Did I miss something? (thoughts on the “missional” church)

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : September 29, 2006

I’m confused by recent useage of the word “missional.” It all started while I was reading Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s blog. There he draws a distinction between “emerging” and “missional” in a way that doesn’t make sense to me–as though they are two competing schools or something. My understanding is that missional is a larger category than emerging. Missional refers to the essence of the church as participating in the mission of God (ie, the missio Dei), while “emerging” refers to a change in the church’s relationship to its context. While these ideas definitely overlap, they aren’t the same.

The post seems to posit that the emerging church discussion has been corralled by Emergent?. I certainly have sympathies with this view. In the comments section of that post, someone seemed to articulate the idea that the emerging/Emergent is a group of folks that sympathize with McLaren, Pagitt and others who are strongly tied to Emergent, whereas the “missional” crowd is lead by the likes of Stetzer and Driscoll. In other words “emerging churches” are those churches with a more progressive agenda in light of our post-modern, post-whatever culture, while “missional churches” are those churches with a more conservative agenda (mostly calvinist) in light of our post-modern, post-whatever culture. I immediately dismissed the idea.

But then I came across the article What in the World is the Missional Church on I don’t usually go to that site, but found my way there through blog surfing. In the article, Jonathan Leeman writes the following:

I have no idea when exactly conservative evangelicals co-opted the term “missional.” My guess is that conservative writers and pastors in the emerging church movement like Mark Driscoll, after tromping through some of the same fields as their liberal counterparts, reached down, pulled up the missional plant by the roots, and then transplanted it into conservative soil.

The word “missional”–one used only within mainline denominations–has now become a very important buzzwords among conservative evangelicals (a good number of them Calvinists). In some ways the word has indeed become their possession. And for some reason, I never really noticed the shift. I simply thought that confused conservative evangelicals were starting to use the word–mostly inaccurately–because it fit the long-held evangelical impulse of putting Matthew 28 at the middle of their understanding of the purpose for the Church.

And so, not it seems that the word “missional” is increasingly becoming an identifier for those who would be a part of the emerging church but are uncomfortable with the “liberal-types” who seem to be dominating the conversation. And so the rift begins. It certainly seems like two “camps” are forming within this generation of churches that are seeking to live in our post-whatever North American context.
Unfortunately for me, I’m by no means in the same “camp” as the Stetzer/Driscoll crowd. I’m simply not Calvinistic nor conservative enough. I’d be content being in the “emerging church camp” but I am indeed a bit uncomfortable with the seeming dominance of Emergent? within the emerging church discussion. It isn’t that I think Emergent is a bad group of folks or that I have any big disagreement with them. Its just that I don’t like branding within the church and I don’t like that the conversation seems to be congealing around the publishing deals of the few.

My only option is to try to be friendly with all involved. I’m still a part of the Twin Cities Emergent Cohort, somewhat begrudgingly. And I’ll have to simply be ok with the fact that my blog, which is called “missionthink” and my community, which is called “Missio Dei” will be somehow linked in peoples mind’s to the new “missional” camp that seems to be forming. Oh well.

for further reading . . .

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11 Responses to “Did I miss something? (thoughts on the “missional” church)”

  1. Jamie Arpin-Ricci on September 29th, 2006 9:30 am

    I am really confused about this. I reread my post and the comments I made throughout the conversation that resulted. I think you misunderstood the point of my post.

    I was not drawing the distinction, but acknowledging that the distinction is inevitably happening, whether we like it or not. Why? For many reasons, some of which I cite in my post (the largest being people feeling the there is an increasing connection between “emerging” & Emergent Village, thus one aspect of the American context rather than the larger global community).

    It saw the risk of this dividing the conversation, so I attempted to offer a stance in which we could acknowledge our differences while still maintaining our unity.

    The missional=Driscoll argument is, as you point out, not helpful or accurate. However, neither do I think camps are dividing along those lines. Missional is a term being used by people of all marks, as is emerging/emergent.

    So, while we agree on some points, I can’t help but feel you missed the point of my post. Oh well.


  2. JVD on September 29th, 2006 10:11 am

    Missional is larger than either crowd. Being on mission is bigger than conservative vs. liberal. I appreciate your post Mark.


