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Getting off the bandwagon


The missional church as paradigm — not trendy program

“Have you read this book? It’s going to change our church for the better!”

“Yeah. Plus we’re going to use some cool social media that will really rejuvenate our ministry!”

Christians seem to be magnetically drawn to all the latest and greatest ministry innovations. Why? In a society increasingly uninterested in – and even at odds with – evangelical faith, “relevance” is the goal as Christians attempt to fulfill the great commission. New programs and movements abound: church growth strategies, seeker sensitive services, Alpha, “purpose driven life,” and the list goes on.

One of the newest movements is something called “the missional church.” Countless books, articles, and podcasts have been produced to explain and promote it.

Alan Hirsch explains the missional church as “a church that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose as an agent of God’s mission to the world. In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is mission.” In a society of declining Christian influence, becoming a missional church inevitably sets us apart from the surrounding culture – the church as “resident aliens” (1 Peter 2:11).

Thus, Darrel Guder suggests we accept our role as a “missionary church in our own societies, in the cultures in which we find ourselves.” With this basic definition, the missional church is generally seen as a good thing by evangelicals from a variety of perspectives.

Many of our Canadian MB churches have used the term “missional” in their mission or vision statements, and even consider themselves a missional church. The word is popping up in MB conference events, programs, and publications. It’s an idea that’s catching on at many levels of the MB world.

Time to move on?

So, we may think, “Wow, we’re hearing a lot about the missional church lately. We must be missional. Great! Let’s move onto the next innovation.”

Not so fast, warn some of the main proponents of the missional movement. Michael Frost, one of the first leaders to popularize the phrase “missional church,” raises this concern: “If the missional conversation is over, it occurs to me that it probably hasn’t really ever been had. That’s because ‘missional’ is not a style or a fad. It’s not an add-on, the latest church accessory, the newest cool idea for church leaders. The fact some are suggesting the conversation is over leads me to think that they weren’t listening in the first place.”

Or as prominent missional author Alan Hirsh reflects, “When everything becomes missional, then nothing becomes missional.”

Both Frost and Hirsch warn that a shift in language alone is not truly missional. The missional church is a deep and dynamic subject dealing with core questions of Christian identity and mission. It’s not a new set of terms or ministry programs. Being missional is not supposed to be easy, or straightforward, or even relevant.

Hearing the warning from missional leaders means we must ask some difficult questions, both of the movement and of ourselves as Christians
and congregations.

What exactly is the missional church? Is it about tweaking ministry programs? Is it simply a more tasteful synonym for evangelism in our sensitive post-Christian, anti-evangelical culture? Is it a fad? Is it being on a mission, not just doing missions? Google “missional” and you realize just how diverse the concept really is.

Have we become too comfortable and familiar with the term “missional” without actually adopting the overall concept? Or, put more plainly, are we as good at being missional as we are talking about being missional? And how, if at all, does the missional church speak to who we are as Mennonite Brethren?

Seeking a definition

Since we are committed to the great commission, we do everything in our power to fulfill this holy command. In the process, churches become very busy pursuing faithfulness. Busyness can even become a measure of ministry success. But it doesn’t equal missional. Busy is busy. And tiring.
Burnout is not a badge of missional faithfulness!

The missional church, then, is not:

  • a program;
  • outreach and evangelism;
  • missions;
  • an outward focus to existing ministries;
  • “seeker sensitive,” “relevant,” “contemporary,” “hip,” or any other concept or strategy aimed at appealing to non-Christians.

Michael Frost laments that missional can easily become “just another way of saying get-out-there-and-invite-your-unsaved-friends-to-church, which it is definitely not.” Missional can include some or all these activities and perspectives. But it never can be summed up by our strategies for faithfulness in mission. Missional is not about our mission.

Partnering with God

Counter to a self-sustaining approach to church that relies on our ability to come up with the right mission, the missional church movement roots itself in two inseparable theological concepts: the mission of God and the incarnation.

The church is missional because God is missional – we participate with his work in the world. This follows God’s original mandate to Abraham, and subsequently to God’s people in history: the church is called to be a blessing to all nations on behalf of God (Genesis 12:1–3).

Additionally, the essence of Jesus’ teaching is an invitation to participate with God’s activity in the world – the kingdom of God in our midst (Mark 1:15). “The church does not exist for itself, but for participation in God’s mission of reconciliation,” says Lois Barret. The church is the people of God. God is the source of the church’s whole identity.

Eugene Peterson’s famous translation of John 1:14 presents a vivid image of the missional church’s emphasis on the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood ” (The Message). Immanuel – God with us – is God’s mission (Isaiah 7:14).

Likewise, the church is sent to continue God’s incarnational mission found in Jesus. Jesus’ call to follow him on the journey of discipleship is to accept God’s way of mission – a mission deeply in the world.

Years before “missional” was popular, Lesslie Newbigin, a forerunner of the movement, reminded Christians that God’s mission of incarnation isn’t merely something to be observed. Rather, he prophetically called the Western church to grasp this key truth: we are all missionaries. We are all sent (John 20:21). Our MB Confession of Faith captures this reality well: “The church as a body witnesses to God’s reign in the world. By its life as a redeemed and separated community, the church reveals God’s saving purposes to the world.”

Paradigms not programs

Newbigin’s work in the 1970s and 80s ignited the missional movement, as many pastors and leaders began to integrate his teaching into their churches and ministries. But where Newbigin provided prophetic inspiration, David Bosch’s seminal work lent theoretical and theological depth as the movement grew in the ’90s.

In Transforming Mission, Bosch explores the implications of making God’s mission central. Becoming a missional church is all about paradigms. A paradigm, quite simply, is the framework that forms the church’s identity. To be truly missional, the church must adjust its whole paradigm for ministry, not just a program here or there.

