Thursday, 7 April 2011

What does it mean to be 'Missional'?

According to the strapline of this blog, one of it’s goals is to help disciples at Woodgreen to ‘live missionally’.

But what exactly does that mean?

Over the last 10 years the word ‘missional’ has become a buzz-word among evangelicals. Christian leaders such as Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll have written extensively about it and a Google search on the topic reveals 823,000 hits. This is despite the fact that my spell checker still tries to correct it because it doesn’t recognise it as a real word!

I was asked recently what the term ‘missional’  means and what a ‘missional church’ looks like, so I thought I’d have a go at summarising where the concept has come from and what it means for us as Woodgreen.

If you want a more succinct visual summary of what it means to be a missional church, see the video link at the bottom of this post which I reckon was a lot of fun to make!


For the last 50+ years the traditional model of the UK church has been essentially ATTRACTIONAL. We put on services and evangelistic events and invite people to come along to them. We pray in our prayer meetings that non-Christians might ‘come in and hear the gospel’. The Billy Graham rallies of the 50s and 60s typified this ‘come and hear’ approach.

As UK society emerged from the austerity of the post-war decades, the ‘quality’ of the services and events churches put on became better: publicity was glossier, events were slicker, music was more modern, some churches even started using OHPs to accompany sermons! However the evangelistic strategy was essentially the same: it was a ‘come and hear’ model. Evangelism revolved around people coming into the church. The unfortunate outcome of this over time was the emergence of a church subculture which was more concerned with meeting the needs of insiders than the needs of outsiders.


The Seeker-sensitive movement of the 80s was a reaction to this. Church leaders could see that the attractional model was starting to become less and less effective as society became more pagan and non-Christians became less connected to the church and less aware of core Christian values and beliefs. The answer was seen as creating services that were sensitive to ‘unchurched’ people. Typically, such services contained less singing, less participation and less jargon.  

In many ways this was a helpful correction. It forced churches to re-examine why they did what they did and identity what was truly biblical (and therefore non-negotiable) and what was merely traditional (and therefore optional). It challenged churches to be more creative and intentional in their evangelism. It challenged Christians to be more selfless: to be less concerned with preserving tradition and pleasing themselves and more concerned with being effective and reaching the lost. The ministry of Willow Creek Church typified this movement.

However the seeker-sensitive approach was still essentially attractional in nature. It was still about non-Christians coming onto Christian territory. It was still about people coming into the church. The church building/event was where evangelism happened.

In the past the attractional model was an effective way of reaching unbelievers because many non-Christians still had some connection with the Church and some understanding of the Christian message. This gave them a starting point for any future journey of faith if they found themselves asking the big questions of life and death. Perhaps they had been to Sunday school as a child; perhaps they had been christened or confirmed or married in a church as an adult; perhaps they still went to church at Christmas and Easter (because that was what their parents had done). Most people of a previous generation were taught Bible stories in school (‘Scripture lessons’ as they were called then). Traditional Christian morality still held sway in public life. Most people regarded the UK as a ‘Christian country’, meaning it had moral, ethical and social foundations that were ‘Christian’ in origin.

However for  a number of reasons this mindset has been eroded over the past 30 years, meaning a new approach to evangelism is necessary.


In his article ‘The Missional Church’, Tim Keller highlights the seminal role British Missionary Leslie Newbiggin played in highlighting the culture-shift that occurred at the end of the 20th century:

‘Newbiggin went to India around 1950. There he was involved with a church living ‘in mission’ in a very non-Christian culture. When he returned to England some 30 years later, he discovered that now the Western church too existed in a non-Christian society, but it had not adapted to its new situation… the church still ran it’s ministries assuming that a stream of ‘Christianized’ traditional/moral people would simply show up in services. Some churches certainly did ‘evangelism’ as one ministry among many. But the church in the West had not become completely ‘missional’ – adapting and reformulating absolutely everything it did in worship, discipleship, community and service – so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it. It had not developed a ‘missiology of western culture’ the way it had done so for other non-believing cultures.’
It was this realisation that led to the emergence of the MISSIONAL movement.

Wikepedia’s  definition of ‘missional’ is helpful :  

Missional living’ is a Christian term that describes a missionary lifestyle; adopting the posture, thinking, behaviours, and practices of a missionary in order to engage others with the gospel message.
Newbiggin highlighted the fact that as Christians we need to start thinking of oursleves  as missionaries in a post-Christian culture and  come to terms with what that means for how we do church. Being missional is essential because most people today have no traditional or cultural connections with the church or understanding of Christianity. They therefore have no starting point for faith when faced with the big questions. 'The Church' is not seen as a place that has credible asnwers. Nowadays a questioning person is as likely to seek answers from Buddhism, Islam or Oprah than the Church. That was unthinkable 50 years ago. Most unbelievers are now disconnected with Church and true Christianity. 

Therefore while attractional events still have value, we also need to rediscover the GO part of the Great Commission.
  • On Sunday we are the gathered church - but Monday-Saturday we are the scattered church;
  • On Sunday we come in - but on Monday-Saturday we are sent out;
  • On Sunday we are missionaries on furlough - but on Monday-Saturday we are missionaries on assignment.
We need to recover a missionary mindset, a vision of being ‘sent’ people. As our mission statement at Woodgreen states:

‘Our MISSION is to make disciples who understand our culture and know, sow and show Jesus in Warndon Villages, Worcester and the World.’
The fact that we are missionaries to our generation has profound implications for how we do church on Sunday as well as how we do our lives midweek. Being missional means dismantling the secular/sacred divide that has hamstrung Christians for generations. It means realising that what we do on Monday-Saturday can be just as glorifying to God and effective in growing the Kingdom as what we do on a Sunday. 

Ultimately if the church is a ‘missionary outpost to a lost world’, we need to start thinking more like missionaries tasked with reaching our culture and less like caretakers tasked with preserving the status quo.

More on what it means to be missional next time. Until then here are a couple of resources you might be interested in:
  • This short article by Tim Keller is the best summary of what it means to be a missional church I have come across: 
  • And this video sums up everything I’ve said above in a much more memorable way…