Three and a half years ago, I heard the word missional for the first time. Since that time, I’ve heard this word used hundreds of times in almost as many different contexts. Based on its large number of uses, it seems many of us have a pretty fuzzy understanding of what it means to be missional.
I’ve heard the word “missional” used by churches to label a category in which they place some of their activities or programs. For example, someone might say, “When we do such-and-such, we’re being missional.”
I’ve heard the word missional used in the context of it being a church model. When used in this context, the “missional church” is often contrasted with the “attractional church” as if they are two completely different church models which are diametrically opposed to one another.
I’ve also heard the word missional used to describe a way of life. When used in this context, being missional is understood as a way people live.
As a student of and practitioner in the missional movement, I’ve discovered that being missional was intended to be a way of life rather than a church model or a label to assign to certain church activities. Let’s dig deeper into this definition.
Did you know that Jesus is on a mission? He didn’t create the entire earth and then abandon it to work out however it happens to work out; he is involved in every infinitesimal detail of everything that takes place on this planet because he has a sovereign, divine plan for every last bit of it. His mission is to bring glory to his name by raising every single one of his chosen people to life to be his disciples who are transformed into his image so that they will spend eternity united in marriage to him, their one and only king. This concept forms the foundation of what it means to be missional.
Jesus could accomplish his mission all by himself. After all, God created the entire universe simply by speaking it into existence. He doesn’t need anyone or anything else to help him accomplish his mission. Yet, he’s invited his people to participate with him in his mission and he’s given them specific roles to play. What an honor and a privilege it is to have the opportunity to participate with the God of the universe in accomplishing his mission, not because he needs us, but because he receives glory by allowing us to see his work being accomplished.
When Jesus talked about what it means to participate with him in his mission, he didn’t talk about it as if it was just one more thing to add to our busy schedules. Instead, he made it very clear that following him was a 24-7-365 thing. He didn’t say, “For one hour a week, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Instead, he said, “During every minute of every single day, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Being missional is a way of life. Participating with Jesus in his mission is something which is intended to permeate every facet of our lives rather than simply being another small piece of the pie.
We’ve now arrived at a definition of missional. To be missional means to participate with Jesus in his mission every moment of every day.
Now that I’ve defined what it means to be missional, I want to bring this concept to life through a question and answer format.
Do I Have to Go Somewhere Specific in Order to Be Missional?
The short answer to this question is “No.” You can be missional wherever you are.
The Great Commission was a call to “Go,” not a call to stay. We’re certainly not called to live as hermits in the middle of the jungle. Instead, we’re called to go to where the people are.
We don’t have to go halfway around the world in order to be missional. Most of us can be missional right where we are while doing the activities we’re already doing. Some of you reading this article go to work on a daily basis. Some of you go to the grocery store regularly. Some of you go to the gym or participate in athletic events on a regular basis. Some of you attend church services weekly. While you’re in all four of these places, or any other places you go throughout the week, you probably have an opportunity to interact with lots of people. You have an opportunity to be missional in every single one of these places.
When you go wherever you go throughout the week, you’ll meet people who are experiencing Jesus’s work in their lives. They may not realize he’s at work, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he is at work. How might Jesus be calling you to participate with him in his work in these peoples’ lives?
A lot of times the best clues into how Jesus is working can be found in observing the struggles people are facing. It seems we struggle when we lose something we value. As Jesus works in our lives, he seems to remove the things we value other than him (idols) and replaces them with him. What idols are being challenged in the midst of the struggles? Mining the depths of these struggles isn’t something we can realize in a five minute conversation. Rather, it’s something which can only be realized when we spend lots of time with people.
If you want to be missional, then you have to be willing to consistently interact with the same people over and over again. One-and-done events may be flashy and garner lots of participation, and although you can participate with Jesus in his mission with these types of events, on the whole, they fall short of the intent of being missional because you will probably never see the people again.
Is Missional Only about Reaching Non-Christians?
When I first started learning about being missional, I thought many of the missional experts were saying that being missional was isolated to participating with Jesus in his mission to reach non-Christians. This is a big misnomer.
Becoming a disciple of Jesus isn’t a one-time event; it’s a life-long process. As I shared earlier in this article, part of Jesus’s mission is to transform his people into his image. This doesn’t happen overnight. We spend our entire lives being transformed, and even when we reach the end of our lives, we’re still not completely transformed into the image of Jesus.
If part of Jesus’s mission is to transform his people into his image over the course of their lifetimes, then it makes sense that he would call his people to participate in that part of his mission too. Discipling Christians is just as missional as discipling non-Christians.
This also doesn’t mean Jesus only calls us to participate with him in his work to transform existing Christians; he also calls us to participate with him in his work to transform non-Christians. People don’t magically, out of the blue, decide one day to follow Jesus. Instead, Jesus has already been at work for years to prepare the soil of their hearts to receive the seed of the gospel when it gets planted.
Throughout our lives, we’ll probably be called to participate in Jesus’s work in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike.
Is the Church Important to Being Missional?
The short answer is “Yes,” but I need to explain this further.
How do you define the word “church?” If the church is defined as “Jesus’s disciples gathered together to worship him,” then the church is not only important, but is absolutely necessary to being missional. Jesus’s disciples not only need, but will earnestly desire to join together in worshiping him. Mind you that worship is not narrowly defined as gathering together in rows and singing songs about Jesus, but is more broadly defined as living our lives in submission to Jesus. Even by doing something as simple as getting together with another Christian for lunch, we can engage in Jesus worship together without ever singing a single note of a song.
If you define the church as an institution, building, or event on Sunday mornings, then the church, in this sense, is unnecessary to being missional. You don’t need to be a part of an institution or attend a service in a building every week in order to participate with Jesus in his work. By and large, Christians in America have decided to gather together to worship Jesus by organizing weekly events sponsored by an institution held in designated buildings, but that doesn’t mean this is the only way, nor even the “better” way, to gather together to worship Jesus. I’ve observed some great Jesus worship take place outside of institutions, church buildings, and church services by people who are living their lives both in submission to Jesus and fellowship with one another as a spiritual family. In countries where Christians are persecuted, this is the only way they can live. They can’t meet together in designated church buildings for public worship. Yet, they continue living their lives in submission to Jesus and in fellowship with one another.
That’s not to say you can’t be missional in the traditional church environments. Certainly you can. But what I’m getting at is that it’s not necessary to enter into this type of environment in order to participate with Jesus in his mission.
As a topic which I am extremely passionate about, I’d love to continue writing about it, but in the interest of your time, I’ll stop here for today. Hopefully this brief article has helped to clear up some of the fuzziness you may have had about what it means to be missional.
Before you go, I’d love to hear your feedback on this topic. Is this topic interesting? Would you like to hear more about it? Are there questions that came to mind as you were reading this article that I didn’t answer? Feel free to respond in the comments section below.
 This is a compilation of the following passages (and many more): Isaiah 43:7, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Peter 4:11, Ephesians 1:11, Colossians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 5:19, Ephesians 2:1-9, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Romans 8:29, John 17:9-11, and Revelation 19:6-10.
 A couple of verses which affirm this point are John 6:37-44 and 1 Corinthians 3:6-7.
 “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23
 For a more in-depth explanation of this definition of the church, see my article entitled “Is the Church Dying?”