Missional Discipleship

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon broke ground when they proclaimed in 1989 that Christians in America were Resident Aliens. In the nearly twenty years since publication, Resident Aliens has been found to be an accurate description of life. Christians must necessarily live differently in a post-Christendom age. To give guidance to such a discussion, Michael Frost wrote Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture in which he describes memories, promises, criticisms, and songs that inform life for Christians in this new world (vii, viii). As exiles, Christians are to point toward a better way. “By living expansive lives of justice, kindness, hospitality, and generosity we model the life of Jesus to those who would never attend a church service or read the New Testament” (73-74).

There are two key components to missional discipleship. First, to be a disciple, necessarily, means that one is a witness. Therefore, discipleship does not stop at evangelism and conversion. Instead, from the very beginning, the process is “oriented toward the reign of God” (Chilcote and Warner, The Study of Evangelism xxvi). Membership is not an end unto itself. Rather, “the Church is God’s instrument for the healing of creation” (Guder, “Promise & Threat”). Discipleship equips the believer to know the faith, to relate to others, and to live in a way that non-believers come to faith. In other words, missional discipleship focuses on “orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy” (Frost & Hirsch, ReJesus 156).

The second key component for missional discipleship involves the environment for growing missional disciples. In the missional church, relationships are the conduits for real transformation. Catechism is delivered through intensely relational processes. While group instruction may exist, individual mentoring and small group experiences provide the forum for discovery, reflection, and action.

Life Transformation Groups (LTGs) are a good example of the importance of intense relationship as a platform for transformation. Developed by Neil Cole, LTGs only involve two or three individuals. The time spent together includes confession, Scripture reading, and prayer. When a fourth person comes to join the LTG, a second group is created (Search and Rescue 166-176). Each LTG, then, becomes another witness for the gospel with organic growth possibilities.

The apostolic and relational emphases of the missional church movement have a profound affect on how missional disciples live. In the “come and see” church, effort is directed toward gathering the faithful often for worship, study, prayer, administrative duties. Because of this tendency, those who would be the best witnesses for Jesus Christ are removed from the mission field. Missional disciples, on the other hand, are encouraged to move outward, toward the community. The simplicity of missional discipleship frees the disciple to be active salt and light in the world. Therefore, as missional disciples, we “create margin in our lives for the other” (Mick Noel, “Coaching Established Churches for Missional Change”).

John Franke believes that missional theologians and practitioners “get accused by some of domesticating the gospel.” For example, in a culture dominated by the corporate church with professional clergy, some may question the wisdom of not having well educated leaders of these groups. One may argue that the work of discipleship belongs solely to those with specific training. The missional church, however, trusts the Holy Spirit with discipleship. As Franke says, “The domestication occurs when one group pins [the gospel] down for everyone else” (video, Shapevine.com, “Roundtable Discussion”).

In its most basic form, missional discipleship is oriented toward the reign of God and forged through relationship.

Missional Leadership

According to Alan Roxburgh, every congregation holds a missional vision (Allelon.org podcast,“Church Transformation”). Lying deep within every group of Christians is a call to relate to the broader community in redemptive ways. Two factors lie at the base of this understanding. First, God is sovereign and places his called people purposefully. Second, the Holy Spirit continues to be active in the lives of believers, even when there appears to be little life among them. The missional leader, then, “cultivate[s] an environment that releases the missional imagination of the people of God” (Missional Leader 21).

In the world of the corporate church, big personalities and programs overshadowed the organic movement of vision within the people of God (“Church Transformation”). Will Mancini says that each church has a unique role to play in the mission of God. The imposition of outside programs and borrowed strategies neglects this uniqueness (Church Unique 9). Therefore, the missional leader extracts missional qualities of a particular church rather than imposing the latest program.
One of the more helpful paradigms used by Mancini illustrates how a missional community finds its unique vision. The “Kingdom Concept” defines how the church will affect the community for the mission of God. The Kingdom Concept is found is the confluence of three elements of the church. The “local predicament” describes the location of the church and the specific issues of the surrounding community. The “collective potential” includes all resources available to the church. The “apostolic esprit” describes the ideas that energize leadership. Where these three meet, the local church finds its kingdom concept (85). The missional leader guides this discernment process.

While a primary missional leader may guide the process, in missional communities, missional leadership teams share the vision and move the vision forward. R. Paul Stevens laments in The Other Six Days that the call of God to all believers has been narrowed to such a degree in Christendom that only ecclesiastical calls are recognized (155). God calls all Christians to perform functions for the mission of God. In Christendom, unfortunately, those functions became identified with clerical offices (146). This led to a sharp distinction between laity and clergy. Missional communities lessen this distinction between laity and clergy greatly, involving a wide range of people in the leadership of the church.

True community and discipleship are key ingredients to a missional leadership team, which should embody the greatest hopes of the missional congregation (Rouse and Van Gelder, A Fielduide to the Missional Congregation 86). If the broader church is to be a sign of the coming Reign of God, then the leadership team should model this as well. Through true community and personal discipleship, missional leadership teams create a healthy climate where the Holy Spirit can lead the church (91).

