A Missional Church

By Ed Stetzer, Special to the Index

Published: October 13, 2005

Thanks so much to The Christian Index for the Sept. 29 article on the missional church. For many evangelicals, the terminology is new, but the actual practice is as old as the church and her sacred effort. Now that the word "missional" is on the front page of The Christian Index, Lifeway's Facts & Trends, and throughout Baptist Press, it is good to be clear what the word means and why it matters so much.

As the Index correctly pointed out, "missional" is not the same as "mission-minded," though they are both important and related. The term "missional" is simply the noun "missionary" adapted into an adjective. For example, an "adversary" is your enemy. Someone who is "adversarial" is acting like your enemy. Thus, a "missionary" is someone who acts like a missionary (for example, understands a culture, proclaims the faithful Gospel in a way that people in culture can understand, and uses parts of that culture to glorify God). A "missional church" is a church that acts like a missionary in its community.

If we are going to reach a changing Georgia (and North America), we have to contend for the unchanging faith (Jude 3) but to do so using forms that are relevant to all kinds of people (1 Cor. 9:22-23). That's a missional church - a church acting like a missionary to the community around it while partnering with others to be missionary around the world.

Some will say, "The culture does not matter, just preach the Word!"

You may hear much of this in the letters to the editor over the next few weeks. However, we really don't believe that culture is irrelevant. Why? Because we send missionaries to foreign lands and, like Lottie Moon, expect them to don the clothes, live the customs, and be part of the community while proclaiming a faithful Gospel. We should not forbid North American missional pastors from doing the very thing we train international missionaries to do.


What missional churches look like

What, then, do missional churches look like? They are more than the things listed below, but certainly they are:

Incarnational: Missional churches are deeply connected to the community. The church is not focused on its facility, but is focused on living, demonstrating, and offering biblical community to a lost world. I am excited that Danny Preston, who was mentioned in the Index story, has become a part of the biker community that he is trying to reach by working at a motorcycle store while planting Logos Church in Little Five Points in partnership with First Baptist of Atlanta. He is an incarnation of the Gospel in an unreached community.

Indigenous: Missional churches are indigenous. Churches that are indigenous have taken root in the soil and reflect, to some degree, the culture of their community. An indigenous church looks different from Seattle to Senegal to Singapore. We would expect and rejoice at an African church worshipping to African music, in African dress, with African enthusiasm. So shouldn't we rejoice at churches of different missional expressions across Georgia, North America, and the world? The messianic congregation at Jonesboro Baptist is one of many examples - in this case indigenous to Jewish culture.

Intentional. Missional churches are intentional about their methodologies. There are scripturally commanded requirements about church, preaching, discipline, baptism and many other biblical practices. Church and worship can't take just any form. In missional churches, those biblical forms are central, but things like worship style, evangelism methods, attire, service times, locations, and many other man-made customs are not chosen simply based on the preference of the members. Instead, the forms are best determined by their effectiveness in a specific cultural context.

Did you notice that the list did not include contemporary, young, or hip? A church is not missional because it is contemporary or traditional. A church becomes missional when it remains faithful to the Gospel message while simultaneously contextualizing its ministry (to the degree it can) so that the Gospel can engage the worldview of the hearers. Traditional churches that are engaging communities that are receptive to traditional methods are just as missional ... as are contemporary, blended, ethnic, emerging, etc. The key is biblical fidelity and missional engagement.

A missional church responds to the sending commands of Jesus by becoming an incarnational, indigenous, and intentional Gospel presence in its context. When Jesus said, "As the Father has sent Me, so send I you," (John 20:21) that was not to a select group of cross-cultural missionaries. Instead, that was a commission to you, me and our churches. We have a sender (Jesus), a message (the Gospel), and a people to whom we are sent (real people in culture). It is worth the effort to go beyond our personal preferences and to proclaim a faithful Gospel in whatever context we find ourselves. That's missional.


Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is Research Team Director and Missiologist at the North American Mission Board. He is the author of many articles and books, including the forthcoming Breaking the Missional Code: