Is “Progressive” the Right Term?

Is “Progressive” the Right Term? June 17, 2011

Earlier this week, while teaching a Doctor of Ministry course at Fuller Theological Seminary with Lauren Winner, my class joined with a class taught by Dallas Willard and Keith Matthews for an evening discussion.  One of their students asked me, “What’s the difference between ’emergent’ and ‘missional’?”  He continued, “When I’m asked by my congregation, I tell them that missional is primarily a theological corrective to the church, and emergent is primarily an ecclesiological corrective.  Is that right?”

I was slightly taken aback by his own description because, to be honest, I’ve heard just the opposite.  Evangelicals haven’t turned on proponents of emergent church like Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, and me because of our ecclesiological innovations.*  It’s not the couches and the non-hierarchical forms of church to which they object.  It’s our theology.

I told him this, and I went on to opine that the terms have become so theologically fraught that they are damn near meaningless.  Five years ago, evangelicals were gaga over emergent.  Then, as our theological explorations continued, evangelicals quickly turned on us.

I used the example of Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA.  Biblical at first embraced emergent thinking and emergent leaders, using both Tim Keel and Brian McLaren as special consultants.  Then a small group of alumni went on the attack, and David Dunbar and Biblical Seminary retreated.  Now they are “missional,” mentions of Brian McLaren have been scrubbed from the site, and John Franke is leaving the faculty.

My question: Is “missional” a safer term than “emergent”?  Should it be?

Thinking about Patheos’s decision to rename the “mainline” portal the “progressive” portal reminded me of this conversation.  “Mainline” doesn’t work, I’ll admit.  Lauren Winner told our class this week that “mainline” derived from a train line in Philadephia in the 1920s.  The big, rich churches in the suburbs were associated with the rail line that took the white collar workers out of the city to their big homes and big churches.  Look at today’s “mainline” churches and you can see that term is increasingly anachronistic.

“Liberal” doesn’t work either; it’s become a dirty word.

There is simply no equivalent word that countervails “evangelical.”  (More on the meaning of “evangelical” in a future post.)

For now, I suppose, “progressive” works.  It’s less politically fraught than the alternatives, yet it still means something.  Just what it means, however, only time will tell.  The biggest challenge will be whether those of us fall under the progressive rubric define it, or whether we let conservatives demonize the term, just like they did with “liberal.”


*Please forgive the shorthand.  I know there are LOTS of people who affirm emergent ways of doing and being church.  I’m simply making a point that the three of us get lots of the criticism.

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  • Kyle

    I actually have never thought about the two terms together (missional and emergent), I guess to me they were always linked. But then again I thought emergent was dead and then all of a sudden it has come back again. I think you are right with emergent having more behind it and missional still being pretty conservative. All we have done with that word (missional) is make it an everyday term for what people of the church do for the community. So, as long as missional doesn’t get abused like the word emergent, missional will remain conservative. Maybe this can be the word that brings both camps together (progressives and conservatives)?

  • I think progressive works as a term to describe a sector of Christianity perhaps best represented in the United Church of Christ, but present in significant strength in many denominations. This is a counter to evangelicalism.

    I don’t like using it for the emerging/missional part of Christianity, as Brian McLaren has recently done. At its best, the emerging/missional movement is a true alternative to evangelicalism and progressivism. It draws upon elements in both, and (one of its real strengths at its best, IMHO) and upon elements in historical Christianity not well represented in either the evangelical or progressive streams.

    I see it as more holistic than either evangelicalism and progressivism. That’s what I see in my own church, Cedar Ridge Community Church.

    I do think that there’s been a certain movement in the emerging world towards progressive Christianity. IMHO, this is an unfortunate development which threatens its ability to serve well in the renewing of the Church.

    It’s looking to me like Renovaré, and the authors/speakers associated with it (Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, James Bryan Smith, etc.), is leading in a much more promising direction than recent directions in the emerging movement. The two movements have had a lot in common, but Renovaré seems much more grounded in the richness of the Christian tradition.