The missional church’s relationship with denominational structure ebbs and flows. The primary concern of the missional movement appears to be that denominational structure would be applied to local congregations and thwart the organic movement of the Holy Spirit (Shaping of Things to Come 21). Hirsch provides a more helpful paradigm in The Forgotten Ways. He describes “networked structures” which enable and expand ministry while being agile enough to change directions quickly (196). These networked structures allow organic movement to shape direction. Cole’s image of the exoskeleton is instructive here as well (Organic Church 125).

Undergirding the entire conversation about missional leadership is an understanding that the Holy Spirit is a work within the people of God. Craig Van Gelder notes that the massive changes in societal attitude toward the church could be evidence of God’s movement (The Ministry of the Missional Church 48). Even in times of change and disruption, missional leadership trusts the movement of the Holy Spirit and asks “What is God doing?” and “What does God want to do?” (58, 60).

Life in Missional Communities

Missional communities bear witness to the coming kingdom of God (Missional Church 101). Lesslie Newbigin lays the foundation for this understanding. In Sign of the Kingdom, Newbigin argues that in the Twentieth Century, the Church outsourced the primary functions of the witnessing community to other organizations. Caring for the widow and orphan was given to parachurch organizations. Evangelism was handed to organizations such as Crusade for Christ. The Church has given the ministry of the individual witness away to professional clergy. These are all functions that missional communities should play (59).

Newbigin paints a picture of a church whose people are deeply connected to the hurts and troubles of the neighborhood. The connection to the neighborhood becomes their witness because it flows from relationship with God. “Then it is possible for the outsider to see that the one springs from the other and he is led to ask about the spring from which faith, hope and love flow. The compassion and the action of the church members then become signs that point beyond themselves” (61).

Some of the pioneers in discussing the life of the missional community are Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. If the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) is the academic trunk of the missional movement, then Frost and Hirsch are the first well known practitioners. With experience in turning dying congregations into community embracing and life changing vessels of God, Hirsch and Frost bring a decidedly sociological focus to the missional conversation.

While the GOCN appear to hang in the areas of missiology and ecclesiology, Hirsch and Frost are forming a practical Christology. According to them, Christology (what we believe about Jesus) informs missiology (how we understand our purpose), which, in turn, shapes ecclesiology (how we form and structure the Church) (ReJesus 6). In their latest work, ReJesus, the authors openly criticize theologians for making Christology “a complex science that in effect excludes the theologically uninitiated person” (ReJesus 13). Through the Forge Training Network, the Forgotten Ways website, and numerous teaching engagements, Hirsch and Frost are positioning themselves to be equippers of the next church movement.

The Christendom church, according to Frost and Hirsch, is “attractional, dualistic, and hierarchical.” An attractional mode skews and distorts the gospel to be only about meeting the needs of the individual. A dualistic church holds such strict lines between the sacred and profane that God’s movement in the world cannot be detected. The hierarchical church is bloated with bureaucracy and cannot respond to quickly changing microcultures (The Shaping of Things to Come 18-21). In contrast, Frost and Hirsch are calling the church to be “incarnational, messianic, and apostolic.” Through being incarnational, the missional church moves out to be with people instead of expecting them to come to church. A messianic community does not present sharp contrasts between the sacred and profane. Instead, the messianic community practices an active faith in Jesus Christ. Lastly, instead of being top heavy and slow, the apostolic community is continually finding new people groups to reach and new places to take the gospel.

Furthering the discussion of missional communities, Hirsch makes distinction between “community” and “communitas” (The Forgotten Ways 217-241). Communitas happens when a group gathers around a certain purpose or change. Hirsch speaks of the communitas experienced among teenage boys as they experience changes in their role, their bodies, and their way of relating to one another. During that time, boys establish strong bonds. For the church, communitas occurs when people gather around mission. Hirsch, therefore, defines communitas as “the journey of a group of people that find each other only in a common pursuit of a vision and of a mission that lies beyond itself. Its energies are primarily directed outward and forward” (The Forgotten Ways 236).

While the shared mission of God forge missional communities, other markers of missional communities also exist. Frost and Hirsch talk specifically about how missional groups interact with the broader community. Rather than withdrawing or putting up facades, missional communities interact with the broader community with authenticity. This “incarnational” mark of missional groups seeks to create a “real connection” that shows the broader community that Jesus cares for them, a “real demonstration” that works on behalf of the broader community, “real access” through deep involvement in the community, and “real encounter” that plants Christ in the hearts of the people of the community (Shaping 73-74).

In a similar way, Neil Cole describes the missional community as being “organic.” As the missional community builds relationships, it should be able to shift and mold to respond to what is happening in the broader community. This makes for more dynamic leadership and organization. Cole presents an anatomical metaphor to make his point. The missional community is not bound by an exoskeleton that limits movement and growth. Instead, the structure of missional community acts as an endoskeleton that allows for growth and maturation in an organic way (Organic Church 125).

Next up:  Missional Leadership