Would Missional by Any Other Name Sound So Sweet?

November 9, 2008 at 11:59 pm 12 comments

Last fall I took a hybrid-course from Leonard Sweet called, “Global Mission of the Church” at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. In the first few minutes of our face to face time, Sweet refuted the title of the class saying it should be, “Global Mission of God.” In the ensuing hours we touched on the concept of Missio Dei, and learned that Sweet’s vision for the church includes the church being missional, relational, and incarnational – an MRI church. This term “missional” has been growing in popularity over the last few years in the church in the West, especially in relation to emerging church. If missional is the shape of the future then we would do well to understand the origins and implications of this term. Some believe “the controversial hypothesis that the language available to humans defines our thoughts.”  If this is the case, then how we define missional will not only affect how we think, but if we take Proverbs 23:7 out of context, we can argue that how we think affects who we are.

In March of 2007, I attended a conference called “Inside the Missional Matrix” put on by Off the Map. Scot McKnight, Todd Hunter, and Rose Swetman did an excellent job engaging those in attendance. One question that was raised particularly intrigued me. The question raised was something like this, “Some people use the term incarnational and some missional – what’s the difference and are these terms interchangeable?” I am especially intrigued by questions like these because it reminds me of how much time we spend on language. At one time it was all about discipleship, then it was all about mentoring, now it’s all about spiritual direction – but the reality is that those who are effective at any of these are probably doing about the same thing – passing on what they have learned to another person. Some people are so committed to “The Word” that if a word isn’t in “The Word” (for instance “mentoring”) then it is not acceptable. Why do we get so caught up in what things are called? Why do we care so much about terminology? After all, what IS the difference between missional and incarnational? As a professional communicator and technical writer these things have mattered much more to me in the past, and even though they matter less to me today – they still matter, why? Because, in the beginning God spoke…

God spoke. God chooses to use language to create and to communicate with His creation. It only makes sense that we too must use language to communicate with one another. But one of the inherent problems with language is that it is not absolute, it varies from culture to culture, from time to time, and is interpreted differently based upon your worldview, upbringing, and societal bias. How then can we make sense of “The Word” when all these variations are possible? How can we know what “The Word” is really saying when we can’t even agree on whether we need to be missional or incarnational?

I would like to propose that words are very important, sometimes more important than we give them credit. The proverbs say that life and death are in the power of the tongue and I don’t think it is referring to getting licked to death. What we speak impacts us in many realms. We speak of the different levels of communication in language – the verbal, the nonverbal, the cultural, the meta-messages, etc. But what we are really saying is that language and communication are complex. What we hear affects what we believe, what we believe affects what we say and do. What we do is who we really are. One of the greatest dissonances we experience is when we say one thing and do another. Or when someone else says one thing and does another. Jesus calls this hypocrisy. Unfortunately, hypocrisy is as much of a problem in communities of faith today as it was when Jesus walked the earth. So, when I hear people talking about a missional community or incarnational living – my first thought is that I hope that person does it more than they talk about it. And I have come to the conclusion that incarnational and missional are not interchangeable terms – though I’m not sure you can be incarnational without being missional, I am sure you can be on a mission without being incarnational. While incarnational is an important term, I will focus the rest of this writing on missional.

Missional Firsts
My first encounter with the term missional was through my friend, Dan Kimball, as he launched one of the first alternative church gatherings of the emerging church movement. The tagline for Dan Kimball’s Graceland gathering was, “A Worshiping Community of Missional Theologians.” I have known Dan for over 20 years and when Dan uses the term missional, I am confident that he is living it as much as he is talking about it. As a result of Dan’s faithful witness, he has been one of the leading voices in the emerging church movement (whatever you want to call it) and continues to offer a credible example of a missional church. Graceland has since become Vintage Faith Church who holds missional as one of their distinctives and defines missional as:

Being “missional” simply means being outward and others-focused, with the goal of expressing and sharing the love of Jesus. Jesus told His followers not to remove themselves from the world and create an isolated Christian sub-culture. Rather, He taught His followers to be engaged in the world with people (John 17:15). The church was not created for itself, but was created to worship God and to spread His love to others. We each were created for a missional purpose. Therefore, we won’t have a specific “missions department” because the whole church itself is a mission. Jesus clearly told the church to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20). For us today, this command is not exclusive to overseas missions alone (which we support wholeheartedly since global missions is extremely important) but is foremost to be lived out in our own communities, families, and day to day lives (Colossians 4:5-6).

