Do you remember ever noticing, as a kid perhaps, that after repeating any common word often enough, it eventually starts to sound like a meaningless jumble of syllables? I’ve written extensively on defining ‘missional’ in the past and don’t want to cover all the same ground again… but up to the present time, it appears that the word “missional” has had so much repetition of late that it has begun to lose it’s meaning — it’s just all so much “missional soup.” This is the trend I identified more than a year ago and which led to my series on the subject last summer. The trend has not changed though, and if anything it’s getting worse rather than better. This is true of people both inside and outside of the missional conversation taking place around the globe. I have seen the word “missional” used to describe programs, as a synonymic substitute for “seeker-sensitive” or the emerging church, and for the sending of missionaries to other cultures in the 2/3 World. I have seen posts on “how to start a missional conversation” and on… well, missional shampoo. None of these uses gets to the heart of what I consider to actually be missional, and some of them are contradictory.
Let it be said that I do not have a corner on the market for what the word means and how it must always be used, but concern for the slippery definition of the word is so shared that when Rick Meigs proposed a synchroblog on the topic as a means of working toward some clarity, 50 of us responded before the list was closed. Fifty bloggers will post today defining what “missional” means, and without reviewing the list, I think we can almost suspect 50 different answers. The real question is how many of those definitions will be incompatible with one another, or at least significantly contradictory. We shall see. Over the coming days and weeks, we can look at these posts, and should expect further discussion.
In October 2007 at Seabeck, I confided to some that there was at that time (and is now) a “battle” going on for the word “missional.” Indeed, some within the missional conversation are already wanting to abandon the word in favour of “mission-shaped” or any other term which is less in dispute. As it stands, the word is in danger of being lost. Some would want to co-opt the term and apply it to existing attractional evangelistic programs, robbing the word of its subversive power.
At its core, the word “missional” intentionally gets to the core of the church’s raison d’être, seeking to recover some of the thinking that has been lost through time. It is a theological word, and for most churches it means turning a lot of their thinking on its head. By co-opting the term and changing its emphasis, churches who do not wish to make such fundamental shifts in their thinking can apply it to a program and say, essentially, “Yes, we’re a missional church.” Nothing has changed though — they’ve just stripped the word of its meaning as a peremptory strike against the fundamental changes to the organization if the word were accepted with its full theological and praxiological impact.
As I have defined the term based on the theological history of the conversation and its usage within that context, to be missional requires the adoption of two central tenets.
- The church’s purpose is to be mission-shaped, meaning that all that it is and does reflects upon and is born out of its single mission, the Missio Dei (“God’s mission”).
- The church’s ministry is to be incarnational, not only corporately but individually as well.
Remove either of these aspects, and missional has been robbed of its theological impact.
The first tenet necessarily implies that the church will be organized around mission as its sole purpose. Despite popular books espousing a fivefold purpose for the church, anything that does not in some fashion flow out of the Missio Dei will be tangential to the church. The work of the church is the work of Jesus, which is the work of God — all share in the same purpose. Fundamentally, the church is arranged by this mission rather than for it. Rather than the church being the group of “saved” individuals who gather to strategize and advance the MIssio Dei, it is participation in the Missio Dei which pulls Christians together in the effort.
The second tenet requires an acknowledgment of the church’s “sent-ness” and emits from the sending nature of a Trinitarian God. It implies that not only must the local church engage with those to whom it is sent, but so must every believer. As I’ve put it simply elsewhere, missional participation in the Missio Dei cannot be programmed and delegated.
A missional church (bonus definition) is therefore a gathering of missional people who are engaged together in the Missio Dei. In other words, the missional nature of a missional church flows from the people who are engaged together, and the presence of a missional program does not make a missional church, just as attending a missional church does not make one a missional Christian. As I’ve written before, “Consider whether the goal of church planting is to establish the presence of church or to establish a church, and it may be discerned to what extent the effort is a missional one.”
Now we come to a final characteristic, that of other-ness. To be missional is to engage with the “other” solely for their sake. The goal of the church in action is to fundamentally demonstrate the way of Christ, and not primarily to convert others to it. “Conversion” is largely a by-product of relationship and not the goal of relationship.
