"Missional" has recently become a true buzz word. Different generations used it at the recent Younger Leaders Summit with hearty approval from those of us in the chairs listening. But there is a problem. Do we even know what missional means? Does it mean we believe in missions? Is it the same as being evangelistic? Before we get to all of that we have to first establish what is the mission itself.
What is the mission of God?
For many Christians the mission of God is seen as the salvation of individual sinners from hell, sin and self. While this is an important part of God's mission, it is only part of it.
The whole picture is that God is redeeming a people for himself made up of every tribe, tongue and nation. And his mission does not stop there, but includes the salvation of creation itself. His goal is the establishment of a new creation that will never fall into corruption; one that will reveal and revel in his glory for eternity. In fact, at every point along the way of the history of redemption God's promise to redeem through the Messiah is never pointed merely at individual salvation. The reformed tradition has made this clear in its dealing with the covenants of God (see reading list below).
In God's first promise of redemption after the fall (Gen 3:15), hope is given to the human race. Somehow, through the woman's offspring, Satan would be defeated and sin would be conquered (See Geerhadus Vos, pg 43). God later promised that through Abraham's seed all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This covenant would be made with all of Abraham's spiritual offspring (Gen. 12, 15, 17; Gal. 3). Ultimately God's promises of redemption always reveal a communal salvation and a creation-restoration. Concerning the restoration of the earth George Eldon Ladd said it this way,
The biblical idea of redemption always includes the earth. Hebrew thought saw an essential unity between man and nature. The prophets do not of the earth as merely the indifferent theater on which man carries out his normal task but as the expression of divine glory. The Old Testament nowhere holds forth the hope of a bodiless, nonmaterial, purely "spiritual" redemption as did Greek thought. The earth is the divinely ordained scene of human existence. Furthermore, the earth has been involved in the evils which sin has incurred. There is an interrelation of nature with the moral life of man; therefore the earth must also share in God's final redemption. George Ladd, The Presence of the Future
The promise of a new creation or a "new heaven and new earth" runs throughout our Bibles because it is the big-picture culmination of the mission of God. This is why we often talk about the "goal" or "meaning" of history. Anthony Hoekema explains,
Fully to understand the meaning of history, therefore, we must see God's redemption in cosmic dimensions. Since the expression, "heaven and earth" is a biblical description of the entire cosmos, we may say that the goal of redemption is nothing less than the renewal of the cosmos, of what present-day scientists call the universe. Since man's fall into sin affected not only himself, but the rest of creation (see Gen. 3:17-18; Rom. 8:19-23), redemption from sin must also involve the totality of God's creation. from The Bible and the Future, pg. 32
So let me summarize it this way. The mission of God is his work to redeem all of creation and make a people for his own possession through Jesus' life, death and resurrection. It is bigger than many tend to think. This is his mission, and understanding our mission, what it means to be missional, requires us to start here.
There are two problems facing the younger churches and leaders (particularly in our denomination) connected to this issue. One is that many have a myopic view of God's mission. We often only see baptisms, or better - converts, or better still - making disciples as the ultimate goal. Some of this is because we have wandered from our theological homes and camped in the land of pragmatism/church growth. A second problem is that among those using the "missional" language there is a lot of ignorance and abuse of the term. It is possible, and I believe it is happening, that the desire to be missional eclipses the center of mission - the cross of Jesus Christ. Our missional language must always be cross-centered, or as a friend recently put it to me, our missional theology and language must always be "crucifixional."
If all this seems to be a "no-brainer," I will do my best to explain what the mission of God means for those of us who are sent to be God's missional people in the third and fourth posts.
Helpful reading for understanding God's mission via his covenantal relationship with man:
Biblical Theology, Geerhardus Vos The Progress of Redemption, Willem Vangemeren The Bible and the Future, Anthony Hoekema The Christ of the Covenants, O. Palmer Robertson The Cross and The Covenants, R.B.C. Howell The Economy of the Covenants, Herman Witsius