Is Missional a Word?

Is Missional Really a Word?

Skeptics of the missional church movement often begin with an easy jab: Is “missional” even a word?

Short Answer: Yes

“Missional” is simply an adjective constructed with the word “mission” (purpose, intended task) and the suffix “-al” (related to).

It’s a similar construction to words like “pastoral”, which describes something done that’s related to the work of a pastor or shepherd. Fictional, fraternal, magical, formal, cynical, and scriptural are other examples of this type of form, and there are many others, often formed with latin or greek roots.

This is a fairly young word, but it follows a very established pattern of word formation. Furthermore, it easily meets the criteria of having found a niche of usage that has been accepted in both the academy and in popular usage. Publishers are churning out relevant works at a brisk pace, and it has simply become a part of the working vocabulary of theologians.

If your computer still attempts to deny you usage of the word by underlining it with the dreaded red squiggles of spellchecking shame, you should absolutely feel free to instruct your machine to “learn spelling” and move forward with the confidence that missional is, in fact, a perfectly legitimate word.

“Missional” Ambiguity

However, just because we can feel comfortable proclaiming “missional” a legimate word does not mean that it easily provides clarity. There are two major reasons that this young word remains ambiguous. The first is the flexibility of the word “mission”, which reflects variety of tones in different contexts. For instance, it can mean a purpose that is assigned to a person by another, or one that is self-imposed. It can denote the collective purpose of a large corporate entity, thus reflecting an aspirational unity, or it can be used to emphasize an individual’s drive to accomplish a purpose—a person can pursue a task in a ho-hum manner, but pursuing a mission reflects more passion and zeal.

But specifically, in the Christian church there is a multiplicity of understandings of mission. Some take the word to reflect the effort to make converts of other religions or the non-religious, while others view mission more holistically. In these conditions, “missional” refers to different things to different people. How could it be otherwise? Who is to provide the exhaustive definition of mission?

While the term may have usefulness as a language construct referring simply to anything pertaining to any understanding of mission, it is most useful as a shorthand for the fruits of that particular stream of conversation growing from the works of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, most particularly Missional Church: A Vision For the Sending of the Church in North America by Darrell Guder and others.1 That work is itself an outworking of several ideas in the work of Leslie Newbigin, David Bosch, and other missiologists.2 It has been a springboard for many other voices to join the conversation, while the conversation has forked many times in the last twenty years, it is a seminal text with enough clout to be a common reference point.

In other words, missional is a significant term because it can situate a thought or idea in the context of the particular conversation begun with Guder and friends, with its array of accumulated questions, assumptions, and focal points. In my view, this conversation includes:

  • a focus on the nature of God as being related to a mission,
  • exploration of the life-giving reign of God as a category for understanding Gods mission,
  • a sociological observation about the decline of Christendom in North America, and
  • a creative exploration of what kinds of practices lead the church to engage Gods mission given the current cultural moment.

However, though I think referring to this particular conversation is the most useful way to employ “missional”, the conversation has other branches as well, and while some of these are testing the boundaries of what we might consider “missional”, the word still needs a few decades of usage before any kind of consensus will have time to organically take hold.

Thus, it is useful for now for writers and speakers using the word to provide at least enough contextual clues for those receiving the language to locate the thoughts and practices they are describing in the particular stream of conversation they intend to join and extend. Make it clear how you understand mission. Make it clear why what you’re talking about is in the world of missional. Don’t assume.

On the other hand, readers and hearers should vigilantly discern the way “missional” is being used in the particular contexts they are receiving the word in as well. Is it being used in an academic sense, being tied to the conversation flowing from Guder and friends? Is it meant as a part of a particular understanding of the mission of God, or is it simply denoting an outwardly focused set of church practices?

Bottom line: yes, missional is a real word, and you should go ahead and feel free to use it in your writings, sermons, conversations, and social media posts. Be aware of the possible ambiguities that exist, and do your part to help provide clarity by providing the appropriate context whenever you can. Extend the conversation—and try not to muddle it.

