10 Characteristics of a Church on Mission

by Scott Thomas


church on a mission

church on a mission

The Tension to Be on Mission

The church in every generation is called to bring the good news of the kingdom into a spiritual encounter with the aspirations and challenges of that culture where it resides. Simply, believers are on a mission from God in their respective communities. To engage today’s culture with the Gospel requires the formation of a Gospel community – the church of Jesus Christ – to be a visible representation, witness, and engaging instrument of the sovereign outreaching hand of God in our culture. In many churches, this may require a new vision, new ways of thinking, and new patterns of behavior (Matt. 9:16-17). This means pre-believers are encouraged to be included in the context of all of the church functions as they make small steps toward Christ (Luke 19:10).

Since we are in Christ, we have a missionary identity. We are adopted into a missionary family. We serve a missionary God. Mission becomes part of our identity, because our Father is a missionary God and we resemble Him as a child of God. So the church is a missionary church, with missionary people, that do missionary things. It is who we are, and it is also what we do. Mission is not something we tack on to the list of options as a Christian. To be Christian is to be on mission. It’s who we are,and it is what we do.

Ten Characteristics of a Missional Church

1.  The missional church is committed to the authoritative, infallible, inerrant, inspired Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:14-17; Acts 2:42).

The authority of all missionary work is founded in the truth that God has a clear word to communicate to the world. The Bible’s authoritative word—not just the casual observance and even religious obeisance—guides the missional church toward understanding the person and work of Jesus throughout all of Scripture (Luke 24:44).

Although this is admittedly a unique description of missional, it cannot be an assumed reality. I think the distinguishing difference between emergent and emerging is the view of the Bible. I no longer use the words, but to clarify, a missional (emerging) church is motivated by the words of God to proclaim the timeless Gospel in a timely method. David Garrison said the one thing that keeps the reproduction of churches from fragmenting into a thousand heresies like a crack splintering across a car windshield is the authority of God’s word. Garrison believes this is one of the characteristics of every church planting movement.

2.  Understands the centrality of the Gospel expressed in all aspects of a person’s life (1 Cor. 15:1-4; 2:2; Gal. 6:14)

In Galatians 2:14, Paul deals with Peter’s racial pride and cowardice by saying their “conduct was not in step with the truth of the Gospel.” The Christian life is a process of renewing every dimension of our life—spiritual, psychological, corporate, social—by thinking, hoping, and living out the implications of the Gospel. The Gospel is to be applied to every area of thinking, feeling, relating, working, and behaving. The missional church is not dependant on programs or methods, but rather by the transforming power of the Gospel. GOCN began with the indicator of a missional church as one that proclaims the Gospel audibly and visibly. “Being Gospel-centered means being both word-centered and mission-centered,” says Steve Timmis, Director of Acts 29 Western Europe. The Gospel is not separated from the authority and effectiveness of the Word and is not devoid of practicing the Gospel through mission living. It was Newbigin who described the local congregation as ‘the hermeneutic of the gospel.’ Newbigin’s idea is very simple: people understand the Gospel by looking at the people of God. It is the church in time and space – the local church – that expresses the Gospel and interprets it within its own cultural setting.

Through the Gospel, He rescues us from a life of self-serving mission to participate in a life of God-serving, Christ-glorifying mission. We are remade into missional people by the redeeming work of the Spirit and the Son.

3.  Gatherings are characterized by God-centered worship, preaching of the Gospel, prayer, Lord’s Supper by penitent souls, and baptism as a response to the Gospel (John 4:23-24). 

Worship is the central act by which the community corporately celebrates with joy and thanksgiving both God’s presence and promised future.[5]  A missional church worships God in an authentic way, as we worship a Savior who left us here to be captured by His love and pursue His mission through His redemption. The missional church encourages what Tim Keller calls “evangelistic worship”—making worship comprehensible to unbelievers leading to commitment.