  3. Van S on September 29th, 2006 12:29 pm


    I may have misunderstood the point of your post, but it seems to me that thinking of the “missional” camp versus the “emerging” camp is something that is indeed happening. Your blog may not make that point, but some folks that commented did, and there is evidence for such a rift in the larger blogosphere. The rift has been there for a while, among progressive “emerging” types and those more like Driscoll. The only point I’m trying to make in my post is to voice my concern over the growing affiliation of the second group with the term “missional.” I don’t draw this conclusion from your post, your post simply got me thinking down this path.

  4. blind beggar on September 29th, 2006 12:48 pm

    Speaking as an American, I know we have the habit of wanting to draw lines in the sand to clearly define the “camps.” And every camp has to have a label. It is not a good habit, but we can?t seem to help ourselves. We carry this same habit into our discussions within the Body.

    We have also developed a fear of association. The thought goes something like, if I openly agree with some point that is being made by a person or camp, I fear that my approval will be seen as an endorsement of the whole person or camp; or that others will label me as part of that camp.

    This discussion is useful and needed in the process of bring understanding and affirmation and thus avoiding the habit of making camps or fearing taint by association. I?m not suggesting, in any way or form, that anyone has attempt to make camps. I?m simply affirming the worth of this dialogue. Missional is larger than any group and by talking this through now we can help ensure that it remains so.

    Thanks Mark, Jamie and the others who have been willing to open and carry on this conversation.

  5. Jamie Arpin-Ricci on September 29th, 2006 10:13 pm

    Thanks for the clarity!

  6. James on September 30th, 2006 12:29 am

    It never fails that whenever “new” Christian groups begin to form that they have to be defined by labels and then associated with either liberal or conservative theological underpinnings.

    Why can’t we just be content to say that we are Christians who are trying to rediscover the early practice of engaging the culture as it exists, rather than holding on to the traditional method which worked in a different time and culture but is not working now?

    The whole emergent/missional thing is really not a new idea. Take for example the social gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which sought to engage society where it was at, not where it used to be. To be honest the missional idea is found in the life and praxis of the early church.

    All that the ‘leaders’ of the ‘movement’ today seem to be doing is repackaging an ancient idea with some contemporary philosophical and theological adaptations.

  7. Steve Hayes on September 30th, 2006 11:08 pm

    Well, thank you for perhaps making things a little clearer, or at least making the context of this “emerging/missional divide” a bit clearer, even though I am still not sure that I have understood it correctly.

    Would it be correct to say that there has been an attempt by conservative evangelical Calvinists to hijack the term “missional”, and to claim it for themselves alone?

  8. Jerry on October 1st, 2006 12:24 am

    In my mind all forms of church must be Missional. Missional is a primary function of the body. In order for the church to “be” the church it must be missional.

    just my thoughts

  9. Van S on October 1st, 2006 10:42 am

    I don’t know if Conservative Evangelical Calvinists have hijacked the term “missional” on purpose or have deliberately tried to make it THEIR word. I think the word “missional” is becoming like the word “evangelical”–it used to be that the word was a larger category used by many within the Protestant Tradition, but somehow it became more and more associated with pietist conservative protestants as it became their banner word.

  10. blorge on October 2nd, 2006 10:46 am

    Do you think that the word “missional” should still be used by someone wanting to self-differentiate from Evangelicals who aren’t (in their eyes) missional, since they have taken it over?

    I supposed you could say that you’ve used it in coupling with “order” and then added “for the West Bank” But I don’t know if you did that ostensibly due to the Evangelical take-over of the word.

  11. Van S on October 2nd, 2006 11:34 am

    I’m not comfortable with the word being used solely to self-differentiate. I try to use it as a possitive assertion of a core understanding. I think all churches are, by definition, missional. A church doesn’t decide whether or not to be missional any more than a Christian decides to be Trinitarian. It is simply a matter of whether or not a church is intentionally so. Using it as a descriptor is a way of drawing attention to one’s understanding of the nature and function of the church.

    Many evangelicals are indeed self-reflectively missional. Most, however, use it in an inaccurage way–as though it were interchangeable with “evangelistic” or “contextual.”

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