Words are funny (funny in the strange sense, not necessarily in the humorous sense – though they can also be funny that way, which underscores that words are, indeed, funny). Some words have been around for a long time and have very clear meanings. Others pop up and only last for a short while but seem to take over the world. Then there are words that seem to be silly concoctions at first, but they forge themselves as powerful descriptors that shape our thinking about things. Interestingly, one never knows which path a word will take when it first enters our collective vocabulary.
Among the many words in our world, there are certain words that are unique to the church. Some of these words have served the church well for a long time. Others come and go, adding more confusion than value. Simply being new to the church doesn’t make a word good or bad; it takes time to determine if it will serve us well or not. One of those new words in the church that has yet to prove itself is the word ‘missional.’ Like many new words, the word ‘missional’ has not yet found a common meaning or use. Although it’s used frequently and in many contexts, ‘missional’ means different things to different people. Of course, this can lead to considerable confusion – confusion that isn’t easily cleared up by consulting the dictionary because the word ‘missional’ can’t be found in one. How should we understand ‘missional’? What does this word mean?
In the first place, the root of the word ‘missional’ is the word mission. Mission is derived from the Latin word missio, which has the core meaning of being sent. Most of the people who use the word ‘missional’ in the church link it more specifically to missio Dei – “the mission of God” (or “the sending of God”). The specific mission of God identified by missio Dei is that of bringing the redemptive work of Jesus to the world through the faithful witness of His people. With this as its basis, the word ‘missional’ describes the attitudes, perspectives, and activities that reflect the calling we have as God’s people sent by Him into the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.
A second important attribute of the word ‘missional’ is that it’s an adjective. As an adjective, ‘missional’ is paired with and describes nouns. Interestingly, in these pairings the world ‘missional’ tends to take on shades of meaning that range from beneficial to destructive. Three of the most common pairings (‘missional church,’ ‘missional living,’ and ‘missional community’) demonstrate this fluid nature of the word ‘missional’ – and how it can be both beneficial to and dangerous for us as we seek to be faithful in our roles in the mission Dei.
It’s important to note that there are no authoritative definitions of the word ‘missional’ in these pairings, but that the following observations reflect the emerging use and understanding of the word in these contexts:
When used to describe a congregation or church body, ‘missional’ expresses that the church is focused on the missio Dei in its ministries. A ‘missional church’ recognizes that it is called to reach out into its community to connect with people outside of the church in order to bring them the Good News of Jesus. Without reference to how a church goes about doing so, a ‘missional church’ is outreach-oriented and committed to carrying out the Great Commission.
‘Missional living’ refers to a lifestyle of individual Christians or small clusters of Christians that is centered in being a witness of Jesus Christ in one’s everyday life. A believer who embraces ‘missional living’ is committed to sharing the love, joy, and peace of Jesus through relationships. These relationships include those that already exist through work, school, community involvement, family connections, etc. ‘Missional living’ may also include developing new relationships, especially through serving others, in order to create new opportunities to share the Gospel with people.
Of the ‘missional’ pairings, ‘missional community’ has the widest range of meanings. Some, like author Darrell Gruder (who is credited by some with coining the term ‘missional’), explain ‘missional community’ in terms of a local congregation embracing the idea that it has been sent by God into the world and, in response, extends its work by engaging the cultures and subcultures of its community. Others speak about ‘missional community’ as though it is the latest development in small group ministry. Still others promote ‘missional community’ as a small collective of believers (and even nonbelievers) being the presence of Jesus in the community primarily through works of mercy and intentionally avoiding evangelism. It’s not hard to see how these diverse understandings of ‘missional community’ can lead to a lot of confusion (along with heated debate and accusations) in a discussion about being ‘missional.’
Is the word ‘missional’ a word that will remain with us and be beneficial in shaping our thinking about mission and ministry? Or is it a fad word that will be looked back on as a silly concoction that had its moment in our vocabulary before giving way to the next new and exciting word in the church? Time will tell. For now, we have this word to wrestle with. More importantly, we have the challenge to better understand our role as Christ’s witnesses in our everyday lives and to respond to the great need for the Gospel in our dying world as Christ’s church in this place and at this time. If the word ‘missional’ moves us to better serve Christ and our neighbor through a renewed devotion to living out the Gospel and a renewed commitment to answer our call to proclaim it, then it is serving us well – even if it is a funny word.