In God’s Missionary People, Charles Van Engen lays out a theology of the church that is decidedly “missional.” Though he usually uses the word “mission” rather than “missional,” in many ways he anticipates the theological perspective of Missional Church, the seminal book edited by Darrell Guder (1998). Van Engen asserts that the “essential nature of the local congregation is, in and of itself, mission” (p. 70), and this mission is to be the unifying, proclaiming, sanctifying, and reconciling body of Jesus Christ in the world.
The subtitle of Van Engen’s book is “Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church.” Many churches have had an inward purpose, directing fellowship, service, and proclamation only towards believers. Fellowship should have a purpose beyond itself, service should be to the world, and proclamation of the good news should be towards those who most need to hear this good news (non-Christians). This inward focus is indeed a problem.
Van Engen is highly influenced by Karl Barth. He quotes Barth on proclamation, and he follows Barth’s view that the church’s ministry should encompass the threefold offices of Christ: prophet, priest, and king; however, he furthers Barth’s work by emphasizing that these roles are to be performed out in the world. The church is the “prophetic-priestly-kingly people sent out into the world by Christ” (p. 124). Van Engen fails to give practical examples of how these roles might be fulfilled by the church, perhaps because he recognizes that “how a local congregation exercises these roles depends very much on the church’s context” (p. 124).
More current missional works de-emphasize numerical growth, instead calling the church to merely be faithful in serving the world and proclaiming the kingdom of God, regardless of results. Van Engen believes in these practices, but he also believes that a yearning for numerical growth is “an essential mark of the presence of the true Church.”
In this assertion, he references his previous work, The Growth of the True Church (written in 1981 during the Church Growth movement). Some reviewers has taken this as a sign that Van Engen’s theology is being shaped by a new pragmatism with an end goal of simply more numbers, or that Van Engen is willing to compromise faithfulness for growth. Such charges are unwarranted. The church ought to yearn for numerical growth (numbers represent people), so long as this is conversion growth and not transfer growth. God’s glory is increased as more people are brought under his reign.
In the last part of the book, Van Engen has an emphasis upon administration, stating that “missionary congregations will only emerge when we . . . develop administrative structures which propel the people of God out in ministry in the world” (p. 192). Again, no examples are given on how this should be done, but this statement does show Van Engen’s concern that the missional church concept should move from theory to reality.