What is Missional? or A Little More Missional Shampoo

kinnon —  June 16, 2008 — 12 Comments

What is Missional? (Missional Synchroblog

missional-shampoo-whtbg-300.jpgMissional Sunday Morning
I got up from a good night’s missional sleep and ready for a missional day. Missionally showered with missional shampoo and headed out the door. Jumped into the missional SUV and exited the missional neighborhood – heading for the partially-opened missional church doors. Sang missional songs with the gathered missional people, listened to the missional sermon, partook in the Lord’s missional Supper, got a missional blessing, grabbed a fair trade missional coffee at the door, picked the SUV up from the missional parking lot and headed missionally home. I just love being missional.


Almost a year ago, I wrote a post called Missional Shampoo – it was a humourous comment on the use/misuse/overuse of the word “missional.”

After much research, product testing (on my kids…no animals were hurt in the making of this product), test marketing and focus grouping, I’m proud to release Newbigin’s Missional Shampoo. I’m profoundly convinced that this will be the best shampoo you will ever use. There is a real narrative behind this product – a wonderful story.

It would appear the use/misuse/overuse of the word missional has not improved in the ensuing months. Rick Meigs has challenged us to respond.

A Little Historical BG
Much of the missional conversation has been driven by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s response to the British culture he returned to in the mid-seventies. He’d been a missionary in India from the 30’s onward. To him, it was obvious that British culture was post-Christian. His response to the situation, in both books and as a speaker, provoked the Gospel and Our Culture Network, and impacted writers, professors, missiologists & practioners including Alan Roxburgh, Craig Van Gelder, Ed Stetzer, Darrell Guder, David Fitch, Alan Hirsch, Colin Green and others. (Note: The Gospel and Our Culture Network roots are in the UK – I’m primarily referencing its American cousin here.)

Guder edited one of the important early missional books from a North American context – Missional Church. Roxburgh and Van Gelder contributed chapters to this book and have written other books that contribute to the conversation. Fitch’s The Great Giveaway is an absolute must read. Stetzer has written and spoken extensively on the missional imperative. Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways is quoted constantly in the emerging/missional blogosphere.

It is also important to recognize the work of the late South African Missiologist, David Bosch. He has had a profound impact on the missional conversation.

Mission is, quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus, wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie. It is good news of God’s love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world. [via Wikipedia – from Bosch’s book, Jesus, the Suffering Messiah, and our Missionary Motive]

So what is this “missional conversation” about.
To quote Eugene Peterson, it’s about,

The Word (who) became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.

Becoming missional means we realize that Jesus has “moved into the neighborhood” and we are to follow him. It stands in stark contrast to church buildings that say, come – so sadly illustrated in this shot on Rick’s recent post. Missional stands counter to the attractional church model of Christendom.

I believe there are three aspects to this discussion. Missional is incarnational – in that we are to be the hands, feet and voice of Jesus in our neighborhoods – positional in that we are to move out and amongst, and relational – we are to love our neighbors, whether they ever darken the doorsteps of our church buildings or not – in fact, whether they ever even “become Christians”. Luke 10 provides a framework for that journey as we move into our neighborhoods – engaging everyone we meet – entering wherever we are invited – receiving hospitality and engaging in relationship – understanding that in C.S. Lewis’ words, Aslan IS on the move – and we are to follow Him.

Well, that is what missional seems to mean. But…

Do an Amazon search today on the word “missional” and you’ll get 999 product results. Google “missional” and you’ll get just under a million hits.

Missional has quickly become the latest buzzword. Christendom expressions of every form are applying the word to their “ministries”. It’s as if “missional” is some sort of “secret sauce” that will re-invigorate their church programs. We have come to  point where “missional” may, in fact and in deed, mean nothing. Churches, that by any reasonable estimation are exclusively attractional – now call themselves missional. Their mission is to attract people to their church – which, to their way of thinking, must mean they are missional.

