Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I was recently in a conversation where the word missional was being thrown around. At least three different church leaders used this term in describing their own church, and all of them meant something different by it. A couple years back a number of my emerging church friends ditched emerging/emergent for this term. While emerging/emergent can mean everything you like or dislike about modern Christianity - missional has a root that is harder to deny. For many of us in the evangelical world, missional sounds like it should be a definitive word for what we are doing - after all isn't our role to treat the world like a mission field? I'll let you mull that over.

The idea of missional needs some qualifiers though. Do you mean missional in terms of a general disposition of your congregation to support traditional missions abroad and maybe even at home? That is one way I hear it being used. Or do you mean missional in terms of an orientation of your congregation towards bringing people into your church - by whatever means you feel God has led you to employ of course? I hear that a lot too - it is basically using missional to describe what others have named attractional. Or do you mean missional as a means of saying that your congregation is embedded in the cultures they are trying to reach - implicated in their very lives? This is where some would get antsy - but this is another way this term is being used.

One of the problems is that these terms represent ecclesiologies that are often contrasted against each other, somehow captured up in one little word. I have two problems with this. First evangelicals have a weakness for words, we love to use them but we are less enamoured with precisely defining them. This is actually a liberal impulse that is meant to preserve religious diversity, but it leads rather to a relativistic use of words and impoverishes the majority of evangelical writing. (I know that is a judgment, one shared by others frustrated with the lack of precision and unpacking of assumptions in evangelical literature.) The second problem is that this word is skirting a battle that needs to be had. This one might surprise you.

Watching folks throw the word missional around uncarefully leads to some interesting situations. I can see how the other views of missional are looking for ways to express their paradigm but with a sense that their knees have been knocked out. The attractional-incarnational battle is still there beneath the surface. This actually creates a distrust that festers beneath the surface and prevents folks from connecting and understanding where the other is coming from. I think those things need to battle it out - and with the traditionalists thrown in the mix. And not because I think one is better than the other - I don't. I think they are simply different. And the only way to hold difference in tension and unity is to acknowledge it and commit to mutual understanding. One question I never hear is why does that person/group gravitate to that paradigm? I think about that in these conversations - and it amazes me how little we actually know ourselves let alone each other. This reality compounds the problem. The less we know why something appeals to us, the more afraid we will be of losing it.

In the end I'm wondering if we haven't just wrecked yet another word. Missional? What is missional?


Anonymous said...

Good thoughts, Frank. I like the word "missional" because it helps me to measure my own faithfulness, and the faithfulness of the church, in doing what Jesus has called us to do, which is to follow Him into all the world with the Gospel of the kingdom.

I don't mind saying I come up short and am not worthy of the label!

Don Rousu

One of Freedom said...

Thanks Don. Great to see you commenting on my blog. I think a lot of people like the word missional for the same reason - it does have an implicit sense of fidelity to mission which has a lot of traction for us evangelicals. But it is interesting how you've made distinctions about that faithfulness that I'm not convinced all the folks using missional would agree with. Personally I like your definition though - I land on the incarnational side and your words are the checks and bounds I want in an incarnational theology.

steven hamilton said...

stimulating stuff frank!

i like the 'incarnational' perspective. i'm wondering though, as the gospel becomes incarnated and embedded in a culture, how do we deal with the issue of mal-formation, so-to-speak. for instance, and i am struggling to engage lovingly with my sister on this issue, what happens when a cultural value de-centers or dis-torts the good news of the reign of God in Christ Jesus, as it seems to me to have happened with the "prosperity gospel" in america? the cultural mis-appropriation of american cumsumerism has taken and dis-torted the gospel.

One of Freedom said...

Steven I'm actually writing on that topic for a conference. The way I see it is that the church is always dealing with two simultaneous encounters - with tradition and with culture. This does not guarantee anything and there are perennial issues that make navigating these encounters difficult. Recently I've been involved with dialogues about karma and religion. Judeo-Christianity is often at odds with a very karmic worldview (ie. do good to get good). BTW this karmic worldview is precisely at the heart of the heretical prosperity gospel. The Christian understanding of grace is one contrast to karma, but another is the mystical tradition as seen in Job. In the encounter with tradition and culture it is easy to adapt to karmic (and other problematic values such as gnosticism) views in an effort to do church. Which is why I think it is so important for theologians to be on the ground with new movements - helping them navigate these traps.

steven hamilton said...

intriguing. i'd be very interested in reading your paper once you are done!

so let me play the advocate for a minute: the karmic principle (even though some expressions that limit the universe to karma are problematic) can be witnessed in the Bible:

Job 4:8: As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it

Galatians 6: 7-9: Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.

(is your paper the theological underpinnings of Bono's quote: "grace, she travels outside of katrma"

One of Freedom said...

Steve you should be careful of the context for that passage in Job - this is not the words of God but of one of Job's so-called friends. The whole point of Job is to show how this karmic understanding permeates religious consciousness - and provides a clear contrast. Job should have good karma but he does not, that is the point.

Yet, as your Pauline quote indicates, there is a strong karmic tradition provided it is understood as not manipulative. Indeed doing good is its own reward, but it also engenders good. But we cannot take it away from the reality of Jesus' words that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. There is something true about karma, but only if seen in the larger context of grace. Which is I think where Bono was going.

My paper isn't directly on this karmic problem, but on how alternative ecclesial identities result from the practitioners wrestling with a fidelity to their tradition (roots) and efficacy in the cultural context where they live. I'm presenting Tuesday, still writing the paper though.

cleireac said...

Frank, I'm a bout to leave town, but I do want to explore this with you, as my branch of the Church is also intrigued by the term 'missional.'

For the time being, have you seen this (these)?


cleireac said...

I still want to have this conversation, but for the rest of the week I'm terribly tied up.

However, what do you see as the key differences between 'mission' and 'ministry?'

I think these two terms tend to get conflated pretty regularly.

One of Freedom said...

Hank the interesting thing about both of those terms is that they are appropriated to have various meanings depending on the context and desired use. Ministry can be anything from the formal work of clergy to a believer simply living out perceived gospel values. Mission is actually an easier term because it is an accepted broad term - a mission basically being the definition and motivation for a specific task. Which is part of the problem with missional as a term. Missional can apply to almost any task one considers part and parcel of the Gospel mission. Hence we are right back to ministry.

What is helpful is that some authors are using missional in very specific ways. And some of those authors actually give a framework for what missional means, I've been fairly impressed with Alan Hirsch in this regard. For those folks missional has a deliberately outward thrust while at the same time reflecting a post-colonial sensibility.

My daughter often asks me what words mean. And when I give her options I explain that words don't actually have meanings - but language is a process by which meanings are applied to words in order to communicate. When we get that we realize just how difficult communication actually is. We've had a few deep conversations about words (that's what she gets for having a theologian for a dad).

So the appropriate question is what is the difference you see between mission and ministry?