The Missional Helix—Theological Reflection

The previous missiological reflection described the Missional Helix and attempted to show the intertwining, inseparable nature of theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation within the context of spiritual formation. This blog describes the role of theology within the Missional Helix.

A theology of mission describes the heart and motivation of God and thereby defines the rationale for mission. It identifies what God is about in his world and why he is doing what he is doing. Christian ministers then are able to understand God’s purposes and discern God’s will for their lives. Reflecting on these theologies leads them to ask, “How do our lives and ministries reflect God?” or “How do we design patterns of life and models of ministry which reflect the kingdom of God?”

RudderFor example, a theology of mission is like the rudder of a ship which guides the mission of God and provides direction. My wife is fond of remembering how our children frequently wanted to “drive” when we took them on pedal boats. At times, they were so intent on pedaling—making the boat move—that they held the rudder in an extreme position, and we went in circles. Realizing their mistake but still intent on pedaling, they would move the rudder from one extreme to the other, so that we zigzagged across the lake. Without the foundation of a missional theology, Christian leaders likewise zigzag from fad to fad, from one theological perspective and related philosophies of ministry to another. A theology of mission, like the rudder of a ship, provides practical direction for Christian ministry.

BoatA theology of mission is also like the engine of a ship, propelling the mission of God forward. One spring, my wife and I taught at Abilene Christian University’s campus abroad program in Montevideo, Uruguay. During the semester, we traveled with our students to Iguazu Falls, a spectacular waterfall between Brazil and Argentina. One highlight of our visit was a motorboat excursion against the mighty current of the river almost to the foot of the falls. I was impressed not only by the immensity of the water’s flow but also by the power of the engine to push the boat up the river against the surge. A mission theology, like the engine of a ship, provides the power that enables finite humans to carry God’s infinite mission against the currents of popular cultures.

As these metaphors illustrate, theology is indispensable to the mission of God. A theology of mission provides both direction and empowerment for developing practices of missions.

Each of these four internal elements of the Missional Helix (theology, culture, history, and strategy) is essential in reflecting on and planning for Christian ministry. Theological reflection, however, is the beginning point for ministry formation and the most significant element within the internal structure of the spiral. In order to mirror the purposes and mind of God, all missiological decisions must be rooted both implicitly and explicitly in biblical theology.

Too many missionaries—while acknowledging the Bible as the Word of God—allow culture rather than Scripture to shape their core understandings of the church. The Bible is used to proof-text practice rather than to define the church’s essence. Lacking a biblically rooted ecclesiology, the teachings and practices of the church are likely to be shaped either implicitly by the dominant evangelical culture or explicitly by random surveys to ascertain what people want. A biblical understanding of the church’s nature enables missionaries to plant and nurture churches that are rooted in the mission of God rather than in presuppositions of popular culture.

The church today is reaping the harvest of its own cultural accommodation.  I remember sitting in a congregational meeting 25 years ago when the words, “meeting felt needs,” were used 16 times in 30 minutes.  Although these words expressed the need for Christian sensitivity, within them were also seeds of the slow demise of Christianity in North America. Cultural accommodation began to supersede living Christ-formed lives transformed into God’s image (2 Cor. 3:18).

Missional Helix for BlogThe Missional Helix proposes that missionaries use Scripture to form a biblical understanding of the church. For instance, Paul, in Ephesians 2:19–22, uses multiple metaphors to describe the nature of the church. The church is a new nation:  Christians are “no longer foreigners and strangers” but “fellow citizens” in a community of faith (v. 19). The church is a family, or God’s “household” (v. 19). The church is a holy temple, well constructed, with each part joined together and built around Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone (vv. 20–22). This fellowship comes into existence through conversion: people dead in sin (2:1–3) have been made alive with Christ (vv. 4–7) by God’s grace (vv. 8–10). Paul stacks metaphors one on another to illustrate a redeemed fellowship brought together under Christ (1:3–11) and existing “for the praise of his glory” (v. 12). These perspectives form an inspired picture of God’s divine community.

Stuart Murray says that often “mission work is done naively out of human planning rather than beginning with understandings of the nature and purposes of God and then moving from these theological frameworks to practice.” Church planters, he says, “operate within theological frameworks, but often these are assumed rather than articulated and adopted uncritically rather than as the result of reflection. Theological principles may influence strategy and practice less than unexamined tradition or innovative methodology” (2001, Church Planting: Laying Foundations, p. 39).

Theological reflection, however, extends beyond textual study. Christian ministers must realize that all readers understand and apply Scripture within their historical traditions, based on their rational systems of thought, and formed by their experience. The missionary therefore must be cognizant of four resources that shape theological reflection: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (Stone and Duke 1996, 43–54). For example, in rural, face-to-face cultures, Christians tend to perceive the church as a “family”; in modern, industrial contexts, as a “business”; and in postmodern, informational cultures, as a “network,” or sometimes as a “community.” Missionaries and ministers, as theological “meaning makers,” must theologically reflect on the connotation of these metaphors, using all four resources.


  • Chapter 3 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies on “Theological Foundations of Missions,” pp. 63-64.
  • Chapter 13 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, on “The Missional Helix,” pp. 311-312

Previous Blogs on the Missional Helix:

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

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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

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[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).