Back in March of this year, I read the Winter 2007 issue of Leadership Journal. Most of the periodicals I read I read online, but in this case I made a point of going out to my local JesusJunkHaus Christian bookstore and paid good money for it. The theme for the issue was “Going Missional,” so I was naturally eager to read what LJ would have to say about it. The online page for the issue reads, “Break free of the box and touch your world.” It had to be good.

Or not… I readily identify with the emerging/missional church, and have written a lot on the subject of being missional… but this upset me. To be sure, there are several good articles in the issue about being missional and how some are practicing it… but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that we weren’t quite talking about the same thing.

“Is missional really that different from being purpose-driven? …I remember thinking one day that missional sounds a bit Catholic, and purpose-driven sounds more Evangelical Protestant.”

And then I came to Gordon MacDonald’s editorial, “Dangers of Missionalism,” and it turns out, no — we weren’t talking about the same thing at all… and that’s the part where I got a bit steamed. I called MacDonald’s piece “editorially irresponsible,” and said I would write more about it later… but I didn’t. Not until now. I just couldn’t figure out where to start, and to be honest, I figured it was so outlandish that surely somebody would say something… but as far as I can tell, nobody did — at least not publicly. In private conversations, I can’t find a single person who is familiar with the term “missional” who doesn’t have issues with what Gordon MacDonald wrote. The whole thing is more egregious in my mind for the fact that MacDonald is not just a contributor, but an editor at large for LJ. There’s another reason why I — and probably others — did not lodge a dissenting opinion so far: I actually agree with the article, which is a fine corrective of something that really needed flagging… but nevertheless I believe it fundamentally misunderstands what missional means to those of us who identify with it. In the editorial, MacDonald coins the phrase “missionalism” and then interchanges it with “missional” in a way that clearly associates the two. I’ve highlighted his conception of “missional” in the above sidebar.

There ends my preamble. Here’s basically what I should have said four months ago.

The Dangers of Missionalism: A Response

I’ve read Gordon MacDonald’s “Dangers of Missionalism” in the Winter 2007 issue of Leadership Journal, “Going Missional.” I can’t decide if I agree wholeheartedly with but one minor change, or if I’m completely, fundamentally, and vehemently at odds with everything he wrote.

Let’s go with the simple and positive response first: change the word “missional” everywhere it appears in the editorial to “program-driven” and “missionalism” to some variant thereof. Now we’re speaking the same language, and I can agree 100% with what MacDonald is saying. He’s warning against a [program-driven] mentality that sees involvement in various programs as a kind of “chief end” from which individuals derive worth and leaders derive a sense of accomplishment (and thereby worth). In this way, the program is essentially elevated above care for the individual. In a recent post describing a shift we’ve seen in the model of pastoral care, I said,

I think what Jesus meant was that we’re supposed to look after each other… and the gift of the pastor to the church is that unique personality that goes around loving on people and innately looking after them, simply because it is what he does, and he can’t not do it. The pastor goes out in search of sheep that are wounded or in need, meeting them where they are. …A good pastor is a connector. When he finds a wounded sheep, he says, “Did you know that so-and-so has been through this? They’ve recovered, you should talk to him. In fact, can I ask him to call you? I think he knows more about this than I do, and can understand what you’re going through. I’m going to call him right now, okay? The three of us will sit down together…â€? In contrast, the apostolic-pastoral CEO says, “You know, we have a department for that, a ministry to people-with-your-malady.â€? All you have to do is get yourself out to the group, they meet on the second Tuesday of the month.

This difference portrays a bit of a different concern… one feeds the individual through personal involvement in their life, seeking to nourish the person. The other feeds the individual to the program, seeking to nourish the church’s need for the success of the program. This is one of the clearest distinctions I’ve been able to make in explaining my dislike of too much program-driven ministry. Grouping individuals with similar needs together isn’t inherently bad, but when it’s done merely for the sake of convenience to be able to “minister” to more people with less effort, it oversteps the individual’s need, and their humanity. Instead of meeting them in a relationship, we meet them in a program. The contrast might be akin to choosing a large number of pupils over a small number of apprentices… and in that single distinction, we should be see ourselves drifting away from Jesus’ model of ministry. An alarm-bell should be sounded, and in that context I applaud MacDonald’s article, saying, “Finally, someone of stature is standing up to this program-driven mentality! A much-needed plea for caution! Well done! Bravo!”

But I have a problem — I can’t do that with MacDonald’s article without some kind of gymnastics, because he didn’t say “program-driven.” He said “missional.” I need my gymnastics, I have to change the word against which he warns.

MacDonald provides some antidotes to [program-driven] thinking, including a change in our thinking from quantity back to quality, to not being so concerned to gather a crowd. By his own example, he recommends an apprentice-style form of leadership, and recommends personal relationships in small group settings. He suggests being “less vocal and wildly active” and “re-defining our lists of heroes” toward people like Brother Lawrence. He caps off the whole discussion with a few lines about the ministry model of Saint Francis for showing God’s love. And for most of what he prescribes as an antidote to missionalism, I say a hearty “Amen!” — and for a particular but perhaps odd reason. The things which MacDonald describes as antidotes or better alternatives to missionalism are things which I consider to be quintessentially missional. The “heros” he recommends are ones I would consider poster-children for missional.