It makes sense, then, for Alan Hirsh to refer to the church’s “missional DNA.” Adopting a missional paradigm gets to the very core of who we are as Christians and churches. The following phrase from Frost and Hirsch sums up well the reality of the missional church: “The church doesn’t have an agenda; it is the agenda. The church doesn’t have a missional strategy; it is the missional strategy.”

What a profoundly simple truth! The church just needs to be missional. But now what? What does it look like to be missional? What does it mean to
be incarnational?

Telling the stories

One consistent theme in missional writing is the diversity of the movement. There is no one model for how to be a missional church. House churches, church plants, multisite, traditional, liturgical, denominational, and nondenominational can all be successful contexts for missional identity. It’s the missional paradigm that counts, whatever the context.

So when we ask how to become a missional church, instead of programs, we get stories – stories that communicate the beautiful diversity of the people of God around the world. Telling stories offers inspiration for discerning God’s call in our specific contexts – encouragement so “we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1, 16). These narratives give us a glimpse into God’s kingdom already in the world, while also offering hope as we look forward to God’s kingdom coming in its fullness.

It’s encouraging to hear such stories from Canadian Mennonite Brethren.

For example, some of our churches practice incarnational living – loving God and neighbour in the day-to-day rhythms of life. In the October 2010 Herald, Len Hjalmarson wrote about Metro Community, a unique MB expression in downtown Kelowna, and offered this reflection: “Metro is what could be known as a missional community. We did not plant a church and then attempt to find a mission. We planted a mission and then discovered the life of Jesus among us. That is the first lesson about discipleship.”

Embedding themselves in the fabric of downtown Kelowna, Metro Community models a willingness to incarnate the love of God amid the most desperate and difficult situations of urban life. More than reaching out to their neighbourhood, Metro is becoming a part of their neighbourhood – a picture of life as God’s ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17–20).

Trying to fit the context

Incarnational ministry is deeply contextual; there is no one-size-fits-all missional church program. The particulars of each place and the unique dynamic of its individuals will inform how a church engages that community. What works in Edmonton won’t necessarily work in Virgil, Ont., or Montreal.

On mission with God, we must remain open to life’s unpredictability. As MB pastor and teacher Tim Neufeld comments, “Missional communities spend time together discerning and defining what it means to be missional in their own contexts.”

Take the group of leaders from Prairie Winds Church, Moose Jaw, Sask., for example. They are self-proclaimed “accidental church planters.” As they pursued God within their specific context, God led them to plant a church in the small community of Riverhurst, Sask., – contrary to their own plans. Unpredictability indeed! It’s not complex, but contextual.

Prairie Winds has a diverse leadership model where people serve in bivocational capacities. Ministry isn’t fancy – prayer, worship, and meals – but it’s deeply meaningful to everyone involved as they witness to God’s reign in everyday life.


Incarnational living requires patience. Take the story of Vancouver church planting couple Rebecca and Andrew Stanley. The Stanleys are leading a church on the University of B.C.’s main campus. In one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country, a place where spirituality and religion is overshadowed by self-sufficiency and wealth, a willingness to wait is vital.

“Patience is a necessity when we are walking with people spiritually, since every person’s journey is different,” says Rebecca. Andrew adds, “Patience is lived” – in relationship with those inside and outside the church.

“Patience is when I choose to seek out a friend who, for four years, has been giving me reasons why he doesn’t believe in God,” says Andrew, “being gracious when he makes some sarcastic remark about my faith, and kind when I know I’m the first person he calls in a crisis.” The Stanleys are sustained in missional ministry by this gift of forebearance that “goes beyond veneer and speaks of patience infused by the Spirit of God himself.”

Missional Mennonite Brethren

Considering our identity, it’s no wonder many Mennonite Brethren churches are embracing the missional church paradigm. Our theology of church and mission places our identity in relation to God’s mission: “The church, united by the one Spirit, makes Christ visible in the world” (Confession of Faith, Article 6).

Throughout our 150-year history, we’ve been forced to contextualize our faith many times, even though some changes have been difficult or slower than desired (e.g. language transitions). The preceding stories have shown how, in the diversity of our current Canadian religious culture, MBs continue to patiently serve their cities and neighbourhoods in a variety of ways. Contextualization remains at the forefront of who we are.

Additionally, the missional church emphasis on incarnational ministry lends itself well to our evangelical Anabaptist identity. As Anabaptists, Jesus’s entire life and teaching is our model for living. As evangelicals, we believe the good news of Jesus is to be shared with all. As our Confession of Faith teaches, we are called to follow Jesus and be his witnesses. The incarnation is both proclamation and practice. The missional church paradigm reminds us to not pick one over the other.

When it comes to the mission of God revealed in the incarnation, we must join Christians around the world in faithfully conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:27).

–David Warkentin is community impact pastor at Hyde Creek Community Church, Port Coquitlam, B.C. He blogs at www.davidwarkentin.blogspot.com.



Recommended Reading
Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness by Lois Barret et al.

Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission
by David Bosch

The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church by Michael Frost

Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America by Darrell Guder, ed.

The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay

The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church by Alan Hirsch

“Can Mennonite Brethren be Missional?” by Tim Neufeld (Direction, Spring 2010)

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin

Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One by Alan Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren

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leonard April 2, 2012 - 21:24

Great post David! One of the big challenges required to make this shift is pastoral identity. We have mostly been chaplains, and suddenly we have to become leaders and stewards of movements. Mike Breen and friends have gone ahead of us in practice, and a series of posts on what we can learn from the European church is terrific — http://tinyurl.com/7jzktdx

David August 29, 2012 - 21:30

Leonard, I just noticed your comment now – oops! Thanks for the link! And yes, the shift in pastoral role/identity is an important area that needs attention.


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