  • Missional is DEFINITELY safer than emergent simply because it doesn’t carry as much baggage. That doesn’t mean we should ban the term “emergent.” Renovare and similar groups have more credibility from the seminary vested careers and publishing that has grounded it. The emergent group has been much more prophetic and therefore controversial because they are willing to take a chance.

    My question would be, “is safer better?”

  • Dan Hauge

    In the political world, ‘progressive’ has come to mean “what liberals call themselves now that ‘liberal’ has become a dirty word.” It seems to me that the term ‘progressive’ will quite quickly be understood in the same way in the theological world. So if emergent theology types think that this term will somehow differentiate themselves from ‘liberalism’ in a way that evangelicals will recognize and acknowledge, I think quite the opposite will be the case. More like, ‘aha, now they are more fully admitting to be the progressives/liberals that they are.’

    And I have to ask, why is that necessarily a problem? I basically agree with Bill that the theological moves of emergent, over the last five years especially, have moved steadily in the direction of more liberal theologies. Why not just own it? There is this recurring tone among emergents of being hurt and upset that evangelicals went “on the attack” as emergent theology started to change, but why is that a surprise? They have very different worldviews, different assumptions about Scripture, a completely different mindset over how to incorporate or resist current philosophical thought, different understandings of what the Christian story even is. Of course people who think evangelically will strongly disagree.

    Yes, there are some differences between many ‘liberal Christians’ and the more popular emergents. Tony’s belief in the resurrection as a historical event is often cited, and it is significant. (Interestingly, Tony’s views on the resurrection prompted Tripp Fuller to call him the ‘most orthodox in the village’, which tells you something about the wider theological context of emergent). But in a week where both Pagitt and McLaren endorsed Process Theology (that may be a stretch with McLaren, but when you spend two posts in one week highlighting Whitehead that does signal something), I am increasingly confused as to why emergents are even bothered when evangelicals cast them as liberal leaning. Yes, the theologies are different. Let the debates and discussions continue.

  • Paul

    My concern with the term “progressive” is that its primary connotation is political. As of a few years ago, it seemed a person could have one of many political leanings (or be very apolitical) and still fit with emergence because s/he believes in theological recalibration. Now it seems the leading figures in the conversation talk a little less about theological inquiry and a lot more about political issues, particularly LGBT issues (the pivotal shift from a season of discernment to a season of advocacy, I suppose). Going with “progressive” might exacerbate those changes (which is good or bad, depending on how you see it).

    Meanwhile, “missional” is starting to sound like one of a few things:

    “I’m an Evangelical who doesn’t concern myself with theology enough to get involved with addressing theological oversights in my tradition.”

    “I’m an Evangelical who knows theological oversights are there, but I’d rather stay in the good graces of powerful, well-funded institutions than create a fuss — and I’ll do this in the name of ecumenism and ‘change from within,’ rather than self-service. So I’m going to talk and write a lot about Lesslie Newbigin and steer clear of substitutionary atonement, sexism, fatalism, flat earth science, and so on.”

    “I’m a simplistic (maybe well-intentioned) Evangelical pastor and I heard that calling my church ‘missional’ will raise our attendance and giving, so I figured it couldn’t hurt.”

  • Brian

    My thoughts are in sync with Bill’s. I have long appreciated emergent, and until the last few years, have felt pretty much aligned w/ the movement. One of the things that I most appreciated about it, and that I more recently miss, was what I saw as a refusal to “cave” to the tendencies of Right or Left, which demonstrated enough humility to be a prophetic, challenging voice to both “sides” and offered an alternative to the either/or model. While I still appreciate and resonate with much of the emergent folks write, increasingly it seems like they have opted to “side” with the Left instead of staying and wrestling with tough issues, perhaps leaving them unresolved. I guess it’s difficult to stay unresolved for very long. As for me, I’m still more in agreement with those who let the tensions between the biblical text and current implications on how to live as Jesus’ disciples remain tensions, and continue to humbly wrestle/walk with them instead of resolving them in the way of the traditional evangelicals or traditional liberals/progressives.

