I’m starting in today on a consideration of just what this “missional” thing is, with an eye toward the eventual creation of a more extensive or encyclopedic definition. Such a definition will naturally begin with etymology and history, both of which I’m going to gloss over for now. So far, I’ve outlined the need for such a definition as I’ve covered the fact that some people use the word very differently, sometimes almost opposite meanings are ascribed, in a very confusing and unhelpful manner. Still, even within the definitions of the word used by those in the missional conversation, there remain shades of nuance, such that the definitions don’t align perfectly. Many have offered a version of a definition for what they mean by “missional,” and of the many definitions out there, I suggest that there are two types.
First, there is the “short-form” definition. The shortest of these is probably the tag line for my blog, where we could say that to be missional is to “live your faith and share your life.” Many others can be found, most recently Alan Hirsch’s working definition of missional church, which is “a community of Godâ€™s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of Godâ€™s mission to the world.” These short definitions are good for their simple, straightforward descriptions, but their weakness is that they leave a lot of room for differences in meaning. A variety of expressions (or different conceptions of “missional” as referenced above) could be listed which fit within the short definitions but which remain largely incompatible, or at least retain very significant distinctions. In other words, adherence to the general definitions by two distinct local churches does not say enough about the adherents to know if they are essentially the same or substantially different.
Second, there are the list-based definitions. These are generally longer and describe a set of characteristics or distinctives of a missional church. These tend in my view to be the better definitions, since there is less room for misunderstanding by virtue of the fact that they’re more thorough. On the other hand, many of these definitions slip items into the mix which are not strictly missional concerns. This is acceptable insofar as they describe the writer’s use of the term, but it renders the definition incapable of serving as a touchstone for determining what is or is not essentially missional. One example might be the authority of the Bible. While most missional churches would see the Bible as authoritative, this is not what makes them missional.
To include some non-essential aspects of a church’s expression as missional should perhaps be seen as a hyphenated-missional expression. An evangelical missional church would see the Bible as authoritative, where an emerging missional church may or may not. Eighteen months ago, Andrew Jones wrote a very helpful definition of “Emerging-Missional Church”. In his discussion, he very helpfully defined the two terms separately, and then put them together to describe what kind of missional he was discussing. This is the approach I strongly favour, as it keeps what is essentially missional separate. In his descriptor, the issues (or issue) of contextualization, culture, and postmodernity arise out of emerging concerns, not missional concerns, such that postmodern contextualization is not necessary to be missional, even though most descriptions of missional churches will reference on some level the shift to post-Christendom.
A definition seems elusive, and at one point, I wondered if defining missional was rather like dissecting a frog — you see how it’s put together, but not really how the essence of it “works,” and in the process, the frog really stops being a frog anyway. I don’t think that’s entirely the case here though. To be sure, the meaning of “missional” is certainly somewhat fluid, and to a great extent, this is by design: a fluid definition is a strong asset of missional in that it does not become inflexible. Alan Roxburgh has in fact argued against a rigid definition, saying that “missional” is as hard a concept to describe as “the Kingdom of God” (or “Kingdom of Heaven”). When pressed for a definition of the Kingdom, Jesus tended to say things like, “What shall I say? The Kingdom of God is like….” whereupon follows a parable illustrating one or more central aspects of the Kingdom. If you put together all the parables and statements about the Kingdom, you still do not come up with a comprehensive view, though you do come up with a general sense of what it’s all about. So too with missional.
Still, there are a few points which I consider to be fundamental to understanding what is missional. Every expression of missional adds to these points, but if you remove them, you’re left with something that is probably not purely missional, even if a close resemblance remains. Central to a “litmus test” then, would be the following:
- The church is organized around its mission, the Missio Dei. In the UK, the term “mission-shaped church” became popular, and this is the central concept here. The church exists for the benefit of the world, and has a purpose in the world for the glory of God. (This does not need to imply a change to the Westminster Confession on the chief end of man, even though for some, it could.)
- The church’s ministry is incarnational, not attractional. There is a greater concern for getting the people of the church out among the people of the world than there is to get the people of the world in among the people of the church. A missional church is a centered set and not a bounded set, and there is much less concern (sometimes none) for getting people to “join” a local church.
Provisionally, I want to suggest that the list-based definitions include bullet-points which are outworkings of or concepts within the above two missional characteristics, or else are descriptive of certain expressions of missional church without being integral to all missional churches. Of these, the bullet-point may best be attached to a hyphenated-missional expression, such as emerging-missional, which is (so far) perhaps the most common expression. These two aspects, then, are the non-negotiables of missional church. Remove one or the other of them, and it’s no longer missional. Even though you might still get it to say “ribbit!“, somewhere in the dissection it stopped being a frog.
Next up in this process toward a more comprehensive understanding of missional, I will look at some of the other definitions and lists to see whether each item can be categorized as I’m provisionally suggesting, or whether I need to add a third (or fourth) item to my short-list. This examination will further flesh out the meaning and implications of these two tenets. Ed Stetzer will be starting to publish some of his work on the definition of missional after the impetus from our discussions this past spring. I believe he’ll be publishing his research serially, and I will interact with it as he does. In the meantime, the floor is open for feedback and discussion on what I’ve outlined so far.
Brother M, I like what you have written. A couple of points – you said that “most” missional churches would see the bible as authoratative. If a church didn’t see that as the case, how could it define itself around the Missio Dei? Am sure I’m just missing something obvious, sorry. Also, you note that the missional church will not have as much concern for people joining a local church – I’d expect the outflow (not the purpose) of a missional church to be people wanting to join with you, and thus an increasing membership, whilst not the purpose, may be an affect.
A couple of years ago I attended a family wedding. Afterwards there was a family BBQ and I had the chance to hang out with much of my HUGE (my mom’s one of 17) extended family, the vast majority of whom have no interest in God or the church. I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable. And that just didn’t seem right to me. I found myself later musing that perhaps I (and others?) have spent so much time worrying about being “of” the world that I/we were no longer “in” it – and therefore had no impact/influence on it.
I’m personally attempting to rectify that situation. I think you could call that missional – couldn’t you?
About that comparison to defining the Kingdom of God, though… I didn’t quite understand that one. I was taught a very simple definition of the Kingdom of God that cleared up A LOT for me: The Kingdom of God is anywhere that God rules/reigns. Sure, it doesn’t give a lot of detail, but it reframes the concept away from geography to a place that makes sense to me – if no one else.
Oh, and question: Are you using “church” in the universal or local sense in your points?
Alan Roxburgh has in fact argued against a rigid definition, saying that â€œmissionalâ€? is as hard a concept to describe as â€œthe Kingdom of Godâ€? (or â€œKingdom of Heavenâ€?). When pressed for a definition of the Kingdom, Jesus tended to say things like, â€œWhat shall I say? The Kingdom of God is likeâ€¦.â€? whereupon follows a parable illustrating one or more central aspects of the Kingdom. If you put together all the parables and statements about the Kingdom, you still do not come up with a comprehensive view, though you do come up with a general sense of what itâ€™s all about. So too with missional.
I wonder if there isn’t so much similarity here precisely because the mission of the church IS to introduce people to the Kingdom of Heaven?
Some would see the Bible as instructive without being authoritative… but it may not be the best example. I could have gone with inerrancy or some other doctrine since it wasn’t really the main point. Joining a local church is not that great a missional concern insofar as it’s linked with church growth, which is largely an attractional affair. As the gospel spreads, the church catholic would of course grow as numbers are added, but any given local church may or may not see a direct increase… whether or not that happens in the local church is the part that isn’t a missional concern as “growth” tends not to be measured numerically.
Yes, I would call that missional. The evangelical church in North America has spent too long distancing itself from culture, and has a need now to reintegrate, to the point where it’s almost cross-cultural… there’s much to learn about how things around us really are, and as we open our minds, we find much good in the culture as well as bad. We’ve been conditioned to think that it’s all fallen and evil, and being repulsed by the culture isn’t going to win anyone over.
You caught me on the use of the word “church” too ;^) …another word with more than one meaning! Anything where I said “expressions of church” or “a church” or “churches” plural would refer to the local church. If I say “the church” or similar, it could be either, so that might be confusing. I think in this post I mostly used it of the local church, but I’ll try to be more clear particularly when it makes a greater difference.
Cindy-lu and Sonja,
The short form definitions of the Kingdom or of Missional do give something of a sense of them, but they’re hardly exhaustive. In the case of missional, people are already using the word differently, so the short form doesn’t tie any one usage to the right definition. The same would be true with the Kingdom, where shorter definitions become less and less helpful if there were a number of varying uses of the term. The link between missional and the Kingdom is a good one, I hadn’t thought of that in relation to the fluidity of the definition.
Back in that original discussion, one of the authors of Mission-Shaped Church chimed in.. Its quite relevant to this discussion and particulary to the disquiet of Cindy-lu. Tom personally knew Newbiggin. Here is what he contributed..
â€œCould I suggest that Newbigin saw something about the UK on his return that is much more significant [than mere secularity]. In my discussions with him he was among the first to see that God was at work in the culture and to challenge to idea of society being â€œsecularâ€?. This is revealing when discussing whether â€œmission-shaped churchâ€? is an adequate alternative for â€œmissionalâ€? as an Anglican who contributed to the initial work on the report. I believe it is flawed – it tends to focus on what the Church should be doing (in a rather earnest way) which is a relatively small part of the picture rather than focusing on what God is doing and joining him, individually and as a Church. Mission-shaped church is already proving to inhibit our missional thinking here so I would hope that others will not adopt it.â€?
Tom reminded me that the discussion of â€œmissionalâ€? is conditioned by a certain view of history, a lens or paradigm that determines how .. or whether.. we circumscribe Godâ€™s activity in the world. We western believers are generally dualisticâ€¦ God is at work in the Church, but not in the broader culture. That is a flawed theology and ignores Jesus teaching on the kingdom of God. To quote Todd Hiestand in his recent paper,
â€œKarl Barth helpfully points out that the church is a part of world history; the gospel takes place in â€œworld occurrence.â€? Somehow I grew up with the assumption that there were two histories of the world: biblical history and world history. While this was likely never explicitly expressed as truth, it is what I instinctively learned. World history was somehow profane and corrupted and biblical history was holy and redemptive. But, Barth shows that this dichotomized view of history is unhelpful to mission. The church would be â€œguilty of a lack of faith and discernment if it seriously saw and understood world history as secular or profane history.â€? 6 Instead, he states that we simply cannot separate the church from world history. He writes, â€œ[The churchâ€™s] history takes place as surrounded by the history of the cosmos and is everywhere affected and determined by it. Conversely, it is not without significance for the cosmos and its history that its own history takes place.â€?
6 Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, IV.3.2. The Doctrine of Reconciliation. (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 687.
Len, that’s excellent stuff. I’m going to sift through it more, but in the meantime I was about to publish the next post in this series, so I changed a few occurrences of “mission-shaped” to “missionally-purposed” or something of that ilk. Near the end of the post, I say,
And that’s what I’m getting at… it is formed around and by it’s missional purpose, not merely gathered together to try to express and fulfill a purpose.
I like the stuff about culture there… I don’t know were anybody got the idea that part of the mission was to clobber the culture and replace it with our own! No wonder it isn’t working, eh?
So far my writing toward an understanding of missional is around 8,000 words spread over a few posts here… with more to come. Today’s was a big one…
Sonja, that’s quite true of politics — it’s been observed before that a Canadian conservative is still pretty liberal by American standards (though if you contrast liberals and conservatives from the same country, the terms still work in a relative way).
To a large extent though, this is what necessitates the exercise. So far the word missional has been used variously with several similar definitions put forward in long or short forms. As the word gets to the point of having been around long enough, people begin to assume that a particular nuance of meaning is universally indicative of the whole, and it isn’t. Given that it’s a global conversation, it’s even easier to go askew… we saw this with the emerging church (Emergent) labels, where what came out of the USA was different than was was being talked about in the UK, Australia, and Canada. As the EC was then criticized, the criticism only addressed parts as if it were the whole, and was therefore off the mark.
Then too, the fact we’re starting to forget who said what makes it a good moment to stop and summarize. I expect we can end up with a description of missional that rather than being an absolute definition can convey a semantic range within which most of the uses will fall. The fact that the range would have boundaries at all (I’ve suggested two above) is further along than we’ve been so far. There is a sense of the word missional that isn’t geographically (or otherwise) bounded but is more universal; within that, there’s room for nuance determined by geography or denomination or whatever. This is the very thing we’re now trying to describe.
So far, Ed and I are the first (or loudest?) to seriously say, “Hey, we use the same word, but we don’t mean the same thing!” and begin to try and describe the difference. That’s the very point, to end the confusion. If we had started this two years ago, it would have been an easier exercise, but would have made less sense as to why it was needed. I still see it as quite important to do.
Brother M. What is the difference between a Missional Church and the United Methodist Church and its Social Gospel?
I won’t address the United Methodist Church as such, but when people generally speak of a “social gospel” they mean to say that proclamation of the gospel is not a requirement, or that those to whom we reach out are not in need of a conversion to Christianity. Note that this is not the position of many who support what is called a social gospel by others, and the missional church has been branded this way by some outsiders. The missional church would not agree that NO requirement exists for explanation of the gospel and conversion following. What missional believers DO tend to say is that relationship must come first in order to create a context for explaining the gospel — as evidenced by the life of the missional believer. For the missional church, it’s a “both-and” thing.