Is the word “missional” still useful?

This week, I’m going to write about the question, “Is the word missional still useful?” Now I’ll say first that I think it is, but I have some concerns. One of the primary concerns is that when I tell someone something is missional, I often feel that it doesn’t tell them anything specific.

First, a bit about words… A word must be useful, and to be useful a word must denote a specific thing within the context it is used. A specific thing within a context. For example, if I go to my local hardware store and tell Gene I need a “tool,” he has no idea what I need. That’s not because the word “tool” is a bad word, rather it is simply too broad to be useful in a hardware store.  In a hardware store that is filled with tools, Gene needs a more specific word to understand what I’m thinking. If I say, “Gene, I need an 8 inch adjustable wrench,” then we’re in business.

Today we have an ecclesiastical conversation filled with “missionals”: missional books, missional events, missional iniatives, missional theories, missional interpretations.  What does it mean to enter an ecclesiastical conversation and talk about a missional understanding of preaching? Before the conversation gets very far, you have to ask, “Now what do you mean by missional?” This effect is only heightened by denominational offices and publishers who describe anything and everything as “missional”, even if it has no relation to the Gospel in Our Culture Network or Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.

In their recent book The Missional Church in Perspective, Gelder and Zeischle put the problem like this and offer their opinion on it:

“Some argue today, as noted above, that the word “missional” has become vacuous and has thus lost its definitional value. We are proposing a different argument in this book, namely, that “missional” displays an inherent elasticity that allows it to be understood in a variety of ways.” (p. 3) By this they mean that there are various biblical and theological interpretations and emphases that arise from a variety of traditions, and these traditions use the common word “missional” but intend its meaning from within their own tradition and perspective.

Indeed, there is an inherent elasticity in “missional” which has helped to create common space to engage in a very lively and diverse conversation.  This is no-doubt a great strength of the missional conversation today, that it has a wide range of participants. My concern is that if the term does not continue to have a core and relatively stable meaning, it will eventually become useless and unused.

No one goes into a hardware store and asks for a tool–for very good reason.

More on the core and relatively stable meaning tomorrow…

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