What is ‘missional’? (Paul Roberts)

Paul RobertsPaul Roberts asks what is missional?

The word 'missional', though perhaps more redolent of North American English usage, has been a helpful one in summing up what makes many new forms and fresh expressions of church tick. It names our overriding priority and focuses on the primary challenge facing Christian community in our day. As someone who goes back to the early days of alternative worship communities, it also speaks to me of the primary motivation which gave rise to this kind of new form of church in the first place. It also makes me uncomfortable. This is because I am well-aware of the fact that most alternative worship communities tend to draw their members primarily from those who are already Christian.

The short history of alternative worship in the UK (now approaching its quarter century) has witnessed to a struggle for its own identity – either as a reforming movement, or as a evangelising movement, or as a therapy movement for 'church survivors'. There are those who may wish to argue that alternative worship suffers with too ill-defined a set of agendas to be in the running as a missional mode of church. There are others within alternative worship itself who would find themselves in full agreement, having rejected any missional calling or impulse completely.

Most alternative worship communities tend to draw their members primarily from those who are already Christian

A job move has meant that I have recently had to go through the experience of leaving one such community: Foundation in Bristol, which I had a hand in setting up. This has offered me plenty of opportunity to reflect on my five years, over which Foundation has grown from a handful of people who prayed in a cold candlelit church on a Sunday night, into the church it is today. In what sense was the whole project 'missional'?

If by 'missional' is meant a proven and primary capacity to bring unbelievers to faith and discipleship, then the answer has to be 'no' – although a new group within it has just started, aimed at the 'Alpha market' which may usher in changes here. However, if we broaden the definition to include a group which attracts people who might otherwise be on an exit trajectory from other forms of 'missional church' and which helps them to continue and to grow in the practice and articulation of their Christian faith, then the answer has to be a 'yes'. It has actively sought, often with considerable pain, not to become a therapeutic group for ex-evangelicals (or ex-charismatics). It is real church: a community of disciples committed to Jesus Christ and meeting together for worship, prayer, pastoral care and growing together in faith. But full-on intentional evangelistic work is still on the back foot.

Too often we hear 'missional' being used as if it were distinct from 'pastoral'

This has led me to question the ecclesiology underlying the 'missional'/'non-missional' division. Effective evangelisation is badly needed in the western church. But too often we hear 'missional' being used as if it were distinct from 'pastoral'. The New Testament speaks as much about caring for God's flock as it does about mission. Alan Jamieson's research indicates that where churches fail to care effectively for growing disciples, then mission stalls in a crucial way. (See Alan Jamieson, A Churchless Faith, SPCK, 2002; and Alan Jamieson, Jenny McIntosh, Adrienne Thompson, Church Leavers: faith journeys five years on, SPCK, 2006.)

Growth in Christian discipleship isn't as straightforward as some might lead us to believe. It can be a messy, disturbing experience. My experience has suggested that there is a considerable difference between 'alpha' churches (those effective in evangelising unbelievers), 'beta' churches (those that are effective in helping people negotiate faith-development which may have a disruptive effect on their relationship with their initial church communities) and 'omega' groups (groups which cater for people who are on a trajectory where they will either leave organised Christianity or exist for some very protracted time in a marginal state).

The difference between 'alpha' and 'beta' churches is a real one, though one that should make us all rather uncomfortable, irrespective of which 'kind' of church to which we may currently belong. What I am convinced of is that whilst this distinction remains true, neither church has the right to be 'more missional than thou'.