Recent Posts
A good theologian once drew me a diagram of the progress of Christian doctrine and [more]
We began this series by making the claim that Pentecostalism has quietly (or not so [more]
Pentecostal worship places great emphasis on intensity. By intensity, they mean a strongly felt experience [more]
A polarized debate goes on between different stripes of Christians over the place of experience [more]
I am very pleased to announce that I have accepted a position with G3 Ministries  [more]

A Brief History of the Missional Church Movement

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series

"Missional Worship"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

In order to understand the driving impulses behind the North American evangelical missional church movement and its impact on worship, I will begin with a brief survey of the history of ideas embedded in missional.

Contemporary missional thinking began within the larger ecumenical missions debates in the early twentieth century. Critics of standard missionary methods argued that current foreign missions models were too tied to Western cultural superiority so as to undermine indigenous cultural forms. The earliest roots of this new missional thinking can be traced to the meetings of the International Missionary Council (IMC), in which debates about the relationship between the church and “mission” took place. The first significant, influential shift in thinking occurred in the 1938 meeting in Tambaram, India. Out of this meeting came one of the earliest articulations of indigenization and connecting mission with the church. The Council refocused missions toward God’s sending the church and emphasized the importance of indigenous ministry. The 1952 Willingen meeting built on these ideas and first rooted both mission and church in the missio Dei—the mission of God. Instead of missions being seen as an activity of the church, the church was now considered a part of the mission of God. The conclusion reached at the meeting was that “God’s salvific work precedes both the church and mission. We should not subordinate mission to the church nor the church to mission; both should, rather, be taken up into the missio Dei, which now became the overarching concept. The missio Dei institutes the missiones ecclesiae.”1


One of the influential leaders at Willingen was Lesslie Newbigin, an Anglican missionary to India. Newbigin was instrumental in formulating the position documents that resulted from the meeting, but his greatest impact upon the later missional church movement, especially in North America, came after he retired from missionary work and returned to Great Britian in 1974. Newbigin noticed upon his return that Western civilization now required the same kind of cross-cultural ministry that he advocated at Willingen and that he attempted while a missionary abroad. Newbigin recognized that the West had become “post-Christian” and pluralistic, now legitimately earning it the moniker of “pagan,” and he urged the church in the West to endeavor for a “genuine missionary encounter” with its culture.2 He began asking the penetrating question, “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western Culture’?”3 Michael Goheen summarizes the impact of Newbigin’s writings on missional ideology: “It is precisely the missionary ecclesiology developed by Newbigin that has been foundational for and formative of both his work within the ecumenical movement and his call for a missionary encounter with western culture.”4

Lesslie Newbigin’s influence spread to North America in the 1980s, leading to the formation of the Gospel and our Culture Network (GOCN) under the leadership of George Hunsberger.5 According to Hunsberger, “The GOCN is a collaborative effort that focuses on three things: (1) a cultural and social analysis of our North American setting; (2) theological reflection on the question, what is the gospel that addresses us in our setting? and (3) the renewal of the church and its missional identity in our setting.”6 The most notable missional writer from the GOCN was Darrell Gruder, whose influential Missional Church provided the material for an explosion of other thinking and writing on the subject. Hunsberger contributed to this work, and other contributing authors such as Alan J. Roxburgh and Craig Van Gelder have proven to be influential missional leaders in their own right.

Contemporary Practitioners

Perhaps the most important group to trace  because of its more direct impact upon the life of the evangelical church are those who write and teach on a more practical level, offering explanation and application of missional ideas for the contemporary church. This group includes evangelical pastors, church planters, and seminary professors who have been influenced to some degree by the missional theologians of the past and who seek to apply at least the core ideas propagated by these theologians to practical church context.

Among the practical writers/theologians, Ed Stetzer and Alan Hirsch have probably done more to spread missional ideas to the average local church planter and pastor than anyone else. Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research and missiologist in residence at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tennessee. He has planted several churches and written or edited a number of books on missiology in general and the missional church specifically, and was the driving force behind the Missional Manifesto. Another framer of the Missional Manifesto, Alan Hirsch is a South-African born church planter and the founding Director of Forge Mission Training Network. His books and teaching have also been influential in spreading a practical application of missional ideas.

Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll stand out as notable pastors who actively articulate missional thinking. Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, one of the co-founders of The Gospel Coalition, and a framer of the Missional Manifesto. Mark Driscoll founded Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington as well as the Acts 29 church planting network, which is explicitly missional in its philosophy.7 Both Keller and Driscoll have done more teaching on being missional than formal writing, but their influence is no less.

In order to clarify definitions and distinguish themselves from other groups that claim the title of “missional,” several conservative evangelical missional leaders joined forces in April of 2011 to frame a “Missional Manifesto” with the purpose of articulating core ideas underlying the term “missional” and urging evangelicals to live in light of these ideas. The framers of this document are Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsh, Tim Keller, Dan Kimball, Eric Mason, J. D. Greear, Graig Ott, Linda Bergquist, Philip Nation, and Brad Andrews. The document begins with a preamble followed by ten affirmations that encourage what the framers consider truly biblical missional engagement. The affirmations focus on authority, gospel, kingdom, mission, church, Christocentrism, disciple-making, duality, universality, and application. This series is focused primarily on the manifestation of missional ideas represented by groups who identify with the doctrinal core and missional characteristics of this Missional Manifesto.

Series NavigationPreviousNext

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 370. []
  2. Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983), 31. []
  3. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1986), 1. []
  4. Michael Goheen, “‘As The Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You’: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology” (PhD diss., Utrecht University, 2002), 22. []
  5. Darrell Guder notes Newbigin’s influence on the formation of the GOCN: “Bishop Newbigin and others have helped us to see that God’s mission is calling and sending us, the church of Jesus Christ, to be a missionary church in our own societies, in the cultures in which we find ourselves. These cultures are no longer Christian” (Darrell Guder,Missional Church: a Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America [Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998], 5). []
  6. George Hunsberger, The Church Between Gospel and Culture: the Emerging Mission in North America (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996), 290. []
  7. “The Mission of Acts 29 is to band together Christian, Evangelical, Missional & Reformed churches, who, for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, plant new churches and replant dead and dying churches across the United States and the world. This work is done in obedience to the great commission (Matt. 28:18-20), with the goal of seeing millions of lives changed by the power of the gospel” (, accessed August 9, 2011). []