding of the church.  If so, another question emerges.  How does a church become a ‘missional’ church.  In other words, how does a church discern what God is doing and what God wants a particular congregation to do in partnering with God’s mission.  When we seek to embrace the missional nature of the church we are, at once, faced with the perplexing problem of how to determine God’s purposes for a specific congregation and how to be led by the Spirit.  This leads us, inevitably, away from the comfort of objective strategies (at least initially) and measurements, and to a subjective discernment process, that will certainly involve a degree of fluidity.  In what follows, I hope to offer a framework (not the) for missional discernment.  I propose the following framework for the pastor who may desire to lead his or her church to become a missionally faithful body, but may not at once see how this is possible.  My aim is to be intensely practical.  There is a great deal of theory about the missional church and it would be highly beneficial to study it at some length.  However, we must also seek ways to implement the missional paradigm into our local contexts.  This is my attempt to offer a method of doing so. 

[1] My analysis of the church growth movement is indebted to Gailyn Van Rheenan’s “Contrasting Missional and Church Growth Perspectives,” in Restoration Quarterly 48.1 (2006), 225-232.

[2] Van Rheenan, “Contrasting Missional and Church Growth Perspectives,” 26.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid.  Take for instance small-group ministries.  It is doubtful that most church leaders spend a great deal of time reflecting on the ‘theological rationale’ of small gropus (e.g., that God creates humans for intimate community; accountability; the practice of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, communion, and fasting, etc.).  Instead, it seems that many church leaders see this as a necessary way to “grow.”  It’s not that growing is wrong per se; it is, rather, that mere numerical growth should not serve as the foundational catalyst for church ministry.

[5] Is it any wonder that pastor burn-out is at an all time high?

[6] This second set of questions is asked in Craig Van Gelder’s The Ministry of the Missional Church:  A Community Led by The Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2007), 96. 

[7] Van Rheenan, 28.  We might not go too far is saying that this in contrast to church-growth bodies which are strategy driven, attractiveness-centered, dynamic leader-led, fellowships that seek faithfully to grow numerically.  I should probably comment on what may seem like a personal vendetta against numerical growth.  I am not at all opposed to a church growing numerically—in fact, this would be certainly be one of the criteria for evaluating a missional church.  However, I am strongly opposed to this being the primary criterion for evaluation for it creates a false perception of what constitutes a church’s success.  While numerical growth may be an indication of a healthy church, it not necessarily an indication of a healthy church.  And vice versa, a small church is not necessarily an indication of an unhealthy church (nor is it necessarily an indication of a healthy church as the “house church movement” claims).  Below I will propose a different set of criteria by which we should evaluate the health of a church.

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