Language is powerful. Language communicates meaning. Language delivers theology.
Language is supported by theology and language shapes theology.
What we say means something—something more than just words. If I write the word “church,” you immediately have something in mind. This something may be a group of people, the called-out ones. Or, this something may be a building with a steeple.
Language communicates. Culture and theology travel across language.
A few folk have started asking questions about the value of the words mission, missions and missionary. I have also been pondering this matter and wondering if it is time to change our language.
Stephen Neill famously wrote, “If everything is mission, then nothing is mission” (Creative Tension, 81). Without going into the theology and argumentation of his statement, the point is well made: Whenever mission becomes everything, it is easy to justify anything as being related to the biblical understanding of mission. Telling others about Jesus becomes just as much mission as adding new seats to a church’s worship area.
Are seats bad? No. But they are not of equal value, importance and urgency as making disciples of unreached people groups living across town.
The evolving of language and definitions is nothing new. The church has experienced this throughout her history, even recently.
The contemporary Church Growth Movement began in 1955. Its founder, Donald McGavran, strongly argued that biblical church growth was conversion growth. However, a couple of decades later (particularly when U.S. pastors embraced church growth principles), church growth became synonymous with anything related to numerical growth. Biological growth and transfer growth were embraced as church growth. Transfer growth (e.g., sheep shifting, sheep stealing) became king. The result was a plethora of methods and strategies to grow U.S. churches, primarily through transfer growth. This expectation has been carried over to most evangelical, U.S. church planting approaches, too.
McGavran quickly recognized and was deeply troubled over this morphing of his original understanding of church growth. In his latter years, he saw that church growth had become everything under the sun. It had moved away from its biblical foundation and missiological principles. Putting pen to paper, he published his last book Effective Evangelism: A Theological Mandate (1988), calling for a change in church growth nomenclature and definition.
Language communicates truth and culture, and is supported by and shaped by theology.
While I have not discarded the familiar language of mission, missions and missionary, I have been using apostolic as part of our nomenclature. In print, I started this in 2009 in Discovering Church Planting, and even more so in 2015 with To the Edge, and Apostolic Church Planting.
Yes, I am aware of some of the challenges of such language. It should be noted that I disagree with much of the 1990s New Apostolic Movement teaching and at times uncomfortable with some of the APEST conversations today. Until I am able to unpack in detail my theology behind the use of the adjective apostolic, you will have to draw conclusions from my aforementioned resources (also, listen to my podcast: The Need for Apostolic Missiology).
Missions is derived from a Latin word, not Greek. It became a descriptor for the sending work of the church, and eventually morphed to include a wide-range of activities done in the name of Jesus, many of which had no connection to making disciples of unreached peoples, gathering them into churches, and raising up their own leaders. The first known use of mission was in 1530 and possibly had connection to the Jesuits by the 1590s. It seems that 30 years later, mission included matters related to international business and politics. The first known use of missionary was 1625.
The health of the church is diminished the further we move away from both biblical language and truth. Dynamic equivalents and contemporary expressions may be good and helpful at times, but always to be aggressively evaluated for maintaining biblical faithfulness and fostering church health.
Yes, I know getting rid of the terms mission, missions and missionary would rock our world—imagine how much money agencies would have to spend on changing business cards and mailing addresses. But maybe that is a small price to pay for a more excellent way.
This article originally appeared here.