Ed Stetzer: What Does “Missional” Really Mean?

Missional. Depending on your perspective, it brings warmth to your soul or a shiver down your spine.

Part 1: The Debate Over a Definition

Missional.

Depending on your perspective, it brings warmth to your soul or a shiver down your spine. Yet, there is no question the word is gaining traction. Is this the case with the church word of the day or is it here to stay? And … oh yes … what does it mean anyway?

The answer to the last question depends on who you ask. Some words become so quickly enmeshed into our Christian subculture that the definition is an active, evolving target that is being changed and defined on the move.

The genesis of this paper came from a week of meetings that illustrated the different meanings.

First, before the meetings, I received an email from blogger “Brother Maynard” expressing his concern about the Wikipedia definition. His concerns can be found by looking in the Wikipedia history page near the bottom. Maynard has since been seeking to find a common definition of the word “missional.”

As a missiologist concerned with the history, I was surprised to see the debate proceed without any reference to the origin of the word—just to its current usage. So, I started doing some research and contacting people about their use of the term and the influences that shaped their ideas. I will reflect some on the answers I have received from Dubose, Guder, Hirsch, Keller, Van Engen and others in the coming weeks.

So, if the word does not have a clear definition, should we even use it?

Obviously, I think so, though I have seen the term be used in some ways that concern me. Even though I might disagree with some emphases, I believe we can learn from the ideas of others in the missional conversation without having to agree with them on every point.

Part 2: More Thoughts on the Definition of “Missional”

People use the words mission, missions and missional in different ways. Thus, any discussion of missional cannot be complete without asking the question, “Which missional?”

Also, and to be fair, it is quite probable that most of those who use the term would not have the need to understand the background. If you, as a follower of Christ in interaction with scripture, determine that you want to be “missional” as best as the Spirit leads you, it is certainly fine to do so.

Yet, as the term has grown in prominence, it has also grown in opposition. In some of the places I have spoken, I have specifically been asked to not use the word “missional,” as it is a “liberal word.” (I am not sure how a word gets an ideology, but that is another story.)

Now, before you get offended by their concern, there is a reason. Obviously, their concern has not pushed me away from using the term, but it is helpful for us to understand their worry … and it might be a surprise to know the problematic history that causes some evangelicals to reject the word “missional.” And, the word “missional” is much less important than the emphasis it brings.

By the way, the objection has nothing to do with the Leadership Journal article “Dangers of Missionalism,” which I have read several times and (I think) it is about the danger of having a mission (or goal) rather than the danger of “missional.”

However, to understand the objections and the nuances, it will be necessary to go through the history, which we will do in depth next week. But, let me briefly explain why some evangelicals are concerned about the word missional and its roots in missio dei theology.

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Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN.