Leadership for the Missional Church

This past fall I taught a course at Tyndale Seminary on the role of pastoral leadership in helping their congregations live out their “Faith in the Marketplace.” The students were all involved in full-time ministry, most as pastors. They are all in the third year of their MDiv program. Most of these students [experienced pastoral leaders] have had profound periods of dissonance as they have come to understand more fully the missional character of the Church. They have been “disturbed” because a biblical view of the nature and mission of the Church doesn’t match up with their experience of church as found in the congregations they serve.

Richard Lovelace, a church historian, made this comment almost thirty years ago:

“It is still true that the model of congregational life in the minds of most clergy and laity is one in which the minister is the dominant pastoral superstar who specializes in the spiritual concerns of the Christian community, while laity are spectators, critics, and recipients of pastoral care, free to go about their own business because the pastor is taking care of the business of the kingdom.” (1979)

This insightful statement captures the struggle of the students in my course. Church is not what it should be. Pastors are not what they should be. The people of God are not what they should be. Something is profoundly wrong.

What is a missional church?
We need to start with the notion that God is on a mission to restore humanity, and the earth we inhabit [missio dei], back to what the Trinity originally intended – human beings in wholistic relationship with the Creator [shalom]. It should follow, then, that the people of God, who are openly committed to belief in Jesus, would recognize that we, too, are on that mission with God.
God placed the substantial fulfillment of missio dei in the hands of his son Jesus, who then passed the assignment on to those people who make up his continuing presence in the world – the Body of Christ, the Church [ekklesia]. So, God’s mission is now our mission. This means that the basic assignment of the church is to take the good news of God’s intention to those who still need to hear of the possibility of restoration and wholeness in Jesus.

People in need of wholeness, meet Jesus – most often through the influence of other Jesus-followers – and are transformed in the encounter. They are incorporated into the fellowship of a local group of Jesus-followers. They are mended, established, and equipped as kingdom people to go back out and introduce more people to Jesus. These are the simple rhythms of the church on a mission. By this definition a “missional” church is just a Christian community that lives its life with these simple rhythms – a church on a mission.

In the current environment there is a lot of “static” about “missional” – that is, “what’s all the hype; and isn’t this going to be just another passing fad?” I would like to suggest that rather than a passing fad, this present emphasis is really a recovery of the vital dynamic of early Christianity – not in forms of church, but in the essential passions. In fact, Wesleyan scholar and missiologist, George Hunter suggests that “the recovery of the truth, life and power of earliest Christianity and the expansion of that kind of Christianity” was the fundamental “cause” that stirred the passion, habits and methods of early Methodists. So, again, what does a missional church look like?

A missional church is organized around its mission, the Missio Dei; the restoration of shalom through the expanding influence of the Kingdom of God on earth. The church exists for the benefit of the world, and has a purpose in the world for the glory of God.

The missional church’s ministry is incarnational, not attractional. The church is the continuing presence of Jesus who was sent to introduce the kingdom of God among the peoples of the earth. There is a greater concern for getting the people of the church out among the people of the world, than there is to get the people of the world in among the people of the church.

But let’s face it – most of our churches are organized around nurturing and establishing Christians – not around the mission. And most of our churches are organized to attract people to our building and our programs, rather than to going out among those who still need to meet Jesus. So what we need are some pastoral leaders who can take local groups of Jesus-followers down a different path.

How does a missional pastor lead?

Missional leaders need to clearly identify the focal point of the church – its missional nature – and organize their ministry around the most important dimension – the outward orientation. A way of leading is required that takes seriously the creation of a covenant community of Jesus-followers as sign and foretaste, as agent and instrument of the reign of God in the earth. All the while, the missional leader is living and modeling face to face relationships with those who still need Jesus in the hustle and bustle of his or her neighbourhood.

