Rereading Gruder, Darrell L. ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
I don’t know if “missional” is still a word in current parlance, but it is one way to describe a church that has a strong outward focus. As Gruder says, “We have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness. God’s mission embraces all of creation.” (p.5) The Church (as an institution) is important to the mission of God.
The missional church is a unity that is called by God. Jesus was called by God to represent the Realm of God lived out in the world. Jesus was not the Realm, of course, nor was he the king of that realm. Jesus was given authority to be the representative of God’s Realm. The church is called, as a corporate body, to represent the Reign of God to the world. (p. 104) Not just as a collection of the faithful, but as a body.* The church is a visible entity, a unity with a common purpose. That purpose is to actively present, through its actions, the Kingdom/Reign of God to the world. To be a visible sign of the invisible realm that God desires for the world.
Each of us, as faithful individuals, may act in accord with the purposes of God as we understand them and as we are able in our settings and with the skills and gifts we have. This is a sign of the fruits of the Realm. The church, in each of its many settings, is called to be a very visible embodiment of the Realm both in our relationships within the body, and in our presence in the community as a body acting together for the good of all. In the past, we have acted in unity with other church bodies, either ecumenically in our communities, or as denominations, to found hospitals, orphanages, food pantries, colleges, and seminaries. Today, churches are building affordable housing, homeless shelters, social service agencies that combine education, job preparedness, thrift store clothing, food preparation and menu planning, and a host of ways to assist people, to give them the skills and confidence and stability they need to move from survival to thriving. But so many congregations do not believe that they are capable of such action, and many do not even see that unified action is part of the purpose of church. They will say that if church feeds the individual, that person can go out and try to live a good life. But if the church is not representing the Realm of God as a body, as a whole, then that individual may feel and act as if they are out there alone. They may not have an adequate representation of the Realm of God to carry forth into the world.
The church that sees its role primarily as “making disciples” without understanding those disciples to be representatives of the body of Christ, of the Realm of God visible in the church, are misunderstanding the work and life of Jesus. Jesus did not call disciples just to have them sing, “Glory, Glory!” or to find their own salvation. Jesus called them first to watch and learn from him to respond to everyone with compassion, and then to go out into the world healing and teaching about the Realm of God as a real place, near, but not fully fulfilled, where all are accepted and loved just as they are, where God is known as a presence as real as a human father, who is best honored through letting go of the drive for material things in favor of care and justice for the poor and outcast, and reconciliation between enemies. The church is the (always imperfect) body of Christ. Each person is but an organ, a portion, and cannot act effectively alone. The church is where the body is grown, matured, shaped through prayer and communion. The church body is not, however, a collection of autonomic parts, but a gathering of whole humans, who share their thoughts, who read and pray and learn together what it means to represent the Realm of God to the world.
In my work as an Intentional Interim Minister, I have tried to express the idea that it is important for church bodies to have a purpose, a mission, that is more than a statement of goodwill, but that actually pushes the whole congregation in one direction. Many churches seem to resist this as I noted above. My home congregation has felt the disapproval of other churches and individuals when they called an out, gay pastor several years ago. I believe that has forced them to see themselves as standing together for the Gospel in new ways, and they as a body have been on the forefront of issues of peace and reconciliation in the community, as well as standing strong for inclusion and welcome when others would exclude. They have accepted a vision of the Realm of God and choose to represent that to the world through presence, participation in community activities, signs and banners, and t-shirts. I don’t know if it takes a unifying incident in every case, but it certainly takes something that helps the congregation feel that they are in the world in a special way, as a group, a unity, that humbly, but firmly stands for God’s Realm in a world that does not know it; that they operate under the authority of the One who calls them for the sake of all. That is a Missional Church.
* The text speaks of a “new Israel”, but that is dismissive of the continuing faithfulness of the “old Israel.”