The term missional is commonly used in conversations among Christians today. The earliest known usage of the word missional occurred in 1883 in The Heroes of African Discovery and Adventure, by C.E. Bourne, and its next usage materialized in 1907 in The Age of Justinian and Theodora by W.G. Holmes, though neither of these occurrences uses the word the way it is used today. As the term has grown in popularity, it brings with it some theological concerns, challenges, and opportunities.
The defining missiological debate in mission history has been the relationship between "church and mission," which has become a catalyst for three dimensions of missional: missionary, mission, and the missio Dei.
The Church as "Missionary"
In 1910, John Mott called the leaders of the evangelical world to the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. The conference's ambition was to carry the gospel to the entire non-Christian world (compare Luke 9:1-6). The Edinburgh conferees formed a committee that gave birth to the International Missionary Council (IMC) in 1921. The IMC's humble beginnings were an international collaboration between Protestant missionary societies. After 1921, the IMC--and later the Worldwide Council of Churches (WCC)--became the ecumenical vehicle by which many groups moved toward greater cooperation (Hedlund, Roots of the Great Debate in Mission, 39).
One of the most important early meetings of the IMC was the 1938 conference in Tambaram (also called Madras), India. The meeting included a focus on the centrality of the local church and its engagement in mission. William Hogg said, "In a day when many regarded the historic church as an unnecessarily appendage to 'the Christian spirit,' Madras brought a new awareness of the church's importance" (Hogg, Ecumenical Foundations, 297-278).
The Tambaram conference called the church to be the bearer of the Gospel in every sphere of life (Moreau, ed., "Tambaram Conference"). After the meeting, it was no longer possible to talk of mission without directly linking to the church--the church is God's missionary to the world (Acts 17:24-29). Francis Dubose, who used the word missional to reflect this sense in his 1983 book, God Who Sends, said he intentionally used the word to focus on the church as "missionary."
Tambaram's linking of mission and the church did not go without opposition. Former Indian missionary and Methodist theologian, E. Stanley Jones, questioned this emphasis, fearing that the substitution of the church for the Kingdom of God might fleece the missionary movement of the "needed fires of imagination, enthusiasm, and self-criticism" (Phillip, Edinburgh to Salvador). However, the Tambaram conference was clear and reminds us that a missional focus reminds us that the church is God's missionary in the world.
The Church Has a Mission
The 1952 IMC conference in Willingen, Germany, was themed "The Missionary Obligation of the Church." The theological debate on the missionary responsibility of the church became a topic of controversy, and the conference failed to accept the report on this subject. Dutch theologian J.C. Hoekendijk, whose opposition influenced the future of the conciliar missions movement, particularly resisted this church-centric view of mission in a paper entitled "The Church in the Missionary Thinking." Hoekendijk protested the "ecclesiocentric" view of missions and blamed the IMC conference of Madras for mission's propensity towards "churchism."
Willingen rejected Heokendijk's position and also affirmed that the missionary obligation of the church was found in the nature of God: "There is no participation in Christ without participation in His mission to the world..." (Goodal, ed., Missions Under the Cross, 180-190). The church changed from being the sender to being the one sent (compare John 20:21). This calling shows the self-revealing activity of God, who is the author of both church and mission (Georg Vicedom, The Mission of God). David Bosch says, "This evolution meant a momentous shift in the understanding of the church and mission" (Bosch, Transforming Mission, 371).
Charles van Engen popularized the term missional in his 1991 book, God's Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church. He uses missional to talk about the types of relationships that the church has with culture--ambassadors, foreigners, pilgrims, etc. In an e-mail correspondence, Van Engen shared, "My understanding of 'missional' derives from what I would call a 'classical understanding' of mission: that women and men, through personal faith and conversion by the work of the Holy Spirit, would become disciples of Jesus Christ and responsible members of Christ's church."
Thus, the Willingen meeting and later people like Charles van Engen reminded us that a missional focus exhorts us that the church is on a biblical mission.