Principles for Public Missional Worship

Bob Kauflin reminds us the principles for public missional worship. “Paul challenges the Corinthians to take unbelievers into account when they gather. He insists that they keep the unbeliever in mind as they exercise spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:23-25)…Whether it’s raised hands, formal liturgies, or unspoken standards, we need to see them through the eyes of an unbeliever.” Kauflin suggests that to significantly impact the unbelievers in a worship gathering, the following should be present:

  1. Authentic passion – enthusiastic expression outwardly what is happening inwardly.
  2. Love – overwhelming unbelievers with genuine love (John 17:21).
  3. The Gospel – clearly proclaimed and faithfully applied in an understandable way.

Why Preaching is Suffering in the Church

Preaching is central to the missional church worship experience. The Reformers were convinced that the heart of true biblical worship was the preaching of the Word of God. Al Mohler said that preaching is suffering a loss in today’s church due to six factors.

  1. Lack of confidence in the power of the [spoken and written] word – failing to realize the transformative power of the word communicated orally and literarily.
  2. Infatuation with technology – over-dependence on graphics, images, film clips, and technological wizardry.
  3. Embarrassment before the biblical text – lacking confidence in the Bible’s authority.
  4. Emptying of biblical content – failing to teach the actual text of Scripture and resorting to pithy points.
  5. Focus on felt needs – anthrocentric preaching as opposed to theocentric preaching.
  6. Absence of the Gospel – turning texts into literary articles, practical steps, or morals to follow without any clear presentation of sin, redemption, and reconciliation.

Preaching of the word has life-transforming power producing repentance, restitution, confession, reconciliation, comfort, joy, encouragement, wisdom as well as indignation, anger, and offense by the stubborn hearted person. The missional church seeks to make disciples with Spirit-empowered preaching of God’s truth or as Martyn Lloyd Jones said, “Preaching is theology coming through a man that is on fire. John Piper described preaching. He said 1) the goal of preaching is the glory of God. 2) The ground of preaching is the cross of Christ, and 3) the gift of preaching is the power of the Holy Spirit.

The missional worship gathering additionally incorporates public reading of Scripture, prayer for the glory of God to be expressed through the suffering body and community, and response to the Spirit of God and the word of God expressed demonstrably with undefined regularity through baptism and communion. Although the worship gathering is not primarily for us, the body is instructed how to participate in the diverse liturgy as committed followers of Jesus.

Elements of Authentic Worship

The missional church experiences authentic worship by beginning with a true vision of the living God (Isaiah 6:1-8).

  1. We must first see God, as He is—our great King and Judge sitting upon a throne, lofty and exalted (Isaiah 6:1-4).
  2. Secondly, authentic worship leads to confession of sin both individually and corporately (Isaiah 6:5). We address our sin, admit our uncleanness, and seek His mercy and grace.
  3. The third place where authentic worship leads us is proclamation of the Gospel (Isaiah 6:6-7). As we realize our utter sinfulness, the missional church proclaims the redemption of sin through the work of Jesus on the cross—where we glory.
  4. Lastly, a missional church experiences authentic worship with a response (Isaiah 6:8). By excluding the cross, the blood atonement, the sacrifice, and the cost of sin, our worship is horribly weakened, and as a result, our missionary involvement will be stifled.

4.  A missional church understands it has been sent by God as missionaries in their own culture (Matt. 4:19; John 20:21; Acts 16:20; 17:6) to make disciples of all peoples (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). 

The missional church is more than a gathering of people with a missions program (considering itself “mission’s minded”) or that has a financial commitment to mission works or a missions committee. The missional church is vested in God’s mission to a specific place, people, and a particular time in history (Acts 17:15). Mark Driscoll said, “If the Gospel is the seed of God’s powerful work in our lives and world, then the culture is the soil into which it is planted.” He further adds, “Understanding the soil helps the missional church know which weeds of moral sin and theological error will need to be pulled up so as not to choke out the growth of the Gospel and church.”