When entering “missional” as my search term in google, I was offered about 1,470,000 results which is a great deal more than the 3,350 results from 2001. Some are saying “missional” is the buzz word of the church today, and I would have to agree. Top on the google search list is wikipedia, one of my favorite online sources. Here’s what wikipedia has to say:

Missional living” is a Christian term that describes a missionary lifestyle; adopting the posture, thinking, behaviors, and practices of a missionary in order to engage others with the gospel message. The use of this term has gained recent popularity due to the Emerging church movement to contrast the concept of a select group of “professional” missionaries, with the understanding that all Christians should be involved in the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.

Friend of Missional is also at the top of the google search, sometimes showing up above wikipedia, depending on the day. Rick Meigs produces the Friend of Missional website and offers an etymology of the word:

Etymology of Missional
Definition: “Relating to or connected with a religious mission; missionary.”
Part of Speech: Adjective. An adjective modifies a noun or a pronoun by describing, identifying, or quantifying words. An adjective usually precedes the noun or the pronoun which it modifies.
Etymology: From the word missionalism which is a noun meaning, “missionary work or activity.”
First Usage: 1907 in W. G. HOLMES’ Age Justinian & Theodora II. Page 687. Quote: “Several prelates, whose missional activities brought over whole districts and even nationalities to their creed” (emphasis added). (Reference: Oxford English Dictionary)
It should be noted that Andrew Jones has found it used as early as 1883.
Modern Usage: The first missiologist using the term “missional” in its modern understanding was Francis DuBose in his book, “God Who Sends” (Broadman Press, 1983). By the 1990’s the term began to appear more and more in such books as “Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America” (Edited by Darrell L. Guder) and the works of Lesslie Newbigin.

Rick also gives a short answer to the question “What is Missional?”:

Jesus told us to go into all the world and be his ambassadors, but many churches today have inadvertently changed the “go and be” command to a “come and see” appeal. We have grown attached to buildings, programs, staff and a wide variety of goods and services designed to attract and entertain people.
Missional is a helpful term used to describe what happens when you and I replace the “come to us” invitations with a “go to them” life. A life where “the way of Jesus” informs and radically transforms our existence to one wholly focused on sacrificially living for him and others and where we adopt a missionary stance in relation to our culture. It speaks of the very nature of the Jesus follower.

Rick invites others to be a catalyst for missional and offers a “Friend of Missional” graphic for others to use on their blog linking to his site. As of August, he has 157 sites using the graphic and linking to his site. Rick offers the following lists: Missional is a Shift in Thinking, Description of A Missional Church, What a Missional Church is Not, and What a Missional Church Looks Like.

In the section, Missional is a Shift in Thinking, Rick notes, this shift in thinking is expressed by Ed Stetzer and David Putman in their book, Breaking the Missional Code (Broadman & Holman, 2006) like this:

•    From programs to processes
•    From demographics to discernment
•    From models to missions
•    From attractional to incarnational
•    From uniformity to diversity
•    From professional to passionate
•    From seating to sending
•    From decisions to disciples
•    From additional to exponential
•    From monuments to movements

And Rick adds a couple more to Ed’s list:

•    From services to service
•    From ordained to the ordinary
•    From organizations to organisms

Rick notes that making this shift in thinking can be especially difficult for Evangelical Christians, while I concur I would also propose this shift is especially difficult in our consumer culture where Christianity is a private lifestyle choice and the church becomes therapy to find our consumer self,  as Rick notes, a missional church is not a dispenser of religious goods and services or a place where people come for their weekly spiritual fix. Rick offers great descriptions of missional church including the idea of a gathered church for the purpose of worship, encouragement, supplemental teaching, training, and to seek God’s presence and to be realigned with God’s missionary purpose.

