How to Get the Missional Ball Rolling

Without looking like you’re just pursuing a new ministry fad, how do you get started?

How to Get the Missional Ball Rolling

So, you want to become more intentionally missional.

You’ve heard the stories of amazing missional endeavors, and the incredible fruit they’ve seen. You want to be more intentionally incarnational. You’ve read books, watched videos online, scrolled through websites and tweets, and you get it. You’re ready. You’re pumped/jazzed/motivated.

But like any leader, you want your whole group to jump onboard with you. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing with the whole church, right?

Amen and amen. But without looking like you’re just pursuing a new ministry fad, how do you get the ball rolling?

1. Define your terms carefully and with pith.

In other words, make them clearly understood, and easy to remember.

Terms like “incarnational,” for example. There are some theologically-awkward nuances when using this word to describe the ministry of Joe Average or Jane Anybody. To be completely accurate, we are incapable of being incarnational in the same sense that Jesus was. We are not Deity taking on human form. We are ambassadors of Jesus (as Paul says in Romans), but we are not literally an incarnation of Him.

Some people honestly do find the use of incarnational questionable and off-putting. Don’t argue with them. Concede the point, agree that the word is theologically imprecise at best, and instead point out how the intent of the word’s usage is very biblical. In a “what would Jesus do” sense, the concept of being incarnational fits. Just as Jesus “moved into the neighborhood” (as Eugene Peterson brilliantly translates John 1:14 in The Message), we are also called to be in the marketplace. We need to fully be a part of the culture around us.

Another word that gets a lot of press, but is not always clearly defined, is the term missional. For many people, missional has become unequally yoked to the phrase: “preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Like the use of incarnational, the intent behind this sentiment is a good one: we need to get outside the four walls of the church and serve our communities, particularly the “least of these my brethren.”

Unfortunately, this has often resulted in a lot of Christians doing much-needed acts of service for the poor and disadvantaged in their cities, but not a lot of actual sharing of the Gospel message of redemption. As Joe Aldrich wrote in Lifestyle Evangelism, they “have an audience but not a message.”

Missional is NOT:

  • Acts of service done for their own sake alone
  • Acts of service in order to ram the gospel down someone’s throat
  • Acts of service done as the Gospel

Missional IS:

  • Joining Jesus “on mission”—when He performed miracles or cast out demons, Jesus preached and taught the people as well (both/and)
  • Acts of service based in compassion for others (and true Christian compassion will include issues of eternity)
  • Acts of service based in compassion, assuming that at some point, our Jesus-story can’t help but leak out

2. Take your church’s current “missional pulse” before assuming anything else.

For example, do you already have people in your church whose careers are “missional” in the sense of serving the “least of these”? Social workers, crisis foster parents, or any of the “care-giving” professions, as well as people who are already volunteering somewhere outside of church (soup kitchen, homeless shelter, crisis pregnancy center, etc.).

Many churches don’t take these people into account when they assess their missionality (is that even a word?). Many of your “care-giving” professionals and volunteers have very different needs and challenges than those who aren’t in more “missional” vocations. They actually do need “to be fed and refreshed”—it’s not just an excuse to avoid get involved in any church-based missional initiatives! If we fail to provide for these legitimate spiritual needs, we may drive away some of our most missional people.

3. Does your current leadership workload (including volunteers serving as elders, deacons, youth leaders, children’s ministry, etc.) allow for an added level of missional participation?

By this, I am simply asking whether or not adding yet another level of expectations is realistic. We all agree that healthy life balance is of vital importance for Christians. The concept of a Sabbath rest is not just an Old Testament rule; it’s an important rhythm of life that God has built into us. For example:

The average person works at least 40 hours per week; if they serve at church as an elder, youth leader, worship team member etc., then you can tack on an additional three hours.

If they’re involved in a home group—and most churches recognize and rightfully recommend the importance of smaller group fellowship for spiritual growth and accountability—then add another two or three hours. We are now at a minimum of 46-48 hours of commitment. Not counting the actual church worship service(s). Let’s round that number up to 50 hours per week.

Advocating a missional component might end up feeling like yet another level of expectations being placed on people. (And takes yet another night of the week away from their kids, who haven’t been tucked in at night by both parents for as long as they can remember.)

Unless, of course, instead of adding another level of involvement by trying to be more missional, you help people transition in their thinking, to creatively envision ways for each of these already-existing ministries to develop a missional outlook.

4. Not everyone will be at the same place—in a spiritual maturity sense—at the same time (another blazing insight into the obvious, eh?).

The beauty of church-based missional initiatives is that there is an in-house opportunity that any interested people can join whenever they catch the vision for it. These initiatives can also result in deeper friendships as people discover the joys, trials and triumphs of serving together.

The (potential) down-side of church-based missional initiatives is two-fold:

(A) The missional project could easily become just anther layer of attractional ministry, except that instead of being invited to a church service, newcomers are invited to a service that the church provides (a great example would be a coffee-shop run by the church—perhaps even in the church building). An additional concern would be the potential of such a coffee-shop so dominating the church’s vision (budgets, staffing, financial feasibility, etc.) that other “traditional” church functions (teaching, discipleship, fellowship, worship) are neglected.

(B) Being incarnational (in the functional sense, not the theological), means getting outside the four walls of the church and engaging the local community/culture. A church-run coffee-shop, especially if housed in the church building, could potentially function as another Christian enclave. (There are numerous instances where such coffee-shops were typically filled with a majority of Christian patrons, as well as the staff.)

The benefit of church-sponsored initiatives is that they can provide a perpetual entry point for missional ministry. And as long as the leaders keep revisiting what being incarnational and missional actually mean, these church-based initiatives can function as a great introduction to—but not the ultimate expression of—community engagement.

5. The ultimate goal is incarnational missional engagement; incarnational being defined as “coming alongside,” and missional being defined as “on mission with/of Jesus.”

Sometimes, that will be best served by teams of people from church joining together with a common ministry interest. Sometimes, that can mean church-based initiatives that impact the local parish community. And at other times, that could also mean coming alongside an existing opportunity (i.e., a homeless shelter), and serving both the clients of the shelter and the staff who work there 24/7.

The most organic and natural way to increase missional engagement in a church is through small groups. Small groups require less organizational structure in becoming missional—especially if they are coming alongside to support existing opportunities. And even within these small groups, it should be “normal” for individuals and smaller groups (two or three) to have a similar interest/burden, and for these micro-groups to pursue their own missional outlets.


Can you imagine? A church coffee-shop as a missional entry point for your parishioners. Multiple existing “secular” outreach opportunities in need of volunteers that your incarnational-missional-minded people can come alongside. Small groups seeking God for (and finding) their own unique missional expression. People from your church, whose vocations are missional, mentoring volunteers from your church.

One thing is for certain: In order to have maximum and sustainable participation in a missional church, leaders will have to embrace a multi-faceted and constantly-shifting vision of what that could look like.

Robby McAlpine
Robby McAlpine is a veteran pastor, worship leader, missionary, and writer. He is a regular contributor at, and has written numerous books, including Detoxing from Church, Post-Charismatic 2.0: Rekindle the Smoldering Wick, and The Genesis Cafe: Conversations on the Kingdom. Robby and Wendy have been married for 29 years, and have three incredible kids: a social worker, a missionary, and a student. Visit Robby McAlpine at