Home > American Evangelicalism, Mission and Outreach > “Missional” Descriptor du jour, but what does it mean?

“Missional” Descriptor du jour, but what does it mean?

April 17th, 2009
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We hear the word “missional” when church administrators speak. We read it in denominational publications and magazines. Meetings and discussions are held around the them of “being missional.” The term, and concept, “missional” is everywhere across evangelical protestantism. But what does “missional” mean? Here is the perspective from Dr. Ed Stetzer, recognized widely as a leader in the “missional” movement. He offers cautions and clarifications that we do well to consider. Here is an article from Biola University’s magazine, an interview with Dr. Stetzer.

If you are looking for an authority on the missional movement, Ed Stetzer is your one-stop shop. A leading figure in contemporary evangelical thought, Stetzer has been called “the best missional thinker in North America” and has written some of the best books on the subject (see here and here). On his popular blog, Stetzer authored a “Meanings of Missional” series of posts that have been among the most trafficked on his site.

Currently serving as Director of Lifeway Research and Lifeway’s Missiologist in Residence, Stetzer is also a preaching pastor and a church planter who has planted churches in New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia and transitioned declining churches in Indiana and Georgia. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Stetzer served for three years as seminary professor at the Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and has taught at 15 other seminaries, including Biola’s Talbot School of Theology.

To supplement the current issue of Biola Magazine and its focus on missions and the missional movement, managing editor Brett McCracken talked with Ed Stetzer about the uses, complexities and challenges of “missional.”

BM: Ed, would you say that the average Christian has an understanding of the term “missional”? Or is it still an “insider term” among church leaders and theologians?

ES: I would say the term has started to gain wide acceptance since the turn of the millennium among Christian leaders, however I don’t think it has gotten down to the rank-and-file level. I’ve written a book, Compelled by Love, which is trying to be a lay-level explanation of missional, and other authors are trying to do the same. But yeah, primarily it’s still a pastor’s or theologian’s word.

BM: My sense is that there is widespread confusion about the word, even among the pastors and theologians. Is the word useful? Is it too confusing for its own good?

ES: Well, it certainly has become the descriptor du jour. I think the problem is that people tend to see in missional what they want to see. If they want to see the church do more social justice, that’s “missional.” If they want to be more evangelistic, that’s “missional.” But I still think there’s a power in a new or modified word that enables us to say, “We do need something different.” I think missional has become a descriptor — an imperfect one — of the shift we might need in evangelicalism.

BM: So it’s a useful word, but it’s just been misappropriated?

ES: Well, when something’s cool and hot, that’s what people do. Every new magazine wants to put missional on the cover. At our church we have a joke about it: When we needed to put in new lights, we said, “Well, maybe we should get missional lighting.” So, yes, we know we need a change, but we just need to define more clearly what the word means.

BM: In your interview with David Fitch, you recently said that missional is like an “ecclesiological junk drawer,” which I thought was funny. It’s like we’re using the term to justify whatever definition of the church that we prefer.

ES: Yeah, whatever the church isn’t — that’s missional if we did that. So yeah, it’s concerning.

BM: Why is the missional movement happening now? What brought it on?

ES: Recently the New York Times quoted me referring to the “modern evangelical machine.” And I think there’s some discomfort with the modern evangelical machine that has produced a catered, franchise, packaged Christianity that is pretty neat and freeze-dried. I think people are looking for something that is more transformational, more organic, and missional has become that which people rally to. There are other people using other words — like “externally focused” — which are describing similar ideas. So the question is: Does the word “missional” have enough redefining influence to help us think more biblically about the church, or will the word become a distraction? As of yet, I don’t think it has become more problematic than it is helpful. I think it’s still helpful.

BM: I like how you always say that being missional is just a way of joining God on his mission; it’s not about shaping it to our needs or our agenda for the church.

ES: Yeah, exactly.

BM: So the core purpose and idea of mission is good, but there have been some unintended consequences?

ES: I think every movement has unintended consequences. The unintended consequence of the church-growth movement was that we taught churches how to meet consumers’ needs, and perhaps an unintended consequence of the missional movement will be that we will deemphasize some things we need to emphasize, like sharing Christ and biblical orthodoxy and things like that. And I want to learn from both.

BM: What would you say are the good, positive contributions that you’ve already seen coming out of this missional movement?

