Eric Swanson, author of The Externally Focused Quest, shares 5 common characteristics of successful missionally minded churches.
1) They believe that missional churches help cities to thrive.
2) They understand that serving opens doors for the gospel.
3) They partner with others doing good work in their city.
4) They make it easy and likely for people to live missionally.
5) They believe that serving is a vital part of spiritual growth.
While these are all important points to consider, the last one has continued to resonate with me. As I have heard some church leaders dismiss or debate the validity of the missional movement, what seems to be missing from the conversation is the importance of how people grow spiritually when they are taught to live on mission. Often, outreach experiences are where learned theology becomes an experienced reality.
We believe churches should transition from a model where missions is seen as a department or an event, to one where outreach is an integrated part of every members life. A huge part of that shift is recognizing that living on mission is a key aspect of discipleship, or spiritual formation.
Swanson pointed out that a holistic picture of being a gospel centered and missional disciple is found in Ephesians 2.
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
While most would consider a solid understanding of Ephesians 2:8-9 a vital part of the discipleship process, what about 2:10? It is true that we cannot over emphasize salvation by grace alone, however, Paul also makes it clear that when someone receives this grace, God ordained works are sure to follow
“Discipleship takes place in the context of joining God in his mission, for Jesus calls his disciples immediately on an adventurous mission. This happens in the living room more than the classroom and in the streets more than the sanctuary.”
For those who still push back on a missional emphasis, let me suggest this: While it is true that we can be missional without making disciples, we cannot make disciples without being missional. Biblically I would support this statement with the following points:
1) The church is called to make disciples of Jesus, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20)
Throughout his ministry Jesus consistently went out of his way to help the poor and marginalized. His acts of service were unbiased, modeling compassion for all people, regardless of their religious affiliation or “worthiness”. Jesus’ personal concern for his neighbors is undeniable.
“We instinctively tend to limit for whom we exert ourselves. We do it for people like us, and for people whom we like. Jesus will have none of that. By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew, Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say that anyone at all in need – regardless of race, politics, class, and religion – is your neighbor. Not everyone is your brother or sister in faith, but everyone is your neighbor, and you must love your neighbor.”
― Timothy J. Keller, Generous Justice
However, Jesus didn’t just model this compassion, he also taught that it is a requirement of those who follow him. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, he goes so far as to say that those who do not care for the hungry, thirsty, isolated, imprisoned or naked will, “go away to eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). These are uncomfortable words to be sure, but a statement that cannot be ignored if we are making disciples who look like Jesus and obey his commands.
2) The church is called “to equip His people for works of service”. (Ephesians 4:12)
In our discipleship strategies, we cannot just fill people with information, we must also equip them for the practical work of ministry. True disciples have a faith that is displayed in actions (James 2:15-17), and the church is called to prepare them for this journey. While this includes teaching, some of the most important training will happen outside of the classroom through outreach experiences.
As people take part in missional work they physically participate in being the hands and feet of Jesus. Along with this experience comes personal transformation while gaining valuable tools for a lifetime of ministry. When a church emphasizes service as part of the discipleship process, they are equipping God’s people to do the good works which He has prepared in advance for them to do.