Of the adjectives thrown at and by churches, missional may be the most common in current usage. From its reemergence in Francis DuBose’s “God Who Sends” in 1983 there are now more than one-thousand titles returned with an Amazon.com search of “missional.” Titles including Missional Church (Gruder), Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood (Roxburgh) and Creating a Missional Culture (Woodward and Hirsch).
Relational is also in vogue and rightly so. In a conversation we had with a woman in Slovakia since we returned last week, she insisted that a personal relationship is the most important aspect of her affiliation with the church. David Bosch’s description of how essential relationship is in navigating the troubling waters of an overwhelming flood of diversity is even more poignant now than it was twenty-two years ago with the publication of Transforming Mission. For Bosch, relationship was the interpretive lens needed for understanding a postmodern, interconnected world. Relationship, as used by Bosch however, was not simply about knowing another person.
We must resist equating being relational with being missional. You can be relational with people who are just like you. Much of the church growth movement emerging in the last fifty years and seeing a reemergence among some churches today capitalizes on our natural inclination to affiliate with people who are just like us – same race, same life-cycle, same socio-economic background, same religious or political beliefs. However, these associations with the familiar fail to meet the standard of being missional or relational in the way Bosch suggests.
At the root of missional is that we are being sent, crossing boundaries. Beginning in God’s own heart, mission starts with the outpouring of God’s love which crossed boundaries from the Divine to the despised. Reread the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.6-11 to remind yourself of the boundaries God crossed on Jesus’ way to the cross. Peter’s missional relationship began with the invitation, vision, and boundary crossing when he first accepted Cornelius as worthy of the Gospel and then entered his home (Acts 10). The rejection of Paul’s ministry in the synagogues resulted in crossing the boundaries of ethnicity to offer gentiles an opportunity to hear the Gospel. Andrew Walls describes the church’s Ephesian Moment (The Cross-cultural process in Christian History, chapter 4) when, for the first time the Gospel was translated from its base culture (Judaism) to a new culture (Greek-gentile). This process of cross-cultural translation (Walls says “diffusion”, 67) is the way the church has survived. The Gospel must be continually translated across cultural boundaries or it withers. Even more damaging to the Message, God is domesticated within one culture. Singing from the same hymnbook as Walls, Lamin Sanneh may be suggesting that we may not even understand the fullness of who God is and the fullness of the Gospel until the message is translated into and expressed by every culture (Translating the Message).
So what does this have to do with relational and relationship? Using these two words to baptize our affiliation with people who are just like us, affiliations which do not require us to cross boundaries of race, culture, socio-economic backgrounds or religious beliefs, fails to rise to the standard of being missional. Said another way: you can be relational and not be missional but you cannot be missional without being relational. Missional relationships require you to cross boundaries to establish and maintain the relationship. It is in the crossing of the boundaries to meet the other where they are that we learn more about the other, about ourselves, and about God. How many people of another race do you associate with? How many people of a different socio-economic background do you call friend? Soong Chan Rah, whose writings emphasize the importance of multicultural churches, shared during a chapel service in the fall of 2012 at Fuller Seminary, “When your milk in the refrigerator starts to smell like kimchee, then we’re family.” A missional relationship will change the smell of your milk! How can you reorient your relationships to understand God through the viewpoint of those with a different orientation than your own?