By Matt Smay
Missionaries—they were the devout adventurers who traveled the world helping people from other cultures learn about God. As a boy I admired their pictures posted on the bulletin board of our church lobby, and followed the strings that connected their faces to pins on a map that identified their mission fields. I was impressed.
Jack and my grandpa met at a gas station. Seeing that my grandpa was new to town, with out-of-state plates still on the car, Jack made a simple invite, “I’m a part of a church that meets just up the street. Why don’t you come and I’ll introduce you to some good people this Sunday?” My grandpa accepted and dedicated his life to God that night. What Jack started with a simple conversation ended up with my mom’s entire family coming to faith.
Ten years passed, and two troubled teenage boys chasing some girls from the local high school showed up to a youth group gathering. Jack had always had a passion to minister to youth and he was now the volunteer leader of the church’s small youth group.
The boys had a rough background; they had lost their mom to cancer when they were young, had been raised by an alcoholic dad (my grandpa), and were now living with an abusive stepmother. Jack knew how to share the love of Christ to my dad and his brother, and they both devoted their lives to God as young men.
Fast-forward another 10 years. My grandfather had overcome the alcoholism that ruled my dad’s childhood, and he wanted a relationship with me. So, every Saturday, he and I would go to watch my dad, uncle, and Jack play basketball games. The no-strings-attached relationship that Jack established with my grandfather was instrumental in him eventually giving his life to God.
Jack’s face was never on the missionary board at church, and no pin marked my hometown as his mission field. But there is no question he had the heart of a missionary. Jack was a disciple who knew how to make disciples, a man who chose to be involved in his community and make relationships a priority. Jack was even there to baptize me in high school. Jack was a missonal leader.
While missonal may be a relatively new term, the concept is not. Missional is used to describe the disciple making impulse found in Matthew 28:19 to “go and make disciples.”
A missional church is simply a church that has decided to embed and prioritize the sending impulse into every facet of the congregation—more specifically, in every follower of Jesus. The acknowledgement that every believer is a missionary—whether he travels across the street or globe—provides the impetus for the missional church.
The terms missonal and incarnational are often used together. While missonal defines why we go, incarnational defines how we go. Incarnational means to “take on flesh” as Jesus did by dwelling among us (John 1:14).
Incarnational has everything to do with our posture, tone, motivations, purpose, and heart behind our going. Jesus and the apostles are represented by countless stories of engaging in opportunities to bless people along the journey of everyday life. The message of the missional and incarnational follower of Christ is one of intentionality; embracing opportunities to engage people relationally with the good news of the kingdom outside of the church building. It is a group of people who have decided to be the church, not just attend it.
When I moved to Denver in 2002, the word missional had not taken on any significance. The story of how two tired church planters started a church while trying desperately not to start a church is described by Hugh Halter and me in The Tangible Kingdom. Our journey was focused on building relationships with people we knew were not aware of God’s love for them; people who weren’t a part of any church.
I simply wanted to be the “Jack” in the lives of those around me, and found that people were very open to conversations about Jesus and the good news of the kingdom. So, we embraced people where they were, with “no strings attached,” and loved on them like we knew Jesus would do.
During the first few years in Denver, we found ourselves intuitively reacting to the ministry opportunities around us. We framed our ministry on what we view as the principle DNA of the kingdom, which balances communion with God, community with others, and mission to those who have no relationship with Jesus. Since we were also leading a ministry called Missio that focused on training and equipping church planters, we found ourselves sharing these concepts with people from around the country.
As I look across the missional church landscape, I see several trends emerging. Some are exciting to watch develop, while others resemble churches that are merely embracing the latest fad. Fortunately, it’s not my job to judge whether or not every missional ministry is flying the true missional colors.
I will say the majority of those engaged in the missional conversation are well-
intentioned ministry leaders who are looking to overcome the very same obstacles in ministry that we discovered along our journey. The challenge is that the culture is shifting, leaving leaders in a values vacuum that needs to be embraced, requiring leaders to engage in ministry through relationships, while further equipping people to be truth and light in the midst of a consumer and individualistic culture.
The most exciting development in the missional movement is the emergence of collaboration. Since the missional movement is etched by a commitment to relationship, ministry leaders are beginning to deemphasize many divisive issues and, instead, focus on creating opportunities for relationships to develop, best practices to be encouraged, and moving leaders to join ranks. One of the newest collaborative efforts is represented by the missional.com initiative, which includes Missio, Gospel Communities on Mission (GCM), Forge, NewThing Network, and Exponential who have come together to “help people find their place on God’s mission.”
Ten years into the missional conversation, the focus has now shifted toward discipleship. It shouldn’t be a surprise that, in hindsight, we realize the core issue for the church is not simply that we need to do a better job sending Christians out to engage the culture, but that we need to fundamentally adjust our pathways of discipleship to make this happen. After all, it takes fully functioning disciples to make disciples. This, as much as anything, shows how deep the missional conversation has engaged the heart and mind of the church.
This broader emphasis on discipleship that has captivated the center of the missional conversation has also made it more palatable to existing churches that feel the need for change; these existing churches intuitively know better than to throw congregational members into the culture without significantly more equipping. Most churches have done outreach programs and personal evangelism with limited success. They’ve tried becoming more relevant, but have found what worked in the past is not cutting it in today’s changing culture.
Every kind of church leader from every shape and size of ministry across the country has shown interest in the missional ethos. Some are finding greater traction implementing a missional style than others, often to the degree that their values were already aligned with missional and incarnational DNA. To be a leader in the church today offers the opportunity to fully embrace the missional conversation as a way to engage in a broad-based church movement.
We are seeing a surge in interest as many church leaders have been exposed to missional theory and are now struggling to contextualize a response in light of entrenched paradigms that dictate everything from ministry budgets to pastoral job descriptions. The fastest-growing trends are the number of churches transitioning traditional small group ministries toward missional communities, and the shift within traditional missions ministries toward a wide range of relationship-based service initiatives.
Missional, what some initially thought would be a fringe movement, now represents the central call to action in the foundational areas of evangelism, discipleship, and social justice. Many leaders emphasize evangelism, social justice, or more intentional discipleship as a means of growing churches, but being missional requires that all these elements be woven together.
The best missional churches focus on hospitality and use relationships as the core entry point to evangelism. This is great news for the average layperson. A “go out and love people, make friends, and meet needs” mission broadens participation and feels less intimidating.
Embrace the Opportunities
If these three critical topics contribute to the DNA of the kingdom, and if we foster environments that allow the DNA to be lived out, our churches will naturally grow. Friends who, in practical terms, bless people while providing natural places of belonging will gain respect in culture, grow deeper in their own understanding of discipleship, and help disciple others in the way of Jesus.
I hope that wherever you find yourself in the missional conversation, you’ll take the next steps to embrace the opportunities it represents.
Matt Smay is cofounder of Missio—a ministry committed to training, developing, and apprenticing missional/incarnational leaders for the church. He directs the Missional Church Apprenticeship Practicum and works directly with church planters and existing church pastors as a mentor, coach, and consultant. His most recent endeavor has been founding Missio Publishing, committed to delivering high-quality, missional books and resources to church leaders and congregations. For more information, visit mattsmay.com or missio.us.