When I composed my entry into the Missional Synchroblog, I suggested that of the 50 different responses in the list, there just might be 50 different definitions of missional. Some of the entries have been really top-notch, and make valuable contributions to a rounding-out of the term. While there may be some mildly contradictory views, I did want to explore what the corpus of posts is saying as a whole — or at least to summarize and interact with a few of them. Given the number of posts to wade through, this will probably be a bit of a miniseries, lest I be accused of writing too many loooong posts. We set the stage with apologies to Paul Simon.
“The problem is all inside your head”, she said to me
The answer is easy if you take it logically
I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free
There must be fifty ways to define “missional”
She said it’s really not my habit to intrude
Furthermore, I hope my meaning won’t be lost or misconstrued
But I’ll repeat myself, at the risk of being crude
There must be fifty ways to define “missional”
Fifty ways to define “missional”
She said it grieves me so to see you in such pain
I wish there was something I could do to make you smile again
I said I appreciate that and would you please explain
About the fifty ways
And so, by way of explanation, we dive into the first batch of posts.
Alan Hirsch aptly notes that there is misuse of the term on both sides, and expressed concern for the word.
What triggered this post is a recent conversation that I had with Ed Stetzer. He said to me that he had spoken to Tim Keller and Tim had expressed concerns that missional had become the new emergent and that the term had become almost useless and that we had to now think about discarding it. My reply to him was that I was equally concerned about this and that as far as it depended on me that this would not take place on my shift!!
By way of definition, Alan cites a paragraph from his book, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church:
Missional church 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. In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is mission. When the church is in mission, it is the true church. The church itself is not only a product of that mission but is obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible. The mission of God flows directly through every believer and every community of faith that adheres to Jesus. To obstruct this is to block God’s purposes in and through his people. 
He contends that
what is expressed through Emergent, the Alt-Worship movement, and what has been called Post-Evangelicalism, is not by-and-large a missionary movement, but is rather what I would call a renewal movement. That is, as far as I can discern, its primary concerns lie largely in interpreting theology and worship for the post-modern situation.
He cites the Missio Dei prefers the term “missional-incarnational”, saying “Mission always sets our Agenda and Incarnation must always describe our Way.” He appeals for clarity in the use of the term “missional” and appeals to emergents not to ‘emerge’ before they have a mission.
I agree with Alan’s post; it is particularly helpful in outlining a distinction between the emerging church and the missional church. His definition is compatible with mine in seeing the church organized by its mission, and notably in his inclusion of an individual component of the expression. His hyphenation of the term incorporates what I have included within my definition of the term “missional.”
Alan Knox comes up with a good comparison for the way some people have latched onto the term.
When I was growing up, the “regional” airport in a large city near us decided that it wanted to steal some of the air traffic away from ATL (Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport). Over several years, there were studies and consultants and budgets and votes. Eventually, the airport made a huge decision – they decided to change their name from “regional airport” to “international airport” – as if changing the name would change who they were.
I think many followers of Jesus Christ may be attempting to add “missional” to whatever they already doing. But, adding the label “missional” to their meetings and programs does not make them missional.
His conception of missional is that it needs to include dependence on the gospel and incorporate the concepts of being relational, intentionality, cost, and love.
Andrew Jones, after dropping a name or two (Lesslie Newbigin, Francis DuBose, et al), gives “the skinny on missional” by recounting the history of the term, then outlining the problems with the term, as he sees them:
1. It is often dumbed down by people who confuse it with “evangelistic” or “mission-minded”
2. It has often been purged by some evangelicals of its connections to the global mission movement (read ‘Ecumenical’) and given a newer and more acceptable face.
3. It has sometimes been co-opted by aggressive and competitive white males to drive resources to the programs that beef up their own churches.
4. It suffers from a compulsive activism, as if God was a workaholic who constantly drives on his team and never rests from his labours.
5. It lacks an immediate connection with worship which might be the flip side and a necessary balance.
Andrew refers to Chris Wright’s book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative and its call for a missional hermeneutic. He writes, “Chris puts forward a missional hermeneutic as a contextual, holistic, coherent framework that finds its center in Christ himself who opened the minds of his disciples so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:45)”
I like Andrew’s list of issues with the word. There may be some overlap in the first three, but these are the reasons most of us are reacting to the present misuse of the term. The fourth is perhaps a helpful corrective, but I would have liked to explore what he means in the third one a bit further… perhaps in a future post. What immediately comes to mind is Gordon MacDonald’s misuse of the term. He places the roots of missional language in the 1952 Willingen conference and the term Missio Dei arising in 1954.
Bill Kinnon keys in on an aspect of missional that is not often appreciated… The Long View.
Those of us brought up in North America
normallyoften lack a sense of history. We live in the immediate. We expect instant gratification. Fast food, fast cars, high-speed everything – we want to get to the future, now. Our approach to the kingdom reflects this. That is to get as many people to accept a “ticket to heaven” as quickly as possible using the most modern Methods-Time Measurement techniques. If putting on a show will get them to accept that ticket quicker, then dammit, we’ll rival Las Vegas in the shows we put on. It’s all about the efficiencies of delivering services that convince people to accept their tickets.
A missional understanding of the church places us within a historical context. It removes the ticket to heaven pressure that the Western Evangelical Church has placed upon itself. Missional people recognize that God is on the move in our villages, towns and cities. We need to engage with Him in what He’s doing. Rather than building big box church warehouses that “vacuum cleaner up all the surrounding Christians” (to paraphrase Al Roxburgh @ the end of the video, Three Churches and a New Age Mall) and calling that the Church, we are to be the leaven that permeates our neighborhoods with the lived out good news of Jesus Christ.
This is not a two-year, three-year, five-year or even ten-year plan. This is a lifetime’s engagement with the communities where we have been strategically placed by the hand of God. We may see a great awakening that happens in our very midst – or we may be like David Livingston and Hudson Taylor – who never got to see the incredible harvest that came from the seeds they planted. But our call is to be the hands, feet and voice of Jesus as we live amongst the people who are our neighbors. I believe that is what missional is.
I like the way Bill sets missional into a much larger historical context and contrasts it with the immediacy of Modern Western Society. This is a crucial aspect of missional theory and theology, and strikes at the heart of the way people in other (megachurch) contexts tend toward short-term success measures. In business today, far too many companies are trapped into quarter-to-quarter thinking, and as a result are barred from achieving corporate greatness. The concept of the longer view must be thoroughly “bought into” if we are to succeed with our missional models. And by “succeed,” I mean that any meaningful measure may well be made by our grandchildren rather than by us.
We’ll take up some more in the next post, but so far:
- the term missional is misused by many who don’t understand it;
- missional church is not the same as emerging church;
- simply adding the term doesn’t make it so;
- missional is incarnational;
- individual missional engagement, not just corporate engagement, matters; and
- missional church roots itself in history by taking a long view of its engagement.