Neighbourhood Watch Sign 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 God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

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