'Mission-shaped church' or 'church-shaped mission'?

Jody Stowell, a member of the Fulcrum Leadership team, ponders the future of the mission-shaped church theory.

Whatever we think about this question and whatever theological and observational critiques we bring to the current trends in local church shaping, there are at least two things that God's people (traditionally, historically and scripturally) affirm regarding God's activity: namely that God is for the healing of the world and that God is not an absentee landlord, but is at work in his world.

I recognise that the simplicity of that statement belies the raging disputes that God's people tie themselves in knots about, particularly in relation to what this 'healing' will look like and who or what will be healed, but it is a starting point for this discussion. And goodness knows the Church needs a starting point for this discussion!

So this, for me, is a good place to start: to affirm that God is for his world and is present within it, and that this must have an impact on the Church, for it is this God who ultimately gives shape to his Church.

In this article, I will address some of the issues which, necessarily, arise from the question itself. Recognising the breadth of the question and the relative brevity of this work, I will contain myself to what I believe to be the main issues, specifically: the timely relevance of such a question, what we mean when we speak of 'mission' and what mission-shaped church might look like.

A necessary question?

Are our churches really all that bad? Is the mission-shaped church agenda simply another bandwagon that seems like a good thing, but is just another fad that will burn out a few years down the line once the holes in the theory become gaping chasms in practice? As the old saying goes 'if it ain't broke, why fix it?'

Are our current traditional forms of local church, broken?

It is of great importance that this debate does not simply become one that exists on the basis of two polarised points of view (missiology vs ecclesiology). Nor must it become a question of 'Traditional church or Funky church', which is how many people will hear it. An affirmation of missional church does not mean that we will all be doing Bible studies in Starbucks, nor does it mean that our local parish church will become defunct. It is simply a question that needs to be asked in light of the fact that our local churches appear to be very 'leaky'. As John Drane says in his inimitably frank style:

'The facts about the church can hardly be disputed. Throughout the Western world, Christianity has fallen on hard times. No matter how they are reported and interpreted, the statistics of church attendance and membership all paint the same picture, right across all denominations and all theological persuasions. It is impossible to deny or otherwise redefine the obvious fact that all the historic mainline Churches are struggling â€" more than that, some Protestant groups in particular appear to have no future at all.'[1]

According to Drane, something has been very wrong.

In recent years, it has been suggested that this 'something wrong' has been a loss of the mission identity of the church and it seems that many have found that this suggestion resonates with their own theological convictions and, just as crucial, their observations of church life and discipleship. People find themselves thirsty for being at work in their community, bringing the gospel to bear in their own contexts, and yet find that the structures of local church frustrate, rather than enable, their passion[2].

This question must be asked, it is fundamental to our ongoing obedience and discipleship to Jesus Christ, who, together with the Father and the Spirit, gives life to his Church.

Whose mission?

This leads us on to discuss more fully how we should understand the missiology/ecclesiology debate. If we have lost our mission focus, how do we reclaim it? And should we reclaim it uncritically?

Ask most people 'in the pew' what they think of when confronted with the word 'mission' and most will say something that relates to either an event that they took part in[3], or an overseas trip. To a good proportion of our congregants, mission is something that happens when the local church puts its mind to it, makes a concerted effort and 'does a mission' (and then has to pick itself up after the 'event' and rest) In short 'mission' is something that the church does.

But, thankfully, our theological landscape has begun to change; mission, it is being argued, is part of the Church's very being. With respect to how we understand the relationship between mission and church, there has been much work done with regards to fleshing out the notion of the missio Dei[4], the God whose nature it is to go out. Of course this correlates with the wonderful re-awakening of theologians to the riches of Trinitarian doctrine; this God who is, within himself, three distinct persons, gives of himself, in mutual self-donation, one to the other. Here we have the echo of the God whose nature it is to love the 'other'[5]. Whilst God does not need to create the cosmos, it is the natural overflow of the self-donating love of the Trinity. God in his being is the God who moves towards the 'other'.

