What Does It Mean to Live a Missional Life?
*This is part 2 of the Laity Leadership Institute Missional series with Senior Fellow Darrell Guder, who is the Princeton Theological Seminary Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7
A Christian radio station commissioned a listener survey and learned that less than 100 people were tuning in to its programming. Instead of being concerned, management’s response was to say that it didn’t matter because their sole responsibility was to get the station’s message out.
Hearing this story in a Consumer Behavior class at Wheaton College was a defining moment in branding expert Karen Dougherty’s vocational journey. “They didn’t care how the receivers on the other end actually connected with the message,” said Dougherty.
The story illustrates a problem that Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Darrell Guder and his colleagues tackled in their 1998 landmark book, Missional Church: A Vision for Sending of the Church in North America.
In the introduction, Guder identified these crises in the Western church: “diminishing numbers, clergy burnout, the loss of youth, the end of denominational loyalty, biblical illiteracy, divisions in the ranks, the electronic church and its various corruptions, the irrelevance of traditional forms of worship, the loss of genuine spirituality, and widespread confusion about both the purpose and the message of the church of Jesus Christ.”
I talked with Guder at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he is the Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology, about what it means to live out the Christian faith in light of these crises.
“The crisis of the Christian movement in the West, meaning the North Atlantic, is a fundamental crisis, not just a question of strategies gone wrong or a couple of cultural challenges,” Guder said. “We are in serious trouble because we’re not thinking biblically about who we are and what we’re for as the church of Jesus Christ.” He said the church has for centuries compromised and adapted to its cultural context to a degree that has deprived it of its primary faithfulness.
Guder named missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, theologian Karl Barth, and former Princeton Theological Seminary President John Mackay as primary influences in his work. Newbigin’s research into how the western church might become a genuinely missionary church was especially important to the Missional Church project, Guder said.
“Missional theology is a term invented since Missional Church was published,” Guder said. “The term had not been commonly used in the research project that generated that book. We decided to call it by that name in order to underline the fact that the mission of the church is not just one of its several programs, but it in fact defines what the church is and what it’s for.”
Although missional theology is a serious enterprise, many derivative books and projects employ the term missional, but are actually “how-to” and “methodology” endeavors that fall into the category of rearranging furniture rather than transforming the way Christians live out their faith, said Guder.
Being missional is not about what the churches do, but what the churches empower people to do in their everyday lives. The Great Commission is not merely about spreading the gospel in words, it is about embodying the gospel message—its hope for transformational renewal—in our work.
Karen Dougherty has been in the business of transforming mindsets and corporate cultures ever since she took that Consumer Behavior Class in college. She has worked with many Christian organizations, including Women of Faith, to help them communicate and fulfill their missions more effectively. Recently she worked with a Christian radio station in Dallas that was very much interested in making a difference in people’s lives. “The idea that we came up with is that the station is there to help fortify people’s faith every day,” she said.
As a missional Christian, Dougherty extends her work out into the world. For example, the Texas Historical Commission’s original tag line defined it as “the agency for historic preservation.” The commission saw its mission as saving historical artifacts, she said, but its mission was really about preserving our memory of important historical events that the artifacts represented. With this in mind, Dougherty helped the commission develop a new tag line: “saving the real places to tell the real stories,” and said helping the organization define and label its mission transformed the mindset of the organization.
This is what it means to be missional. We experience the transforming truth of Christ and bring it to everything we do. Sometimes this means we work to share the specific truth of Christ’s grace. This is the traditional approach to missions. But often we share the common truth of grace, helping others to understand how their work contributes to the common good.
“Witness is not just a little activity we do now and again. Witness is who we are,” said Guder. “The world will encounter God’s love in Christ… because Christians are equipped by God’s Spirit using Scripture to demonstrate the truth, the relevance, the healing power of the gospel.”
What kind of transformation do you think is necessary in the North American church and in your vocational life in order to live missionally in a post-Christian context?