Sunday, April 21, 2013

Missional Drift: Defining the Role of the Local Church in Diaspora Missions

Fifteen years ago a book by Darrel Gruder, a Princeton Seminary professor introduced the word 'missional' into the Christian lexicon. In the broader history of the church, this is like saying, "last Tuesday I heard someone use a cool new word." The word 'missional' has a short and complicated history, but it is a word that Evangelicals have increasingly become invested in--and one that many have developed an emotional attachment to.

I became intimately acquainted with this deep attachement to the word 'missional,' when I touched a nerve with my recent critiqued of it in a post entitled Is Everyone A Missionary? Yes and No.

It was not my intention to begin a conversation on the use of the word missional, in fact, I almost left the word missional out of the original post. I added it back in after having deleted it because I initially wanted to limit the conversation to the word 'mission.' I was quite surprised that so many people have not only read the post in its entirety, but that their discussion of it with me has centered around my use of the word missional.

I want to reiterate what I said in the aforementioned post: words have meanings, and we need to use them discerningly. The word missional was originally coined to describe the fact that the church of Christ is a missionary. Jonathan Leeman does a great job discussing the history of the word missional in a journal post at 9marks, so I don't necessarily feel the need to rehash that here.

I agree with the original definition of missional as it relates to the corporate nature of the church as a missionary. However, I take issue with its use as it applies to individuals or small/cell groups within the church. I believe that the use of the word missional among Evangelicals causes misunderstanding about the true nature of mission and individual people's place in the global advance of God's Kingdom.

The word missional is often used by its proponents to distinguish between churches that are attractional and those that are more focused on outreach in their community--the way that many of them go about becoming more 'missional' is to start small groups in the community with specific focuses on geographic or demographic niches that may or may not be represented in the church. However, as I spent time stating in the previous post, this isn't 'mission' as described in the bible unless it is actively seeking to establish new manifestations of the body among different ethno-linguistic groups in the community or abroad.

Missional churches by and large reach out to those same demographics represented in their church already. They talk a big talk, but often don't walk the walk. They establish small groups where Christ followers and pre-Christians can interact more comfortably. But here's the rub, they are still using an attractional model, they are just doing it on a smaller scale! For all of their antagonism against attractional models, very few 'missional' churches have taken steps to equip their church members in personal evangelism skills or challenged them to reach out to people significantly different than themselves!

The word missional used this way is just a synonym for outreach, saying a church is missional is not significantly different than saying a church is outreach-oriented. It is a new word (and not a very good one) for an old thing. The average missional church is young, white, college educated, middle class and uses missional terminology as a way to feel good and alleviate some of their post-colonial guilt. It often has more to do, subconsciously, with the style of music the church band plays and possibly the presence of couches and candles in the sanctuary.

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In my mind, this is a waste of a the term missional as it could be used among Evangelical Christians! There is already a lot of debate about what the word missional really means, and I hope to offer here an alternative definition. Imagine if being missional meant actually being aware of God's global mission to reach the diverse ethno-liguistic peoples of the world with the Gospel and how that was being realized both globally and locally!

There are many opportunities to be truly missional in our local communities--one of the fastest growing segments of missiology (the theology of missions) is diaspora missiology. God is on the move, and so are the peoples of the world--we are increasingly living in a globalized world, and our local communities reflect the rich diversity of the global community. God is in charge of this global movement of peoples, in Acts 17:26-27 it says that He determines the times and places that people live with the purpose that some of them might come to know Him!

That means that God is moving people into our communities in order for us to share the Gospel with them! Mission is no longer only about sending men and women from predominantly Christian nations to share the Gospel with non-Christian peoples, but God is also bringing non-Christian peoples from all over the world into our communities where they may for the first time have the opportunity to hear the Gospel!

Our local college campuses, public schools, hospitals, businesses, restaurants and government offices already reflect these changes--there are hundreds of different languages being spoken around us. In communities around the country there are mosques and temples being established for the worship of foreign gods. However, the ministry and outreach to the tens of millions of new immigrants coming to our shores has often been relegated to the hands of a few.

What would happen if the church, the whole church, would wake up and see what God is doing in bringing the peoples of the world within our borders?! What would happen if our church members became 'missional' in regards to reaching out to the Middle Eastern, Asian, African, European and Latin American immigrants increasingly coming to our nation? Instead of a small group of volunteers giving ESL classes, or a lone campus minister reaching out to international studies, what would happen if everyone in your church was suddenly moved to share their lives with the stranger and the alien?

I don't like the word missional as it is currently being used, but I can envision a proper use for it. I hope that increasingly churches become missional as they engage in the mission of God to reach out to the people's of the world with the Gospel, as God is increasingly moving those people into our midst.

If you are interested in learning more about Diaspora Missiology, the Lausanne Movement has set up a website at They have also released a short booklet on Diaspora Missions entitled Scattered to Gather(pdf) which is available for free. Please pray and consider how you and your church may become involved in reaching the peoples that God is bringing into our midst.

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