Understanding Missional: Personalizing the Central Tenets
by Brother Maynard on August 14, 2007
I’m continuing in my quest to describe “missional,” as I had begun yesterday by
describing two missional essentials. Ed Stetzer will begin tomorrow (hopefully)
with his series on the ways in which the word is used, beginning with the history
(which I said I’d be skipping — now you know why). He has just had a
conversation with Dr. Francis Dubose, author of God Who Sends: A Fresh Quest
for Biblical Mission. Dubose is credited with the first usage (1983) of the term
“missional” in the sense we intend… but I’ll leave that to Ed to cover… as you can
tell, his portrait of the history of the term promises to be thorough.
In his teaser, Ed makes an important point:
Finally, I should add that I don’t think I can “define” the word. Simply put, it
means what people intend it to mean when they use it. For me to say, “No,
missional means this and you are using it wrong,” is silly (and that goes for all
“users” of the word).
I agree completely. Any good linguist will tell you that “however a word is used,
that’s what it means.” Sometimes this makes it hard to pin down, but inasmuch
as we might make a bee-line for the OED to settle a dispute about the meaning of
a word, a dictionary reports rather than determines the meanings of words. I’ve
bemoaned the fact that eventually you’ll see the following dictionary entry:
Go, goes. sl. To say or to speak something. Synonym: like. e.g., “So I go ‘no
way,‘ and she’s all, like ‘What-ever!’”
Yes, I love language and I hate this too, but it is the way it is. We can shudder
together, but we can’t prevent it: no matter what we think of it, however a word is
used, that’s what it means. So too with missional. Ed’s intention at the moment,
and mine as well, is first to document how the word is used. After that, Ed
intends to describe how he uses the term, as do I. My own discussion intends to
take it another step (as I’ve begun) and highlight what are the essential
ingredients common to most or all definitions of missional, as I (and most others)
would be likely to describe it. I expect that I will end up saying that some things
which are called “missional” are not — at least as I use the term. I’ve already done
so with Gordon MacDonald’s use of “missionalism.” If nothing else, we should be
reminded of the futility of arguing what usage is “correct,” particularly as the
word is still evolving.
To my knowledge, the work that Ed and I are doing independently is the first documentation of something that can move toward a multifaceted or synthesized definition of the word missional. So far, all we have is a long list of “here’s what I mean by it.” In my view, this type of synthesized understanding of the word — even as a multifaceted definition — is necessary for the word to enter the wider church lexicon without becoming its own linguistic tower of Babel.
Yesterday I said that there are two essential facets to the term missional — a
missional church is missionally-purposed and incarnational. In considering these
further, I believe it may well be the case that almost no usage of the term exists
which is limited to just these two qualifiers with a varying set of outworkings
arranged under each. That is to say, most or all uses of the term include a third
set of distinctives which are typically informed by the ecclesial background or
perspective of the person using the term. This third component to the definition
is where the nuance lies, so we might say that all uses of the term missional mean:
1. Church is missionally-purposed (its purpose is the Missio Dei)
2. Church is incarnational (it sends itself to the lost rather than attempting to
attract the lost)
3. [Nuance: reasons to be missional, methods for being missional, and other
Various terms might be applied of course… “incarnational” might be termed
“sending” even in regard to the local neighbourhood, and missionally-purposed
might be simply termed Missio Dei in describing the church’s raison d’Ãªtre.
These, however, describe the essential context inherent within the term missional.
The first two are related, of course — incarnational is the methodology for
fulfilling a missional purpose. To either be incarnational but not see the the
church’s purpose as mission, or to accept the church’s purpose as mission but not
undertake to fulfill it incarnationally would mean not being missional, in my view.
Various methods, strategies, and values will be found within each of the two
required tenets as different conclusions or applications are reached based upon
the nuance of the term. For example, being “missionally-purposed” may the
common impetus for the development of differing (even divergent)
organizational structures for the local church. The usage of the term may have an
evangelical nuance, an emerging nuance, or a denominational nuance, or some
combination of these or other concerns.
Post-modernity and a response to post-Christendom are prominent factors in
missional language. To determine whether or not they are essential, I’ve asked
myself if one could have a missional approach to moderns. Although we are in a
largely post-modern context, moderns can still be readily found… and when
postmodernity fades away, can we then have a missional approach to whatever is
post-postmodern? To these questions I have to say yes. Any negative answers I
could come up with were largely unconvincing, and as missional is concerned
with contextualizing (an outworking of being incarnational), I have to say that
postmodernity is not inherent to being missional, and where it exists as a major
factor in the usage of the term, it should be considered part of an emerging
Whether post-Christendom is a fundamentally missional aspect is a different
matter, and is probably moot. One could employ a missional approach within
Christendom, but the need for it was diminished by the fact that an attractional
mode of church worked better in that milieu than it does now. Responding to
post-Christendom is one of the factors that has popularized and fueled the
growth of missional conversation, but strictly speaking it would not be a
necessary element of being missional. In the Western world, post-Christendom is
simply a matter of fact (recognized or not, though most missional conversations
recognize this clearly) and the point therefore becomes moot.
