I’ve been doing a series examining the posts from the collection of definitions in the recent missional synchroblog in which I participated with a total of 50 bloggers (plus a few unofficial entries). This exercise is perhaps becoming a bit of an appendix to the missional series I did last summer, doing an extensive consideration of the term.
With so few posts left in the queue (at least relatively speaking), we pick up the review once more with Ron Cole. He writes, “To understand ‘Missional’, is to immerse ourselves in the reality of the gospels and rediscover that Jesus’ church lived in the world and practiced an outrageous and scandalous table fellowship.” Continuing along the theme in John’s gospel and the synoptics, he says, “Whom you eat with defines whom you won’t eat with. With Jesus it never appears to be a ‘social’ program…it is radical, scandalous, outrageous…it’s the Kingdom.” He sums up by quoting Ed Stetzer, “It’s possible to be a missionary without ever leaving your zip code.” and by writing,
These table fellowship stories could be the reality of what “Missional” is, it is “Sacramental Living.” Not as a ritual, but as the redemptive imagination that is it’s spiritual truth. It is sad in a sense that we have ritualized the bread and wine. This ritual of who’s in and who’s not…who’s welcome and who’s not. I wonder if Jesus imagined it to be that. Jesus table fellowship, the meals of bread and fish always reflected the Kingdom…surplus, and food the fed the poor. Jesus table fellowship always reflected the truth of the Kingdom, the truth of what missional should be about…redemption, restoration, justice, community, the reordering of a new creation.
I like Ron’s use of the table metaphor in describing the identification with the “other” that is fundamental to missional living, as we’ve seen. He includes the concept of living as a missionary, and of the Kingdom of God. The concepts he uses in his explanation are recurring, but I enjoyed his post particularly for its use of the table metaphor, which is one of the great watersheds for understanding Jesus and who we did or didn’t eat with, as indeed, it reflects even today in many cultures. It reminds me of Conrad Gempf’s excellent book, Mealtime Habits of the Messiah: 40 Encounters with Jesus. If there’s one concept to take away from the extended analogy, it would be inclusive acceptance.
Scott Marshall discusses his own tradition and a magazine which continually focuses on numeric growth and interviews with pastors giving a “how-to” and describing various programs as “missional.” He doesn’t agree with this use of the term, and quotes the pastoral director of a local retreat center as expressing the heart of being missional: “We want to make sure we’re real clear that God’s interest is in the health of the metro area and it’s people and not simply in churches. We want God’s agenda out there for all of us.” He questions how or if one can move the local church from its numerical focus to something reflecting the quotation he’s cited.
Makeesha Fisher tackles this question as well, from a comment left on her synchroblog contribution. The move from theoretical to practical is a common call in the whole missional conversation, particularly from practitioners and pastors who “get it” but may be serving in a congregation that isn’t quite there yet. Leading through change is a hot but large topic in this conversation. Scott’s post brings up the question of numerical measures, and though little has been said about them so far in our review, finding new ways of measuring “success” (i.e., other than numerical) is significant in the missional conversation, part of the larger question of “the long view.”
Sonja Andrews explains missional by telling a story about sharing a meal with construction workers and building relationship with her lawn-care providers in hopes of inviting them to a meal soon. She writes, that missional is about loving one’s neighbour, and says, “You see, to me, missional is about giving hope in a world of gray. It’s about smiling at people who routinely wear frowns. I may never have the chance to speak the words of the Gospel to them in my outloud voice.”
Sonja’s post is real and practical, and serves as a good foil for some of the more theoretical of our posts. It reminds me of my father’s interaction with waitresses, which always seems intended to get a smile out of them, and it is. He doesn’t do it to get better service (though it helps), but simply to help brighten their day, which costs him nothing and means something to them. This is intentional on his part, but he’s been doing it so long it’s become second-nature. This does capture something of the essence of missional, in its focus on the other person simply for their sake, as Sonja’s post illustrates well. Importantly, she highlights that point that missional contact with others need not result in gospel presentations… rather, the gospel is wordlessly embodied (incarnated) in the relationship, with the balance — including the question of proclamation — left to the Holy Spirit. More often than not, in missional encounters, gospel presentations follow inquiries and are therefore concentrated on fertile soil.
