Sign and Foretaste: Thoughts on Missional Ecclesiology

As we ramp up to our 2019 Intersection Conference theme of Missional Ecclesiology, we asked Bishop Todd Hunter to define the term, identify some of its key tenets, and share the authors who have formed his imagination about the church on mission. For more from Bishop Todd on this topic, listen to our recent podcast

by Bishop Todd Hunter

I’ve often joked to friends that “in another life I could have been a sociologist of religion.” That is my playful way of expressing a life-long and passionate curiosity about how the church exists between gospel and culture. The phrase missional ecclesiology is one way to get at the intersection of Gospel, church and culture.

But to what exactly do the words missional ecclesiology refer? It is not always clear. A Google search of the phrase missional church yields 2.1 million hits in .55 seconds! And there have been dozens of books written on the topic in the last 20 years since the publishing of the landmark book: Missional Church—A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. I obviously can’t cover all that ground in a brief blog, but let me say a few things that reveal my curiosity and might touch yours as well, hopefully encouraging you to participate this year in the Telos Collective and attend the 2019 Intersection Conference, which focuses on the theme of missional ecclesiology.

Missional Ecclesiology Is Not…

Missional ecclesiology is not the same thing as the church growth movement. The church growth movement was designed primarily to increase church attendance. I don’t mean that as a slam, because the movement also assumed lots of good spiritual growth would happen once people got to church. Nevertheless, a well-constructed understanding of missional ecclesiology has a more profound starting point and telos than did the church growth movement.

In a similar fashion, missional ecclesiology is not a reaction to declining Christendom or fading American civil religion. Christendom describes the period of history in which the church was established as a central player sitting at various tables of power in culture. Trying to get the church back into those chairs of power is not the point of a proper missional ecclesiology.

Missional Ecclesiology Is…

Missional ecclesiology includes, but cannot be reduced to, certain characteristics of missional churches—though good practices for mission are very important. Characteristics must be grown from the right Trinitarian soil and be oriented to, and aimed at the correct telos.

Missional ecclesiology is properly rooted in relational love (think of the persons of the Trinity) and sentness (or otherliness). Love for the sake of the other is core to the persons and activities of the Holy Trinity—and thus to missional ecclesiology.

Missional ecclesiology is properly rooted in relational love and sentness.

Our Part in Missional Ecclesiology 

Thus, to pursue becoming the kinds of persons and churches who can lead and participate in missional churches, we have to engage in “a journey inward and a journey outward” (thanks to Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. and Elizabeth O’Conner for that lovely phrase). The journey inward implies becoming the kind of persons who would and could live into God’s purposes for his people. You might think of it as The Great Command as the basis for The Great Commission.

A solid missional ecclesiology alerts us to the notion that we are both recipients of the mission of God (sending of the Son and the Spirit) and participants in it—our sending for the sake of others. It could be said that without the calling and sending activity of God we would have no knowledge of him, that the mission of God is a prime source of revelation.

A solid missional ecclesiology alerts us to the notion that we are both recipients of the mission of God and participants in it.

Missional ecclesiology is much helped by the thinking of Ray Anderson (famous Fuller professor, who is now in heaven): The church tends to distinguish itself by its religious, separate nature. The Kingdom of God—its rule and reign—is a reality always connected to, and in solidarity with the broken world. We see this in: “Adam, where are you?” as well as in the calling and sending of Abraham; the pivotal person and work of John the Baptist; the incarnation of Jesus; the calling and sending of the Twelve; and the sending of the Spirit which in turn fills, empowers, engifts and sends the whole historic, catholic church.

Miroslav Volf has helped shape my sense of missional ecclesiology: “No church without the reign of God…No reign of God without the church.” The church is sign and foretaste of the consummation to come. In the meantime, we embody, announce and demonstrate the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. This is at the heart of a workable missional ecclesiology.

People in missional churches are deeply conscious of being apprentices of Jesus who seek to live constant lives of creative goodness, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of others.

Let’s Play!

Getting beyond those teaser ideas, and beyond our work on the Gospel of the Kingdom (2017) and Church/Culture relations (2018), to actionable ideas is the goal of The Telos Collective and this year’s Intersection Conference. Everything about a missional ecclesiology has to be played out in the real lives of churches—their clergy and laity, and their programs and practices.

Everything about a missional ecclesiology has to be played out in the real lives of churches.

Thus, in the months between now and the 2019 Intersection Conference, I have some reading ideas for you:

Between now and the Intersection Conference May 16-18, we will present a series of blogs and podcasts that will lead you into the conversation on missional ecclesiology. I hope to see you there!

Bishop Todd Hunter is the founder and leader of The Telos Collective, working alongside Anglican leaders to catalyze sacramental and missional churches to engage contemporary culture. Bishop Hunter is the founding bishop of The Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others and founding pastor of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, California. He is past President of Alpha USA, former National Director for the Association of Vineyard Churches and author of Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others, Giving Church Another Chance, The Outsider Interviews, The Accidental Anglican and Our Favorite Sins and Our Character at Work.