  1. Darrell Guder et al, 1998.
  2. The outlining of this pedigree in The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation by Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile (2011) has been a great help to me.

Thirst

I don’t know why the grocery was crowded,
densely packed with bodies,
jammed together like the potatoes in their bin.

There were too many carts to move through,
so I stood still in the traffic like a commuter
trying to make it back to the suburbs
like everybody else.

It gave me time to look down the aisles
that I didn’t want to travel,
to wonder at the magnificent array
A hundred soups. A thousand cereals.
A million choices.

The flood of drinks overwhelmed me most,
a whole aisle to themselves,
without counting the booze.
Ninety feet of alternatives
for people thirsting for more than water.

People thirst for more and more,
sweet, bitter, sour, savory,
flavors by the dozens,
berry, leaf and root,
bottled in the by-products of oil,
which was a by-product of life long ago
and time,
which separates us now from
the age when what we craved most
was water.

Water,
piped to our homes,
chilled or iced or heated like magic,
evoking envy in all the lifeless planets,
its plenty essential to the flourishing of our age,
a marvel our ancestors could not imagine,

Yet still not good enough for us.

Pride and Fall

The Setup

For the Jews to whom Daniel was written, the Exile was the grief of griefs. Babylon swept in to Judah like a flood, drowning any sense of their ability to defend themselves and shattering any illusion of safety that Judah clung to. Nebuchadnezzar’s troops dismantled the city, robbed the temple, and stole every last ounce of pride that they could find. What they left behind was a deeply broken people.

The pain of the moment was so severe that it created generational trauma, passed down from parent to child, and eventually to grandchildren. The devastating impact reverberated through decades, and created a fundamental challenge to their self-understanding and their identity as God’s people.

As is often the case, such pain carried with it terrible bitterness—much of it deserved—towards those who had been the agents of death and chaos. The babylonians were the villains of the story, and Nebuchadnezzar was their king.

The book of Daniel is written with the backdrop of all that pain. All of the suffering which didn’t need to be spelled out is captured by the short prologue to the book, which simply says :

“In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.” (Daniel 1:1–2 NRSV)

Daniel then begins by with a story about what it means to survive in such an empire without losing your head or your heart, a story of savvy subversion in which Daniel gets his foot in the door as the interpreter of the visions the pagan king has but cannot understand, and a tale about what it means to worship God alone, even when threatened by a king who worships himself.

The Story

Whether in a courthouse scene or in the life of faith, it is always dramatic when an odd character all of a sudden emerges to give incredible testimony. In Daniel 4, the crazy twist is that the person giving the testimony of the greatness of Israel’s God is Israel’s greatest Enemy!

The story opens with Nebuchadnezzar receiving a terrifying dream, and desperately searching for its meaning. He recounts the dream to Daniel, hoping he will interpret it:

“Upon my bed this is what I saw;
there was a tree at the center of the earth,
and its height was great.
The tree grew great and strong,
its top reached to heaven,
and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.
Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant,
and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it,
the birds of the air nested in its branches,
and from it all living beings were fed.”1

Note that the image here is not only of the emperor’s power, but of the capacity of that power to bring the flourishing of life. Of course we know that imperial power also holds a capacity for great harm, and such was the experience of the Jews at the hands of the Babylonians.

At any rate, the dream moves on, and regardless of how the emperor was going to use his power, he finds that it is to be taken from him, as a watcher comes and proclaims: “Cut down the tree and chop off its branches, strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit…”2 The poetic proclamation of judgment goes on to tell of the dehumanization of Nebuchadnezzar, who is going to revert to an animal state for a while.3 Far from being purposeless suffering, though, this is all with a particular intent: that “all who live” would know the sovereignty of God, and that God gives power “to whom he will”, and gives it to even the lowliest of human beings.”

Daniel, understanding the dream, reacts surprisingly: he was “severely distressed for a while”, and “his thoughts terrified him”. The shocking truth is that this story evokes empathy for Nebuchadnezzar. While one would expect an exiled Jew to be elated that the oppressor would be humiliated, in this story the news distresses Daniel—and the story is designed to evoke that same empathy in the reader as well.

