The Missional Emphasis of Emerging Churches

By Gary Zustiak

You don’t have to leave the country for your church to be missional in focus. In fact, you don’t even have to travel to an “inner city” in St. Louis, Chicago, or Los Angeles. You can be missional by intention right where you live.

Joplin, Missouri, has a population of about 50,000 in the city proper. Yet, a core group from College Heights Christian Church found an area of great need and launched ministry plans to reach out in a way that has truly made an impact for the kingdom of God.

It started when Bob sold his auto dealership and was looking for some investment property. He ended up acquiring a set of apartments known in the community as “the last resort.” This is where people who were just one step from being on the street or in a homeless shelter would go to live.

The buildings needed a lot of work to make them decent and livable. After Bob spent a whole day making repairs and cleaning, he was dirty and tired and found himself pushing around an abandoned shopping cart, picking up trash in the area. One of the residents called out to him, “Hey! You look like one of us!” In that moment Bob felt an overwhelming conviction that Jesus was speaking to him, saying, “You belong here. This is where I want you and need you.”

He went to Jay St. Clair, the outreach minister, and showed him the housing complex and the people who were suffering from poverty, sin, and crime. He said, “These people will come to know God only if the church (meaning individuals and families) gets involved in their lives.”

Over the ensuing seven weeks, a prayer team gathered on the site every day. As a result of the burden that was shared by a growing number of people, a ministry arm of the church came in and totally rehabbed one of the buildings. Later another building was given to the church to be used as a ministry center. The ministry center was named God’s Resort.

Out of God’s Resort has come an afternoon mentoring opportunity for children in the area, a small group study that runs 30-35 people, and a food ministry that takes boxes of food to residents who simply don’t have enough money to make ends meet. Several church families are praying about the possibility of moving into the complex to be a permanent presence of God’s light and love.

Before God’s Resort was established the police would be called to the site an average of two or three times a day to deal with some kind of unsavory/illegal situation. Now it is rare if they are called once a week. When the presence of God moved in, the darkness moved out.

This is a good picture of what happens when a church and families go “missional.”


What does the term missional mean? According to Eric Reed, the word has been in the dictionary for 100 years. It meant something of or pertaining to missionaries. “But those who use the word today have broader applications,” Reed said. They’re talking about the church’s role in the culture.

It refers to a philosophy of ministry: that followers of Christ are counter-cultural, on a mission to change the culture. Missional refers to the specific activity of churches: to build the kingdom of God in all settings where church members are at work, rather than building up the local congregation, its programs, numbers, and facilities.1

The writings of Lesslie Newbigin, especially his book The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, have had a profound impact on the leaders of the emerging church and its missional focus. Newbigin reemphasized the importance of every Christian living as salt and light in the midst of an unbelieving and disinterested society. It is the power of a transformed life that opens the doors of communication with those outside of Christ.

In discussions about the contemporary mission of the Church it is often said that the Church ought to address itself to the real questions which people are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world’s questions are not the questions which lead to life. What really needs to be said is that where the Church is faithful to its Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the question to which the gospel is the answer.2

While the evangelical church has always had a missions emphasis in terms of the responsibility of every Christian to witness for Christ at every opportunity, and in supporting missionaries overseas, there is a distinct difference in the way the emerging church approaches missions.

The emerging church sees the typical evangelical church, and especially the megachurch, as being basically a “consumer church,” a “vendor of religious goods and services. People come to church to be fed, and to have their needs met.”3 The Christian goes to church.

A missional church sees the church as “a community who gather for worship, teaching and encouragement that supplements their personal spiritual journey and empowers them for missional life.”4 The Christian is the church.

Emerging church leaders believe the “essential calling of the church has less to do with the way a church is organized, its doctrinal distinctions, or its style of music, and more to do with the missio Dei (mission of God).”5 The missio Dei is the belief that God is at work in the world to draw all people to himself. It is not so much a program of the church as it is a reflection of the very nature and character of God.

The emerging church believes the responsibility of the Christian is not so much to initiate missions but to partner with God where he is already at work in drawing people to himself. That means the church must engage in a number of contexts: geographical, cultural, and social. While the missional church is engaged in the world, it must be careful that it is not conformed to the world.

Astute observers will recognize that the missional vision is not really new, but merely a restatement or a call back to God’s original intention for the church as seen in the book of Acts. This means an emphasis upon every believer having a responsibility to “be the church” and not to leave the duties of ministry to the professional clergy.


The missional church is basically a return to genuine biblical Christianity where every individual Christian has a responsibility to use his/her gifts to expand the kingdom of God and to be actively involved in the mission of God at all times. It is a recognition that somewhere along the way the evangelical church lost its focus and allowed “cheap grace”6 to define its members and the church as a whole. It is a call back to individual holiness, service, and responsibility. It is a rejection of the easy Christian consumer mentality that has pervaded the church.

A missional church is not . . .

• A dispenser of religious goods and services or a place where people come for their weekly spiritual fix.

• A place where people come to be fed and have their needs met.

A place where professionals are hired to do the work of the church.

A place where the professionals teach their children and youth about God.

A church with a “good missions program.” The people are the missions program and they are willing and ready to go to “Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Missional just because it is contemporary, young, hip, postmodern-sensitive, seeker-sensitive, or even traditional.

• About big programs and organizations to accomplish God’s missionary purpose. This does not imply no program or organization, but that they will not drive mission. They will be used in support of people on mission.7

A missional church . . .

• Is one where people are exploring and rediscovering what it means to be Jesus’ sent people as their identity and vocation.

Will be made up of individuals willing and ready to be Christ’s people in their own situation and place.

• Knows that they must be a cross-cultural, missionary people in their own community.

Will be engaged with the culture (in the world) without being absorbed by the culture (not of the world).

• Will seek to plant all types of missional communities to expand the kingdom of God.

Seeks to put the good of their neighbor over their own good.

• Will give preeminence to integrity, morality, good character and conduct, compassion, love, and a resurrection life filled with hope to lend credence to their reasoned verbal witness.

Practices hospitality by welcoming the stranger into the midst of the community.

• Will see itself as a community or family on a mission together. There are no “lone ranger” Christians in a missional church.

Sees itself as a representative of Jesus and will do nothing to dishonor his name.

• Will be totally reliant on God in all it does.

• Will be desperately dependent on prayer.8

The emphasis of both the missional church and the emerging church is upon “being the presence of God” in very practical ways over one of doctrinal correctness. This is not because correct doctrine isn’t important, but because we now live in a postmodern, pluralistic society where people no longer believe in absolutes. People no longer judge a religion based upon the relative merits of its doctrine or archaeological evidence or the historicity of its claims. What now matters most is “experience.” People want to experience God, and if they can first experience God through an act of compassion and see a continued witness of light in a dark place, they will come to the place where they believe because they were first made to feel that they belonged.


1 Eric Reed, “New Ownership,” Leadership (Winter 2007), 20.

2 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 119.

3 Consumer Church to Missional Church,

4 Consumer Church to Missional Church.

5 Chad Hall, “Missional: Possible,” Leadership (Winter 2007), 35.

6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: MacMillan, 1963), 45.

7 “What Is a Missional Church?”

8 Ibid.



Gary Zustiak teaches psychology and counseling at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *