So far in my efforts to describe how the word missional is used and solidify the common ground in our various uses, I have:
- described and given examples supporting the fact that alternate uses of the term exist, and clarity is needed (Aloha, Missional and The Dangers of Missionalism & The Dangers of Language),
- proposed a twofold description of missional imperatives, while moving other characteristics to the realm of nuance (Missional Essentials: A Short List), and
- illustrated the classification of list-based or charateristic-type definitions of missional either under one of the two missional imperatives or as a nuance of the usage of the word (Understanding Missional: Personalizing the Central Tenets).
In the process so far, I have described what a missional church or community is and how it is defined, and have specified an individual aspect or requirement to missional engagement. These latter descriptions took place mainly in the last of the above-listed posts, to which I have referred as “the long post”. Hold on though, because this one is actually longer (I use several block quotes…). Next I want to look at some of the short-form definitions to determine what few characteristics are so integral to some that they bear inclusion in a succinct definition, and relate those to the two missional imperatives I have already described. (If you’re just tuning in, you really want to read the above posts, but to sum up, a missional church is missionally-purposed and incarnational.) Obviously this cannot be a comprehensive examination, so I’m going to restrict the list to some of the more significant or oft-referred ones. (Anyone wanting to extend this same practice through additional definitions might refer to a good list at Rick Meigs’ Friend of Missional site.) Along the way, I expect we’ll be able to glean a few additional insights as we draw from the thoughts of others toward a missional definition.
- Andrew Jones (Tallskinnykiwi) defined the missional component (February 2006) of emerging-missional as relating to the Missio Dei. He provides some history of the term and its usage, but doesn’t add many qualifiers. He writes,
The term, “emerging-missional church”, favored by Aussies and Kiwis, seems to tie together the two strands of missio dei and missio ecclesiae in one phrase. Without the missional, emergent is just style. Without the emergent, missional pours the new wine backwards into old containers, and often without regard to context. Thats why I like to keep the combination of words intact.
It isn’t clear from this whether Andrew would see missional church as only emerging church, but it is clear that he’s describing the emerging nuance of missional church. The observation that he makes about the use of missional/mission-shaped outside of North America is perhaps significant: to my knowledge, it is chiefly in North America — and most specifically in the USA — that “missional” is being used in conservative evangelical circles with a meaning that is significantly different to those from more of an emerging church perspective.
- The Acts 29 church planting network defined missional (April 2007) in this way:
A missional church is a theologically-formed, Gospel-centered, Spirit-led fellowship who seeks to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ. The mission of the church is found in the mission of God who is calling the church to passionately participate in God’s redemptive mission in the world (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) – a world that has radically changed in North American [sic.] in the last 50 years.
I am looking specifically at the short form here, but the definition also includes a list of 13 characteristics of a missional church, each with scriptural references. It can be similarly sorted as I’ve described, with aspects of the list falling under an evangelical nuance to the term “missional” (e.g., inerrancy). The introduction to the list contains the short definition I’ve quoted, and goes so far as to say that “A church that is not missional is not really a church.” and “A missional church understands it has been sent into an irreligious world to proclaim the Gospel of Redemption….”
The short-form definition offered by Acts 29 sports trinitarian overtones in a theologically conservative evangelical framework, but essentially it majors on two things: missional church is rooted in the Missio Dei as its raison d’Ãªtre, and that mission is expressed incarnationally. As I have illustrated, both are further underscored in the article’s introduction. Note the comment on North American culture, which isn’t developed in the short form, but is a hint at the reality of post-Christiandom, referenced in the additional quote from the introduction not in those terms, but as “irreligious.”
- Jason Zahariades defines a missional community (no date) in this fashion:
A missional community is a group of Jesusâ€™ apprentices who so trust his brilliance and mastery of life, that they learn from him how to be like him for the sake of the world. Through this apprentice/master relationship, the community journeys together to become the fullness of God and thereby become a finite earthly expression of the infinite Tri-Community just as Jesus was in his earthly life. A missional community is about becoming by grace what Christ is by nature. As the community experiences this, wherever the community members live their daily lives, they are learning how to easily, naturally, and routinely embody, demonstrate and announce Godâ€™s life and reign for the sake of the world around them.
This definition has often been quoted — it is not as concise as some, with the concepts introduced within it being further described in the article to which it serves as an introduction. Note that this one maintains an aspect of individuality in its definition of the community (the group takes its identity from the common aim of the individuals). It reflects a strongly progressive spirituality and focuses the purpose of the church outward. The article builds on this with a trinitarian understanding of sending, clearly stating, “in a missional community, the church is Godâ€™s sent people.” “Mission” is the essential purpose of the church. A bonus gem from the article: “The churchâ€™s nature is to show the world what it looks like when a community of people live under the reign of God in every aspect of daily life.”
Zahariades’ short-form definition holds a lot of nuance without being as pointed on the two major facets of what I’ve described as missional, but I believe that the article in which he unpacks the definition makes it clear that these are dividing lines in his use of the term as well. The nuance he gives the term speaks a lot about community (with good insight, btw) similar to what would be described in simple church or house church terms.
- Jonathan Leeman writing for 9 Marks, examines missional church and writings on the subject (October 2006). He distills it the most, writing that “the basic premise of the missional church is that ‘missions’ is not simply one of the functions or programs of a church. It constitutes the very essence or nature of the church.” He doesn’t give it much nuance, as his concern seems mainly to be a report on what others are saying. I would fault his definition for excluding the incarnational aspect of missional engagement. He takes “slight issue” with the term, but he does clearly recognize it as being a component part of the missional discussion, so I’m not certain why he excluded it from his summary definition. Again though, this is not likely to have been part of his prime concern in writing. He also takes issue with the ambiguity of terms when switching between authors… similar to the concern which gave rise to my recent work on the definition, as well as to Ed Stetzer’s series. (I wouldn’t say I “take issue” with it, simply that it’s time to begin clarifying to make it easier on people less familiar with the landscape and avoid fracturing the term’s definition any further.) There are a few additional items which are significant in Leeman’s article.
- He refers to a conference of the International Missionary Council (IMC) in 1952 where Wilhelm Anderson (building on the work of Karl Barth) proposed that the church’s purpose is to be engaged in the Missio Dei. The term “missional” was not used there, though one of the two primary indicators is clear.
- He notes that the book Guder edited for GOCN should be held accountable for popularizing the term. It would be my general view that since “however a word is used, that’s what it means,” the touchstone definition would be found in this source rather than those before it (though it is most instructive to see what influenced these GOCN writiers) and rather than any variants which have arisen since. If this book popularized the term, the roots of most definitions following should be traced there, whatever other nuances may be added.
- He suggests that conservative evanglicals have “co-opted” (his word) the term missional from more ecumenical (and “liberal-leaning Emergent”) writers. Leeman writes, “My guess is that conservative writers and pastors in the emerging church movement like Mark Driscoll, after tromping through some of the same fields as their liberal counterparts, reached down, pulled up the missional plant by the roots, and then transplanted it into conservative soil.”
- He provides an overview of differences between conservative use of the term missional (as exemplified in Ed Stetzer) and the GOCN writers (with whom I more closely align). Nevertheless, it is my hope that Ed and I will land in similar places on the definition of “missional,” and I appreciate his writings on the subject.
- Ed Stetzer provided an overview of A Missional Church (October 2005), when he wrote that
“missional” is not the same as “mission-minded,” though they are both important and related. The term “missional” is simply the noun “missionary” adapted into an adjective. For example, an “adversary” is your enemy. Someone who is “adversarial” is acting like your enemy. Thus, a “missionary” is someone who acts like a missionary (for example, understands a culture, proclaims the faithful Gospel in a way that people in culture can understand, and uses parts of that culture to glorify God). A “missional church” is a church that acts like a missionary in its community.
In the article, he provides a threefold descriptor of missional as being incarnational, indiginous, and intentional. In the explanation we don’t find the stipulation that mission is the purpose of the church, though that exists elsewhere in Stetzer’s writings. We can see the connection to mission and sending, with an incarnational outworking. He sums up,
A missional church responds to the sending commands of Jesus by becoming an incarnational, indigenous, and intentional Gospel presence in its context. When Jesus said, “As the Father has sent Me, so send I you,” (John 20:21) that was not to a select group of cross-cultural missionaries. Instead, that was a commission to you, me and our churches. We have a sender (Jesus), a message (the Gospel), and a people to whom we are sent (real people in culture). It is worth the effort to go beyond our personal preferences and to proclaim a faithful Gospel in whatever context we find ourselves. That’s missional.
Note here that there is an individual as well as a corporate application of the Great Commission, such that cross-cultural mission is de-emphasized somewhat to make space for responding within one’s own culture. Contextualization to culture factors, but without reference to any specific method or culture.
- Ryan Bolger describes the Marks of a Missional Church by saying,
They no longer see the church service as the primary connecting point with those outside the community. Connecting with those outside happens within the culture, by insiders to that culture who express the gospel through how they live.
Here we find an incarnational rather than attractional thrust to the interface between church and culture, again with (perhaps by definition) an indigenous aspect about it. The further explanations touch on the themes of post-Christendom, the removal of focus from the Sunday service, and personal outward-focused missional action.
- Jim Thomas, writing for Urbana.org on Missional Church observes,
This word implies at least two theological and ecclesiological course corrections. On the one hand, missional hints at moving from church as a â€œclubâ€? for Christians, to church as Christâ€™s body, sent by God to reconcile the world to Himself. On the other hand, missional means moving from missions as an activity in which a few Christians are sent to foreign countries to convert unbelievers, to mission as Godâ€™s most basic purpose, intended for all believers.
Now this one sounds fairly familiar in its twofold emphasis of what are the essential missional distinctives… two of them. As stated here, they are two very interrelated aspects of the term, the first implying an incarnational approach and the second stating the primacy of missional activity in the purpose of the church. In so stating, “missions” (or “missionary work”) as a cross-cultural endeavour is again de-emphasized in order to make space for the necessity of each church member to engage missionally with the world around them.
In his article, Thomas describes the relationship between emerging church and missional church, and in that context aptly ties ecclesiological questions or concerns together with missiological ones. Perhaps it will be helpful to one of Leeman’s issues that Thomas offers alternates to the word “incarnational.”
[A]nother thread running through contemporary discussions of mission carries multiple names The words used are integral (used by South American theologians), holistic (used by North American theologians), and incarnational. The essence of their message is the importance of both word and deed in witness, and rejection of the liberal/conservative split over how to witness to the kingdom of God.
- Referring again to Thomas’ piece for Urbana.org, he reports 9 characteristics gleaned by Minfred Minatrea in his study of a number of missional churches, which Minatrea defined as â€œReproducing communities of authentic disciples, being equipped as missionaries sent by God, to live and proclaim his kingdom in their world.â€? In this short definition, we find a statement succinct enough to cover both of the two missional imperatives I have suggested without distancing them from one another. It implies that communities are made up of individuals whose response of discipleship is missional (“missionary”) engagement with the sending of God into their context. It’s possible that I’m reading into the statement (defining world with a local emphasis), but an examination of the nine characteristics supports this inference. The characteristics include significant nuance and are succinct enough to quote in full, with Thomas’ explanations in parentheses.
1. Having a high threshold for membership (high expectations for believers)
2. Being real, not real religious (being transparent, authentic, with one foot in â€œthe world.â€?)
3. Teaching to obey rather than to know (a practical faith)
4. Rewriting worship every week (Creative, participatory Sunday morning services)
5. Living apostolically (each believer as a missionary)
6. Expecting to change the world (aggressively engaged in transforming communities)
7. Ordering actions according to purpose. (Ruthless aligning of resources with mission)
8. Measuring growth by capacity to release rather than retain. (Not megachurches but multiplying churches)
9. Placing kingdom concerns first (in contrast to denomination first. Thus, cooperation with other churches)
Note that two thirds of these characteristics (the first six) speak directly to mindset and individual orientation or practice (though #4 is really a nuanced practice). “Living apostolically” is the incarnational imperative, while the remaining three speak to the mission-purposed imperative, and —importantly— how it is measured, which is for many a very significant shift in mindset.
