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Missional

23 June 2008

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:

Alan Hirsch
Alan Knox
Andrew Jones
Barb Peters
Bill Kinnon
Brad Brisco
Brad Grinnen
Brad Sargent
Brother Maynard
Bryan Riley
Chad Brooks
Chris Wignall
Cobus Van Wyngaard
Dave DeVries
David Best
David Fitch
David Wierzbicki
DoSi
Doug Jones
Duncan McFadzean
Erika Haub
Grace
Jamie Arpin-Ricci
Jeff McQuilkin
John Smulo
Jonathan Brink
JR Rozko
Kathy Escobar
Len Hjalmarson
Makeesha Fisher
Malcolm Lanham
Mark Berry
Mark Petersen
Mark Priddy
Michael Crane
Michael Stewart
Nick Loyd
Patrick Oden
Peggy Brown
Phil Wyman
Richard Pool
Rick Meigs
Rob Robinson
Ron Cole
Scott Marshall
Sonja Andrews
Stephen Shields
Steve Hayes
Tim Thompson
Thom Turner

Bibliography

  • 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.
21 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 June 2008 7:44 am

    I share your questions about whether too strong a dichotomy is being posed between being “sent” and inviting others to “come and see”. I have come to see an alternative way of viewing the cultural contextualization challenge is through the lens of the gentile circumcision controversy and the question of Christian identity. Quite simply, Christian identity stands above cultural identity and missional Christians need to be prepared to lay their cultural identity aside for the sake of the gospel. This necessarily impacts the passing on of tradition though when we consider how much of Christian tradition is a cultural response to the gospel. With Orthodoxy being one of the more traditional embodiments of Christianity I am curious as to how you would respond to that.

  2. 23 June 2008 12:04 pm

    Matt,

    You say “Christian identity stands above cultural identity and missional Christians need to be prepared to lay their cultural identity aside for the sake of the gospel.”

    And that is precisely what prevents the Orthodox Church from being missional. As one woman once told me “The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture” — and no irony whatever was intended. She was dead serious.

    And that is why most diaspora Orthodox Churches are not churches at all, but ethnic chaplaincies.

  3. 23 June 2008 7:34 pm

    Steve,

    That’s two very profound statements “Whites who were ostensibly Christian came to Africa from Europe to make money” and “most diaspora Orthodox Churches are not churches at all, but ethnic chaplaincies”.

    I believe you highlight something when you say that there are “great missionaries” who are “isapostolos (equal-to-the-apostles)” and thereby capture something that is often not capture when commercial and franchise models of church speak being “missional”.

  4. 24 June 2008 4:54 pm

    good to see the post-colonial sensitivity included. my post has some other instances of the word that might interest you. thanks for a great post.

  5. 24 June 2008 5:53 pm

    Interesting discussion, but none of the above calls into question the basic problem of mission: seeking to convert people who already have a religion and a relationship with the Divine.

    Buddhist “missionaries” seem to have spread a philosophy and a technique, which could be practiced alongside existing ethnic religions.

    Most Christian missionaries demand that people stop practising their ethnic religions (with the exception of Orthodox and Catholic ones, who practise inculturation) and all Christian missionaries tell people to cease to honour their existing deities. And that, for me, is the fundamental problem of Christian mission. Nobody would mind adding Christ and some saints to their existing pantheons (as Chinese folk religion does, for example) but it’s the insistence on not honouring one’s indigenous deities, or one’s traditional understanding of the Divine, that hurts.

    Add to that the injustices of the past (pogroms, the Inquisition, etc) and you can see why many people have difficulty with the whole concept of mission.

  6. 24 June 2008 7:47 pm

    Yvonne,

    A Buddhist friend once told me how Buddhist missionaries spead their faith among new people. They would simply tell the people “This is what we do; this is what we do not do.” If people started asking questions, then they would tell them more.

    I thought that that was a pretty good principle for Christian mission as well, with the possible addition of “This is what we believe; this is what we do not believe.”

    You may perhaps notice that it says nothing whatever about what they people they have settled among do, and most especially not “What you are doing is all wrong, and you must stop doing it.”

    That is the difference between evangelism and proselytism. I’ve written more on the difference between evangelism and proselytism here, in case you or anyone else is isnterested.

  7. 24 June 2008 8:32 pm

    Steve, you distinguish between evangelism (showing the good news and being open to including people in community) and proselytism (breaking down the beliefs of others in order to get them to buy into your own). The former could be understood as healthy and the latter as unhealthy but the depart from the same root – the message about Jesus and the kingdom/reign of Godde.

    Can I ask you to elaborate on what announcing and demonstrating that message of Jesus and Paul can look like in the present?

    Yvonne, are you saying you prefer the methodology of the one over the other?

    I see both Buddhism and Christianity as intrinsically missional, i.e. they’re concerned with a greater truth and with people discovering and entering into the experience thereof. In that sense they differ in methodology but not intent, i.e. both teach an ethic and point toward a future hope accessible experientially in the present. Where other pantheons are accepted they’re still understood to not be the Truth. I fail to see Buddhism as anything other than evangelistic (I don’t hold it against them for doing so just as I don’t hold it against Christians for doing so as both are being faithful to their Truth).

