Hardly a week goes by without another poll dealing with the decline and marginalization of the church. One might become easily discouraged by such reports, but I believe that one antidote is to develop a new way of looking at the life and work of the church. This comes through the understanding and implementation of a missional ecclesiology.
In theological circles, ecclesiology is the study of the doctrine of the church. There have been a number of ways of interpreting the nature of the church informed by the Bible, history, context and practice. Ecclesiology is an evolving doctrine.
The term “missional” refers to the essential nature and vocation of the church as God’s called and sent people. Missional is a way of being and doing life as individuals, groups, and congregations.
Living missionally means that we ask the question, “What does God want us to be, do, and become to continue the ministry of Christ within our own community and global context?” rather than, “What do we want to be, do, and become to respond to our denominational programs or unexamined beliefs and traditions?”
Rowan Williams has expressed what it means to embrace a missional ecclesiology in this way: “It is not the Church of God that has a mission, but the God of mission who has a church.” A missional church is the sent church of a sending God.
What’s the difference between “missions” and “missional”? In the Christendom era of the church (which some of us believe still exists), missions was understood to be a program of the congregation supported by financial offerings, prayer, organizations, and projects. In the age of the missional congregation, missions refers to those initiatives taken by individuals, impromptu groups and organized entities to respond to identified needs in the world, as a continuation of the mission of God.
Developing a theology of the church (ecclesiology) that is informed by a missional vision gives one a new perspective on what it means to be the church today. As a result, we are no longer concerned about survival but faithfulness, no longer invested in growing our influence but in serving others, and no longer inward focused but outward focused.
Your vision will determine your ecclesiology. What is your vision for the church?
[Additional resources about a missional ecclesiology: A Missional Journey Guide (Atlanta: CBF; 2002), and Darrel Guder, et al., MissionalChurch: A Vision for the Sending of theChurch in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).]