It’s a fairly open secret that I’m in favour of putting forward a definition of “missional” that is more encyclopedic in nature than some of the short forms that have been tossed around of late. When Alan Roxburgh was in Winnipeg recently and I was able to spend some time conversing on the theme, I had my thinking on this matter adjusted slightly… but only slightly. In our public forum, he addressed the definition of missional, saying it was as easy to define as the Kingdom of God. We do have a clear sense of what the Kingdom of God is, but not a concise definition that actually encompasses the essence of what it is. When Jesus explained it, he kept saying, “Well, you know, it’s kinda like…” and then he’d go off and tell a story that left the disciples and others present deep in ponderous thought without actually having been given a clear answer. Once, when trying to work this out, the disciples became a bit exasperated.
His disciples came and asked him, â€œWhy do you use parables when you talk to the people?â€?
He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. That is why I use these parables,
For they look, but they donâ€™t really see.
They hear, but they donâ€™t really listen or understand.
This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says,
When you hear what I say,
you will not understand.
When you see what I do,
you will not comprehend.
For the hearts of these people are hardened,
and their ears cannot hear,
and they have closed their eyes—
so their eyes cannot see,
and their ears cannot hear,
and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
and let me heal them.[Quoting LXX of Isaiah 6:9-10]
“But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but they didnâ€™t see it. And they longed to hear what you hear, but they didnâ€™t hear it.
Well, thanks for clearing that up, Jesus. You know we’re still working this one out, don’t you? You’re smiling right now, aren’t you?
Obviously this is back on my mind. I’ve written a fair bit on missional themes and topics, including various attempts at describing one facet or another of what it is. Today it’s on my mind because of what Bill Kinnon said about how missional is being defined variously. Take a moment or two and read what he says about “Missional Shampoo” (I know that has to have you guessing). It seems that Ed Stetzer is preparing a paper to to “correct” the definition of missional that is used by Al Roxburgh, John Franke, and others from GOCN based on David Bosch… basically approaching our understanding of missional via the Missio Dei.
As I commented on Bill’s blog, there really is more than one understanding or definition of missional, and it’s confusing to people who delve into it beyond a cursory look. This is in fact one of the reasons why I have been thinking through a bit of a thesis describing the term and how it is variously used by people who are fond or critical of it. Putting each major usage of the word into its intended context or framework will tend to make people look less contradictory in their application or outworking of the term.
Now, to be fair to Ed, all of this was sparked by a post by Drew Goodmanson, about which Ed was unhappy, since the paper isn’t published yet and we obviously are therefore not getting the straight goods on his views of the matter. As I commented on Bill’s blog, Ed may not be in the best spot to “correct” Alan et al on the usage of the word “missional,” but it’s possible (read: probable?) that it’ll be a soft “correction”, rather an extension of the word or explanation of how Ed sees it differently… based perhaps on a different approach to missiology, and not a fundamental difference of opinion in regard to practice or anything seriously substantive. We’ll wait and see — further dialogue is inevitable, welcome, and quite necessary.
Although I don’t have a better concise definition than what others have offered, I’m continuing efforts on a framework for explaining it, noting that there is more than one approach floating around at present. I don’t know if it’s exactly three, but perhaps some of this explains how or why we stalled very early in the project that I had begun working on with Rick Meigs back in May to to frame a description of missional in light of the exceptionally poor definition at Wikipedia at the time, which at the moment is much improved (not sure by whom) mainly through deletions (this assessment as of July 24, 2007, subject to change by the nature of Wikipedia!). Based on the work I and others were doing in May, several missional definitions got merged into “missional living” (missional, missional church, missionality, etc. but not missionary). At present, the definition there outlines missional as indigenous rather than cross-cultural, puts missional endeavours as identifying with culture and contextualizing the gospel with it rather than seeing the church as “prophets to” culture (i.e. therefore standing outside of it), and de-emphasizes propositional evangelism as a component.
For the record, I connect missional with the Missio Dei, and am keen to hear how the term could be used without that association, or with it as only a minor connection if indeed that’s what the presentation will be. I fundamentally agree with Ed that clarification is required, but my thinking has been adjusted by Alan to see that a precise definition may not be an achievable goal… there’s a lot of nuance involved. In this regard, I might point out that the best definitions of what missional means — including Ed’s approach — typically begin with some arrangement of words that say, essentially, “A missional church is like…” whereupon follows a list of characteristics, none of which nor all of which achieve a complete clear description of the term or concept. I told a small group I gathered with for a barbecue on Saturday evening (who had been at the evening we hosted with Al Roxburgh) that the best definitions were like this, and that I found people either just got it intuitively or it was perhaps hard to explain. In other words, they asked me for a definition or a description, and I basically evaded the question.
Jesus, are you still smiling?