Interesting to the fluid definition of “missional,” Thomas comments, “Just as Minatrea said none of the churches he visited was fully missional, I would say that none of the materials Iâ€™ve read on missional churches fully describes what I believe missional should mean.”
- I’ve saved a big one for last. The 2004 Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization (Pattaya, Thailand) offered a definition of missional. Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 39, “The Local Church in Mission: Becoming a Missional Congregation in the Twenty-First Century Global Context and the Opportunities Offered through Tentmaking Ministry” (Ryan Bolger, Ron Crandall, Matt Friedman, Knud Jorgenson, Pete Luedemann, K. Rajendran, John Thornton, and Berit Kloster, editors) (PDF original or HTML via Google) states briefly in its introduction that “[m]issional congregations are those communities of Christ-followers who see the church as the people of God who are sent on a mission.” In context:
It is our deep conviction that congregations both in the West and in the Two-Thirds Worlds must make the transition to become â€œmissional congregationsâ€?. Just what is a missional congregation? Missional congregations are those communities of Christ-followers who see the church as the people of God who are sent on a mission. To a large extent their identity is rooted in what they do apart from a church service or a church building. They cease to yield to the Christendom assumptions that the surrounding culture will naturally want to come to church, or that coming to church is the goal of all mission. They no longer see cultures in terms of Christian and non-Christian. Instead all cultures, be it the historic West, former colonies of the West, or countries with little Western contact are all equal candidates for mission involvement. These Christ-followers seek to embody the way of Christ within their particular surrounding cultures and not necessarily within the four walls of a church building or service.
Section 2 of the paper is an overview of and rationale for 28 characteristics of missional congregations, thereby presenting one of the most extensive sets of missional characteristics and their implications. Obviously, many of these hold specific nuances and represent application of missional principles, but they are instructive in that manner. Notably, Lausanne associates tentmaking with missional practice, and discusses it in this paper as well. On incarnational ministry (or “sending”) and the local church context, the paper states,
There are two structures of Godâ€™s redemption mission (Ralph Winter, Lausanne Congress 1974). Winter distinguished between modality and sodality, between â€œcomeâ€? and â€œgoâ€? structures: the church needs both the inviting, centripetal structure and the dynamic, centrifugal â€œgoâ€? mission structure. The â€œcomeâ€? structure is the local church and the â€œgoâ€? structure is the missionary band …. we want to urge the local church â€“ the traditional â€œcome-structureâ€? â€“ to break out of this pattern by creating â€œgo-structuresâ€?: evangelistic teams, diaconal service groups, youth ministries in schools, church planting groups in new quarters of the neighbourhood, short-term mission teams to cross both cultural and geographical boundaries. This is the time to break up the churchâ€™s traditional patterns and structures in order to create new pathways to the unreached in our midst and in Samaria and beyond.
Another characteristic is that missional congregations maintain a long-term perspective. In describing this characteristic, it is noted that “Incarnational ministry may not result in fast mass conversions. Rather it often manifests as a steady long-term witness.” While the paper’s short definition does not include the incarnational imperative, it remains a central aspect of missional church as described in the Lausanne paper. The list of characteristics includes many of the other concepts and emphases we’ve already seen, such as individual response (“every member ministry”), post-Christendom response (the first characteristic is the abandonment of a Constantinian model of church life.) The makeup of the community envisioned in my recent post as comprised of individuals working in concert toward the Missio Dei is echoed in another of the characteristics, where “[m]issional congregations focus less on the church as institution or as a business and more on the church as an egalitarian fellowship of closely connected people.“
My survey of brief definitions has branched out to include a few lists, though I’ve tried to keep to the short-form introductions to those lists, using the long form as an interpretive guide to the shorter one. From this brief (in scope, at least) survey, we can offer five distinctives which were recurring themes in some of the short definitions.