The components to the definition as I’ve outlined them may not find universal
agreement, but in my observation of the majority of uses of the term that I’ve
seen within the missional conversation. As noted, there are three other uses of
the term missional, which I’d like to revisit in light of the three-part definition
I’ve offered so far (noting I haven’t fleshed out part three yet). To review, the
three missional definitions or uses outside of the one I’m describing here are:
1. All of the church should exist for outreach or missionary endeavours (i.e., the Missio
2.What are Home missions? or the evangelistic outreach efforts of the local
3. Another word for the Emerging Church?.
The question we’ll pose, now that we’ve stated two foundational tenets, is
whether these three alternate uses of the term are fundamentally different, or
merely different in nuance. Through this exercise, we can also further flesh out
some of what is inherent in being missional.
We’ll look at the third sense first, as it requires the briefest explanation. I’ve
stated that so far, the most common nuance to the term missional is from the
emerging church, or from churches who share the same concerns. In this respect,
it isn’t difficult to see how the terms became synonymous to some, as there is
often significant overlap in their usage. While many emerging churches take a
missional view as the fundamental building-block of their missiology, this is not
universally true, and is not a purely defining element of the emerging church.
Some missional churches are far more evangelical than most emerging churches,
and the two terms simply aren’t synonymous.
Back to the first alternate sense, referring to a mission-minded church as
“missional” with reference to all of a church’s outreach. If the church is a
“sending” church, then it qualifies as incarnational insofar as those who are sent
goes. To be truly missional though, a church would “send” everyone to live
incarnationally. Some might be sent overseas into a cross-cultural context as with
traditional missionary efforts, but those members remaining in the “home”
church setting would also be sent incarnationally to those aroud them. The
phrase “sending churches” has typically been used in missiological circles to refer
to churches with a strong track record of sending missionaries into cross-cultural
contexts. If a church sees itself as “sending” in this sense with the duty of those
remaining “at home” being the support of those who are sent, I would suggest
that this is not a truly missional expression of the church.
We’ll pause and pick up the second sense of the word before I unpack this preceding
Second, “missional” as referring to the “home missions” perspective (and
attending evangelistic programs) to target the immediate context around a local
church who also maintains a missions program for sending missionaries
“overseas.” Such a church has something of a dichotomy in their view of the
Missio Dei, where they separate the mission into home and abroad. This is a very
common stance in evangelical circles, and I believe the dichotomy is largely
unintentional, but is created out of a similar approach to “home missions” as is
taken to “overseas missions”, namely, that the effort is delegated and paid for
from the common church coffers. It becomes the duty of some to fill the coffers,
and the duty of others to do the work with support from the coffers. In this
respect, the first two alternate uses of the term missional become quite similar —
and I suggest that this view of the Missio Dei is also not a truly missional one.
The reasons for both of these uses not being fundamentally missional as I (or
others may) use the term are bound up with (1) a dichotomy in the target people
groups, (2) employment of a delegated or corporate response, and (3) attractional
First, these uses tend to draw a dichotomy not only between those who are inside or outside of the church, but also between those who are overseas or crosscultural and those who are “at home” or in the same cultural context in which the local church resides. Missional (and particularly emerging-missional) expressions are not generally given to dichotomies… people are simply seen as people, perhaps with varying degrees of cultural distance, and they are reached primarily through building relationships.
Second, it may be recognized that most missionaries (especially the “tentmaking” variety) employ missional tools in building relationships in the contexts to which they are sent. In this way, it makes sense to say that missionaries are engaged in missional activity, but here the two words are aligned more closely than they perhaps should be. Some missionary efforts are largely program-based attractional efforts, so that while it is etymologically counterintuitive, it is nevertheless accurate to say that not all missionaries are missional.
The term “missionary” is one for which an accepted pattern of use exists, and we know its meaning by virtue of the way we use it. In the main, the term “missionary” speaks of a vocation as well as a general goal (mission) for that vocation. Although a
cross-cultural context is lightly implied (i.e., not universally) the word does not
speak of methodology with enough precision to satisfy the incarnational
component of the missional definition. The word strongly implies sending,
whether cross cultural or into the neighbourhood surrounding the local church,
and in this sense it is incarnational. The activity in which the missionary engages
may be the establishment of a church to which local people are invited, or it may
be the inviting or attempted attraction of local people to the church which has
been established. In this sense, much of the effort shifts from an incarnational
focus to an attractional one, even if it began in an incarnational manner.
