Despite not having made it into spell checkers yet, the word does not signify a new idea - it is not some kind of profound postmodern breakthrough. Being missional is firmly rooted in historic Christian orthopraxy. It is what we do, it is what we are. We have a mission as sure as MNF-Iraq has a mission, except our struggle is not against flesh and blood.
Missional living is active, radical, communal, culturally informed, and humble. This is not your typical knock-down-drag-out evangelism from 7-9 PM on Saturdays - it's a lifestyle that's 24/7/365. (There may very well be a place for such aggressive tactics, but that is not the meaning of missional.) We shouldn't be kicking in our neighbor's door trying to get him interested in Jesus. Our calling is to attract our neighbors by our love and way of life, not to intimidate them with our rhetoric.
***Missional living is active. There seems to be a lot of missional thinking in the Church - a lot of talk about being "missional-minded." It is true that action requires thought, but sometimes we forget that the point is the action, not the thought. We have whole fleets of watertight theories that have never been to sea. Sooner or later we've got to cut the moorings. Otherwise, we are not unlike those people who claim to be "fitness-minded" but never get off the couch. Good intentions don't burn calories, and neither do they save souls. We have to put feet to our philosophy. Discussion is useful and necessary, but it is much easier to discuss the Kingdom than do the Kingdom. It's time to roll up our sleeves and stop looking for the open doors and paths of least resistance. The harvest is plenteous and the laborers are few. That sounds like work to me.
Missional living is radical. The world doesn't need any more hobbies or pat answers. The world needs living water and love without fine print. If we have nothing more to offer than spiritualized consumerism and a mediocre commitment to truths that happen to be convenient, we might as well shut down the show and go home. Outreach that waters down and distorts Christianity can be worse than no outreach at all. As Derek Webb sings, "Truth is never sexy / so it's not an easy sell / you can dress her like the culture / she'll shock 'em just as well / and she don't need an apology for being who she is / she don't need your help making enemies".
Either we believe something solid or we don't. The world desperately needs us to stand our ground, but at the same time can smell a hypocrite a mile away. Therefore, it is crucially important that we work hard at figuring out what we believe and why we believe it.
Missional living is communal. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an isolated "missional Christian." Missional living only makes sense in the context of community. As Jesus said in John 13:35, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." This is why I keep using plural pronouns in this essay like we, us, and our. Like it or not, we're all in this collectively, and working together is not optional.
On one level, the body is made up of parts. On another, deeper level, it is made up of joints. It is joints - the interactions between parts - that make life and movement and traction possible. As Christians, you and me are just raw material - stones in the quarry - waiting for the master-builder to fit us together into something beautiful and transcendent.
Missional living is culturally informed. The relationship shared by Christianity and culture is very tense, but it is a relationship nonetheless. Too many Christians have "excommunicated" culture in the name of non-conformity and consequently lost touch with their societal surroundings. Os Guinness, in his book Prophetic Untimeliness, defined three ways of engaging with society: assimilation, resistance, or negotiation. Obviously, assimilation won't do. Many Christians choose resistance, as it seems a bit harder and feels holy. Guinness argues, and I'm inclined to agree with him, that negotiation is the proper course.
The point is not to avoid the culture but to avoid evil. (Of course, if you avoid everything, you're automatically avoiding the evil. But that is not what Jesus prayed for.) A working knowledge of what makes our culture tick is vital if we want to engage with the people around us and understand their perspective. We are not "in orbit" somewhere above the earth; we are here, on the ground, breathing the same air, seeking salvation from the same curse.
Usually, we're too slow about doing the proper homework and too quick to go on witch-hunts. Really, cultural illiteracy might not be such a problem if we stopped vilifying things we know nothing about. It is certainly prudent to foresee evil and get out of the way, but there's a difference between authentic discernment and merely being slow to research and quick to opinion. Sometimes, when we are "called to ignorance" in certain matters, we would do well to leave it at that.
Missional living is humble. I don't have all the answers. Neither do you. But I'm still hungry for the truth. So are you. Sometimes that's all we need to know.
We in Western Evangelicalism face the continual challenge of overcoming settled stereotypes and vast misunderstandings about our faith, not to mention dealing with the "heavy bias of fatigue" that G. K. Chesterton spoke of in The Everlasting Man. Derek Webb in a recent interview deplored the Christian subculture that we have in America, something he feels does more harm than good. Lines are blurred. The faith begins to lose its edge and piquancy. Christian words and labels are emptied of meaning and become ambiguous, and extra care and attention is needed to avoid confusion.
This is one area where Emergents and Fundamentalists can learn from each other. Emergents tend to better understand the blurry side of things, while Fundamentalists tend to like things in sharp focus. Accordingly, Emergents seem to have a greater respect for the nuances and complexities of being a Christian in a post-Christian society, while Fundamentalists seem to take greater care in preserving Christianity's orthodox theological heritage. If we can somehow combine the strengths of both strains we would have a Church that is both sensitive and stable, ready to negotiate with and transform the culture around it.
Wherever we find ourselves - be it hostile 1st Century Rome or complacent 21st Century America - our obligation to share and live the good news remains the same. Missional living is not a catchphrase, it's a calling. Let's do the Kingdom.
Image courtesy of missionalmarketing.com