What Do We Mean By Missional?

We are Refocharismissional Ireland – a partnership of Irish churches and leaders who are Reformed, Charismatic, and Missional. Of these three central and energising convictions, perhaps missional is the most difficult to define.

The Missional Conversation

The term missional began to make an appearance in the middle of the previous century. It was originally part of the wider ecumenical conversation around the missio Dei – the mission of God – a concept that sought to encapsulate Karl Barth’s thinking on the universal redemptive actions of God in the world. So following its original usage, a missional church or organisation was one that participated with God’s mission of redeeming the entire created order [1]. To be missional was to see where God was acting in the world and joining him in that work. The role of the church tended to be excluded in ecumenical missional thought.

However it wasn’t until the release of Darrell Guder’s influential book Missional Church in 1998 that the term became popularised among Evangelicals. Since then the term missional has been used in widely varying ways adding no small amount of confusion to the topic of discussion.

Thinking About Missional Variety

The four major schools of thought on missional church are helpfully summarised in the 2017 book Four Views On the Church’s Mission [2]:

1. Soteriological Mission

In this view, the mission of the church is twofold – go and make disciples, and go and be disciples. The principal bible text is Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission. Missional is essentially understood as another word for evangelism and discipleship, and has been carefully argued by Kevin Deyoung and Greg Gilbert. However, as Tim Keller points out, consideration of the missio Dei and the work of God’s Spirit in the world are practically absent in this view [3].

2. Participatory Mission

God’s people of both Old and New Testaments are called to participate in the mission of God in the world. This view was popularised among Evangelicals by the writings of Christopher J. H. Wright, particularly in his book The Mission of God. Wright places a larger emphasis on what he considers to be the missional shape of the whole of Scripture, beginning with God’s calling of Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. Participatory Mission advocates a missional approach not only to evangelism (which remains key) but also stresses the church’s role in civic engagement, seeking social justice, and creation care.

3. Contextual Mission

Just as the Bible has been translated into thousands of different languages, with careful attention paid by the translators to the specific cultural context of each language, so too must the church’s mission must be carefully ‘translated’ into each unique cultural context. The church is the body of Christ in the world [4] or as Kavin Rowe puts it, ‘the cultural explication of God’s identity’ [5]. The Contextual Mission view seeks to guard against the blind transmission of Western cultural baggage as the church goes out on mission. Following Lesslie Newbigin, writers within this view hold that Christian theology, and even the gospel itself, must be reinterpreted into each new missional context. Specific activities of each church will necessarily differ widely depending on its unique contextual landscape.

The only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, p227.

4. Sacramental Mission

Since the church is the redeemed and renewed humanity of God, the sacraments proclaim to the world that the gathering of believers is a fulfilment of God’s mission. Therefore the sacraments are not simply signs of God’s redeeming work, they are God’s redeeming work being played out. Baptism for example is the reunification of the nations as people of every tribe and tongue enter into the same sacramental bond across the ages.

Those who hold the Sacramental Mission view note that discussion about the role of the sacraments in missiological debate has been wholly absent. As Peter Leithart puts it, ‘God’s mission is to restore the original harmony of liturgy and life… this intention comes to a focus in the Christian sacraments’ [6]. It is as believers are formed by Word, sacrament and discipleship that they will then engage their ‘cultural mission’ albeit indirectly, as the baptised enter their places of work and influence. ‘Here is the mission of the church, then: Set up God’s table. Invite folks to dinner. Make sure they wash up. Teach them how to eat together’ [7].

Missional Churches in Ireland

You may find yourself in agreement with one or several of these views. Perhaps there are alternative positions that we haven’t covered here. Every church will need to do its own thinking around the mission of the church as it searches the Scripture and considers its own tradition and unique contextual situation.

With that said, we point to the various views on the missional church to highlight the variety of positions within the Evangelical church. Each view will have its own strengths and weaknesses, so each of us should guard against thinking we possess the silver missional bullet.

Whatever view you adopt as a church or leader, let’s highlight the things that are central to the mission of a Refocharismissional church:

  • The gospel of Jesus is at the heart of our mission: his person, message, and power.
  • The local church – the body of Christ – is the engine of God’s mission in the world. The church is on mission by definition; it is not a peripheral matter overseen by a committee or department.
  • The Holy Spirit empowers and equips us to engage fruitfully in mission.
  • The transformation of the Irish/Northern Irish Church and nation(s), its institutions and society, is our desire.

Churches Partnering in Ireland

So this is our heart at Refocharismissional – to connect churches and leaders across the island of Ireland around our three animating convictions: reformed soteriology, charismatic pneumatology, and missional practise. How these are expressed will vary in each church.

Being Refocharismissional means warmly embracing the variety of expression of each of these key convictions. But partnership means more than simply acknowledging our differences. It is actively cheering one another on. It is encouraging each other’s efforts as we embark on mission for Jesus. Partnership means talking, listening, learning from one another, challenging one another.

In our partnership together we share what worked and what didn’t work as we enter the arena of mission. We are open-handed towards each other, and generous in spirit as well as with our resources. Of course, this necessitates relationship, and its building blocks of trust, love, authenticity, humour, and integrity.

Why do we partner? So that our mission is successful in the eyes of God.

So that the lost are found and the oppressed are set free.

So that the Kingdom of God breaks in among us.

So that Jesus is made famous and worshipped again across Ireland.

Further reading:

The literature on the missional church is vast. Here’s a small selection that will serve you well:

[1] Keller, Timothy. Center Church, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2012, p251.
[2] Jason S. Sexton (Ed.), Four Views on the Church’s Mission, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2017.
[3] Keller, Timothy. Center Church, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2012, p257.
[4] Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12, 27; Ephesians 3:6, 5:23 etc.
[5] C. Kavin Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Greco-Roman Age, OUP: New York, 2009, quoted in Jason S. Sexton (Ed.), Four Views on the Church’s Mission, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2017, p128.
[6] Jason S. Sexton (Ed.), Four Views on the Church’s Mission, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2017, p165.
[7] Jason S. Sexton (Ed.), Four Views on the Church’s Mission, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2017, p176.

David Varney

David is a bivocational pastor at Foundation Church Belfast. He's also a medical doctor. He's married to Marion and they have one daughter called Eliza.

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