So what the heck is “missional” (and why should I care)?

27 05 2008

Following is the first of a 3 part post (sorry but it really does take more than a couple paragraphs to get a complete enough unpacking of the term to avoid any “short circuits” of understanding).  I’m going to utilize a document written by Alan Roxburgh in 2004 as the substance for these posts (with a few of my comments along the way). I was able to find a somewhat dated bio if your are interested in leaning about the author.

Part I:  Missional Church – Introduction

Almost everywhere one goes today the word missional or the phrase missional church is used to describe everything from evangelism to reorganization plans for denominations, to how we make coffee in church basements and denominational meeting rooms. In a very brief period of time a new form of language entered the common conversation of the church and diffused itself across all forms of church life. At the same time, it is still not understood by the vast majority of people in either leadership or the pew. This is a stunning accomplishment: from obscurity to banality in eight short years and people still don’t know what it means.

These facts suggest something of the flux, stirrings and search for points of reference that are now shaping the church in North America. The missional language would have died and disappeared like so many other words and movements of the church if there wasn’t already present an underlying sense that something is amiss about the Christian life and identity at this point in time. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the movements that have shaped the church on this continent over the past half-century is aware that this has been a period of massive change and upheaval. It was into this context that the missional language came and was received as a hopeful sign of how we could talk again about the challenges facing Christian identity. But at the same time, it is a testimony to the absorbing power of modernity that the missional language could become so meaningless so quickly. Each of these sides-the readiness of the church to receive missional language in the midst of tremendous flux and change, as well as, the capacity of modernity to absorb and neutralize it-must be part of our discussion. What is happening behind these dynamics? What are the implications of the missional language today in the life of the church?

In conferences, teaching sessions or simply dialogue with other leaders, the question is still continually asked: What do you mean by missional church? The non-clergy are the most confused by and suspect of the word missional. They perceive it to be another unnecessary piece of esoteric language invented by clergy and seminary professors. Thus there is suspicion of the language and not a lot of trust that it means more than a fancy idea about evangelism or mission. There is a need for clarity and explanation. Where do we start in a description of what it means? There are multiple levels to an adequate response which is what makes the problem of meaning significant. If the language of missional church is to become a helpful way of forming communities of God’s people in a radically changing culture then we have to spend the time and energy to understand what is at stake in the language we are using. Simple sentence definitions are not adequate.

The missional church conversation is far more than finding new words for old ideas. It is not about putting new paint over the cracked and chipped frames of an established way of thinking. The missional church conversation challenges some of the most basic assumptions we have about the nature and purpose of the church. Implicit in this conversation is the need to challenge and change some of our assumptions concerning the practice of church life in North America.

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