The Surprise

However, the story isn’t done messing with its readers yet—and the biggest surprise is how it concludes. after his dehumanization, the narrative actually takes on Nebuchadnezzar’s voice.

When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever.

For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does what he wills with the host of heaven
and the inhabitants of the earth.
There is no one who can stay his hand
or say to him, “What are you doing?”4

Nebuchadnezzar, the arrogant oppressor of God’s people, comes to repent and acknowledge God’s sovereignty. The shocking message: Even Nebuchadnezzar can change.

The Old Testament is full of the enemies of God’s people, but the most powerfully oppressive empires were Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon5. Get this: the Hebrew Bible contains a story where each of them comes to their senses and acknowledges the rule of Israel’s God. In each, God uses an unlikely and humiliated spokesperson—Moses, Jonah, and Daniel—to call the king to acknowledge God.

In this story, the great villain of the history of Israel—Nebuchadnezzar—ends up worshipping God!

And you think your neighbor is beyond redemption?

Perhaps you’ve thought that you are?

  1. Daniel 4:10-12, NRSV
  2. Daniel 4:14, NRSV
  3. It’s interesting to read this story in conversation with the Genesis account fo the creation of humanity—perhaps Nebuchadnezzar represents not just imperial power, but humanity in their calling to have dominion on the earth for the sake of creation’s flourishing. But that’s a blog for another day.
  4. Daniel 4:34–35, NRSV.
  5. The scriptures treat Persia with discretion and the resistance to Persian imperial power is written much more subtly into the text than the outright laments over the destruction wrought be the other three.

Faith: The Engine of God’s Creative Redemption

Incarnation and Imitation

The incarnation revealed what is possible when a human moves in God’s will, and by God’s power. In Jesus, God acted, but also demonstrated what human action in the name of God looks like. “For I have set you an example,”Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you”. Yes, this line’s context (John 13:15) is somewhat particular to his servant gesture of foot-washing, but the following discourse makes clear that this practice is barely the tip of the iceberg. Everything Jesus does and says is a demonstration of God’s work and will in the world, and the disciples are being invited to share in that way of being in the world. The point of the incarnation is to say, “This is what happens when divine action/being meets human action/being.”

Moments later, Jesus expresses to his disciples that they have perceived God’s will as revealed through Jesus’s words and actions, and have even had their status before God changed because of it: “The servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Jesus is revealing God’s will and work, and then inviting them to join into that same will and work, becoming fruitful by honoring his command to “love one another as I have loved you.” God is at work among humanity in the human form of Jesus, so that humanity might be able to learn how to work on behalf of God in the world.

What’s Faith Got To Do With It?

This is all well and good as a bunch of theological talk, but is still missing a critical piece: faith. This all occurs in its context in a crisis moment, and the disciples will forget their loyalty to Jesus before we can scarcely turn the page on the conversation. However, before their abandonment, we get a preview of what will come to pass after the resurrection. It is yet to be tested by the crucible yet, but we get a taste of the faith that will be solidified when the disciples witness his defeat of death. In John 16:30 we read the climatic confession, “we believe that you came from God”. That curiously-worded affirmation of faith is more central to John’s gospel than is easily recognized.

“We believe that you came from God” sounds like a basic thing to affirm about Jesus, but for John’s gospel it is the critical point. Everything up until chapter 12 has been constructed to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the one sent from God. It’s a theme hiding in plain sight, captured in language like being “from God” or “from heaven”, or in Jesus’s talk about being “sent”. The fascinating turn of the fourth gospel is that it takes this basic affirmation of Jesus’s origin and uses it to launch the mission of the disciples. Just as the father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples (20:21), and when they are doing the will of God, they have access to the same divine power that Jesus put on display. What’s the connection between what Jesus did and what the sent disciples will do? Their faith.

In coming to believe that Jesus is from God, the disciples also come to believe his invitation to share in his divinely originating power and mission. They too become “from God” because now they are “from Jesus”. John tipped his hand early on that this was God’s work in Jesus: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) In the wake of the resurrection, the disciples can truly become brothers of Jesus, sharing the same Father and God (20:17).

