The Missional Helix—An Overview

I was sitting in a small group of pastors, church planters, and ministry leaders at a 3dm Learning Community, discerning what God was telling us about steps forward in ministry.  David described to our group how 25 years ago he had planted the church where he still ministers and which today has over 2,500 members. Though others see him as exceptionally successful, his heart is inwardly perturbed.  His church, he says, is more a vendor of goods and services than a community of disciples on mission with God.  Attenders (and even members) come with differing motives.  For some, it is a duty; for others, it is a place to meet people of influence; for still others, it provides moral instruction for their children.  Church attendance assuages guilt and declares to others (and to self) that “I am religious.”  A spiritual responsibility has been discharged; therefore, all is well. Observing the worldliness of his members and fearing for the future of his church in an increasing secular culture, he exclaimed, “What have I created!”  He was hearing God say that his ministry task during his final era of ministry was to transform this church into a disciple-making community on mission with God.

To leaders like David, the Missional Helix provides a process—a meta-narrative, a way of thinking—to guide them in forming the practices of ministry for church renewal and church planting. Missional Helix for Blog

The Missional Helix[1] visualizes ministry formation as a spiral. The coils turn round and round, passing the same landmarks, but always at a slightly higher level. This spiral, a helix, describes the process of effective ministry formation.

The spiral begins with theological reflection – examining theologies which focus and form our perspectives of culture and the practice of ministry, such as the missio Dei, the kingdom of God, incarnation, and atonement. Cultural analysis, the second element of the Missional Helix, enables missionaries and ministers to define types of peoples within a cultural context, to understand the social construction of their reality, to perceive how they are socially related to one another, and to explain how the Christian message intersects with every aspect of culture (birth rites, coming-of-age rituals, weddings, funerals, and so on). The spiral then considers what has occurred historically in the missional context. Historical perspective narrates how things became what they are, based on the interrelated stories of the particular nation, tribe, lineage, the church, and God’s mission. Finally, strategy formation helps shape the practical methodology of ministry.  The Missional Helix illustrates how contextual strategies draw deeply from cultural and historical understandings to theologically discern what God is saying about the practice of ministry and to then develop actual practices to implement the strategies. This shaping of ministry, however, takes place within the environment of spiritual formation as Christian servants humbly submit their lives to a covenant relationship with God as Father and enthrone Christ as their King.

The Relationship between the Five Elements of Ministry Formation

The Missional Helix’s spiral illustrates how the missionary returns time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically under the guiding hand of God to develop Missional Helix for Blog 3ministry models appropriate to the local context. Theology, social understandings, historical development of these understandings, and strategy all work together and interpenetrate each other within this environment of spiritual formation. Thus praxis impacts theology, which in turn shapes the practice of ministry.

The broken lines between the four internal elements of ministry formation demonstrate how each interacts with the others.  As Christian leaders humbly and prayerfully submit to God as Father and to each other within an environment of spiritual formation, they find identity, purpose, and are called to mission.

The diagram is called a helix because theology, history, culture, and the practice of ministry build on one another as the community of faith collectively develops understandings and a vision of God’s will within its cultural context.  The spiral grows to new heights as ministry understandings and experiences develop. Ideally, the missionary is always learning, growing in the Lord, always spiraling to a new level of understanding and competence.

Ideally, the missionary is always learning, growing in the Lord, always spiraling to a new level of understanding and competence.


The Missional Helix is useful in at least two ways.  First and foremost, it provides a model of decision-making for the Christian practitioner.  The practice of mission must become intentional and with experience intuitive.  Second, the missional helix provides a model for curricular development in Bible schools, universities, and seminaries.  Equipping for ministry should not put high emphasis on some elements and give little consideration to others.

Two questions:

  1. What elements of the Missional Helix have you generally neglected in developing your model of ministry? What elements have you emphasized?
  2. How intentional is your current paradigm of ministry? What are the components?

You can read a full development of the Missional Helix of Chapter 13 of 2nd edition of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies (Zondervan/Harper Collins).

