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 3: Matters of Semantics

We probably need to pay the word missional extra for all the work we make it do. A missional church is not any one thing. It is not simply a new style or model of doing church. And there is not one formulaic amalgamate (that means “word”) that sums up its meaning. The landscape of the missional debate is filled with questions, assumptions and opinions—along with hard-pressed critiques on wider issues such as leadership styles, congregation sizes, vocational/bivocational ministry, building church-based or house church-based as well as core theology.

One thing the debate about the word illustrates is the statement, “Words don’t mean, people do.”

So what does that mean?

What it means is rooted in the word “mission” in one of several forms.

It means in order for us to use the word missional (and it’s a perfectly good word), we’re going to have to understand what different people have meant by it, and settle upon how we might use it constructively in the future. A useful way to get at this is to determine what people have meant by it in the past.

Part 4: The Mission of Missional

It was Chuck Van Engen who directed me to the 1972 study prepared by H. H. Rosin titled “Missio Dei: An Examination of the Origin, Contents and Function of the Term in Protestant Missiological Discussion” (Interuniversity Institute for Missiological and Ecumenical Research. Leiden 1972). This was a Dutch study commissioned to help resolve just the kinds of issues that have arisen around our current term ‘missional.’

In it, Rosin cites the meaning of the term in Latin, but points out that the Latin term was used far more in German texts than in English, and that it had already been invested with so much new content that the original meaning(s?) of the word had already been altered by usage. He attributes the first real usage of the term to Georg Vicedom, who used the term constantly in his book titled (appropriately enough!) Missio Dei (1958).

It’s interesting that Vicedom attributed the term to Willingen, when in fact the term missio dei can’t be found in any articles or documents of that conference. But Willingen did not use the terms missional or missio dei, it was there that a minority position began to emerge which swelled into a majority position.

What was this position, exactly?

In essence, those espousing the missio dei concept understood mission as our participating in the sending of God. Fine, one might counter, but isn’t that what the church had been doing for 1900 years? Not to this view. Instead, the concept of the sending (missio) became focused as being derived from the very nature of God and not from the church. That is, mission was put in the context of the Trinity, as opposed to ecclesiology or soteriology. Mission is not, therefore, primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. Mission is a movement of God to the world, the church being the instrument for mission.

There is church because there is mission, not vice versa.

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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.