ES: I think a move away from preference, from church being defined by the preferences of its attendees to church being more focused on how we can be a sign and instrument of the kingdom of God in this community. So I think it’s a little less self-focused, which is positive. I think its forced people to think about what is the source of our mission, and that mission is an attribute of God himself. It’s helped people to see their lives as part of redemptive history, on the move, as sent ones and sent churches. I think the rediscovery that the Jesus of Luke 19:10 — who said “I come to seek and save the lost” — is the same Jesus as in Luke 4 — who came to pronounce freedom for the captives, sight for the blind, and caring for the poor — is also a positive contribution.

BM: What about church cooperation? You’ve written about that on your blog.

ES: Yes, this is part of it too. I think when you have more of a kingdom mentality, you want to work together with other kingdom partners. It probably leads to more cooperative ventures. I think church planting is benefitting from the missional movement. If it’s not about us, then we’re going to send out people to plant churches.

BM: Is “missional” necessarily anti-megachurch? Can you be a megachurch and also be missional?

ES: Depends on who you ask! I think it’s harder to be missional if you’re a megachurch, because the machine has to be serviced. I preach every week to a church with 9,000 members, so obviously I’m not anti-megachurch. But I like to think that the church functions like a yo-yo. There are two functions at work: sending itself out, like the centrifugal force, but also the force pulling us in, which is the organization that needs to be maintained. When you spin a yo-yo, the centripetal force pulling it in and the centrifugal force pushing it out are in equal balance. But I think the more your church has, the more you have to service it, the thicker the tether. I think many megachurches spend all their time servicing the tether and not sending it out on mission. If you have 10 people in your living room, all you have to worry about is the centrifugal, but if you have a megachurch you have to worry about the centripetal as well. So I think its harder as a megachurch.

BM: One of the criticisms about missional that Dan Kimball, among others, has pointed out recently is that there have not been new converts in the missional church. Do you think this is a concern?

ES: I do think that a church should not defend their lack of converts, but rather repent of it and resolve to change. I think that some missional churches want to defend it. I do think that conversion takes longer these days. People don’t really know what “getting saved” means anymore. In a secular society, missional engagement and conversion are going to take longer, but at the end of the day, if all we have is reform but no one getting born again, then I don’t think that’s a better situation than what we have right now.

BM: I think another criticism that has been raised is just this balance that missional tries to strike between social justice and “living out” the gospel on one hand and the proclaiming or preaching of the gospel on the other. And you even talked about this at your talk at the American Society for Church Growth conference here at Biola. How do we balance these things?

ES: I think, ultimately, if I push on two fronts — A and B — and I only get resistance on B, then I’ve got to push harder on B. Now, from my perspective I might think they are equally important, but we have to remember this: When you speak of justice, people will praise you, but when you speak of Jesus, they’ll condemn you. But we can’t speak of Jesus without speaking of justice and we can’t biblically speak of justice without understanding Jesus, so ultimately we will have to overcompensate in the area of evangelism because that’s where there is resistance.

BM: You talked here at Biola about the younger evangelicals and their passion for social justice. How much of this do you think is just because it is the cool cultural thing to be interested in as opposed to a biblically motivated interest?

ES: I don’t know. Were young Christians concerned about social justice before MTV was concerned about social justice? I think the answer is, we don’t know. I will say that socially concerned Christians have been talking about this for a long time — people like Ron Sider — but did social justice catch on because Ron Sider thought it was important or because the world and Bono decided it was important? I don’t know. But it’s a good question.

BM: Can you talk a little bit about how missional is different from emerging, and how they overlap?

ES: I would say you can be emerging and not missional, and you can be missional and not emerging, so I think that you can just as likely be a contemporary missional church as a traditional one. I think the people in the emerging conversation are more conversant in the language of missional, but I think Christians across the spectrum and of all stripes are trying to figure out how to be “missional.”

BM: Do you think the missional movement might bridge the gap and divisions between, for example, the “emerging” people and the neo-Reformed crowd?

ES: Well, I don’t know if it will be the great unifier, but I think we can all agree on missional — that we need to be focused on the mission of God, not on us. I speak to a lot of pastors about missional, from Assemblies of God to Reformed, and I think that all of them more or less get it, and get why it is important.

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  1. April 17th, 2009 at 12:41 | #1

    OK, the first thing I notice here is that he's seeing only two options for the church and missing the most important one. He's contrasting focus on "us" to focus on "the mission of God".

    But I seem to recall reading something somewhere about fixing our eyes on Jesus and something else about preaching Christ crucified. Perhaps the right approach is to focus on Christ and understand that the "for us" of the gospel will (or at least should) help us understand that it is also "for them" and make us "missional" (or whatever term you want to use to mean "we care about people outside the church") . . . .

