5 Ways “Missional” Churches Can Miss the Mission of God

Missional has been a buzzword among Christian leaders, especially over the past few decades. People, churches, and even organizations want to be missional, but where does the traditional understanding of missions around the world fit in? I agree with the popular warning:

“If everything is mission, nothing is mission.” —Stephen Neill

Today, missional is used to describe engagement in mission activity, a movement of like-minded churches, or one’s role as a missionary to his or her neighborhood. I once even heard a pastor refer to “missional lighting” in the church sanctuary.

Sometimes people also use missional in ways we may find problematic. Some use the term to promote social justice and societal transformation to such an extent that justice overshadows or even replaces a call to personal evangelism. Others too narrowly apply the term to refer to the call to be a missionary to one’s local community or neighborhood. While this sounds admirable at first, when not seen as part of the whole, it removes focus from cross-cultural mission work. Still others use missional as a term to describe a different way of doing ministry that shifts the emphasis away from the program and event-based ministry popular in attractional and church-growth churches. It seems missional has become a type of Rorschach inkblot test. People see in it what they want, and sometimes miss what they need.

What the Words Mean

Words matter. They shape our understanding and interaction with ideas—whether right or wrong. So how can we better understand what is meant by the mission of God, mission, missional, and missions?

Missio Dei: Missio Dei is God-focused. God is on mission to glorify himself. Missio Dei is what God is doing in the world in light of His good character and love for His creation. This is the all-encompassing redemptive disposition of God toward His fallen creation.

Mission: Mission is everyone-focused. This comprehensive term refers to “the entirety of the task for which the Church is sent into the world.” Mission is something we participate in—joining in what God is doing. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re called to mission by nature of declaring Him as Lord of your life. Luke 4:18-20 describes how Jesus came to serve the hurting, the marginalized, and the poor. Luke 19:10 describes how Jesus came to save the lost. Mission is this dual work of gospel proclamation and gospel demonstration.

Missional: Missional is believer-focused. It describes believers and churches who live out the mission through embracing, embodying, and enacting God’s mission in the world. Christians are being missional when, as instruments of His kingdom, they join Jesus’s work of serving the hurting and saving the lost.

Missions: Missions is calling-focused. It is the application of mission in a specific, usually cross-cultural response to the calling of God. So, while I may engage in mission in my neighborhood, the missionary engaged in missions is responding to the call of God in a cross-cultural context. I prefer to use missions to refer to particular people who pursue a particular calling in a particular context. While there is a “sent-ness” in the calling of all Christians to live on mission (to be missional), missionaries are those who engage in evangelism and discipleship through cross-cultural ministry. Increasingly, the interconnectedness of our world makes engagement in missions possible without leaving our own cities. These local missions opportunities will undoubtedly continue to grow. So today, serving in missions could include moving to an unreached people group in another land or moving into a predominantly Muslim community in urban America. In both cases the believer seeks to learn language, culture, and the best means to show and share Christ.

Are We Missing the Mission?

Neill was especially concerned about the loss of cross-cultural, traditional missions work and I share that concern today. It is among churches that consider themselves “missional” that I often find a lack of missions activity. I believe this to be for five reasons:

  1. In rediscovering missio Dei, many have over-emphasized the personal obligation to one’s personal setting at the expense of the obligation to advance God’s kingdom among the nations. Individualism can easily impede the global impulse.
  2. In responding to missio Dei, many have wanted to be more mission-shaped (missional) and have therefore made everything mission (e.g. missional lighting).
  3. In relating to missio Dei, many increasingly (and rightly) give concern to the hurting but less to the global lost. Christmas shoeboxes, global orphan projects, and ending human trafficking are all important, but they can inadvertently dim our vision for the salvation of all peoples.
  4. In refocusing on missio Dei, many focus on gospel demonstration at the expense of gospel proclamation. One cannot read the Great Commission passages of Jesus or the conviction of Paul without concluding the New Testament compels the Church to tell the world the good news found only in Christ.
  5. In reiterating missio Dei, many lose sight of the Church’s mandate to be a global presence with its global mission.

Inviting People to Join the Mission

God has a mission and He is on mission because it’s inextricably woven into the fabric of who He is. And just as God the Father sent the Son and sent the Holy Spirit as part of His mission, so too He sends the church into the world to proclaim His gospel and raise up disciples in all nations. We see the fruit of God’s mission story in John’s vision in Revelation 7 where the gospel has reached every nation, tribe, people, and language. It is for this purpose that God sends His people into the uttermost parts of the world to evangelize the lost.

Do the people in your church understand the mission of God (missio Dei)? Do they have the right vocabulary to discuss and apply this important truth? Do they have a healthy and holistic view of putting their faith into action through missional living?

Ask yourself: How am I communicating God’s activity in the world? How am I thinking about and talking about our role in His work individually and as a church? Don’t miss out on the mission of God as the result of misunderstanding or emphasizing one thing too much or too little. God will work in and through His people, the Church. You get to be part of His mission.


Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at the Talbot School of Theology. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the editor-in-chief of Outreach magazine, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. Ed serves as scholar in residence at Mariners Church in southern California and hosts a national radio show, airing on 250 outlets on Moody Radio.


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