oed.jpg Seems a little odd to be writing a prologue after all this time, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a back-story, as may be inferred by those who may have noticed posts at other blogs with this same title. I’ve written a lot about the meaning of missional, its distinctives, and what it means to be missional — besides innumerable casual mentions on this blog. I finally drafted a missional series index that lists the posts I did during my major series (2007) defining the concepts inherent in the term as well as the nine-post series I did (2008) summarizing the missional synchroblog when more than 50 bloggers participated in hashing out what it means to be missional. With a couple of other miscellaneous posts thrown in, this is a total of 25 posts just from me. That’s a lot of words, and some may wonder why I’m doing this once again. No, it’s not because I skipped it last year and am overdue, but it’s for two major reasons.

Firstly, I’m revisiting this subject because it’s that important, and secondly, because there are still people muddying the waters with their unhelpful notions of what it is to be missional. (Sadly, some of these are the same people from three years ago.) In this vein is an attack from Jonathan Leeman, Director of Communications for 9Marks, where he (mis)characterizes the missional conversation as a first step toward a new liberalism. (See Rick Meigs’ post, “9Marks on Missional“; I was mildly critical of their definition back in 2007 when they were using it favorably.) More recently, someone used the term “the missional right” in a blog comment. The commenter has since clarified what he meant and rescinded some of what was misunderstood by it but the minor uproar that came from it is, I think, fairly telling in itself. Also within the past number of weeks, Ed Stetzer announced the MissionSHIFT conference to be held later this year, and is coordinating efforts to draft a document titled “The Missional Manifesto” in the lead-up to the conference. To do this, Ed has recruited some good missional voices to help in framing the document, which I understand will be more about what it means for us to be missional than to actually define the term. A few of us have been talking with Ed a little further about this document and how to gather ideas from a wider group of people, and together we’ve come up with a way of gathering some input for the document framers to review as part of their exercise. No guarantee that all or any of this part of the conversation will land in the document as presented, but it’s an important step in gaugeing the wider view of what missional is and what some of its ramifications are. In this way, the prologue conversations help frame the discussion for the document framers.

You may have read this elsewhere as well so I won’t be hurt if you skip down below the quote, but here’s the initial post announcing this part of the discussion:

David Fitch once said that most missional thought leaders “emphasize incarnational forms of church over attractional; the church as Missio Dei over mission as program; organic forms of missionary living in neighborhoods over ministry set in a building.” Yet many others “purveyors of missional emptiness” continue to add the term to the current program they are attempting to promote or make cool sounding. As Ed Stetzer noted, “The word missional is used to bludgeon legalism and antinomianism alike. To some it is a sign of freedom from all established forms of the church and to others it is a degeneration into syncretism with the world.”

So, do we abandon the term and move on? Not yet, because the concept behind missional is really big and words help us when we can agree on their definitions— or at least we can agree what we mean when we use a word.

Over the next few weeks, a group of bloggers want to thrash out the meaning of word “missional” and the activity which accompanies a missional church and lifestyle. It will be discussed here as well as at other places including the blogs listed below. As the conversation moves forward, I hope you will move from blog to blog and offer insights from the scriptures and from how you see missional happening in your local community.

By doing this, we can all be a part of a specific missional conversation. As many of you know, there are several working toward a “Missional Manifesto” that will be rolled out as a part of the missionSHIFT conference on July 12-15, 2010. The intent with the manifesto is to say, “This is what we mean when we talk about being missional.” It is not the manifesto’s intent (or within its ability) to say this is what everyone should think or say about the term, but reflects a hope that it will help us all be clearer and more mission-shaped in our own thinking and practice.

Conversation on the grassroots level is important, so be sure to join in here and at the other blogs and let’s see where God take us. The initial group that will be running with this conversation from the outset is:

(Links above are to the respective kickoff posts; you can click the images below to head to the front pages of the blogs. In addition to the above, there’s also Ed Stetzer’s kickoff post.)

Hopefully that helps outline what we’re doing here. Ed will be posting his usual Monday Missional topics, but during this part of the conversation, he will be presenting some of the questions that we feel need to be addressed as we tackle what it means to be missional. Several other bloggers will pick up the discussion during the week, inviting comments on their blogs and elsewhere around these questions as we wrestle with them. I’ll be posting late in the week (planning for Fridays) in an attempt to gather up some of what’s being said and offer a bit of my own analysis.

