why the word "missional" bugs me.

blog why i don't like the word missionali know the word “missional” is popular in a lot of christian circles these days.  it has gained traction as churches are attempting to become more outwardly focused.  now, there are all kinds of groups, networks, ministry initiatives, new book lines, and other programs dedicated to challenging the church to become more “missional.”

even though i’m glad the winds are shifting in this direction, i’m still not crazy about the word.  the truth is, i’ve never liked it, even though i use it in certain wider contexts.  in fact, a few months ago i was facilitating a learning group around down we go, sharing why i don’t like the word “missional”.  as i was talking, i turned the book over and right there in big bold letters on the back cover it said “creating missional community.”

yes, i’m well aware i am a hypocrite sometimes!  it was definitely ironic, but we had a good laugh over it.

i get that it’s a word that makes sense to a lot of people, and language helps us.  but just because i use it sometimes as part of shared context doesn’t mean i have to like it!

a few weeks ago we had a youth “mission” team come from indiana to serve and learn at the refuge (i would have preferred the word “learning team” because that was a better descriptor).  regardless of semantics, their eyes were opened to pain & poverty in the suburbs; it was a very interesting and good week.  my favorite part was an evening we facilitated a justice panel, where 4 friends from the refuge shared their stories about mental illness, addiction, poverty, loneliness, low self-worth, divorce, and a whole host of other real issues they face.  they knocked it out of the park describing what life was like and sharing what they are learning through loving community.

it was so beautiful.  holy.  powerful.  redeeming.

and exactly what this visiting team needed to hear–the difference between being someone’s mission and being someone’s friend. 

in so many contexts, my friends would be considered someone’s “mission” instead of a friend. a project instead of a person.  a person to change instead of a person to love and learn from.  a person that follows instead of a person that leads.  a person who is used to having their dignity stripped, not restored.      

they articulated in such clear beautiful ways that God reveals himself through others, how Jesus-with-skin-on has made a difference.

their stories reminded me why i am not crazy about the the word “missional”.

here are some reasons why:

  • it feels pretty cruddy to be someone’s “mission”.  seriously.
  • it often tends to be one-way.  there’s a focus on giving and serving (which are obviously good) but it can also be used as a protection from relationship & connection & equality. we must practice receiving, too, and that’s usually harder than giving.
  • it keeps power protected.  those who have it keep it, and those without it never fully do.  issues of power have damaged many, and in the kingdom of God we need to do what we can to keep intentionally breaking down power differentials.
  • the main people talking & writing & coordinating conferences about “missional” are white, educated people with margin. i fall into this category, too, so i’m not just pointing the finger.  we are making progress on new voices from the margins in terms of homosexuality & women, but the truth is poor people aren’t influencing change the way that they could be because they never sit at the tables where changes get made. these are the voices we need to hear from! but that’s too much of a mind-bender in a system bent toward privilege & power.
  • we can hide behind mission and never learn to love.  real love, real relationship, real connection is hard work.  both mission and love require sacrifice and time, but love requires a whole other level of vulnerability, the kind most of us are afraid of, but the kind i believe Jesus calls us to.

so those are a few of the reasons off the top of my head why the word kind of bugs me.

i realize it’s not really fair to critique an alternative.  i do sometimes use “incarnational” instead because it really is about Jesus-with-skin-on.  however, similar to “missional”, it only makes sense in the inner-circles of christianity.

the more i reflect on the wisdom shared on the panel and what i keep learning in the muck and mire of life connected to the refuge, the word that best describes this crazy beautiful path God calls us to is also the simplest one–love.

isn’t love what we’re supposed to be known for? 

isn’t love what Jesus embodied and empowers us to reflect? 

isn’t love enough?     

i wonder if maybe love is the scariest thing of all. 

mission, that’s in our control. 

messy, raw, sacrificial, tangible, long-haul love, now that’s dangerous.

i don’t think a lot of people are sitting around waiting to be someone’s “mission”.

but i do think there are a lot of people hoping to be loved & love others, to have friends and be a friend, to be connected to a little pocket of love that could bring hope & life & dignity & joy & peace in all kinds of wild and mysterious ways. 

yeah, i like the word love instead of mission.

