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The 3 Dimensions of the Missional Church

Missional. Depending on your perspective, it brings warmth to your soul or a shiver down your spine.  Yet, just about everyone is using the term now–often without awareness of the historical debate around the term and focus.

I’ve been thinking about the term missional and how it is used related to the terms “missionary,” “mission,” and “missio dei.” It seems that these three dimensions (3D) will help us to consider some of the ideas and understand some of the proponents.

We recently released a Missional Manifesto to help suggest some clarity to the term missional.  Yet, I’ve been thinking about how to address the issues of terminology and emphasis.  I’d like your input to see if I can define the terms in line with historical emphases– hence this first draft of the article.

To most people, missional is the adjectival use of the word missionUnfortunately, that is where the simplicity ends. Missional has become a true wiki-word.  Practitioners, theoreticians, and foes are defining, defending, and dissecting it, and its blurred meaning has brought some to the point that they don’t want to use it anymore.

I think the term missional has legs.  In other words, it is not the church “word of the day” like “winning souls” was in the 1950-60s or “church growth” was in the 1970-80s or “emerging” was in the 2000s.  I believe it is here to stay.  But if we are going to use a word to define a significant movement within evangelicalism, we must address the serious theological concerns, challenges, and opportunities that the term gives us.

So how do we define it? First, you cannot understand the term missional without deciphering the defining missiological debate of the 20th century:  the relationship between “church and mission.”  And if you look closely, many of today’s leading voices in the missional conversation derive their ideas from where this discussion took place: the 20th century conciliar missions movement.  The best way to get to contemporary usage on what the word should mean is by looking at how the conversation on “church and mission” has served as a catalyst for, what I believe, are three “dimensions” of missional:  missionary, mission, and the missio Dei.[1]

The First Dimension of Missional: The Church As “Missionary”

In 1910, John Mott, considered by many to have launched both the modern Protestant missions movement and the modern ecumenical movement, called together the leaders of the evangelical world to the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. This meeting would launch a series of subsequent gatherings that would become the setting where evangelical leaders from around the world would have missiological conversations of the day.  Though the conference pursued several objectives, it most notable ambition was to carry the gospel to the entire non-Christian world.

The chief contribution by the Edinburgh conferees was the formation of a committee that would later give birth to the International Missionary Council (IMC) in 1921.  Though its humble beginnings were merely seen as an international collaboration between Protestant missionary societies, after 1921, the IMC – and later its absorption into the Worldwide Council of Churches (WCC) – would become the ecumenical vehicle by which many groups would move toward greater unity and cooperation in mission over the next 80 years.[2]

One of the most important early meetings of the IMC was in Tambaram (Madras), India, in 1938.  It was determined that the central theme of the meeting should be focused on the importance and centrality of the local church in “mission” in every place – what Mott coined as “larger evangelism.”[3]  William Hogg said, “Madras made the church its central concern…In a day when many regarded the historic church as an unnecessary appendage to ‘the Christian spirit,’ Madras brought a new awareness of the church’s importance.”[4]

The Tambaram conference called the whole church to be the bearers of the Gospel in every sphere of life.[5]  In other words, mission is not to be a subdivision of the church’s life; it exists to accomplish a divinely ordained mission, and the accountability rests upon every Christian in and outside of the church. From Madras on, it was not possible to talk of mission without directly linking mission to the church– it is the church that is God’s missionary to the world.

The first person to use the word missional in this sense was the late Francis Dubose, longtime professor at Golden Gate Seminary, in his book, God Who Sends, published in 1983.  I had the privilege to speak with Francis before he died this year, and he indicated to me that it is from Tambaram that many of his ideas flow.  Dubose wanted to focus on the church as “missionary” but specifically chose not to use that language since books like Johannes Blauw’s The Missionary Nature of the Church defined the term in ways he found problematic. Thus, Dubose used missional as a replacement for the word “missionary.”

The momentum cultivated at Tambaram regarding the newfound association between mission and the church did not go without opposition.  Its most strident antagonism came from former Indian missionary and Methodist theologian, E. Stanley Jones.  He immediately questioned this emphasis on the church in missionary thinking, fearing that the substitution of the church for the Kingdom of God might fleece the missionary movement of the “needed fires of imagination, enthusiasm, and self-criticism.”[6]  He continued, “Madras looked out and saw the Kingdom and the Church at the door, opened the door to the lesser and more obvious, the Church, and left the Kingdom at the door. So Madras missed the way.”[7]  Interestingly, this sentiment would resurface at future mission conferences.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is the Dean of Talbot School of Theology at Biola Univeristy and Scholar in Residence & Teaching Pastor at Mariners Church. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Dr. Stetzer is the host of "The Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast," and his national radio show, "Ed Stetzer Live," airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.