Dismissional on Missional?


The Growth of Missional Language

Missio-Logio: The Many Languages of Mission
Author Rev. Dr. Jonathan Seitz
Author Rev. Dr. Jonathan Seitz

The theme of the 2015 annual meeting American Society of Missiology (ASM) was “Missio-Logoi: The Many Languages of Mission.” It was a fascinating conference, with missionaries and scholars from across denominations and from many traditions meeting in Wheaton, Illinois. The president of ASM this year was Professor Stanley Skreslet, the outgoing Dean at Union Presbyterian Seminary. My coworker, Karla Koll skyped in for the meeting of Presbyterian missiologists, which included Presbyterian scholars from Fuller (Scott Sunquist), Western (George Hunsberger), Dubuque (Bonnie Sue Lewis), Union (Skreslet) and the Toronto School of Theology (Charles Fensham), as well as leaders from PC(USA) World Mission (Hunter Farrell, Juan Sarmiento, Ellen Sherby, and Del Braaksma). The main focus of the conference was on questions related to the naming of mission, and the word ‘missional’ appeared frequently.

Of Mission, Missions, Missiology, Missio Dei, and Missional

At its root, mission (Latin: missio) is simply the word for sending. Many of our English words contain this sending root: admission, commission, emission, omission, permission, remission, submission, transmission. Classically, mission first occurred in theological language about God’s sending (of the Son, of the Church). David Bosch, in his famous book Transforming Mission, notes that the scriptures have no single word for mission but that dozens of words like ‘proclaim’, witness’, or ‘send’ express the sentiment. ‘Missionary’ was traditionally the go-to adjective to describe God’s sending (‘God is a missionary God’).

Presbyterian Participants at the American Society of Missiology Annual Meeting Photo Credit: Ellen Sherby
Participants at the American Society of Missiology Annual Meeting
Photo Credit: Ellen Sherby

In the modern era, the mission lexicon has changed regularly. The Great Missionary Movement (which grew rapidly c. 1800) popularized a call to ‘foreign missions’. In recent history there has been a shift from focusing on missions in the plural (missions) as something humans do, to language that focuses on God’s mission (singular). For instance, in 1969, the International Review of Missions removed the plural ‘s’ at the end of its name. To be sure, Christians have used many other terms to talk about mission. ‘Missio Dei’ (God’s sending) showed up during a brief period in the late 1930s in Germany and then reappeared somewhat later in the writing of contextual theologians such as C.S. Sung and in the work of missiologists. Today the Missio Dei appears in theology textbooks, church names, and sermons. ‘Missiology’ (the study of missions) is another one of those neologisms, but the word has persisted in the many departments and schools of mission that have developed before and after its entry into the English language. Mission, Missio Dei, and Missiology reflect the popular growth of mission language in the recent past.


Guder has written in several places that the project was “polemical,” in the sense that it sought to critique and challenge Christendom complacency and theological weaknesses in the Church.

Mission language advances a Christian language of sending, which increasingly is interpreted theologically. In recent years, a number of scholars have also tried to urge theology to take mission seriously, presenting mission as a central theological concern. In Christendom, the argument goes, it was easy to relegate mission to a peripheral action of the church or to the humanitarian work of the Christian culture. For example, Presbyterians have often promoted mission, but Reformed churches added mission to our confessions fairly late. The Presbyterian confessions did not mention mission until the 1903 additions to the Westminster Confession (Ch. XXXV “Of the Gospel of the Love of God and Missions”).

Book of ConfessionsTheology seems to be coming around to mission as central to who God is, and the missional movement draws on a core of Reformed theologians. When I took Darrell Guder’s doctoral seminar on missional theology a decade ago, he included figures like Lesslie Newbigin, the Reformed critic of Christendom, as well as theologians like Barth and mission scholars like David Bosch. Each saw a need to advocate for a concept of sending in Christian theology, using classical languages of Christian witness, apostolocity, or sent-ness.

