Should We Replace “Missional” with “Bearing Witness”?

'Chapel Crucifix 5' photo (c) 2010, Randy OHC - license:

In the June 2012 issue of The Mennonite magazine, Ron Adams, a Mennonite pastor in Madison, Wisconsin, argues that the word “missional” is too problematic and suggests we should replace it with “bearing witness.” Here’s what he says:

“Missional is not about program … Missional is not what your congregation’s outreach committee does. Missional is an adjective that describes God. Being missional means figuring out what God is up to and then joining that work. Missional is our calling.

“Even after the explanation, our table group remained fuzzy about the whole thing. Much of our conversation was around trying to define the term. We shared stories of the mission programs in our congregations and learned about the movement of the Spirit in our various communities. But I left the conversation feeling unsettled by our befuddlement about the word missional. No matter how hard we tried, we kept on slipping back into the language of program and outreach.

“Then it occurred to me. Maybe the problem was not with me or with the members of our table group. Maybe the problem is that word: missional. …

“I humbly propose that we jettison the word. It does not serve us well. In its place, I propose: bearing witness. I propose the change not just because of the confusion caused by the missional word. In his final words to the disciples, Jesus commanded them to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). Christ’s followers have been compelled to bear witness ever since. Bearing witness is rooted in the Scripture.

“I also propose the change for what I think are sound theological reasons. The underlying assumption of missional language is that God is actively engaged with and in our world. That assumption is essential. God is missional. We are not the primary actors in salvation history. We are not little messiahs, responsible to complete the work begun by Christ. God’s Spirit is still at large in the world. And the coming redemption is being ushered in by God through Christ. To all of this we are witnesses. …

“The word missional feeds our anxiety. It tells us we must find out where God is and what God is doing and lend a hand. Though missional language can teach us to recognize that God is the prime mover, when applied to the church it implies that we are equal partners in God’s work. Without us the whole project crumbles. If we don’t do something and quick, the church will fade away, and all will be lost. The pressure is on, just like it always has been. We’ve changed the prescription, but that same sick feeling remains.”

This language of “bearing witness” is one that has been very important to me as a communicator and storyteller engaged in God’s mission. I wrote about this a little bit in my chapter “Missions Transformed: Engaging God’s Mission in a 24-7 Broadband Globalized World” in Voices of the Virtual World (2007, Wikiklesia Press).

But I’m still not convinced that “bearing witness” is a suitable replacement for “missional” and that “missional” should be, as Adams suggests, “jettisoned.”

What do you think about “bearing witness”? Is it better than “missional”? helpful? less than helpful? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

  • Paul

    I like the concept of “bearing witness”, in fact recently i have been all about telling whoever will listen my story and what God is doing, not in me but around me. However, the it sounds like the old school term “witnessing” sharing the ‘four spiritual laws, romans road, etc.. for instant conversion for numbers sake. I heard a quote yesterday: “Dont simply tell men to got to the woods, cut down trees, make ships and go to the sea expecting that they will. Instead, tell them of you trials with the sea , you successes on the sea , and you LOVE of the sea and they will be compelled to go to the forrest, cut down trees, build ships and go and explore the sea.” unknown.

    • Steve Knight

      I like that quote, Paul!

  • Larry B

    It was in one of your previous posts or in one of the comments. It was said that the church ought to be defined as part of God’s mission, instead of mission being a part of the church. With that in mind, I think “bearing witness” gives a proper definition to the movement, if it can be called a movement.
    I would say, though, that Adams’ term also implies a certain “spectatorness” to God’s mission instead of actively engaging it.

    • Steve Knight

      That’s one of my concerns, as well, Larry. Thanks for articulating that!

  • Kimberly Knight

    Great reflection, wonderful question! I appreciate that you are working to better articulate what we are about out in the world and bearing witness is a wonderful way to do that. For me though I am trying to move to a place to ditch so much churchy language as a way to reach out to people who are scared, scarred or just disgusted with all things church. The more “insider language” I use the more I feel like I am alienating folks who have never grown up in the church or long since walked away. That being said, I do believe there are times and places for language that creates a community that is different, set apart from the secular world.

    Thanks for keeping us thinking!

    • Steve Knight

      I love your balanced perspective on this, Kimberly, it’s very close to my own thoughts and feelings on this.

  • Jason Fowler

    Interesting conversation. From my perspective the term ‘missional’ has come to represent a conversation or movement within the Church at large that is exploring a new way of being and doing church. It’s a conversation – although new – that is rooted in history. More and more of us are seeking to be a part of this complex conversation and my hope is that the wider Church will embrace it or at least seek to understand it’s particularities as a movement that is seeking to embody a shift in theology and practice. Unfortunately, I also see the term becoming a church-culture catch-all that begins to mean anything and everything – and my guess is that this is what Mr. Adams is really rejecting. I would recommend to Mr. Adams a great little book titled ‘The Road to Missional’ by Michael Frost that maybe would clarify the term a bit.