Can We Trust the Gospels?

Recent Posts

Past Posts Archived by Date

Search this site


Search this site


« Great Music at Laity Lodge . . . Ashley Cleveland and Kenny Greenberg | Home | Missional and Formational in the Old Testament »

Missional and Formational?

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Wednesday of this week I’ll be offering a workshop at the Renovaré conference in San Antonio. The theme of this conference is: The Jesus Way: Recovering the Lost Content of Discipleship. Conference headliners include Eugene Peterson, Max Lucado, Emilie Griffin, John Ortberg, Dallas Willard, and Richard Foster. I’m honored to be included on the undercard as one of dozens of workshop leaders.

I’m participating in a “track” of the conference sponsored by the Presbyterian Global Fellowship. This track is called “Transformational and Missional: The Jesus Way for Church Life and Leadership.” Other track presenters will be Todd Hunter, Rich Kannwischer, Will Mancini, and Dallas Willard. My workshop will focus on biblical texts that inform our understanding of the relationship between missional and formational aspects of Christian discipleship.

Yes, I realize I might have lost some of you with this lingo. The words “missional” and “formational” are not exactly found on the lips of most folks, even faithful church members. So let me explain what I am planning to talk about on Wednesday before I summarize some of my conclusions here. (You don’t even have to visit San Antonio in the middle of a heat wave to get the main points of my workshop!) (Photo: The Jesus Way logo, from Eugene Peterson’s book, The Jesus Way)

Missional: “Missional” is an adjective that I first heard in the 1990s. Since then it has gained in popularity. In fact, “missional” runs the risk of becoming faddish, and therefore way overused. Plus, the more folks use it, the more it can lose its precise meaning. Some time ago I wrote a whole blog series on the topic: “The Mission of God and the Missional Church.” You’ll find a thorough discussion of the meaning of “missional” there. For now, I’ll simply say that “missional” is an adjective used to describe the church as a participant in the mission of God. The missional church exists, not primarily for itself, but for God and for others. The word “missional” comes from the Latin word missio that means for “having been sent.” The missional church is not only a church that sends or supports missionaries who are sent to distant places to do the work of God. Rather, the missional church sees itself as God’s missionary wherever it is located. The missional church understands itself as having been “sent” by God to do his work right where it is.

One among many biblical texts that defines the missional character of the church is the so-called Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Formational: “Formational” is an adjective that is related to the notion of “spiritual formation” or “Christian formation.” Formational activities would be those that help us to grow as Christians, not only in our knowledge of the faith, but primarily in our Christ-likeness. Biblical passages that point to the process of formation would include:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son [proorisen summorphous tes eikonos tou huiou autou], in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. (Romans 8:29)

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed [metamorphousthe] by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you [mechris hou morphothe Christos en humin]. (Galatians 4:19)

You may have noticed that each of these verses contains a word from the Greek root morph-. God has destined us to be conformed [summorphous] to the image of his Son. We are to be transformed [metamorphousthe] by the renewing of our minds. Christ is to be formed in us [morphothe]. In Greek, the word morphe means “form.” It can refer to the external shape of something, but also to its essential character. It has this sense when used in the New Testament to describe the basic nature of something. Morphe itself shows up in Philippians 2:6-7 in reference to Christ:

who, though he was in the form [morphe] of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form [morphe] of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form. . . .

Missional and Formational?

In my Renovaré workshop, I’m dealing with the relationship between misional and formational in Christian churches as well as in the lives of individual believers. If a church sees itself as missional (sent by God to share in his mission), in what sense might it also be formational (helping people to become more like Christ)? If a church is focused on spiritual formation, how might this impact its missional consciousness?

At first glance, it seems as if missional and formational are apples and oranges. One has to do with the outward effort of a Christian community. The other has to do with the inward transformation of individuals. There are surely many churches that focus on one or the other, without incorporating both emphases. This suggests other questions. Should a church be both missional and formational, or can it choose one or the other? Is it possible for a church to be truly missional and not be formational? Or truly formational and not be missional? How might missional and formational emphases complement each other?

My approach in my workshop, and in this blog series, will be to examine specific biblical texts that deal with missional and/or formational aspects of the Christian life. My expect that we’ll be able to see, not only that missional and formational go hand in hand, but also how they depend up and fulfill each other. A church that is truly what a church should be will, in my opinion, but both missional and formational. Moreover, it will see itself as essentially missional and formational, whether or not it uses these particular terms.

Your Input

As always, I’m interested in your input here, through comments or through email. How do you see the connection between missional and formational? How have you experienced this connection (or lack thereof) in your church experience?

Topics: Mission, Missional and Formational |

10 Responses to “Missional and Formational?”

  1. Steve A Says:
    June 23rd, 2009 at 8:04 am

    Great post Mark and may God bless your experience at the Renovare Conference. I’d encourage others to attend this–I went to the conference they had in 2005 and it was terrific. I think missional and formational (as you defined them) are core to what the church should be “doing” (while being a worshiping, loving community). I also don’t think they are at odds at all–our actions of “going” for the sake of others are very formational. I think great examples in church history of Christ-likeness are consistently people deeply involved in “missional” actions.