Steve Hayes asks the question, “does ‘missional’ mean anything that ‘missionary’ does not?” He suggests that “missionary” is a problematic word for being both noun and adjective, while “missional” has an advantage for being an adjective only.
The term “mission” is a recent one, even in Western theology. The concept of mission as a “phenomenon”, something that can be observed, discussed, studied, analysed, and dissected is itself a product of Western thinking, conditioned by the Enlightenment. Even in Western missiology, definition has been a problem. It is only since the sixteenth century that the term “mission” has been used (beginning with the Jesuits) for the spread of the Christian faith among people who had not previously known it. Since the 1950s the word “mission” has been used more frequently among Christians, and it has been used in an increasingly broader sense (Bosch 1991:1). Bosch, in his magisterial work Transforming Mission (1991) describes the origin and the expanding use of the term “mission” among Western Christians, and goes on to observe that there is a crisis in Western mission.
The term “mission” is a recent one, even in Western theology. The concept of mission as a “phenomenon”, something that can be observed, discussed, studied, analysed, and dissected is itself a product of Western thinking, conditioned by the Enlightenment. Even in Western missiology, definition has been a problem. It is only since the sixteenth century that the term “mission” has been used (beginning with the Jesuits) for the spread of the Christian faith among people who had not previously known it. Since the 1950s the word “mission” has been used more frequently among Christians, and it has been used in an increasingly broader sense (Bosch 1991:1). Bosch, in his magisterial work Transforming mission (1991) describes the origin and the expanding use of the term “mission” among Western Christians, and goes on to observe that there is a crisis in Western mission.
“missional” as an adjective could replace “missionary” with no loss of meaning, but with no gain in meaning either. One could say “I believe in One Holy Catholic and Missional Church”, but “missional” still does not carry the full meaning of “apostolic”. It expresses the “sending” part, but still does not express the continuity of a body that “continued in the apostles’ teaching and communion, the breaking if bread and the prayers.”
Concluding, he writes,
As I understand the term, therefore, I think there is no question that the Church is missional, and should be seen to be missional. Whatever else “apostolic” means in the phrase “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church”, it means at least that. As Papathanasiou (2005:13-14) puts it
The Church is “apostolic” insofar as (and provided that) she is sent and sending; sent by Christ and sending her apostles “to all creation”. Her being sent (that is, her mission) is not something additional to or beyond herself, but a constituent of herself, of her own nature. The point at issue, in other words, is not simply “what the Church does”, but chiefly “what she is”.
That is what I primarily understand by “missional”.
I appreciate Steve’s notations concerning the relatedness of the term with “missionary” and “mission.” I’m not sure that the case is complete that “missionary” would not include the apostolic element of sending, but the subject of sending (as meant by the term “apostolic” here) is clearly delineated here. We’ve already noted this theme within the concept of missional, but Steve gives it a thorough theological or linguistic explanation. I think it is poignant when he points out the negative connotation that the word “missionary” has acquired by using the illustrative South African quote, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. The missionaries said ‘Let us pray’, and we closed our eyes to pray, and when we opened our eyes again, we had the Bible and they had the land.” I don’t think that missional functions well as an alternative to the word missionary, since such uses omit the theological understanding behind missional and its tie to one’s present culture rather than necessarily implying something cross-cultural. I tend to think that this will unhelpfully draw the baggage of the term “missionary” and invest it in the term “missional.” The main difference between the two words, I would submit, is in the approach to the present term through either missiology as an adjunct to ecclesiology, or directly through ecclesiology itself. This is obviously a much bigger topic, but Steve’ post helps begin to flesh out another part of it.