JR Woodward, who posted “A Primer on Today’s Missional Church” offers this definition from an older post of his:

THE MISSIONAL CHURCH IS… the people of God living with the conviction that we are a sent people (by our Triune God) – called to be a faithful sign, foretaste and herald of the kingdom of God. We are a people who engage in the task of bilingual theological reflection (recognizing the grammar of the dominant culture as well as the grammar of God) so that we can embody the good news in the context in which we find ourselves and join God in the renewal of all things.

I like Woodward’s ideas on being sent people as well as bilingual theologians. There is much that could be unpacked in this definition as Woodward artfully combines the concepts of trinity, kingdom, theology, embodied gospel, and renewal in his definition, which is one worth pondering. JR Woodward also offers a link to a Missional Synchroblog that happened in June 2008 where Rick Meigs at The Blind Beggar organized bloggers to address the concern that the term missional has become overused or wrongly used. On June 23rd, 50 bloggers joined together to address this topic. Here’s some highlights:

Anti-Missional and Missional Confusions
Kathy Escobar writes, i honestly do not use the word for one primary reason–the people i know who are really truly “missional” don’t talk about it too much & the people who are trying to catch the latest church-trend use it a lot. Kathy understands my concern over hypocrisy, and is a good example of resisting such hypocrisy as she intentionally lives missionally instead of spending too much time talking about it. She goes on to say:

to me, missional–individually & corporately–is:
o    a way of living. it is a way of the heart, and is something that is better left unsaid in words and promotional materials and said loudly in humble, simple, natural actions that actually don’t get any press.
o    the upside down inside out and beautifully uncomfortable ways of the kingdom that are completely counter-intuitive to the worldly principles of business school that have infiltrated our church culture.
o    messy, chaotic, situational, and in many ways utterly unmeasurable.
o    embracing not only in action but in the core DNA of our hearts the values of the beatitudes in matthew 5 (spiritual poverty, the ability to mourn & feel, humility & gentleness, advocacy & social justice, mercy & compassion, and sacrifice at great costs)

I visited Kathy’s faith community when I was in the Denver area last month and discovered the missional beauty of her community is not found on her website, or verbalized in any creeds but is exemplified in the lives of the people involved with The Refuge, many who would not feel comfortable or accepted in traditional churches and would definitely not fit into the corporate leadership structure many mainline churches adhere to. But they have found a safe place to be the people God has created them to be and are making a difference in their community offering hope and help to marginalized people who are being neglected by most local churches. Kathy is passionate about what missional is not, saying:

missional is much more than some cool service projects and short term mission trips here and there while everything else structurally, programmatically, you name it, is exactly the same that it’s always been–focused on serving the people in the pews (or in the newest and most comfortable chairs) and making sure they are happy, bringing people “to us”, and not having to really engage in sacrificial life-on-life in real, authentic ways that get under our skin, make us feel uncomfortable, and change our hearts forever.

Today I viewed an interesting video produced by LifeWay with Ed Stetzer. Ed Stetzer wrote, “Breaking the Missional Code” in 2006. The video is entitled, “Ed Stetzer vs. AL” and is a play on the popularity of the word missionAL. Ed thinks it points out just how confused the missional conversation has become. Seems like everyone wants to be missional but when they say “missional” they really mean “edgy,” “innovative,” or “contemporary.” While I found the video a bit cheesy for my taste (and by the way, I am allergic to cheese 😉 it does attempt to dialog about the mission aspect of missional with humor and points out the reality of the confusion surrounding the term which is illustrated much less humorously in a long “talk” session on wikipedia where contributors discuss the evolution of the wikipedia entry.  (That reading seemed like 100 pages on it’s own 😉 Ed notes the extent of this confusion over the term saying:

Practitioners, theoreticians, fans and foes are defining, defending, and dissecting it. Its blurred meaning has brought it to the point that even some of its earliest and ardent users of the term are becoming reticent to use it themselves for fear of their audience misconstruing their message.

