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Being Missional in the Reformed Tradition

The terms “missional” and “missional
church” have been the buzz in various
Reformed denominations and
the wider church for about a decade now.
But what exactly do the terms mean? That
is an important question, and not an easy
one to answer.

Some use “missional” to describe a
church that rejects treating the gospel like
a commodity for spiritual consumers; others
frame it as a strategy for marketing the
church and stimulating church growth.
Some see the missional church as a refocusing
on God’s action in the world rather
than obsessing over our own needs; others
see it as an opportunity to “meet people
where they are” and reinvent the church for
postmodern culture.

Clearly, we need to examine the range
of perspectives hiding under the term if we
are to make use of insights from the missional-
church discussion.

Back to Beginnings

A multi-authored book titled Missional
Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America
(Eerdmans, 1998) was key
for introducing the concept of a “missional
church” to North American congregations.
The book grew out of The Gospel and Our
Culture Network, a group of professors and
pastors who sought to bring the insights of
missionary theologians like Lesslie Newbigin
to bear on the North American context.
According to Missional Church, American
Christians had been tied to a “Christendom
model” of Christianity, wherein the church
focused on internal needs and maintaining
its cultural privilege in society. The decline
of Christendom provided the church an opportunity,
the authors said, to rediscover
its identity as a people sent by God into the
world as gospel witnesses.

The contributors to Missional Church
emphasized that everything the church
ought to be and do is mission. “Missions”
should not be one church program among
many but the church’s core identity as witnesses
sent by God into the world. The authors
were not merely “redesign[ing] the
church for success in our changing context”
or seeking a pragmatic “method and
problem solving” (2-3) approach to ministry.
Instead, they sought to diagnose the
cultural captivity of today’s church, including
its obsession with marketing and
technique. Most importantly, they painted
a theologically rooted vision of the church
as a community called to participate in
God’s mission in and for the world.

Warning: Confusion Ahead

Since that time, the market machine
has spun out many conflicting definitions of “missional church.” In general, these
definitions share a sense that the church
is not primarily about us but about God’s
mission. But consensus breaks down over
what God’s mission is and what it means to
participate in it.

In many cases, the phrase “missional
church” simply puts new clothes on old
trends, such as the seeker-sensitive church
movement, the church-growth movement,
and so on. Often, the parties critiqued by
the authors of Missional Church are now
themselves claiming to be missional.

For example, church-growth specialists
have long wanted churches to create
mission statements; thus some churchgrowth
consultants now claim it is “missional”
to try to increase the efficiency and
effectiveness of ministry. Yet the original
meaning of “missional church” referred to
God’s mission in the world, not to management
advice for accomplishing our own
projects. Indeed, the mission of God doesn’t
fit the formulas of measurable results and
effectual outcomes. It focuses instead on
the church living into the coming reality of
God’s new creation. This cannot be easily
quantified, whether by counting the number
of “conversions” or counting the number
of hungry persons fed.

For others, the missional impulse has
been translated into a consumer-oriented
mentality–again, an approach that the authors
of Missional Church explicitly reject.
Some pastors in my own denomination, the
Reformed Church in America, have used
missional language to focus their ministry
on felt needs. Thus, preaching on “How
to Be a Better Spouse” or “How to Be Financially
Secure” is considered missional,
while preaching straight through a book of
the Bible, a common Reformed practice, is
seen as an old habit of Christendom. Yet
when our needs set the agenda, how can
we learn to embody the gospel that is not
just our story, but first and foremost God’s?
A seeker-sensitive revamping of the church
reflects a profoundly different view of God’s
mission than that of Missional Church,
which claims that God’s people need to rediscover
the centrality of God’s action in
shaping our witness to the world.

Another use of the word “missional”
makes it synonymous with the kingdom of
God. This connection is not surprising, as
Missional Church speaks about the mission
of God as the kingdom of God–something
larger than the church of which the church
provides a foretaste. Yet, once again, this
emphasis can become reductionistic. When
people equate “missional” with “kingdom of
God,” Jesus can quickly become the pioneer
of a faith which mandates that we simply
copy the practices of Jesus rather than placing
him at the center of our worship. “Let’s
cancel church and go out and do ‘kingdom
work,'” some so-called “missional” voices
say. Worship is seen as a distraction from
the “kingdom work” of outreach. Jesus may
or may not be found in the church’s worship,
they say, but he will always be found
on the street in helping those in need. This
view has an important grain of truth: we
do encounter Jesus in our service to “the
least of these” on the street and in all arenas
of life (Matt. 25:31-46). Yet, in a profound
way, we are renewed in our identity
as God’s people through encountering the
living Christ in Word and Sacrament in
worship. In the end, the approach toward
being missional which downplays the centrality
of worship contrasts with that of
Missional Church because it fails to recognize
that we are sent into the world as a
worshipping community.

