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Missional Church Movement - Timeline Movement


Darrell Guder

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The missional church movement arose in 1998 when a group of six Protestant theologians published a book entitled Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Responding to church decline, as well as "church growth" strategies aimed at attracting non-members into the church, the writers of the Missional Church proposed for all members to go out into the world and reflect the gospel in their surrounding communities. According to the writers, missions is at the core of the Christian gospel and requires active engagement with secular society.

The language of missional church caught on quickly among popular church leaders, like Tim Keller, as well as lay practitioners. Missional Church itself has sold tens of thousands of copies, a remarkable number for a book of its kind.

Although interpretations of "missional" vary, the movement nonetheless reoriented the field of Christian missions and its focus.

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The missional church movement arose through the influence of the book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, published in 1998 as a collaboration by six Protestant theologians. Building on recent advances in the theology of mission, especially the work of British missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin and South African missiologist David Bosch, the authors sought to respond to the crisis of Christian decline in North America at the turn of the 21st century by redefining the identity and nature of the church in relation to Christian mission. In contrast to traditional views which have seen mission as merely one activity of the church among others, proponents of the missional church argue that mission is rooted in the missio dei, God’s initiative to heal and restore all of creation, and that the church has been instituted by God to participate in this mission as its central and all-encompassing task. They further argued against the assumption that mission’s purpose and aim was to draw people into the church, and instead proposed that the church served as an instrument and witness of the gospel’s larger purpose of bringing about the reign of God in all creation. The missional church, then, is to equip and send out its members to incarnate the gospel in their surrounding communities and cultures rather than merely trying to extract non-members out of their communities and attract them into the church. For this reason the missional church is often contrasted with approaches that have been critiqued as the "attractional church," especially late 20th century church growth methodologies.

The language of missional church caught on quickly among church leaders and other ministry practitioners, especially among white evangelical and mainline Protestants throughout North America and in many other English-speaking countries. Missional Church itself has sold tens of thousands of copies since its initial publication, a remarkable number for a book of its kind. In addition, dozens of books utilizing missional concepts have been published since 1998, numerous ministry conferences have been held to teach church leaders how to help their congregations become missional, and missional language is now ubiquitous among denominational literature across the English-speaking Protestant world. Indeed many of the original voices in the missional church movement now worry that the term has become a fad -- that its meaning has not fully been grasped and is instead applied in inappropriate ways to practices that are not in fact missional. Nevertheless, the term itself has enjoyed wide acceptance and has very few serious detractors.

Defining Characteristics

The original Missional Church book highlighted five characteristics of a missional ecclesiology that have served as the starting point for much of the subsequent missional literature (Guder 1998, 11-12):

1. Missional ecclesiology is biblical in that it is based on the Bible’s witness to God’s mission and to the formation of the church as an instrument of that mission.

2. Missional ecclesiology is historical insofar as it is guided by the history of the Christian church in all its cultural expressions.

3. Missional ecclesiology is culturally contextual in that it seeks to incarnate the gospel in specific cultural settings.

4. Missional ecclesiology is in that it understands the church to be dynamic in nature, always adapting and evolving in response to new biblical insights, historical challenges, and cultural contexts as it moves toward God’s promised consummation of all things.

5. Missional ecclesiology is practical insofar as it seeks to equip the church to live out its missional calling in the world.

A later, comprehensive study of the existent missional literature uncovered four recurring themes in the way these characteristics were being applied by those seeking to utilize missional concepts for the church (Van Gelder and Zscheile 2011: 4):

1. An emphasis on the sending of the church into the world by a missionary God, thereby shifting the agency of mission from the church to God.

2. An understanding that God’s mission is the establishment of God’s reign in the world, and that this reign extends beyond the mission of the church, though the church remains directly involved in it.

3. An emphasis on the incarnational (versus attractional) nature of the missional church, in which all aspects of a local congregations ministries are shaped by their missionary engagement with their postmodern, post-Christendom, global and local contexts.

4. A focus on building up individual believers within local churches to live as disciples engaging in mission in their daily circumstances.

Variant Uses of Missional Terminology

Ambiguities within and/or misunderstandings of the original vision of the Missional Church book have produced a number of variant ways in which the term "missional" is commonly used:

1. Some have used the popularity of the term “missional” to rebrand traditional mission practices such as evangelism or church growth while still generally keeping the emphasis on human agency in emulating Christ or obeying his Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20).

2. Some use missional concepts to reclaim the distinctiveness of the church in relation to the world, primarily identifying the reign of God and God’s own mission activity as happening primarily within or through the church, which is understood as a contrast community in relation to the broader society.

3. Some apply missional concepts to transform existing aspects of church life--for example, charitable work, church planting, community life, discipleship, leadership, preaching, etc. -- to be more in line with missional ecclesiology.

4. Some hear missional language as a call to innovate new ministry practices and forms of church in order to better incarnate the gospel in a postmodern, post-Christendom society.

Among each of these variant uses there also is a divide among those who see the missional church as including a more integrated understanding regarding the importance of both evangelism and social concern, an understanding shared by the original authors of Missional Church, and those who would wish to emphasize one or the other as more truly missional.

Works Cited

Guder, Darrell L., ed. 1998. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Van Gelder, Craig and Dwight J. Zscheile. 2011. The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.


Keller, Timothy


Missional Church by Darrell L Guder- image courtesy Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Missional Church by Darrell L Guder- image courtesy Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin- photo by Alastair_Cutting at English Wikipedia
Bishop Lesslie Newbigin- photo by Alastair_Cutting at English Wikipedia

Timothy Keller portrait- Flickr- photo by Frank Licorice (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Timothy Keller portrait- Flickr- photo by Frank Licorice (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Book/Journal Source(s)

Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.

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