  2. Pr. Tom Fast
    April 17th, 2009 at 13:05 | #2

    Church planting is great! But what about Church watering?

    • April 17th, 2009 at 16:14 | #3

      Pr. Fast – I loved this comment: "Church planting is great! But what about Church watering? "

      A very good turn of phrase!

      My question as I read the above… "Have we defined missional yet?" Maybe I'm just dense today!

  3. Ryan
    April 17th, 2009 at 15:05 | #4

    "Church planting is great! But what about Church watering?"

    Duly noted. But is that really the principal issue in the church at large, and the LCMS in particular? Many of our congregations are drowned in over-saturation without planting. We need to be willing to hear this word without knee-jerk defensiveness.

    "He's contrasting focus on "us" to focus on "the mission of God"…Perhaps the right approach is to focus on Christ…"

    I don't think you are fairly representing Stetzer here. The "mission of God" is most definitely "God reconciling the world to himself in Christ." But you are right in saying that a focus on Christ compels us outward in mission.

    • April 17th, 2009 at 15:17 | #5

      Here is an example of a nested comment, posted as a reply. FYI FWIW.

  4. April 17th, 2009 at 15:17 | #6

    Note to readers: Consider using "post reply" when responding to a comment, that way we can read your reply as a nested comment. Makes it easier to follow a conversation. FWIW. Thanks for considering it.

  5. Pr. Tom Fast
    April 17th, 2009 at 15:46 | #7

    But Ryan, I said church planting was great. I'm all for church planting. Who can be against it? The more, the merrier. Sincerely. I wish, in fact I pray, that the entire world would be converted and that there would be a congregation on every corner. I'm with you on that entirely.

    Yet I do believe, firmly, that one of the issues in the church at large and the LCMS is the need for more attention to be paid to church-watering. How can you begin to believe our problem is "over-saturation" when most of our congregations DO NOT EVEN OFFER the Sacrament of the Altar weekly and almost none of them have a disciplined practice of Private Confession and Absolution. And this is not to even bring up the need to train our people to live in and from these things, which is an ongoing struggle even where they are offered and practiced with regularity. Frankly, I know very little about Stetzer and care very little about what he says. I do know a lot about trends in the LCMS. I do not think we ought ever to pit "maintenance" against "mission" or "edification" against "outreach." Yet I've heard much rhetoric in the LCMS do just that. Frequently it is done in the name of being "missional." This is what I'm reacting against. So pardon me if I have unfairly implicated Stetzer here.

    I don't know about you, but the Spiritual needs of my congregants are utterly overwhelming to me. Any pastor who pays a modicum of attention to the flock under his care would say the same. To say that they are "over-saturated" is, I trust, a hyperbole on your part.

    • Pr. Tom Fast
      April 17th, 2009 at 16:04 | #8

      Sorry for the caps. I just remembered that means I'm yelling. Oops. Didn't mean to convey that. :-)

    • Ryan
      April 18th, 2009 at 03:23 | #11

      Pastor Fast,

      I am with you whole-heartedly that it is a traveshamockery that the Eucharist and private confession are neglected, and we could add the out-sourcing of pastoral care by many CEO pastors as well. Full disclosure: I'm currently a vicar planting a church. I get flack from some of the folk you may have in mind for being "too Lutheran" and, on the other side, for being "too missional" (whatever that means!). Our fledgling church uses the Divine Service settings from LSB and celebrates the Eucharist each week. I would personally offer private confession and absolution, but I don't think my "office" of vicar allows for it. I fully intend to do after ordination. We also use guitars.

      So I hear you on the either/or talk; I am on a personal crusade to bridge it. But I think you are implicitly perpetuating the same kind of thinking that you decry, these unhelpful dichotomies. I mean, what does a healthy congregation do? What is part of basic church maintenance, and what ought "watering" lead to? Reproducing. If it isn't doing that, then yes, it is over-saturated, because the proper telos of God's gifts is not being realized–namely, the creation of disciples and congregations.

      Inasmuch as our people do not "live in and from" Word and Sacrament, it is because they feel they don't need to; they're comfortable with the status quo. I don't mean content in the love of God, either. I mean self-sufficient. Hey, that's all of us. But, by doing what the church exists to do–make disciples–they're forced to be Christians, and I'm forced to shepherd apostolically (i.e., as a small-'a' "sent-one"). And, God willing, they might even find that they NEED (yelling now) to live from God's gifts. I have. My people have.

      So…I'm with you. I think we're both fed up with the same kind of thinking, and I apologize if I've projected on to you my own supressed binary opposite (sorry, Voelz-speak).

