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What Does it Really Mean for a Church to Be “Missional”? Is it Important?

What Does it Really Mean for a Church to Be “Missional”? Is it Important?

Meaning of Missio Dei

The English word “mission” comes from the Latin, “missio.” The missio Dei is, thus, the “mission of God.” For many years, Christians understood the mission of the Church to reflect the mission of God in the world, summarily, by the Great Commission of Jesus at His ascension (Matthew 28:18-20). Most properly, the word “missional” is an adjective to describe the Church’s foremost enterprise of pursuing the missio Dei in the world.

Meaning of a Missional Church

As in many other examples, “missional” can be “hijacked” and “repurposed” for a particular theological or sociological agenda. So, acknowledging that the term “missional” may be interpreted by others in the Church in several other ways, we believe that the phrase has merit when understood in traditional Christian missiological context.Thus, for purposes of clarity of communication, we propose this working definition for a “missional church:”

Aware, Wise, and Intentional

The missional church is one that is aware of its parish’s socio-historical context, including an understanding of the development of the context, and responding wisely in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, every part of the church’s ministry is attuned to the surroundings andintentional in its outreach ministry to the community. We do not disagree with Alan Hirsch’s definition of a “missional church” as “posture toward the world.” However, we believe that such a posture must be that the world is lost and in need of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. Theologies that “embrace the city” without pointing to the sin in the city and the unbelieving city dwellers’ need for personal repentance and faith in the resurrected and reigning Jesus Christ are not missional as the word describes the urgent mandates of the Gospel.

To simplify the description of a missional church, we offer the following concise statement:

A missional church is an ecclesial community of Word, Sacrament, and Prayer where pastoral staff, officers, and members are united in their commitment to the Gospel-driven practice of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ in every area of ministry and life.

The commitment to the Great Commission is expressed, primarily, in three distinguishing traits:

1. The Missional Church Practices Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is the Gospel-driven practice of seeking to research and make conclusions about the historical, philosophical, demographic, and practical religious commitments of a given community. Such awareness allows a parish church or evangelist to assess and diagnose the wounded-fallen places in the respective unbelieving community. Such contextual knowledge allows the Christian community to prepare and proclaim a Biblically faithful plan of “treatment.”

The Apostle Paul modeled this situational awareness in Acts 17:

“So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you'” (Acts 17:22-23 NRSV).

Awareness failure brings contextual disconnection. Faithfully following St. Paul’s exemplary approach to awareness leads to more appropriately directing the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the parallel fallen place of woundedness.

2. The Missional Church Pursues Divine Wisdom

A missional church, that is, a Great Commission-committed local church, is one that seeks to understand the context for their ministry. Seeking intelligence for advancing the Kingdom of God in devil-held territories is nothing less than effective, strategic obedience to the Gospel.

Knowledge without wisdom is to invest money without a plan. The Bible demonstrates that wisdom from on high is to be sought by prayer and valued as priceless.

Consider these three verses from the Old and New Testaments:

  • David’s men, the descendants of Issachar, were known for their wisdom about context and applying wisdom unto effective planning: “And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32 KJV).
  • The Apostle, also, admonished the saints at Ephesus to pursue godly understanding that would lead to both personal and ecclesial ministry success; “success,” for St. Paul, was to align the local church (and one’s life) with the revealed will of God: “Wherefore be ye not unwise but understanding what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17 ESV).
  • Mercifully, the Lord has provided us a way to apply knowledge to wisdom. “Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5 Holman Christian Standard Bible).

Deciding to forgo prayer for wisdom will most certainly result in, at best, a haphazard ministry that “hits and misses.” At worst, a ministry conducted without the promise of divine wisdom will lead to planting seeds without power and harvest without fruit.

The missional church and the missional believer seek God and His wisdom to apply the knowledge gleaned from the assessment of situational awareness.

3. The Missional Church Plans with Intentionality

Our God is the Lord of purpose. God chose Israel with intentionality. He chose them to fulfill a divine plan (Exodus 9:16).

Intentionality is a Providential trait taught in the New Testament. Paul instructed the Christians at Ephesus in this divine design of the Almighty regarding their salvation:

“In Him we were also chosen as God’s own, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything by the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 3:11 ESV).

To “do ministry” without intentionality—i.e., purpose, design—is to disobediently deny an essential attribute of Almighty God revealed in His Word. To bear the “image of God” in our life as His children is to imitate those attributes that are “communicable.” The eternality of the Triune God is not a communicable attribute. But exercising purpose, doing ministry with careful intentionality, is a communicable attribute of God.

The Church and The Great Commission

We admit that the word “missional” is suspect to some in the Church. Undoubtedly, some believers read “missional” as code language for an agenda that is alien to the historic Church. Others may not have even heard of the word. We appreciate the word as it describes a church or believers that are aware, wise, and intentional to “develop contextual ministry” for the sake of themissio Dei.

The last words of Jesus to the Disciples represent the first work of the Church:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV).

The Great Commission of our Lord Jesus leaves no room for an alternative plan. The urgency of the Great Commission precludes terms that have divided meanings. Clarity is essential in wartime order. As Christ was sent by the Father to the world, so we are sent by Jesus to the ends of the earth. 

Every believer, every local church, and every denomination or national church ministry, must be focused on “the main thing.” And “the main thing” is proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom: We are sinners in need of a Savior. Christ Jesus is our Savior. His life lived and His death on the cross and His glorious resurrection from the dead offer life abundant and life eternal to those who believe in Him. By His righteousness and His sacrifice, we may be saved from eternal separation from God.

Teaching “all that [He] commanded” requires the establishment of a Christian community that is committed to Christ’s Commission through successive generations until the Lord comes again.

This Christ-bequeathed mandate, this way of life, this dying to self and living for God, must, ultimately, be the all-consuming burden, vision, and mission of the Body of Christ. This is the call of the Gospel. And this is what we mean when we speak of “the missional church.”


Craig Van Gelder, The Missional Church in Context: Helping Congregations Develop Contextual Ministry (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007).

DeYoung, Kevin, and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Crossway, 2011.

Hirsch, Alan, “Defining Missional,” 2008.

Van Gelder, Craig. The Missional Church in Context: Helping Congregations Develop Contextual Ministry. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007.

W. Rodman MacIlvaine III, “What Is the Missional Church Movement?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 167, no. 665 (2010): 92.

Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.

Photo Credit: Pexels/Saulo Zayas

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