After reviewing Ed’s articles on The Meanings of Missional, one conclusion I have come to is that in order to understand missional we not only need to understand how this new adjective is being used today, but we need to understand the concepts of mission upon which missional is founded. Ed is an expert missiologist and has done great work in researching the history and theology of mission, missions, missio dei and what it means to be missional. If I were to do a PhD on the subject, I’m sure I would read more of his work. But for now, I’d like to look some more at the common usage and application of the word today.

Another blogger, Brother Maynard, has concerns about the term as well, saying:

In October 2007 at Seabeck, I confided to some that there was at that time (and is now) a “battle” going on for the word “missional.” Indeed, some within the missional conversation are already wanting to abandon the word in favour of “mission-shaped” or any other term which is less in dispute. As it stands, the word is in danger of being lost. Some would want to co-opt the term and apply it to existing attractional evangelistic programs, robbing the word of its subversive power.

Brother Maynard (a pseudonym) is an avid blogger concerning this terminology as well as a consistent contributor to missional conversations. In his contribution to the synchroblog this June, he noted that missional is at the core of the church’s reason for being. He says:

As I have defined the term based on the theological history of the conversation and its usage within that context, to be missional requires the adoption of two central tenets.
1.    The church’s purpose is to be mission-shaped, meaning that all that it is and does reflects upon and is born out of its single mission, the Missio Dei (”God’s mission”).
2.    The church’s ministry is to be incarnational, not only corporately but individually as well.
Remove either of these aspects, and missional has been robbed of its theological impact.

Brother Maynard agrees with others that missional is not just the latest cool term that can be slapped onto existing programs, but requires a shift in thinking recovering what has been lost in many churches over time. Brother Maynard is a self-professed post-Charismatic and adds value to the conversation from this perspective.

I also found a definition of missional on the Acts 29 Network website. Acts 29 is a network of pastors who are first Christians, second Evangelicals, third Missional, and fourth Reformed. They define missional as an adjective describing all of the activities of the church body as they are brought under the mission of God (missio dei) to proclaim the good news of salvation through His Son Jesus Christ. They go on to define what a missional church is then list several characteristics of a missional church:

A missional church is a theologically-formed, Gospel-centered, Spirit-led fellowship who seeks to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ. The mission of the church is found in the mission of God who is calling the church to passionately participate in God’s redemptive mission in the world (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) – a world that has radically changed in North American in the last 50 years.

Among the list of characteristics they include the centrality of the gospel and the infallibility of God’s Word. Acts 29 acknowledges changes in the culture in America and being missional is one of their responses to this cultural shift.

Missional Hope
Much has been written about the post-Christian, post-Christendom, post-Modern cultural shift and missional seems in some ways to be a reaction to this shift. In some senses this is a good thing, if our culture was at one time considered primarily Christian then there would be no need for mission, but the problem with this assumption is that it assumes there was a time when the church did not need to be missional. From what many are saying about the theology of missional, the rooting of the term in the mission of God, and the nature of the church as sent people, I can’t imagine a time either in history or in the future that the church should not be missional. Missional seems to be coming into vogue in many streams of the Christian church, more than I could cover in this brief overview, and may well be discovered as one of the common Christian traditions rooted in the early centuries of the Church that unifies the body of Christ today and characterizes what some have come to call Deep Church.

While many are concerned that missional is a confusing term, or may get hi-jacked by those who really don’t buy into missional theology, or that it may get overused and lose it’s distinctiveness, I continue to hold onto the term and hope for a shift in thinking in the West and a renewal to participate in the mission of God as a constitutive practice of those who choose to follow Christ and call themselves Christians.


Entry filed under: church, faith, gospel, Missional, paradigm.

Physical Therapy AKA Pain and Torture Missional Evangelism

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tom Asbury  |  November 10, 2008 at 8:43 am

    A very solid article with some very good information to absorb. I agree with you in that language is certainly something we need to be careful with and is very important. I also agree with you that Proverbs wasn’t talking about being licked to death.