The Church Joins in the Missio Dei
After Willingen, a group that included Hoekendijk issued a rival report that pulled "missionary thinking away from the 'church-centered' model" and spoke "more of God's work in the secular world," apart from the church (Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda: An Autobiography, 138). This view--that the church is to join God in what he is doing in the world--became the prevailing view soon after the Willingen conference. Thus, the missio Dei became the focus of mission and mission was seen as originating as an attribute of God (building on an emphasis from Karl Barth decades earlier). Furthermore, Lesslie Newbigin's consolidated committee report signified a clear embrace of the Trinitarian grounding of missionary action. In Newbigin's version, missio Dei is movement from God to the world, and the church serves as an instrument for that mission.
The missio Dei movement would take new directions in the decades following Willingen--and those directions led to problematic theological and missiological conclusions that cannot be adequately traced in this brief article. In short, Hoekendijk (and others that followed) sought to define the missio Dei as larger than the church. He challenged the member bodies in the WCC to abandon the traditional form of church and missions. He held that the congregations should abandon their buildings and institutions and become bands of roving ministers, believing that the time for evangelistic mission work had passed. Hoekendijk's adaptation of missio Dei ultimately became a churchless mission and had wide-ranging impact on future missiological conversations.
However, theologians and missiologists would seek to reclaim that emphasis and focus on the missio Deiv with an emphasis more similar to the conversations that followed Willingen.
In the 1990's, Darrell Guder, editor and contributor for the Missional Church (1998), traces his view of the missional church through Vatican II (which was influenced by the post-Willingen conversation): "The church on earth is by its very nature missionary since, according to the plan of the Father, it has its origin in the mission of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, 813, as quoted in Darrell Guder, Walking Worthily: Missional Leadership After Christendom, 252). Guder's desire was to take the best of the missio Dei conversation, mostly before its later expressions, and to rally around the missio Dei idea.
Thus, the focus on the church joining in the missio Dei, bearing witness to what God was doing in the world, was reengaged with a new (and for the first time widely embraced) term: missional.
Thus, a missional focus reminds us that the church is joining God on his mission, the missio Dei.
An Unchurchly Mission = An Unmissionary Church
Through the conversations at Tambaram, Willingen, and immediately after Willingen, most missiologists would agree that the church is to live as God's missionary agent, to be focused on the biblical mission, and to join God in the missio Dei.
The conferences mentioned and the emphases they provided are helpful in defining these dimensions. However, there are also errors to be avoided, namely a mission that does not include the church Newbigin has said, "An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary church" (Newbigin, The Household of God, 169). Every Missional thinkers who root ideas in the historical debate over "church and mission" must be careful not to end up where the IMC movement led which was a "churchless" mission. The church as missionary led to the church having a mission, which then led to the church joining the missio Dei. Unfortunately, the IMC took it one step further by insisting that the missio Dei was to be found outside of the church.
In today's church conversations, there is a resurgence of the idea of a missional church. In its untainted sense, missional finds the inseparability of "church and mission" from God himself. In Matthew 16, Jesus tells Peter that He will build His church through him, the gates of hell will not overcome it, and that He will give Peter the "keys of the Kingdom of heaven." The "keys" are the authority given to the church, including the opportunity to present individuals with the Gospel--the message of salvation (Acts 15:7-9; Barton, ed., Life Application New Testament Commentary, 76). Here is the strongest connection between "church and mission." The church's mission involves Kingdom expansion--but God uses the church as his Kingdom tool. The disciples--a proto church--are indeed sent (John 20:21) on a Kingdom mission.
The church remains the fellowship through which our Lord promotes and advances His purposes. Its mission is not secondary to its being; the church exists in being sent and in building itself up for the sake of its mission. It has best been said, "Missionary activity is not so much the work of the church as simply the Church at work" (Power, Mission Theology Today, 41-42).
May the church discover its missionary passion, mission focus, and missio Dei orientation.