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Echoes Blog

What's All This 'Missional' Talk?

Theologians like to make up words — or use old words differently. Some folks call these "neologisms" (how's that for a word?). Every once in a while one of those words catches on, goes viral, and makes a difference. The word "missional" is one of those. It's spreading through the church, with impact. Books written (Missional Church; Cultivating Missional Communities; A New Missional Era; The Missional Church in Perspective), conferences had, websites put up, and blog articles written. Over the course of about 20 years the word has become a part of church culture, at least among "mainline" (or "oldline") Protestants.

Alongside this word "missional," another term has also arisen, and that's "emergent." Coming from different sides of Protestant life — "missional" coming out of the mainline and "emergent" coming out of Evangelical churches — the two terms try to describe a singular phenomenon facing the churches and a wide set of approaches to that phenomenon.

That phenomenon is the simple and long-in-coming realization that the world has changed for the church.

The church is no longer the dominant, or in some places even a dominant meaning-making institution. It has been "disestablished." Gone are blue laws that keep the stores empty while people go to church. Gone are many cultural supports for clergy, churches, and belief. Gone is a broad, assumed, knowledge of the Christian story (whether that story is believed or not), or of basic biblical characters. Moses? Amos? Paul? Mary? Ruth? Jesus? Who are they?

If in the 1950s it was enough for a congregation to open its doors and offer a basic ministry, we are now very different. It's simply not the case anymore that "if we build it, they will come." It's no longer the case that the local Presbyterian pastor will be automatically turned to for comment on social concerns. It's no longer the case that we set the tone. Nationally (with notable local exceptions), the oldline denominations have dramatically declined in numbers, influence, and vitality. And with that, the broad and centrist commitment to the "common good" that so defined Protestant presence is collapsing.

Many ring their hands. But some see opportunity.

The "missional church" movement, like the "emergent church" movement, is an attempt to ask: "What now? What is God doing among us now? To what is God calling us now?" They're great questions. And they lead to a vision:

We will assume that God is at work, and that our task is to discern God's work and join it.

We will become neighbors again to our communities, reaching out rather than just waiting to receive.

We will be agile, flexible, open, and experimental, and we'll be so on several levels: in how we run the church, how we worship in the church, and how we offer the church to the world.

We will rediscover the old even as we imagine the new.

We will ask "what," "why," and "how" with confidence that we'll find answers.

We will stop arguing about the wrong things and concentrate on healing, reconciliation, and hope.

We will be as enthusiastically concerned about those who are not yet a part of the church and we are about those already here.

We will be a blessing—not only to each other, but to all.

We will expect the Holy Spirit to show up in our ministries.

These ideas are just the beginning. They shape the "missional" conversation. And they give a foundation for a whole lot of thinking about what's next.

So tighten your belts, hold onto the rails, grab the Spirit. We're on the way!