Call me a curmudgeon, but I don’t like the word ‘missional’ (Word spell check doesn’t it either. For once I agree with Microsoft). This word appears to be popular in our association, though I’m not sure where it came from originally. I do, however, think I know what it means, having heard it in context a few times. I do not doubt the sincerity of the people who have coined and promoted this word, but I don’t think the word is a helpful invention. While I’m giving kudos for sincerity, let me outline my understanding of ‘missional’ as I’ve heard it used.
To be missional is to be outward focused as a church rather than inward focused. It is to discover and meet the practical needs of the community that our local church serves, and thereby have an opportunity to share the gospel. So far so good. How can we not agree that it is important for the local church to be a culturally significant force in its community? We do have social obligations to the lost and dying world around us. We are called by Christ to care for the poor and needy and to bind up the wounds of the suffering.
My bias against this word is that it appears to come out of a philosophical stance that wants to minimize the offense of propositional truth and the assertion of the certainty of the gospel in our ‘postmodern’ times. Underlying this new word may be an agenda to redefine the church along 'practical' lines. I know that not everyone who uses this word wants to reorder the church along seeker sensitive / postmodern / pluralistic lines, but there are many that do want to redefine the church in non-biblical ways.
The Western Church of our day needs change desperately. Our problem in the church is not that we are merely too focused on ourselves, but that we have not been focused on the right things, namely, glorifying God by defining the church according to His Word. We need reformation – a change back to the Word-centered, God-glorifying, gospel-proclaiming center. If an undisciplined, untaught, truth-doubting, worldly church desires to reach out with the love of Christ, what message will it be taking to the lost? My fear is that the 'missional' focus may take us down the liberal 'social gospel' path once more.
Another beef that I have with this word is that it subtly diminishes the words 'mission,' 'missions' and 'missionary.' It is popular to say that our towns and cities are mission fields, but we need to be precise in our definitions. Traditional missions are suffering, in prayer and financial support and in the recruitment of career missionaries. The word ‘missional’ will not serve the cause of cross-cultural, international missions (which, admittedly, can occur on Canadian soil through Canadian Churches).
Do we need to shift the church to a more community needs focus as first priority, or do we need to shift the church back to a gospel focus as first priority? That is the question. There are many resources that I could reference on this topic, but an easy place to start is a brief article by Tim Challies, Evangelism – The Chief End of Man?
In conclusion, let me make a modest proposal: Let’s biblically define and obey the old words before we make up any more new words.