The Challenge of Gospel Contextualization

Missionary to India Lesslie Newbigin stated that contextualization has been discussed among those involved in foreign missions for years as a necessary means to proclaiming the Gospel into the language and culture in a way to “make sense” to those whom the Gospel is being addressed. Newbigin’s point is that we now face the same challenge of contextualization in our post-Christian Western world—our neighbors, friends, co-workers, and even family. The irony is that our older churches that applauded the non-compromised contextualization of the Gospel by the foreign missionaries that they sent with prayers and money are the same churches that now struggle with that missionary approach in our Western culture with peoples from diverse ethnicities, languages, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, and ages.

We redemptively engage peoples and cultures by sharing, showing, and embodying Christ in our context. This includes evangelism, cultural engagement, counseling, empathy, and celebration. It’s bringing the renewing power of the whole Gospel into the whole city through the whole church. It is not realigning our Bible to the culture, but by God’s grace, realigning the culture to the Bible.

Mission is a characteristic of God.

Mission is a characteristic of God. He’s a sending God. He sends His Son and sends His Spirit to renew the world. The Son sends His believers by the authority of God as He was sent. So mission doesn’t start and end with us. It starts and ends with God.

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:14-19)

5.  Boldly & intentionally promotes the Gospel through making disciples and church planting globally through collaborative expressions of mercy and generosity

A missional church is not simply focused on the growth of neither the single local church nor its continued physical presence in the community. Its goal is to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). When a church focuses on its own promotion, it has a tendency to use disciples to build a church, resulting in resentment. Conversely, a church that focuses on making disciples will use the corporate church to promote the Gospel to as many people as possible—both local and global, or what Dr. Bob Roberts refers to as glocal transformation. A missional church sees church planting as the outworking of mission in a community. Its mission work is the establishing of churches glocally. When our mission mindset is to promote the building of churches in multiple contexts, we are more prone to collaborative work with other churches and with a heart of generosity for the advancement of the Gospel in all nations.

6.  A missional church is dependent upon the Holy Spirit to empower and lead believers as agents for evangelizing and making disciples (Acts 1:8; Luke 4:1, 14, 18).

The life of Jesus was empowered, led, and directed by the Holy Spirit. To be dependant upon the Holy Spirit means to live like Jesus as opposed to some strange mystical experience. Jesus gave the Great Commission, as we commonly know it, and He included the prerequisite of Spirit-empowerment to accomplish it. In Luke’s Gospel, for example, Jesus explains the Gospel to His disciples and tells them that as witnesses of His resurrection, they are to proclaim it to others. But He told them to stay in the city until they were clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). Jesus promised that He would empower the church through His Holy Spirit as they make disciples (cf. Acts 1:8). “The promise of God’s presence often accompanied His call to service in the Old Testament (e.g. Ex. 3:12; Josh. 1:5); it is not so much a cozy reassurance as a necessary equipment for mission.”

The Great Comforter
The Great Commission comes equipped with the Great Comforter. This promise is fulfilled by the provision of the Holy Spirit—the missionary Spirit sent to witness to the coming of the Kingdom of God (John 13-17; Acts 2:17). Lesslie Newbigin again offers some succinct instruction for us here. “Mission first of all belongs to the Spirit who is sent by Jesus and the church is taken up into that work…Mission flows in the following way: the Father sends the Son; the Son sends the Church and equips it with the Spirit to enable it to carry out its mission…God does not cease to participate in the missionary enterprise with the sending of Jesus. He does not initiate mission with the sending of Jesus and then leave the missionary work to be carried on by a human institution that followed the pattern of Christ without the help of the Spirit.” Newbigin continues, “The active agent of mission is a power that rules, guides, and goes before the church: the free, sovereign, living power of the Spirit of God. Mission is not just something that the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is Himself the witness.”

