What’s in a word?
I guess the first time I heard the word ‘missional’, as part of a decent conversation, was at Cliff College when Martin Robinson pulled a few friends together to explore how on earth we could help churches and congregations transition somewhere new.
We knew a few things: new is where we needed to go. ‘What kind of churches?’ was a question beginning to be asked, but too much of what was under the ‘emerging’ banner seemed to have little emphasis upon discipleship and too much emphasis on simply gathering around we didn't like with inherited models of church.
As I listened, I was partly irritated by the two people, from across the Atlantic, we were talking with, but simultaneously drawn in because, intuitively, I knew they were making sense. They wanted to avoid defining the word, the frustration of needing to go on an exploration was good for us, so they said!
A number of years on what have we made of the missional conversation here in the UK? Sadly, I fear, not very much. But then again, I think, we’ve moved a long way.
So what’s in a word? My fears come from hearing the word ‘missional’ used far more frequently, but primarily as a replacement for ‘mission’. My hope’s are rooted in some tangible expressions of people experimenting. The danger is we go for the fruit without paying attention to the roots – which brings us back to ‘missional’.
There’s a fair history to the word now, which began to appear with any kind of frequency around 1998. The publication of the book ‘Missional church: a Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America’ certainly began the increase in popularity of a previously little used word, but NB ‘North America’ – perhaps that’s when the UK switched off. However, listen to these guys and you’ll hear the two primary ideological roots are found here, in the UK, and in South Africa. Basically, this is down to the writing and thinking of two individuals: Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch.
Returning home to England, Newbigin took up the challenge of trying to envision what a fresh encounter of the gospel with late-modern Western culture might look like. The issue he raised, focused (probably best) in ‘Foolishness to the Greeks’, in the form of a question: “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and the whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western culture?”
David Bosch (I remember David Coffey recommending ‘Transforming Mission’ when he was head of evangelism, or similar, before becoming BU General Secretary), similarly advanced our grasp of the missio Dei:
‘Mission is understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It is thus put into context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology. The classical doctrine of the mission Dei as God the Father sending the Son and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit is expanded to include yet another “movement”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world.’
‘It’s not that the church of God has a mission, but that the mission of God has a church’
- both from Transforming Mission.
So, beware the un-definable, but work at giving it a shape!