      • Pr. Tom Fast
        April 18th, 2009 at 04:18 | #12

        I completely disagree with your contention that basic watering ought to lead to reproducing and if it is not, then it is oversaturation. That is dangerous and confused thinking. Jesus Himself would be guilty of "oversaturating" His disciples in that case. His ministry appeared to be a complete failure until Pentecost. You might want to put that undeniable fact in your pipe and smoke on it a little. Not only that, but the proper telos of God's gifts is the resurrection of the body and having a share with Christ of His glory. If the proper telos of God's gifts is merely the creation of disciples and congregations, then we ought to stop promising the Baptized anything other than there will be more Baptized to join them and more congregations built around them. That would be silly, wouldn't it? Fact is, the congregation does NOT exist only to make more congregants. Shriveling all of church life down to "outreach" is precisely the problem. So I'm afraid we do not see eye to eye at all, though I wish we did.

        • Pr. Tom Fast
          April 18th, 2009 at 04:19 | #13

          …my reply continues below…

          As an aside, if we did a better job of "maintenance" ministry, outreach would be greatly aided and in no wise hindered. A person tends to readily share Jesus if he knows Him well. But that's another subject for another time.

          You are a Vicar. Wonderful. Now is a great time to give serious thought to these matters. The responsibilities laid upon you in your upcoming (God-willing) Ordination are not trivial.

          • Pr. Tom Fast
            April 18th, 2009 at 04:28 | #14

            Vicar Ryan,

            Ach!! I read over what I wrote again and it sure sounds sharp. I always do that. I think it is part personality and part a casualty of preaching for so many years. So please pardon the barbs. I hope they don't obscure what I am trying to say.

  6. April 17th, 2009 at 16:35 | #15

    Missional is simply a reenvisioning of a previous descriptor to accomodate a paradigm shift in our vision to impact our communication in a clearer fashion.

    • April 17th, 2009 at 16:36 | #16

      In other words: Weasel speak.

      • thoswinter
        April 17th, 2009 at 17:16 | #17

        Like "hope" and "change", this word invites the reader/hearer to imbue the word with any positive meaning of his choosing. In that way, it is a great weasel word. It says nothing while sounding pious and good.
        But I have found a truly positive use for "missional." It allows Outlook to move a lot of email to my Junk Mail folder without wasting my time.

        • April 17th, 2009 at 17:58 | #18

          My browser and word processor still flags "missional" as an incorrectly spelled word. They need to get with it and be more missional and emergent.

      • April 17th, 2009 at 17:57 | #19

        Great to see your comment, Pastor Cwirla.

  7. Pr. Tom Fast
    April 19th, 2009 at 11:50 | #20

    Okay, now that I've taken a chill pill and am certain noone is still reading this post, I have one more thing to get off of my chest. I wonder who it is teaching young seminarians that if you simply do the right thing you can expect numerical growth slam dunk style? To whose advantage is it to send out young pastors who believe such a thing? Who has an interest in pastors having ridiculously high expectations of the results of their work? And what do you think will happen to the pastor in the likely event that the results of his work do not meet those expectations? I think they are being set up by you-know-who. And I feel very, very sorry for pastors who have been led to embrace such things. I'd also like a little face to face time with those teaching these young men to do so. Nuff said. I'm going to go take another chill pill. :-)

    • April 19th, 2009 at 13:27 | #21

      We are of the modern mindset that missionaries who went and spent their lives translating the scriptures and worked for years to see their first convert were simply fools who lacked the right technique!

      And pity the pastor whose congregation believes the pastor holds some magic to unlock church growth and is made miserable for his "failure" to use such magic on the congregations command!

      • Pr. Tom Fast
        April 19th, 2009 at 16:45 | #22

        Yes, Pr. Huckaby, the devil makes a lot of hay out of this issue. He is a crafty fellow. Make no mistake about it, he is very, very religious. He usually attacks us through pious sounding religiosity. Such is certainly the case in this matter.

        • Pr. Tom Fast
          April 20th, 2009 at 00:45 | #23

          I have superimposed the trends and troubles I've observed in the LCMS onto Ryan's comments. My interpretation of what he wrote was not entirely accurate. Frankly, my target wasn't Ryan at all. It was those in the Synod, and they are legion, who wish to shrivel all of Church life down to outreach. I apologize insofar as I have misinterpreted Ryan's comments in that regard. Having communicated with him privately, he sounds like he will be a very fine pastor and is well aware of the problems I am trying, in my own clumsy way, to point out.

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