“It’s not that I don’t ever use the term, but it’s not my favorite one,” Escobar said. Why? “Because of how it’s being slapped on programs to make the same-old same-old feel more outreach oriented.”
Escobar—who also blogged on “why the word ‘missional’ bugs me”—has plenty of company. Her comments reflect a growing unease with a term its long-time proponents say has become increasingly popular—and meaningless.
Experts generally define “missional” as ministry that seeks first to discern God’s ongoing mission in the world and then become aligned with it.
Unlike historic approaches that based ministry on the strengths and interests of a given church, a missional approach opens a congregation to be shaped by the needs of the community around it.
“The way I am using the term now is to help churches move from having church-shaped missions to having mission-shaped churches,” said Harry Rowland, missional networks specialist for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The movement began to take shape in the 1980s and 1990s and has inspired hundreds of church plants. Many religious institutions, including the CBF, are trying to harness the energy of the missional movement to transform existing churches and to plant new ones.
Some also see the missional movement as key to the survival of the steeple church.
“The idea is to look out there and see what God is doing and discover what we are supposed to do with missions,” Rowland said.
But care must be taken with the term, because it can sound like just a fancy new word for traditional programs, said Ray Johnson, coordinator of CBF Florida.
“In my own writing, I am careful not to overuse the term, so it doesn’t become synonymous with a church doing missions,” Johnson said.
But that is a very hard distinction for many people to make, said Steve Knight, leader of Transform, a 1,300-member international network of missional church starters.
The discernment required in interpreting the term can be swayed by institutional and theological leanings, Knight said.
“Being missional starts with asking, ‘What does God really care about in the world and in my community?’” Knight said. “Some would say, ‘God really cares about saving souls.’ So, now evangelism activities are considered missional.”
The same can happen with congregations that care more about social justice, he said.
“The danger is that the term ‘missional’ loses its individual meaning and becomes synonymous for these other ideas we’ve had all along,” he said.
Doing so misses the deeper spiritual and theological shifts that led to the creation of the term 15 to 20 years ago, Knight said.
So, now there is a small movement away from the term “missional” to “incarnational,” which users say more narrowly defines the concept of the church and its people as being “the hands and feet of Christ.”
But for Andy Hale and his congregation in Clayton, N.C., the term “missional” isn’t as important as its application.
So far, that includes planting and maintaining a community garden to feed the local poor, hosting cookouts with live music and responding to other needs as they arise, said Hale, pastor of Mosaic, a CBF missional church plant.
“For us, being missional is to serve like Christ served and intentionally seek ways to connect with people where they are.”
Hale added he’s aware that ‘missional’ has become so widely used and defined that it means different things to different people.
He said that’s understandable, but it’s also no concern to him or others at Mosaic.
“By the time it gets to everyday use, they may find a new term,” Hale said. “But we will just focus on the practical application.”