(Note — I expect I could take the most flack over this discussion of missionary
efforts, and for the record, I’m not entirely comfortable with drawing a sharp
distinction… but the terms are as they are, at least for now, and it’s common
historical usage to which we must refer in this context. The way that I’ve drawn
it here may not be an enduring form, and in some ways, that would actually be
Coming to the point, if the essential fulfillment of the Missio Dei is left to those
employed as “missionaries” for “missionary” purposes, then not everyone in the
local church is directly engaged in the mission… some for funding and some for
active missionary work. Here again a dichotomy exists which is contra-missional.
In the missional view of its missional purpose, the church catholic has a mandate,
the Missio Dei. By extension, every local church shares this mandate, as does
every individual Christian or member of the church (local or worldwide). Since
there is no dichotomy between people across an ocean or continent and those
across a street or back fence, the missional imperative or universal mandate does not delegate well. Every believer is already among those to whom they are sent, whether or not they have been commissioned for a missionary endeavour as a vocation.
With this in mind, a missional church sees each believer as an active
direct participant in engaging the world around them in missional ways. A person
who sees their job within the overall Missio Dei as only contributing to the coffers
to fund full-time missionaries (or pastors) is not fulfilling a missional mandate.
This individual response is for me an essential aspect of what it means to be
missional. It falls in my view under the heading of being incarnational, where I
suggest that each individual is incarnational, and not corporately so alone. The
local church can be and is a corporate incarnational expression of the Christ, but
to truly be a “missional church”, I suggest that one should expect to find
missional ideals (including incarnational action) embedded in the individual
mindset of each (or a marked majority) of the believers in a church community. A
missional church, then, is a collection of missional believers acting in concert
together in fulfillment of the Missio Dei. When the mandate is viewed as
primarily a corporate one, delegation of its fulfillment is possible… and I suggest
that this is not the case with a missional mandate.
Thirdly, attractional programs as a primary means of evangelistic outreach is contrary to incarnational activities. While many such successful programs have been run with great effect by larger churches who have the resources to do so, they are not primarily missional if a key goal is to attract people to church. The distinction may be seen in two statements that might be made to a person
“outside” of the church, where a positional distinction exists between “I’m here to
bring help” and “We want to help, can you come to church and receive it?” For
this reason, it is my view that it is very difficult for a megachurch to be missional
in its mindset, arranged as it is around programs and events run by staff and
volunteers who reach out to the community and attempt to grow the church. I
would stop short of saying it’s impossible, but I am not aware of a clear example.
Despite this, any church, mega- or otherwise, may have individual believers
within it who are active missionally even though the church itself is not
fundamentally missional. Since missional engagement is a personal response by a believer to the Missio Dei, any one believer can act missionally. As such, any
definition of missional which requires a program or a host organization is at odds
with the ways in which I use the word.
Although a subtle distinction, another way to express the missionally-purposed
requirement and the personal responses within it is that missional church is
arranged by rather than for its purpose of fulfilling the Missio Dei.
It is the community consisting of people fulfilling Gods purpose for the church rather than the community that is joined together for the fulfillment of God’s purpose for the church. In contrast, a church arranged for the same purpose will begin directing and delegating responsibilities in a grand effort toward the goal. Individual responses may work cooperatively together in similar ways, but everyone is involved in greater or smaller ways, such that the missional church is always advancing toward its goal.
In terms of multiplication and growth of the church catholic, I should clarify that
church planting is not opposed to missional engagement. A purely missional
church is however the by-product of the collection of missional individuals acting
missionally. Consider whether the goal of church planting is to establish the
presence of church or to establish a church, and it may be discerned to what
extent the effort is a missional one.
I’ve played around with the definition of “church” again in this post. At some
points I’ve tried to clarify whether I mean the local church or the church catholic.
Strictly speaking, I think the church catholic (i.e., worldwide or universal) is the
main concern of missional effort rather than the local church. In some nuances of
missional, much of the programs and trappings of the local church can actually
be seen as a drain on resources which could be going into missional efforts. I’ve
also gone on a long while here as I’ve attempted to flesh out certain missional
concepts which for me form the boundaries of how i use the term. (Maybe I’ll
have to post something lighter tomorrow!) That said, It’s time to open it up for
discussion — am I being clear enough in my attempts to explain the concept?
Have I imposed some ideas which should not be integral to a definition, or have I
left any out? I confess this has been a bit of a draining post to write… but should I have proofread more closely?
Very well put! I like the two primary component to the definition. I also like how you have made a distinction between a missional Jesus follower and a
missional faith community and yet to be a missional faith community it
must be a collection of missional believers acting in concert together
in fulfillment of the Missio Dei. I.e., you can be a missional Jesus
follower and not belong to a missional faith community, but you can’t
be a missional faith community without a marked majority of your
community being truly missional believers.
