It’s all the rage in this postmodern age to be missional. In fact, the words ‘missional’ and ‘postmodern’ go together quite nicely. Not just because one reflects the other, and vice versa. Also because they are the sorts of words people use without really knowing what they mean. Oh sure, people generally use those words with a meaning in mind, but oftentimes it’s a vague sort of meaning, riding the zeitgeist of the paradigm shift, so to speak.
It might be nice to just toss out the term–let it be adopted by church planters and the major presses as being a synonym for what’s new–but that doesn’t satisfy me. It is an important word and a descriptive word that gets to the heart of what we need to do.
In fact, I think this is such a big term that I don’t want to devote just one post to it. But for now I will, because I’m joining in on a big ol’ synchro-blog where a bunch of us are asking “What is missional?”
I’ve read my Newbiggin, and have some interesting quotes from the 17th century Baptist Roger Williams on the evils of Christendom. But there are better folks to lay out those things. I’m going to focus on my particular interest. And with that particular interest I’m going to go ahead and throw out my definition.
Missional means practicing the presence of the Holy Spirit.
For some that might bring to mind images of dancing around to lively music, speaking curious phrases that most no one can understand, and other attributes of Pentecostalism. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Pentecostals are fine, don’t get me wrong, and their global explosion over the last century certainly suggests an empowered mission far beyond most other representatives of Christ. Yet, being missional is a lot more than empowered worship. Because the Holy Spirit is about a lot more than putting on a show for us. Being missional means participation in the mission of God, and the missionary of God to us now, to all of us in the church and outside the church, is the Spirit.
What happens in Acts 2? They are in a room praying. The Spirit comes. Tongues of fire appear over their heads and tongues of men are spoken aloud. That’s where too many people stop reading. However, the chapter continues. The church doesn’t stay in the upper room. They go out, out into the streets where people from all the nations are gathered. Peter preaches, and the church grows. They go out, people come in, a continuing rhythm of transformational growth.
A great chapter. But for this post I want to emphasize two other passages in Acts that even better get at what practicing the presence of the Holy Spirit means.
Have a go at reading these passages. I’ll wait until you’ve read them. It’s quite important, you see, that we not only come up with a meaning for missional but that we let Scripture show us what it’s like.
Back at it. Don’t get distracted by the visions or the dreams or the curious popping hither and thither. Look at the heart of these passages. That is what it means to be missional. That is the practice of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Where is the Holy Spirit in these passages? Out and about. The Holy Spirit is working in the life of a Roman Centurion. The Holy Spirit is working in the life of an Ethiopian Eunuch.
The Spirit tells Philip to walk towards the Ethiopian. He runs. He not only runs. When he gets there he can immediately understand the passage the Ethiopian is reading and immediately respond to it, with Scripture and teaching. This isn’t a stock script telling the Ethiopian what his questions are. This is having the wisdom and training to respond to exactly where the Ethiopian is at.
Here is the first point of practicing the presence of the Holy Spirit. It insists on a flexibility that is deep enough to respond to any context. Evangelism in the past has catered to the shallow. This is true recently and in history. “Just go to church”. “Here are the five laws of salvation”. Theology and a mastery of Scripture was left to the professionals and almost seen as suspect.
Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.
Conduct yourself wisely towards outsiders. Making the most of the time. Be gracious. Be seasoned. Know how to answer everyone. Wisdom. Efficiency. Grace. Challenge. Understanding. This can sound a lot more daunting than just memorizing scattered verses in Romans. But it is the way of the Spirit, because the Spirit has been and is working in the life of people, preparing the way, inspiring others to plant seeds. Being missional is being like Philip, going and responding, built up in our own depth so that we can respond to the depths of others, where they are at, with what they are dealing with. It is a practice of the presence of the Holy Spirit because in doing this we are looking for how the Spirit has already been working in the life of others. We just fill in the blanks and put words to yearnings and answers to sometimes hard questions.
1 Peter 3:13-16:
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared. Be gentle and respectful. Be holy.
These are key works of the Holy Spirit in our lives, as I talk about in my book. Philip practiced the presence of the Holy Spirit and was able to participate with the Spirit’s work in the Ethiopian’s life, a work that is credited for the very ancient Ethiopian church. Philip didn’t need to go to Ethiopia. He needed to go to that Ethiopian. And the Spirit continued to work because Philip was prepared internally in his wisdom and character and externally in his fluidity and flexibility.
With Peter we see the same example. He responded to the Spirit, to go and be where the Spirit was already working, and when he arrived he was able to respond to what the Spirit had prepared. Added to this is another key aspect of practicing the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is in charge. Being missional isn’t about bringing our culture, or our customs, or our habits or preferences. There are some aspects of a life with Christ which are demanded, but very few of these are the emphases that people think of when they think of evangelism or missionary work.
Our goal is not to make people be like us. Our goal is to help people become who they were always meant to be. We aren’t in the business of taking people’s identity. We are to help them see how their identity becomes alive in the power of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the battery that brings machinery to life, the enlivening presence of God himself. We become alive, really alive, with the Spirit’s work. And so here we see Peter being told to let go of the cultural boundaries, to trust in God’s work that all has been made clean. He is supposed to minister to who they are, where they are, and lead them towards their own fulfillment in God’s work. It is not up to Peter to say whether or not they fit, or to conform them to his own perceptions. It is Peter’s job to go and to confirm what God is already doing.
Being missional means discovering God’s mission in every context. It is not just a telling it is also a listening, and a seeing, and a hearing. By being missional we ourselves become missionized by the Spirit as we learn and grow in understanding God’s work. It is never one-sided. We have our part to share but we always have parts to discover about the Spirit’s pervasive work.
When we are practicing the presence of the Holy Spirit we become dancers. The music is God’s mission in this world, which goes beyond simple salvation and extends into eternal relationship. God is working. Working in places we might never go, with people we might never meet, and in ways we might often not understand. In the dance with the Spirit we become attuned to his movements and as we increasingly dance better with God we dance better with others, teaching and learning, including and discovering in holiness, and outreach, and community.
In other words, when we practice the presence of the Holy Spirit we become truly free and are able to help free others where they are at.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17)
Being missional means participating with this Spirit; the Spirit of hope, and life, and wholeness.
Being missional means practicing the presence of the Holy Spirit so that we become freedom fighters.