Help? Just what is… missional!?

What the heck is missional? Tony Jones wrote a post recently with an insightful point: who isn’t missional? Or he asks, would anyone say, “I’m not missional.” Now those are two different questions. Plenty of people are not missional.  But whether they would recognize it or say so is another thing altogether.

When missional seems so vague that everybody could say yes to it, then it’s very legitimate to ask what heck the terms means — at least in any useful way. In fact, as I wrote in an earlier post, if it doesn’t have some distinctive meaning it’s pretty much a useless designation.

Here are my two quick criteria for “missional” when I’m reading books, articles, or blogs:

  • One of the most concrete ways to nail down “missional” is to tie it to the folks who started the conversation: the Gospel and Our Culture Network, the Eerdmans books series that accompanies that, etc. Lots of people have aped the term, and very often conflated it with postmodern issues, generational issues, reaction to denominationalism, etc. (See below) For me, the questions, perspectives, and conversation partners of that original GOCN conversation is a key criterion for determining whether someone I’m reading or talking is referring to the same “missional” as I’m referring to. One quick way I check that is just by looking in the index of the book, or noticing the people that are referenced in the conversation.
  • A second key criterion, and the most important, is to look for a real connection to the missio Dei. That is, the mission of God — the Father sent the Son, the Father and Son sent the Spirit, the Spirit sends the Church — is a fundamental and shaping force in a missional understanding of the church. The missio Dei is to redeem a fallen creation, a mission begun in the calling of Israel and accomplished decisively in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and being brought to completion by the work of the Spirit to the glory of God. The church is the community of people who tell of this good news, and bear witness to this new reality through their life together in the world. In practice, this means:
  1. That the church is not a static entity, but exists only as it participates in God’s mission. If a church is not participating in God’s mission of redeeming the world, then it’s not a church. A church is a mission outpost —  a place where God’s mission to the world becomes tangible and concrete in a community of people. A church that does not have an “out-there” awareness of the people whom God is seeking and for whom Christ died, is not a missional church. A church that simply comes to “get fed” or “be blessed” without a resulting sense of feeding and blessing others is not a missional church.
  2. Mission, participation in God’s redeeming work, is part of everything the church does. It’s not an activity of just one committee or a few folks. Mission is not just what is done at the Food Pantry, or on the summer mission trip, or by the mission committee, or by a few folks on the social witness team. Missional means that everything the church does is understood as mission. Everything participates in God’s redemption of the world. Worship is understood as participating in mission; fellowship as participating in mission; music ministry as participating in mission, etc. Even the in-house activities that never “hit the streets,” like finance committee meetings and personnel meetings, are understood in their relationship to the outward witness of the church. Everything the church does has an outward thrust. The church is for the world, and exists to participate with God in redeeming the world.

And here are two red flags that make me read much closer when something says “missional”:

  • Red flag number one is kingdom-of-God language. This may sound strange, because the kingdom of God is very much apart of missional theology. The life of the Christian community is a demonstration of the reign of God here and now, the reign that begins in Jesus Christ. That demonstration is imperfect, flawed, and partial — but it is a sign of God’s reign. However, a lot of what I see that is called “missional theology” is actually something like “kingdom theology.” It’s not much about God’s mission of redemption in Jesus Christ. It is a lot about the characteristics and qualities of God’s kingdom. The problem with this is that Jesus Christ becomes just a good example for kingdom living, setting the model for life under the reign of God. And the kingdom of God becomes the work of the community, to bring about through their actions in their neighborhoods. Now these statements are partially true, but they are dangerous reductions. Jesus Christ is far more than a good example of life under God’s reign; and life in the kingdom of God is far bigger than anything we can bring about. So when I see something labeled “missional” that talks a lot about the kingdom of God, I read very closely.
  • The second red flag is something I touched on very quickly up top. In many cases, missional has become the word that stands for lots of other change trends in the church. In the late 90’s and early 00’s we were talking about Gen X and Gen Y, and postmodern. A few years later it was “emergent.” Now it’s missional. These words all name different aspects of changes happening in the North America church, and particularly in the white evangelical North American church. But they are not all missional, or even close to missional — at least by the criteria I’ve listed. There are overlapping interests and questions, but they’re not the same thing. When an author uses postmodern, emergent, and missional interchangeably in the same book or post, I get skeptical and read very closely.

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