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May/June 2006 Issue

The Missional Church:
Getting Back to the Core of Our Identity

By Aileen Van Ginkel and Cam Roxburgh

In recent years, a new mindset seems to be emerging among many evangelical leaders and thinkers in Canada, and the term “missional church” seems to be at the centre of it all. So Faith Today asked Aileen Van Ginkel of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Cam Roxburgh of Southside Community Church near Vancouver, B.C., to give us an introduction.

AVG: When evangelical leaders use the word “missional” these days, what do they mean by it, and why should the average Christian care?

CR: Much of Christianity today has been sucked into the vacuum of an individualistic culture that has shaped a Church that has lost its identity and sense of purpose — its mission. Evangelicals who are talking about being “missional” today usually are concerned that we hold to our core purpose and our core identity as Christians — as individual followers and, even more important, as the people of God.

AVG: Let’s look at some basic questions, then, starting with who God is. It seems that the word “missional” is meant to get at the core of God’s character. Is that right?

CR: Exactly. God is missional. That sounds strange at first, but it actually means the same thing as “God is love.” From the beginning of time, God envisioned a world where He would call a people to Himself. He would be their God, and they would be His people. Later He sent His Son into the world to redeem it and restore His original plan. The Father and Son sent the Spirit into the world to indwell the people of God, the Body of Christ, to be sent, in turn, into the entire world. As God is missional in His very nature, so He creates and calls His people to be missional. We cannot understand ourselves except in the light of understanding the Trinity to be missional — and therefore so are we.

Our starting point needs to be God understood as three persons. Sometimes we reduce our faith to a personal relationship between “Jesus and me,” and have limited our identity as a result. None of us would deny in our speech that we were made in the image of God, that we follow the Son, that we are empowered by the Spirit, but we often deny it in the way we live. The individualism of the culture has caused us to reduce God into someone who becomes our friend in the person of Jesus. This is not wrong. It just falls way short.

AVG: Who are we then? Can you say more?

CR: Many of the key ingredients of our identity are summarized in 1 Peter 2:9-10. When Peter says we are a “chosen people,” he means we are children of God, we are brothers and sisters with a bond — Christ — that is even stronger than blood. It is not only about me, personally, but also about us. And not only about us in the sense of our earthly nuclear families but also about our spiritual family.

The core of our identity is that we are part of one Church. One of the greatest things we can show a watching world is that we do not have churches made up of single people groups, such as a congregation in which everyone shares the same ethnic background. Rather, the Church is itself a people group that crosses cultural barriers. We do not try to force one another to be like ourselves, but we seek to become one people made up of people from every land — a taste of heaven.

AVG: So what’s new about these ideas?

CR: Well, frankly, they’re not new. This is not a new gospel. But it’s a question of emphasis. If we get back to these core ideas, it shapes our priorities as Christians.

AVG: If we understand ourselves in the way you describe, how will that help set our priorities for action?

CR: 1 Peter 2 helps answer that as well. First, not only are we a chosen people, but we are also “a holy nation, a royal priesthood.” Peter is stating that, if we have a new Father, then we also have new traditions. Or put another way, our character is shaped by imitating the Father.

One of the greatest tragedies of the past number of generations (and it isn’t the first time in history this has happened) is that Christians have followed the downward trends of culture in terms of our morals and values, only a few steps behind. The standard for Christian behaviour has been simply a safe distance from the constantly descending culture. Earlier in Peter’s letter he writes, “Be holy, because I am holy.” It seems we have copied the culture more than we have imitated the Father.

To be truly missional, we need to stop looking at how close we can get to the line of sin without crossing over and, instead, start to see how closely we can follow in the footsteps of Jesus in imitating the Father. Of course, all of this happens through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

1 Peter 2:9 finishes with the phrase that we are “a people belonging to God.” This phrase is all about cause, or mission. Our task, after being called out of darkness ourselves, is to call others out of that darkness. In our new family, we are to take over the family business. We become ambassadors of the King of kings with the task to call people into the family of God. I can’t imagine anything of greater importance. Our cause is to continue the same mission God has been on since before time: calling a people (community) to Himself so that He would be Father and they would be His kids. And we are to do it through the power of the Holy Spirit.

AVG: This missional approach sounds like it offers a new way to look at how we do ministry. Instead of developing our ministry structures focused on intended results, we develop them as an outgrowth of our understanding of who God is and who we are.

CR: I was in England a number of years ago, and Roger Forster gave me a picture that has helped me tremendously in thinking about structure. Roger stated that if the Holy Spirit were likened to a river, then we want to see that river flow as powerfully as possible. But in order to do so, there need to be riverbanks so the water will flow in the same direction. If there are no banks, the water will be dispersed so that the force of the river would not really be felt anywhere.

As we look at how our identity is formed in the family of God, our character is shaped by imitating Him and our days are spent carrying out His mission. We see the Church as the structure chosen by God for the advancement of the kingdom.

AVG: Okay, but there are many levels of “church.”

CR: Yes, you’re right. First there is the Church universal — all those who have been born again and come into the family of God. We have the same Father.

And then there is the city church. So often in the writings of Paul, we read references to the church of Ephesus, or Corinth or…. All across Canada these days, we are seeing a resurgence of the city church. We are seeing God move in drawing together local churches from different denominations for mission, which includes prayer, worship, training, teaching and evangelism. This is one of the most encouraging things happening these days.

But we are also seeing the resurgence of local churches. We know that city churches were made of local churches scattered around the city. Most of these would be described today as “house churches.” These local churches were the building blocks of the Church as a whole. Each disciple was accountable to the others. This was the spiritual family in it smallest form, something like the families and clans making up the 12 tribes of the people of Israel.

AVG: How does this translate into our current situation?

CR: In Canada today, God is renewing local churches. Churches are recognizing their responsibility to be a missional people in local neighbourhoods. The gospel is about personal salvation, but it is also about community transformation. Churches own their neighbourhood, in what looks like a return to a parish model, in the best sense of the phrase.

In many ways the pendulum is swinging from churches aiming for an attractional model, that tries to get people to come to worship and community gatherings, to an incarnational idea where we focus on being the people of God in the midst of the culture. Instead of focusing on drawing people from the surrounding region, there is an emphasis on “smaller” and “local” where people are able to walk to church in their own neighbourhood.

AVG: How would you wrap this up?

CR: The future is bright. The level of spiritual interest in the Canadian culture seems to be growing. But there is also an increase in conversation and understanding within the Church about the true identity of the people of God. This new interest in understanding what God has planned for us before time began will continue to help us forge ahead in our knowledge of what it means to be a missional people.

AVG: Thanks, Cam.

Cam Roxburgh is pastor of Southside Community Church with campuses in Surrey, Burnaby and Langley, B.C. He worked on this interview just before starting a four-month sabbatical. Aileen Van Ginkel is director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Centre for Ministry Empowerment in Markham, Ontario.

Other Articles
May/June 2006 Issue

Cover Story
God, Glory, Gold: Athletes Who Believe

Featured Articles
The Missional Church: Getting Back to the Core of Our Identity

Helping Congregations Be More Missional

Where Does This "Missional Church" Talk Come From?

Being Neighbourly, Being Missional

From the Editor
Our Cover and More

The Gathering Place
The Ottawa Manifesto

   
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