  • I never see “progressive” used in a way that detractors couldn’t simply substitute “liberal,” and oppose or dismiss (though that may be a bad way to evaluate it). Still it seems clear that missional is no longer workable. I’ve noticed a few suburban mega-church conferences this summer which are billed as “missional,” which apparently now means “we are really looking to be relevant to folks under 30.” When the megachurches use “missional” in marketing campaigns, it’s officially time to start looking for a new term.

    My current tack is to continue to call myself an evangelical, but try and change the way we think about what that means. I often use “old story evangelical” to describe the conservative, rationalistic, gospel-as-substitutionary-atonement approach, and “new story evangelical” to denote a progressive, narrative, gospel of the kingdom of God approach. I still use “progressive evangelical” sometimes, and it works okay as a qualifier.

  • “We live in a political world…” – the prophet Bob Dylan, *Political World*

    As a non-theologian/layperson with more of a background in philosophy, linguistics, public education and the Anabaptist critique, I feel compelled to remind us that in English (and historically), the word “progressive” (small p and capital) had a political association long before it began to acquire a more direct theological connection.

    I have never minded the term, and even in the political realm I found it useful to break out of the U.S. “two party system” – which broke down to Republican=conservative=white=people of the Book=”real” Christians (etc.) VS. Democrat=liberal=inclusive=mainline or ecumenical=social justice/people of praxis=”TRYING to be real Christians” with an eye on the Common Good.
    Meanwhile, for decades there have been misfits –either the monkish/interior-oriented discipleship types like Foster, or the outward-facing and sociopolitical types (Buechner? Wendell Berry? certainly Campolo…) — who felt a bit uncomfortable within *either* “party”. I’ve felt discomfort/tension too, as a non-cradle Mennonite (the so-called Third Way), and thus have enjoyed –but then sometimes struggled –in watching and helping as Sojourners and other Progressive/faith-based efforts tried in fits and starts to bridge that gap (mostly a false one, from a Scriptural standpoint). All that activity, and the roots of current changes/debates, started well before Emergent existed as a term. As for “missional”, that seems vague and tricky also, like a re-purposing or co-opting of terminology to try NOT to lose the more conservative evangelicals.

    We can talk about what person, school of thought, or denomination gets co-opted or dismissed through this working out of our faith, but I agree with the suggestions above that being a little unsafe or uncomfortable really IS the Way of Jesus.

    It’s the idea mentioned above that emergent theology has been *changing* (or reacting, maybe re-adjusting its essential foundational evidence sources, i.e. *re-learning*), that many evangelicals have a hard time with. If one believes in God and scripture and truth as being mostly fixed (my shorthand definition of conservative or orthodox theology), then the idea of holding things in tension –the postmodern instinct to say “Maybe yes, but what about this over here?”– is grounds for dismissal so that a conservative can get on with their faith-filled business without the distraction of having to rediscover a vision/version of the truth.

    The first time I heard the term “praxis” was in discussions about liberation theology at a youth minister’s or Intervarsity leadership training conference… conducted at Moody Bible Institute of all places. So every tradition has its brave, isolated reformers (or realists) who work within the boundaries, but try to stretch them. It’s in publishing and seminaries that all the big battles are fought, though. Keep pushing those boundaries, Tony. We’re encouraged.

  • Every term will be demonized by someone sooner or later. So, I think ‘Emergents’ should return to just using the one term, Christian. It needs to be redeemed from those who hijacked and redefined it too narrowly. How can ‘Christian’ folks demonize the term ‘Christian’? If we give ourselves any label other than ‘Christian’ we automatically separate ourselves and provide a target. If we insist on only using the ‘Christian’ label others ‘Christians’ will just have to deal with it. Christianity is and must always be inclusive of a great diversity of expressions and understandings. By returning to only the ‘Christian’ label, and refusing to self-label in any other way than simply ‘Christian’, we loudly proclaim that Christianity is a ‘big tent’.