The question then arises: what is mission? How do we understand this going out of God? Bosch says that mission has been interpreted variously:

'Sometimes it was interpreted primarily in soteriological terms; as saving individuals from eternal damnation. Or it was understood in cultural terms: as introducing people from the East and South to the blessings and privileges of the Christian West. Often it was perceived in ecclesiastical categories: as the expansion of the church (or of a specific denomination). Sometimes it was defined salvation-historically: as the process by which the world…would be transformed into the kingdom of God.'[6]

He then goes on to say:

'The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Holy Spirit was expanded to include yet another “movement”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church in the world. As far as missionary thinking was concerned, this linking with the doctrine of the Trinity constituted an important innovation…'[7]

Indeed this mapping of God's missionary activity with his very nature is crucial to how we then interpret the Church's role in this activity. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. I wish to anticipate the question that mission is only necessary in the context of redemption and salvation. If God is 'missionary' in his very being, is he not somewhat lacking a subject for his mission in a world prior to the disobedience of Genesis 3?

I believe that line of thinking to be a misunderstanding of the theology of Creation. Of course I cannot expand too much on that for this work; however it is important to mention that Colin Gunton's work, which has done much in rediscovering Irenaeus' theology of Creation, has been seminal in re-defining how we understand Creation in Western theological thought[8]. Where traditionally our journey as human beings has been primarily understood in terms of a return to our 'perfect' state of Genesis 1 and 2, we are forced to consider Paul's words that Adam was a type of the one who was to come[9]; that Creation was made good, for the purpose of being perfected in Christ.

In essence, that there was always work to do in Creation; there was always a mission of God in the world. And this affirmation of God's mission is not solely the realm of lofty theological reflection, but as students of the Bible we find that God's movement towards his Creation is found in the beginning when God walks with his creatures in the garden, as such we can confidently say that 'The God of the Christian Scriptures…is, first to last, a God of mission…'[10].

So God is a God of mission, but how do we articulate this mission? What does it look like; particularly that we are now in the context of a world that badly needs salvation and redemption? In recent years the idea that mission has something to do with building the Kingdom of God, has received much attention from theologians and practitioners alike; from prominent New Testament scholars such as N T Wright, to the most emergent of emergent church leaders, Rob Bell and Brian Mclaren.

This is a good thing, it shows us that this burning ember is being re-ignited and that the cosmic significance of redemption is being properly engaged with in our global village. Not only that, but the idea of salvation as 'pie in the sky when we die' is being slowly but surely taken apart as a pale reflection of the goodness and blessing that we are being offered, a remnant of Enlightenment rationalism and individualism which is thoroughly unbiblical:

'Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.'[11]

The Kingdom of God is both now and not yet. As his people we live with the tension that the power of sin and death has been transgressed and yet all around us we see pain, suffering and death. However, whilst it is true, we do see brokenness, we also see joy and peace, shafts of God's Kingdom life breaking through the storm cloud ridden sky and lighting up the earth. God's Kingdom is being built, on earth as in heaven.

If God's mission is to build his Kingdom, where does the Church fit in? Whilst I believe that it is of the utmost importance for our understanding of ourselves and our identity, to recognise that the mission is God's, it is also of the utmost importance to recognise something else about God's being and our identity: community wholeness. Within God himself is the desire to give to the 'other', to bring fullness and flourishing to each Person. In the same way his desire spills over to Creation, he wishes that all of Creation will be restored and reconciled to him[12]. Those within Creation that he gave a special image-bearing imprint are to have a particular role in this mission[13]. God desires to fulfil his mission in partnership with us, and by so doing, he will bring us to our true potential, we will become more fully human; in short we will become Christlike.

This is the offer to all of humanity and, for those who choose it, we are gathered by baptism around the cup and plate, into communion with God; we are the Church.

The Church which is the Body of Christ is, by nature of being a 'body', constituted with the same DNA as the head, which is Christ. Thus the Church which comes from the God of mission, must be a Church of mission: '…the Church is called to be essentially, not incidentally, missionary in character.'[14] Mission is an ontological principle of Christ's Church and as such it is a tautology for us to speak of 'missional church', a church that is not missional, is not church. The idea of discussing God's mission as something separate to the identity of his Church is simply an impossibility if one takes seriously the Scriptures and their articulation of God's relationship with his people.

What might it look like?

If as I have suggested the Church is made for mission, how does this affect the shape of the Church, and more particularly the local church? Does shape make much difference at all? Indeed, I would suggest that shape is integral to our mission mandate. Just as the first human beings were given the mandate to 'fill the earth', so the new humanity, inaugurated by the new humanity of Jesus, is to 'fill the earth' by joining God's mission to that earth. Just as the first human beings were asked to partner with God in this joyful bounty of abundance and were created able to reproduce themselves by the shape of their bodies, so, by the mission shape of our Church body we will be able to reproduce ourselves.