The Christendom reality is that we want people to come to us. We’ve built these great buildings (in some cases) and we want/need to get butts in the pews/chairs/theatre seating. We’ll do just about anything to fill those chairs  – right up to and including Cirque de Soleil acrobats. We compete for the same audience as Hollywood and we’ll use whatever technique necessary to get that audience. Let me quote Dick Staub from his very good book, The Culturally Savvy Christian,

Many evangelicals who once had been rooted in a tradition of deep spiritual growth became obsessed with growth as measured by numbers of conversions and increased church attendance. Increasingly and often uncritically, they relied on technology and marketing to generate successful numeric and economic growth. The art and craft of marketing are built around appeals to self interest, offering individuals something they want and desire. Conventional marketing wisdom advocates taking the path of least resistance in order to achieve success. Christian marketers embraced this approach, mastering it in order to raise money and sell the gospel. The result was often a Christianity that, on the surface at least, looked and sounded as driven by a focus on the self as the rest of American culture. [Pg. 38.  emphasis added]

We are so enmeshed in this consumer culture that we can no longer see it. Like fish, it is the water in which we swim. So the word “missional” just becomes one more marketing tool in our attractional toolbox to get people to the show. The consumer culture is so pervasive that I’m not sure many of us are even able to extricate ourselves from this world view. We can only attempt to understand missional through the attractional church model lens with which we view Christianity.

Let me end this rather long post with this short story from my recent non-missional church experience. We went to a service that honored a number of kids graduating from high school. It was a very good service with a good sermon from the pastor. But one of the things that stood out for me was his comment to us all of the importance of “going to church.” And by that, he did mean coming to the building.

Now, this is a man, who if you asked him whether “the church” was a building, would quickly set you straight. “Of course not Bill! The church is the gathered people of God wherever they gather.” But, I would suggest that our reality is that when we say “go to church” we mean go to a building. Whether we deny it or not, it frames how we think of the church. Church is a building – and we want you to come with us to it. Especially if our church has the best music, the greatest technology and the most comfortable seats. Oh. And how could I forget. The best coffee bar in the lobby or church food court – selling missional fair trade coffee, of course.


Here are some further resources for your What is Missional study:
At Allelon, I’ve produced a number of interviews that address the question What is Missional Church? Interview guests include Eddie Gibbs, Ryan Bolger, Craig Van Gelder, Pat Keifert, Bishop Graham Cray and Brian McLaren. The site also features David Fitch’s Church Planting via Missional Orders – that I shot during the Resonate Canada Cultivate Gathering at The Freeway in Hamilton, last fall. There’s also some great content featuring The Freeway’s Pernell Goodyear along with Alan Roxburgh; Training Missional LeadersPart One and Part Two. (I think Part Two is the strongest.)

I also want to point you at a video Imbi and I produced prior to my involvement with Allelon, Three Churches and A New Age Mall with Alan Roxburgh – embedable on your blog from YouTube – a short and powerful indictment of where much of the church is today. It’s also available here on the Allelon site. (We rebranded the video as an Allelon Netcast after I began working with them.)

You can also listen to the audio resources at Allelon or subscribe to the Roxburgh Journal podcast on iTunes.

The conversations and stories in these video resources have helped frame my understanding of “missional.”



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

12 responses to What is Missional? or A Little More Missional Shampoo

  1. … and therefore, I have stopped blogging for over a year now and almost ceased engaging in all activities in which I might be tempted to even speak the M word UNTIL i’m dead enough and cast off enough that hinder (soon to include my church job) and trying to find out what M really means in my everyday life. When I have some real stories from my real life that help me give some definition to M. It needs to be real life.

  2. Great and challenging reading. A question: You make a strong contrast between attractional and missional, between come and go. Do you mean that one of them is denying the other? That a church(or a follower) has to be either the one or the other? Or do you view it as possible to have elements of both incorporated?

