August 14, 2007Missiology

Meanings of Missional - part 1


Depending on your perspective, it brings warmth to your soul or a shiver down your spine. Yet, there is no question the word is gaining traction. Is this the case with the church word of the day or is it here to stay? And... oh yes... what does it mean anyway?

The answer to the last question depends on who you ask. Some words become so quickly enmeshed into our Christian subculture that the definition is an active, evolving target, that is being changed and defined on the move.

The genesis of this paper came from a week of meetings that illustrated the different meanings.

First, before the meetings, I received an email from blogger "Brother Maynard" expressing his concern about the Wikipedia definition. His concerns can be found by looking in the wikipedia history page near the bottom. Maynard has since been seeking to find a common definition of the word "missional."

As a missiologist concerned with the history, I was surprised to see the debate proceed without any reference to the origin of the word-- just to its current usage. So, I started doing some research and contacting people about their use of the term and the influences that shaped their ideas. I will reflect some on the answers I have received from Dubose, Guder, Hirsch, Keller, Van Engen, and others in the coming weeks.

Second, in late May, I had the privilege of leading a week of missional conversations. It was a busy week, but it was a good week to think on things "missional."

I taught two days at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary on the need for a church to have a missional orientation. Then, I led a one day faculty retreat at Biblical Seminary (Hatfield, PA). Finally, I spent the morning on Thursday with Geoff Hammond, new president of the North American Mission Board.

New Orleans, thanks to the influence of Jack Allen and others, is a missional-friendly environment.

Biblical Seminary has decided to reorder their entire curriculum around the missional church. My assigned task at Biblical Seminary was to look at the use of the word missional. I did so by tracing the understanding of church and mission through the International Missionary Council meetings from Edinburgh to just after Willingen.

Geoff Hammond has a passion for seeing North America in a missional manner--as a mission field.

In short, I discussed missional church in many contexts--but the word meant different things to different people.

The faculty at Biblical Seminary asked for me to write some of the ideas down (and I agreed), but then I promised a more thorough analysis to Geoff Hammond. That has become a bigger task than I expected, but I look forward to sharing the results with them.

As that week moved ahead, and in subsequent conversations, I have seen just how much the word "missional" is a true wiki-word. Practitioners, theoreticians, fans and foes are defining, defending, and dissecting it. Its blurred meaning has brought it to the point that even some of its earliest and ardent users of the term are becoming reticent to use it themselves for fear of their audience misconstruing their message. But the proponents of the term missional see it as a word set apart from other cousin-words, like missionary, mission, and missio dei. Many see the need for a different term.

Jim Thomas, writing at the Urbana site regarding why we need the word, explained,

We need a new word... to cause us to reconsider what God's mission is and whether we are partaking of it as we should. The old words, like missions and missionary, are laden with historical baggage and strong cultural images that prevent us from seeing a broader picture.

Also, regarding the use of the term, Alan Roxburgh cautioned,

If the language of missional church is to become a helpful way of forming communities of God's people in a radically changing culture then we have to spend the time and energy to understand what is at stake in the language we are using. Simple sentence definitions are not adequate. (from "The Missional Church" in, Theology Matters: A Publication of Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry Vol 10 No 4 • Sep/Oct 2004)

The "new word" appears to be catching on among evangelicals. For example:

Southern Baptists have become frequent users of the word.

The Wesleyan Church Evangelism and Church Growth Team explains: "The E&CG Dept. exists to equip & empower The Wesleyan Church to become a missional movement through multiplying believers, leaders & churches."

Randy Pope, pastor of Perimeter Church in Atlanta, preached a message at last summer's Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly entitled, "The PCA: A Missional Church?" from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

The Assemblies of God Department of U.S. Missions includes "missional" as one of their 4 values.

The Evangelical Free Church is planning a "Missional Summit" for their leaders in 2007 and they have renamed their church planting leadership: "Missional Church Planting Team."

The Nazarene Church's denomination has adopted "Missional" as their denominational goal. They describe themselves as Christian, Holiness, and Missional.

I have cited many evangelical denominations, but the term and the concept have many ecumenical roots that both influence and concern some evangelicals. (I will address that next Monday.)

Obviously, part of the problem regarding the debate over what it means to be "missional" is that so many people have used the term in so many different ways. Put simply, if I want to be "missional" what does that actually mean? And, as evangelicals use the word, what can and should it mean for them?

But, in order to get to contemporary usage, we will need to go through history. Why? Well, the origin helps us get at the meaning.

I think there are probably three key early thinkers (in order of publication) that are most significant:

Francis Dubose, God Who Sends (1983)

Charles Van Engen, God's Missionary People (1991), and

Darrell Guder, ed. The Missional Church (1998)

(Take the time to read the reviews of Van Engen's book at Amazon as it illustrates some of the debate in missiological circles.)

But, I think that Guder (as author and editor) has to be the most influential, and the Gospel and Our Culture Network was the most influential organization.

I first read about the idea of the missional church in the thoughtful writings of Guder and others in The Missional Church and later in the Gospel and Our Culture Network. He/they were building on the ideas birthed in an earlier missiological debate (which we will see next Monday). And, I believe The Missional Church was the most influential on the topic.

On a personal note, The Missional Church was my introduction to the ideas of church and mission. It was only later that I would interact with the other authors mentioned in my post.

I read both Van Engen and Dubose as part of my Ph.D. program, but had read Guder, et. al. before I began the program. Actually, Guder's missional focus for North America is one of the reasons I went into missiology instead of Church Growth... and soon found Bosch, Newbigin, Van Gelder, Van Engen, Dubose, and others as part of my Ph.D. at Southern Seminary.

My interest in missiology, and my current role as missiologist in residence at LifeWay (and partnership with the International Mission Board) all stem from reading that book.

So, as best I can tell, Guder and the GOCN leaders were the most influential. (Guder was the editor and the other authors included several noted missiologists: Lois Barrett, Inagrace T. Dietterich, Darrell L. Guder, George R. Hunsberger, Alan J. Roxburgh, and Craig Van Gelder.)

So Guder et. al. were the genesis for many people's ideas today.

When we asked Darrell Guder about the origin of the term, he emailed back:

The word apparently achieved its current popularity as a result of the publication of the research project I edited entitled Missional Church, Eerdmans, 1998. We chose the term because it was not defined, and we wanted to find a way to convey with an adjective the fundamentally missionary nature of the church (which is the wording in Vatican II on which we were building).

Yet, Charles Van Engen and Francis Dubose both indicate a different starting point, and a somewhat different emphasis, in their understanding of "missional." I will explain more fully in the weeks ahead as they came to influence me as well.

So, if the word does not have a clear definition, should we even use it?

Obviously, I think so, though I have seen the term be used in some ways that concern me. Even though I might disagree with some emphases, I believe we can learn from the ideas of others in the missional conversation without having to agree with them on every point.

More on Monday (and probably in between as I am anxious to get some more out there for your input if anyone is paying attention).

Here are some questions for you:

So, do we really need a new word anyway?

What questions do we need to address as we examine "missional"?

How have you seen people use it that both encourages and concerns you?

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Meanings of Missional - part 1