Missional church: What it can do for church growth

Deep roots in Jesus will bring a greater impact for church growth.

Skip Bell, DMin, is professor of Christian leadership and director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.


Editor’s Note: Skip Bell talks with Michael Cauley who recently completed a Doctor of Ministry degree at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States. His doctoral concentration involved a missional church project, leading to the establishment of a new church.

Skip Bell (SB): Dr. Cauley, tell us what the missional church is all about.

Michael Cauley (MC): The term comes from the book, Missional Church, co-authored by six authors and edited by Darrell Guder.1 Guder’s thesis says that the problem the North American Adventist Church currently finds itself in will not be solved through programs or methodology, but rather through a mission built around spiritual and theological renewal.2 Such a renewal-based mission is what Jesus stated in John 20:21, “ ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ ”3 The foundational principle of the Scripture is that God is a sending God. He sent His messengers, prophets, and finally the Son in the process of incarnation (Heb. 1:1). That theological foundation forms the missional church.

SB: How do you see this fulfilling a biblical gospel commission?

MC: After claiming authority in heaven and on earth, the first word in the Great Commission given by Jesus is, “ ‘Go’ ” (Matt. 28:18–20). God’s mission is a “go” mission. Just as Jesus was sent to earth to show us who our Father is, we are sent into the world to show who Jesus is. There is no doubt that we are called to proclaim the gospel as was Jesus (Mark 1:14); our challenge is that the way we live our lives is not always consistent with what we wish to proclaim.4

SB: What are the implications of missional church for young-adult Adventists in Western culture?

MC: How are you living your life? The missional church calls us to accountability regarding how we actually live in our community—in the world outside the church. Alan and Debra Hirsch point out, “The fact that the almighty God, Creator of all that is, hung out in a regular neighborhood doing regular things for thirty years without anyone noticing is simply staggering. So hidden was God in Jesus that even his disciples didn’t quite get who they were dealing with until after the resurrection. . . . The incarnation therefore shapes our discipleship.”5 Our lives show consistent evidence of whom we are following.

As a thirty-something young Adventist, I must ask myself, What evidence in my life confirms that I am following Jesus versus following self? In Matthew 22:37–40, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, which we refer to as the Great Commandment. After quoting Deuteronomy, Jesus links Leviticus 19:18 with the words “ ‘You shall love,’ ” which He patterns after a common rabbinic practice known as equal category.6 As a result, His teaching reflects the importance of loving God and loving humanity.

As followers of Jesus we are called to unify our lives under the Lordship of Christ as evidenced through our love for humanity. One of my favorite authors, Gerald Vann, challenges us to ask ourselves “whether our desire and use of good things are also good, and making for unity, or disordered, and making for disruption and rebellion against God.”7

SB: How did you catch a vision for missional church?

MC: At the age of sixteen, I began to sense a disconnect between the traditional approach to life that I had been taught as a Seventh-day Adventist and the realities of the needs of the world in which I lived.

As I sought answers from the leaders in my church to the questions that gnawed at my mind, I became discouraged. The responses I received did not adequately meet my needs. Today, as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, I examine the Seventh-day Adventist churches in North America and the realities of the communities in which they exist, and I ask some of those same questions: Why are so many of my peers choosing to leave the church of their childhood? Why isn’t there more evidence of lives that have been changed by a local church community? Why do we try to “fix” people before we bring them to Jesus? Why are the majority of local church budgets spent on buildings and programs, both of which give an invitation to come when Jesus says, “Go”?

SB: How has missional church transformed your life, and your family?

MC: I believe the greatest work that God has done over the last four years of my experience in missional church planting has been in me. My way of life has changed dramatically and my leadership ability has grown tremendously—results, I believe, of God pouring Himself into me as I have sought Him. As He has poured Himself into me, I have poured myself into others. Although I know more now than I did four years ago about living as a missionary in North America, I still have a lot to learn.

It has been a family journey; the support of my wife, Ashley, and the understanding of my children, Ella and Anna, has been crucial. My hope is that this journey has brought us closer to Jesus and to one another as a family.

My oldest child, Ella, became a missionary when she was seven months old and my youngest Anna was born into a missionary family.

Neither one of them chose this way of life. Ashley and I chose it for them; through it they have experienced miracles, but have also been exposed to a depth of depravity within the human race that I would have liked to have kept from them longer. My hope is that they clearly see Jesus’ grace replaces the depravity of those with whom we live as they begin their own journey of following Jesus as Lord and growing as His disciples.

