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What Is Missional Theology? 5 Aspects of a Mission-Centered Approach to God and Life

While the term “missional theology” can be easily mishandled, God’s missional heart for his people cannot be overplayed.
“Missional theology” has become a buzzword in some circles.

For some, it simply means that theology should affect the way Christians live. For others, it means that love should be the ultimate end of all doctrinal reflection. Still, for others, it means that theology itself can be compromised at the altar of building a cross-cultural community in the name of Christ.

However, God has always supplied the church with faithful Christians who serve as a rich example of a truly biblical, missional theology. What is missional theology in the biblical sense? The word “mission” comes from the Latin noun mission, which means “sending” or “commissioning.” If someone has a missio, it means they are going from here to there for a purpose on behalf of someone.

These five elements define for us what missional theology really is. Missional theology is the gospel mobilized by a faithful, Christian, local church through a commissioned agent for a particular people in obedience to God. In other words, missional theology is Christ going out from the church, through someone called, to a people, for the sake of the gospel.

A missio includes a context, a home, a destination, a purpose, and a sender. Let us dig more deeply into these concepts to develop a biblical understanding of missional theology.

1. Missional theology is historically Christian

Missional theology is, for some, a catchphrase to cover for theological compromise. In those contexts, “missional” connotes remaking Christ in the values of the culture, rather than remaking the culture in the image of Christ.

But missional theology, at its best, never compromises the gospel. Missional theology does not abandon its purpose for the sake of its destination. That’s why the prophet Isaiah writes: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isa. 52:7)

The beautiful urgency of missional theology is that it actually brings something new and real to lost people, and the cost of lostness is unbearably high. News about Jesus Christ will always transform the culture it enters, because Christ will always transform those who, by grace, have faith: “and in His name repentance and forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).

2. Missional theology is a project of the local church

Missional theology is always from somewhere. Behind every missionary, there should be a church that is sending him or her. We see this clearly in God’s work in the early church. Paul uses different people in different ways, but the goal of cross-cultural ministry is always to take what God has built in one community and transport it to another, very different community.

Paul explains: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). No matter where God sends us, he is always doing something bigger than us in that place. One of the ways that missionaries can have the kind of support they need to diligently labor for the gospel is to find a church that will officially send them as missionaries.

3. Missional theology is contextual

Missional theology seeks to make sense of the truths of Christianity within a new cultural context, language, or people group. As it says in Matthew: “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations” (Matt. 24:14).

The church is called to bring the gospel to every context on earth. The church’s task is to figure out how to do that in a way that makes sense in that context. When Jesus proclaims in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life,” how should Christians explain that principle to rural Chinese farmers who have never had bread? Is it appropriate to describe Christ as “the rice of life” in order to make sense of the truth for a different context?

The church has a vested interest in answering questions like this as a matter of obedience to God and love for their unevangelized neighbor. Each church should be asking themselves the question: “How can we communicate the gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation in a way that makes sense to those tribes, tongues, and nations, yet without compromising the truth of the gospel?”

4. Missional theology is evangelistic

Essential to missions work is the concept of growth. Declaration assumes news: “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples” (1 Chron. 16:24) The phrase “all peoples” envisions an expansiveness—an increased grandiosity of scale from Israel to the entire world.

The content of this message is not simply that God exists, or that people or are sinners—but that God has done what we could never do on our own: God has reconciled to himself once for all in Christ all who would believe.

5. Missional theology imitates Christ

In Luke 4:18, Jesus applies Isaiah 61 to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me ... He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus himself was sent by the Father. The incarnation was cross-cultural missions work. More than that, it was a certain kind of ministry to us—a ministry that chose sacrifice for the Father’s mission over opportunity: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Moreover, his ministry did not presume on his divine status, but leveraged it to serve his mission, since Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6).

Missional theology reflects the character and purposes of God in Christ: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).

Conclusion

Missional theology can be a deeply biblical project that enables rich missions work, builds lasting partnerships with sending churches, and prompts the hearts of many people to serve God overseas. While the term “missional theology” can be easily mishandled, God’s missional heart for his people cannot be overplayed.

God has given every human a mission, and to many of us he has issued a special missional call to leave our home contexts and preach Christ among unreached and underserved populations. Pray that God would give you a greater sense of your mission, and ask him if he is calling you to overseas ministry: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38).

About the Author

P.C. Maxwell is a writer and theologian. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor’s in biblical languages from Moody Bible Institute. He resides in the Chicago area with his wife and contributes regularly to ABWE’s blog and communications strategy.

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