- Reproductive: since we’ve fundamentally tied the church’s raison d’Ãªtre into the Missio Dei, it must be reproductive. Some of the definitions state this more clearly than others, but I believe it falls within the realm of the missional-purposed imperative.
- Trinitarian: although this is largely a theological point, it is linked with the incarnational imperative. Where it is discussed in the missional definitions, it is noted that the Father sends the Son and the Son sends the Spirit. We are sent in the same way that the Father has sent the Son. Although it may be tempting to call it a theological nuance, it should more appropriately be viewed as part of the theological underpinnings of the incarnational imperative.
- Individual: if not an emphasis, certainly a recurring distinction can be found that a significant aspect in the missional call lands squarely on the individual as well as the church corporate. Emphases on discipleship and missional engagement place a significant onus on the individual, which has been described as a high barrier or cost to entry. This one is a slight oddity in that the missional purpose requires an individual incarnational response, making this aspect fit almost equally under either of the primary missional imperatives (extending to include nuance). Clearly, missional congregations have a strong impact upon individuals, and markedly moreso than comparing any two traditional churches with differing emphases.
- Post-Christendom: we have previously suggested that post-Christendom is more appropriately listed as nuance than as part of either of the two primary missional imperatives. Despite this, it appears fairly prominently in many or most definitions of missional church. Perhaps this is because the incarnational model of church over against an attractional one largely arises out of a response to post-Christendom, as do the very origins of the missional conversation. Having described the meaning and significance of “missional,” it can perahps be moved to the category of missional nuance as we have discussed, but in assessing the history of the concept, we should properly note that without the realization and desire to develop a response to post-Christendom, it is likely that the reexamination of missiological method which led to the description of a missional approach may well have been deferred for a few more decades at least. I would suggest that this is the probable reason that it features so prominently, more than any other nuance.
- Indiginous: the focus on the local or host culture is what I have described (perhaps poorly) as an emphasis on near rather than far. There is much room for misunderstanding on this point, as it should not be understood to negate cross-cultural missionary endeavours, but at the same time, an emphasis on indigenous church is clear. Where no (strong) indigenous church exists in a culture — whether “culture” in this context be described as another country, people group, population segment, or affinity group — the need for cross-cultural mission exists. To the extent that indigenous contexts are clearly imagined, every church member becomes by definition missionally engaged (or, “a missionary”) within their own context, or at least mandated to be so. This concept should be included within the incarnational imperative.
I land here at the end of another lengthy missional-defining post having surveyed a number of additional definitions and come away with, I believe, my two missional imperatives intact. As such, I think we’re near being able to define missional around these two imperatives, adding perhaps that “everything else is just strategy.” Not that I expect this to be an absolute definition, but if adopted, it should help pave the way toward every blogger or missional conversationalist feeling the need to “define” the word missional, and allowing them to simply identify with the two broadly defined imperatives and then progress to a more helpful (and practical) discussion of their own nuance or strategy for practicing the missional imperatives
My ultimate hope would be that we can cease from further fracturing of the definition of “missional” through everyone’s felt need to include certain nuances which are not universal… that is to say, we can stop trying in an absolute way to make it mean more specifically than what it already means generally, and can stop having different definitions which must be recalled each time we read a new blog or book. This is not a task that I can assume on my own, but represents my own hope for an end to the linguistic tower of Babel that currently surrounds the term. This will, I believe, keep the term intelligible and help somewhat to avert misplaced criticism as the term spreads between emerging and conservative evangelical uses. i.e., some people may believe or practice ABC, but such belief or practice is distinct from missional tenets, and should be critiqued apart from the concept of “missional.”
I don’t think I’ve quite come to the end of all that I need to say on the subject — I still hope to discuss “missional community” somewhat, for example. For now, I’ll open the floor up for discussion (seriously, the floor is never “closed” here) and invite you to “tawk amongst yauselves” and see what we all come up with toward refining our understanding of this animal. How are we doing after chewing through today’s ideas?