SB: Where and with whom does the missional life begin?

MC: The incarnational missional life is the life that begins by showing up in people’s lives and abiding with them. Making ourselves available for our neighborhood. Living like Jesus. Having fun. Enjoying people. Loving them. Fellowshipping with them. Giving ourselves away to them.

SB: What barriers stand in the way of living the missional life?

MC: The first barrier I see is fear of what living the missional life requires, personally and professionally. Missional leaders of the Adventist Church in North America in the twenty-first century must not be satisfied with just following the institutional programs; they must seek the mission of God, listen to what He wants to teach, and engage the secular society in order to share the gospel in light of the three angels’ messages. To accomplish this, leaders must listen to the voice of God and the needs of the culture in which the people are living.

The second barrier is that the Adventist Church in North America is not, in my opinion, financially structured to support mission. This is an extremely complex issue, but from my experience I see giving coming from institutional churches and primarily returning to institutional churches for ministries that are not targeting the mission field of North America. I am not advocating we cease supporting institutional churches but that we also address the mission needs in North America.

SB: How does your spiritual life support your life as a missionary in Western culture?  

MC: The local church’s mission must be grounded in the spiritual life of each member, beginning with its leadership. I spend time in silence listening to God, studying the Bible for the purpose of having my life transformed, praying for wisdom and discernment, fasting through difficult circumstances, opening my life up to an accountability partner twice a month, and going on retreats regularly to hear the voice of God.

This foundation for mission stemming from the spiritual life cannot be mandated from the top down. Instead it must be a grassroots movement that begins small and grows proportionately to its rootedness in Jesus Christ. The deeper the movement’s roots are in Jesus, the greater the impact for the kingdom the movement will have.

SB: How did you launch the missional experience?

MC: I started by giving my life away. I’m still learning how to do this, but this is the process I’m currently following:

1. Spend time with Jesus through prayer, Bible study, fasting, retreat, and silence.

2. Discipline myself to live in community, beginning with my wife and daughters.

3. Extend my community to abide with broken people where God tells me to show up.

4. Die to the “isms”: consumerism, materialism, and individualism.

5. Walk in this way of life first and model it for others.

SB: What has been your greatest personal challenge to live life as a missionary in Western culture?  

MC: Recently, I had dinner with Neil Cole, an advocate for mission in Western culture, and several Seventh-day Adventist leaders. Cole mentioned the greatest hindrance to mission moving forward in Western society is the program-driven, consumer-oriented church model. I believe that this is the greatest challenge missionaries find themselves up against. A call to “come die with me” is not as appealing as a call to “come consume with me.” This has been a great challenge for me as well because my commitment to living deeply with God and others takes time and there is no good way to keep score of it.

SB: If someone wishes to engage their community as a mission field, what would be the first three steps that he or she should take?

MC: First, pray. Ellen White counsels those who begin work in new areas to form a team of seven to study the needs of the city and prayerfully decide how to reach the city.8 If you don’t have seven people who can pray with you, start with whom you have. We had three: myself, my wife, and my seventhmonth-old daughter.

Second, make it a priority to spend time with your neighbors. This is not a waste of your time—rather the best use of your time. I made the mistake of being so overwhelmed with getting a program going at first, that I was too tired to spend time with my community. As I have changed my priorities, I am amazed at the relationships I’ve built in a relatively short amount of time—eighteen to twenty-four months.

Third, invest in the lives of those who you see changing. Challenge them to lead; teach them how to study the Bible for themselves, not only to know doctrine, but to be transformed; empower them with resources; help them get into a coaching relationship so that the change taking place in them will be grounded.

SB: Is there a support network for like-minded missional leaders within the Adventist Church in Western culture?

MC: Yes. Beginning the spring of 2011, a Doctor of Ministry program, “Missional Church: A Biblical Response to Western Culture” will be offered through the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. You can find out more information by visiting www.doctorofministry.com. My doctoral program at Andrews provided tremendous support for me, and we envision this cohort doing the same for others.


1 Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998).

2 Alan Hirsch, Leadership Journal, Fall 2008.

3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

4 Alan and Debra Hirsch, Untamed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 248.

5 Ibid., 233, 234.

6 “Which Is the Great Commandment of the Law?” in Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 33b:647.

7 Gerald Vann, Of His Fullness (New York: P. J. Kennedy and Sons, 1939), 11.

8 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 37.

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Skip Bell, DMin, is professor of Christian leadership and director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

April 2011

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