  • Out of fairness, if liberal has been demonized by conservatives, haven’t conservatives been equally demonized by liberals? I see it that way, which leads me to my next point:

    Having taken a small step back from the “emergent” subculture for about a year now, what excited me about the emergent conversation 4-5 years ago was it eschewing of the liberal/conservative binary through the deconstructive framework. Both the mainline and evangelical expressions were criticized for their adherence to modernist enclosures. I remember when emergents were happily uncomfortable with John Piper as equally as John Spong. But it feels like emergent’s just been co-opted by the liberal mainline worldview to become a mainline 2.0. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    The problem with the word “progressive”, as much as anyone wants to parse it, is that it is too closely aligned with the political, social democratic, connotation. What about emergents who are libertarians, who embrace social civil liberties but can’t stomach big-government fiscal policies?

    All this to say, I’ll continue to embrace the word “emergent” in all of its ambiguous, beaten-like-a-dead-horse, glory.

  • Tony, as you know, labels are always problematic. I am a Fuller alum (M.Div. and Ph.D.) and a pastor in a “mainline Protestant church.” Of course, that’s not unusual for Fuller grads — but my theology is to the left of where Fuller has historically been, though politically I’m not all that far from most of the faculty that I knew at Fuller.

    So, who am I? Am I post-conservative? Post-liberal? I’m too institutionalized to be “emergent,” though as I told Doug I have “emergent tendencies.” He laughed!! I seek to be missional, but missional has different meanings for different folks.

    So, as for “progressive” I’ll claim it too, but I’m not a Spongite.

    So, do labels really work?

  • Tim Stockton

    Labels are meaningless and as you all point out none of you fit a certain group. Labels are the clothes you wish to wear that day. But… Regardless of your label what is your labor? Do you wear a suit and tie and hold up liquid stores? Your “label” is accepted by society because it is seen as outwardly portraying culture. Or I can wear t-shirts and jeans and create a cure for disease. My product or fruit is more important than devising a label. If you all insist on labeling yourselves to feel a part of the club then I vote for “Christian” also.

  • Park Smith

    I guess that labels are helpful in so far as they may accurately describe substance and directional tendencies of thought. However, in this case I find it strange that this struggle even exists. I have been positively influenced by many of the so-called “emergent” thinkers these last few years to the extent that I have changed much of my thinking about a whole bunch of things! The influence has opened my eyes to much of what I had been temporarily blinded to due to ecclesiological and theological loyalties that were engrained in me but gradually (and thankfully) blown to smithereens. I came to faith in an extraordinarily conservative church but have learned over 35 years to appreciate many faith traditions. While ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’, ‘conservative’ and ‘evangelical’ are all labels that I have woven into my hermeneutic and praxis at various point in time, I am none of these in a true sense. I am on a continual quest to be more like Jesus. Hence, may I not simply call myself “a follower of Jesus”? Obviously I’m not asking for permission but, am suggesting that this is, or at least “should” be, what we are all seeking. The understanding and expression of different theologies and praxes may be all across the board but, to put labels on positions seems to shoot the foot of the paradigm of “conversation” or “dialogue” we seek right out of the batter’s box. It seems to me that if we are truly involved in the process of optometric management with our various sight difficulties in respect to our hermeneutic and resultant praxis, and we attempt to continue to discover which glasses we are seeing God through at a particular point in time, it would perhaps both mislead us and those to whom we communicate our particular labels-by-allegience to if we pigeon holed ourselves by labeling. If being a follower of Jesus is too much for some to handle we could say that we are followers of God – “whoever or whatever you understand that to be”. Am I missing something? I think that Bob’s final question above deserves further discussion.