 

 

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

67 Comments

  • I absolutely loved this post, Kathy. It’s been my experience when I’ve gone on a “mission” trip to come away feeling more blessed by those we were supposed to be serving. It’s neat how God strips away all pretense & makes visible his love through anyone….if we are open to seeing it & being ministered to ourselves. Love others & you will be loved.

    Reply
  • Excellent, Kathy! I have thought the same thing for a long time. I mean, how awkward would it be for my neighbors to think I’m somehow “out to get them” (even for a “good cause,” Jesus). I know it would make ME feel uncomfortable to have someone think of me that way, like some kind of “points on a scorecard” or something :/
    Talk about a relationship-buzz-kill.
    How much better, and more effective, helpful, and kind, to just love on people, with no “expectations” or anything. You know ~~ “treat others the way you’d want to be treated.” Imagine that.
    Just be used by the Spirit; let Him do His thing; and then let Him get the praise for hearts turned to Jesus.
    Thanks for the great reminder!

    Reply
    • “relationship buzz-kill” – love that. oh i can think of so many moments over the years we have had an agenda of getting people to church instead of just loving freely. there’s so much to learn from the golden rule…thanks for sharing!

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  • Yes, Yes, Yes Kathy! This sentence, so powerful: “poor people aren’t influencing change the way that they could be because they never sit at the tables where changes get made.”

    My daughter once commented,”People can sense if you have an agenda” (how true)…”the only way to be sure they never sense that is not to have one.”

    I’m still growing in this, still sorting out the implications of the privilege I know I sit in every day … wishing I could have heard those voices you talk about … is there any recording, etc available?

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    • hey mar, oh i wish we could have captured it but we are so low-tech and it never crossed my mind until later. i am still trying to think of a way to capture it on paper, though, we’ll see. i really do think the sitting at the table thing is what’s missing the most. that is where change is made & the most important voices are missing!

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  • “i wonder if maybe love is the scariest thing of all.”

    You said a mouthful there, my friend. Rules and agendas are much easier to understand and implement than something as wild & untamed as “love.”

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    • thanks alise, for reading & sharing & for continuing to the stir the pot…

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  • Hey Kathy … the old Missional Tribe Instigators have been having a conversation about this conundrum off and on for several months. You’ve articulated a lot of my thoughts and feelings about this. When I’m talking to people who are outside the church, I try to use words like redemption and grace in my conversation. Plus, I have plain old friends … with no agenda. It’s not that I don’t care about getting them to an acceptance of Jesus, it’s just that that is not what the friendship is based on. In fact, I have very few churchy friends left … and that’s intentional.

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    • i loved missional tribe because of the awesome people who were part of pulling it together. not crazy about the name (ha ha) but the reality is that sometimes it’s the word that helps orient us. i so get that. and i so believe we need passionate instigators (love that word) for change. it’s amazing what we can learn when we just let go of agendas…the freedom is really beautiful. it’s interesting, intersecting with a lot of nonprofits whose purpose is to help the poor & marginalized move to self-sufficiency and healing in different ways. there are so many nonchristian organizations doing this work in so many amazing ways, with so much freedom. it is really glorious to see. there are christians in those organizations & nonchristians all mixed together but the “bigger agenda” is not there and it feels so much more honest. thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  • I agree with some of what you are saying here, but one thing I do like about the word missional is that it has the connotation of purposeful, intentional, and aimed. Too many of us, myself included, can live lives that are adrift. Whether we call what we are about a mission or love, we need to be intentional about serving Christ by serving others. That doesn’t mean I don’t learn and get blessed in the process. Here’s something else to consider. While we do learn from others, Jesus put an emphasis on a particular kind of knowledge in his commands to the disciples to go and teach all that He had commanded, baptizing and making disciples. While the Bible doesn’t use the term missional, it does use the term “mission” in Acts 12:25 to connote people who go someplace with an intent of preaching the Good News.

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    • thanks for sharing catherine. some don’t like the word “intentional” but i definitely do. and i hear what you are saying about intention vs. aimlessness. but i think sometimes as christians we can become so focused on “mission” that we don’t know how to just be friends, either. i really appreciate your thoughts, thanks for taking time to comment.

      Reply
  • Thank you Kathy for putting words to this. That word has always bugged me too.