All this is very well, but what does this look like practically?

So in Luke 10, Jesus sends out the 70/2 in mission. And he suddenly looks around his empty church. Stink. This won't look good next Sunday. Who will do sound? What will visitors say? What will the denomination think?[15]

The above quote from an emergent church blogger is one of the most perceptive comments, albeit flippant, that I have encountered regarding the mission-shaped church/fresh expressions debate. Let me put it in other language â€" if we 'go out' then leaders have to let go of those they lead â€" a bit of a scary proposition for some; those who come to church expecting something 'traditional', might not find it; and on top of that the hierarchy might have a meltdown at perceived unorthodoxy. And we can add to this list the worry that if they're not 'in church' then where are they getting their teaching and their doctrine shaped?[16]

So let us engage with some of these questions. Firstly, let's look at the fear of leadership to allow their church members to go. The inherent hierarchy that is present within the current structures of most denominations, even those with congregational models, prevents us from allowing the freedom which our churches need to grow. Jesus' model from Luke 10 shows an entirely different perspective. He is totally free to send his disciples out, knowing that they may make some mistakes and yet he is not anxious that their teaching and doctrine might not be….quite sound. This freedom seems to me to be a key mark of Christian leadership and, whilst recognising the validity of questions regarding where Scripture and teaching shape a church, I agree with Frost and Hirsch when they say that 'learning takes place much more effectively when the Christian faith community is involved in active mission. Too much existing Bible teaching happens to passive groups of Christians, many of whom are not involved in any kind of risky missional activity.'[17]

Christian leaders must themselves be shaped to give freedom to those who they lead. Their leadership is of the type which realises the potential of those who they lead. At its core it is the leadership of a God whose mission is rooted in the flourishing of the 'other'. As our church members go out and engage with the living God in his mission, they will become more fully themselves, more fully human, more like Christ.[18]

As leaders of God's Church we must sit lightly to the influence that we might have â€" not be so attached to this influence that we become heavy handed shepherds.

So what about what 'those outside' the church might think? What about those who turn up on a Sunday expecting a particular thing based on past experience or media images of church? Now there is the danger of polarisation when we speak of the shape of a local church â€" as I mentioned above this is not a question of 'Traditional church or Funky church' â€" it may be that the most helpful mission-shape for a community looks very much like a traditional parish church. My own experience of this would be in a rural context, where the village church was 'recognisable' to the community and was therefore owned by the village. This, of course, raises its own questions of syncretism, but nevertheless the local parish church was in the ideal shape for reaching this context. Having said this, it may be that the ideal shape is not that of 'traditional' church and this is something which we will have to navigate if there are those coming into the church whose expectation is not met â€" but this in itself need not be threatening.

It is at this point that I wonder if the term 'mission-shaped church' is not a little unhelpful for our discussions. As I mentioned before 'missional church' is a tautology and it can imply that there can be something other than a missional church. Essentially it is short hand for communicating that a church is shaped for mission within a particular context and perhaps we should look at our language surrounding this question and begin to speak of context-shaped church?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has famously brought the term 'mixed economy' to this discussion. This is of course an issue particularly for the Church of England, where fresh expressions of church and parish churches must co-exist, but it also speaks to any denomination where the church building in the community has been the focal point of that denomination.

However, the language of mixed economy is not a comfort zone for those churches who might like to ignore their missional call; it is not a mixed economy in the sense that some churches are to be missional but others can choose not to be! All churches find their being rooted in mission, as previously discussed. Rather 'mixed' refers to a church that is shaped by context in either its incarnation oriented shape (shaped by and for its host community) or its set-apart oriented shape (perhaps what we would recognise as the traditional local church shape â€" but this is only the starting point of that conversation). Both have worth, both retain distinctiveness in their context and yet provide something that the community values because of, and not in spite of, their differing shapes.