The Victory of Faith

There’s an old church song, “Faith is the Victory” which draws its language from 1 John 5:4-5: “…this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The song implies that the victory is one that we, Christ’s disciples win over our enemies. However, the greater truth is that it is Jesus who becomes victorious over his enemies because of our faith. See, we may not have noticed the connection between this text andJohn 16:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”. Notice how the announcement is peculiarly located—Jesus proclaims his victory before the events of either the cross or the empty tomb. What has happened at this point that evokes this claim? It is the confession of faith from the disciples—this constitutes Jesus’s victory over the world!

Now that they believe—or perhaps better, now that they are coming to believe—Jesus has won a foothold in the world. God’s work will continue. The gospel embodied in him will be embodied in his disciples who now participate in his mission. Jesus, the Sent One, will become the sender, and the faith of his disciples will become a gateway for the power of God to work goodness in the world.

Our faith is much more powerful than we know. It is not just a vehicle for our comfort or empowerment. It is a vehicle for divine action. It is the connection point at which God’s people become partners by God’s Spirit, agents of God’s creative agenda in the world. Faith is the engine translating God’s will into human action and the restoration of God’s creation.

It is easy to underestimate our faith. I often perceive mine to be quite a weak thing—apparently much smaller than even a mustard seed. But in the hands of Jesus, even our broken faith creates enormous possibilities, and becomes a tool in God’s mission.

(If you would like to walk through a study of the “Sent” theme in John, consider the following texts in their context: 1:12-13, 3:2, 3:13, 3:17, 3:31-34, 4:34, 5:23-24, 5:36-38, 6:33, 6:46, 6:57, 7:27-29, 8:14-16, 8:23-26, 8:42, 9:4, 9:29-33, 10:36, 11:27, 12:44-45, 13:3, 14:24, 15:21, 16:27-30, 17:8, 18:36-37, 19:9, 20:21. This list is not exhaustive, and perhaps the better approach is to simply take a highlighter to a fresh copy of the gospel and mark each time the theme shows up. I assure you, you will not have to travel long between occurrences! I would love to say that the theme is plainly stated in literally every chapter of John, but alas, chapter 2 only yields 2:9, which I hold to be playful language on the theme—but I’ll let you decide for yourself. )

Public Virtue

 

Daily, public figures reveal their lack of basic human decency. This shame of our age displays itself constantly through the hour-long news cycle, with a sexual assault by an actor revealed at noon just before a politician’s unethical exploits hits the wire at 1:00, to be followed by shady dealings of the media itself in the 2:00 hour. Later that day we’ll find the failings of a sports star deliciously paired with the current faux pas of a B- list producer. By the evening, boorish comments from a social media star will begin to register, and there is sure to be some backlash. The evening will certainly bring troubled news from a corporation whose PR machine can’t keep the wrong story out of the news.

A portion of the deluge can be chalked up to the purveyors of news, whose responsibility to fill the networks’ time slots with controversy must impose a heavy burden. This week, I was at the gym on the stationary bike, and thus subjected to the cable news networks dueling stories. CNN and Fox News were competing for my attention with ticker crawls proclaiming “Fashion becomes Political”, and “Twitter Comments Spark Outrage”. They can’t churn out enough real news to pay the bills. I couldn’t pedal fast enough to escape.

There is more to the story than the coverage, though—the exhibits of bad character littered thought the public square are simply what happens when people who neglect character formation remain on display for longer than they can maintain the façade. Of course, few of them were given status because of their character in the first place. We give people fame and power in exchange for a very narrow set of skills (or because they have risen through serendipitous circumstances), and are surprised that such persons fail in tests of character. This surprise is perhaps the most hopeful part of the equation—perhaps something survives within us that truly does desire to see goodness from people.

And yet character formation remains neglected, not only by the famous folk, but by most people. Too few people have mentors helping them develop character, too few have practices that cultivate virtue and which restrain our vices. Humanity seems to recognize the importance of character, but to ignore the paths that lead to its formation.

This, too, makes me believe in the critical mission of the church.