When I started preaching 22 years ago, I started with the assumption that the preacher’s job is to get as many people as possible into the building for worship on Sunday morning, and then to get as many of those as possible to come forward at the end of the service so that they could make a profession of faith in Christ, or rededicate their lives to Him, or move their membership from another church to that one.
I don’t assume that anymore.
The more I read the Gospels the more I find Jesus trying to establish the Kingdom of God, “on earth as it is in heaven.” He does it by calling disciples, training them, and sending them into the world as he himself was sent. To be a disciple, then, is to be someone who is called and trained and sent.
For too long now we have built churches on the “attractional” model, believing that if we have a good enough preacher and good enough music people will come to us. And in the era of the megachurch we also seem to believe that bigger is better, and that our success is defined by how many members we have and how much money is in the offering plate. But author and activist Alan Hirsch talks about a “missional” model of doing church that is almost completely different. Take the time to read the paragraphs below, and then click on “comments” to tell me what you think.
First, let me say what missional does not mean. Missional is not synonymous with emerging. The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. Missional is also not the same as evangelistic or seeker-sensitive. These terms generally apply to the attractional model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God’s agent in the world, but we should not confuse this with the whole.
A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one” who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”
Many churches have mission statements or talk about the importance of mission, but where truly missional churches differ is in their posture toward the world. A missional community sees the mission as both its originating impulse and its organizing principle. A missional community is patterned after what God has done in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation God sent his Son. Similarly, to be missional means to be sent into the world; we do not expect people to come to us. This posture differentiates a missional church from an attractional church.
The attractional model, which has dominated the church in the West, seeks to reach out to the culture and draw people into the church—what I call outreach and in-grab. But this model only works where no significant cultural shift is required when moving from outside to inside the church. And as Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, the attractional model has lost its effectiveness. The West looks more like a cross-cultural missionary context in which attractional church models are self-defeating. The process of extracting people from the culture and assimilating them into the church diminishes their ability to speak to those outside. People cease to be missional and instead leave that work to the clergy.
A missional theology is not content with mission being a church-based work. Rather, it applies to the whole life of every believer. Every disciple is to be an agent of the kingdom of God, and every disciple is to carry the mission of God into every sphere of life. We are all missionaries sent into a non-Christian culture.
Missional represents a significant shift in the way we think about the church. As the people of a missionary God, we ought to engage the world the same way he does—by going out rather than just reaching out. To obstruct this movement is to block God’s purposes in and through his people. When the church is in mission, it is the true church.
—from “Defining Missional” by Alan Hirsch, Leadership Journal, Fall 2008, p. 22.