Slow Down Sign I’d like to keep the missional-defining conversation going while at the same time allowing us to catch our breath just a little… so I’m just making a few “light” observations about our definition(s) of the word missional so far, slowing down so others can catch up. (If you’re tuning in late, I’m in the midst of a major series on defining the word missional you can catch up with the list below.) I haven’t said anything about this since Friday, but I think there’s more to say and I plan to do a summary post, so I will be picking up up again.

In the meantime, Ron Cole aptly recounts a friend’s remark, “When the talking is all said and done…hopefully we will have done more than just talk.” This is of course a major goal here as well. By solidifying what is and is not common in our various usages of the term “missional,” perhaps we will be able to stop spending time discussing the concept and move along to actually living it… which is of course the whole point. As I’ve said, it is my hope that we can all stop saying, “Here’s what I mean by ‘missional'” and be able to say “Here’s what we mean by ‘missional'” and by the way, I have a few ideas that I think are important in our practice of church, mission, and Christian living. In this way, we can stop saying “XYZ” is a “missional” value when it isn’t universally so, and begin to say that “XYZ” is an important value that can be expressed well through missional engagement, and can in fact enrich our missional expressions. Or better, “…and I’ve found it enriches my own missional expression.” Hopefully we’re on our way to a lot more missional “doin’ the stuff” and a lot less missional soup.

Earl Creps has described four views of Missional, noting the word is used differently in each of these contexts, which he labels Emergent, Conservative, Mainstream, and Motivators. As I review his definition, it seems to me that the Emergent use nuances it with culturally-relevant narrative theology and centered sets, the Conservative use nuances it with cultural relativism, the Mainstream use nuances it with seeker-sensitivity, and the Motivators use nuances it with sloganizing shallow theology. The distinction between each use as Creps describes them seems to be the way in which the church relates to culture and the extent to which the makeup of the church and its cultural relevance are addressed theologically… like this:

  • Emergent: part of culture, theology incorporates action in relation to culture
  • Conservative: counterculture, theology is absolute modern
  • Mainstream: mirrors culture without imbibing, church is a bridge to relatively modern theology
  • Motivators: evangelize culture with no time to lose on theologizing

I think I’m adding somewhat to Creps’ thesis, but it seems to me these are the approximate distinctions between his usages. Therefore as he paints it, we need to understand that all uses of the word “missional” will incorporate some notion as to the church’s relationship to culture and the way in which theology reflects upon it. I think there’s an important notion here which may have been subtly observed, but bears specific mention to make it obvious: all uses of the word “missional” imply a theological framework which includes an understanding of the church’s relationship to culture. As these are not universal, they remain part of the nuance, but if descriptors of these nuances are missing, the definition will be incomplete.

Also while we’re pausing briefly, I wanted to make further mention of Alan Hirsch’s working definition of missional, which I mentioned previously but didn’t examine it in my survey of the short-form definitions. Alan aptly notes that

the word ‘missional’ has over the years has tended to become very fluid and as it was quickly co-opted by those wishing to find new and trendy tags for what they themselves were doing, be they missional or not. It is often used as a substitute it for seeker-sensitive, cell-group church, or other church growth concepts, thus obscuring its original meaning.

Clearly there seems to now be general agreement to what I had observed early this year, that the word is being defined differently, which confuses the conversation. Alan was in fact included along with Ed Stetzer and others in our discussion this spring about the necessity of a clear definition in the face of existing divergent and/or inaccurate ones. In July with the above quoted remarks as part of the preamble, he wrote, “So a working definition of missional church is that it 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.”

Rather oddly, Alan’s short working definition does not include the missional imperative of incarnational ministry, one of the two qualifiers that I stated were fundamentally necessary to an understanding of the term. He does clearly state the other qualifier, that of seeing the Missio Dei as the purpose of the church. Given his writings are chock-a-block with discussion of the need for incarnational vs. attractional ministry, I think it’s fair to assume he would include this aspect in his understanding of missional. I expect that in this context it was perhaps omitted by oversight in the quest for brevity, or else would be viewed as fundamental to understanding how “God’s mission to the world” was to be undertaken by the church.

In the vein of “continuing conversation,” Sonja asks, Christendom? Post-Christendom? Picking up from some of her comments here, she considers in a lengthier way just how “Christian” Christendom really was. A quick response would be that the notion of being a “Christian” has changed several times since the first century. In the commingling of church and state, to be a member of the state essentially makes you a Christian — defined essentially as being a member of the church — since the church is state-sponsored and exhibits significant influence over the state. This is entirely connected with early Christian missionary efforts having been intricately bound with colonialism. Using a first-century definition or today’s conservative definition for “Christian,” there never was a Christian state… but understanding the term to have meant something slightly different in that context, we still have a functional idea of what we’re talking about.

In Christendom, laws are made and people are governed with an eye toward what “the church” will think or what the Christian religion teaches on a matter. The fading of Christendom means this is no longer the case, and a more humanist approach is taken. In many areas, the church continues to hold influence in this area, but it is fading away in all areas; in some, the church’s influence has dropped below critical mass. It is for this reason that “Roe v. Wade” will never be overturned. In Canada, some significant debate existed over the issue of gay marriage, which was legalized despite protests from Canadian Evangelicals. After the bill was passed, I was asked (by an evangelical pastor) how I thought the church should respond next in the fight against it. I told him the fight was over, and all they could do now was lose credibility. Of significant import, I told him, “Stop trying to speak from a platform you don’t have.” This loss of platform is symptomatic of the fading of Christendom. Yes, there are still pockets of conservative regions where the civic authorities consult the local pastor… but it’s the minor exception and it’s fading fast. For the church to continue to act as if it has significant influence in this way is a farce… it will only lose credibility and undermine their position on whatever argument is next. It can make its views known and lobby for them, but it must fundamentally change its tactics and consider itself more of an interest group (a term they use derisively) than a dominant force. As long as the church continues to speak with a voice larger than itself, it will only lose more ground in the areas it would consider important… whereas changing tactics might actually see them hold political ground on at least some fronts. I told the pastor to figure out what the next issue was and start working on that one.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a side-rant there, but to bring it back around, we’ve passed the age of Christendom where people consciously looked to the church for advice and opinion on legal, social, and cultural matters as they sought to determine right from wrong and good from bad. I would say there are no nations that remain this way on a national level. (Some US states are still closer to this than others, but that’s a regional expression; the USA is the last nation for Christendom to fall.) The developing world may have nations which are moving in the direction if a renewed “Christendom,” and evangelicals pining for a return to the Christendom they’ve known would see this as a good thing — I don’t think it really is, since my observation of Christendom is that while the church may thrive numerically, it suffers qualitatively in its pursuit of living out the Gospel.

So far in the series defining missional, I have (in chronological order) the following posts which will help understand the foregoing ramblings and catch you up for the conversation to follow as we head toward a conclusion:

  1. The Dangers of Missionalism & The Dangers of Language
  2. Aloha, Missional
  3. Missional Essentials: A Short List
  4. Understanding Missional: Personalizing the Central Tenets
  5. Missional Definitions: A Brief Survey
  6. Missional Interlude, with Post-Christendom Considerations

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