Missional as the Defragmentation of Missions

I’ve been posting a few related matters on the subject of the missional definition, and the sidebar below lists all of the related posts since July 30th, 2007. There are some older posts which relate fairly directly, but since they predate the series I’ve left them out for now pending a future revision and reorganization of the corpus of posts. This time out I will be interacting with two important posts on the subject, both relating fairly directly to the recent work that Ed Stetzer and I have each been doing on the subject (see sidebar below).

Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (The Gospel and Our Culture Series) A few weeks back, I emailed Alan Roxburgh and queried him about the background to the word “missional” which informed the GOCN writers. Ed has been working on much of the background concepts, and this is important to framing the overall discussion of the term. However, since it is generally agreed that the book written by several GOCN writers and edited by Darrel Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (1998), is largely responsible for the popularization of the term, the most important background to consider —since there are several threads— is the one assigned at the popularization of the term. As it turns out, my query wasn’t the only one that Alan had received, and he let me know at the time that an article would be appearing on the Allelon website in September.

The article, “What is Missional Church? A Continuing Conversation” is now up, and I recommend it to all who are interested in this matter. To the point of background, Allan quotes Craig Van Gelder:

[Lesslie] Newbigin articulated his own expression of this mission theology in his 1978 publication, The Open Secret[: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission]. Central to his understanding of mission is the work of the Triune God in calling and sending the church through the Spirit into the world to participate fully in God’s mission within all of creation. In this theological understanding, the church is understood to be the creation of the Spirit. It exists in the world as a “sign� that the redemptive reign of God’s kingdom is already fully present. It serves as a “foretaste� that the eschatological future of the redemptive reign has already begun. It also serves as an “instrument� under the leadership of the Spirit to bring that redemptive reign to bear on every dimension of life.

Allan goes on to (quite helpfully) describe the formation of GOCN and the attitudes and aims which characterize it; the article offers some important insight into the goals of Allelon as well, noting essentially that while the definition and the theology are important, praxis is more important than figuring out whose tradition is more correct. “We are all in a new place and we need each other. This has to be a common journey that, out of deep evangelical and orthodox commitments, sets a big table and welcomes all who want to travel along this road.”

For helping to fill out the question at hand, he also quotes Van Gelder:

The history of missiology displays two approaches which are somewhat divergent, though complementary. One approach is to study the mission of the church, or what is often referred to as the missio ecclesiae. This approach had its primary historical roots in the church’s work in foreign fields in the 19th century and has usually been thought of in the plural as missions. The other approach is to study the mission of God, or what is often referred to as the missio Dei. This approach developed in the last half of the 20th century. It starts by reflecting theologically on the works of God both in creation and redemption, and explores how these works inform God’s mission in the world today. In this approach, the church, under the leading of the Spirit, is responsible to participate in God’s mission. Obviously, the mission of the church (missio ecclesia) and the mission of God (missio Dei) need to be understood as being fully complementary, but it is important to understand the sequence of their inter-relationship (the missio Dei frames and informs the missio ecclesiae).

Out of Allan’s post, I want to highlight a few items. First, I agree with him fully that we need to set the table large and see what we can do to be on with the business. As he states, the theory is important to getting on with the work, and it is my hope to contribute to that end through this series. In particular, since the word has gained several meanings, I hope to draw it back to the fundamental ones so that it can be left there… in my view, the continual re-defining that people have done a la “to me, missional means…” is in some way a manner of removing place-settings from the table since the more words we add in this way, the narrower the definition becomes. As I’ve been inadvertently proving, just zeroing in on the core and unpacking the significance of the central concepts tends to spill a lot of ink already. Although it is appropriate to recognize that an absolute definition remains elusive, the “to me” forms of missional definition can tend to muddy the waters by creating more and more relative definitions. Again, my appeal leans toward unloading the word “missional” so that it can be left to mean what it means at its core, and no more… in this manner, the word and the concept can be left as open as possible.

