The word means missionary

There is no rear-vision mirror in a pre-Christian society – only a front windscreen. The starting point in evangelism is very different.

In a post-Christian society, the church calls on its government to address lapses in moral legislation or inadequate care for the poor. Churches see themselves as political prophets provoking the conscience of a nation . . . In a pre-Christian world, the approach is different. We cannot talk about gaining back that which we never had . . .

The beauty of the buzz word, our culture’s love affair with lingo, and the transitory nature of language cause us to stop from time to time and wonder what it all really means! The word missional is being used more and more in contemporary church. What does it mean to be missional? Is it something new? How well do we really understand it? Might it already need demythologising?

We hear the word missional employed in various ways. Some use it to describe a new movement of the Holy Spirit evidenced by innovative kinds of communities or churches. Others use it to demarcate different aspects of the gospel. Some juxtapose missional churches against historical or inherited forms of Christian expression, often in pejorative ways. For instance, I’ve heard it suggested that every church falls into one of three categories: historical, contemporary/seeker-sensitive, or missional. They suggest inherited churches can never be missional because of all their historical baggage. Others have written that a church is either missional or attractional, as if it’s not possible to be both. The implication: missional is a new and distinct way of doing church and we need to get with the programme!

Google search the word missional and you’ll find around 800,000 references to research the concept further. Wikipedia notes that missional has rapidly entered the lexicon of the emerging church movement, whose participants have popularised the term, enabling them to recognise each other across denominational lines. “[They] use the term with different nuances and connotations, but the term persists as essentially a postmodern alternative to the ecclesiology and missiology of Evangelical Christians.” 1

Allow me to raise concern with how we’re using the term missional. I think some implied definitions, as to what is missional and what is not, are a tad naïve. For instance, Jesus said both ‘go’ and ‘come’ in relation to the good news of the Kingdom. Pitting missional against attractional may be questionable, although I understand the point being made. The word missional simply means ‘missionary’. It is an adjective form of the noun ‘mission’ (from the Latin missio meaning ‘sending’) – like regional is to region – and essentially implies that we think and behave as people engaged in mission.

Baptists have long been at the forefront of intercultural mission. How does a missionary go into a culture and context, where the gospel is unknown, and seek to bring the good news of the Kingdom? One of the positive outcomes of a buzz word like missional, is that it is a fresh reminder of this fundamental purpose of the church. We are on a mission from God. John Addison Dally puts it like this: “Mission in the New Testament is not an activity of the church but an attribute of God, and ‘missionary’ is not a title for a special class of workers but an adjective describing the gathered Christian community in its fullness.” 2

Darrell Guder’s Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America offers a helpful context for understanding our mission as followers of Jesus. “…mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation. Mission means ‘sending’, and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God’s action in human history… [Our] challenge today is to move from church with mission to missional church.” 3 For the church not to be missional in its thinking and behaviour is a fundamental denial of its reason for being. As the Father sent Jesus into the world to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, Jesus now sends his followers to carry on his mission.

A friend of mine, with many years experience consulting with churches, recently asked me a perceptive question. Not knowing much about our part of the world, he asked if our nation was post Christian or pre-Christian. It’s an interesting question to ponder, and its answer influences our approach to mission.

In a post-Christian society, the language and activity of the church is often retrospective. We’re inviting people to come back. People may not currently be in church but they once were. God-consciousness is relatively high within the fabric of society. The church has a visible presence, albeit weak. If people do come back to church, they know what to expect and how to behave. In a post-Christian society, the church calls on its government to address lapses in moral legislation or inadequate care for the poor. Churches see themselves as political prophets provoking the conscience of a nation. Words like renewal and revival and restoration all make sense as we pray and work to regain what we once had.

In a pre-Christian world, the approach is different. We cannot talk about gaining back that which we never had. There is no rear-vision mirror in a pre-Christian society – only a front windscreen. The starting point in evangelism is very different. You don’t start at the point of historical knowledge about God and the need to come back to him. You have to start with more basic information about who in fact God is. Inherent expectation or respect for the church is non-existent. There is an altogether different set of expectations of the behaviour of new converts. Why would they be expected to know and follow Christian values? Evangelism is an education process whereby people learn the definitions of sin before they are expected to repent. Those who preach the gospel spend more time earning the right to be heard rather than assuming people are listening. The gospel has less tongue and more arms and legs.

I’d like to make a plea for a more inclusive use of the term missional. I’d hate for the concept to be captured and stereotyped like the word gay, which once upon a time meant happy and joyful, but today has a different connotation. Being missional need not imply radical new experiments or alternative models of church. Indeed, there may well be new terminology needed to differentiate between new models born from anger and disillusionment with historical ecclesiology and those that are genuinely missional. Some recent writings that popularise the term missional have possibly been written too soon. It is great that we promote innovative new ideas but successful missiology must point to the recognisable fruit that hangs off the branches of those new ideas.

Being truly missional conjures up words like intentional and evaluation as we think about the church. It implies every church ought to be ready for some kind of audit of its weekly calendar, its financial statements, or its meeting minutes, in order to see how much time and energy is actually focused on its fundamental missional purpose. We must ensure we do not succumb to inward-focused maintenance and indulgent consumerism.

The Baptist movement in Australia needs to think intentionally in missional terms. We must. We have little other reason to exist. Maybe Australia is becoming less post-Christian and increasingly pre-Christian. In our talk about being missional, let’s not kid ourselves that this is something new that God is doing. The vocabulary might be new but the concept is as old as the Great Commission of Jesus. Let’s also be generous in our definition of what it means to be missional and theologically holistic in our understanding of the subject of missional endeavour.

Brian Winslade was the previous National Ministries Director for the Baptist Union of Australia, combining the roles of National Director of Crossover, and BUA National General Superintendent. Prior to coming to Australia he served as Senior Pastor of three large multi-staff churches and was also CEO of the Baptist Union of NZ. Prac8

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missional_living, 28 April 2008
2 John Addison Dally, Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God, The Alban Institute (Herndon, VA, 2008), p.9
3 Darrell Guder (Editor), Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids: Michigan, 1998), p.4, 6