One of the challenges of mission is precisely this theological understanding. The Church has its own vocabulary, which it often uses to distinguish Christian practices from the broader world. Mission language is a ‘churchy’ language, in the way that we also have other churchy languages. Beginning Greek students learn that baptism derives from the common word “to wash”, and that church comes from the common word for “fellowship”. Along with a host of other terms (apostle, gospel, incarnation), these words carved a Christian vocabulary out of the common tongue, and the Church created its own lexicon of faith. Although the larger culture now also regularly uses mission language (from the Blues Brothers on their mission from God to corporate mission statements), mission is also part of this churchy vocabulary. Rather than simply using common words for sending, modern Christianity has used this word mission to describe the Church’s work.


The first question is whether, all things being equal, using more mission language leads to more or better mission.

The ‘Missional Church’ movement is new, but it reflects long-term developments related to the meaning of mission. Moreover, it also has tended to reflect criticisms of the modern church and theology and efforts to reemphasize divine sending. The growth of the word ‘missional’ may lead us to ask whether this is a term that deserves a permanent place in the Christian lexicon; and if so, what its place should be in the church, in the academy, and in missional theology. Below I briefly describe the original intent this term and its popular growth. I conclude with some questions.

The Missional Church (1998) and its Advocates

While there were a few eclectic earlier uses of ‘missional’ that appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary from the nineteenth century and later, the real growth of the word missional began with the book, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (1998), which was co-authored by six scholars: Lois Barrett, Inagrace T. Dietterich, Darrell L. Guder, George R. Hunsberger, Alan J. Roxburgh, and Craig Van Gelder. All six authors have subsequently written on the missional Church theme and are active voices in the movement’s development. [1]

missional church guderSince the book’s publication in 1998, Guder has written a dozen articles tracking the movement’s development and drawing out major themes. Others in the original movement tried to use missional language to look at leadership development, church-planting, and ministry.

While the missional language was new, all of these scholars had been working on questions of mission and witness for some time. Hunsberger was a major interpreter of Newbigin, and both he and Van Gelder were leaders of the Gospel and Our Culture movement. In Missional Church, the authors said that their work was focused on “the crisis of the North American church,” but that this crisis was primarily “spiritual and theological.” [2] Guder has written in several places that the project was “polemical,” in the sense that it sought to critique and challenge Christendom complacency and theological weaknesses in the Church. At the level of critique, the missional Church drew on a variety of theological themes.

In time, ‘missional’ became a broad term in the movement. Some directed their work more towards theology, others towards church administration, still others towards local church ministry. Guder, for instance, has used missional to modify a number of nouns: missional questions, missional vocation, missional teachers, missional leader, missional formation, missional community, missional theology, missional lenses, and missional congregation.

The Growth of Missional Language

I began doctoral studies in 2002. At the time, Guder held the first chair in missional and ecumenical theology. I remember being surprised how a range of scholars working farther afield began to use missional language. In 2003, a student several years ahead of me wrote his dissertation on a specific historical Japanese context but described his work using a ‘missional-ecumenical’ model. A few years later, I remember an article in a Presbyterian periodical proposing a focus on ‘missional polity’, which seemed to me to be the antithesis of what the original missional focus was! In subsequent years, missional has been employed in most sectors of the North American church and parts of the world church in a wide range of ways.

Lexical Growth: Worldcat Mentions

Author Dr. Jonathan Seitz presents his studies on missional language at the American Society of Missiology Photo Credit: Juan Sarmiento
Author Dr. Jonathan Seitz presents his studies on missional language at the American Society of Missiology
Photo Credit: Juan Sarmiento

Internet searches also provide a fairly compelling image of how the term missional has spread. The term appears more than 700,000 times in a basic Google query. A search of Worldcat, the major citation catalogue, showed that the term was barely used until the appearance of Missional Church (1998). Now, however, there are several thousand published works that have used the term missional. Of the 2,645 current Worldcat references to the term missional, 657 are theses/dissertations and 678 are printed books. ‘Missional’ is used in almost every context imaginable. Recent dissertations include: “Exploring the Missional Potential of International Churches,” “Missional Worship,” “Mentoring missional church planting,” “The Missional Way: Jesus as Paradigm,” “Preaching Toward a Missional Identity,” and on and on. For the last several years, more than 300 works with missional in the title have appeared, and it is hard to tell if the term is peaking or will continue to grow.

Lexical Growth: Google Ngram Viewer and Trending Topics

Google has several search tools that illustrate the way that ‘missional’ has entered the mainstream.

