Can an “Established” Church be Missional?

I appreciate the video above as a quick way of explaining the missional church — people empowered and encouraged to be the church in their community, following Jesus and bearing witness to him wherever they work, play, and live.

But as I’ve been thinking about this more, I wonder, for a church to be missional, must all of the arrows point outward? Is being the church and living out the good news only for the surrounding community and world? Is everyone who is part of the church a missionary, and every place outside the church a mission field?

What about the church itself? Is it really all Christian “in here,” and all mission field “out there”? Isn’t the church at least part mission field as well?

At least that’s how I understand my own church — I’m thinking of the long-time attenders who tell me they’re not Christian even though they may appear that way to other people; the person who tells me, “I’m not a Christian yet, but I like to hang out with nice Christian people”; some of our international students who have never experienced church before; others who have been active in the church for most of their lives but who are no longer convinced as they once were about following Jesus.

I’ve changed some of the details in the previous paragraph to protect people’s privacy, but that’s hardly necessary since these descriptions might equally apply to any number of people in any number of churches. I’m not sharing anything particularly unique here. It’s this way in many “established” churches where those who regularly assemble together are a diverse group, a mix of those who bear witness to Jesus and those who need it (and don’t we all?). The divide between “inside” and “outside” — between the church and the missionfield — is not as clearcut as this simple video seems to assume.

So YES!! I’m all for being missional in our neighbourhoods and communities. But I also don’t think it’s enough. I think we also need some of those arrows reaching over and across to one another within the church. I think we need to be missional in the church community too.

My dream of a missional church is a church that is missional both inside and out, that tells God’s story both inside and out, that has compassionate relationships both inside and out, that is genuine both inside and out. It’s not one kind of behaviour on the inside and something else on the outside.

After all, what happens within the church can be a powerful witness. As Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Here he’s not talking about going outside to others, but attending to the relationships close at hand. Jesus himself went first to his “own” people while at the same time welcoming those who were marginalized and “outside.”

When the church has covered up sexual abuse, or failed in numerous other ways, that also speaks loudly both to those inside and outside the church.  How the church has handled such so-called “internal” matters has missional significance.

So I think we need missional church where what happens “in here” is just as important as what happens “out there.” That means:

We need missional hospitality — where we pay attention to the person standing awkwardly next to us in the church foyer, instead of focusing only on our friends.

We need missional potlucks — where a person doesn’t have to bring farmer sausage or the right kind of potato salad to fit in, and doesn’t end up having to take their dish of rice and beans home untouched because no one else would eat it.

We need missional worship that doesn’t assume we all know the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah, or that we all know the words to the doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” or that we all identify with language like “we as Christians” or “we as Mennonites” (or any other church tradition).

Now I know that “missional” is not an adjective to be thrown in front of anything and everything, so maybe I’m out of line here. But if we have “a renewed theological vision of the church in mission,” I can’t imagine that it’s only for the face we show to the world, but it will renew us through and through. “Inside” or “outside” is not really the point–we need to bear witness to Jesus everywhere.

What do you think? Can an established church be missional? Is your church missional, and how does that matter?

25 thoughts on “Can an “Established” Church be Missional?

  1. Amen April, You make several valid points about the local fellowship. If we can’t be Christian in the “family”, then we won’t be elsewhere.

    Sent from Samsung tablet

    1. Thanks, I appreciate your “family” reference too – part of being missional is opening up that definition of family, so it’s not only who we live with in our homes or church. It’s our neighbourhoods and community and human family.

  2. Vision casting plays a huge role in all of this as far as articulating a community’s identity and purpose. The church I work for (a well-established church) is working to be “Inside-Out and Outside-In.” Both of these relates to being missional–putting faith into practice both in the community and also engaging in radical hospitality. We seek to blur these traditional barriers of church walls, as you’ve keenly noted towards the end of your post. I’ve also heard of other communities seek to be “gathered and scattered” with the same sort of idea in mind.
    One of the challenges is that we Christians tend to divide things up. A ministry is either this or that, like the video notes how “evangelism” has developed into being a simple invitation to an attractional production (i.e. Sunday morning). I’m hopeful that we can overcome this through the power of the Spirit.

    1. I’ve tended to use “gathered and scattered” in our context too, but I’m changing that now to “gathered and sent” as a result of a recent Forge seminar. I think we are “scattered” in a positive way in the sense of being sown in many different places, but we are also “scattered” in the sense of being individual and not necessarily well connected in what we do between our Sunday times of gathering. Thinking rather of being “sent” helps me to articulate that our involvement in many different places is actually all part of the same story, the same mission, and we are sent by the power of the Holy Spirit.

  3. Thanks for these thoughts. Our church family is working to become more missional, and this is one of the dynamics we’ve discussed. I’ll be passing this post along to some people!

    I’ve been intrigued by the notion that the community of God should be a witness to the broader world, simply because it exists within this new reality Jesus has created, and this witness comes before we decide to do anything intentionally missional, evangelistic, benevolent, etc, etc.

    My thought is as we mature and develop as a community of disciples, we become more missional, inwardly and outwardly, because Christlikeness has a way of always reaching out to whoever is next to you, whether they are your neighbor, the homeless person on the corner, or the person sitting next to you in worship.

    Thanks, again. Peace.


    1. I’m glad to hear that you’ll be sharing this, and would welcome further response. I especially like your comment that “Christlikeness has a way of always reaching out to whoever is next to you….” Yes, that’s beautiful.

