Why Missional Networks Are Replacing Failing Denominations

The calling to participate in the mission of God led many families of shared belief to organize missionary societies for the sake of the propagation of the good news of Jesus to unreached peoples.

William Carey is often noted as the father of modern missions for his instrumental role in the establishment of the first of these independent societies in 1792 when he was sent to India. However, within a few decades, missionary societies were sprouting up all across the church landscape in countries with state churches (Scottish Missionary Society, 1796) to denominational families of belief.

As these structures evolved, it became clear that their purpose was to unify the efforts of a variety of disparate churches and people into a more focused approach for mission endeavor.

The belief that God had called them to this work may have been the cause, but the practical purpose (purposive intent) was to be a community together in mission that led to the further expansion of the good news of Christ. This idea of purposive intent is articulated in many of the basic definitions of a modern denomination.

In picking up this mantle, many of these fledgling denominations joined in the spirit of God’s intention for the church from the beginning – to be a community in mission. This is the direction that churches in covenant move towards in order to participate in the mission of God.

Of course, it is entirely possible for one local and independent church to participate in the mission of God, but, instead, it chooses to participate in cooperation with other congregations because of the communal nature of the church and for the effectiveness of mission.

Understanding the Term ‘Church’

It is interesting to reflect how the authors of the New Testament chose one word to describe various representations of the “church.”

In many cases, the word ecclesia refers to a particular congregation in a particular place that is inherently local. This is the sense of the term used most often in the New Testament. A second use from the New Testament authors refers to a cluster of congregations in a general region.

Van Gelder, in The Essence of the Church, goes on to state that this is where the concept of synods or regions within a denomination developed. Finally, the third use (but second in quantity) refers to the universal or catholic church and more often describes attributes of the church as opposed to activities.

The fact that the same Greek word is chosen to describe all three of these uses should make clear that the New Testament authors imagined all three of these expressions of church operating together, for they were all “the church,” and yet also with distinctiveness between them.

The church was a unity of smaller “church” communities (both local and regional) carrying out mission (presumably the Great Commission, but with subsequent impetus as further revelation was added).

What is often given the least attention, though, is the second usage of the “church” in the New Testament, the cluster concept, quite possibly because the second usage is not uniform in the circumstances in which it is used as a descriptor. Van Gelder states that, in general, this usage describes “mobile missional structures” that exist beyond local congregations for the purpose of intertwining, coordinating, and expanding ministry.

However, the structures which this usage of ecclesia describes are not all the same: some are leaders sent out from congregations, others are teams sent out for resource purposes, and others are simply at- large leaders. Yet, all these contributed to the joining of the local ecclesias together to form a larger expression of ecclesia for mission, so that these churches more fully expressed the values and aspirations of the universal ecclesia.

Mission as the Main Goal

In the contemporary environment, with a renewed focus on the church as a participant in the reign of God’s kingdom, and the local church as a mission outpost and representative of that kingdom to a particular mission context, it makes complete theological sense that local churches would want to join together in creating a new form of church missionary society whereby they can connect, collaborate, and develop new mission and ministry.

This is the activity that new networks will be focused on. If the binding cause around which new, covenanted church communities will gather is the missio Dei, and the intent of their gathering together is to be a community participating in the mission of God together, then the ultimate outcome will be a maturing and multiplying of gospel-centered communities that are both incarnational and eschatological.

Karl Rahner famously observed, “The local Christian community is the visible sign of salvation that God has established in this seemingly godless world.”

It is the community rhythms, practices, leadership roles, and such that make this community “visible.” The church draws strong precedence for this form of ministry engagement through none other than the life and ministry of Jesus himself.

Through the divine incarnation, Jesus came as the embodiment of God upon the earth, announcing and demonstrating the kingdom of God to a particular people at a particular time. Yet renowned missiologists Frost and Hirsch have pressed this truth further to clarify the extent of the incarnation when stating, “Within the pages of the New Testament we discover that God is actually Christlike, as opposed to our normal assumption that Jesus is Godlike.”

In light of the incarnation, all who seek the true God discover who He is and what He is like through the person of Jesus. Therefore, it is Christology, which provides one of the more specific guiding points within the mission of God, for the shaping of the church.

Whether it is recognized or not by those who engage in ministry, all ministry is inherently theological. The manner and scope in which it is performed demonstrates what a person or particular group of people believe or do not believe about God.

Emerging generations of leaders are aware of this reality, and as has been noted are less pragmatic in their approach and more oriented towards theological grounding for ministry activity. Not only for their essential health, but to garner the interest of those that will lead them, new church networks will need to have a foundational theological basis for their existence and activity.


Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.


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