  • Ethan M

    I think that the weakness of both liberal and progressive is that neither of those words describe the content or the identifying markers of a group. They are decidedly relative terms. In contrast other terms “Fundamentalist,” “Evangelical”, “Neo-Calvinist”, “Neo-Puritan” all have some content to them in addition to their role as a referent to the group in question.

    Now of course all of these have been at time turned in to slurs or litmus tests in a way that ignore the original content of the word. But this process is slowed by the inherent content of the word. Liberal and progressive – as far as I can tell – have basically lost any value except as a referent to a group and consequently they are easily turned in to slurs.

    I also think that this is why missional has survived as a term longer than the term emergent seems to have survived. Missional as a word had a pretty robust history of meaning before it became hip. This has slowed its transition to becoming a word that was all “referent” and no “sense.” I think that the word emergent quickly went from being a word that described people (with both a sense and referent) to just being a label for a group of people.

    It seems to me that the word progressive has the same dangers.

    I hope that makes sense. I happen to be rereading G.B. Caird wonderful book on the Language and Imagery of the Bible and I think that his first two chapters on words and meaning have a lot of bearing on this conversation.


  • Phyllis Tickle has a nice article on the difference between emergent (or emergence) and progressive here.

    However, I don’t find it surprising that emergent Christianity is perceived by traditional evangelicals as being “leftist”. As emergent Christians have been freed to read books from the evangelical version of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, it is not surprising that some of the thoughts contained in those books have made their way into the thought of some emergents on their own merits. I know they have my case, in fact I’ve been shocked at how some of these men and women have been misrepresented by conservative Christians. I don’t know if the misrepresentation is due to ignorance or malice, I hope its the former but I don’t consider it a big improvement over the latter.

    In the end, I don’t really care about the labels. Conservatives/fundamentalist are going to use any and all of them to mean the same thing: not one of us. I wish this weren’t true, but in the meantime I don’t really care if get called “liberal” or “progressive” or “emergent” by those either within or without of the conversation. I don’t even care if you call me “evangelical”, although I abandoned the term to describe myself quite some time ago.

  • A couple of thoughts:
    1. Beyond trying to find a label (the surface activity) there is the other dimension of identifying with a tradition of thought. The traditions that come with these labels have developed not only ways of doing things but substantive positions on various issues.

    2. I’m a United Methodist. While we might not be very united, we’re certainly methodical. I often think we’ve taken “methodism” too far and wish Wesley had picked one of the other derogatory terms to name his movement. There can be an advantage in strategically positioning yourself in a place to make people curious, rather than “Once I hear the label I know exactly what to do with it.”

    3. (Yes, I know 3 is more than “a couple”) How a group is labeled depends on what groups it is being contrasted with. From a United Methodist point of view, I’m hopelessly conservative. From a fundamentalist point of view I’m hopelessly liberal. If you want to play with one particular group then you have to give in to their rules. If they’re all playing football and you’re stuck on basketball, things might turn painful.

  • I tend to think of my brand of Christian theology as "liberal," and the resulting brand of Christian praxis as "progressive" (although the theology and praxis aren’t as necessarily as intertwined as it might seem sometimes), and find it disorienting when they get switched (e.g., talk of "progressive theology"). I’m not at all sure whether this an idiosyncratism of my idiolect or if it parallels the way others might use the words, though.In my usage, "liberal" and "progressive" are intended to call out a specific recognizable content in theology and in praxis which could, presumably, be contrasted with (say) a "conservative" theology or praxis, and are intended to be descriptive rather than terms of praise or critique (cf. "pro-life" and "pro-choice," where both terms assume certain assumptions which are rejected by the other side but which nonetheless provide a commonly shared set of descriptors).So a progressive and/or liberal theology is going to start from certain recognizable assumptions (e.g. the validity of the historical-critical method) and a progressive and/or liberal praxis is going to work towards certain recognizable objectives (e.g. a left-liberal understanding of social justice). It makes sense then for that movement/thread of thought to understand movement towards the fulfillment of those objectives as "progress" (independently of whether or not the movement is right about what progress looks like or should look like). (My account of Christian progress is found at my blog essay History and Christ.)For me, then, "progressive" is the much more politically-loaded word since it essentially refers to a mode of being-in-the-world, and thus of being-the-Church, while "liberal" has more to do with a certain post-Enlightenment understanding of the world and humanity’s place within it which has as much to do with classical liberalism as with modern-day left-liberalism. Progressive Christianity has some set of (recognizable) reforms which it desires to enact within society and/or the Church; Liberal Christianity affirms certain (recognizable) things as true about the human person’s (ideal) relationship with Scripture and Church tradition.The question, for me, is how well the words are commonly understood to refer to the already-existent movements in Christian theology and/or praxis they are supposed to call out (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Leonardo Boff, etc.–what Wikipedia refers to as "the Christian left"). It’s not at all clear that there is any real uniformity of usage in how "liberal," "progressive," and other similar terms get applied, although of course I think my way makes the most sense. :oD