Following the “kickoff post” that some of the bloggers linked above, most have prompted discussion around a one-sentence definition of “missional.” Obviously I’ve already defined missional, so I’ll restate the two things that I said were essential to the meaning of missional. Missional means that the church is organized around its mission, and its ministry is incarnational. The upshot of my longer series was that if you remove either of these two central tenets, you’re left with something that’s no longer missional. I explained the first part as being organized by mission rather than for mission, which was nicely underscored by one of the commenters when he said, “Mission as the church’s organizing principle is more nuanced than simply mission being the church’s priority. In the missional church, mission organizes all the other functions of the church.”

I’ll continue quoting just a few of the highlights from the interaction around this idea, starting with Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s new definition: “Becoming and living Christ together.” This one is a deceptively rich phrase, which includes an emphasis on community.

I also appreciated David Wierzbicki’s contribution that missional doesn’t mean “I’m not Emergent but I am still progressive!” although it’s starting to be used that way. He also says, the term “is still easily captured by those who see nothing of value in institutional Christianity [who seem to suggest that] ‘Missional means getting away from crusty church buildings and doing something ‘organicky.'”

JT Caldwall quoted a definition from the Jan-Mar 2010 issue of Bibliotheca Sacra. I decided to chase down the quote, and discovered that “What is the Missional Church Movement?” by W. Rodman MacIlvaine is available online (PDF). I’ve added in some context for the definition used there:

The adjective “missional,” when applied to the church, is different from other adjectives currently in vogue. Terms such as “emergent” and “emerging” describe so-called cutting-edge churches reaching young postmoderns. But some emergent thinkers seem to be jettisoning major portions of the historic Christian faith altogether, edging toward old-fashioned liberalism with its theological double-speak. The term “missional,” on the other hand, has evolved to have a precise definition, rich in theological significance in four areas: theology proper, Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. A missional church is a unified body of believers, intent on being God’s missionary presence to the indigenous community that surrounds them, recognizing that God is already at work.

The BibSac definition interested me because of the similarity to a definition of missional church that I gave previously: “A missional church, then, is a collection of missional believers acting in concert together in fulfillment of the Missio Dei.” I also explained (in the post I linked) the importance of defining the church from the individuals rather than calling a church as missional. I might quibble with the preamble to say that the theological import didn’t evolve but was always inherent in the term.

The definitions from the discussion so far seem include a clear theme of engagement with those around us — not when we’re sitting in a pew, but when we’re out and about in our everyday lives. One of the conversations collaborated on a definition, which I might paraphrase (shorten) a little further to say A missional life is a calling of the church into the neighborhood to discover and join God, re-forming and reshaping our life together to send us deeper into our context with heightened awareness of and ability to respond to God. Another definition included a striking phrase to describe a missional church as one that “risks everything that it thinks it knows, to enter into situations of powerlessness…”

Of course, we sometimes like to reach for a definition that’s as plain as can be, and for me that’s the tag line that I coined for this blog, a phrase I used before “missional” really came up onto my radar. “Live your faith. Share your life.” One of my big disconnects with the institutional church had a lot to do with getting those two backwards.

The participants in the conversation threads so far have done a good job of avoiding “thread drift” (as one commenter called it) to keep on track with the question. In that context, a good challenge was made as well about not allowing missional to be defined in terms of Western perspective — e.g., “neighbourhood” means something different in the West than in other parts of the world, where different (more fundamental) challenges are being faced daily.

At the same time, there were a few items which I personally felt were injecting too much meaning into the word, such as snippets of evangelical or conservative theology. I’ve written on this before, suggesting that there are different kinds of missional, based primarily on theological background and/or ecclesiological structures. My previous attempts (and I think the best approach) have always been to look at what is fundamentally missional without allowing these additional biases to enter into the definition. They may be important, even foundational… but for the most part they aren’t inherently missional. Must one be evangelical to be missional? I would say not. But of course there are many missional evangelicals.

The discussion ahead promises to help flesh out a lot of what we’re talking about by bringing up some of these issues and questions which help complete our picture of what it means to engage with the world missionally. As we’ll discover, there are a lot of questions on the periphery that may not be necessary to define missional per se, but have a great deal to do with understanding what it means to live it.

Jump into the conversation in the comments below or at any of the other blogs. This one is intended to be open, so if you want to post to your own blog, just jump in and link back here, and/or comment below to let us know where your post is. You can jump in on the conversation at Twitter as well — here are some of the relevant “follows”:
@BlindBeggar | @tiffanydsmith | @Jonathan_Dodson | @bradandrews | @edstetzer | @philipnation | @AlanHirsch | @kinnon | @bromaynard | @missionSHIFT | Hashtag: #missionshift

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