There has been much conversation in evangelical literature and in the blog world about the word ‘missional.’ In this post I would like to survey the landscape of discussion. This is not a comprehensive survey, but a quick look at the conversation.


“What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western Culture?”[1]

The concept of missional ministry owes much of its influence to Lesslie Newbigin, who posed this question above after returning home to England in 1974 from missionary service in India for nearly 40 years. Newbigin’s work has served as the catalyst for bringing the issue of mission in Western culture to the forefront of the agenda of the church. In attempt to answer missiological questions similar to Newbigin’s, many in the Western church began to develop what has become known as the ‘missional model of ministry.’

Ed Stezer has reminded us that the word ‘missional’ is not a new term. In fact, he traces its origins back to 1907.[2] Yet, as we all know, words begin to take on new meanings as they are used in different contexts. In 1998 a book titled Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America[3] attempted to apply Newbigin’s ‘missiology’ to ‘ecclesiology’ and launched the concept of a missional church into mainstream conversation.[4] Since that time many conflicting definitions of missional church has been circulating in the context of evangelicalism.

One of the first things one will notice is that the word missional is used in different contexts – denominationally and theologically. One thing we can see is that the term itself is being used with increasing frequency all across the evangelical spectrum. Therefore, it is helpful to consider a few explanations of the word that have been used in the past few years.

Towards a Definition of Missional

Many would point to Tim Keller as the central voice that took the word missional and uprooted it from the larger conversation, since many in the emergent camp were using it, and planted it in evangelical soil. In 2001 Keller published a concise article titled The Missional Church, in it he offered a list of traits that mark the missional church:

  • Discourse in the vernacular.
  • Enter and retell the cultures stories with the gospel.
  • Theologically train laypeople for public life and vocation.
  • Create Christian community which is countercultural [not to be taken as ‘against-culture’] and counterintuitive.
  • Practice Christian unity as much as possible on the local level.[5]

Two years later, in 2003, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost wrote a book titled The Shaping of Things to Come, in it they argued that:

“The missional church is incarnational, not attractional, in its ecclesiology. By incarnational we mean it does not create sanctified spaces into which unbelievers must come to encounter the gospel. Rather, the missional church disassembles itself and seeps into the cracks and crevices of a society in order to be Christ to those who don’t yet know him.”[6]

In 2006, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight delivered an address at Westminster Theological Seminary on the emerging church where he argued that the concept of being missional comes from the great missiological thinkers[7] in order to give expression to the Missio Dei, namely, what God is doing in this world. McKnight argued that church communities become missional by participating, with God, in the redemptive work God is doing in this world. He continued by illustrating how missional churches seek to be a faithful presence in their community.

“The central element of this missional praxis is that the emerging movement is not attractional in its model of the church but is instead missional: that is, it does not invite people to church but instead wanders into the world as the church. It asks its community “How can we help you?” instead of knocking on doors to increase membership.”[8]

For Mcknight, participating with God in his redemptive work ‘missionally’ requires the American Church to consider a shift in philosophy and practice. Within the categories of ministry philosophy and practice is where the larger theological conversation of the term missional has been shaped, namely, with reference to how the Church contextualizes in relation to the culture around it. Most of the time missional has been explained in contrast to attractional ministry.

In the same year, 2006, Mark Driscoll published a book in which he argued that a missional church is marked by some specific traits. Some of them are:

  • Christian’s being a missionary to their local culture.
  • The church accepts that it is marginalized in culture and holds no privileged position of influence but gains influence by serving the common good.
  • Churches grow as Christians bring Jesus to lost people through hospitality.
  • Community means his church is a counterculture with a new kingdom way of life through Jesus.
  • Pastors are missiologists who train Christians to be effective missionaries.[9]

Like others, Driscoll’s list was written in comparison to the traditional/institutional and contemporary/evangelical models of ecclesiology. The conversation on ‘what it means to be missional’ has also seeped its way into the Southern Baptist Convention. But many Southern Baptist who use the term missional, do not use the word in the same sense as the larger evangelical world, a point made by Ed Stetzer in his chapter of the book Southern Baptist Identity. Stetzer writes that “Not all who use the term “missional” are missional”, for example: missional is not the same as a church that is in support of missions.[10] Michael Lawrence argues the same point by writing that:

“Being missional is not the same as being committed to missions, or being missions-minded. Being missional is a way of thinking about the church and how it relates to the world. A missional church understands that the church does not go on mission, or send people out to do missions. Rather, the church is the mission of God into the world, in order to heal the world and reconcile people to God.”[11]

A few years earlier Stetzer published a book titled Breaking the Missional Code. In it Stetzer and Putman argue that there are certain shifts that allow a church to sharpen their focus. They argue that these important shifts will come when one is thinking about what a biblical church looks like, and what it means to be missionally engaged in our communities and in the world.[12] For these authors, the shift to missional is seen when the church ministry moves:

  • from programs to process
  • from demographics to discernment
  • from models to missions
  • from attractional to incarnational
  • from uniformity to diversity
  • from professional to passionate
  • from seating to sending
  • from decisions to disciples
  • from additional to exponential
  • from monuments to movements


From the context of the larger evangelical conversation, it would seem that ‘being a missional church’ generally has to do with three main things:

  1. Our understanding of and stance towards the surrounding culture – with a view to be a faithful Christian presence in our context of ministry.
  2. The implementation of ministry through the local church – with implications on staff and structure, both organizationally and functionally.
  3. A renewed ministry emphasis on both word and deed – The Great Commission and Kingdom Living, with an aim to avoid the errors of both the social gospel movement and the separatist fundamental movement.

Despite the vast amount of discussion on this issue, it is notable that ‘missional’ has been a term that has been consistently used in contrast to the attractional, seeker-sensitive, church growth[13], models of church.

  1. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks,1986, page 1.
  2. Ed Stetzer, Toward A Missional Convention, Southern Baptist Identity, 2009, page 175.
  3. Edited by Darrell L. Guder and Lois Barrett.
  4. J. Todd Billings, What Makes a Church Missional?, Christianity Today, March 3rd, 2008.
  5. Tim Keller, The Missional Church, 2001. This article can be accessed here:
  6. Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, The Shaping of Things to Come, 2003, page 17.
  7. David Bosch, Lesslie Newbigin, and Craig van Gelder are mentioned frequently.
  8. Scot Mcknight, What is the Emerging Church?, Lecture given at the Fall Contemporary Issues Conference at Westminster Theological Seminary, October 26-27, 2006, Page 21.
  9. Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2006), Pages 19-20.
  10. Ed Stetzer, Toward a Missional Convention, Southern Baptist Identity, 2009, see page 179-183.
  11. Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, 2010, page 205.
  12. Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code, 2006, 71.
  13. I am including those who hold to the homogenous principle here.

3 thoughts on “Towards a Definition of Missional

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