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What Missional is and Why it Matters

An oft-quoted portion from the movie “The Princess Bride” has Inigo Montoya responding to the Sicilian Vizzini’s constant use of “Inconceivable!” with “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Several years ago, I and group of other missiologists, pastors and theologians produced the Missional Manifesto to encourage believers to live missional lives and to clarify what we mean when we use the term “missional.” Essentially we were a group of Christians putting forward a definition to help people to say what they mean and for it to mean what they think it means when they use the term—and to encourage others to do the same. We don’t think that we are the owners of the term, and others certainly have equal claim, but we did want to say what we meant when we spoke the term.

Beyond definitions, the meat of the Missional Manifesto is found in the affirmations, designed to encourage us toward biblical fidelity and missional engagement. For example:

We affirm that the missio Dei is the mission of the triune God to glorify Himself. God does so in this world by redeeming sinful humans and, in the future, restoring corrupted creation. The Father sent the Son to accomplish this redemption and sends the Spirit to apply this redemption to the hearts of men and women. Included in God’s mission is the missio ecclesia whereby He empowers the church for witness and service that leads to witness. Believers are called to share the gospel with people so they can come to know Christ. Moving from God, through the church, to the world, God’s redemptive work results in people of every tribe, tongue and nation responding in lifelong worship of the God. Ultimately the missio Dei will encompass all of creation when God creates a new heaven and new earth.

When we begin to talk about “the mission of the triune God to glorify Himself,” it must start with the idea of the missio Dei. This important concept is a Latin phrase for the “sending of God” or, the “mission of God.”

During the past half-century, there has been significant shift from understanding mission as simply the geographical expansion of the Christian faith from the West to the non-Christian world towards a more expansive understanding of mission as God’s mission—particularly within a Trinitarian theological framework. This tenant has become known as the missio Dei, which has become the milestone concept of the twentieth century’s theology of mission. In other words, today just about everyone believes in the missio Dei idea as one rooted in Scripture but more recently emphasized in theology.

In short, “mission” refers back to its fixed basis—to the movement of the Father in sending His Son and Spirit. God, who is ontologically “missionary” and, as God is the acting subject in His self-revelation, He maintains the initiative in this activity.

This divine missionary activity includes yet another noteworthy shift in thought: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. Mission is therefore God’s work in the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission. There is a church because there is a mission, not vice versa.

The mission of God calls us toward action. Christians, individually and corporately are called to live pressing toward missional activity in the world.

A “Kingdom mentality” draws on the prevailing missionary text of John 20:21—Christ, in His own “sentness” commands the sending of the Christian community.Missio Dei, therefore, expresses this missionary existence of the Christian community. We are to live sent.

The New Testament undoubtedly places the mission of the church within the larger context of God’s purpose to restore the whole creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Col. 1:20). But it also gives the church a focal occupation in the life of the Kingdom: God’s biblically mandated vessel for His redemptive agenda in the world.

The goal of the missional journey on which we find ourselves is the end-game described in the Scriptures—a redeemed people dwelling with God in a redeemed creation; a creation which will have experienced people of every tribe, tongue and nation responding in lifelong worship to King Jesus.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.