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October, 2011
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When Missional is Not Enough

by Chris Gambill

Though not everyone can agree on what it means, “missional” has become part of the everyday vocabulary of most Christian leaders and writers. Nuances aside, being missional is about moving our focus, resources and behaviors regarding God’s incarnational mission to the world from the periphery to the center--both in our individual and corporate lives as Christians. Missional represents a different way of looking at the world and a different way of interacting with the world. Seeking to be missional can turn and individual’s or a church’s life inside out.

A missional posture has strong biblical and theological support. Biblical texts utilized to explain and support a missional posture typically include ones such as  Genesis 12: 1-3, Isaiah 6:8, Luke 9:1-6, Matthew 25:31-46, Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, John 20:21, and Acts 1:8 (among many others). There is something powerful and compelling about missional language and its potential for reshaping how individual Christians and churches reorient themselves. It seems to be the solution to helping regain a fundamental focus that has been lost. And that may prove to be a disappointment for some.

I worked with a church recently that embarked on a corporate journey to reshape itself to become a missional church. The impetus for rethinking their corporate life as a congregation was not so much biblical or theological but very practical—as an institution they were dying and they knew it. Like many (perhaps most) traditional, established churches, they had watched their numbers dwindle over the last couple of decades to the point where they began to see that if something didn’t change they might be looking at the end of their existence as an independent congregation. They honestly struggled with whether to concede they had reached the end of their corporate life or to recommit themselves to building a new and better future together. They chose the latter.

They studied scripture, talked to each other and to community leaders, and eventually reshaped their corporate life as a missional church. The result was a new outward focus and orientation. They would no longer trust they could just attract new members. They would seek to be God’s people and God’s Church to the community around them. And according to their pastor, they did. They became deeply engaged with the people in the community around them. They began serving the community and meeting its needs with the gifts and resources God had provided them. In particular, they focused on a local school with significant needs. Church members volunteered as tutors and helped in various ways. At the end of the year, the school gave the congregation a special award for service!

This story has all the makings of an exemplary “turnaround church.” They turned from themselves to others and from being attractional to missional. There was only one problem. After investing a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources, their total membership growth was two people. Both of them were senior adults. Despite their missional turnaround, they still faced the same problem that had prompted their journey originally—they were still dying as an institution.

I tell this story not to undermine or criticize the missional church movement. As a former professional missionary myself, I believe strongly in the biblical and theological basis for mission and believe every individual Christian and Christian congregation needs a missional orientation. I believe the message of this story is that the call to living and being missional does not come with guarantees.

Every church should prayerfully and thoughtfully consider the call to be missional. But in answering that call they should not assume that all their other problems will be solved. Whether a congregation is facing declining attendance, financial problems, building or property issues, internal conflict, or just an unwillingness to change and adapt, becoming a missional church is not a one-stop-shopping solution to solve all a congregation’s problems. All the issues just named are complex, challenging problems that require more intentional and thoughtful processes to address them. Like most things in life—spiritual or otherwise—there are no quick fixes. Becoming missional in outlook and function is an important step in the right direction but will not necessarily produce the windfall solution that many congregations hope for. Becoming missional is not a means to an end. It is at best, an answer to a call.

Decide to become missional in lifestyle and orientation because you believe it is what God is calling you to do—regardless of what it may cost and without expecting anything in return.  The goal is faithfulness, not the results you might want. As 1 Peter 4:10 (NIV) states, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

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