The subjects “missional” and “leadership” have filled up books for many years. Over the last century, the terms have been paired in books, articles, and conferences. However, in all of my reading, listening and learning, I have not found an authoritative definition for the phrase “missional leadership.” As the subject of my own doctoral research, I worked to develop a definition. The definition served as the launching pad for a seminar that I developed to be taught on a seminary level. But I hope that it could be helpful for anyone engaged in church leadership as well.
My definition is:
Missional leadership is living according to and speaking comprehensively about the mission of God as first revealed in the scriptures and the life of Jesus Christ so as to guide others to surrender to and participate in the mission of God on a personal and community level.
This definition, as with any definition, has several parts that can be expanded upon. Let me give a five-fold sense to it.
1. The Subject
Though not the first words of the definition, the subject matter of our leadership is the mission of God. It was reportedly said by Orwell: “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” It is an accurate statement for leadership in the church. In order for the church to do its work, it must know the centerpiece of the work to which it is assigned. Obviously, or not so obviously, it is the mission of God is the center of a congregation’s work and the believer’s life.
2. Living It
Leadership is about both living and speaking. In the case of missional leadership, it must be personal to the leader before it can become personal for the follower. Communication and action are parts of leadership, neither of which should be diminished by the other. They should compliment and strengthen one another. The leader should be able to speak about the mission of God and personally live out its implications.
The dual impact rises from the biblical passages that offer the qualifications necessary for people to serve in the capacity of elders or pastors in the church. Though these passages should not be prescriptively applied to any leader in the church, they do serve as a guide for what is required from the character of those who serve as leaders in the church.
Additionally, leaders must be able to communicate information thoroughly about the mission of God. Though in some cases this will include preaching or some other type of systematic instruction, “speaking comprehensively” can also include simple conversations. Leaders of any sort in the church should be able to describe for their followers what the goal of the work is in which they are leading.
3. Source of Authority
Leaders must take the Scriptures as their primary source of authority and information in leading people into God’s mission. Though a certain amount of knowledge about God can be gleaned from general revelation, his special revelation through the Bible gives believers and the church specific instructions for actions. In particular, the church is to look to Christ as her head to understand how to live and what to do. In Him, believers are also given his life and teachings to follow as the specific manner in which to engage in God’s mission. Leaders in the church should point believers to the Bible and the life of Christ as the primary sources for understanding the mission of God.
4. Moving People to Action
Missional leadership should “guide others to surrender to and participate in the mission of God.” Leadership involves mobilizing followers into action. In politics, business, and even family structures, leaders have goals to which they move followers to engage. Success is often measured by the metrics of goals met or missed. For the church, leaders should work to move people to engage in the mission of God. The words “surrender” and “participate” are chosen in order to signal the seriousness of attitude the church should have to the mission of God. The mission of God should be the overarching priority and the primary activity in the life of the Christian.
5. Public and Private
Finally, the definition emphasizes the idea that the mission of God is engaged on both private and public levels. Throughout my literature review, the work of God’s mission is posited as something the church does as a community of faith. However, the church is not a mechanical entity, but rather a relational community of Christian people. Thus, both individuals and congregations should embrace God’s mission. It is a work that was given by Christ to believers (Matthew 28:18–20) and is assigned to the church (Ephesians 3:10). Since leadership in the church occurs at both the individual and corporate level, then missional leadership must be focused on both levels as well.
The definition is one that will certainly come under scrutiny—and rightfully so, as it is meant to represent the study associated with one doctoral project. It is my hope that it will provoke others to sincerely consider how and where they are leading the church.
Philip Nation is the Director of Content Development with Lifeway, and serves as Teaching Pastor for The Fellowship, a multi-campus church in Nashville, TN. His latest book is Habits for Our Holiness: How the Spiritual Disciplines Grow Us Up, Draw Us Together, and Send Us Out. He is also the coauthor of Compelled: Living the Mission of God and Transformational Discipleship: How People Really Grow.