The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission Next, I believe Van Gelder’s words place the GOCN (and by extension the bulk of the current) understanding of the background of missional and the meaning of missio Dei fairly in the hands of Lesslie Newbigin. In his hands, the understanding of missional is inextricably connected with the Kingdom of God, of which the church becomes both a sign and an instrument. So much is consistent with my own treatment and understanding of the missio Dei and the Kingdom of God as they relate to the background of missional language.

Lastly, it is important we consider the divergent examination of the mission of God and the mission of the church, for in this distinction there is a fundamental tenet of missional thought which needs to be grasped. I believe that beginning with the mission of the church leads in some manner to a different understanding — or at least praxis — than does a beginning with the missio Dei. Beginning with the missio ecclesiae, the church’s mission essentially becomes corporate expansion. To do this corporately, it has historically placed the bulk of the work on missionary agencies whose goal it is to plant churches. Once birthed, the local churches which are planted cease to be part of the church-planting mission and become instead part of the church catholic (or universal). This is to be understood, I believe, as an almost inevitable side-effect of seeing the mission held corporately and managed strategically in a corporate fashion. By “corporate” I do not mean to imply the image of a business corporation, though it may in some arenas be appropriate, but rather the notion of action by a group with the ability to delegate responsibilities and resources. In this manner, “mission” becomes “missions” as the work is fragmented into various church-planting works in a variety of areas among a variety of peoples.

For years, I’ve had a problem with the word “missions.” My college was known for its missions program, and in those days it was very common for people to talk about “missions” and their participation in “missions.” I must have sounded like a broken record with the number of times I stopped people in conversation to ask, “Why do you call it ‘missions’? There is only one.” Given the number of different mission agencies who trekked through the school or congregated at the annual missions conference, it would be natural to think there were a myriad of missions. More than one, in fact, for each nation or people-group. This is perhaps a natural outworking of the fact that although it is acknowledged that there is one universal church, it is more common to speak of church with reference to a local body, or a denomination. Since each local church or denomination seeks to participate in the expansion of the universal church by expanding itself, it is natural to expect that a variety of mission agencies with a variety of missions would be derived, each one with its own particular statement as to its understanding of its mission. Since the church is necessarily corporate, a corporate understanding of mission results from its conception of the task.

On the other hand, to begin with the missio Dei, the question changes to become how the church participates in an existing mission which exists apart from itself. As a result, answers may be derived which are corporate, but also which are individual in response to the question of how I can participate in the missio Dei. The “we” may be helpful, and even necessary to certain ways of participating, but it is fundamentally not a prerequisite to participation itself. In the traditional conception of “missions,” individual participation is typically the rogue exception to the rule. For this reason, I heartily agree with Van Gelder’s assersion that “the missio Dei frames and informs the missio ecclesiae.” The point is well-taken, and well-put. At this stage, I might suggest that missional thought as described in this phrase is in some fashion envisions a reintegration of “missions” into “mission.” This is perhaps a dusty hobby-horse of mine, but it does explain one of my attractions to the missional conversation — that by definition, the entire conversation and effort conceives of but a single mission, God’s. Our mission is not part of a throwaway effort that was created after-the-fact and will cease in time, but part of an ongoing arc of the story of God’s interaction with creation through all of history. Here again, Van Gelder’s description of this dual approach fits with my own. While he calls the two complimentary, I would suggest more particularly that one must be seen as a subset of the other, and that this is fundamental to the understanding of missional. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll be able to fit this under the central tenet that the church is organized around its participation in the missio Dei, which is a slight restatement of the first missional essential that I have previously outlined.

With this in hand, we can move along to another post by Bob Roberts on defining missional in response to Ed Stetzer’s third post (and to some extent those which precede it) in his series (upon which I’ve shared some thoughts already). Bob begins by aptly stating his version of our common theme, that the more we try make missional mean, the less it actually means. I’m on the same page with Bob when he ties missional “not to the Great Commission but to the Kingdom of God”, saying further that

The Great Commission is the marching orders for every believer living in the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is what John the Baptist preached, it’s what Jesus came proclaiming. It’s what the Apostles focused on. It’s what Jesus taught the Apostles for the 40 days he was with them. I’m not speaking of the Kingdom as only an escatological issue, but as a Matthew 25 reality of it touching every domain of soceity [sic]. The only way that happens is when every believer lives their faith in the public square using their vocation as their primary ministry to bring healing and reconciliation, both locally and globally–glocally. It’s what Abraham Kuyper, the Calvinist, taught and E. Stanley Jones, the Armenian. Every person witnessing, every person sharing, every person living out their faith.