  4. I agree with you completely. Your article expresses some of my concerns especially the line: “I think we need missional church where what happens ‘in here’ is just as important as what happens ‘out there.’ Too often these are pitted against each other instead of being seen as related. And your examples are right on, about “missional hospitality,” “missional potlucks” and “missional worship.” Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment and encouragement – I originally wrote this piece as a guest post for another blog, but when it wasn’t used after all, I wondered whether I was missing the missional point. And maybe I was for that particular blog, but every so often I would re-read this piece in my unpublished pile and decided to use it here.

  5. IMHO, the video offers up a rather individualized definition of “missional.” I am attracted to understandings of missional that lean more towards Rob’s comments, in that it involves a community of believers living as the people God calls and enables us to be; much less “I” being equipped to go out into the world but “we” being equipped to live as Kingdom citizens together and participating together in God’s mission as a local incarnation in a local time and space. The individualized version is understandable with our current church structure/organization, where (generally, and I realize there are plenty of exceptions to this) a church gathers a large number of people from a wide spread area together on a weekly basis; we have only a little (if any) interaction with each other during the week (a small group meeting, a bible study, etc.) and thus we are mostly by ourselves in our neighborhoods and workplaces; this gives us little chance to care for and love each other on a daily basis–or care for and love others around us together. But if we gathered as or “organized” ourselves into more smaller, localized missional groups (who could still be part of a larger structure), through proximity and intention we could then be the family we were created to be, caring for and loving each other as we care for and love our neighbors–and more of a chance to do that together than by ourselves… again, all IMHO : )

    1. Hi Carmen – thanks for persevering to leave a comment. I really appreciate your observation on the “individualized definition” of missional vs. a more corporate expression. That seems to be a critical distinction. The more corporate makes so much sense to me especially for newly forming communities, and I want to reflect more on what that might look like for already established churches too. Thanks!

      1. That is exactly where I am at right now, too. Over the last decade or so, I’ve come to believe the way we structure ourselves regarding church today makes it harder to be missional in this communal sense; the challenge for me is to find places where the structure is flexible enough to (re)graft in missional truth. We’ve come to think of church as a place rather than a people (note how the video has a building from which people go out), so we tend to think in terms of adding missional to current activities and programs within or to that structure. In my very humble opinion, I don’t think that goes far enough as the structure we usually work with will limit the potential of missional spirituality. Perhaps we need to reimagine what being the people of God looks like–and then ask ourselves if there are places where the current structure would allow us to experiment with that. I am mulling over that with others in church leadership right now, contemplating the possibility of experimenting with a missional small group. This is a great resource, if you are interested: Too bad we don’t live close enough to go out for a cup of coffee–this would be a conversation right up my alley!

        1. I’d love to talk with you more about this, but I guess online will need to do for now! I just had a quick look at the resource you mention and think it will be helpful for my own thinking, working with our existing groups, and yes, as you say looking for where there is enough flexibility to experiment. Thanks, and let’s see where this will lead us….

  6. In any genuine relationship the arrows need to go both ways. Thanks for this reminder of that truth and one of my favorite verses in John. I used it at age 17 when I wrote the letter to the bishop I describe in BLUSH. It has stuck with me all my life. Excellent contribution to the missional church conversation.

    1. I love that verse too, Shirley, but I realize that it also presents a challenge, to love one another in a way that draws people in rather than shutting them out. Your story is a good example of that. Thanks for continuing the conversation.

  7. A wonderful vision strongly stated. My church is not missional yet in an organizational sense, but individuals within the church are very mission-minded both within and beyond the pews. I have been blessed there to better bless others.

    1. Thanks, Tony – I think that last part is really key, where we understand that the blessing we have received is not meant only for us. It’s meant to continue on to bless others, and from there to bless others, and bless others, and so on. That’s the ongoing missional vision.

  8. Healthy mission assumes, I think, that we are growing disciples as well as making disciples. These two core emphases at clear in Jesus’ commission (Matt 28:16-20). We cannot emphasise one at the expense of the other. All our community engagement and missional activity must have the character of the church as a contrast community as its foundation.

    1. Thanks for your comment – it resonates well with Carmen’s above that being missional is not an individual task. It’s a quality grounded in who we are as a community, as you call it a “contrast community.” Thanks for this reminder.

  9. I’ve been thinking the same thing here in PeaceChurch. We’re such an outreach oriented missional community that, I feel, we maybe don’t focus on one another’s needs as much as we could. Thanks for the reminder. I’m looking forward to being with you and Emmanuel in a few weeks 🙂

    1. Hi Darnell – I love the “both/and” as God is forming us to be whole and healthy communities. However large or small we may be in numbers, wherever we may be around the world, we both care for and bless one another as members of Christ’s body, and we bless and care for those around us. I love who PeaceChurch is becoming and look forward to seeing you soon!

  10. I’m so glad you posted this, April. At the moment I’m helping my congregation transition to a new (simpler) congregational structure and vision that will emphasize mission + formation (the “outside” and the “inside”). The shorthand phrase we’re using for this is, “being formed, being sent, by Christ.” So your suggestions especially make a lot of sense to me and are very much in line with what we are working at as a congregation. Thanks for writing!

    1. Thanks, Chris – I appreciate knowing that you and your congregation are working at this. All the best in simplifying structure and focusing vision – no small tasks! I hope you’ll share more too as an example for the rest of us!

  11. April,

    I’m leading our church through an understanding of missional and how to make the shift, and I think you highlight some important qualities in fully understanding missional (and things that are easily neglected). It’s easy to assume that all missional work needs to be done outside the church, but I’m finding it increasingly important to see and talk about the ways to create missional space for people even when we gather as a church. Thanks for writing this.

    1. You’re welcome, Justin – I’m glad you stopped by. A renewed vision of the church in mission is a big vision that impacts our theology, identity, and practice wherever we are. I appreciate the way you explore this on your blog, and wish you well as you lead your church.

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