It has become increasingly difficult to open a ministry book or attend a church conference and not be accosted by the word missional. A quick search on Google uncovers the presence of “missional communities,” “missional leaders,” “missional worship,” even “missional seating,” and “missional coffee.” Today, everyone wants to be missional. Can you think of a single pastor who is proudly anti-missional?
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. Is it simply updated nomenclature for being purpose-driven or seeker-sensitive? Is missional a new, more mature strain of the emerging church movement?
It’s time to pause and consider the origin and meaning of the word that is reframing our understanding of ministry and the church. See the “tree diagram” to understand the development of the idea. This tree diagrams the roots of the word missional and how its reach has expanded into different areas of ministry. Alan Hirsch, a self-described “missional activist,” also provides a concise definition of the ubiquitous term.
There are consequences when the meanings of words become confused. This is particularly true within a biblical worldview. The Hebrews were suspicious of images as conveyors of truth, so they guarded words and their meanings carefully. Part of theology, therefore, includes guarding the meaning of words to maintain truth within the community of faith.
This is why I am concerned about the confusion surrounding the meaning of the word missional. 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.
First, let me say what missional does not mean. Missional is not synonymous with emerging. The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. Missional is also not the same as evangelistic or seeker-sensitive. These terms generally apply to the attractional model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God’s agent in the world, but we should not confuse this with the whole.
A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one” who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”
Many churches have mission statements or talk about the importance of mission, but where truly missional churches differ is in their posture toward the world. A missional community sees the mission as both its originating impulse and its organizing principle. A missional community is patterned after what God has done in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation God sent his Son. Similarly, to be missional means to be sent into the world; we do not expect people to come to us. This posture differentiates a missional church from an attractional church.
The attractional model, which has dominated the church in the West, seeks to reach out to the culture and draw people into the church—what I call outreach and in-grab. But this model only works where no significant cultural shift is required when moving from outside to inside the church. And as Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, the attractional model has lost its effectiveness. The West looks more like a cross-cultural missionary context in which attractional church models are self-defeating. The process of extracting people from the culture and assimilating them into the church diminishes their ability to speak to those outside. People cease to be missional and instead leave that work to the clergy.
A missional theology is not content with mission being a church-based work. Rather, it applies to the whole life of every believer. Every disciple is to be an agent of the kingdom of God, and every disciple is to carry the mission of God into every sphere of life. We are all missionaries sent into a non-Christian culture.
Missional represents a significant shift in the way we think about the church. As the people of a missionary God, we ought to engage the world the same way he does—by going out rather than just reaching out. To obstruct this movement is to block God’s purposes in and through his people. When the church is in mission, it is the true church.
Alan Hirsch is a missional activist and the author of The Forgotten Ways.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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