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  • i agree with your conclusions (and your critique that key “missional” players remain a rather privileged monolith), but i’m still left wondering about your distaste for “missional.” your criticisms seem to be against how christians/churches perceive Evangelism or Doing Missions. in my understanding and experience, missional has always be about community and living out the gospel alongside, a corrective to any kind of “ministry” that treats people as projects.

    i’ve been away from the missional/emergining church for a while. if’s it’s become a meaningless buzzword, that’s a shame, but i’d argue that any church that isn’t oriented out and up to love like Jesus or experiencing him in the world and people beyond four walls on sunday isn’t missional at all.

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    • thanks suzannah. most of my distaste for it has come from slapping the word on programs instead of changing some of our core ways of living out the gospel. i know so many amazing people who are missional, really living out their faith in tangible wild ways, serving others and practicing the ways of love despite it’s challenges. it’s glorious. but i also know of many churches who are touting being missional with the same core principles of “us and them”, retaining power, not getting hands too dirty, staying comfortable but saying ‘see, this is all the cool stuff we do for God’, etc. that is what bugs me and what i am reacting to. in some ways it’s the same with the word “church”, it has become hijacked and lost its true intention, replaced with going to a building, listening to some songs & a message & going home. i think “missional’ has that potential, too. but what i always love is there are all kinds of people who aren’t attached to any kinds of buzzwords and are just living out what God is calling them to do. it’s really beautiful!

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  • Yes! Yes! Yes! Amazing. Turning people into pet projects doesn’t really work. It doesn’t work when one spouse tries to “fix” the other. It doesn’t work when someone discovers this new friend they have isn’t really interested in anything but turning them into a project.

    So what’s the replacement word for “missional?”

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    • hey thanks matt & thanks for the link, too. i am not sure of a replacement word because i respect that “love” won’t quite cut it for many, ha ha. i wish that were enough. honestly, i wish we didn’t really have to have a word because it’s just what we did as Christ-followers. i do prefer incarnational but as i mentioned in the post, it doesn’t make sense outside of our context.

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  • The word’s bugged me too. I’ve not been able to decide if it’s just a general allergy to any “next buzz word” the church comes up with or if its something the word implies itself, but as you said, I can totally see it connected with maintaining power. Not just power, but maintaining distance as well. And do distance and power really have anything at all to do with the underlying pull of the church? Jesus certainly modeled proximity and powerlessness – and in that light wasn’t very missional at all.

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    • love this thought, amy, the difference between distance & power and proximity & powerlessness. whoa, that’s good.

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  • This is beautiful Kathy! I share your concerns regarding the word “missional”. I think it is more the motives behind the word than the actual word that bug me. It is not loving for anyone to view another human being as a “project”. Motives matter a great deal to God. People can feel it down in their bones when they are nothing more than a “tithing unit”, a project, or a statistic to be added to a resume or a report, or a PowerPoint presentation a brochure, or a video for marketing purposes. It isn’t loving to treat people like objects. It isn’t loving to treat people like merit badges earning someone brownie points with God. My biggest concern is about the motives behind the word. We all need to reflect and check our motives in all things! Real missions like real love is agenda free, inclusive and egalitarian, IMHO.

    Thank you for sharing your insights and thoughts! Good stuff! Always a helpful conversation going on here!

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    • yeah, i think that’s what it is, too, the motives behind the word vs. the actual word. i am mainly reacting to what i see as an honest, passionate movement to draw the church back to its roots of really engaging in on-the-ground-tangible-love-with-one-another getting hijacked as a programming/marketing thing by the system. that’s what bugs me about it.

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  • Kathy, I am not so sure about your take on this. Or maybe I just don’t understand what you are trying to get us to see. I get the gist, but something about your bullet list bothers me. Let me see if I can explain.

    •it feels pretty cruddy to be someone’s “mission”. seriously.

    Really? Jesus made it his mission to proclaim the good news and seek and save the lost. I am his mission. And it feels pretty damn good, thank you very much. Maybe the problem isn’t that we are carrying out God’s mission; maybe the problem is that we do not understand what God’s mission is.

    •it often tends to be one-way. there’s a focus on giving and serving (which are obviously good) but it can also be used as a protection from relationship & connection & equality. we must practice receiving, too, and that’s usually harder than giving.

