Missional Church: Use and Misuse of Language

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IMES Regional Brief – April 2019
April 4, 2019

by Elie Haddad

My passion is to see our churches become missional communities. For the sake of this article, I will use Alan Hirsch’s definition of a missional church:

Missional church is a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world.

A missional church exists for the sake of the world and not for its own sake. A missional church is a sent-out church. The term missional has become a buzzword that means many things but nothing specific. It is frequently used interchangeably with the term missiological. I do not think that the two terms are synonymous. Missiological pertains to the study of missions, while missional pertains mainly to a church that has the posture of mission. The term missional is also used to modify other nouns as well: missional leadership, missional ministry, missional community, missional framework, missional engagement, etc. All these terms relate to the notion of the missional church.

So, does it matter what term we use to describe the church? Yes, I think that language is very important. Meaning is derived by how we use language. Missiologist J. Andrew Kirk recently wrote a book entitled The Abuse of Language and the Language of Abuse. In it, Kirk analyzes the change in the meaning of certain words over time. His concern is mostly in a range of words that are used in public debate and how the contemporary meaning of these words is different from, and sometimes contradicts, the original meaning. My concern in this article is with words and terms that impact our understanding of church and that tend to be used in a way that twists the meaning. I am not dealing here with deliberate abuse of language as much as with honest misuse that creeps up over time.

Kirk quotes Wallace Matson: “Linguistic entropy makes it as futile to try to rehabilitate mutilated words as to put toothpaste back in the tube.” This may be true in some cases. However, can we afford to give up on the use of certain terms, especially when they are biblical terms? For instance, the term evangelical has become politically tainted in several contexts. This has led many evangelicals to avoid using this term to describe their identity. Should we drop its use and adopt or coin another term? Personally, I am not ready to lose a term like evangelion (Gospel), which is at the core of our belief system. This term, in my opinion, is irreplaceable. Consequently, we have to expend every effort to redeem its use and its meaning. Similarly, all misused terms that are associated with the church should be redeemed and restored to their original meaning as we understand them in Scriptures.

Let us start with the word church. We are used to saying statements like “I am going to church.” If we survey our church members and ask them to define church, they all know and understand that church is not a building. However, people who hear us will understand the term differently, influenced by their own religious experience. They will think that we are referring to the church as a building, a location or a place of worship. The church is the community of God’s people on mission with God in the world. By repeated misuse of the term, we are unintentionally distorting people’s understanding of church, and eventually altering our own understanding. Similarly, we say things like “I have church on Sunday,” giving the impression that church is an event that takes place at a particular time in a particular location. Or, we tend to call our Sunday gathering “the worship service.” The repeated use of such phrases instills in people a skewed understanding of what worship is and reduces it to an event on Sunday morning.

The same can be said of the terminology that we use for church leaders. When we call the main leader of our local church the pastor, we are making the assumption that the most important role of the leader is to pastor, to shepherd the flock. In a missional understanding of a church, on the other hand, the main role perhaps should be the apostle (I alluded to this in my previous blog). In some of our circles we call the leader the minister. This gives the impression that there is one minister in the church. What about the rest of the congregation? Are they merely recipients of ministry and do not minister themselves?

We also use phrases such as “called to ministry” or “started full-time ministry” to refer to our church leaders. We often hear testimonies where leaders identify a time in their lives when they came to faith in Christ, and they identify another date or event when they felt called to ministry. This is not how I understand calling. Os Guinness defines calling as follows:

Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service.

When God calls us to Himself, He is calling us as whole persons, with all our beings, our minds, our belongings, our talents, our time, our desires, our future, etc. Each one of us who has been called by God into a relationship with Him is called to ministry, full-time ministry. Some are called for church-based ministry; others are called for marketplace-based ministry or workplace-based ministry. We are all in full-time service of the King.

The thinking that some are in ministry and some are not is intensified by how we have come to understand and practice ordination. We use ordination to move people from laity to clergy, or to full-time ministry. I believe that the biblical notion of laying on of hands is to set people apart for a particular ministry. Church leaders should be set apart for ministry, for sure. But why not set apart the school teacher who is serving God in a school, or an engineer serving in a construction firm, or a carpenter in carpentry? Our use of the language of ordination has contributed to widening the gap between clergy and laity while we claim to believe in the priesthood of all believers. We teach servant leadership but call our pastors reverend. Our misuse of words often causes cognitive dissonance.

Another word is missionary. This term is used to refer to those who have been called to leave their home and travel abroad to serve God, usually among the unreached. However, this implies that the work of mission is mainly overseas and limited to the commissioned professional. In a missional mindset, each member of the church is a minister, a missionary to his or her workplace, school, neighborhood, family, and every circle of influence that Gods calls them to.

Similarly, with the term bi-vocational, which is used to refer to those who are in “spiritual” ministry but have to secure a “secular” job for their livelihood. Terms like this end up creating a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular.

Our selection of terminology is important if we want to convey the right meaning to our listeners. This is especially true in a place like Lebanon against the backdrop of religious plurality. We cannot let our culture determine the meaning of church and mission. We need to redeem our language from misuse. We need to be thoughtful in how we use words, and we need to do that consistently.

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