One of the most exciting terms used to describe the church today is the word missional. It correctly categorizes the people of God as a community on a mission — a people sent out by Jesus to extend and promote his ministry and message in the world. But unfortunately, what it has devolved into is frequently little more than do-gooder volunteerism.
I believe the word missional ought to properly characterized the church (and I hope it does ours), but I lament the way the word has been redefined in popular Christian culture. Many churches and Christians now think that being missional is about helping poor people have a better life. It is expressed in worthy activities like helping homeless people find a job, feeding people in a soup kitchen, or engaging in activism to alleviate poverty. But there is an attitude that Christians can carry with them into these activities that ends up undermining their acts of service.
In his book Disciples of All Nations, Lamin Sanneh (a naturalized U.S. citizen from Gambia and professor at Yale) explains how this same shift occurred in foreign missions to the ultimate detriment of the missionaries’ ministries.
“The distraction came about by way of split prorities as missionaries spoke variously of the gospel of enlightenment, the gospel of healing, the social gospel, and the gospel of sex equality…. Social uplift became the goal and rationale of the gospel. The work of Christ was construed as lifting people out of poverty and backwardness…Yet, Paul Allen deliberately rejected any means of propagating the faith that might distract people from the truth that the Christian faith was founded not in human philosophy but in the power of God. Missions had a thousand plans, but God had only one. Salvation was not by the thousand capillaries of cultural assimilation.” pg. 226
“Allen recalled the Roman slaves who lived in social conditions deeply repugnant to what the West called the Christian life still converted to Christianity before any ameliorative social remedies were available to them. The Christian life embraced slaves and concubines without bashfulness or reservation while they were slaves and concubines because the Christian life did not make social disadvantage a disqualification of membership.” pg. 229
Whenever being missional takes this sort of turn — when the church becomes simply an institution for helping people improve their lives and move out of poverty — the result is a compromised gospel. It becomes harder and harder for Christians who have made it (in a socio-cultural sense) to rub shoulders with those who don’t. It becomes difficult for us to accept the drug addict, homeless man, prostitute, or the alcoholic into our midst without seeing them as a project to improve.
But the truth is, the Christian faith is open and available to all. Salvation is not hindered or encumbered by circumstances, and Christian communities are at their best when they reflect this. They are at their best when people proclaim a message of new life, salvation and hope for a better future even for those living in the worst of situations. This is the transformative truth of the gospel. Our lives don’t have to be going well for God to be present in them. We don’t have to be successful and we don’t have to be put together to know and experience God’s love.
This is a radical message, and it is the foundation for the right kind of missional activity. When this is the foundation of our missional mindset, then we can interact with other similarly broken people and carry to them a message of love and acceptance. We can serve the homeless man, alcoholic, or drug addict not out of a sense that we need to fix them to get them saved, but that God loves them even in their brokenness — just like you and me. Unless we carry this attitude into our acts of service and into our missional ministry then we will undermine and sabotage the very good we seek to do.
Photo from flickr.