Furthermore, a church whose primary shape is formed by the shape of the host community cannot eschew the need, sometimes, to 'be apart' from that community â€" this seems to be an observation even of those whose heart is for incarnational shaped ministry; one must sometimes 'get out', especially in the most desperate of contexts. Conversely, a church whose primary shape is deliberately and overtly distinctive from the host community, has no ground, as God's people, on which to remain only and exclusively set-apart. The God who is 'other' goes to his creation.

So the 'look' of a missional church (whilst recognising the inadequacies of this language, I shall continue to use it) may be varied and diverse; as varied and diverse as the contexts in which God's people find themselves. But at the heart of a missional church is the idea of serving those to whom we are sent; we are the people of a God who is, essentially, mutually self-giving, self-sacrificing and in whose very being is the echo of love for the 'other'.

We are to take our 'shape' both from our gifts from the past (including Scripture and Tradition) and from the gift of the Spirit drawing us to the future of which we are already a part. The Church is a deposit of a future time, even in all its brokenness and fallibility. The 'shape' of the Church is formed by these things and must have both the continuity with the deposited seed and the fragrance of the radical transformation to the future plant which it will be[19].

Some helpful questions

Is contextualisation necessary for God's people? God's people who are, necessarily, located within their own cultures and times? There is a conversation that rumbles on and on as to whether contextualisation is a compromise[20] and it is constantly a surprise to me that there are Christians who truly believe their own Christianity, inarguably fleshed out in their own culture, is somehow beyond that culture.

Surely it is the case that we follow the model of Jesus and if the Son of God chose to flesh out the message and mission of God in a particular context, first century Palestine, and in such a way that those first century Palestinians would or could understand what was being revealed to them, then are we not to do the same? Jesus' message and mission was universal and yet he particularised it. I firmly believe that the local church is to attempt the same. Is there a risk to this? Of course there is. There is always a risk of compromised syncretism rather than the transforming contextualisation of the gospel. Is it a risk worth taking? Certainly! The alternative is the damaging and abusive colonisation of communities (and I think we've been there and done that haven't we? and discovered it wasn't a good thing!)

Having said that, contextualisation is not a matter of 'putting on' the culture uncritically â€" Christians, as Christ, are to bring prophetic insight into the culture of which they are a part and it is from within the culture that these insights are to be brought and not apart from that culture. Christ calls for a transformation of culture in which there is much to affirm - by warrant of the Incarnation of the Son of God into culture; much to judge â€" witnessed to by God's Son crucified; and much that lends itself to transformation â€" effected by the resurrected body of the crucified God.[21]

But the concern regarding syncretism is a valid one. Graham Tomlin helpfully articulates it:

'Yet one anxiety held by some critics of these movements [fresh expressions] is that they fly a little too close to culture. If a church makes such an effort to attune itself to a particular culture, does it simply pander to transient and ephemeral societal moods?'[22]

Tomlin argues persuasively that we should think less about being shaped by a context and more about being a parallel culture â€" the culture of the Kingdom. That we as God's people are to be built within a particular context; thus it will look different to the culture in that context and yet have resonance with that context.

I would suggest that this is a most helpful way of understanding how to shape a church for a particular mission context. We wish to be rooted within a community and yet be distinctive â€" to bring the fragrance of Jesus to that place. This is still fundamentally about being for a community; a church being shaped for a mission context is a church that 'engages with the very rhythms and life of a host culture to genuinely listen to their hopes and fears.'[23]

There are questions of a practical nature to be outworked though, how does a church rooted in a particular context most effectively resonate with that context and yet be distinctive. Tomlin engages here with fears regarding discipleship and roots the solution in spiritual disciplines. This is a particularly helpful discussion for those who are concerned about lack of discipleship in a missional church. Tomlin looks at the idea that, rather than lose spiritual discipline, even these may be shaped for the mission context. For example he suggests where busyness is an idol in a particular context, the virtue which may be most effective to build up in the church community, will be time-management.

It may not sound much, but this patient disciplined spirituality will work to transform the culture that it stands alongside, says Tomlin.[24] So within fresh expressions of church, the idea of virtue and discipline must not be lost. It is the 'christian culture' of the Kingdom, built up by these virtues that will speak to the context in which the community of God's people finds itself.

In Conclusion

I think that I have argued strongly that the Church is made for mission and this should be reflected by its shape. Having said that, this does not mean that all local churches will interpret their contexts in the same way, even when their contexts seem similar. This is the joy of partnership with the Living God â€" it's never dull! We may make mistakes, in fact I may argue that if we are not making some then we are not active in mission, even the disciples of the Son of God made mistakes! And yet, we must go, even into the unknown, because God goes before us.