Tim Thompson catches one’s attention when he says, “I’m going to let my Inner Modern sit this one out, along with some of my better judgement perhaps, and just start out with this: Missional is like pornography. It’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.” He writes, “Church membership is not like health club membership where you pay for privileges. Rather, it’s like public radio where the programming is free but people join anyway because they believe in the mission and want to help keep it free for other people too. But better still, Church membership is like yet another organization people join voluntarily because they believe in the mission: the Army.” His clarifying summary statement is that missional is “An alternative lifestyle where your top priorities are all about signing on to God’s project to repair the World because you want to do that work. That’s missional.”
I like Steve’s description of church membership, as it illustrates a centered set as opposed to a bounded set. By saying “repair the World”, his view of missional suggests a much larger view of God’s work than simply the salvation of the church.
Thom Turner says,
In times of fragmentation and poor definition, a good English student knows what to do: go to the Oxford English Dictionary:
Relating to or connected with a religious mission; missionary.
1907 W. G. HOLMES Age Justinian & Theodora II. 687 Several prelates, whose missional activities brought over whole districts and even nationalities to their creed. 1976 J. R. NELSON in P. J. McCord Pope for all Christians? 165 In fairness to John Wesley, it can be presumed that in his self-awareness as a virtually monarchical leader of the movement he was guided by this missional principle. 2000 Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (Electronic ed.) 18 Mar., We are trying to help NAE to be more intentional in its missional focus.
Now over a hundred years old, missional has branched out from being about missionaries in the traditional sense to being about every person in the church community. A missional church has a wholistic “religious mission.”
Summing up, he writes, “Missional then is the the renewing of our lives so that we do ‘all things’ with a ‘religious mission’ according to the will of our most High, Glorious God. Only then will missional make sense because it will be not a system or concept but a way of life that is the way of Jesus.”
I suppose it was about time somebody hauled out the OED. Importantly, Thom notes how the meaning of the term has shifted, and this is the weakness with merely looking back to the first usage of the term if that usage is far enough in the past to have morphed or even become archaic. What is important now is its meaning in the recent popularization of the term. Helpfully, Thom also notes that missional is not a system but a way of life — a theme that has also been recurring in our review.
Coming to the end of the official list of posts, we can offer a summary of bullet-points concerning missional as described in the synchroblog. Again, without stating agreement or not with each item,
- 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;
- missional church roots itself in history by taking a long view of its engagement;
- missional church is in the hands of the so-called “laity”;
- missional is a buzz-word only to those who don’t have it in their DNA;
- missional engagement thrives in the context of third places;
- missional is a paradigm that should be innate to every healthy church;
- the missio Dei institutes the missiones ecclesiae;
- missional builds communitas;
- the mission is to extend the Kingdom of God;
- missional engagement takes place within the ordinary, everyday rhythm of life;
- missional seeks to bring justice to “the other”;
- missional is contextual, but also at times counter-cultural (contrast society);
- missional sees no dichotomy between mission and everyday life;
- missional attempts to transcend relegation to a specific era such as pre-modernity, modernity, or post-modernity;
- missional church gravitates toward narrative theology and toward the gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount;
- the missional life is likened to that of a pilgrim, an exile, or a vagabond;
- missional engagement relies on the Holy Spirit;
- missional community is covenant community;
- missional rejects the dualistic thinking of seeing a dichotomy between secular and sacred;
- missional is inclusive and accepting of others;
- becoming missional out of traditional requires careful leading through (paradigm) change;
- missional seeks new metrics for “success”, over against numerical measures of attendance or adherents as is more common in attractional or institutional churches;
- missional encounters need not result in gospel proclamation;
- missional is not merely a substitute for “missionary”;
- missional sees God’s work as larger than the salvation of the church;
- missional sees the church as a centered set rather than a bounded set; and
- missional is a way of life.
There remains a set of “apocryphal” posts on missional, or posts which referenced the synchroblog and posted on the same day but which were simply not on the original list of 50 contributors when the list was closed. Within those are several good posts, and I will attempt to deal with that set in one final post for the collection of reviews in this series. I’ll restrict these contributions to those fitting the description I’ve just given, as there are a myriad of posts historically addressing the question, and to some extent, it represents ground that I covered in my series last summer. In the meantime, does what we have so far sound at least cohesive?