Who ISN’T Missional?

Tony Jones has a great reflection on his blog today about labels such as “neo-Reformed,” “Emergent,” and “missional.” It comes in response to the intriguing “Why This Book?” video put out by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw to promote their new book Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier.

Tony writes,

“[Missional]‘s a term that basically anyone can use for what ever purpose they want — from a stalwart Southern Baptist neocon like Ed Stetzer to an Anabaptist pacifist like David Fitch. And then you’ve got the neo-Barthian camp like Darrell Guder and John Franke. They’re all ‘missional,’ and so are a dozen church planting networks like TransFORM, Forge, and the Parish Collective.

“So here’s a test. Imagine a Christian leader saying this: ‘I’m not missional.’

“No one’s going to say that. Not a PC(USA) pastor, and not a PCA pastor. Not a just-war Augustinian, and not an Anabaptist pacifist. Scot McKnight will say he’s missional, and so will Brian McLaren. So will the pope. So will I. …

“So my prediction is that people will keep using the term ‘missional’ and defining it in their own ways. And I think that’s fine. But let’s all remember that with such a broad term that ‘missional’ — like ‘evangelical,’ or even ‘Christian’ — what it really means lies in the definition of the speaker, and the interpretation of the hearer.”

I think Tony is absolutely right about the negative aspects of a broad term such as “missional,” and to caution about how to interpret and understand it when you hear it, see it applied to someone or something.

I’ve written and spoken about that before. Missional is a “big tent” sort of term that means different things to different people wherever they happen to land on the theological spectrum.

At the same time, I actually think there are still many, many people who would not say they are missional, simply because they have yet to become engaged with any sort of missional theology. I’d hazard to guess that while “missional” as a buzzword has been picked up pretty widely in evangelical circles (see Rick Warren’s recent appropriation of the term), the majority of average Christians in the U.S. (and globally) are still pretty unaware of it.

So, who isn’t missional? A lot of people.

Having said that, I still maintain that the missional shift is one of the most important and significant things happening in this era of emergence within Christianity. While it may seem “played out” already to many of us religious professionals, I think we’ve yet to see the real impact of it on the culture at large. It takes a while for these kinds of changes to really take hold and take effect. In other words, the best is yet to come.

What do you think? Is Tony right? Or am I right? Or are we both right but for different reasons? Or maybe we’re both wrong? Sound off in the comments!

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    i thought missional is about being “sent”–being the Church in the world, loving your neighbors beyond four walls on sunday. i envision it as something opposed to “attractional”, program-based, sunday-worship, little-”c”-church. you can be conservative and missional or progressive and missional, so it’s a big(ger) tent in that regard, but many will not fall under the missional umbrella. missional values incarnational ministry and is an intentional (another buzzword!) way of being the Church that can unite christians of radically varying doctrinal positions.

    the way people use the label can render it meaningless (and i have been frustrated to see it touted as The Next Great Thing! when “missional” ministry models and power structures can very much resemble church/business-as-usual), but i do think that there is something meaningful and distinctive about missional that is worth conserving.

  • Tom Gerstenlauer

    I agree that missional is in the eyes of the bearer as well as the hearer. Kinda like Christian…
    Not to say that either is rendered meaningless, but as a potentially desirable label may be applied liberally by any who see benefit to doing so. As for those who actually are missional and/or Christian, I take from Suannah’s comment and agree that it’s about “being sent”.
    And by the way, my spell check still doesn’t get “missional”, but it gets “Christian”. Is this meaningful?

  • Christopher Buckley

    I’m interested in how you, personally, would define ‘missional’. I’m not looking for the next-great-sermon on the idea – just your personal thoughts. Where *I’m* coming from is this: my current working understanding of missional Christianity is that it is lived, rather than “done”. I’d also be interested in your thoughts of how the concept fits in with the “New Monasticism” that some pockets of the Church-at-large are now experiencing/developing/demonizing/celebrating. How does missional living connect with the monastic concepts of avowed living, intentional living, rule-of-life – that sort of thing? DOES it connect?

    (And yes, I’m part of the “New Monasticism”, and so yes, I do have a bit of bias, I confess.)

    Grace and Peace,


  • Brian P.

    They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, you were off debating vocabulary to use about these very things. Whatever you did not *do* for one of the least of these, *you did not do* for me.’ Then they will go away to a debate about eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

  • https://scottemery.wordpress.com/ Scott E

    I think you are right in your recognition of who isn’t missional. Many, many people (at least here in my corner: Syracuse, NY) have no idea about missional theology or practice, at least not formally. They might be living somewhat missionally, but the word “missional” is nowhere on the radar.
    My hang up with some of the stuff branded as missional is that many are willing to jump on its bandwagon, but incarnational and communal ways of life are either relegated or completely dismissed. Seems to me that missional has to be accompanied by the incarnational and communal. The three go together and can’t be separated out. However, they typically are to detriment of all three.
    To Christopher Buckley above, I’d say the New Monasticism movement has plenty to offer to the missional conversation in terms of how life is practiced in community from the posture of the incarnation.

  • http://whateveryouart.com David

    Steve, I’d also like to push on you here. How do you use this term? You have been really great at curating and sharing content that helps to illuminate many different understandings of the word (hence your “big tent”) but what do you understand it to mean? How does a missional shift change the way you live or how you understand God?

    My apologies if you have already answered this. My blog reading is spotty.

  • http://whateveryouart.com David

    Need a bit more clarification on my question I think. By “use” and “understand” I don’t really mean a definition. I really like the definition you have given that you linked above: (participating with God in what God is doing).

    What I have found more helpful in giving meaning to missional are the lived experiences. What stories have emerged for you in your context?

  • http://www.scripturesfromthebible.org/ Gretchen Eula del Socorro

    I think we all have a mission. But those called by God are missional since they take on a greater path which is leading everyone to pursue their mission. The term represents a sense of purpose that only a chosen few has.

  • http://www.re-integrate.org/ Bob Robinson

    Steve, I think that both Tony AND you are correct. Some use the term “missional” to simply mean establishing more evangelistic programs, more overseas missions support, or a renewed effort to invite people to church. However, a deeper missional theology is the key to truly being a missional church. If we are to correctly understand the mission of God’s people in this world, we had better first understand the mission of God in this world.

  • http://www.re-integrate.org/ Bob Robinson
    • http://www.missionalshift.com Steve Knight

      Thanks, Bob!

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