Mission or Missional?


volume 16, number 16, April 20, 2017

To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen.” -1 Peter 1:1

Mission or Missional?

In 1934 German theologian Karl Hartenstein coined the term missional, what he called a living concept rooted in the Missio dei (Latin, the sending of God). Ed Stetzer (President of LifeWay Research of the Southern Baptist Convention) says that Francis Dubose is the first person to use the word in the way we mean it today.[1] Stetzer admits that he cannot really define the word since it means various things to various people. For some it warms the heart, but for others it sends shivers down one’s spine. 

I agree with Stetzer. It depends a great deal on who is using the word, how they use the word missional to impact their ministry. For some, it seems to mean something very similar to mission, but to others, it means something very different. 

Stetzer, in a another article,[2] does try to define the terms and says that missional is living on a purposeful Biblical mission (he calls this Johannine, after the words of Jesus in John 21:20, as the Father has sent Me, I also send you), and that mission is the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, born out in the evangelizing and discipleship of the apostles, particularly Paul, which resulted in the planting of churches. He says that mission is Pauline (following the ministry of the Apostle Paul). Stetzer goes further to say that missions is the international pursuit to preach the gospel to all the nations, that both terms missional and missions are related, that they are not mutually exclusive. 

Steve Knight responds to Stetzer’s “Missions vs. Missional: Why We Really Need Both,”  by summarizing the terms in this way. Missions is global while missional is local.[3] And then Knight writes:

“The whole reason we have the term ‘missional’ today is because the global missions world has been going through a theological realignment. ‘Missions’ for the past 100 years has been colonial, paternalistic, ‘from the western church exported to the world’ with all its theological deficiencies fully baked in. He says that this is necessary because as David Bosch (Transforming Mission) has said, the theological notions on which it was based were found to be flawed and incomplete.” 

It seems to me that these terms missional and mission, as often being used today, have set up a false dichotomy. By missions many mean preach the gospel, evangelism, and discipleship. By missional they mean that all believers, not just the missionaries or evangelists, are to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations. So, in this context both words mean the same thing and I have no problem with either word. They are synonymous.

 However, it seems to me, that many pastors and missiologists are championing the word missional to convey social action in place of evangelism and discipleship, and this is something quite different and damaging to the work of the church of Christ. Perhaps due to the influence of Lesslie Newbigin (1909 to 1998) who spoke and wrote widely on preaching the gospel in a pluralistic society, many seem to think we ought to approach the secular man with “hat in hand.” Newbigin says, “In a pluralist society such as ours, any confident statement of ultimate belief, any claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic. . . It is essential to the integrity of our witness to this reality that we recognize that to be its witnesses does not mean to be possessors of all truth. It means to be placed on the path by following which we are led toward the truth. There is indeed a proper place for agnosticism in the Christian life.[4]  

In all fairness to Newbigin, he seeks to strike a balance between word and deed, between preaching the word and and social action.[5] Therein, however, lies the problem. The church is never commanded by Jesus to engage in social action. Deeds of mercy, yes, of course; but never social action or even worse, social justice. And due to the modern climate of political correctness and wanting to relate to the secularist, many tend to jettison direct evangelism and move forward with social action. To these people missional means moving into a community, feeding the poor, helping out with literacy programs, giving money to shore up the infrastructure of the local public high school, opening an art studio in the church, and getting behind social justice initiatives. This a not a so subtle shift in the mission of the church which is meant to make us relevant to the culture around us, but actually promotes the very opposite. 

Peter tells the believers who were living in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia as aliens, due to persecution, that they were to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. He reminds them that they were once not a people but now they are a people, that they once had no mercy, but now they have the mercy of God. 

All believers, not just the super spiritual or pastors or evangelists, are to evangelize and disciple people, not just on the mission field, but right in our own neighborhoods. We are to lead with proclamation but deeds of kindness and mercy should surely be part and parcel of what we are doing. 

Remember, anyone, including atheists, agnostics, homosexuals, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists can serve the poor in soup kitchens; but only the blood bought people of God can introduce people to the only Savior of sinners, the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Mission or Missional? Choose either word as long as you mean evangelism and discipleship. 


1.  www.christianitytoday.com “What Does Missional Mean?” Ed Stetzer, June 9, 2014

2.  “Missions vs. Missional: Why We Really Need Both,” September 9, 2013 <www.christianitytoday.com>

3. Missions vs. Missional: What Ed Stetzer Gets Wrong, September 13, 2013 <patheos.com> 

4. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Newbigin, pages 10, 12.

5. Ibid. pages 128-140.

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