First, their Ngram Viewer shows the use of the term in print sources. Ngram only covers through 2008 so far, but the trend is clear. Seitz NGram MissionalSecondly, their “regional interest” shows that, as one might expect, ‘missional’ is almost entirely a North American phenomenon. Setiz Regional InterestFinally, Google’s “interest over time” search function shows that the term entered the vernacular abruptly in 2005.

Seitz - Interest over time The Missional Growth Beyond Its Original Confines

There are several factors that create challenges for the missional church going forward. First, missional language is almost entirely a language of the Christian Church, speaking to God’s sending, and it can sound plastic or artificial outside of the Church. Secondly, the term has ‘jumped the rails’ of its original intent, so to speak. The term is used in many Christian circles, from emergent to charismatic to everything in between. Whatever the first authors of missional language intended, it now has a life of its own. Coffee shop hipsters, retired pastors, parachurch workers, and denominational leaders all use the word, but in widely varying ways. Some want to use the term to re-root the Church in its identity, while others want to escape negative stereotypes of Church life. They often share the earlier polemics against Christendom or reductionist theology, but there is little agreement on how missional language will give the Church fluency in these areas.

CHURCH 2 PDFinally, because the term is a neologism, it is also challenging to translate into other languages and seems to be primarily a language of the North American Church. There are other neologisms (‘visional’ is probably closest) that have made their way into our dictionaries, spell-check functions, and daily use, but it is hard to tell whether ‘missional’ will gain a hold.

Several Presbyterian or Reformed seminaries now have replaced classic concentrations on mission and evangelism with something using missional language: Missional and Ecumenical Theology, Missiology and Missional Ministry, Evangelism and Missional Christianity, etc. The word missional is more and more reflected in course titles and institutions. Is this a blip in the life of the church, or will ‘missional’ become a part of the world church’s Christian vocabulary?

Questions Going Forward

Several questions may help us to decide whether we will include ‘missional’ in our own lexica, and whether we believe the term will help the broader church.

Hands Reaching ShutterstockThe first question is whether, all things being equal, using more mission language leads to more or better mission. Is a missional leader different than any other leader? Is a Presbyterian Mission Agency more mission-focused than a General Assembly Council? I am honestly not sure. In the PC(USA) world, we’ve recently confusingly renamed structures and titles to include mission, even as it unclear how the renaming reflects or anticipates any change in direction.

Secondly, the missional church contains a polemic, but there is not necessarily a clear path to follow in seeking a missional Church. These scholars are often presenting a critique of US culture or church miasma with which we may agree, but the missional Church’s non-programmatic nature means that the critique does not add up to a clear direction. Most of us are opposed to consumerism, gospel reductionism, and Christendom, but it is not clear that the missional critique adds up to a positive agenda.


I remain cynical about lexical solutions for theological and spiritual crises, even as I pray that God will not send us amiss.

Finally, we should ask whether missional language introduces something new to the church. There are certainly signs of transformation in our church—the first major evangelism campaign in my memory, creative modes of worship, boundary crossing in communities. It also seems like mission has a place in the curriculum of many seminaries after a period of hibernation. Are these missional moves in the life of the church? Do they model the type of witness we are called to give?

Despite major reservations, I pray to a sending God, and I believe that at the core of God’s identity is this self-sending (in the Trinity, in the Church, in the world, in my own life). I remain cynical about lexical solutions for theological and spiritual crises, even as I pray that God will not send us amiss.


[1] These works are representative but not exhaustive. Lois Barrett, Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004); Inagrace Thoms Dietterich and Center for Parish Development, Cultivating Missional Communities (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006); George R Hunsberger, The Story That Chooses Us: A Tapestry of Missional Vision, 2015; Alan J Roxburgh, M. Scott Boren, and Mark Priddy, Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2009); Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011).
[2] Darrell L Guder et al, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1998).

AUTHOR BIO: Jonathan Seitz is Special Professor at Taiwan Theological Seminary in Taipei and a PC(USA) mission coworker. He teaches and writes on Christianity in East Asia.

Read letters from Jonathan and Emily in Taiwan!

Read more articles in this issue: What Mission is This Anyway?

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