My appeal for the word — and I do believe it is an important word that we need to guard and maintain — is this. For those outside the conversation, please understand that missional has a theological background and meaning which must be understood and adopted in order to make its use appropriate — “missional” is not simply the latest seeker-sensitive or culturally relevant strategy or fad. To apply the label without the theological context is to misuse the term, and thereby to misrepresent yourself. For those inside the conversation, I would hope that when it is used, it will be compatible with what I have written — but in any event, please do not use it without reflection to its theological significance, and not for things which do not necessarily flow therefrom. To do so will be to either misuse or overuse the term, robbing its meaning in the process. Some people will tag every post on their blog as “missional” and others will simply use it as an adjective to describe evangelistic hopes for every endeavour. Please understand, this does not add meaning to your endeavour, it robs from the word missional, diluting its theological significance and value. Worst, it models an incorrect use for others, which in no small part is how we came to be in a battle for the word in the first place. Yielding to this temptation leaves us with nothing more than missional soup.
Alan Hirsch • Alan Knox • Andrew Jones • Barb Peters • Bill Kinnon • Brad Brisco • Brad Grinnen • Brad Sargent • Bryan Riley • Chad Brooks • Chris Wignall • Cobus Van Wyngaard • Dave DeVries • David Best • David Fitch • David Wierzbicki • DoSi • Doug Jones • Duncan McFadzean • Erika Haub • Grace • Jamie Arpin-Ricci • Jeff McQuilkin • John Smulo • Jonathan Brink • JR Rozko • Kathy Escobar • Len Hjalmarson • Makeesha Fisher • Malcolm Lanham • Mark Berry • Mark Petersen • Mark Priddy • Michael Crane • Michael Stewart • Nick Loyd • Patrick Oden • Peggy Brown • Phil Wyman • Richard Pool • Rick Meigs • Rob Robinson • Ron Cole • Scott Marshall • Sonja Andrews • Stephen Shields • Steve Hayes • Tim Thompson • Thom Turner
Over the coming little while, I hope to read through all of the contributions to this synchroblog and interact with some of them. In the meantime, understanding that there will always be some nuance in people’s usage of the term, how does my conception of the term “missional” fit with yours? Is there anything I still need to address, or have I successfully distilled the definition down to its non-negotiable essentials?
As always, an excellent post. One question for you (with some set up):
Acknowledging that a program cannot make a church/individual missional, and recognizing that a community that is primarily or exclusively program-orientated is not missional, can programs, within the wider definition you mention above, be missional? Just curious as to your take on this.
I come down pretty hard on programs most of the time, as they tend to get used as a packaged contextless solution to a context-unique situation, and it can be years before people figure out they aren’t working. Programs tend to be characterized primarily by their content, which I think is what makes a misunderstanding so easy as soon as someone says “missional program.” That said, programs aren’t bad ipso facto, provided shortcomings are recognized and understood, along with just what makes them missional to begin with.
For a close example, a project or program could be undertaken with missional intent or for missional purposes… a bookstore, say. The bookstore is not itself missional, but the actions of the people engaged in it are missional in this case… hence a missional space or “program” is created.
Put another way, with the missionally-purposed creation of a missing ‘third space’ in a neighbourhood (be it a restaurant, book store, theatre, laundromat, whatever) it isn’t the establishment that’s missional, but the less tangible interaction of missionally-engaged people with their community that would make it a missional space. If everyone in the neighbourhood hung out at the YMCA, a missionally-minded group of people might also start hanging out there, just to meet and talk. This doesn’t make the YMCA missional (or missionally-purposed), but it does turn it into a missional context. You could do a program of missional teaching… the program would not itself be missional, but the outworkings of the students (assuming they “get it”!) would be.
So in short, my answer is “yes,” recognizing what makes it missional is not so much the content or the form, but the intent and the actions of the people engaged with it.
Right. Great answer! We asked ourselves the question “How should missionality inform our programs?” In this way we saw programs as tools to be used in missional endeavours, as long as they are serving to meet the end (without compromising by the means) and not an end in themselves. It has been tough, but I think we are doing it with all of our programs.
Great insights Bro M. Thanks for your contribution to clarity.
Great post, I really resonate with your two central tenets, which act as a plumb-line to this whole missional conversation.