Over the past decade, Alan Roxburgh, an experienced Canadian pastor and missiologist, has produced a body of writings that explore the practical issues of providing missional leadership [see titles below]. He gives us three faces of the missional pastor:

The pastor/poet; poets are the articulators of experience and the remember-ers of tradition; the poet listens to the pain and questioning and knows these are cries that long to be connected to a Word that calls them beyond themselves into a place of belonging. “There will be no vision of a missionary people without the poet/pastor living within the congregation’s experience and giving voice to its desire for transformation and renewal.” (1997, 59)

The pastor/prophet; the prophetic imagination directs the poetic dialogue of the people toward a vision of God’s purposes for them in the world at this time; addresses the hard side of discipleship where we must face the reality that in God’s kingdom we are not at the centre of the universe. The prophet speaks a Word which engenders hope out of which arises authentic missional engagement. [1997, 60-61]

The pastor/apostle; pastors must lead congregations in places where old maps no longer work. Discipling and equipping require a leadership that demonstrates encounter with the culture in action, not just teaching and sending.

In our present mission situation pastors must be in the world not just among the believers. “The pastor/apostle is one who forms congregations into mission groups shaped by encounters with the gospel and culture – structuring the congregations shape into forms that lead people outward into a missionary encounter.” [1997, 62-66]

So how would we translate these ideas into the practical realities of everyday pastoral ministry? When we craft our job descriptions we talk about major categories and prioritized responsibilities. What would missional leadership look like if we tried to craft a job description in this manner?

Major Category 1
Telling the Jesus Story – poet
Missional pastors must give their attention to understanding, experiencing and communicating the story of God’s plan for healing and restoring our personal and social environments.
Prioritized Responsibilities
• personal spiritual development – devotional life
• understanding the Jesus story – study
• understanding the people of their community – research and conversation
• utilizing effective communication models for Christ-followers and for the wider community – research, conversation and experimentation

Major Category 2
Forming the Community – prophet
Missional pastors must develop committed communities of faithful, growing Christ- followers who understand their place as of agents of Spirit-guided transformation.
Prioritized Responsibilities
• giving shape to the community’s worship environment
• forming a community of missionally-committed individuals and families
• modeling/apprenticing and multiplying wholistic change-agents (disciples)
• modeling and multiplying; nurturing, and establishing; accountability groups

Major Category 3
Living the Story – apostle
Missional pastors must lead their congregations into authentic encounter with the lives of those who still need to know the Jesus story.
Prioritized Responsibilities
• Modeling authentic personal engagement with their community context
• Apprenticing learners in the context of ministry involvement
• Multiplying ministry involvement through apprenticed leaders
• Giving direction to a team of co-labourers based on emergent missional authority

A job description that looked something like this would describe a pastoral leader who “gets missional” and is working in a gradual, disciplined manner, with a long-term perspective, to lead her congregation to an outward-oriented, incarnational place in their community.

But we have been living with Christendom models of church for so long which are designed to attract unbelievers to what we do as Christians in our “community centres.” Jesus, for the most part, is the centre of what we do in our gathering places; that is, we organize ministry so that we can grow to be like Jesus in our values and behaviours and create a community where we care for one another wholistically. It is quite possible, however, that we may have domesticated Jesus to suit our concerns, rather than following him outside our gathering places – to those people who are still needing good news, who will never be attracted by what “we” are offering.

As those leaders with authentic, mission-shaped, authority cultivate missional practices in a congregation, they enable the development of a missional identity among their people. These leaders say with Paul, “live according to the pattern we gave you” [Phil 3:17] and “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” [1 Cor. 11:1]. The place of leadership is to be at the front of the community, living out the implications and actions of the missional people of God, so all can see what it looks like to be the people of God [1998,186].

Back to my students at Tyndale… Its seems that when we get “disturbed” by what we see around us, we may in fact be most open to change and transformation in our beliefs, values and practices. A number of students have actually left the pastoral assignments they had when they started the MDiv three years ago. They realized they had no hope of bringing about change from a Christendom model, to a missional congregation. Starting from “scratch” somewhere else seemed the most hopeful thing they could do. Others have settled in for the long haul required to turn an inward-oriented congregation to an outward, missional, orientation.

[p.s. I have been working with a number of pastors in the last couple of years to figure out what this might look like in everyday practices. If that sounds attractive to you and/or your leadership team, give me a shout!]

Most of this article was first posted in Dan’s blog in October 2005
@ http://sheffield.typepad.com/dansheffield/2005/10/index.html
It was reposted in Charles Ware’s NextWave e-zine in November 2005 @

Rev. Dan Sheffield is the Director of Intercultural and Global Ministries for The Free Methodist Church in Canada