Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Identity of a Missional Church

It's important to have a biblical understanding of church. The church is not a building, a physical location, a denomination, or a specific time to meet. In the first century, there were no church buildings. The early church met in people's homes or occasionally outside. Denominations did not yet exist. The early church sometimes met daily (cf. Acts 5:42) and always on the Lord's day (cf. Acts 20:7).

If we're going to recapture the vision and passion of the early church, we must understand our identity as they did. Our language should reflect the truth of who we are. Instead of "going to church," we gather with God's people. Instead of meeting "at the church," we meet at the church's campus. Church is not something we "go to" or "meet at." Church is who we are.

This understanding of who we are is foundational to our mission. The early church encountered a Greek culture that was largely ignorant of biblical truth. They viewed themselves as missionaries: people who were on mission for Jesus. There are many parallels between our own society and that of the first century. No truth, however, is more critical and self-evident than this: we must be missionaries.

In his article, "Is Your Church Missional?", Dr. Ed Stetzer, Director of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence, writes, "There are three emphases that every church in every culture needs in order to faithfully proclaim the gospel. They need to understand what Jesus called them to do, what culture they are in and what a biblical church looks like. A missional church lives at the intersection of three things." He diagrams these emphases like this:


The truths that Stetzer has discovered are the same truths that lost people are searching for today:
  • People are looking for something to believe in (Christology).
  • People are looking for some community to belong to (Ecclesiology).
  • People are looking for someone to bless them (Missiology).
A church reaching a balance between these emphases will be an effective church on mission in its community and around the world. We must maintain a proper relationship with Christ, one another, and the world. Much of the church growth movement of the 1960's, 70's, and 80's focused on bridging the gap between the church and the world. The problem was an overemphasis on methodology to the exclusion of doctrine. A reaction to this was the church health movement of the 1990's, which focused on the church's relationship to its Savior. Unfortunately, this inward focus resulted in an underemphasis on the church's missionary role to the world. More recently, there has been a widespread increase in Christians who are rejecting the "established" or "organized" church in favor of a more individualized faith. Sometimes these believers gather in house churches as their primary expression of the Christian community. While there is nothing wrong with house churches–and indeed we in established churches should actively explore how we can partner and support them–there exists the danger that these churches would never become a full expression of the community Christ intended.

As we grow in our understanding of becoming a missional church, we will no doubt discover that it is Christ's plan for us to be incarnational, indigenous, and intentional. We'll explore these ideas in some upcoming posts.

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