Missional – getting back to the why and what behind our how

Many of us have fed so long and voraciously on concepts and practices related to “missional” that we’ve lost the appetite to dig in much deeper. I often feel stuffed myself. Such a volume of material, and so much of it only recasting in new language and stories the same beaten paths of application. Don’t get me wrong, I do still enjoy interacting over the latest nuancing of missional theology and praxis, especially if it involves fresh observations and learnings from grassroots practitioners. However, I am inclined these days to focus more attention on material that helps the body of Christ: a) revisit why this emphasis is so important in the first place, including what in big picture terms it touches upon; b) delve into areas of applied missiology that seem to be insufficiently addressed in the overall conversation thus far.

So, why might the time be ripe to again “start with the why” when it comes to missional? In my work with church starters and pastors wanting to move their people into mission, I often meet leaders who think that being missional simply means working smarter and harder at the church’s culture-engaging ministries…you know, outreach, evangelism, social justice, compassion ministries, etc. This narrow lane of application suggests to me that they have only superficially dug into the missio Dei and its profound ramifications for the church’s discipleship and stewarding of God-given resources. They’ve missed some deeper currents and jumped into missional as primarily an activist stance in culture aimed at meeting societal needs and getting nonbelievers in dialogue with the gospel and Christian values. The why has been skimmed over and the what has been too narrowly defined, so we shouldn’t be surprised that many churches fail at sustaining their version of healthy cultural engagement.

What I typically try to get across to such leaders is that a missional approach is holistic. And it’s also not a perspective or work that we finally complete, so that we can move on to the next big shift coming upon the Church. Missional is tied into the very essence and vocation of the church in the world. In other words, a missional perspective has ramifications for all the ways we encounter the world, not simply in meeting needs but in drawing upon the wealth of shalom accessible in our relationships with neighbors, in our artistic/creative endeavors, and in the beauty of creation all around us. This is why I’m arguing we need to get back to not only the why behind missional, but a more expanded version of the what of missional. Not only has our repetitive use of the word stripped the concept of its pizzazz, but we’ve jumped over and over again to missional as a set of things we do or bring to culture. And that has led to an inability to feed on the shalom our triune God and our host context/culture exude for our own wellbeing.

I know this probably creates more questions than it answers. Perhaps later I can get into more specifics that relate to the why and what of missional that I’m arguing have been skimmed over. As to filling in where there may be perceived gaps in the missional conversation thus far, let me briefly identify two areas I think could use much greater exploration and application – i.e. I’ll expand on these in later posts, so forgive any confusion that arises as you read the rest of this paragraph.

The first gap I see has to do with the need to integrate what some in theological circles call “trinitarian participation” into both the why of missional and also the outworking of missional. Much of the impetus for missional praxis is predicated on the church carrying forth God’s mission, exemplified in Jesus Christ’s life, ministry and mission, and carried out in the power of the Spirit. I see much less attention given to missional as inviting others into the very life of the Trinity.

The second gap or area that I think needs greater expounding deals with human longing and its ramifications for mission and evangelism. This is a huge area that when tapped into allows us to enter vulnerable spaces – thin spaces where we can experience solidarity with the aches our friends of all persuasions feel as part of being human.