A missional church can effectively reflect the power of the Gospel (Romans 1:6) as it depends on the Spirit of God to empower the body for evangelism, discipleship, and Gospel proclamation rather than depending on big events or buildings or programs or methods utilized elsewhere to draw unbelievers to an event. The Apostle Paul explained to the church situated in the pagan, sinful city of Thessalonica that this “Gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thes. 1:5; cf. 1 Peter 1:12). Paul was saying, “I did the speaking, but it was not I. I was used by the Holy Spirit to accomplish the work He intended.”

Some churches put their emphasis on the studying of the Word. While important that we feed our souls, these are typically the intellectual theologians that spend great hours reading and studying in often arguing the finer points of doctrine resulting in pride of knowledge but rarely conversions. Other churches put a majority of their emphasis on the Holy Spirit and are often more interested in an experience than the authoritative Word. The Holy Spirit uses the Word and the Spirit of truth for understanding. A missional church proclaims the truth with boldness through dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:29-33).

7.  Missional churches utilize relationships and sacrificial love as the expressions of love to others in their journey toward faith (Matt. 5:13-16, John 15:12-17, 1 John 4:19-21).

“Christ wants to create ‘a people,’ not merely isolated individuals who believe in Him.” A disciple is a Spirit-empowered follower of Jesus who is united with a Gospel community on mission for all peoples for the glory of God. A recent book by Dan Kimball entitled, “They Like Jesus but Not the Church” is illustrative of our culture’s skepticism with churches and Christians. The culture is not seeing Jesus in the church, and frankly, Christians are not seeing Jesus in the church and are not motivated to engage in authentic Gospel community because they have little reference for it outside of the Bible’s descriptions (Acts 2:42-45; 4:31-35).

God is a missionary God, and God’s primary missionary method is His covenant people. Mankind was made in the image of the triune God. God created us in that image as persons-in-community to be the means by which He would reveal His glory. As a result of sin, we grasp for isolation from God and His church. When the local church allows this proclivity for seclusion, these image bearers of God fall short of His glory.

The missional church moves out across the nations as a movement of people empowered and sent by Jesus while drawing people through its common life as a God-glorifying movement of believers and unbelievers alike back to Jesus. Steve Timmis writes, “Our identity as human beings is found in community. Our identity as Christians is found in Christ’s new community. And our mission takes place through communities of light.”

What community looks like is unique in every setting, just as every family is unique because there are a lot of variables and moving parts. But the family/community works out the details of their common mission because they are equally committed to each other and to their mission as Christ followers. Those in community do not act in isolation, but rather sacrifice their schedules, time, money, conveniences, and individuality to serve the need. It is foreign to us that the believers in the first church sold their possessions and with singleness of heart gave to those in need. This deep unity and collaboration among the first church ignited the Gospel proclamation that turned the world upside down.

The book of Acts describes the Christian community in multiple ways that may lead to even greater deeds than are described in this canonical record.

  1. Self-sacrifice
  2. Commitment to relationships
  3. Pursuit of unity among the community of believers
  4. Goal of a common mission
  5. Deep love

8.  The goal of a missional church is to walk in community with others as Jesus pursues them in His own way and timing (1 Cor. 9:20-23).

This Gospel community includes believers and unbelievers. Jesus was criticized for including non-believers in community.

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matt. 11:19)

Judas was a part of the disciples even as Jesus spoke about letting the tares grow up with the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30; cf. 1 Cor. 2:19). He spoke to the woman at the well when no one else would dare (John 4). Our interaction with unbelievers is not for the saving of mankind or for the building up of our church, but rather for the glory of God.

The witness of Jesus to the lost woman of Samaria can be summarized in the following way and provides for us a basis for our friendship with sinners.

