Thursday, February 18, 2010

in defense of "missional"

The word "missional" is one of those words that came on by storm a few years ago and is already losing its cachet. It's been widely misunderstood and generally misused, and now some are calling for it to be jettisoned from our vocabulary all together. I was tempted to jump on the bandwagon until I read Christopher Wright's examination of the word in the introduction of his notable book, The Mission of God. Wright makes a strong case for the importance and use of the word missional especially in light of what words like mission and missionary have come to mean in people's minds today.

I agree with Wright's assessment that the word mission now refers to all kinds of human endeavors, eternal or not. Lots of people, businesses, and churches have personal and corporate mission's statements that attempt to describe the unique task they've set out to accomplish. That kind of focus can certainly be helpful, but in our attempts to distinguish ourselves from others we inevitably end up using mission in a narrower, more individualized, customized sense. Mission is what we do and how we do it. Hopefully our unique missions are connected to the mission of God, but they're rarely assumed to be synonymous with the mission of God.

Missionary has become an even more limiting word. Missionaries are seen as unusual people who are called to carry-out the task of mission usually in some far away place. Not many people can identify with the calling of the missionary and even fewer would want to be one.

It's against this backdrop that the word missional entered our conversation. It's not a verb that refers to a customized task, (our mission), or a noun that refers to a unique kind of person doing a unique kind of work (i.e. a missionary). It's a powerful adjective that denotes that whatever comes after it is related to or characterized by the mission of God to redeem and reconcile all of creation. A missional life then is a life that is actively experiencing and extending God's redemption and reconciliation. And a community is only missional if it is collectively experiencing and extending the redemptive and reconciling mission of God.

As an adjective, missional redefines everything that follows it and gives it new meaning and identity. It reminds us of who we are, who we're related to, and the ultimate mission we have all been invited to participate in. And that makes it worth keeping.

2 comments:

Tyler said...

Thanks for the post, I've been wanting to read Wright's book for a little while now.

I've recently felt myself avoiding the word missional because of the ways it's been misunderstood and misused.

Wright's definition that you include is great, and generally how I would use it, but when most people you talk to don't understand it that way I find it still not very useful.

What do you think? Keep defending and defining it?

Rob Yackley said...

I think it's worth fighting for Tyler. In fact, I've found the process of explaining "missional" to be a pretty powerful teaching moment. It forces people to think, and that's usually good. While it might be easier to stick with familiar (though broken) words like mission, missions, missionary, etc., the downside is the lost opportunity to remind people of our invitation to join the missio dei.