Missions vs. Missional: What Ed Stetzer Gets Wrong

Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research (an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention), writing in Christianity Today this week, attempts to parse the terms “missions” and “missional.” Here’s what he says:

“The two issues are distinct and yet integrated. They are not mutually exclusive, but thrive best when they are both embraced and implemented in a local church body. Living on mission is not a missions issue, per se. It’s a Christian issue. Part of living on mission, however, must lead to missions.”

Confused yet? He says a whole lot more, of course (go read the whole thing if you want to). Here’s my attempt at Ed Stetzer Shorter: “Missions” is global, “missional” is local.

Here’s why I think Ed is off the mark, or, at least, why I wish he would update his definition of “missions” to, well, make it “missional”: The whole reason we have the term “missional” today is because the global missions world has been going through a process of theological realignment. “Missions” for the past 100 years has been colonial, paternalistic, “from the West to the rest,” a product of the western Church exported to the world with all its theological deficiencies fully baked in.

What David Bosch explains in the definitive book on this subject, Transforming Mission (published in 1991), the theology of mission (or missiology) has had to be completely re-thought, because the theological notions it was based on were found to be flawed and incomplete. Mission is no longer subservient to the agenda of the Church or churches (denominations, mission sending agencies, etc.). Rather, the Church is subservient to God’s mission. God’s mission is bigger than the Church, and churches all over the world are embracing this updated theology of mission.

So, in other words, the global Church is going missional. All “missions” (whether local or global) should be “missional,” i.e., driven by God’s agenda, not our western theological agenda(s). The definition of “missions” that Ed Stetzer continues to promote is simply outdated and incomplete. His “missions” and his “missional” really just mean the same thing: the old way of thinking about mission — it’s colonial, it’s paternalistic, it’s western, and it’s, well, wrong.

Here’s my Steve Knight Shorter video version on how “missional” is different than “missions.” Watch it and tell me what YOU think!

  • Ed Stetzer

    Hey Steve,

    I love a good critique– so let me try to be clearer if I was not.

    You wrote:
    >>Here’s my attempt at Ed Stetzer Shorter: “Missions” is global, “missional” is local.

    But, mission is much bigger than just local. I wrote:
    >>Being missional conveys the idea of living on a purposeful, Biblical mission. Mission is the reason the church exists and the church joins Jesus on mission. And, this mission is from everywhere to everywhere.

    Perhaps this “Shorter Stetzer” might help:
    -Mission is joining Jesus on mission, from everywhere and to everywhere. (Think John 20:21).
    -Missions is a subset of mission, more focused on global evangelization, planting,etc. (Think Matthew 28:18-20).

    I’m guessing we might still disagree, but your “shorter” drew I line that I did not draw in my short post trying to encourage people to be on mission and to care about global missions.

    I think you’ve read enough of what I’ve written on mission to know that we share a similar view on mission, its rooting in the identity of God himself, and the fact that the mission is from everywhere / to everywhere.

    But, as always, I find your writing insightful and hope you are well.

    We still need to do that lunch!



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

      Ed, thanks for your gracious reply! I really appreciate you reading and engaging.

      We definitely agree that mission is rooted in the identity of God and that, functionally, it is “from everywhere / to everywhere.” And your “Shorter Stetzer” is helpful!

      I’m still stuck with the feeling that a distinction desperately needs to be made between “missional” and “missions.” That a fundamental theological shift is underneath the new language that has to do with how we view God (as being a missional God) and how we view the Church (in relation to God’s mission). Without acknowledging those shifts, and simply continuing to use the language of “missions,” we risk perpetuating what I would call an old paradigm way of thinking — and all the negative stuff that goes along with it (e.g., colonialism, patriarchy, etc.).

      The next time you’re out here in the mountains of western North Carolina, I will have to drive out to hang out with you and break some bread!

      • Ed Stetzer

        That, my friend, makes your disagreement clearer to me. And, it points to the reality that I don’t want to repeat what I see as the errors of the post-Willingen conciliar mission movement (which adopted a view similar to yours).

        Evangelicals– of which I am one– will see mission as broad, but will always value missions– planting churches and evangelizing those without Christ, generally in cross-cultural situations.

        So, in this case, I think you are a bit more Hoekendijk and I am a bit more Newbigin. See Goheen here:

        Newbigin made an important distinction between mission and missions, or missionary dimension and missionary intention. Mission is an all-embracing term that refers to “the entire task for which the Church is sent into the world.” Missions or foreign missions are intentional activities designed to create a �Christian presence in places where there is no such presence, or at least no effective presence. As such the foreign missionary task is an essential part of the church’s broader mission.

        Thanks for the interaction. And, I look forward to that visit in NC!

        God bless,


  • http://www.modernekklesia.com/about Modern Ekklesia

    I’m sort of a recent convert to missional theology. But I love it! It makes sense to my brain. It’s all about God’s mission and we, including the church, are subservient to that. It actually takes so much pressure off the pastor. In a typical church, the pastor is a CEO who is responsible for dreaming and visioning and imparting it to his sheep. In a missional church, the pastor is teaching the congregation to listen, and together they are discerning where and how God is a work, and how they might join Him.

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