    I don’t think this describes missional living at all. At all. At least not the way I see it practiced in our community of faith, or in the Scriptures. Jesus, again, is our example. He gave and received. He taught and learned. He led and followed.

    •it keeps power protected. those who have it keep it, and those without it never fully do. issues of power have damaged many, and in the kingdom of God we need to do what we can to keep intentionally breaking down power differentials.

    Again, this isn’t the mission God has called us to. Jesus laid down his life so others could live. He shares leadership in the church. He teaches us not to lord it over others.

    •the main people talking & writing & coordinating conferences about “missional” are white, educated people with margin. i fall into this category, too, so i’m not just pointing the finger. we are making progress on new voices from the margins in terms of homosexuality & women, but the truth is poor people aren’t influencing change the way that they could be because they never sit at the tables where changes get made. these are the voices we need to hear from! but that’s too much of a mind-bender in a system bent toward privilege & power.

    And this is exactly why people need to be encouraged to live out the mission God calls us to. The problem isn’t the words “mission” or “missional”; rather, the problem is how they are being lived out.

    •we can hide behind mission and never learn to love. real love, real relationship, real connection is hard work. both mission and love require sacrifice and time, but love requires a whole other level of vulnerability, the kind most of us are afraid of, but the kind i believe Jesus calls us to.

    I don’t see how this applies to Christ’s true mission for his people. There is no hiding. Rather, we carry out his mission in every avenue of life: work, school, shopping, sports, home, dining out … everywhere! I agree, love is the mission, but love drives us to proclaim the good news, to reunite people to the God who is there, to help people learn to follow Jesus so they can be set free to live as God intended. I just do not see how you can separate “love” from “mission.” In a general sense, isn’t the mission exactly that, to love?

    Reply
    • “Maybe the problem isn’t that we are carrying out God’s mission; maybe the problem is that we do not understand what God’s mission is.”

      I think that is her point right there, and that’s where the love bit comes in. The church has turned it from a lifestyle into an organized task and buzzword. While making something into an organization helps to apply God’s commands or missions in a practical way, we often end up becoming too task oriented (Martha) and forget that it’s really all about love and relationships. When this is the situation, then no, it doesn’t feel good to be someone’s project. In fact, it’s quite condescending. People end up feeling like you’re just being nice to them so you can get brownie points with God and you can feel better about yourself. It’s true that sometimes we need to have an organization to help us in the right direction, but we have to keep that balance otherwise it becomes (often unintentionally) a selfish endeavor.

      Reply
    • Kent, I’m sure Kathy will have her own thoughts but I do see validity in what she has shared about the term “missional.” Do we have to throw the word out? Perhaps not. People have been abused in the name of “love.” However, I think Kathy nails some key issues that are challenges among self-identified missional communities.

      I think those of us who have a heart for others (“missional”) can hide behind our power, our agendas, our pet projects, our politics, etc. Carrying out the mission in every area of life as it were, does not translate into a discerning love which nurtures a deepening intimacy of freedom, beauty, and peace with and for others.

      To explain further, I think she raises a fundamental point about power differentials. This is not just an issue between men and women. In the quest to be missional there can be individuals/leaders who “share” or distribute power who still are not in touch with the psychic power they wield in community.

      Reply
    • hey kent, thanks for sharing so thoughtfully. i always appreciate it. i think you said it well: “The problem isn’t the words “mission” or “missional”; rather, the problem is how they are being lived out.” and “isn’t the mission exactly that, to love?” that really is my point in so many ways. it’s not a program, it’s a way of living. but what can happen is that mission can become about “doing something for other people to make ourselves feel better” vs. learning how to love and be loved together. those are two completely different things and my point is just that the first one is way easier and our natural default. you & so many others are pushing against this default and it’s a beautiful thing and so needed in the kingdom of God.

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      • Great thoughts, Kathy! Keep writing and inspiring us to live out what God has really called us to.

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  • Matthew 25:35:
    For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;

    We usually view charity as a transaction between a giver and a receiver. In this passage from Matthew, on which end of the transaction is Jesus? He’s on the receiving end! Doesn’t that feel odd? Doesn’t it feel more comfortable to picture Jesus on the giving end? On “our” end of the transaction?

