On Being a Missional Church

First Cutlerville CRC Focus article, June 2015

“Missional” is a fairly new term for describing a church that is intentionally outreach-oriented. The term is new; the idea is as old as the church—even older, if you go back to Abraham’s calling in Genesis 12. My family was evangelized into a missional church long before the term was fashionable. But not every congregation is outreach-oriented. Some are much more inwardly-focused. That kind of church can be very comfortable, as long as you’re not a visitor, or someone new to the congregation. That kind of congregation can be supportive; it can have good fellowship, solid preaching, and attractive programs. It might even have a nice outreach statement on paper. But an inward focus not what it means to be church.

Ultimately, an inward-focused church will not grow. It may grow in the short term, but not from evangelism. Growth will largely come from people switching churches based on their preferences. But members will also leave when things change, because the most important thing has become: Does the worship experience fit my needs? It is a consumer approach to church.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, knows what it means to be genuinely missional. He planted a congregation in the most gospel-resistant part of the nation’s largest city, in Manhattan. It’s now a multi-site congregation with over 5,000 members. But it’s rather different from most mega-churches. It is confessionally Reformed. The worship employs liturgy and readings. The sermons are deep and doctrinal. The music is mostly classical, with some services that use jazz or contemporary worship songs.

Worship style is not what makes a church missional. Style varies and changes with time. What is more important is being intentional about outreach. A church that makes it their number one priority to reach people with the message of hope and new life in Christ, and embodying that good news in concrete ways—and a church where that is more important than whether I feel comfortable or feel I get all my needs met—that is a missional church.

Tim Keller ministers in a very secular and skeptical context. But in reality, our context here to the southwest of Grand Rapids is heading in the same direction. We can no longer assume that people believe in God or an afterlife. We cannot presume that people will take the Bible as God’s Word. But Keller reminds us that it’s not all about making a rational argument for the existence of God, or the reliability of the Bible. He emphasizes that we have to show that Christianity makes emotional sense before we can talk about it making rational sense. (By the way, Tim Keller has written an excellent book about how the Christian faith makes sense, entitled, The Reason for God). In other words, we have to show people that the gospel really changes us in order for people to take seriously the claim that the gospel can change their lives. We can show that the good news of Jesus makes “emotional sense” by our hospitality, by our welcoming embrace of our neighbors, by our willingness to tolerate unsanctified language and undisciplined children, by our commitment to persons and families that are deeply broken, and often chronically broken.

Tim Keller talks about six characteristics of a missional church. Stay tuned…I will talk about those six features in the next edition of the Focus!