In calling for a missional synchroblog Rick Meigs says:
I have a continuing concern that the term missional has become over used and wrongly used….I think it is time to make a bigger effort to reclaim the term, a term which describe what happens when you and I replace the “come to us” invitations with a “go to them” life. A life where “the way of Jesus” informs and radically transforms our existence to one wholly focused on sacrificially living for him and others and where we adopt a missionary stance in relation to our culture. It speaks of the very nature of the Jesus follower.
Rick also says quite a bit about the word “missional” on his Web page Friend of Missional.
The first missiologist using the term “missional” in its modern understanding was Francis DuBose in his book, “God Who Sends” (Broadman Press, 1983). By the 1990’s the term began to appear more and more in such books as “Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America” (Edited by Darrell L. Guder) and the works of Lesslie Newbigin
My question is: does “missional” mean anything that “missionary” does not?
The problem with “missionary” is that it is both an adjective and a noun, and as an adjective it has acquired connotations from the noun that “missional” has not. “Missional” has the advantage of being an adjective only and not a noun. But both words are derived from “mission”, and what does “mission” mean? That was a question I had to ask at the beginning of my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods:
Before one can even begin to discuss Orthodox mission methods, however, one has to acknowledge that there is a methodological problem. One should perhaps begin by defining one’s terms, but to do so is, in a sense, foreign to the spirit of Orthodox mission. The term “mission” is a recent one, even in Western theology. The concept of mission as a “phenomenon”, something that can be observed, discussed, studied, analysed, and dissected is itself a product of Western thinking, conditioned by the Enlightenment. Even in Western missiology, definition has been a problem. It is only since the sixteenth century that the term “mission” has been used (beginning with the Jesuits) for the spread of the Christian faith among people who had not previously known it. Since the 1950s the word “mission” has been used more frequently among Christians, and it has been used in an increasingly broader sense (Bosch 1991:1). Bosch, in his magisterial work Transforming mission (1991) describes the origin and the expanding use of the term “mission” among Western Christians, and goes on to observe that there is a crisis in Western mission. Having noted the difficulty (and ultimately the impossibility) of defining mission, Bosch (1991:9) sets out an interim definition, which is necessary in order to delineate the scope of his work. Is it then possible to apply a term that arose in Western Christianity in the sixteenth century to the Orthodox Church? Many of the assumptions of Western theology, and the conditions in which they have been applied since that time, have been different from those of Orthodox Christians. Any application of the term to a time before the sixteenth century must be in some sense anachronistic. If one can speak of Orthodox mission at all, it will necessarily be different from the Western understanding of the term.
“Mission” is a term derived from Latin, and means “sending”. It is perhaps significant that the Afrikaans terms for “mission” and “missiology” are “sending” and “sendingwetenskap” respectively. For the Orthodox Church, whose theology is based on Greek rather than Latin, the cognate term for “missionary” (used as an adjective) would be “apostolic”. One of the marks of the Church in the Symbol of Faith is that it is “apostolic”, and, based purely on the etymology of the terms, one could perhaps translate “apostolic” as “missionary”, and deduce from that that mission is one of the essential marks of the Church.
“Missionary”, however, has a narrower connotation than “apostolic”, and when one says that the Church is “apostolic” it means more than simply saying that the Church is “missionary”; it proclaims that the Church as a body continues “in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Ac 2:42). The apostles were sent into the world as the Father sent the Son into the world (Jn 17:18; 20:21). The Father sent the Son into the world “to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s
favour” (Lk 4:18).
The Son likewise sent his disciples to “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation” (Mk 16:16), and as they go they are to “make disciples of all nations (ethne), baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, teaching them to observe all Christ’s commands (Mt 28:19). As an interim definition, therefore, one could say that Christian mission is the sending of the Church into the world, and what the Church is sent into the world to do.
In this sense, “missional” as an adjective could replace “missionary” with no loss of meaning, but with no gain in meaning either. One could say “I believe in One Holy Catholic and Missional Church”, but “missional” still does not carry the full meaning of “apostolic”. It expresses the “sending” part, but still does not express the continuity of a body that “continued in the apostles’ teaching and communion, the breaking if bread and the prayers.”
The apostles whose teaching and communion we continue in were not just any people who were sent to do anything. In the Christian understanding they are a particular group of people, sent for a particular purpose. Nowadays it has become fashionable for all kinds of commercial enterprises to have a “mission statement”, and the boards of directors in that sense become apostles, men with a mission, sent to carry out the objects set out in the mission statement. But that is not the same thing as Christian mission, and being an employee or customer of the firm does not mean that one is thereby participating in “the apostles’ teaching and communion, the breaking of bread and the prayers”.
Even in the Christian context, the word “missionary” has acquired bad connotations, however. There is a story often told, which has many variants, but it is often used by black South Africans, and goes like this:
When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. The missionaries said “Let us pray”, and we closed our eyes to pray, and when we opened our eyes again, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Much the same sentiment is expressed in the song:
Mayibuye! Mayibuye! Mayibuy’ iAfrika
Eyathathwa ngamaNgisi sisasebumnyameni.
(Let Africa return, which was taken by the English while we were still in darkness)
The song and the story express the entanglement of Christian mission and colonialism in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. The story does not bear too much analysis, but it makes a telling point nonetheless, and provides one good reason for substituting the term “missional” for “missionary”, to avoid the negative connotations of “missionary”.
It is also important to realise that “the missionaries” is an unfair stereotype. The events in the story never happened as the story relates them. The story is not a historical narrative, but a parable, and it speaks many things. In some versions, the term “missionaries” is replaced by “whites” (and is thus closer to the song and also truer to history). Whites who were ostensibly Christian came to Africa from Europe to make money. The gave black people things they had discarded, like old clothes and the Christian faith. The wrong thing about the story is that most of the Christian missionaries in Africa have been black and poor.
As I understand the term, therefore, I think there is no question that the Church is missional, and should be seen to be missional. Whatever else “apostolic” means in the phrase “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church”, it means at least that. As Papathanasiou (2005:13-14) puts it
The Church is “apostolic” insofar as (and provided that) she is sent and sending; sent by Christ and sending her apostles “to all creation”. Her being sent (that is, her mission) is not something additional to or beyond herself, but a constituent of herself, of her own nature. The point at issue, in other words, is not simply “what the Church does”, but chiefly “what she is”.
That is what I primarily understand by “missional”.
In the Orthodox Church the great missionary saints are often given the epithet isapostolos (equal-to-the-apostles). Such, for example, are St Nicholas of Japan, St Nina of Georgia, and SS Cyril and Methodius, Enlighteners of the Slavs. In their lives and ministry they made the missional nature of the Church visible.
But Rick Meigs says, ‘I think it is time to make a bigger effort to reclaim the term, a term which describe what happens when you and I replace the “come to us” invitations with a “go to them” life.’ Others have contrasted “missional” with “attractional”, implying that the former is the “go to them” life (good), while the latter is the “come to us” invitations (bad). I have my doubts about the adequacy of that. When Philip said to Nathaniel, “Come and see” (John 1:41-53), was he setting a bad example by being “attractional” rather than “missional”? Because that is what Rick’s statement seems to imply.
So I look forward to reading the other contributions to this synchroblog to see what others think “missional” means, and what they think it ought to mean.
Here are the other contributors to this synchroblog:
Cobus Van Wyngaard
- Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming mission. Maryknoll: Orbis.
- Papathanasiou, Athanasios N. 2005. Future, the background of history: essays on Church mission in an age of globalization. Montréal: Alexander. ISBN: 1-896800-48-3.