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.


The Trunk of The Missional Family Tree

Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North AmericaIn 1998, The Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN), a group of theologians and teachers, produced Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. The goal was to spawn a “theological revolution” and fundamentally change how religious academies conceived and taught theology (Guder, Missional Church 7). Darrell Guder, the editor of Missional Church, claims that a consistent reductionism has recurred throughout Christian history that downplays the mission of God in favor of the institution of the church (The Continuing Conversion of the Church 188). The addition of “al” to “mission” was done intentionally to call into question the church’s understanding of its witness to the world. “We were obviously engaging in a polemic endeavor. We were critiquing reductions of mission to one of several clusters of activities that are proper to the church:  worship, fellowship, service….and, in some cases, mission” (“Lecture 1” 1).

The GOCN is the academic stream of the missional church movement, attempting to reshape the study of the church toward the missio Dei. More precisely, the group focuses on ecclesiology. While ecclesiology has been a focus of theologians for centuries, precise inquiry into the mission and purpose of the church has been lacking. As Guder says, “Ecclesiology neglects mission totally” (“The Promise and Threat”). Missional Church places the focus squarely on a missional ecclesiology for the Church in North America.

Over the last decade, the GOCN has produced eight books dealing with the ministry of the missional church, developed a newsletter, and launched (and relaunched) a website. The books have ranged from evaluating missional communities (Treasure in Clay Jars, Barret) to, most recently, how denominations fit into the missional church schema (The Missional Church in Context, Van Gelder). The current focus of activity for the GOCN is the development of a structured missional hermeneutic. In a recent newsletter, George Hunsberger outlines a strategy for reading Scripture through the lens of mission (“Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic”). Through this new venture in missional hermeneutics, the GOCN continues to provide a strong trunk for the missional movement.

Ordering the Missional Movement

Churches, organizations, seminaries, and theologians use the term “missional” with increased frequency. Reggie McNeal notes that missional has reached the “tipping point” (Missional Renaissance xv). A keyword search on “missional” finds 443 book titles on WorldCat. However, books are not the only measure of the missional movement. In fact, social networking sites and blogs are important links for missional leaders. A quick Google search shows that in one day alone (April 1, 2009), 75 blogs used the word “missional” in the title.

One of the primary areas of confusion about the missional movement is its relationship to the emergent movement. The two movements have been somewhat related in their desire to bring innovation to the church. However, they developed quite differently and have quite different goals. The emergent movement shows more interest in the formation and understanding of the Church. For instance, “emergents” recognize a movement beyond the modernist, bifurcated view of the church that places “liturgicals,” “social justice Christians,” “renewalists,” and “conservatives” at odds with one another (Tickle 140). The goal is to better communicate with the broader culture and have a better understanding of the meaning of “the Church.”

The missional movement has been inconsistent in responding to the emergent movement. On the one hand, Guder warns that the emergent movement is a reduction of the gospel, which tends to tie the Church too closely to culture (Guder, “Promise & Threat”). If the Church is tied too closely to culture, it will simply embody the problems of the culture. On the other hand, Alan Hirsch appears to welcome the emergent group into the missional conversation, referring to the “emerging missional church” throughout one of his primary literature contributions (The Forgotten Ways 66).

The rapid growth of the missional movement, along with confusion about the movement, makes surveying the movement difficult. Therefore, ordering the movement is important in researching the movement. Leadership Journal has been extremely helpful in mapping the movement. Below is a crude construction of the idea. Click here for the original Leadership Journal version from Hirsch’s website). Viewing the movement as a tree, Leadership Journal places Missional Church as the root, while identifying the branches of the missional church movement as “missional leaders,” “missional communities,” and “missional disciples.”

Watch for synopses of the three branches of the missional movement in the next few days.


Source: Leadership Journal