The MEANING of MISSIONAL, Is it about style or substance?

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I was at a pretty inspirational day long meeting with some other Nazarene pastors thinking about our church, church planting and mission. Two leaders of church planting movements in Scotland told us their stories, which were great to hear. I do just have one reflection on the day however, the continuing ambiguity that there is around the word ‘MISSIONAL” There was no doubt the number one used word was the “M” word but I am not sure we all meant the same thing when we read it. So for instance the leader of one of the “streams’ of churches I think from what he said regards the prime purpose of all mission being evangelism and that church planting is primarily done through the planting of church services to which people are attracted. Now let me be clear, there is nothing I want to criticise about that position, it is one valid theological position on nature and means of mission. HOWEVER it is not the understanding of the relationship between missiology and ecclesiology that the term MISSIONAL was coined to express. Missional does not meant being anything from a bit more intentional about evangelism to being “uber” committed to evangelism. All of this reminded me of a blog post I wrote last year so I thought I would reproduce most of it, just to try and get out there again what the essence of what it means to be missional is all about.

“<

strong>I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

It seems to me that there are many Humpty Dumpty’s in the church when it comes to “missional.” They have decided that they will choose what missional means rather than allow the word to take on the theological meaning which it was developed to express. “Missional” was a concept that came to summarise certain specific ways to understand the nature of mission and the nature of the relationship between missiology and ecclesiology.

I don’t know if Australian missiologist and church leader Mike Frost has ever read Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” but in his latest book ‘The Road To Missional” it seems pretty clear that Frost’s motivation to putting laser jet to paper is his frustration, dismay and even anger, that the whole concept of what being “missional” is about, is being altered, in ways which significantly diminish its meaning and implications for the church.

I think Mike has every right to take a stand on this issue has been one of the key voices in what has been described as the “missional conversation” out which the whole concept developed and has been honed. Personally I first came across the “M” word about six years ago when I was doing doctoral research in the field of ecclesiology. It was an ecclesiastical “geeky” word back then whose use was mainly confined to academic circles in debates about the nature of, and relationship between, church and mission. How things have changed in the last 6 years or so! The missional word has now become ubiquitous in the evangelical world. My personalised “Amazon recommendations” flash up new books which include the word “missional” in their title or press release almost every day. There is no escaping the word these days. Missional is “hip” in the contemporary evangelical pulpit, book shelf and conference circuit which means that it is in danger of going the way of all things hip and becoming like a piece of clothing at TJ MAXX, last’s year’s fashion.

Over the period I have been reading seriously in this area of missiology and ecclesiology I have noticed a definite shift in how the “M” word is used. At the risk of over generalising what has been happening, I would say that there has been a shift in the meaning of the concept of Missional from substance to style. I would expand that further by saying that “missional” originally was rooted in the debate about what it means to be the church and its relationship to mission but now the meaning all too often has been reduced to what the church does and the style it does it in. As I said in my view no one is better placed to help clarify what “missional” is all about than Mike Frost. A key event for me, and for many others, in my thinking about the church was reading “The Shaping of Things To Come” which Mike co-authored with fellow aussie subversive Alan Hirsch. After years of frustration, trying to find some new new strategy or programme that would enable the church I led to make an impact in my context in Post Christendom Europe I had an almost “damascus road” experience reading that book. Frost and Hirsch helped me to realise that the key problem was primarily theological rather than pragmatic. They argued that we had to rethink and reexpress the nature of the church not simply tweak its programme a bit. The “Shaping of Things To Come” was one of the catalysts for the contemporary debate about church and mission and Mike Frost has continued to be a key voice in that conversation. His writing, teaching and speaking and lets not forget his work helping to lead a missional community in Sydney has earned him the right to have his voice heard in the contemporary missional debate and this book is him taking the opportunity to do just that.

I think many people have now become a bit jaded when it comes to the word Missional. So much has been published and so many events organised around the theme there is the danger now that we subconsciously turn off and tune out whenever we see it or hear it, thinking we have heard it all before. That’s why its important to say that “The Road to Missional” is not just another cynical attempt by some author to jump on the latest christian publishing band wagon. It is instead an important contribution by a key figure on a vital debate, the debate about the meaning of what it means be “missional” and so well worth your hard earned pennies or that Christmas Amazon voucher you may receive next month.

This whole concept and debate about what it means to be missional is personally very important to me. For the last five years I have read seriously in this area and more importantly have tried to be part of a new community which seeks to embody what it means to be missional in our context. Our commitment to being missional has received a lot of implied and overt criticism from others in the church. We have received criticism for among other things for not being evangelistic enough, for not taking preaching seriously enough, for not growing quickly enough for “not making the main thing, the main thing” that is for not having a big emphasis on the Sunday service. Now I am the first to admit that any church community partly led by me will be less than perfect and some of this criticism must be valid but I am equally convinced that much of it is motivated by an ignorance of the concept of missionality (did I invent a new word there?) which underlies our practice of being God’s people. Yet ironically I have heard some of the voices which have criticised us for trying to be missional in our expression of church now using the very same word to describe their activities as a church. It feels to me that the “M” word has been hijacked and watered down until just about any church now feels free to use it to describe some vague aspiration they have to reach out. Someone recently spoke about a church which said it was having “missional lightning” installed!

I want to end with two quotes from Mike Frost which I think get to the heart of what being missional means and why what it means matters. One of the quotes explains his current frustration over the use of the word and the second expresses why he is still committed to it and both of which express more eloquently and cogently my thoughts and feelings on the subject than I could myself.

My call and the call of many other missional thinkers and practitioners was not for a new way of doing church or a new technique for church growth. I thought I was calling the church to a revolution, to a whole new way of thinking and seeing and being followers of Jesus today. I now find myself in a place where I fear those robust and excited calls for a radical transformation of our ecclesiology have largely fallen on deaf ears” p16

“Missional leaders can’t see changing the church as central to their cause, they want to change the whole world. We have been swept up into a new awareness of the Missio Dei, the unstoppable programme of God’s unfurling Kingdom on earth and we can’t even conceive of how to control it, package or franchise it. One cannot be infected by this wonderful life giving virus and remain content with church business as usual” p 21 (AMEN! sorry couldn’t control myself)

SOME QUESTIONS

When did you first hear the word “missional?”
What did you think it meant?
Do you think the word has changed in meaning in popular usage over the last couple of years?
Mike says that becoming “missional” will entail a revolution in how we understand what it means to be church and how we exist as church, do you see any evidence of that revolution happening in the community you belong to?
What does it mean to you to be infected by the “missional virus”

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