Postcard - Aloha! As most of us have heard, the word “aloha” has several meanings, and you normally have to know which one to interpret by the context in which it’s used. It has occurred to me over the past several months (well, since February, really) that the same is true of the word “missional.” Ed Stetzer will be starting a series on the usages of the word “missional” beginning on Monday, and I’m looking forward to seeing his research and thoughts on the matter. Apparently I put him onto this series this spring when we were talking about coming up with something of a cohesive definition of the word “missional” in response to the fact that it’s used variously by different groups as I had mentioned a couple of weeks ago discussing Gordon MacDonald’s usage of the term (more background in that post).

After I posted about Ed’s forthcoming paper/series a few weeks back, I contacted Ed privately via email to point out the post to him and be sure that I’d been fair to him in what I said. I wasn’t completely, but Ed was gracious anyway: it isn’t his intent to write a “corrective,” but something more along the lines of what we’d been talking about some months earlier. I told him that as he published the series, I would engage it an interact with his research as he presents it, and look forward to doing so. It would be my hope (I can’t speak for Ed) that talking about it openly in this manner might form a kind of peer-review process as people engage it, and some unified understanding will emerge from the discussion. Just ahead of that, however, I wanted to offer some ideas that I’ve been working on… so this post has been partially-composed for a little while already.

The observation that gave rise to this effort is the fact that lot of people are using the term “missional” these days… but not in the same way. Typically, they use it to refer to one of these four concepts:

  1. All of the church’s outreach or missionary endeavours (i.e., the missio Dei).
  2. “Home missions” or the evangelistic outreach efforts of the local church.
  3. Another word for “emerging church”.
  4. As used by people like Alan Hirsch, Ed Stetzer, Alan Roxburgh, Scot McKnight, and around here, me.

I would suggest that we already have other perfectly fine terms for the first two of these concepts, which is what gave rise to the term missional, which was first used and popularized as something near the sense in which I use it. It’s a good word though, and I suspect that many people simply drew an inference as to its meaning as something akin to the word “missionary” and adopted it to refer to one of the first two concepts above… never realizing that to those of us who were using the word already, it meant quite a lot more than they intended to say in their usage of the term.

The third definition, which equates a missional church with an emerging church, is simply a misconception. A lot of emerging churches have adopted missional forms of outreach, and are built upon missional ecclesiology. But not all. At the same time, there is nothing in missional ecclesiology that prevents an established church from taking it on as a practice (even though the reverse may be true for some established churches), and many non-emerging churches are in fact adopting missional values. Although there is significant overlap in practice, the terms “emerging” and “missional” are not the same, and some of us involved in both conversations are beginning to refer to the “emerging missional church” to describe the area of overlap in which we see ourselves.

If I had my ‘druthers, I’d prefer that the term “missional” only be used in the fourth sense… but nobody owns the word, and though it might clear up a lot of confusion, it’s not a reasonable request. And having said this much so far, I need to make it abundantly clear that if I were to say that I don’t see definition number 1, 2, or 3 (or some practices within those senses) as being missional because it doesn’t qualify under the fourth sense, I’m not making a value judgment or saying that the practice is wrong, bad, or deficient in any way… just not missional. It’s like saying that blue and green are two different colours. “Yeah, so, what’s your point?” Practice B under the second sense that the word is used is not missional in my view. “Yeah, so, what’s your point?” See how that works?

If you have a habit of going around to all your neighbours semi-regularly to invite them to the special events that your church puts on, I would say it’s not missional. I might say it’s a good thing to do and encourage you to keep right on doing it, hoping that it will help lead some of your neighbours to faith… but since it’s essentially attractional, it doesn’t fit within the definition of the word missional as I would normally use it. Although I said my an earlier post (referenced above) that a missional program might look like the servant evangelism described in Steve Sjogren’s book Conspiracy of Kindness (which I would still say is accurate), I wouldn’t see such a program as fundamentally missional because it is much more attractional in its intent.

So now that the word has taken on some subsets of its meaning, it’s no surprise that (1) we’re hearing the term a lot more, and (b) we’re coming into some debate about what it “absolutely” means. The meanings I’ve outlined are different enough to confuse a conversation, yet similar enough that you may not know which one is being used until you’re well into the discussion. That said, it’s very helpful to recognize that we use the term differently so that we don’t have to get quite so uptight about the fact that we might disagree about one aspect or another of what we mean. By saying that someone sees missional as “definition number X,” those of us who see it in the fourth (or another) sense don’t necessarily have to stop and point out to them some adjustment that needs to be made for consistency with missional values… because they’ve defined them differently, and their system is internally cohesive. (Just like Gordon MacDonald’s.)

You’ve noticed, perhaps, that I’ve copped out and not actually defined what missional means as I use it, in that fourth sense. There’s some additional room for misunderstanding even within that single bullet-point, as several folks who use the term in this way do not have definitions which align perfectly with one another (even between the four people I cite above). There are many general definitions to which all agree, but some have unspoken inferences which are just slightly at odds with other uses. Terribly sorry, but I’m going to leave you hanging for now and come back to an actual definition in a future post. For now, let’s discuss the use of the term “outside” of the missional conversation that many of us find ourselves involved in… whose or what usage of the term have you found difficult or misleading?

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