In Bob’s view, we (the church) has committed a great mistake in compartmentalizing “missions,” which has had the effect of slowing down the Great Commission. Here again, I agree with Bob, though at that point I believe he misunderstands what DuBose means by “sending” (see the comments on his post). In emphasizing the “sending” nature of God, I see no dichotomy between sending to “the mission field afar” or sending to the neighbourhood and workplace where the believer already finds him/herself. Bob continues, saying that the mission agency and the church are both necessary to the mission itself. For the present I can agree with him on this point as well, though I’m less certain whether the fact is by design or by accommodation (see Roland Allen’s comments). Some of Bob’s suggestions in this post can at first be misleading, as he shifts between what is and what should be: “Do I think the church is the hope of the world? No, but it should be and it can be.” Pay attention to this shift, and one can see both his commentary on where we are and where we ought to be headed. He sums up,

Is the church the missionary? Sometimes. Should the church be the missionary? All the time. The church and mission can be separate. I don’t care theologically what people say. Just look at it! Should they be? God forbid! One thing I know for sure, the Kingdom of God is not separate from his Mission. Any church who’s living in the kingdom will do missions? Oh, oh, oh, – maybe that’s it–the sign of the kingdom present in a local church is when it’s missionally engaging the world.

As you might suspect, I choked a few times on Bob’s use of the word “missions,” but in his final connection of the church with mission as an expression of the Kingdom, I am on board. I like the way in which he ultimately flips the indicators… not, “is the church missional?” but “is the Kingdom present?” In this way, missional engagement points to the Kingdom of God rather than being a kind of goal in itself. Believe you me, too much focus on the means and you’ll miss the end. Not that the end justifies the means (it seems one always has to say that for some reason), but the means must be characterized by the end if you’re ever to reach it. The Kingdom is the end, missional is just the means… and if your version of missional is divorced from the Kingdom, you won’t reach the end and you won’t be participating in the Missio Dei.

Bob used another oh-so-important phrase in his post: “live your faith.” Given the tagline of my blog (“Live your faith. Share your life.”), it was natural for me to pick up on… but it’s an inherent part of being missional, for living your faith is participating in the Kingdom of God. Lastly, in this extended rambling interaction with two other posts on the subject, I want to again point out that in both we have a connection to the importance of individual missional engagement. It isn’t that corporate expressions are wrong, bad, irrelevant, or even unimportant… but it appears to me that an understanding of missional (missions, mission) that requires corporate involvement in order to practice it paradoxically leads to an unfortunate fragmentation in the missional goal (the missio Dei, the extension of the Kingdom of God) and hinders the Great Commission. The corollary is that an understanding of missional (missions, mission) which works outward from the aim of the church can tend to this same kind of fragmentation, particularly as it is commonly suggested that the church has multiple purposes, of which mission is but one. One conclusion that we keep outlining and arriving at from different angles is that the shift toward missional engagement entails a reconnection of the church with God’s mission and with his Kingdom, not as a single doctrine, idea, or value among many, but as fundamentally at the core of it’s being, connected inseparably with its raison d’être.

1 Comment

  1. Good post!!!

    The term “missional” can only be understood as relating to the mission of God. As Tim Dearborn has stated, “God’s church falters from exhaustion because Christians erroneously think that God has given them a mission to perform in the world, Rather, the God of mission has given his church to the world. It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world. The church’s involvement in mission is its privileged participation in the actions of the triune God.” (Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission)

    One more thing: It is important to remember to use the word “missional” as an adjective and not as a noun. It can be used to describe activities, practices, behaviors, leaders, churches, movements, etc. Missionary is a noun; missional is an adjective. Using the term as a noun does not make sense.


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