What Does Missional Mean?

missionalThat’s the question I get asked over and over again in my work as Minister for Missional Initiatives for Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation. (Did you see that word in there a couple times? Yeah.)

It’s also the question that will not be easily answered in a single blog post. (Watch for more on this topic in future posts!)

But, for what it’s worth, here’s my elevator speech answer to the question:

Missional means participating with God in what God is doing in the world.

This still leaves lots of room for interpretation, right? What does it mean to “participate”? Where does God’s action begin and end? Where does our agency begin and end? What is God doing? How can we know?

I believe the necessary broadness of the definition and application of missional is one of the reasons why it’s being adopted and used by everyone from Southern Baptists to Unitarian Universalists.

What is God doing in the world? It takes discernment to really answer that question, and even then, the answers we come up with will be heavily biased based on your own theological positions.

As my friend Tripp Fuller has suggested, the answer you give to that question will probably indicate what you believe God cares about. If you believe God cares about saving individual souls for eternity, then you’ll probably describe your latest evangelistic outreaches as “missional.” But if you believe God really cares about social justice, then you’ll probably point to the church soup kitchen for the homeless or your faith community’s advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community as being “missional.” (Those are just two broad brush-stroaked examples.)

That’s how big and how broad the missional church conversation has become in 2012. It’s an expansive and exciting place to be, as far as I’m concerned.

What is your definition of “missional”? Want to pushback on my definition? Go for it! (in the comments)

UPDATE: Over at the Patheos Book Club, they’re featuring a new book on the meaning of mission in contemporary life by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, entitled Gathering at God’s Table. I’ve just started reading it, and I’m planning to share some more thoughts on the book later. But for now, head on over to the Book Club to read the introduction to her book, in which she beautifully writes, “Mission is how to love God through loving our neighbors. … It is God’s mission, for which the Body of Christ—the church—exists. We participate in helping to build toward the dream God has planted in our hearts.”

  • Jeff Robinson

    Going beyond the boundaries (outside) of traditional “church” environments to establish loving relationships and communities based on serving the needs and best interests of others without condition, but in hopeful expectation that “in-othering” “one-anothering” reciprocity will eventually begin to take hold. In other words, creating little beach heads or outposts in the world – garden plots, if you will – where The Kingdim MIGHT begin to take root. It could be in a foreign country, but that would eliminate most of us from participating in any way other than writing checks. Rather, it can happen next door, or across the street, our in an apartment complex, or a factory, an office building, a school, etc. it CAN happen wherever we are. Me we be awakened to this possibility and begin to make it so.

    • http://www.missionalshift.com/ Steve K.

      Thanks for this, Jeff.

  • James Reho

    Hey Steve,

    Glad to see this blog happening! What I want to share is one “missional” understanding of mission itself, that I think is in line with where you’re coming from. To paraphrase Dwight Zscheile, a “missional” stance is one in which the church is seen as part of God’s mission in the world, rather than “mission” being a part of (committee within!) the church. This difference is more than semantic: it means that, “missionally” speaking, the established form of church of any given age is relativized… maintaining establishment forms and procedures is not a goal but something to put under study as we attempt to find out where the Spirit is moving in our various contexts.

    • http://www.missionalshift.com/ Steve K.

      I absolutely agree, James. “Missional” is a fundamental shift in how we view the Church in relation to God’s mission. More on that soon …

  • http://www.tabledallas.org/ Nathan Hill

    Great to see your new blog, Steve. May this be a better place of conversation than the Intersection.

    I’m down with your definition. The key word is “with” for me. Partnership. Participate. Collaborate. Those words alone challenge me to expand my vision of God too.

    • http://www.missionalshift.com/ Steve K.

      Thanks, Nathan! I’ll still be posting DOC-related specific stuff over at the Intersection, so keep an eye over there as well ;-)

      I like that you said you’re “down” with my definition. It echoes my friend Kathy Escobar’s book title “Down We Go,” in which she articulates beautifully an incarnational vision of church and ministry that is “with” (not “to” or “for”). And you know I love that word “participation.” More on that in posts to come …

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  • http://www.nextreformation.com len

    I like it! That it raises a whole bunch of questions is a point in favor. Every good def’n points to wide horizons.

    • http://www.missionalshift.com/ Steve K.

      Thanks, Len! That means a lot coming from you.

  • Ellen Bruckner

    Thanks for this beginning, for me, of the conversation about “missional”. I am aware that I know the word and then make some assumptions about what it means. I am wondering if, as someone said, it means a variety of things depending on ones experiences and enculturation. I am going to work on writing my definition and then look more closely at these other offerings and see what emerges. I am particularly interested in beginning to use my definition in conversations so that we can join on the journey.

    • http://www.missionalshift.com/ Steve K.

      Thanks, Ellen! Please come back and share your definition with us here in the comments so we can ponder it with you. I’d love that.

      I will add that there is a specific history to the word “missional,” and that’s an important part of what it means and its trajectory of meaning, with how it’s getting used today. I don’t think we can or should separate the word from that historical context. More on that hopefully in future posts …

  • http://mycontemplations.wordpress.com Cobus

    I usually use some kind of similar definition when asked. And for that reason seldom use the word “missional”.

    Great word when you want to take people along, want to find the common ground, have an ecumenical movement (is it strange that big voices in the Ecumenical movement, Newbigin & Bosch is usually drawn upon as key thinkers which brought this term about?), it’s a great term. But it ends up saying nothing specific.

    So if we want to actually do something, I forget about being “missional”, and let’s talk about liberation, development, charity. Because then we are forced to acknowledge the complexity of reflecting on what it is that we should actually be participating in.

    I seldom use the word nowadays.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      Nice pushback, Cobus. I can certainly appreciate where you’re coming from. I might choose different words than “liberation, development, charity,” although I do like the first two a lot ;-) but your point is well taken.

      • http://mycontemplations.wordpress.com Cobus

        I’m not in favor of the third at all (exactly because I’m coming from where I’m coming from), but that stresses the point exactly. Missional allow people to go out with the most patronizing forms of charity and then call is “missional” or “participating with God”, giving it a kind of “God-like” sanction. So let’s rather get our hands dirty and work through the complex terms.

        But the word got a conversation going, and I don’t want to ignore that!

  • Josh W

    Missional, in my experience, is the new “unpack.” It seems to be the new pop word for Christians who are trying to focus the work of the Lord on the work of their hands. You said it well, when describing the breadth of use between evangelism & social issues. The dilemma of the moralistic therapeutic deism construct of Christian perspective is the subjectivity of God’s intent through the interpretation on missional goals.

    This sounds like a great effort at “partnering” with God’s work, but we are not commanded to partner with Christ; we are called to be obedient. Missional definitions subjectively dictate God’s desire beyond his action. Creating a broad spectrum interpretation of the “mission” of The Lord which subjectively connects to what one believes, systematically creates a construct of control in achieving God’s will engaging other people rather than the construct of obedience which requires us to seek God personally to connect with.

    I think it’s fairly indicative of the age we are in that subjectivity and relative perspective drives purpose, rather than truth. Emotional appeals, experiential proof, temporal hope fulfillment and moralized justice are the wide gate of appeal in a world who rejects Jesus for a self made puzzle of things we can believe in. The power of the Word of God and the Son of God is not in the pieces of truth we affirm, but in the faith and the Spirit of the One True God.

    It is interesting to me to look at how the world sees the division of the missional, even where they compliment, due to the group which says, “we know the will of God and it is personified in this,” while another group says the same about another issue in the world. It presents a view of Christians who are no less confused about who God really is and what He really wants above their Non-Christian associations. I’m interested to see how your ongoing discussion of “missional” elements in the church wades through these waters of confusion.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      Josh, you said a lot right there. I’m not sure I’m following you, though, when you try to parse “obedience” from “partnering” or “participating” with God in God’s mission. You seem to have a view of Scripture and of God’s will that is more “pure” than mine is.

      I think the point I was trying to make is that our definitions of missional are subjective, based on our own cultural position and theological orientation. That “relativity” creates a broad spectrum of belief and action that could arguably be called “the hands and feet of Jesus,” not all are evangelizers, not all are social justice workers. I’m not sure I myself hold to that particular view, but that’s one (more positive) way of viewing it.

      Hopefully that doesn’t just sound like more confusion. I do hope to shed some light through this conversation on the blog. Thanks for pushing back and being part of that dialogue!

  • https://sites.google.com/site/holyhugs/poverty-up-close Jim Fisher

    “As a Missional Christian [Christ's] image within me meets Christ’s image within Theresa and Bay-yah and we serve each other in love. The charitable trans-action becomes an inter-action and Christ meets us somewhere in the middle.”

    That’s a nugget taken from a larger story: click through my name for more.
    I am also sensing that “missional” in some sense cannot be captured with a static, stolid definition. I feel like it needs to be active, alive, and growing — always becoming something larger rather than just being what it is.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      “active, alive, and growing” – I like that, Jim! Thanks for sharing it. I’ll check out your link.

