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.