    I don’t think either “liberal” or “progressive” quite manages to replace “mainline,” however, precisely because mainline Protestantism isn’t (necessarily) wedded to any particular theological position, but rather to a certain type of ecclesial institutionality.

  • Here’s how I’ve sorted out the emerging/missional distinction. One way is much the same as I sort out Pentecostal/Charismatic. Pentecostal churches were formed as independent congregations with a distinct mission and worship, often in contrast to mainline denominations who kicked early Pentecostal leaders out.

    The charismatic movement has much the same priority but it exists both in independent congregations and established congregations. So there is a charismatic movement in the Catholic Church, for instance.

    Emergent is primarily, if not exclusively, independent while missional is a broader expression.

    Or another way…

    Missional is almost entirely about evangelism, redefining what this looks like and prioritizing it as the nature of the church.

    Emergent is primarily about ecclesiology, how we arrange and express the gathering of the church. There can be a hierarchical missional church, I believe, but a hierarchical emerging church is an oxymoron (though they do oxymoronically exist).

    As such I think they’re still both useful terms, though each has been abused, and not only by evangelicals. To make emergent = progressive is to attach external theological assumptions which not all emerging people share, and that becomes a barrier to shared community among people with differing approaches to theology. Oddly enough, doing so also re-establishes the old dividing lines precisely where and why they were divided 100 or so years ago or more. If you take up Process theology, that’s not emerging, that’s the height of modern liberal theology. If that’s the way you want to swing, that’s fine, but don’t then make that expression of theology equivalent.

    Which is why I think progressive Christians need to respect the emerging/missional label as much as conservatives. By packing in all kinds of external theological content both sides have bloated the word beyond what can, I think, still be a very worthwhile, and indeed unifying, approach across theological opinions. I’m rather conservative in most of my theology, for instance, but am wholeheartedly emergent, and even if I disagree with Tony or Doug or other such people on certain theological approaches I see the call for unity as a priority. And that priority seems to be where being emergent comes into its own. We can disagree but want to move past the walls that were set up in the theological wars of the 20th century. Meanwhile, it seems there are people, on both sides, who want to keep those same sorts of teams and keep the same sorts of distinctions, co-opting movements to further their own, differing priorities.

    That’s what got emergent/missional in trouble to begin with. Church growth people put the label on anything to sell more of their products and self-appointed heresy hunters attached the term to anything they saw as defying traditional authority. On the other side, theologians take over the themes to push their attempts to re-define Christianity as a whole. And both sides, I think, have made a muddle of the terms.

    Which is fine if people want to embrace church growth or old style liberal theologies, but please don’t call it inherent or equivalent to emergent.

    I’m not progressive. But I am emergent. And I think it’s a distinction worth fighting for.

  • Wow, Patrick. Beautiful comment. This is the hope I have for emergent. I feel like, in recent years, we have learned not that emergent = progressive (or liberal, or whatever), but rather how hard it is to create and sustain a third way. I see this as a lovely way to seek that third way.