  1. Intentional – He was compelled to go through Samaria when others walked miles out of the way to avoid it (John 4:4).
  2. Conversational – He addressed a common need: water (4:7).
  3. Respectful – Contrary to culture, this male Jew spoke kindly to this disgraceful woman (4:7).
  4. Directional – He directed the conversation away from her perceived issue back to the Gospel (4:10-15; 19-24).
  5. Convictional – He adequately addressed her sin without rubbing her nose in it (4:16-18).
  6. Confrontational – He confronted her with the truth of who He was (4:26).
  7. Missional – He met her on her turf and brought the Gospel to bear in her life, and she became the missional evangelist in Samaria (4:28-30).
  8. Attitudinal – To the broken people, He showed compassion. To the religious people, He demonstrated unacceptance of their self-righteousness. To those who followed Him, He expected nothing less than absolute surrender.

Look over the list of eight ways Jesus approached this woman and examine your heart to see if you interact with lost people in a similar manner.

9.  A missional church is a hands-on training ground for missionary training (Acts 4:13, 31-35).

His mission is nothing short of the redemption of peoples and cultures, the renewal of all creation for His own glory. God’s great, burdensome, and glorious mission is the renewal of all creation! God, in His mercy, has invited us to participate inHis mission.

The community of believers provides opportunities, and they practice hospitality for living out the Gospel in word and deed with one another. Church leaders must set the pace for pursuing the mission of Jesus. As Jack Miller noted, churches become “religious cushions” that tranquilize the guilt-ridden person with the religious warmth of its liturgy. Jack said the contributors of these religious cushion churches are the following:

  • Quiet acceptance of churchly dullness as normative
  • Fear of extinction
  • Extreme sensitivity to the negative opinions
  • Demand for comfort – a nice church with a nice pastor preaching a nice sermon about a nice Jesus
  • Unrestrained Gossip

Members of a missional church are expected to serve on the frontlines of the mission. The missionary emphasis of the body overtakes the self-serving individual, and they either hide, escape, or they get trained in living life as a missionary across the street, across the seas, and across the socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and political boundaries.

10.  Godly, biblically qualified elders lead a missional church (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1; Eph. 4).

While most descriptions of a missional church do not include this characteristic, I don’t think it is possible to maintain a missional emphasis without what Jack Miller calls “pacesetting pastors” who continually remind the body of the mission for which Jesus has called us and the Holy Spirit has empowered us to pursue until the return of Jesus.

Titus was commissioned by Paul to establish the churches with qualified elders in Crete to rebuke false teachers, teach sound doctrine, establish godly homes, preach the Gospel of grace, do good works, confront rebellion, and multiply followers of Jesus. The key to straightening out the crooked churches in Crete was the establishing of qualified elders to guide the rest of the body toward the Gospel.

Elders are to be above reproach in every area of their life. The Gospel will never take root in the body until it takes root in the leaders’ lives. Spurgeon writes, “Brothers, I beseech you, keep the old Gospel, and let your souls be filled with it, and then may you be set on fire with it!” A church will never be missional until its elders live missional lives in front of their followers.

The real value of an elder in a missional church is the equipping of non-vocational leaders to lead and share responsibility for the mission and for the discipling of new believers (Eph. 4:11-12). Reproducing churches unleash the whole body to exercise their gifts (1 Cor. 12:8-10) and encourage them to lead others on mission to proclaim the Gospel in new ways and new places in the community. New believers are incorporated quickly in the mission and receive on-the-job training through an organic mentorship rather than top-down control.

Missional or Biblical?

Looking over the description of a missional church, one understands this word to be equated with the pattern set forth in the Bible. The church established by the Apostles was a church on mission. It was missional. It seems that the evangelical church just needed a new word like missional to describe the “Biblical church.”

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About Scott Thomas

Scott Thomas is Pastor of Pastoral Development at The Journey Church in St Louis. He created the Gospel Coach Training and Certification system and has coached hundreds of pastors. Scott has served as President and Network Director of Acts 29 Network and as an elder at Mars Hill Church. Scott has an MA in Missional Leadership and has been married for 31 years to Jeannie, with whom he has two sons. He planted and replanted churches for 16 years as a lead pastor. Read More About Scott Thomas At His Author Page

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