    As I have been working through this, it has occurred to me how easy it is for me to have a paternalistic view of charity. It’s the attitude that says, “I was born into privilege. I have wealth. You don’t. Here! Let me give you some of mine.” It’s the attitude that attempts to export my worldview into the third world expecting it to fix their problems. It’s the attitude that separates the giver and the receiver into two classes of people, one above the other. And it can be really dangerous when I start to feel like I am placing myself above the world, waiting to descend on those below, so I can be the “blessing” they’ve been waiting for, like it or not. It is dangerous because why?

    Because then I am placing myself above Jesus.

    As an Incarnational Christian, as one whose body, whose flesh, houses the Holy Spirit, you should be able to look into my eyes, listen to my words, watch my actions, and see the image of Christ; tarnished and dim to be sure, but His image nonetheless. As a Missional Christian that image within me meets Christ’s image within my neighbor-in-need and we serve each other in love. The charitable trans-action becomes an inter-action and Christ meets us somewhere in the middle.

    So when I was giving a Haitian refugee a back rub … a loving, healing touch, I was feeling both incarnational and missional. The box of food I had delivered to his family an hour previous was irrelevant. The touch, the love, the joy of seeing him smile and thank me in Creole, gave ME much more than I could ever give him.

    And I think that is what being missional SHOULD mean. Let’s grab the term and buy it back.

    Click through my name for the rest of this story … with pictures.

    Reply
    • Jim, that’s good. I love how you said “Let’s grab the term and buy it back.” That is cool. We have wanted to do that with a lot of other words that got ripped off, such as the word “church.” It is challenging, but worth it in the long haul. And by the way, I think I totally get what Kathy (and others who commented) are feeling about this term. I have felt the same way. And I love how Kathy writes and lays everything out there for us to experience and chew on. She is amazing. And challenging. At that is a very good thing.

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      • kent, i always like pushback, it always helps me grow & learn.

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    • Jim, you have put into words so much of my wrestling with Matthew 25 … He’s on the receiving end! Brain can’t grasp it … Hoping heart can.

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    • thanks, jim, beautiful as always. i agree with you on what missional should mean! like the word “church” and “pastor”, i do hope that maybe they can be redeemed somehow and their true intention lived out with a lot less baggage. your example of the paternalistic bent made me think of one of my favorite posts from down we go for she loves, why prepositions matter: http://shelovesmagazine.com/2012/down-we-go-why-prepositions-matter/. in alot of ways, this sums up some of my thoughts on this.

      Reply
    • 🙂 i’m glad you are here. we need to figure out another fun pdx thing one of these days!

      Reply
  • Hey Kath, you are in a groove! Great stuff. I think this is where the focus on missional can end up being so utilitarian–and shape relationships around projects, order, and agenda rather than the scariest thing of them all–love.

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    • thanks dan, yes, you know the pushback on relationship stuff. we’d much rather talk about movements & programs & theology than practice love!

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  • Beautiful, Kathy. I often wonder when people focus so much on being missional if they simultaneously forget to build relationships with one another. We can be so outwardly focused and driven to serve others that we forget to live in love with those closest to us.

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    • thanks doreen, i sometimes think it’s a protection for us, a defense mechanism that is unconscious and not-necessarily-coming-from-a-bad-place-but-just-engrained-in-us-to-take-the-easier-route. settling down, taking a deep breath and just being in relationship with others is much scarier stuff. i don’t want to “forget to live in love with those closest to us.” so good!

      Reply
  • This is *exactly* how I feel on the subject. You basically took the trouble of converting my brain waves into words, and I egocentrically thank you. 😛

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  • “but i do think there are a lot of people hoping to be loved & love others, to have friends and be a friend, to be connected to a little pocket of love that could bring hope & life & dignity & joy & peace in all kinds of wild and mysterious ways.” Um…I’m pretty sure you just described what “missional” is supposed to mean in this sentence.

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    • thanks shon. that’s what i think it is supposed to mean, too…

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    • jamie, you crossed my mind when i was writing this post because of your awesome posts about short-term mission projects. exactly! thanks for your voice out here, it’s awesome.

      Reply
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  • Hi Kathy – I really appreciate your post–the word missional has always bugged me too, for some of the same reasons you give, and also because it seems like some kind of insider code word, i.e., just the opposite of being missional. I like the world love as an alternative, also community.