      • https://sites.google.com/site/holyhugs/poverty-up-close Jim Fisher

        Steve – I didn’t really “get” missional until I was giving a Haitian refugee a back-rub … a healing, loving touch that for all I know may have healed his kidney infection. The language barrier prevented me from knowing for sure. But the tears streaming down my cheeks and the power I sensed passing though me was enough “knowing” for me. As I watched the old man get up and dance over to his buddies with a big smile on his face, I thought to myself, “Who received the greater gift?”

        I’m pretty sure I did.

        Being “incarnational” and being “missional” go hand-in-hand. If you truly espouse the former, the latter happens on its own.

  • http://www.blessingthebeloved.blogspot.com Tammy Carter

    easy, one word…cult.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      Care to share more, Tammy??

      • http://www.blessingthebeloved.blogspot.com Tammy Carter

        attended and experienced a so-called misional church for two years. it was right after I went through cancer surgeries so, I was vulnerable. in the long run and after observing a few things and starting to ask questions, I realized it was a cult:
        http://www.blessingthebeloved.blogspot.com/2011/12/after-further-review.html
        yea, supposedly one of the “top” missional pastors teaches there. but, sad thing, she’s not a pastor. i saw so many people being controlled and manipulated. no “missional” outreach going on at all. just one big codependent mess.

        • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

          Tammy, I’m sorry you’ve had this kind of bad church experience. This hasn’t been my experience with the missional church, so I hope you wouldn’t judge and/or dismiss all based on the one you experienced. If you’re interested in continuing to dialogue about this, I’d be interested in keeping that conversation going. Thanks again for sharing your story.

          • http://www.blessingthebeloved.blogspot.com Tammy Carter

            You’re right, not all missional churches are all bad/good, but neither is any other church like evangelical or whatever. However, I thought this particular missional church was supposedly a “leader” and one of the orginal churches to start doing this, etc. Anyway, I will probably be careful about any church to be honest with you. Haven’t been back to church in 8 months and not really in a hurry to find one. I appreciate your reply.

          • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

            Sometimes spending time outside of a local church community is necessary to heal and to be restored. I’ve spent some time “in the wilderness” (my own description) before, as well. One of the things I read during that time that was really helpful to me was Kester Brewin’s book “Signs of Emergence.” He has a chapter in there on Advent and waiting and walking through a wilderness experience that I found really encouraging. Blessings to you, Tammy, as you walk that road.

  • Larry B

    I really like this discussion! Thanks for the post, Steve. You talked about the church beginning to take root in a local context. I gotta be honest. I think this goal seems so grandiose that I sometimes doubt if it is really possible. Maybe it’s a lack of faith, maybe it’s my “cynical realist” coming out of me.

    Given the subjectivity of what we believe the mission of God really is, how can the church come together to reach a community? I’ve grown tired of separate, independent ministries operating in a separate, independent fashion.

    I’m not talking about denominations, I’m saying that I think local churches need to have more dialogue, regardless of their affiliations. We can’t reach our culture if we don’t seek to understand it. Yet, it appears we don’t even want to understand each other, so how much less likely are we to engage our context?

    I guess this is just a lament more than anything else. I’m doing that more and more lately. My apologies!

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      Larry, I think you’re making a very good point. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to try and start this blog to create a space for bringing this different streams of the missional conversation together and providing space for us to engage each other more in dialogue about these things. I’m all for fostering more conversation and getting us talking to each other! It’s absolutely necessary, I agree.

      And on the point of the missional focus on deep rootedness in a place vs. the sending/mobile aspects, I think there’s a healthy tension there that needs to be worked out. That’s a big part of this conversation, as well, I hope to delve into that further. Thanks for commenting!

  • Larry B

    Hi Tammy, I read your blog and respect your honesty. I would respond with this: I think many churches–maybe a vast majority–have the same issues that you’re addressing.

    Also, you say the church has “a system that fosters dependence” like it’s a bad thing. Isn’t that kind of the whole point, needing the Spirit and the people? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding.

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      I would probably tend to agree more with Pete Rollins who would argue that most churches are systems that “foster dependence,” and that’s not really such a good thing. But it’s not unique to missional churches, either. Most churches are systems that believe on our behalf, and that sort of thing. So missional churches, in as much as they are still based around this centered set (or even bounded set) ways of believing and belonging, are no different than other forms of church in America. I would hope missional churches could break out of this mold more, but I’m not surprised to hear that some are still stuck in it.

      • http://www.blessingthebeloved.blogspot.com Tammy Carter

        I think there is a big difference between dependence that keeps people “stuck” versus interdependence upon a community that would encourage someone to grow. You can depend upon a community in good/bad times. However, depending on a community in order to function in life in some independent ways that we have to is very unhealthy. Or, you can end up with a controlling leader who likes the idea of feeling like a “hero” to others so, the leader then becomes dependent upon needy people to fulfill their life. Focus should be Christ and pointing each other to Christ in community.

        • Larry B

          Thanks for clarifying, Tammy. After reading your reply, I now agree with you completely. I was equating “dependence” with “interdependence,” but I see how you and Rollins are distinguishing the two. I would still say, like Steve is, that this is an issue found everywhere in our churches.

        • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

          It’s good to distinguish between unhealthy dependence and healthy interdependence.

          • http://www.blessingthebeloved.blogspot.com Tammy Carter

            Steve, thank you for the book recommendation. I will look into it. And, yes healthy interdependence within community which I know can be hard anywhere, but a good goal. And, thank you guys for the discussion/conversation. It was actually healing for my heart to do. I once in awhile participate in a synchroblog and part of the goal is “Good Conversations”. However, it seems like it’s just all of us writing and then going around and trying to think of a brief and nice comment for each other. I think I need to read your blog more, Steve. Thanks for writing, sharing and encouraging. God bless both you and Larry! -Tammy

  • Alfonso

    Our family was called to serve in cross-cultural missions, to be part of what God was doing, to participate in God’s Mission, 25 years ago. Our call is to obey and to serve Him and His people, not to be partners with God. We didn’t bring God with us to “them”. God was already here. Any opportunity God brings our way, we share in the ministry of reconciliation, we learn with the people here, we share our talents, abilities and gifts as the needed and as they ask or allow us to do it. We grow and develop with them. God leads us in our incarnational ministry.

    It is fascinating to see God moving in the local indigenous church with minimum of outside pressure, dependence or manipulation. Their networking with other churches, locally and internationally, is active with some degree of interdependence. Their caution against dependence makes slow progresst towards interdependence.

    Most of the time, when I hear or read “missional”, it emphasizes the mission of the local church, or maybe domestic missions. Almost always it implies evangelism and personal conversion exclusively. Is it not trying to limit God and His redemptive thrust in Jesus Christ?

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

      Alfonso, thanks for your comment! I’m intrigued by two things you said:

      1) “Our call is to obey and to serve Him and His people, not to be partners with God.” What do you think is meant by “partner with God”? How is what you’re describing as your ministry for the past 25 years not “partnering with God”?

      2) Your question at the very end: “Is it not trying to limit God and His redemptive thrust in Jesus Christ?” I certainly think some definitions/expressions of “missional” are too limiting. Are you saying that most missional expressions are too focused on the local at the expense of the global? I think you may be right about that, although, as I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, the “glocal” emphasis of many missional communities is often just a different way of approaching the local/global dichotomy. Just because missional churches aren’t sending full-time cross-cultural missionaries (like you) doesn’t mean they are not engaged in global mission and issues that affect the whole planet.

      • Alfonso

        Thank you for your comments and feedback. Yes, it is too presumptuous to refer to God as partner. It is not as bad as referring to God as our “copilot”, but it is conceited. We are submitted to Him. He leads, we follow. It is His Mission, not “our” mission. He is doing, we help. We don’t negotiate with Him, we listen. We are partners with the body of Christ.

        Yes, we can’t sacrifice the local for the global and vice-versa. I appreciate and I agree with the glocal approach to our missional call.

        • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve Knight

          Thanks for that follow-up comment, Alfonso! I think it’s a really interesting and important theological question (this question of God’s mission and our agency and role in that mission), and how we answer it will definitely determine where we land on the missional spectrum.

          From where I stand, I would say we are the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today, which is in no way contradictory to believing (for me, anyway) that God’s Spirit is moving and accomplishing God’s mission in the world with or without us. In fact, it may be without us, meaning, it may be with someone else, if we don’t follow (as you’re saying) and participate ourselves (as I’m saying). Or, as Luke 19:40 says, “If they [Jesus' disciples] keep quiet, the stones will cry out!”

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  • Kullervo

    “Missional means participating with God in what God is doing in the world.”
    How is that different from “incarnational?”
    I think, if you have to have an elevator speech to explain a word, your word probably doesn’t actually mean anything.


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