Some Honest Talk about Labels (Emergent, Missional, Etc.)

Some Honest Talk about Labels (Emergent, Missional, Etc.) February 20, 2013

I was interested to see the above video, promoting the new book by my friends David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. It was particularly interesting based on how they used some terminology in the promo video. They repeatedly used the terms “neo-Reformed” and “Emergent” as opposite poles, and they used their own preferred term, “missional,” as the middle way between those two erroneous options.

What was most intriguing to me is that I first met both of these guys at an Emergent Village Cohort. Indeed, Geoff ran the Chicago cohort for many years — it was, under his leadership, one of the strongest cohorts in the country. Meanwhile, Fitch was injecting his own missional-Anabaptist theology into the emergent movement in a powerful way. Fitch has gained an audience for his theology in large part because of his generous engagement with the emergent movement.

In other words, these guys are among the most responsible people for the growth and development of the emergent movement, from which they are now trying to verbally distinguish themselves.

I’ve written before about the term “missional.” It bends a lot of ways. It’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.

You might say you’re not Presbyterian or you’re not emergent. But you’re not going to say that you’re not missional.

Meanwhile, we all know that the term “emergent” has been redefined by conservatives. As hard as we tried to use it as an open-handed term for an ongoing theological conversation, the theological police jumped up and down screaming that “emergent = liberal” that people started to believe it. Publishers, for instance, once loved the term; they now want nothing to do with it.

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.

Would you say that you’re a “missional” Christian? Or would you say that you’re not?

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