Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Being Missional in the Reformed Tradition

by J. Todd Billings

May 1, 2009

The terms “missional” and “missional church” have been the buzz in various Reformed denominations and the wider church for about a decade now. But what exactly do the terms mean? That is an important question, and not an easy one to answer.

Some use “missional” to describe a church that rejects treating the gospel like a commodity for spiritual consumers; others frame it as a strategy for marketing the church and stimulating church growth. Some see the missional church as a refocusing on God’s action in the world rather than obsessing over our own needs; others see it as an opportunity to “meet people where they are” and reinvent the church for postmodern culture.

Clearly, we need to examine the range of perspectives hiding under the term if we are to make use of insights from the missional-church discussion.

Back to Beginnings

A multi-authored book titled Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998) was key for introducing the concept of a “missional church” to North American congregations. The book grew out of The Gospel and Our Culture Network, a group of professors and pastors who sought to bring the insights of missionary theologians like Lesslie Newbigin to bear on the North American context. According to Missional Church, American Christians had been tied to a “Christendom model” of Christianity, wherein the church focused on internal needs and maintaining its cultural privilege in society. The decline of Christendom provided the church an opportunity, the authors said, to rediscover its identity as a people sent by God into the world as gospel witnesses.

The contributors to Missional Church emphasized that everything the church ought to be and do is mission. “Missions” should not be one church program among many but the church’s core identity as witnesses sent by God into the world. The authors were not merely “redesign[ing] the church for success in our changing context” or seeking a pragmatic “method and problem solving” (2-3) approach to ministry. Instead, they sought to diagnose the cultural captivity of today’s church, including its obsession with marketing and technique. Most importantly, they painted a theologically rooted vision of the church as a community called to participate in God’s mission in and for the world.

Warning: Confusion Ahead

Since that time, the market machine has spun out many conflicting definitions of “missional church.” In general, these definitions share a sense that the church is not primarily about us but about God’s mission. But consensus breaks down over what God’s mission is and what it means to participate in it.

In many cases, the phrase “missional church” simply puts new clothes on old trends, such as the seeker-sensitive church movement, the church-growth movement, and so on. Often, the parties critiqued by the authors of Missional Church are now themselves claiming to be missional.

For example, church-growth specialists have long wanted churches to create mission statements; thus some churchgrowth consultants now claim it is “missional” to try to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of ministry. Yet the original meaning of “missional church” referred to God’s mission in the world, not to management advice for accomplishing our own projects. Indeed, the mission of God doesn’t fit the formulas of measurable results and effectual outcomes. It focuses instead on the church living into the coming reality of God’s new creation. This cannot be easily quantified, whether by counting the number of “conversions” or counting the number of hungry persons fed.

For others, the missional impulse has been translated into a consumer-oriented mentality–again, an approach that the authors of Missional Church explicitly reject. Some pastors in my own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, have used missional language to focus their ministry on felt needs. Thus, preaching on “How to Be a Better Spouse” or “How to Be Financially Secure” is considered missional, while preaching straight through a book of the Bible, a common Reformed practice, is seen as an old habit of Christendom. Yet when our needs set the agenda, how can we learn to embody the gospel that is not just our story, but first and foremost God’s? A seeker-sensitive revamping of the church reflects a profoundly different view of God’s mission than that of Missional Church, which claims that God’s people need to rediscover the centrality of God’s action in shaping our witness to the world.

Another use of the word “missional” makes it synonymous with the kingdom of God. This connection is not surprising, as Missional Church speaks about the mission of God as the kingdom of God–something larger than the church of which the church provides a foretaste. Yet, once again, this emphasis can become reductionistic. When people equate “missional” with “kingdom of God,” Jesus can quickly become the pioneer of a faith which mandates that we simply copy the practices of Jesus rather than placing him at the center of our worship. “Let’s cancel church and go out and do ‘kingdom work,'” some so-called “missional” voices say. Worship is seen as a distraction from the “kingdom work” of outreach. Jesus may or may not be found in the church’s worship, they say, but he will always be found on the street in helping those in need. This view has an important grain of truth: we do encounter Jesus in our service to “the least of these” on the street and in all arenas of life (Matt. 25:31-46). Yet, in a profound way, we are renewed in our identity as God’s people through encountering the living Christ in Word and Sacrament in worship. In the end, the approach toward being missional which downplays the centrality of worship contrasts with that of Missional Church because it fails to recognize that we are sent into the world as a worshipping community.