  2. Tod Bolsinger Says:
    June 23rd, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Great minds? At San Clemente Presbyterian, we just joined together our “Discipleship” committee and our “Mission” committee into a new team called “Spiritual Transformation and Missional Participation”. We are exploring how to make every part of our “discipleship” always BOTH transformation and mission at the same time, instead of the “either/or” and often times competing ways they work against each other programmatically. In a recent presentation for elders and pastors in the Denver Presbytery I suggested that this one simple structural shift might bring clarity and energy when the church is struggling to find both.

  3. Tim Yee Says:
    June 23rd, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I have observed that those in our church that are experiencing the most transformation are both serving and simultaneously facing their own brokenness. There is something very powerful about serving the least, encountering Jesus and discovering along the way that you’re one of the least. Maybe mission and formation are inseparable because Christ is found in the least of these and we’ll never know Christ fully until we meet him in the poor.

  4. Bill Goff from St. Petersburg, Russia Says:
    June 23rd, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    Hi Mark, Best wishes for your workshop presentation at the conference. I know you will have a meaningful contribution. I don’t know why you are not one of the headliners.
    I have no big problem with the terms missional and formational and I agree with the way you explain the relationship between these concepts. I do feel ignorant about other terms. I’m not at all sure what Renovare means and I don’t exactly know what a track is at this conference. Are there right and wrong tracks?
    However I do have a problem with the persistant and prevailing use of the term leadership for Christian conferences. From my understanding of the Bible, to be like Jesus is to aspire to be a servant, not a leader. Jesus often had to rebuke his disciples for their expressed desires to be leaders. He taught them that unbelievers wish to be great men and lord it over others. Instead Jesus humbled himself and washed his disciples feet. Paul constantly refered to himself as a servant (literally slave). The term minister is a translation of the Greek word “diakonis” and means a table waiter. In light of all that the Bible teaches us about being servants, it would be very refreshing to me to see a Christian conference about serving like Jesus rather than being a leader. What do you think?

  5. David Ormand Says:
    June 23rd, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Looking forward to THIS series! I’ve been part of a number of Southern Baptist churches, who would tend to define “missional” as “evangelistic”. These churches are very, VERY big on evangelism - but very weak on what I would define “formational” - as “discipleship”. On the other hand, I’ve visited churches who claim to be “discipleship-oriented”, but by this they mean, Bible study and Bible knowledge. I’m beginning to suspect that if a church (house church? emerging? Seems to be nonexistent in traditional churches, at least in Tucson) really grasped “discipleship” as “formational”, going beyond mere Bible learning, that the “missional” (as more then mere “evangelism”) would naturally come out.

  6. Rick Cruse Says:
    June 24th, 2009 at 12:54 am

    Connecting missional and formational is like comparing apples to…(well) apples. The former is the luscious, delicious fruit, the latter the life-giving seeds within guaranteeing future crops of luscious, delicious fruit.

  7. Forest Fisk Says:
    June 24th, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    I would love to be a part of this.

    The crux of the issue seems to be found in the word “mission.” Whose mission is it? And what it the purpose of this mission? In my tradition, it is the mission of God and the original intent in “mission” is to make Christlike disciples of the nations (Mathew 28: The Church of the Nazarene’s motto). Therefore, part of the mission IS formation (aka the “make” in “to make Christlike disciples).
    But sense you have made a distinction between mission and formation, you will probably most likely continue with the distinct.
    From my experience our churches are highly missional (evangelistic) at times, but not very formational. We preach, but don’t teach. This is what I would like to change. I don’t think there SHOULD be a distinction between missional and formational.

  8. Ray Says:
    June 24th, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    A few years ago we spent some time at an officers’ retreat redefining our mission as a local congregation. We came up with the following mission statement: “Westminster Presbyterian Church exists to bring people into relationship with Jesus Christ and his church, grow them in the knowledge and love of God, and send them into ministry wherever the Spirit directs.” We use the three verbs as a sort of shorthand to communicate our purpose…BRING, GROW, SEND. To the extent that we follow up our words with action (and changed lives), I think we’re on the missional/formational track you’re talking about.

    As I write this, LSU is up 11 to 4 against Texas in the final game of the College World Series. Sorry, Mark, but I think Texas is coming out on the short end of this one. My team was Southern Mississippi, but we gave away Game 1 to Texas by walking in the winning run, then we got knocked out of it by North Carolina.

    I’ll pray for God to be with you and your conference participants.

  9. Rick Cruse Says:
    June 25th, 2009 at 4:31 am

    To Forest and Mark: am wondering if Forest is missing a key element of what (at least) I understand to be central to missional. Missional is “out there” where we are sent on God’s mission. From your comment about preaching/teaching, it seems you’re thinking of “Come into our church context and we will share God’s mission with you through preaching; we will evangelize you.” The mission is not “in here,” it’s “out there” where we are missional and incarnational. I love Eugen Peterson’s rendition in the Message in John 1:14: The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”

  10. Jamie Arpin-Ricci Says:
    June 27th, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Great post! I look forward to reading more. I have often used the expression “missional formation” as an intention way of drawing focus on this question. Again, I look forward to fleshing it out.



Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

You must be logged in to post a comment.