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

April 26, 2011

II.  Pre-Discernment Foundations

 For lack of a better term, I consider the following three steps[1]to be part of a “pre-discernment” process.  This is somewhat inaccurate, as each of these steps actually requires discernment as well.  They are only pre-steps in that they should happen prior to discerning specific ways in which a local body aligns with God’s missionary activity. 

 1.  Anticipating and identifying crises as catalysts for change

The conventional manner of initiating change where pastors “(a) set down a plan, (b) recruit leaders, and (c) cast a vision” is not how most churches make the transition to a missional body according to W. Rodman MacIlvaine.[2]  Rather, in surveying the missional literature, MacIlvaine discovered that most church become missional in response to a crisis of some sort.[3]  Accordingly, MacIlvaine identifies nine types of crises a pastor (or a church) may encounter that leads to an openness to change from the traditional concept of church to one that is more missionally faithful.[4]  I would offer three crises that churches may anticipate as a catalyst for change.

First, a church that desires to be missional should investigate the immediate context it finds itself in.  Surrounding neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and so forth provide ample opportunity to align with God’s missional aims for the surrounding community.  As a church investigates its context, it may discern areas of brokenness within these neighborhoods, schools, and so forth.  Perhaps one missional-minded church exists in the suburbs where unemployment and poverty are not issues, but isolation, family estrangement, and lack of fulfillment are.  Recognizing the crises of this neighborhood may inform the local church’s sense of mission to that neighborhood.

Second, more broadly, a church may recognize cultural crises that are affecting an entire nation.  For example, it is well known that North America (and the North American church) suffers from materialism, consumerisim, individualism, and postmodernism—all detriments to the faithfulness of the church.  This may lead a congregation to discover that missional ministry can effectively respond to each of these issues, and thus seek to implement a missional change.[5]

Thirdly, as most churches are already aware of their own struggles—hence why so many adopt church-growth strategies—a church may see the indifference of many of its church members as a catalyst for missional change.  Because the missional essence of the church is that the local congregation—made up of each member—exists in its entirety as God missionary people, seeking to become missional will engage the congregation with a new sense of vision.  Stephanie Spellers makes the point well when she writes that the church is not a “building, an assembly, an event, a family, or a set of culturally prescribed rituals,” instead it is “God’s people on the move for the sake of God’s reign.”[6]  When this vision is instilled in the life of its members, it will overtime invite commitment among members to become in reality what God has called them to be.  Regardless of what constitutes a church’s theological reflection on what it means to be the church, pastors and congregations should constantly look for crises as catalysts for becoming more missional. 

2.  Theological education precedes action

As Craig Van Gelder powerfully states, “The church does what it is.”[7]  Yet, how can we know what the church is without deep theological reflection?  In fact, I consider this to be the greatest weakness of the church-growth perspective:  for the sake of pragmatism, it bypasses the difficult, but necessary, work of theological engagement in favor of methods and strategies. Yet, to discover the missionary nature of the church, one must necessarily consider theological reflection of the church to be vital.  Richard Bliese notes that “A flexible framework for grasping the diverse facets of the church’s mission mandate begins with an understanding of the church’s very nature.  The church’s ministry and mission flow out of its nature.”[8]  The point is clear:  in order to discern God’s specific leading for a missional congregation, leaders of that congregation much first have a theological vision of God’s missionary nature.  It was theological reflection that spurred the missional shift, and it is theological reflection that undergirds missional discernment. 

In fact, as Van Rheenen acknowledges, “methodologies and strategies are never theologically neutral”[9]and so reflecting theologically on the nature of the gospel, the church, God’s mission, and so forth should be the responsibility of any pastor who wishes to be missionally faithful.  With this in mind, I offer a set of questions for reflection and a sampling of resources for engagement. 

Theological Questions

  1. What is the gospel? 
  2. What is the fullness of the apostolic message?
  3. What is salvation?
  4. What does the church’s gospel mission intend?
  5. What is the missio Dei (‘mission of God’) that defines the identity, purpose, and the way of life of the church


Though at first glance these questions may seem obvious, this is largely due to the lack of serious reflection on these questions in the church currently.  Any serious engagement with them will open up profound insights into the theological foundations of God’s mission. 

Missional Resources

I suggest the following to expose pastors to the missional shift that is taking place:

  1. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Ed. Darrel L. Guder).
  2. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of Mission (Christopher J. H. Wright)
  3. The Ministry of the Missional Church:  A Community Led by the Spirit (Craig Van Gelder)
  4. God’s Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church (Charles Van Engen).


3.  Form a Spirit-led team to guide the discernment process of the church

Missional churches—led by missional leaders—will not seek the top-down approach to leadership, where the majority of the decision-making is made by a senior pastor, who then disseminates the vision to the congregation. Rather, just as the congregation in its nature is a community of believers commissioned as God’s missionary people, so should missional leaders seek to build teams who will seek to be Spirit-led in the process of discernment together.  MacIlvaine suggests that missional churches must champion their “counter-cultural identity, as a community” nurturing a “different leadership environment.”[10]  This would happen by “consciously moving away from the modernist, top-down, proclamation of new vision, [and] suggest[ing] a bottom-up discovery process in which leaders speak with church members about where and how God is working in their midst.”[11]  If participation of the entire community of a congregation is the goal of a missional church, then this process must begin with the leadership of the church. 

By creating a team for the purpose of coming together, under the guidance of the Spirit, for discernment, missional leaders emulate God’s way of exercising power, who invites humanity to be his “co-laborers” in his great work.  If God invites the church to work with him in carrying out his mission, how much more should leaders of churches seek to share the discernment process with others of the body of Christ.  Besides the fact that it reflects God’s character, it displays wisdom.  How much better is it to be led by the Spirit with others who can refine and help carry the vision, than to seek to do it alone?  Though it would be up to the pastor(s) to determine how to do this, creating a team of mature believers who will meet together to corporately discern God’s leading is an essential component of missional churches.

[1] Obviously, as with any method, these steps are not purely linear.  That is, we do not begin with step one, complete it, and then move to the next step.  Most of these steps will be overlapping with one another. 

[2]W. Rodman MacIlvaine III, “How Churches Become Missional,” in Biliotheca Sacra 167 (April – June 2010): 216. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 218-220.

[5] Ibid., 218.

[6] Stephanie Spellers, “The Church Awake:  Becoming the Missional People of God,” in Anglican Theological Review 92.1 (Winter 2010): 33-34.

[7] Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church, 17.

[8] Richard Bliese, “The Mission Matrix:  Mapping Out the Complexities of a Missional Ecclesiology,” in Word & World 26.3 (2006): 242.  See also Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church, 109-111.

[9] Van Rheenan, “Contrasting Missional and Church Growth Perspectives,” 27.

[10] MacIlvaine, “How Churches Become Missional,” 227.

[11] Ibid.

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