‘Missional Spirituality’—On Joining What God Intends to Keep Together

Many evangelicals pit missions against spiritual formation, but both are important for Christian faithfulness. A recent book, Spirituality for the Sent: Casting a New Vision for the Missional Church (IVP, 2016), seeks to bring those two movements “together into a single conversation for the sake of ongoing evangelical faithfulness”—the case is made for “missional spirituality.”

I corresponded with coeditor Keith Whitfield—assistant professor of theology and vice president for academic administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—about what “missional spirituality” means, what this vision can look like in our churches, and the role of evangelism and church planting in this task.

In recent decades we’ve heard about being “missional” and “spiritual formation.” But what do you mean by “missional spirituality”?

Much dust has been kicked up around these two ideas. Some people have kicked the dirt to advance the ideas, typically emphasizing the value of only one (missional or spirituality) for the renewal of the church. Others have kicked the dirt out of concern about the ideas themselves. They see the terms as overused, vacuous buzzwords, and are mostly skeptical about the ideas.

We took on this book project for different reasons. “Missional” and “spirituality” reflect the heart of evangelicalism. Evangelicals are focused on a personal relationship with God and engaging the world with the gospel. While these emphases should never be valued or pursued separately, from our experience in ministry, they often are. It’s our contention that one’s devotion to God and engagement in missions are profoundly related. Our devotion and dependence on God leads us to join him in his mission. And, joining God on mission leads us to renew our hope and dependence on God.

[O]ne’s devotion to God and engagement in missions are profoundly related. Our devotion and dependence on God leads us to join him in his mission.

Further, when we look at our time and place, it’s becoming clear that effectiveness of the church’s witness will be tied to the faithfulness of the church’s commitment to live Christ-honoring lives. Francis Schaeffer famously claimed love is the best apologetic of the gospel. That’s always been true. And this truth must be fully embraced by the church as it seeks to engage the world with the love of God displayed in the gospel.

The title of our project, Spirituality for the Sent, points to what we mean by missional spirituality. The church is called to live its life outward, going and engaging others with the good news of the gospel. That is a spiritual calling because it requires dying to self and living for Christ. As we go and make disciples, we continue to develop our spiritual dependence upon Christ.

What do we gain in joining the missional movement with the spiritual formation movement that we wouldn’t gain otherwise?

The most obvious gain is that it doesn’t allow Christians to believe that they should choose one or the other. By joining the two together, we receive a holistic portrait of the Christian life: we engage the world with the gospel because we live a Spirit-empowered life in union with Christ.

We engage the world with the gospel because we live a Spirit-empowered life in union with Christ.

But, even more than that, in this project we see how these two aspects of the Christian life go hand and hand. Allow me to use a quote from one of the contributors to make this point. In his chapter on “Spirituality, Mission and the Drama of Scripture,” Craig Bartholomew says:

John’s Gospel articulates the Great Commission specifically in terms of sending: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (20:21). This evokes the continuity of the ministry of the disciples with that of Jesus, so that Acts is rightly described as the Acts of Jesus by the Spirit through his Apostles. We have seen how Jesus’s being sent included prayer as a central dimension of his mission. And so it is with Jesus’s followers. Mission is missio Dei, and it is vacuous without an ever-deepening relationship with God.

You state that we must “provide people with a missional orientation, shape, and direction for their lives.” How do we accomplish this in our churches?

The term “missional” can be slippery. Part of the reason is that the term is an adjective, and adjectives aren’t easy to define.

I propose three statements that guide how we use “missional.”

(1) Missional means being directed by the mission of God. God’s purpose is to be known as the Lord over his creation. The life of God’s people is directed by their calling to partner with him to make him known as Lord over all things.

(2) Missional means living a life shaped by the mission of God. God’s mission establishes a kingdom by which God is known as Lord. God’s people are called to live as kingdom-minded people. This calling shapes their lives as people who dwell with God through his Spirit, enjoy his blessings, and are known by faith, hope, and love.

(3) Missional means living as people sent on the mission of God. The church is sent into the world by their Savior with an evangelistic calling: to proclaim that the God of all creation has mercifully made himself known through Jesus Christ and that there is forgiveness of sins and transforming grace available to all who enter his kingdom through repentance and faith.

What unique contribution can Southern Baptists make to this broader discussion of missional spirituality? And what role do our churches and missionaries have in it?

We certainly have many bright thinkers and writers, and we were happy to have five Southern Baptists contribute to our book. I hope that we will continue to help the church understand its missional calling, develop a missional theology, and renew its dependence upon God for life, godliness, and missional impact.

But just to flip the question for a moment, I also hope that this discussion will contribute to Southern Baptist international and North American missions. We can’t go on our own power. Jesus told his disciples to wait until the Spirit comes before they go to the ends of the earth. The Spirit has come. We continue to need his power for the mission. We’re called to walk in step with the Spirit, and that’s spirituality. There are many elements to cultivating a Spirit-empowered life: being Christ-focused, repenting from sin, and depending on God.

What role do evangelism and church planting play in a missional spirituality?

Being “missional” is about participating in God’s mission. God’s mission is to make himself known as Lord over all creation by establishing his kingdom. His mission has a people, and he has given them a mission. The church isn’t the kingdom. But, the church reflects the existence of the kingdom. The church is a community of redeemed people who embody the reality of the kingdom. This is what is means to be spiritual body. Since the church is a kingdom people, they’re sent to advance the King’s presence around the world through evangelism and church planting.

Ivan Mesa is an editor for the International Mission Board.