One of my students is writing about the Missional Church movement as part of her dissertation. I will not steal her thunder. I will just make a couple of comments on the topic here. She noted that the term “missional church” has often been seen as another term for “missionary church.” Over time, however, the missional church and missionary church has bifurcated in meaning. It seems to me that some of that has to do with their understanding of their place in culture (or as my student would say, their connection with the idea of “Christendom.”)
Missionary churches have often seen themselves as “Sending Churches.” That is, they send cross-cultural missionaries or send money to cross-cultural missionaries. This is certainly a reasonable understanding of the term.
Missional churches commonly see themselves as “Sent Churches.” That is, they exist in the mission field. This seems pretty reasonable as well.
In a time of Christendom as a concept that “just makes sense,” the church can be seen as existing in an E-1 setting, and people in the community exist in a P-1 setting with respect to the local church. <I am drawing from Ralph Winter and Bruce Koch’s article in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, titled “Finishing the Task: The Unreached People’s Challenge.” Pretty good chance you have heard of the E-Scale, and maybe P-Scale in missions outreach.>
However, Christendom (Christian societal evolution) has fallen on hard times as a belief, and we find churches in many parts of the world as being Marginalized— in cultural conflict with the society they are in. This is the reality in many places, but is now being seen as more of a reality in the West as well. In some ways that is a good thing. Being American (although I haven’t lived there in over 15 years) churches there have commonly blended into a politico-patriotic Americanism that has a lot to do with the surrounding culture but little to do with Christlikeness. Of course the US is not alone in this. The goal is, of course, not to be different for the sake of being different. Some in an attempt to be different… are not a transformative influence— they are just strange and foreign. In fact many churches established by missionaries world-wide do not fit well with their culture because they fit the culture of the missionaries who founded them (Philippine churches are a really good case in point for this).
Churches need a connection to the culture to be relevant, but need a certain amount of disconnection to provide an alternative as an impetus to transformation.
Getting back to Missional Churches— identifying themselves as being somewhat marginalized within their setting, they then could be seen as existing in an E-2 culture (and people in the community would find the church as P-3 with respect to its context).
Missionary Church Missional Church
Sees itself as E-1 in its context Sees itself as E-2 in its context
Sends missionaries to E-2 and E-3 settings Sends people into its community
Good distant missions… poor theology Good theology, poor distant missions
One may think that Missionary Churches and Missional Churches should be quite compatible with each other, but sadly they often are not. Missionary Churches often see Missional Churches as anti-missions. And, in fact, to some extent the charge can be true. Many missional churches focus on local missions so much that they don’t support foreign or E-3 missions except perhaps with Short-term missions— a shaky strategy at best. The lack of support for E-3 missions and reliance on Short-term missions are worthwhile complaints about (SOME) Missional Churches.
The thing though is that the Missional Churches are correct theologically. The church does exist in a marginalized setting in much of the world— and is supposed to be. The church does exist in an E-2 setting pretty much everywhere. As such, real cross-cultural missions DOES happen every time someone seeks to do ministry outside of one’s own church gathering place. The separation between local outreach for a church and missions outreach is a false dichotomy that may have made sense a few decades ago, but makes sense no longer.
It seems to me that we need a mix of missionary churches and missional churches (and certainly such things do absolutely exist). Churches need to recognize that they exist as sent out into the world (on mission) wherever they exist. Churches don’t just send… they are sent. They need to recognize that they exist counterculturally within their own community. On the other hand, the church exists as part of something far bigger than itself… it exists within a world of diversity and should embrace its role to impact the entire world, not just its own corner.