I have previously suggested that “missional” is like Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:23: It is all things to all men. I have previously linked to Ed Stetzer speaking of missional as a Rorshach Inkblot test: What you see in it depends on what’s going on in that little brain of yours. So, when we hear the word missional, we need to ask, “What do you mean by that?”
A conversation over the weekend sparked some additional thinking about the way that people use the word missional. I want to briefly address that this morning.
I would suggest that there is a spectrum of meaning of missional with two broad categories of use (with a lot of subcategories). The first is the popular usage. The second is the historical or original sense. I think we need to be careful to distinguish these two.
The popular usage is similar to a buzzword usage. People don’t really understand it’s historical underpinnings, or what it means to those “in the know.” But they see someone they like using it, or they hear someone making the rounds on the conference circuit use it, so they adopt it. For these, much of what’s in missional is simply common sense ministry.
For instance, just today Steve Davis (whom I don’t put in the category of buzzword user) highlights the idea of being out among people as the means of getting to know people because you need people to whom you proclaim the gospel in order to do the work of an evangelist and build the church. I like it. I think it’s absolutely necessary for ministry. I think it’s where many pastors are weak, myself included.
In this sense, missional means something like “be a Christian all the time, not just on Sundays and remember our ultimate priority with people is to evangelize people with the gospel.” When we help people with a car breakdown or raking leaves or when we are sitting on the porch talking or mingling at a community event, we are to do it with the gospel in mind, ultimately realizing that this person’s greatest need is a Savior.
I don’t think that is particularly cutting edge. It’s not exactly ground-breaking like inventing electricity or even inventing the internet. I think it’s actually pretty straightforward NT thinking. It’s what believers are supposed to do.
It is missional only in the sense that people are being “sent out” away from the church gathered to live in their communities with a gospel mindset. It is the opposite of cloistering or ghetto-ing ourselves. We withdraw from the world only on Sundays for worship, and return to the world to live, work, serve, and evangelize for the other 167 hours or so. The church and the gospel is a way of life, not a Sunday morning diversion from life. The gospel is always to be front and center for us even away from the church gathered.
But that’s not new. It’s “rediscovery” is perhaps a testament to just how far the church has gotten from being biblical. It is, in one sense, an intentional condemnation of the seeker-church mentality that the way to evangelize is to invite people to some event (which missional people highly object to, even when they practice it).
I appreciate the emphasis of Steve’s article. I think one of the primary issues, particularly for pastors, is the priority of being around people who need to be evangelized. I am constantly thinking of my own need to be “out there” with people.
But I don’t think, historically, that’s what missional meant to many because it too closely ties proclamation to social consciousness. And here lies the other usage of missional. It is the academic/theoretical/philosophical use of missional. (Notice the absence of “theological” or “biblical.”) Much of what’s packed into this use of missional is little different than old theological liberalism that devalued or denied doctrine and gospel proclamation while emphasizing social issues. It’s the kind of missional that Brian McLaren is, alongside of everything else he is. People who use the term in this way object to the popular usage because they believe it corrupts the essence of missional by distorting the real meaning.
Many of these proponents believe that mission is God at work building his kingdom completely apart from proclamation and largely apart from the church. Repairing social structures, eradicating poverty, and fighting for equality is the mission because the Kingdom of God surely has no such problems in it. It does not require the church. When the church does get “on mission,” it is merely finding what God is already doing in the world and joining him in it. For these, I think the mindset is that God is at work in the world, and if the church happens to be involved in it or built along the way, all the better. But the church is tangential, at best.
I think this is severely faulty, irredeemably incorrect, and indeed a false gospel—a false good news.
Many missional people (of the popular use) today would either completely disavow or strongly challenge this second view of missional. I am pretty sure Steve would dissociate himself from this. He rightly emphasizes the priority or the ultimate aim of proclamation. This is the position of someone like Keller as well.
The fact is that you haven’t preached the gospel until you have preached the gospel. All the good things in the world won’t take the place of telling people, “You are a great sinner in need of a great Savior,” and then explaining that the only suitable Savior is Jesus Christ. But many object to that, or at least do not see it as necessary. In so doing, they have denied the gospel, and this is a problem at the heart of some missional people. It’s why missional can be dangerous.
I think there is some helpfulness in the popular idea of missional.I think the other usage is mostly bankrupt.
I think there are some interesting questions to address on several facets. Here’s just a sample:
- What aspects of missional should we or can we embrace?
- How do we determine what biblical living looks like in our respective communities?
- How can we establish contacts and relationships in the community with the gospel in mind?
- How can mercy ministries be carried out inside the bounds of biblical instruction and the mandate of the church?
- What kind of missional ministries can we partner with to one degree or another? When has someone “crossed the line”?