The spell-check dictionary still underlines the word missional in red when I type it. It’s because missional is a relatively new word rarely used beyond the confines of church. It is yet recognized by my MacBook. That is not to say that it is un-identified in the www universe. Google missional and you’ll be startled by 2,080,000 possible entries in just .76 seconds. Which means, in total, that church people are writing a lot of material using this new language.
Like many terms and phrases in church-speak, missional is a buzz-word in church life today. Suddenly most churches have a mission statement and the church world is inundated with admixtures of purpose and mission emphasizing a missional theme. There are missional communities, missional leaders, missional worship, missional seating, missional preaching and teaching, missional coffee, and even a whole new line of missional wear. Alan Hirsch, writing at CTPastors laments, “Today, everyone wants to be missional. Can you think of a single pastor who is proudly anti-missional?” He continued, “But as church leaders continue to pile onto the missional bandwagon, the true meaning of the word may be getting buried under a pile of assumptions…Maintaining the integrity of this word is critical, because recovering a missional understanding of God and the Church is essential not only for the advancement of our mission but, I believe, also for the survival of Christianity in the West.”1 Modern phrases may genuinely mean something.
So, the question for me is, what does the word missional actually mean? Hirsch continues the article with development of missio Dei, the doctrine of the sending God. Underneath is the simple truth that the church has a mission, or as many say, the mission has a church. In missional, the church is declaring that God’s mission is the originating impulse and organizing principle of the church.2 Being missional, by a broadly accepted definition, is when the church is part of what God is doing in the world.3 Therefore, the actual definition depends on how one defines or identifies their perception of God’s mission. In that regard, missional is a very loose concept. I mean, rhetorically, is the casserole dish a symbol of a missional enterprise?
For most evangelical Christians the mission of the church is rooted in the Great Commission Jesus transmitted to his closest followers. It is the mission of making disciples of all nations (see Matthew 28:19-20). Being missional, then, is more than applying a trendy term to our busy calendars or sanctifying our definition of God’s activity in our community of faith. It’s more than having a hip mission statement. For most of us it is the purposeful assignment of making disciples.
Still, even with the wide divergence of definitions it’s clear that the idea of being missional should communicate something of worth about church purpose, the substance of our mission. In consultation and discussion with several pastor groups, being a missional church should reflect the following intentionality. Missional is when—
- The stated mission of the church reflects biblical integrity.
- Mission is central to the governing documents of the church.
- Mission is obvious in the church organizational grid.
- Mission is the key economic indicator of the church.
- The fulfillment of mission is assessed, evaluated, and celebrated regularly.
In a pastor’s round table one day a local pastor told the group that he was using the term missional with his congregation as often as possible. In his situation missional is an attitude target, a goal they are seeking to accomplish throughout their ministry organization. Another pastor confessed the downside of such buzzwords when he related that his church was using missional as an outreach modifier, giving prospects the impression of intentionality and purpose in pursuit of their very aggressive mission statement.
Using the term missional in times like these may have several components of specificity, like the five bullets mentioned above. Again, it may just be another rhetorical device through which we validate what we are doing, whether it is genuine mission or not. It’s like a lot of the –al words we throw around—biblical, spiritual, familial, traditional, formal, relational, central, conventional, and so many more. They often mean what we want them to mean. That is, until they become buzzwords, when they may mean much more than we mean, or what other people perceive them to mean.
It reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s instruction to Timothy. He wrote, “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Timothy 2:14). MIssional may just be a brilliant concept for the contemporary church, especially if it enables a recovery of purpose for a church that seems to be adrift. At the same time, it may represent the intentionality we wish compelled us, or a perception we want others to see.
Still, I remember a simple truth from Forrest Gump, the 1994 movie portraying events from the latter half of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of Forrest, the slow but kind-hearted kid from Alabama. Forrest went to visit the family of his wartime friend Bubba. They asked him if he was stupid in making such a trip. He replied, “Stupid is as stupid does”. He was there on an honorable mission. It must not have been stupid.
And, that’s the deal about mission. Mission is as mission does. We don’t have to flower it up with cool semantics or trendy language. Whether we’re missional or not isn’t really the issue. The question involves something more basic. Does what we’re doing reflect the commission of Jesus? And, are we pursuing it with purpose and intent? Is it clear in all that we do?
Mission is as mission does.
1 Alan Hirsch, http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2008/fall/17.20.html
3 Steve Knight, Missional Shift, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/missionalshift/2012/05/