Skip to main content

Swimming pools, oceans and missional spirituality

“Missional” is a term I hear quite often in conversations about theology or church life. But what exactly is it? What does it look like in our own lives and communities?

In Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight says a “missional spirituality is an attentive and active engagement of embodied love for God and neighbor expressed from the inside out.” At Empowering Missional, Justin Hiebert points out that missional spirituality is “a daily faithfulness and adherence to the teachings of Jesus” and participation in Missio Dei “is an equipping of all people for acts of service and an empowering of all Jesus’ followers to live out of the Good News of the resurrection.” Melodie Davis reminds us that “the purpose of our gathered worshipping communities was and is for the purpose of helping us be about God’s work in the world.” In The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch says a missional church is “a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organize its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world.” Robert Martin distills Missio Dei down to one simple but packed word: “restoration.”

So, how do we go about living out missional spirituality? And how can we nurture that kind of living among us?

It is tempting to answer this question in the same way we often approach discipleship and worship: make it a program. Today, it’s almost instinctual to program or structure spirituality—much like, as Wayne Jacobesen observes in So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore, the first thing Peter wanted to do after his experience with Jesus at the Transfiguration: build a building.

But God’s Kingdom, mission and movement are much more dynamic and organic. God’s Kingdom is wild and full and exploding with constant life and movement. It is untamed and vibrant and ever-moving-and-never-ceasing. God’s rule and his mission not only enfold us but bind and connect us and propel his life and mission in and through us. We live and breathe, to borrow Eugene Peterson words, “in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

To try and create a program to capture or reflect God’s mission feels to me like trying to put an ocean into a swimming pool.

I find it more helpful to think of incarnating that mission, to think of the participation of God’s people in his mission to restore creation as taking on hands and feet—a skin, so to speak. In Upside Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill explains it this way:
The church [i.e. the people of God] creates social vehicles and servant structures to accomplish its mission. Servant structure include the whole gamut of organized church bodies and programs. These are the social skins, the servant structure the church creates to do its work. They are not, however, the church or Kingdom.
The danger inherent in these servant structures, however, is the tendency to focus on maintaining the structure—or program—rather than keeping our eyes on and hearts in Jesus. We end up, as David Fitch puts it, “working for the machine.” But it is in Jesus our mission is centered. It is from our connection to him that our mission flows. I like the way Hirsch puts it in The Forgotten Ways—that we, God’s people, are “a product of God’s mission.” So, then, are the skins of missional spirituality.

Any expression of missional spirituality will be unique—through a specific people and in a specific time and place. Any expression of missional must be “shaped through the local church,” says McKnight. “Missional get its start when we discern what God is doing in this world and particularly what God is doing in our community and what God is calling the ecclesia to do in light of that mission of God.” Transplanting a missional skin from one community to another, then, may not work as easily as transplanting a worship or discipleship model.

I also find it helpful to think about incarnating missional in terms of “practices” instead of programs—both individual and corporate. On his blog, McKnight recently wrote about Len Hjamarlson and Roger Helland’s Missional Spirituality, which explores a handful of practices of missional spirituality, like practicing union with Christ, obedience, humility, mission reading and prayer, gratitude and loving your neighbor. Corporately, missional spirituality could be nurtured in smaller missional groups or communities from whom skins could be incarnated. I find helpful the way Mike Breen and Alex Absalom define a missional community in Launching Missional Communities: A Field Guide (also reviewed on McKnight’s blog): “a group of twenty to fifty people who have united, in the name of Jesus, around a common service and witness to a particular context.”

And as we participate in God’s mission, we should expect the skins of missional spirituality to change. I think that this requires a level of flexibility that may be difficult to find or maintain in the institutional models and structures many faith communities have embraced. However, the more time I spend reading about and talking with others, the more stories I hear of God’s people incarnating his mission in breathtaking ways. Indeed, life will out.

To me, missional spirituality is an organic and always-moving thing—just like the Kingdom. It is a way of understanding our Story and how this with-God and with-others life works. Swimming pools are well and good, but the ocean—well, just standing on its shore takes my breath away.

This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on Missional Spirituality.  MennoNerds is exploring through this event Spirituality through an Anabaptist lens and what it means concerning participation in the mission of God.