It has become increasingly difficult to open a ministry book or attend a church conference and not be accosted by the word missional. A quick search on Google uncovers the presence of "missional communities," "missional leaders," "missional worship," even "missional seating," and "missional coffee." Today, everyone wants to be missional. Can you think of a single pastor who is proudly anti-missional?
But as church leaders continue to pile onto the missional bandwagon, the true meaning of the word may be getting buried under a pile of assumptions. Is it simply updated nomenclature for being purpose-driven or seeker-sensitive? Is missional a new, more mature strain of the emerging church movement?
It's time to pause and consider the origin and meaning of the word that is reframing our understanding of ministry and the church. This tree diagrams the roots of the word missional and how its reach has expanded into different areas of ministry. Alan Hirsch, a self-described "missional activist," also provides a concise definition of the ubiquitous term.
There are consequences when the meanings of words become confused. This is particularly true within a biblical worldview. The Hebrews were suspicious of images as conveyors of truth, so they guarded words and their meanings carefully. Part of theology, therefore, includes guarding the meaning of words to maintain truth within the community of faith.
This is why I am concerned about the confusion surrounding the meaning of the word missional. Maintaining the integrity of this word is critical, because recovering a missional understanding of God and the Church is essential not only for the advancement of our mission but, I believe, also for the survival of Christianity in the West.
First, let me say what missional does not mean. Missional is not synonymous with emerging. The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. Missional is also not the same as evangelistic or seeker-sensitive. These terms generally apply to the attractional model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God's agent in the world, but we should not confuse this with the whole.
A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a "sent one" who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the "sent" people of God, the church is the instrument of God's mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say "the church has a mission," according to missional theology a more correct statement would be "the mission has a church."
Alan Hirsch is an author, speaker, and the founding Director of The Forge Mission Training Network, an international organization.