“Missional” has become a Christian buzzword. An increasing number of churches self-identify as being missional. Many seminaries have adopted a missional approach to theological education. There is now an explosion of new books on this topic.
But what does it mean to be “missional”? To some, it is nothing more than a misguided emerging fad. To others, it is a new spirit-led church planting movement. To me, it a lively church conversation to which we ought to pay some attention, because it may have significant implications for pastors and ordinary Christians.
In this brief essay, I first draw a composite picture of missional leaders, then discuss how we can best prepare such leaders with the necessary skills.
What is a Missional Leader?
To put it simply, a missional leader is someone called by God to do what Jesus did when he was on earth (John 20:21).
A professional couple bought a house in a drug-infested area in order to minister to the young drug addicts. Several Christian university students moved to one of the worst neighbourhoods in order to minister to the poor and disenfranchised.
These are examples of a new breed of missional leaders. All across North America, men and women, propelled by their passion for God’s mission and led by the Holy Spirit, share the gospel where life happens.
What are the Characteristics of Missional Leaders?
- They are spirit-led. They are not afraid to step out of bounds and live on the edge. They go where the spirit leads and flow like wind sent from the heart of God.
- People are more important than programs. Missional leaders invest in other people’s lives and help develop them to be God’s instruments of grace. Nothing is more exciting than transforming lives. To be missional is more than to engage in an evangelistic or missionary program. It is a way of life around God’s mission in this world. Missional leaders dare to go wherever God leads in order to be the change that changes the world.
- They see the church differently. The true nature of the church is the coming together of those called by God to share, celebrate, and participate in extending God’s reign.
- They see themselves as ordinary people rather than professional clergy. They consider themselves as slaves saved to serve the Lord, repaired to reclaim the lost, and called to co-create something beautiful in the midst of miseries.
- Every ordinary believer can become a missional leader. Whoever listens to God and obeys God’s calling can be trained to become a missional leader. With the help and support of the community, they can do something meaningful and significant.
- They are incarnational rather than promotional. They think missionally and live incarnationally on a daily basis. They are more concerned about being than doing.
What Skills are Essential to Missional Leaders?
According to the missional approach, theological sophistication is no substitute for compassion. Biblical literacy is no substitute for Biblical efficacy. Doctrinal orthodoxy is no substitute for moral purity. Academic credential is no substitute for spiritual character. In fact, theological minimalism may be an asset rather than a liability in indigenous churches in developing countries, where the demonstration of God’s love, power, and purpose is far more compelling than erudition in systematic theology. The first-century followers of Jesus were able to turn the world upside down “not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit.”
Missional leaders need to develop the following skills in order to become a positive force for change:
- The ability to make good decisions in ambiguous and complex situations. Most of the time, we do not have all the information to make a rational decision. We need to learn how to intuit based on sanctified wisdom and courage to do what is right in God’s sight.
- The ability and courage to venture into uncharted territories and initiate new ministries. There are still many unreached peoples and untried methods to spread the Gospel.
- The ability to cooperate and lead in spite of different opinions and oppositions. There is no challenge in leadership if everybody agrees with you. Working in a fluid, organic community without a clear organization structure, missional leaders need a high level of humility, flexibility, and emotional stability.
- The ability to get things done in spite of limited resources and numerous obstacles. Often, we have to make bricks without straw. Worse still, when we build the wall, other Christians keep on knocking it down in order to protect their territory. Such obstacles should not deter us from completing our assignment from God. If God says yes, no one can stop us.
- The capacity to grow spiritually and psychologically for walking with Christ and serving Him daily in spite of oppositions and setbacks. In fact, most of the growth takes place in the darkest hours of suffering.
This is a messy, chaotic, and upside-down world. There are macro forces threatening the very foundation of Western civilization. A radical shake-up of the world order is in the making. How do we prepare missional leaders in a postmodern society for an uncertain future?
This kind of leader cannot be produced simply by taking a large number of courses on the Bible, theology, hermeneutics, and church history in the classroom. Too much academic knowledge may breed hubris! Missional leaders need to be incubated from modeling after missionally-minded mentors and learning from world-ministry experiences.
St. Francis of Assisi was right on target when he said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” God intends us to be an open epistle and bearers of the image of Christ. Unless Christ shines through us, no amount of Bible and theological knowledge will do much good.
God’s mission does not change because it originates from God’s nature However, the methodology and strategy to extend God’s reign to every culture must change with the times.
According to the George Barna research group, a quiet revolution is already underway. Within 20 years, about 70% of the Christians will be meeting at homes and various types of emerging churches.
The challenge before us is how we can find innovative ways to train all qualified students to be missional leaders regardless of their vocations and professions.
Change is inevitable and mission is inescapable. If we dare to embrace change in order to participate in the mighty stream of God’s mission, we will grow and multiply with unlimited opportunities.
Implications for Christian Education and Ministry
We need to understand the true meaning of being a church in this new century.
When we really adopt the missional approach to meet the challenges of emerging and postmodern cultures, we will have a new set of emphases:
- Christian integration means the integration of key teachings of the Bible into one’s daily living rather than possessing a large band of Bible knowledge and theology.
- Christian ministry means ministering to the needs of real people wherever they are rather than within the four walls of the church.
- Missions is a daily undertaking rather than a missionary or evangelistic project.
All Christians are called to be missional leaders because we are all called to use our gifts and participate in extending God’s reign through the Holy Spirit. We can do more than what Jesus did because we have missional leaders as “little Jesus” who are doing what He once did by Himself.
Wong, P. T. P. (2012). How best to prepare missional leaders. In P. Au (Ed)., Glorious ministry: A festschrift dedicated to Rev. Dr. John Kao (pp. 263-267). Toronto, ON: Association of Canadian Chinese Theological Education.