Missional leadership is not as mysterious or difficult as you might think. It is simply embodying the work of a missionary in your context—and teaching others to do the same.
As the body of Christ, the Church is bearer of Divine blessing, and sign, foretaste and instrument of the Kingdom. Missional leadership articulates the vision and shapes the values that call into being and form a community in consistent missional engagement—and prompts the inner heart transformation necessary to do it.
As Yale professor and theologian Miroslav Volf puts it:
“[There is] no Church without the reign of God…[and] no reign of God without the Church.”
I have found missiologist Lesslie Newbigin helpful in gaining a vision for missional leadership. He writes:
“Missional ecclesiology is bound up with the logic of election: The one (or few) is chosen for the sake of the many, and the particular is chosen for the sake of the universal—not for special privilege but special responsibility.”
I want to show you three simple, missional steps that an ordinary pastor can take to gain the humble confidence necessary to live into that special responsibility and become a missional leader.
Missional Step 1: Cultivate a Profound Imagination.
Before doing any act of missional leadership, pastors must cultivate an imagination for the sent-ness implicit in Christian spirituality. (See Matt. 10:1, 7, 8; Luke 9:1, 2; 10:1, 9; John 20:20, 21; 2 Cor. 5:17-20.)
To cultivate this imagination, you might want to sit for a good while with Jesus’ Great Commission. Don’t engage with it as an exegetical task (unless you really need to for understanding). Don’t read it to find sermon points.
Rather, read it in a Lectio way. Put yourself in the position of Jesus’ first friends: How do you hear Jesus? What is his tone? What do you suppose he intended his friends to hear? What did he intend them to do about what they heard? Do you think he meant to impart fear, anxiety and shame in the face of a daunting task? How might they have left that meeting and started the journey? How might you respond to Jesus?
It is not enough to criticize and deconstruct approaches to mission and evangelism from the 20th century. Spiritual and intellectual honesty call today’s church leaders to construct new approaches that fit our space and time—and to do so in alignment with the words of Jesus: You now go teach others to follow me.
In addition, you might want to engage in a Lectio reading of Paul’s dream of “The Man in Macedonia” (Acts 16: 6-10). Can you imagine being addressed and guided by the Holy Spirit in such a missional way? Can you sense the partnership with the Trinity that Paul must have felt? Can you imagine such a partnership giving your missional leadership a gentle confidence?
The text tells us Paul’s reaction: “After seeing the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
Talk to Jesus about all this. Ask the Spirit to speak to you—to help you and your congregation come to a conclusion about whom you are called to reach with the Gospel.
Missional Step 2: Articulate Vision and Values.
Once you have an imagination for the Spirit-filled people of God on the move as the cooperative friends of God and his kingdom, you can then begin the chief job of leadership: to make meaning and to define reality.
A missional leader, casting vision and emphasizing a set of values, seeks to bring each member of the church and the whole church into alignment with the present ruling and reigning of God, and into cooperation with the movements of the Holy Spirit. Missional leadership takes seriously the words of Jesus: “It is better that I go away and that the Spirit come…” We live, by God’s plan and purpose, in the age of the Holy Spirit. The Church cannot participate in the mission of Jesus except through the person and work of the Spirit. God’s purposes in full-orbed, others-oriented, missional discipleship require a power that matches his intentions. This power comes from the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Luke 24:49, “Wait until you have received power from on high,” is a paradigmatic passage and reality for Christian ministry.
As a vision-caster and value-shaper, a missional leader calls for exercising the gifts Paul highlights in Ephesians 4: casting an apostolic vision; gently pastoring people forward; teaching (explaining biblical content), prophecy (showing the gaps in our communities between the “sentness” I describe and our actual behavior) and evangelism (calling for spiritual transformation into a missional commitment).
How does a pastor do those things? In your preaching. In vestry meetings. In staff and leadership meetings. In your church newsletter. Vision and values die easily—so communicate them in a variety of ways, in a variety of settings and on a variety of platforms.
Missional Step 3: Get Comfortable in Your Cultural Context.
Missional leadership engages culture and cultural change with a gentle, peaceful confidence rooted in the experienced knowledge that Divine wisdom and love are superintending creation toward Divine intention.
For instance, we don’t have to be fearful of the phase humanity seems to be going through regarding human sexuality—and human sex organs mixed with Artificial Intelligence and robots, etc. This exploration is not going to stop any time soon. It will get much worse before it gets better. We also don’t need to panic about the current state of civil discourse regarding partisan politics.
Non-anxious, confident missional leadership is grounded in the notion that This is our Father’s world. Humanity remains God’s project. We live in a Trinitarian-bathed world which, by his loving, wise design, is perfectly suited to finding God and serving others.
Of God’s telos we can be totally assured: One day, Jesus will hand over the kingdom to his Father and everything will be perfect. This means that the Church, within its various cultures, can cultivate habits of heart from which we love extravagantly, take joyful risks and forgive generously. As missional leaders, we are at peace within our turbulent cultural context.
With an imagination shaped by these three steps, we can begin to live gently, peaceably, little by little into the missional leadership I have just portrayed and commended to you. If you do so, you will be modeling a missional life and missional leadership. And as we learn from the Apostle Paul, modeling is a core practice of spiritual teaching—and thus of missional leadership:
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
I love being on the journey of becoming a missional leader. I have pursued it for 44 years and I never tire of it! I value the constant learning and formation it produces in me. And I would love to engage you in conversation about it.
If you resonate with these thoughts on missional leadership, and want to explore it further in a group of like-minded clergy, I warmly invite you to join me at The Intersection Conference, May 14-15 in Nashville, TN. Learn more here.