I think this is an important because many Jesus followers get their
indemnity from their community. Ie, I’m Baptist because I belong to a
Baptist church. I’m emerging because I belong to an emerging church,
I’m missional because I belong to a missional church. Instead, the
faith community gets it identity from its people. It is a missional church
because it is comprised of missional believers acting in concert together in
fulfillment of the Missio Dei.
I love the foundation and plumb line that a definition provides. But being
a visual type, I immediately want to move toward a description of what the
definition would look like. I think that is why Friend of Missional tends to
be structured the way it is.
Wow, this is a lot to process. Excellent though. I think we are generally on
the same page. I think where we might differ is how you articulated church,
but again I think I find myself leaning more towards Radical Orthodoxy,
which would be less likely to see the faith community as primarily “a
collection of missional believers”. While this is true, it would- I would see
the community as an incarnational expression something far more
significant than the sum total of the individuals. Then again, perhaps I am
misunderstanding. That being said, well done. This is a chapter, my friend,
so write the book!
Spot-on. I think it’s important to preserve the concept that an individual
can act missionally without being a part of a missional congregation… the
mandate to engage in the Missio Dei is not affected by those around you
not wanting to engage in it. At the same time, everyone around you
engaging missionally doesn’t make you missional by extension… we grok.
A lot of the list-type definitions paint a good picture, and I think the
framework I’ve outlined works with those lists… I’ll be testing a few of
them in a future post or two.
Thanks. I wouldn’t distill “church” or “faith community” down to just a
collection of believers… it’s more mystical than that, but in the context of
the missional ideal, it works (even if weakly) to describe it like this in order
to communicate some of what Rick commented upon. Some of what I was
writing about not long ago on incarnational presence would fit better with
RO, I think. Individuals engaging incarnationally (missionally) is one
thing, but there’s something else communicated by the corporate
incarnation of “church” that isn’t there individually… both are necessary:
think “the presence of church” rather than “the presence of a church”. I
could stand to unpack this a bit more.
Cindy-lu added to the conversation,
I’m a girl who loves semantics! This is making a lot of sense to me -
particularly as one who sees herself as attempting to be “missional” in
lifestyle even though I’m not part of a local body.
A bit off topic, I know, but I am curious… If the primary goal of a
missionally-purposed church(local) is to live incarnationally where they
are, then where does care for the body(church) as it is fit in? Or are we
called, perhaps, to live incarnationally among those within the body as
well? (musing by the seat of my pants, here)
Rick Meigs broke the silence.
Cindy…. good question and I think you have already answered it. We live
in community with both Jesus followers and not-yet-Christians. We
should be living the incarnational life among the community regardless of
who we might, at any point in time, be dealing with. If we see ourselves
living incarnationally only outside of our faith community, then we again
create a dualistic thinking.
Thanks, Rick! I wonder if consciously avoiding the dualism may be a
significant way to keep in check our tendency to have an agenda with
people (esp. the not-yet-Christians)… Imagine, building relationship for
the sake of relationship and caring for people simply because it is the right
thing to do.
Still… it can be difficult to get out there and HAVE relationship with others
for the shy introverts among us. I may run on at the keyboard with ease,
but to START a conversation with my neighbors?… ;-)
Rick Meigs broke the silence.
Nice observation on dualism Cindy. I haven’t thought of that, but I like it.
I’m an introvert, but I have found ways of starting the conversation. The
problem is that after a couple of questions, if the other person doesn’t pick
it up, I’m lost :-(.
Hey guys great stuff! It is critical that missional leaders intentionally
embed in the heart of all who would participate in the Missio Dei, what
Hirsch calls a missional DNA (mDNA). Without this foundational script
the church oftens morphs into an introverted command and control center.
So, as suggested by Cindy-Lu #6, the missional church must create time
and space for care, training and activating all the parts for missional
service. That training involves issues of character, a biblical literacy, and a
cultural savviness. As Rick astutely notes, the missional church “gets its
identity from its people” #1. Although Jesus took the better part of 3 years
to prepare his disciples for their missional tasks, it should be observed that
they learned by doing, alongside a master teacher who led them into edgy
learning situations. How can we restore this teaching model in a culture
sliced and fragmented by dualistic tendencies?
Also, Bro. Maynard’s observation that, “the church catholic (i.e.,
worldwide universal) is the main concern of missional effort rather than
the local church”, is an important insight. I would add that a missional
church is Kingdom driven, and not concerned to promote ecclesial
traditions or denominational peculiarities. It may be that a missional
movement can be the greatest catalyst for unity, as embodiment and
witness to God’s new creation is given priority over denominational
allegiance. When mission forms a people the result is a movement not an
institution. Thanks for stimulating these thoughts. I look forward to learning from the ongoing discussion.
You can find more in this section of our site: Editor – Christian Library Australia