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    • thanks, april. yeah, “insider code words” bug me, ha ha. thanks for sharing!

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    • P.S. – The Lord Jesus Christ does not like hypocrisey (it is a form of lying), and yet He is the only One that can save hypocrites.

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      • thanks for taking time to share. it always helps when we admit we are instead of pretending we’re not.

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        • Better yet it would help even more to actually stop being a hypocrite than just admitting that we are a hypocrite. Actions speak louder than words.

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  • What occurs to me is that “missional” is reactive. I was part of a missional church project at a presbyterian church. While the packaging wasn’t focused on getting more members, the ethos seemed to be ways of bringing people in. I also couldn’t help but think of the “Purpose Driven” movement as well. Churches are non-profit corporations let’s not forget.

    But love is difficult because it means I need to share my vulnerability with another person and I need to get very honest about myself. One exercise that we did do was that we looked at our history and got very honest. But there was no real program for what to do about that. Plus if you don’t want to change, you won’t.

    Something I wrote a week ago comes to mind “I can blame no one when I suffer this way. I cause it by longing for something else than what is in front of me. My fear of change, of letting go, of enacting faith, and of trusting God or anyone else is why I will suffer. This is my own desire to cling to what I know so that I don’t have to face what I don’t know. Faith should step in here to help me in the struggle to define what isn’t clear. But faith is hard work. If faith alone is hard work, how much harder is it to love?” http://notes-from-off-center.com/2012/06/25/in-between-suffering-and-faith/

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  • In the book, The Future Starts Now, which we published in 2009, We used the term “post-missional” to describe the new work of the church in this new day. In the book, which I wrote in partnership with Kelly Fryer and Tana Kjos, we connected mission to the previous era of conquest and the current environment of church growth. The future work of the church needs to be divorced from those two pieces of baggage and free to be sent in a caring way that is both confident of God’s work and humble in its approach. I rarely promote our books on blog response, but this one may be worth reading for some of you who like the point made in this blog (which I agree with). You can find the book at https://arenewalenterprise.3dcartstores.com/ if you are interested. Thanks for your thoughts, Kathy!

    Reply
    • In the work we have been doing, we have started to use the term “post-missional” for our work. “Missional” has been too closely linked to church growth or at least to growing churches. While I am not opposed to the church growing, it is not the primary point of God’s mission. We have more and more used the term “mission” to only refer to the work God is doing to bring healing and wholeness to creation. We use “purpose” and “purposeful” to refer to the church’s role in that work. David Bosch is helpful here, “God’s church does not have a mission. God’s mission has a church.” In the work we do at Day 8 Strategies and A Renewal Enterprise, we focus on being useful and participating in God’s mission but the mission is always connected primarily to God and not the church. The book “The Future Starts Now” from ARE Books is a helpful resource to develop a framework that may be helpful to some readers here.

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  • What do you have against using capital letters? Is this some type of rebellion?

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  • I love this post! I haven’t liked the word missional much either lately, mostly because I feel it forms a false dichotomy. I just got back from a mission trip to Spain teaching ESL as a way to foster relationships and trying to just serve and be Jesus to people. And I thought, you know, my life back home shouldn’t look any different. I should always be asking how I can serve, how I can help. Calling a trip to Spain a “mission” trip makes it seem as though those questions are only for that time, only for when I’m consciously thinking about living missionally – and really, all of life is a mission, a mission to serve and give and love just the way Jesus did.

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  • I just ran across your post as I was looking up “Missional” to see if it was really a word. I was in the middle of writing a post on missions myself. I don’t really like the word either and it seems like it is every second or third word out of the mouths of the pastoral staff in the church where I serve. An excellent post, much better that I could have said it. Thanks for sharing.

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  • I have similar struggles with the word. Especially when my life’s choices are being labeled “missional” when really I’ve made choices aligned with my values and I’m seeking to be a loving, Christ-following person in that context. Thanks for addressing some of the word’s limitations.

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  • This is excellent. It puts words to a collection of gut feelings I have in response to missional ministries.
    A friend just told me about your book and your site. I am in a faith shift right now and am thankful for your willingness to share here.

    Reply

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