The Marks of a Missional Church

In the last Focus I introduced the term “Missional.” It describes a church (or other community) that is intentionally outreach-oriented. To be missional is to be intentional about connecting with people in your community, in your neighborhood, who may have very little exposure to the Christian faith, and very knowledge of the Bible, and perhaps none at all. A missional church is one that recognizes that the church exists entirely to put into practice the mission of God in the world, namely, to make disciples. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, identifies six main characteristics of a missional church in an online video that I recommend. He goes deeper into these themes in his book Center Church, a textbook for urban church planters. His points apply just as much to a suburban church, though in some ways, suburban ministry might be even more challenging, because people tend to be isolated from each other. Here are Keller’s six marks, which I am examining in more depth in our Sunday evening teaching services:

1. A Missional Church Knows the Idols of the Culture. In other words, a missional church is aware of what it’s up against. And a missional church understands that the world’s leading idols (sex, money, and power, according to Keller) are not just problems for unchurched people. Believers bow the knee to these idols as well, just as the Israelites were tempted to worship Baal on the side. And so, as closet idolaters, we should sympathize with our neighbors, not just judge them.

2. A Missional Church has to Contextualize and Speak in the Language of the Culture. A missional church needs to know the culture well, and also love and respect people outside the church subculture. To “contextualize” means to translate the gospel into terms that our unchurched neighbors can understand. (In doing so, by the way, we also come to better understanding of our faith and our God.) It means knowing about what people are reading, what shows they watch, what movies are popular. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should watch Game of Thrones, which seems to glorify the idols of our culture (I have never seen it, but the show is notorious for its explicit content and brutality). But it doesn’t hurt to know what the show is about (getting ahead by any means necessary), and that it is wildly popular.

3. A Missional Church Equips Believers to Live their Faith in a Secular Culture. Instead of being a fortress to protect ourselves and our children from the world, a missional church views itself as a training ground for incursions into the world with the message of the gospel. For example, I believe good Christian schools can help equip our children and youth to be missional; but there have been times when people experienced them as a way to protect our children from the outside world (the fortress mentality). And even as we promote and support Christian schools, we must respect families who choose public education and not treat them as second class.

4. A Missional Church has a Reputation for Being Both a Contrast and a Servant Community. This is important. We should critique what’s wrong with our culture, but not in a self-righteous or arrogant way that disrespects people or comes off as judgmental. People will listen when we show that we care about them, when we act as their servants, and not as judges.

5. A Missional Church Conducts its Events Deliberately Expecting and Speaking as if Non-Believers are Present. Ok, maybe not council meetings, but most of our activities. We can’t assume our neighbors know the stories of the Bible. We can’t assume that people believe in God or an afterlife the way that was more common just a generation ago. And we should try to avoid churchy jargon that unchurched people don’t understand (and probably our kids don’t, either). And avoid simplistic clichés, like “God has a reason for everything.” That might be true in some sense, but we often cannot see any plan or purpose in our times of pain. Or: “God will never give you anything you can’t handle.” Try telling that to someone suffering from extreme anxiety, or recovering from a nervous breakdown. On second thought, don’t!

6. A Missional Church Practices Unity on the Local Level as Much as Possible. If the main message that comes through in our church life is how other Christian are wrong, and if we act as if we represent the only legitimate form of the Christian faith, that’s a bad witness. Working together with churches and Christian faith traditions is a great witness. That does not mean that we fail to teach, treasure, defend, and even celebrate our own tradition, our own denomination, our own congregation. Older evangelism strategies encouraged our churches to downplay the Christian Reformed part and try to be more like non-denominational churches. That’s a game we lose just by playing, because, frankly, we stink at being non-denominational. It’s not who we are. Tim Keller does not hide his denominational ties (Presbyterian Church in America), and that didn’t stop his church from growing to 5200 members. He does not downplay what is distinctive about the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition of Christianity. It does mean that we shed the older attitude that we are the only true church. It means openness to learning from and being enriched by other Christian traditions in the one, holy, catholic (universal) church, and working together in matters of common concern, such as supporting the local food bank. One of my favorite events in the small town of Barrhead, Alberta, was our ecumenical Advent service, which included the local clergy, choirs, and music groups of the various churches. It was a visible manifestation of our unity, and it had a great impact on many people in the community.
(First Cutlerville CRC Focus, September 2014)