With so many variant views, the term “missional church” now needs something like an FDA label: Warning–contradictory and conflicting views of the church inside.

Being “Missional” in the Reformed Tradition

When we hear the terms “missional” and “missional church” we need to ask hard questions about exactly how the terms are used. And if we are to recover the term “missional” and a theology of the missional church for Reformed denominations, we need to keep three cautions in mind.

1. Approaches claiming to be missional may or may not be genuinely Reformed. We should openly admit that in its origin, missional-church theology emerged from missiological and ecumenical discussions that are not distinctively Reformed. That, in itself, does not make it good or bad. But there are some tendencies in missional-church theology which grate against a historic Reformed identity. For example, the critique of church history as caught in “Christendom” often has an Anabaptist tone, claiming that huge portions of church history were trapped in a sterile mode. Alan Hirsch takes an approach like this in The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Brazos 2007), a book of rising popularity in Reformed denominations. Yet, in contrast to this approach, the Reformed tradition has generally refused to dismiss the Spirit’s work across the vast sweep of church history, and upholds a significant place for church tradition when it is held accountable to God’s word in scripture.

2. Approaches claiming to be missional may or may not be genuinely missional. As explored above, the original missional-church movement for congregations sought to set our eyes on God’s action in the world, rather than focusing upon our own action, needs, or management techniques. Yet, some voices advocating “missional” approaches are proposing extreme forms of seeker-sensitive church growth techniques, or purely practice-oriented approaches to Christ which fail to see the missional value of communal worship of Christ the King.

3. Reformed Christians should seek Reformed ways to be missional, and missional ways to be Reformed. Ultimately, seeking to be authentically missional should complement rather than detract from a denomination’s Reformed identity. Sometimes people have compared Reformed and missional by saying that Reformed is focused on the internal and missional on the outreach side of the church. But that contrast misses the point: the historic Reformed church has been concerned with both the internal life and the outward ministry of the church. Likewise, an authentic missional vision is just as concerned with worship and discipleship as with outreach. Instead of this false contrast, we should see that if we fail to be truly missional–sent into the world as a worshiping, witnessing community–our Reformed identity is tarnished.

Consider the following example where Reformed and missional identities converge. A young family has come to faith in Christ in a Reformed church plant. The parents and their infant come forward to be baptized, with the child in a deep slumber. The congregation celebrates the incorporation of the family into the covenant community, baptized in the name of the Triune God–even as the child is completely asleep! Afterwards, a new Christian in the congregation asks questions about this, and gradually a surprising reality begins to sink in for him: ‘God has been seeking me, also, while I was asleep–before I was even aware of what God might be doing.’ God takes the initiative and seeks us out, joining us to the covenant community, a community empowered by the Spirit to bear witness to Christ in all arenas of life.

Ultimately, we should seek to draw upon missional theologies of the church as a way to live deeper into the gospel–and deeper into our own strengths as Reformed Christians. We should embrace the sense in which “missional” approaches put the focus upon the action of God in the world and our call to participate in God’s work. We should value our covenant community as Reformed Christians, and that we are sent into the world as a worshiping, witnessing, covenant community. We should seek to recover old traditions and discover new ones in faithfulness to God’s call to grow into the image of Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power, witnessing to God’s sovereign presence in a world of need.

J. Todd Billings is assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. This is a revised version of an article originally appearing in the Church Herald. J. Todd Billings teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan and is a ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. He has authored six books, including, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live (Brazos, 2020).

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