Working Definition of “Missional”

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 3)

The Meaning of Missional

It has been nearly twenty years since the publication of Missional Church, which introduced the term missional into mainstream theological discourse in North America. Equally as important, it has been nearly forty years since Lesslie Newbigin published The Open Secret, which purported to be an introduction to the theology of mission but ultimately established the trinitarian lineaments of missional theology.[1. Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995). The first edition was published in 1978.] Despite fears among its chief proponents that the rapid popularization of missional meant its terminological demise,[2. E.g., Darrell Guder, “Missio Dei: Integrating Theological Formation for Apostolic Vocation,” Missiology: An International Review 37, no. 1 (2009): 65.] it seems safe to say that the theological movement is here to stay, and there is no word better than missional to describe it.

But what is missional theology? To begin, it is necessary to make the distinction between a description of the theological methods of Lesslie Newbigin or Darrell Guder, for example, and an argument in favor of a theological method for the movement that their work has catalyzed. To some extent, their methods are in the genes of missional theology, but fundamentally, they established the commitments of a movement still in search of a method.

Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile’s The Missional Church in Perspective definitively traces the emergence of missional, arguing that the word “displays an inherent elasticity that allows it to be understood in a variety of ways.”[3. Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 3. See also Darrell L. Guder, Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), which consolidates a good deal of the material Guder has published to date.] Moreover, Van Gelder and Zscheile do not seek to foreclose on further development of the concept. Still, their genealogy of missional presents a clear picture of its essential theological components: (1) a trinitarian missiology, (2) a focus on the already/not yet reign (kingdom) of God, (3) a broadened understanding of mission as missio Dei, (4) an understanding of the church as missionary by nature, (5) and a transition from “theology of mission” to a hermeneutic of both Scripture and church history from the perspective of mission.[4. Ibid., 25–35.] Indeed, the book attributes much of the diversity among supposedly missional churches to the underdevelopment or misappropriation of these key themes. The implication is twofold: the theology of a church is missional by virtue of its appropriation of these themes, and appropriation is a process, not a result. Each theme merits methodological reflection, but for now they signal a fuller, if indeterminate, understanding of two basic commitments—teleology and participation—and circumscribe missional meaningfully.

See Also

Theology after the Missional Turn (1)

Theology after the Missional Turn (2)

Theology after the Missional Turn (3)


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