    Question: Do you see missional being defined as something else or is this the last iteration of this word? IE what will missional be called in 10 years and if we can recognize that should we be moving in that direction?

    I hope all is well with you, and keep up the good work.


  • 2. Elizabeth Chapin  |  November 10, 2008 at 10:18 am


    Great question. Some would say, “Missional is the new Evangelical!” While others consider themselves missional and evangelical, or missional and “whatever”.

    For some it will be a passing fad in terminology, for others it is a return to the heart of God’s purpose for the church to be “sent ones” as well as a recovery of what was lost in the West from the effects of the marriage of empire and faith in Christendom when there was a sense that you could be “born” into Christ just by being born into a Christian family/culture/nation.

    My hope for missional is that we will keep our focus on the one who is the source of mission and as Hirsch put it in The Shaping of Things to Come, that our Christology would inform our Missiology which would inform our Ecclesiology. If we look to the church (especially in some of it’s current forms) as the source of mission, we will easily get off track. Those who think of missional as edgy or innovative and want to slap it onto their existing ecclesiology ( ecclesiology -> missiology) may find they are ineffective in accomplishing the mission of God.

    So, ten years from now I am not so concerned with whether the terminology is intact as much as whether the terminology has changed our thinking, reorienting our churches to be mission-shaped, missional, missionary, mission-minded in an increasingly post-Christian culture in the West.

  • 3. Tom Asbury  |  November 10, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Good call. I like your thinking. I dont know where I read it, but i think the saying goes:

    We need to act our way into a new way of thinking rather than thinking our way into a new way of acting.

    Also, I saw on another posting about other blogs to link to. Feel free to throw mine out there.




  • 4. Elizabeth Chapin  |  November 10, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Tom, I visited your site and as soon as I figure out the best way to do a blog roll on my wordpress page, I will start linking to others.

  • 5. Rick Meigs  |  November 10, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Elizabeth: A truly well constructed and articulated post. You have done your research and thanks for sharing it.

    The term is being used incorrectly in many places to promote agendas, but for this very reason there needs to be voices that tweak the “purveyors of missional emptiness” with its proper meaning. It is too important of a concept to be lost. As my friend Brad wrote, these “purveyors of missional emptiness ought to be sent to theological time-out until they have repented of their dilution of the term’s terms, meanings, and methods!”

    Looking forward to further conversation on this issue.

  • 6. Another Missional Voice » The Blind Beggar  |  November 10, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    […] also blogs at Emerging Chaos and just posted an entry called “Would Missional by Any Other Name Sound So Sweet?” Recommended reading and I’ll be adding it to the Friend of Missional resource list. Drop over […]

  • 7. Jim  |  November 11, 2008 at 5:26 am

    Awesome summary of missional. I believe God is orchestrating another great movement in SBC life (stetzer, etc.). We have had a theological resurgence-now we need a missional resurgence. Why would God want us just to contend for the faith in our own huddles without contextualizing to the world around us! After all, Missio Dei is the foundation of our missional manual (the Bible), not the other way around. I know, historically for us it seems like it is the other way around and must be to know what the Missio Dei is!! But, let’s get on to the real purpose of the theological resurgence and not lose focus in our discussions of election and eschatology and learn how to do evangelism in a postmodern context-sent and sending!

  • 8. brad  |  November 11, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    I found out about your post from Rick Meigs’ blog and it took a couple visits before I finished getting through this great post! Thanks for the immense amount of work you put into it, Elizabeth. I especially appreciate your focus on language … and not just because my training is in linguistics.

    Words really do matter, as you noted. And if we view world cultures as both forming and dispersing around languages at Babel, I think we can gain insight into the problem with “missional.” When we talk about “missional,” actually, we’re often attempting to communicate cross-culturally to others of the same language but different culture and lingo. It’s a struggle, as is any cross-cultural attempt at clarifying what we do and don’t mean. Even the favorite source of Wikipedia typically has a “disambiguation” section for words and phrases that seem alike but have quite different meanings.