  8. 25 June 2008 1:42 am

    Tim,

    Yvonne’s comment raises several questions, not all of which can be appropriately discussed in the context of the missional synchroblog without going off topic. I chose to respond to one that seemed closest to the missional theme of the synchroblog — the fact that Christian mission has sometimes been aggressive and aimed at proselytism rather than evangelism, though I don’t think the examples Yvonne gave (pogroms and the Inquisition) are missional at all. A more appropriate example might have been the crusades and the links between mission and colonialism. We’ve seen quite a lot of pogroms in South Africa over the last few months, and they really are not missional.

    The other question Yvonne raises is more theological than missional, and deserves a separate discussion, though blog posts are perhaps not the best medium for that. Yvonne is not objecting to Christian mission, but to Christian theology, though of course that theology is at the root of mission. For Christians, God is not a member of a pantheon, not just one god among many, but the “Great King above all gods” (Psalm 95:3). For Christians the important distinction is not between natural and supernatural, with gods all having “supernatural” in common. The distinction is between creator and creature, and the other gods are creatures. So Yvonne is not objecting to Christian mission; she’s objecting to Christianity. And that’s a whole ‘nother debate.

  9. 25 June 2008 8:46 am

    Steve, you’ve nailed what I struggle with most about the Orthodox tradition. There is so much that I appreciate about it, and so much more that I want to learn, but the ethnic conservatism is a barrier for me. And yet, and yet …

    I suppose what I am seeking is integration of the best of orthodoxy and evangelicalism. In some ways that puts me at odds with both paths.

  10. 25 June 2008 2:00 pm

    Matt,

    The Orthodox are not alone in suffering from the Diaspora problem. Anglicans in Argentina are pretty similar :-/

  11. 25 June 2008 4:19 pm

    Hi Steve & Tim

    Um, well, mission seems to me to be such an intrinsic part of the theology and nature of Christianity that it’s difficult to separate them out.
    According to the orthodox (small o) account, Jesus came to spread his message (which included salvation) to all people, and he was the Son of God. Therefore the disciples were apostolic, and their message was for people to accept Jesus as the Saviour.

    I agree that mission should not include pogroms and the Inquisition, but historically these have been intertwined. I also understand the difference between mission (telling your truth) and proselytism (telling others that they will go to hell if they don’t accept your truth).

    If Jesus’ message was in his life and teachings, then all religions can happily take those on board without ceasing to honour their own deities. As Jesus himself said, “My Father’s house has many mansions” and there are other teachers for other nations (John ch 14). If the important part was his death & resurrection, then only believing in that can save people (unless you believe in apokatastasis, but that was declared anathema in the 4th century).

    From a Pagan point of view, no missionaries at all is the preferable state of affairs. Next best are Buddhist missionaries because they allow the existing religious tradition to go on pretty much as before. Next best after that are Orthodox missionaries, because they practice inculturation (preserving the best bits of the old culture) according to the advice of Pope Gregory the Great. Catholic missionaries aren’t too bad, as they also practice a form of inculturation; as long as they don’t bring the Inquisition with them. And evangelical protestant missionaries are the worst, because they tell people their indigenous religion was the worship of demons.

  12. 25 June 2008 4:59 pm

    Hi Yvonne,

    This is possibly not the right forum for this discussion. Though it appears that Buddhists and other Eastern views are more accepting I experience them as slowly attaining the same goal, i.e. in Krishna or in Buddha is real salvation but persist in your practice if you must in this life and you’ll come round at some point in the future. In that sense I feel that they’re evangelising albeitly through different methodology.

    I feel that a discussion around ‘salvation’ (in the broad sense of the word) through one path versus many paths requires much sensitivity and a discussion around the concrete rather than the abstract but also that it is worth pursuing at some point.

  13. 25 June 2008 8:59 pm

    Tim,

    I might make my next blog post on this blog on “salvation”.

  14. 6 July 2008 6:29 pm

    Yvonne, you said:

    Nobody would mind adding Christ and some saints to their existing pantheons (as Chinese folk religion does, for example) but it’s the insistence on not honouring one’s indigenous deities, or one’s traditional understanding of the Divine, that hurts.

    But, as Matt Stone points out in this post, that would be a category mistake.

  15. Pops permalink
    6 July 2008 11:52 pm

    May I say that the majority of Missionaries that I have known over the years are definitely not into “This is what is wrong with your stuff” type of thing as they are being accused of.

    I think that type of “evangelism” is prevalent in western society and not when missionaries go to another culture.

    The people and organisations I have known over the years go into a culture and apply themselves to helping people. When asked for a reason as to why they are doing it, they will tell of what they believe and how that translates into action. If members of that culture then decide to become one with the missionary then all well.

    The fact that the story may be perverted and changed in later recounts with an emphasis of how “they told us of hell” does not make the story true!
    The fact that the convert may come to understand later on exactly what he was saved from, and he recounts that fact as part of his testimony does not mean that it was based on a fear of hell that made him convert.

    Pops

Trackbacks

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