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Home > Issues > 2007 > Winter > Dangers of Missionalism

I've added a new word to my vocabulary: missionalism. In fact I may have coined the word. All I know is that my spell-checker never heard of it before.

Missionalism defined: the belief that the worth of one's life is determined by the achievement of a grand objective. Key word: worth.

I don't know how long the word missional has been in use. I only began to hear it in the last few years as in "we're a missional church." Is missional really that different from being purpose-driven? I like both terms, but I know lots of churches (including ones I pastored) that were acting missional and purpose-driven long before the two words became popular. I remember thinking one day that missional sounds a bit Catholic, and purpose-driven sounds more Evangelical Protestant.

But missionalism is something else. It's a leader's disease. Like a common cold that begins with a small cough, missionalism catches on in a leader's life and seems at first so inconsequential. But let this disease catch hold and you are likely to have bodies strewn all over the place, the leader's and some of the leader's followers.

A worst case scenario from a generation ago might be Jim Jones and his horrific ending in Guyana. The mission became all-consuming, and it turned dark. Not only did the leader go down, but most of his followers self-destructed, too.

Seeds of the Sickness

Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader's attitude. Before long the mission controls almost everything: time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics, and convictions.

When I searched the Bible for insight on this, I first lighted on Moses in his fortieth year. "[Moses] went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor." In other words, there was an arresting vision (of suffering) and a formation of mission (alleviate it!). Which is what Moses did a sentence later. Seeing an sadistic Egyptian beating a Hebrew, "[he glanced] this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand" (Ex. 2:11-12).

In advanced stages, missionalism means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem. In its worst iteration, the end always justifies the means. The family goes; health is sacrificed; integrity is jeopardized; God-connection is limited. In this one event, Moses succumbed to missionalism.

Perhaps that's why the man spent the next 40 years living with the consequences of that impulsive act. He did wilderness-time learning the difference between a mission whose time had not come and one that would later be implemented in God's way and in God's time.

Missionalism catches hold when an idea is bigger than a person and overwhelms the soul's ability to constrain it and direct it. Moses clearly saw the suffering of the Hebrew people. But his rash act showed that he was not prepared to operate under authority of the God of Israel. He had growing up to do.

What if Moses had been successful in that fortieth year? Imagine the word spreading like a wild fire. "Moses is our guy. He took on an Egyptian and killed him. We've got a leader. Let's rise up against the Egyptians and take this country over."

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Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

From Issue:Going Missions, Winter 2007 | Posted: January 1, 2007

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