Looking over a thousand years of church history the Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof asserted, “For centuries a static concept of the church [has] prevailed.” Historically Christendom churches stressed the institution and pastoral character of the church. This led to hierarchical leadership and ecclesiastical tradition, both of which reinforced the authority of the church over the role of the members. Even the Catholic Church acknowledged this at Vatican II and recent papal encyclicals have spoken about recovering the ministry and mission of the laity.
In this context theology has been formally preoccupied with the intellectual and pastoral concerns of the church, not its engagement with the world around it. What is the church’s role in winning people to the faith, in making disciples of every ethnic people group on the entire planet? If the goal is the kingdom of God, and this kingdom will finally come in all its fullness when Jesus returns, what is the church’s role in the kingdom now?
For too long the church has isolated the missional engagement of the people by effectively insulating the church from the wider work of the kingdom of Jesus in this present age. We pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” but we live as if we do not believe what we actually pray.
Since the sixteenth century the missionary movement has contributed to the expansion of the church into the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. The Christian faith has now put down roots in a wide variety of culture and languages. This global development has brought about a rethinking of the nature of the church from every possible angle: biblical, theological, historical, sociological and missiological. This revisioning is really just beginning in my view. Significant contributions have been made but much more lies ahead of us if we are focused on Christ’s Kingdom and the role of the whole church in this mission.
Only a missional church will dynamically engage a changing cultural context energetically and effectively. This is precisely why you read so much about the missional church these days. This is no fad. This is a major shift in emphasis and understanding and it is long overdue.