The Church of God will be fruitful, because God will make it so, and the fruit may be of many kinds, because the mission of God is to the whole world, not simply one part of it and certainly not only to one particular nation or culture. If this is the case then diverse expressions of Church is not only acceptable it is expected and necessary as the bene esse of the Church. In other words if the Church is not seen to have diversity of expression it is not fully in the image of the triune Creator.

Jody Stowell is a theology student at Spurgeon's College, which trains Baptists for ministry and mission. She, however, is an Anglican, and soon to begin training for ordained ministry in the Church of England. She is also a self-confessed internet junkie and can be found commenting about most things on her own blog www.radical-evanglical.blogspot.com. Jody is on the Fulcrum leadership team.

This article was originally published on Fulcrum www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=352 and is re-published on Christian Today with permission.



M Atkins, 'What is the essence of the Church?', in Croft S (ed), Mission-shaped Questions: Defining issues for today's church (London: Church House Publishing, 2008), 16-28

Avis P, A Ministry Shaped by Mission (London, New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2005)

Bosch D J, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 1991)

Drane J, The McDonaldization of the Church: Spirituality, Creativity, and the Future of the Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2000)

Frost M & Hirsch A, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (USA, Australia: Hendrickson Publishers Inc & Strand Publishing, 2003)

Gunton C E, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998)

G Tomlin, 'Can we develop churches that can transform the culture?', in Croft S (ed), Mission-shaped Questions: Defining issues for today's church (London: Church House Publishing, 2008), 66-77

http://www.cofe.anglican.org/info/papers/mission_shaped_church.pdf (accessed 1 Apr 2008)

(accessed 1 Apr 2008)

http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2008/04/context-does--1.html, (accessed 3rd April 2008)

http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/news/2006/20060428ford.cfm?doc=101, (accessed 3rd April 2008)


[1] Drane J, The McDonaldization of the Church, page 2
[2] My own experience as a youth worker was that the work that I did in schools was not recognised as 'church work' because it was not done in church with the church youth.
[3] university 'missions' being the most popular image amongst those I spoke to.
[4] Bosch names Barthian influence as being of particular significance here, Transforming Mission, page 390
[5] recognising that there is no 'other' within God himself, but that there is 'distinctiveness' between the Persons
[6] Bosch D, Transforming Mission, page 389
[7] Bosch D, Transforming Mission, page 390
[8] cf Gunton C E, The Triune Creator (1998)
[9] Romans 5:14
[10] Atkins M, What is the essence of the Church?, page 18
[11] Revelation 21:1-2 (italics mine)
[12] Colossians 1:20
[13] Matthew 28:19-20, cf John 20:21
[14] Church House Publishing, Mission Shaped Church, page 36
(accessed: 1 Apr 2008)
[16] A key worry for one young man I spoke to.
[17] Frost M & Hirsch A, The Shaping of things to Come, page 27
[18] The irony is that our current church set-ups serve to essentially de-humanise those who are being brought in on the promise of being made more fully themselves, more fully human. How? At the risk of hyperbole, the divisions that we observe historically as instinctive to the institution of 'church', such as laity/clergy, men/women, young/old (evangelical/liberal?), create a fissure in healthy relationships. As such, if, as I would want to say, it is relationship that defines us as human beings â€" in that we image the God who is defined by relationship â€" then to divide in this way is, ultimately a de-humanising process. This is not to say that there is not healthy distinctiveness, but, in God's economy, distinctiveness brings together in good relationship, but division breaks, creates fear and, ultimately, causes exclusion from the community.

[19] cf 1 Cor 15
[20] for instance see this current debate hosted by Andrew Jones ( Project Director of the Boaz Project and emergent church blogger) : http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2008/04/context-does--1.html, (accessed 3rd April 2008)
[21] see this illuminating talk by David Ford at the Fulcrum Conference 2006: http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/news/2006/20060428ford.cfm?doc=101, (accessed 3rd April 2008)
[22] Tomlin G, Mission-shaped Questions, page 66
[23] Frost M & Hirsch A, The Shaping of Things to Come, page 24
[24] Tomlin G, Mission-shaped Questions, page 74


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