Surprised? Maybe not half as much as I was when I read MacDonald’s definition of missional. He writes,

Is missional really that different from being purpose-driven? I like both terms, but I know lots of churches (including ones I pastored) that were acting missional and purpose-driven long before the two words became popular. I remember thinking one day that missional sounds a bit Catholic, and purpose-driven sounds more Evangelical Protestant.

When I consider what it means to be missional, I see something more akin to a reactive, corrective stance to all things “purpose-driven”, or “program-driven,” which is what MacDonald’s editorial really addresses, and does it well. As a corrective or caution to what I consider missional activity, it leaves me scratching my head. I don’t think I need to establish a “missional pedigree,” but I’m no stranger to the missional conversation. I asked around, and couldn’t find anyone who recognized “missional” in the things that MacDonald was writing against. The reactions I found privately were in fact much the same as mine.

I took another look at the whole “Going Missional” issue of LJ, and began to see a very different understanding of “missional” than the one that I hold. What I saw was a variety of forms of outreach programs, Conspiracy of Kindness: A Refreshing Approach to Sharing the Love of Jesus With Others many of which might be along the lines of what Steve Sjogren described as “servant evangelism” in his 1993 book, Conspiracy of Kindness: A Refreshing Approach to Sharing the Love of Jesus With Others. If missional engagement could (or can) be done as a program, I think it would look a lot like a servant evangelism program (although servant evangelism programs have an attractional aim). By and large, missional activity refers to how people relate to the world around them and show God’s love to the people in it, and not to a program designed to channel a corporate response through the actions of a few individuals charged with the task of holding up the “missional arm” of the church. In this sense, to be missional is to “love God and love your neighbour,” or as I often put it, “live your faith and share your life.”

The definition of missional that I infer from the entire “Going Missional” issue of LJ is not a nuance that I commonly use for it, though I can see this usage of the word occurring elsewhere. At best it’s a nuance, at worst it’s not the same thing. The definition which MacDonald uses in his editorial never approaches being merely a difference in nuance — it remains substantially and fundamentally different from the understanding that others have for the word, and in the extreme he reports, I don’t see it used with that meaning anywhere within the entire missional conversation which I’ve been following. I think his usage of the word with this definition is confusing and unhelpful.

As for the language, in contract law, you could write up a very long legal document in which you define the term “Purple Duck” and sprinkle it throughout the entire document as a shorthand form of referring to the concept encapsulated in your definition of the term “Purple Duck.” Your definition may have not a whit to do with waterfoul or colours, and may in fact refer to something we might commonly imagine to be orange elephants… but within the confines of your document the term “Purple Duck” can easily refer to what everyone else calls an orange elephant. The document can be perfectly intelligible, sensible, and internally cohesive merely because the term is defined within it. Use the term elsewhere though, and you’re in for a heap of trouble with being understood. For this reason, if you’re referring to a certain nuance or a qualified form of orange elephant, the term “Orange Elephant” would commonly be defined in the document so that people know what kind of all the various types of orange elephant is to be understood in that particular context. In legal documents, the defined terms are often capitalized or placed in quotation marks. In literary use or position papers and the like, the same thing is commonly done, but without distinguishing marks like capitalization or quotation marks. It’s in this sense that I can agree with MacDonald’s article… what he’s describing as “missional” strictly in the context of his article is something I’d be wary of, with the same cautions. But the undefined or commonly understood term “missional” is not at all what he’s writing about in his caution against “missionalism,” and is in fact not merely a nuance, it’s a near-opposite. As I said, confusing and unhelpful.

So to Gordon MacDonald and to Leadership Journal, I say,

Thanks for your concern and your excellent editorial, but unfortunately it does not address the form of missional that any of us in the missional church at large are expressing. We cannot recognize ourselves in your definition of the term. In fact, we’re undertaking most of the antidotes that Mr. MacDonald recommends precisely because they are fundamentally missional values — not because they guard against being missional. I think that Mr. MacDonald, and Leadership Journal has fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be missional. Your sage advice is most welcome, but we would humbly ask that you take more care in understanding our values and practices before you offer it.


There is one positive thing about the editorial: it alerted me to just how much misunderstanding there is about the meaning of the word “missional,” and to the fact that people who are using the word may not mean the same thing that I do. I checked the definition of “missional” on Wikipedia, and I was not amused. (It continues to evolve, so I’m not sure what it’ll say when you click the link.) I noticed a marked increase in the use of the word “missional” and conversation around those themes. I said in January that 2007 would be “the year of missional,” and I still believe to be the case, in the sense that the concept of missionality will gain favorable mindshare in the wider church. The fly in the ointment now is what the term will mean as it takes root in people’s minds.

The lesson we in the missional conversation can take away is that we need to take care at the moment in explaining what we mean in our use of the language… absent our full explanation, those not directly engaged in the discussion are inferring their own definitions — which at times can be diametrically opposed to the things we value as missional. I’m reminded of the criticism of the emerging church movement which remains in recent memory — most widely exemplified in D.A. Carson’s book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Prior to its release in 2005, many people in the emerging church movement were generally looking forward to the book, hoping to receive some helpful constructive critique, and even adjustment. After its release, there was a general bout of head-scratching going on as people in the emerging church said, essentially, “Uh, thanks for the book, but, uh, we don’t believe most of what you’re warning against. Not that we’re disagreeing, but honestly, most of it just doesn’t apply.” Needless to say, the critique was a disappointment and was generally unhelpful, leading to more misunderstanding than clarity. I deeply hope we don’t repeat that history with the global church’s understanding of missional.

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