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

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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!

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