  • Jeff Straka

    It never ceases to amaze me how people’s minds have this need to nail stuff down. Ambiguity cannot be tolerated by our dualistic brain – we must sort things into black and white, in and out categories. It’s interesting how Jesus would listen to the labels people would try to pin on him but he never engaged in that game, he never claimed a single one. I think that’s the lesson of those stories where the angry crowds were trying to catch him but somehow he would always slip their grasp. As soon as you capture something that is meant to be free, death begins. Maybe that’s another lesson of the cross. A Living God in process (yes, I’m a huge fan of process-relational philosophy), a Living God that is always EMERGING cannot be captured, tied down and categorized, try as we might. If we seek to be in union/partnership/relationship with this God, then shouldn’t we shun the tethers of death as well?

  • Catie Coots

    I think the challenge is these terms are in the process of becoming. Progressive works in some ways, but it does have those political ties too, which sometimes gets in the way. My understanding of Emergent is that it is both theological and ecclesiological; it’s also relational. Missional is to me more attitudinal. But I agree these terms are helpful for their descriptive component, less helpful if it becomes a convenient way to choose sides. We are all Christian, it is a big tent, and no one of us “owns” the “truth.” We can only point to where we see Christ present and how we feel called to respond and engage in ministry. When terms help us think more carefully about that, be more reflective, then it is helpful. If they are used to convince others of how right we are, and thus the “others” are necessarily wrong, then I think we become more like the Pharisees and Sadducees. I pray to be more like Jesus; I fail everyday, but I keep trying, and I am thankful for people like Brian, and Rob, and Tony that push me to go deeper in my thinking and reflection. I don’t care what label you use in order to do that.

  • Marc de Jeu

    Hey Tony,
    Appreciate your stuff. Seems to me that emergent and missional are both theological & ecclesiological (both seeking to do what any worthwhile ecclesiological endeavor should do: be shaped entirely by theology, allowing for no trace of dichotomy). For a very helpful definition of ‘missional’ (and not the pop-version you’ll find on 90% of church websites today), I’d encourage you to check out Michael Frost’s explanation here (especially starting at 1:42 on the video): It’s been quite helpful for me as someone who’s a part of a community of faith running the risk of self-identifying as ‘missional.’

    Patrick, you wrote: “Missional is almost entirely about evangelism, redefining what this looks like and prioritizing it as the nature of the church.”

    And I’d agree with this, if when you say ‘evangelism’ you don’t mean simply ‘what the church does beyond its four walls’, but rather mean ‘alerting the world to the Reign of God in Jesus, in announcement and in demonstration.’ But as Frost, Alan Hirsch, and others will be quick to remind us, this does not then become the church’s primary function among other functions, but rather the organizing principle of the life of the community of faith, from which all of its functions consistently emerge.

  • Michael Maudlin

    I agree with Tony’s misgivings about “progressive” and I think there are problems with “missional” and “emergent” that would be good to avoid. These kinds of terms have two functions: mapping (a guide to who is who) and defining (what are the groups’ distinctives). The best terms do both–such as evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, Pentecostal, even “liberal” (if narrowed to the theological movement that was pro-science and antisupernaturalist). My problem with “progressive,” “emergent,” and “missional” is that they work for a time for mapping purposes but not in terms of definition–progressing from what to what, emerging from what, which mission? Different groups under these umbrellas define themselves differently. I think the ideal label should be something that represents the group’s core (i.e., begin with definition). In that light, I have been frustrated that evangelicals get to point to the gospel in their very name, while none of this group’s terms start with Jesus or the gospel (perhaps “missional” does somewhat, albeit indirectly). I would hate to cede Jesus, the gospel, or the Spirit to all the other groups and “progressives” are left with sociology. So is there a term for what we mean by “progressive” that stakes our identity at the center of what we are about and maps us at the same time? I can’t think of one that is in use already, but I would love for someone to pioneer such a term.

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