With so many variant views, the term
“missional church” now needs something
like an FDA label: Warning–contradictory
and conflicting views of the church inside.

Being “Missional” in
the Reformed Tradition

When we hear the terms “missional”
and “missional church” we need to ask
hard questions about exactly how the terms
are used. And if we are to recover the term
“missional” and a theology of the missional
church for Reformed denominations, we
need to keep three cautions in mind.

1. Approaches claiming to be
missional may or may not be
genuinely Reformed. We should
openly admit that in its origin,
missional-church theology
emerged from missiological and
ecumenical discussions that
are not distinctively Reformed.
That, in itself, does not make it good or bad. But there are some
tendencies in missional-church
theology which grate against a
historic Reformed identity. For
example, the critique of church
history as caught in “Christendom”
often has an Anabaptist
tone, claiming that huge portions
of church history were
trapped in a sterile mode. Alan
Hirsch takes an approach like
this in The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating
the Missional Church

(Brazos 2007), a book of rising
popularity in Reformed denominations.
Yet, in contrast to this
approach, the Reformed tradition
has generally refused to
dismiss the Spirit’s work across
the vast sweep of church history,
and upholds a significant
place for church tradition when
it is held accountable to God’s
word in scripture.

2. Approaches claiming to be missional
may or may not be genuinely
missional. As explored
above, the original missional-church
movement for congregations
sought to set our eyes
on God’s action in the world,
rather than focusing upon our
own action, needs, or management
techniques. Yet, some
voices advocating “missional”
approaches are proposing extreme
forms of seeker-sensitive
church growth techniques, or
purely practice-oriented approaches
to Christ which fail to
see the missional value of communal
worship of Christ the

3. Reformed Christians should
seek Reformed ways to be missional,
and missional ways
to be Reformed. Ultimately,
seeking to be authentically
missional should complement
rather than detract from a denomination’s
Reformed identity.
Sometimes people have
compared Reformed and missional
by saying that Reformed
is focused on the internal and missional on the outreach side
of the church. But that contrast
misses the point: the historic
Reformed church has been concerned
with both the internal
life and the outward ministry
of the church. Likewise, an authentic
missional vision is just
as concerned with worship and
discipleship as with outreach.
Instead of this false contrast,
we should see that if we fail to
be truly missional–sent into
the world as a worshiping,
witnessing community–our
Reformed identity is tarnished.

Consider the following example where
Reformed and missional identities converge.
A young family has come to faith in Christ
in a Reformed church plant. The parents
and their infant come forward to be baptized,
with the child in a deep slumber. The
congregation celebrates the incorporation
of the family into the covenant community,
baptized in the name of the Triune God–even as the child is completely asleep! Afterwards,
a new Christian in the congregation
asks questions about this, and gradually
a surprising reality begins to sink in
for him: ‘God has been seeking me, also,
while I was asleep–before I was even aware
of what God might be doing.’ God takes the
initiative and seeks us out, joining us to
the covenant community, a community
empowered by the Spirit to bear witness
to Christ in all arenas of life.

Ultimately, we should seek to draw
upon missional theologies of the church
as a way to live deeper into the gospel–and deeper into our own strengths as
Reformed Christians. We should embrace
the sense in which “missional” approaches
put the focus upon the action of God
in the world and our call to participate in
God’s work. We should value our covenant
community as Reformed Christians, and
that we are sent into the world as a worshiping,
witnessing, covenant community.
We should seek to recover old traditions
and discover new ones in faithfulness
to God’s call to grow into the image
of Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power, witnessing
to God’s sovereign presence in a
world of need.

J. Todd Billings is assistant
professor of Reformed theology
at Western Theological
Seminary in Holland, Michigan.
This is a revised version
of an article originally
appearing in the Church
Herald and is republished
with permission.
J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and author of six books, most recently, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live (Brazos, 2020).