By Cody Moore
Not long ago, a minister friend encouraged me to read a book about international trends in Christianity. It spoke of explosive church growth in countries with few resources. My friend was excited about how Christianity in these contexts was unencumbered by many of the things we American Christians find necessary, such as buildings, paid staff, and church programs.
He boldly proclaimed, “This is the church of the future!” and I agree.
Western Christians of old were sent forth from worship with the dismissive words “Ite, Missa Est” (“go, you are dismissed”), sent forth out of the presence of the divine and back into the world for which their community existed. Presumably they had experienced God’s presence during the worship celebration, and their procession out of the sanctuary was a bearing of Christ’s light to the world.
This Latin phrase of dismissal led to calling the worship service a “mass.”1 Thus a “mass” was a “dismissal,” a sending of the saints into the world for whom they were now prepared. They were “missiles” (same root) of Christ hurled forth into the human cosmos.
It is my conviction that each generation of Christians must relearn and reclaim its mission. We inherit the faith of our mothers and fathers, but we must appropriate this faith for ourselves, doing so within our own context, our own time and space.
What does it mean to be the “church,” to be those who are “called out from”? Throughout the centuries the ecclesiological struggle of what it means to be both the ekklesia (“those called out from”) and to be apostolic (literally, “the sent ones”) has been a central issue, now worked out and proclaimed in one way, now in another. It is not just the stating and defining of an idea that is at stake, it is a doing and a being of that idea that concerns us here.
What is the mission of the church in the 21st century? What does it mean to be a “missional” body of believers? Many are wrangling with this issue.
Institutional vs. Missional
At the risk of oversimplifying it a bit, let’s use a couple of concise terms. We can take the one already given, missional, and juxtapose the term institutional to it.
The institutional church generally is the consequence of modernity. It is the centuries-long product of deduction, categorization, and systemization; it is a product of modern, rational (aka “scientific”) thinking. It is the typical American church of buildings, budgets, and programs. It is a church focused on method, on how best to “do” church. It employs professional personnel, who themselves are trained by “experts” in the field. It is that which has been instituted, that which has been “built up.”
Conversely, the missional church are those who have been sent, those who have been called out from the world and then sent back into it with a mission, a purpose.2 This is an amorphous organism. In fact, this church is not as concerned about structure as it is about the purpose for existence. Different practices may be employed since the missional church is ultimately not about method but about mission. This church attempts to found itself upon prayer, discernment, incarnation, and purpose, and thus it flows organically into the community around it.
What we have here is a shift in focus, a clarification of what is central. Institutional churches and missional churches may do some of the same things, but they do them for different reasons, with different goals in mind. For the sake of comparison, the ministry of the missional church will generate from prayer meeting and community versus from a professional staff member who comes home with a new idea from a conference of experts.
The related concept of “being vs. doing” church so prevalent in today’s ecclesiological discussion is essentially the same argument as “missional vs. institutional,” with one added dimension. The missional church is being for or being sent, not just being. The missional church is Christ’s outreach for the community; this church is for the world. It is the illuminating city upon the hill, the preserving salt tossed upon the raw meat. It is the one who embodies the apostolic purpose of Christ: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
Spiritually Oriented Results
So what are the marks of the missional church? The refocus of the missional church forces it to replace observable (i.e. category oriented) results such as attendance and offering with more spiritually oriented results, results which may or may not be tangible (“You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” [John 3:8]). Thus, we might say in practical terms, which reflect the underlying belief system, that the newsletters of this church will report different material, and the board meetings will exchange their business orientation for a more spiritually minded one.
A second mark is noticed within the church structure. In the missional church there is no missions department or committee because the church is living as a community that itself is a mission and in which each follower is a missionary. The missional church recognizes that every church is a mission and every neighborhood a mission field. Missions does not belong to one arm of the church but is the church itself.
A third mark is an intentional moving away from the central focus of boards, budgets, and paid staff. I am not saying that every church ought to sell its building, but perhaps some should. How many poor mouths in the community (or across the world, for that matter) can be fed with the now-dormant building equity or with the large utility bill or copier lease payment?
Nor am I saying that board “business” does not need to be considered, but some churches might want to shift their leadership’s focus from money and facilities to matters like pastoral care, prayer, and community needs. Does Paul tell Timothy how much time the leaders should spend on approving monthly financial reports? What if the focus of the leadership meeting was, “What kind of gospel impact did we make on the families we fed and clothed this month?”
Nor am I saying all churches need to let go of their paid staff. But often the paid staff are very well educated and could contribute to their local economy by joining the general workforce (Was it apostolic Paul who made tents?), and the monies saved from paying professional salaries could be used to directly benefit the community. With such little overhead in the church budget, there might not be any reason to spend so much time on financial reports! These are the kinds of questions the missional church is asking.
The point is that the concept of being missional requires us to pay attention to what and to whom we are being for. What is a church, after all, if it is not the mission of Christ to the world, his followers called out from that world and sent back into it to be his light?
Ite, missa est. Maybe we should translate: “Go, you are the mission.”
1The first definitive use of the term mass to refer to the Christian worship celebration is found written in the fourth century by Ambrose in Epistle I, xx, 4, 5.
2Notice that the verb of this sentence is plural, which reminds us that the act of being missional is a corporate one and cannot be reduced to the level of the individual. The institutional church is, but the missional church are.
Cody Moore ministers with The Pearl, a Christian church in Denver, Colorado.