The subjects of the terms missional and leadership could, and have, filled up books for many years. Over the most recent century, the terms have been paired in multiple books, articles, and conference settings as a topic or theme. However, an authoritative definition for the phrase missional leadership does not seem to appear. After the analysis necessary for my doctoral research, and the perceived need for a stronger leadership of this type for the church, I worked to develop a definition. The definition served as the launching point for the course that was developed as a result of the study associated with my project.
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.”
The definition, as with any definition, has several parts that can be explained further. First, though not the first words of the definition, is the subject matter of the mission of God. It has been said that “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. In the arena of missional church ministry or methodology, obviously then, the mission of God is the center of a congregation’s work and the believer’s life. Throughout my research, I observed that one of the missing elements in many definitions, or in the literature around leadership, is the lack of direction given. To answer that missing element, this definition states that the point of missional leadership is the mission of God. Any attempt to teach on the subject, however, will require theological and practical definitions for the meaning of the phrase mission of God.
Second, 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. In essence, both communication and action are parts of leadership, neither of which should be diminished by the other. In fact, they should mutually complement and strengthen. Thus, my definition indicates that 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 prescriptively be applied to any leader in the church, they do serve as a warning and 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. For leadership to be most effective in moving people toward the mission of God, leaders must understand and be engaged with it as well.
Third, 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. Through his life, death on the cross, and resurrection from the dead, humanity is offered redemption. Through the life and work of Christ, 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.
Next, 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.
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.
 This quote is attributed to George Orwell. It is most associated, or a variation of it, to George Orwell, with an introduction by Peter Stone, review of Power: A New Social Analysis by Bertand Russell Bertrand Russell Society Quarterly nos. 130–31(May/August 2006).
Philip Nation is the adult ministry publishing director for LifeWay Christian Resources. Find out more on his blog.