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Facilitator of Church Planting and Renewal

grey background logo (3)


Copyright ©2015 by Gailyn Van Rheenen

All rights reserved.  We allow you to forward this article individually to friends and photocopy it for personal or class use.  Please do not reproduce this material in printed or digital form without reference.  If you wish to reproduce this material in printed or digital form or in any other way reproduce or distribute this information, please obtain permission by contacting me at


[1] The Missional Helix was first described in a Missiological Reflection in in August 2002 ( and then applied to church planting in another Missiological Reflection in January 2003 ( This Missional Helix was used to present the reformist view in the book Evaluating the Church Growth Movement (McIntosh 2004, 167–89).




The Missional Helix—The Story of Jim and Julie

Paradoxically I begin this blog about Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, not with Chapter 1 on “The Biblical Narrative of Missions: Entering God Story” but with Chapter 13 about “The Missional Helix.  Why?  The Helix reflects the heart and soul of the book—the working DNA that stands behind its writing!

Missional HelixPerhaps a key word in the chapter is “discern”.  We discern what God is saying to us in scripture during our present stage of life and ministry—a theological discernment so deep and personal that it transforms our hearts.  We discern the cultural environment in which we live and minister.  We discern the historical impulses that got us to the point that we are at.  We discern practical strategies to convey God’s eternal message in contemporary, life-changing ways that build community and in so doing launch kingdom movements.  Above all, we discern God’s working in our lives as He spiritually forms us in His Spirit to carry forward His mission.  This discernment forms our character as disciples of Jesus and enables us to develop the competency for effective and exponential ministry.

In other words, the Missional Helix is a spiral leading ministers to return time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically—within an environment of spiritual formation—to discern ministry models appropriate to a local context.

The Missional Helix was first developed when I saw the disparity, the friction between pragmatic church leaders using organizational principles and understandings to build what we typically call consumer churches and theologians in seminaries who sometimes reflected theologically but not out of experience in ministry and frequently without a passionate call for God’s mission in His world.  This chapter begins with the story of Jim and Julie, who are learning from the seminary while ministering with their local church.

“They need to listen to and learn from each other,” Jim and Julie concluded. The purpose of the seminary is to serve the church. The church in turn should listen to people from the seminary with years of study and experience. Jim and Julie were learning equally from each environment: they were studying missions and ministry at the local seminary while ministering with youth in their local church.

“They noticed disparity in focus, contrasting orientations. People in the seminary focused on biblical and theological formation and the historical development of these theologies. They viewed pastoral and missional ministry as the practice of theology and, though they acknowledged the importance of these ministries, the hands-on aspects were ill-defined. Church leaders, on the other hand, tended to focus on pragmatics—asking about cultural relevance and success. They wanted to draw people to their church, shape the people’s lives, and make a major impact on the community.

“Jim and Julie had seen how easy it is for church leaders and missionaries, whether domestic or foreign, to make pragmatic plans without theological reflection. They recalled lessons learned earlier in their missions course, about moving from theology to practice in order to minister out of the will of God: ‘A theology of mission, like the rudder of a ship, guides the mission of God and provides direction,’ or it is ‘the engine of a ship, propelling forward the mission of God.’ They believed that a theology of mission is both a primary an ongoing activity in missionary practice. They remembered their friend Bill. After he had planted a church by seeking to meet the needs of the community, Bill perceived that the church had become more a vendor of goods and services than a community of the kingdom of God. Jim and Julie concurred that pragmatism without theological reflection threatens the future of the church. They were, however, thankful for ministry within a church where the Word of God was studied, disciple making was emphasized, and leaders were prayerfully seeking to live like Jesus.

“They heard church leaders claim that theologians are ivory-tower thinkers unable to connect with the common people and discerned truth in this statement. It is easy for people in the seminary to process intellectually without serving incarnationally. Recognizing this tendency, the organizers of the seminary curriculum asked entering students to read Helmut Thielicke’s classic book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (1962) in the class introducing graduate studies. This book describes the cultural dislocation of seminary students who no longer speak the language of the common people. Jim and Julie were pleased, however, that almost all of their professors, especially those in missions and ministry, taught out of their ministries and experiences within local churches.

“They realized that they had the best of both worlds: a good seminary where they could learn deeply and a church community genuinely committed to faithfully following the way of God in Jesus Christ!” (pp. 307-308).

Thus the Missional Helix gives an integrative model of learning which brings together the strengths of studying in a seminary with those of ministering in a local church.

How have your experiences reflected those of Jim and Julie?

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen