October 22, 2014 / Charles Self

Missional IS Ecumenical

Missional Christianity is ecumenical. Partnering with God in the divine mission for the world organically integrates all followers of Christ. For nearly two millennia Christians of every tradition unite through

  • Allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, Incarnate, Crucified and Risen
  • Affirmation of the Apostles and Nicene Creed
  • Adherence to the Great Commission
  • Allowing the Great Commandment to shape discipleship

This “faith once entrusted to all the saints” encouraged martyrs in the Roman arenas, propelled apostolic mission along the Silk Road, and empowered millions of ordinary believers in the midst of great challenges. In the 21st century, churches of every stream of Christian culture and history, language and liturgy face persecution, from marginalization in the West to martyrdom in regions controlled by militants.  En extremis, believers do not have the luxury of debating the finer points of liturgical expression or eschatological speculation.

“Missional” and “Ecumenical” are terms fraught with misperception and pregnant with meaning. This essay seeks to demonstrate their inseparability and discover the power of their integration for the work of the church.

For the past century, internecine wars among Christian traditions fragmented both particular denominations and the thinking of Christ followers. Geoffrey Holsclaw and others have demonstrated that the evangelism vs. social justice dichotomy was one fight in one group, but did not extend to all Christian movements. “Ecumenical” became synonymous with theological liberalism for most evangelicals. Among academic and social elites, the lines between ecumenical discussions among Christians and interreligious dialogues between people of all faiths have blurred, further confusing meaning and creating debates concerning evangelization.

In the midst of these historic conflicts and unprecedented global changes, “missional” Christian movements and networks emerged in the West. Missional embraces the missionary task of the Church but places it in the larger context of the Mission of God, with focus on active outreach that embraces evangelization and compassion, proclamation and service to the broken and marginalized. Sometimes missional is used in contrast to the (supposedly) passé “attractional” way of outreach focused on the church’s buildings and programs. This is simplistic and mostly unhelpful, since some wonderful mega-churches are just as missional as cell-based communities with a few score souls.

Ecumenical is a rich term directing our attention to the stewardship of the gospel shared by all confessing Christians (Eph. 3). In praxis, godly ecumenism opens new doors of dialogue, shared resources, common witness and mutual appreciation.

Missional Christianity is ecumenical. God’s work in the world is helped or hindered by the unity of the entire Body of Christ is a city or region. Such unity arises from more than a few beliefs. It includes message and ministry, relationships and transformational alliances yielding effective ministry.

Missional-as-ecumenical praxis might include:

  • Church planters cooperating and consulting with leaders from any and every Christian movement as they begin their new communities.
  • Revitalization efforts that embrace the growth of every fellowship in the city or region.
  • Shared worship and learning experiences that remove barriers, correct misunderstandings and create shared encounters with the Triune God.
  • A common witness for justice as the poor are fed, the vulnerable defended and the broken are healed in Jesus’ Name.
  • Cooperative relationships that go beyond occasional events, with local churches appreciating and enhancing each other’s unique gifts and strengths.
  • Creative educational and missionary efforts that welcome multiple streams of global Christianity.
  • Wealthier congregations sharing resources with struggling parishes so that all communities witness effectively to the love of Jesus Christ.

Missional is ecumenical. The Cross of Christ secures the unity of the people of God and the resurrection and gift of the Spirit enable us to maintain and enhance this peace (Ephesians 2-4).

Such reflections might be dismissed as unrealistic as the practical work of ministry takes place. Pastors and priests may refuse to cooperate. Some groups will regard such sentiments as compromise. Others are too busy keeping their work afloat to devote much energy to ecumenical enterprises. The priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan were reasonable in their refusal to help the man “left for dead.” After all, why risk ceremonial uncleanness on their way to their (perhaps once-in-a-lifetime) duties in Jerusalem?

The West struggles with evangelization and transformative discipleship precisely because her churches are competitive and fragmented. Paraphrasing Eugene Peterson: too many leaders are dusting off their spiritual products hoping they will be a bit better that the “shop” down the street. When missional communities seek the welfare of their city, including the blessing of each gospel community, they will experience increased influence.

Missional is ecumenical. This is not theoretical for me. I am a Pentecostal serving my denominational seminary. I also work for the Acton Institute – a think tank founded by Roman Catholics that embraces all Christian traditions. I am part of the Oikonomia Network of 18 Evangelical seminaries dedicated to whole-life discipleship that integrates Sunday worship and Monday work.  I have the joy of serving Missio Alliance. I am part of Messenger Fellowship, a safe place for leaders who love the ways of God. I was a founding Board member (1996-1998) of the Salem Leadership Foundation, a transformative agency enhancing the city by mobilizing the church. In every pastorate – whether as an associate, interim or lead pastor – I sought out friendship and partnership with any and every Trinitarian community. It is an honor to speak in a variety of colleges and seminaries. All of these wonderful past and present opportunities involve hard work, moments of challenge and willingness for others to receive the applause.

Missional IS ecumenical. Every moment of shared worship and witness is a proleptic event, offering glimpse of the eternal future we will enjoy.