  3. Good post Bill…please, always keep us thinking and listening.

  4. So, are you saving the Wilhelmina post for later?

    Bwahahaha … 😉

    With all the information you packed in here, I can’t believe how short this is. Well done!

  5. Jon,
    I find myself traveling the globe in search of missional church or, preferably mission-shaped church stories. Yet I am not yet part of a mission-shaped community here in my fair city of Toronto. What little “expertise” I have comes from seeing others planting these communities – whether in Hamilton, Ontario – Eagle, Idaho – or Lincolnshire, UK. I, in no way, qualify as any kind of missional guru. But I am a stumbling believer who is convinced that in the west, mission-shaped church is the hope for the Church’s future. And I do believe it is hope that will be realized.

    Elling, in a both/and world – I do believe it is either/or when it comes to missional/attractional. That being said, there are areas where both streams peaceably co-exist and encourage each other. This would have been Imbi’s and my experience in Lincolnshire, as an example. As Imbi says, it’s regaining the lost emphasis of what the kingdom and the gospel are about.

    Thanks for the encouragement, Jimmy. ‘Tis much appreciated.

    Sonja, I no longer felt the need as your challenge to the wiser sex seemed to have increased the numbers of those joining the Synchroblog. (You’d have to visit Sonja’s blog to understand her reference.) And thanks for the kind words, too.

  6. Bill, could you say something more about why you mean it is either/or? My understanding is that in the gospel you find dimensions of both “come” and “go”. By that I mean that doing things that can be labeled as attractional isn’t necessarily untrue to the gospel. To me these are terms that help on the way to a higher goal – reaching the lost with gospel. But often I find myself in conversations where it feels like these terms have become THE goal in itself. And that an important part of the conversation seems to be wether you can place people in the missional or attractional box. I just struggle to understand why this needs to be black/with – either/or – and would love to hear more on your thoughts about why.

  7. Elling,
    It’s quite early in the morning for me, so forgive me if I’m less than stellar in my response.

    I’d say attractional is primarily about getting “butts in seats” – the focus is on numbers. It’s a transactional approach to the gospel – the idea to get people across the line “into the kingdom”. Get ’em saved, get ’em baptized, get ’em serving.

    Missional is about building relationships – about getting into the warp and woof of people’s lives – being the hands, feet, voice of Jesus. The focus is not on buildings and their “care and feeding.” The focus is on the neighborhood.

    I thought of Jesus this morning who did not have a home. He could have claimed the Temple as his own and set up shop there. Instead, he traveled his way through Israel – in relationship with his disciples – being both received and rejected while spreading wide the love of the Father.

    For me the attractional model has much to do with the consumer focus of the Western church – and I’d point to the Staub quote above.

    This post @ Bridging the Gap illustrates this well, I think.

    Hope that helps.

  8. Bill,

    Would you then say that having a builiding and inviting people to a worship service is per definition attractional, or could you do that in a missional way?

  9. Elling, I would say that if you’ve developed a relationship with someone – and want to invite them to join you with your gathered brothers and sisters in experiencing community – then that would be missional. If you want them to “come to church” for a “church service” – that would be attractional.

    I don’t want to suggest that its wrong to have buildings and use them for the gathering of the saints – and to be places of gathering for the communities they are in. I would, however, strongly question the Ediface Complex many Western Church leaders suffer from.

    We have spent billions in North America on church buildings that sit empty more than 90% of the time. That I strongly question. But, now I’m heading off on a rant. Forgive me.

    I spelled out a lot of my feelings in this post from a year ago.

  10. Thanks Bill. I’m finding myself in on staff at a church in Norway that are trying to transistion to function in a more missional way (me leading the process), and are necessarily in a process where either/or retoric is difficult in the way that it more begs the question “is it legitimate that this church exist” than “how can we become more missional”. Therefore it is just helpful to understand more of the thinking behind the terms.

  11. Why do all the big boys get a link to their site and not me???


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