    And linguistics may even matter in “deep church,” which seems to have much in common with the concept of “deep structure” from the linguistic theory of “generative grammar,” with the various transformations that deep structure can undergo on its way to the surface. (Now that would make an interesting academic-theory-meets-theology article!)

    Anyway, lots to reflect on here. Thanks again for your efforts in bringing this perspective to light.

    P.S. And may I just say that I appreciated your fun and correct use of the future subjunctive: “If I WERE to do a PhD on the subject…”? 🙂

  • 9. Elizabeth Chapin  |  November 12, 2008 at 8:49 am


    I appreciate how you say, “Missio Dei is the foundation of our missional manual (the Bible), not the other way around.” It’s great to hear that you see God moving in the SBC. Sometimes I have my doubts about how much God is moving in the West as it seems so imperceptible at time, but then I hear stories and meet people and continue to hope. Thanks for stopping by to read and share your thoughts.


    I’m glad you kept coming back long enough to appreciate my usage of the future subjunctive. 😉 I am interested in words, but I am not a linguist nor did I study English formally. I got my undergrad degree in Communication. I do like your idea about an “academic-theory-meets-theology article” on “deep church” and “deep structure” – please let me know when you write it! I visited your blog an noticed it might take me a few visits to get through some of your articles as well – interesting stuff and worth reading.

    Thanks for commenting and adding your insights on the language of missional.

  • 10. brad  |  November 12, 2008 at 8:58 am

    Hi Elizabeth. Takes me a few visits to get through some of my posts too!

    Will look forward to coming back to ’emerging chaos’ to read more of your thoughts on missional and etc.

    Thanks for adding your voice to the missional/emerging chorus …

  • 11. Sam Shultz  |  November 12, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    I’ve been frequenting the Blind Beggar’s site and found your very interesting discussion about things Missional and was excited to see you have been reading some of the things I’m reading these days. It’s nice to hear discussion on these subjects outside of my own head and my own context.

    I am currently serving a church that is over 120 years old. Now, four years into the process, we are only beginning to discuss things missional (without using the word). When I read Hirsch’s work and blogs discussing missional and incarnational principles, I always find myself asking, “but how does this translate into the context of churches with the majority of its people aged 55-102 (Helen is having a birthday!)?

    What I’m finding is that the people who relate best to things “Missional” are usually under the age of 50. When you flip that age group (though I do have some others my age at our church-I’m 29), what affect does this have on missional principles? How do you communicate and convey these principles and teach it to a group of people who haven’t known what it means to be the church for too long? What advice would you give for those of us in the trenches that are trying very hard to swing the paradigm toward a missional approach with a group that doesn’t even know the concept exists?



  • 12. Elizabeth Chapin  |  November 12, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    The Blind Beggar is a great resource and I’m honored that he linked here so I could have the opportunity to converse with more people interested in the mission of the church. I understand your concern and your frustration especially as your context leaves you stuck in the middle of this cultural shift. I think it helps with the older folks if we talk less about the cultural shift and use some of the terminology they are comfortable with as we engage them in missional ways. It sounds like you are already avoiding using too much emerging church lingo. Todd Hunter has been very good at bridging this gap with older folks – I have been working with him at his Conversational Evangelism conferences this year – the last one is this weekend (http://conversationalevangelism.net/) though I think he does speak at churches all over the country as well.

    Todd has a new book coming out in early 2009 called “A Christianity Beyond Belief” that may be helpful for you to go through with your congregation. You can find out more about what Todd Hunter is doing at http://www.3isenough.org/.

    As a younger person you have a challenge. Your mindset is very different because of the rapid change we are experiencing during this cultural shift, but just as we can hope that older people can learn to cross cultural barriers to reach younger people, so too we can expect the spirit to empower younger people to cross cultural barriers of age to minister to older people. As Paul, we must learn to become all things to all people for the sake of the gospel.

    If you have some older people who have been involved in any kind of mission work, they would also be great allies. As Hirsch notes in The Forgotten Ways, missional is based on some of the same principles as foreign mission.

    I wish you best of luck and am willing to continue this conversation as needed. I do not propose to have many answers, but I am glad to share whatever help and hope I can.


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