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Home > Issues > 2008 > Fall > Defining Missional

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."

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Related Topics:BooksCultureMissionMissionsTrends
From Issue:Missions Baggage Check, Fall 2008 | Posted: December 12, 2008

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Displaying 1–5 of 16 comments

howard mai

April 07, 2014  11:35pm

Missional Church interest is just now being highlighted at our congregation. Having read the article above, should a great deal of time and energy be devoted to what might just be a recasting/updating of church hype?

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April 01, 2013  2:33pm

How could "missional" be a negative term. We were told to be on mission by Jesus. Go make disciples, teaching them to obey. Churches are so caught up in fighting over peripheral doctrines, and cultural preferences that they lose sight of the community around them going to hell. To me it sounds just like the American Church to act like something that spurs people on to ministry and evangelism is a trend, and should be avoided. We've become lazy, and apathetic. Me included. Christians who obey the great commission and win souls and disciple radically are superior in effectiveness and motivation to do what were called to do. They do stand apart from the rest of the church. That shouldn't create an elitism, but its hard to say they are not being more, doing better. We may not need another movement, but we need some MOVEMENT!

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March 01, 2013  6:54am

Read Vertical Church by James McDonald...........

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February 28, 2013  2:28pm

In the Bible more creating Dicipleship will direct us to be more like Jesus, and pave the path to a Missional journey. We are chilren of God given a very big blessing to share Jesus Christ with others.

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February 05, 2013  8:54pm

Once again another gathering of people around a word that makes them appear, or think they appear, superior to the rest of Gods church. There are many ways to reach people with the gospel, we don't need another "movement".

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