Why the Church Should Stop Using the Word “Missional”

You may already know that I have a bit of an aversion to Christian-ese and labels. I find that all too often, us Christians are so quick to throw around buzz-words and discuss the next hot-button issue, meanwhile abandoning the issues that really need discussing.

Yesterday, I asked some of my fellow Rejects on Facebook and Twitter to share with me a few of the buzz-words that they too are sick of hearing (as a side note, if you aren’t following me on Facebook or Twitter, what’s up with that? No worries, let’s just kiss and make up).

You all had some precious gems to add to the list of over-used Christian terms, things like:



“doing life”

“love on”


“social justice”

…and my personal favorite, “missional.”

I could spend an entire post writing about each of the terms listed, but “missional,” in particular, really gets under my skin…and for good reason.

The very word missional means to simply be missionary minded.  Wikipedia says this:

“[Missional living] is a Christian term that describes a missionary lifestyle; adopting the posture, thinking, behaviors, and practices of a missionary in order to engage others with the Gospel message.”

Here is where I take issue...We need a new term in order to adopt “the posture, thinking, behaviors, and practices of a missionary, in order to engage others with the Gospel?”

Now, on the one hand, I understand why new terms spring up. Ideas and vision take shape. People become excited about said vision, and in an attempt to grow the vision and share the vision, they create new terminology to better articulate the vision.

The problem, however, is that this is not a new vision. Not even close. Remember that little ol’ passage at the end of the book of Matthew? It goes something like this:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

And then in Acts 1:8, we are told,

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Bible commentators understand this to mean very plainly, that we are to witness to those close to us, closer to us, and closest to us.” The ends of the earth, Samaria, Judea and Jerusalem. Basically, our life is a mission, wherever we are.

So, while I understand the sentiment behind the term “missional,” I find it to be yet another Christian term that muddies the waters. If we know that the Bible clearly directs us to live a life resembling that of a missionary, or better yet, to actually be missionaries, why do we need a new catch phrase?

Christian catch phrases are often redundant and while they echo the heart of scripture, they also add an often not so-scriptural element: Us.

Man, when we get our hands all over God’s vision, sometimes it comes out looking drastically different than He intended. A pastor I knew used to say, “We can’t make it happen, but we sure can mess it up.” So true.

More than that, I find Christian buzz-words to add to the clutter and the noise that the church is making. More labels, less action, it seems.

“Oh, my church is missional. I belong to a missional community. Missions is where it’s at! Missions!!!” (Hopefully no one is actually just going around yelling “missions,” but you never know). But, what does all of that mean to those who are yet to know Christ?

People don’t need a catch phrase. They need the power of the Living God.

The church doesn’t need more terminology. It needs a people desperately hungry for the things of God.

Words hold power, but action changes lives.

Jesus didn’t just talk the talk. He is the Way.

I know that this idea won’t be particularly popular. I know that many might disagree with me and argue that if the idea is scriptural and churches are enacting it, then where’s the harm? I also know that there are “missional” churches out there making huge impacts for God’s Kingdom. I get it.

Yet, I long for the day when the profundity and simplicity of the Gospel is enough, because guess what? It’s enough. We do not need to add to Jesus. We only need to live for Him.

Do you agree or disagree? How do you feel about the word “missional,” or any of the other buzz words listed? What would you add as another example of a perhaps unnecessary Christian term?

55 thoughts on “Why the Church Should Stop Using the Word “Missional””

  1. These words irk me a bit, but what I find annoying is the slogans..The one I see most right now is “Love God.Love People” while the idea behind it is great,but How often is it REALLY lived out..And how many churches have to have that same slogan?

  2. I get where you are coming from and agree with you, but at the same time I am somewhat upset. But maybe that’s just because you hated on one of my favorite words. Shame on me…

    I agree we should rid ourselves of the term “missional” because we shouldn’t need a word to be told what the Great Commission means, but unfortunately we do. If only “Love God, Love People and Make Disciples” were easier to understand and obey.

    Being told to be missional is a lot nicer than being told “be a real follower of Jesus.”

    1. Ryan,
      You make a great point. Perhaps loving God, loving people, and making disciples could be made easier to understand.

      Better yet, it should be modeled well so that people can see what it looks like and then hit “repeat.”

      That alone could serve as its own blog post–why modeling Christ is needed almost more than talking about Christ.

  3. The church I’m part of now is one of the most “missionally”-minded I’ve ever heard of, yet I’ve never heard the pastor use that word. I think words and catch-phrases that are trendy like that can make us lazy: we think by talking about them that we’re actually doing them, and we also use them as excuses for stuff we shouldn’t be doing (I’m looking at you, “missional” and “community”!)

    1. Larry,
      Ha! I know. Maybe it’s because we are so used to hearing it that we gloss right over it now. :)

      I will say though that my church talks about “shared life,” which I suppose can come off as just as lame or trite. Yet, we don’t use the term in regular conversation, so much as a reminder that church life is shared life. It’s family–messy, wonderful, terrible, and beautiful all at the same time.

  4. You are obviously right about the emphasis on missions – helping others come to know God’s love – in both the Old and New Testaments, as well as for parts of at least the last several hundred years. But if using the word helps a church or an individual live the lifestyle, then it is useful. My generation (I’m in mid-50’s) had big concepts with terms like “unreached people groups,” which helped us to realize where we needed to concentrate our work. I was a missionary for two years in a village in West Africa, and for three years in Manila. I do have some words that grate when I hear them, but out of love for those who say them, I’ll keep them to myself.

  5. It’s impossible to get away from “catch phrases.” I would argue that missional isn’t actually a word, in spite of what the great Wikipedia says. The Oxford English Dictionary would be a better source. people use missional to mean different things, but it’s a neologism that not long app came into use to avoid

  6. My last comment wasn’t complete, but I accidentally submitted it and can’t figure out how to edit. My point is that “missional” came into use as a way to avoid other tired phrases. Words like “community” and “intentional” may be overused, but for these two especially, what replacements would you suggest? They’re not limited to the subculture and are regularly used in different spheres. Yet, they are also important aspects of the Christian life.

    It’s one thing to talk about overused words, but my issue with Christian jargon is when it becomes insider talk. You have to be on the inside to understand what it means. Phrases like “desperately hungry for the things of God” are also overused and don’t carry a lot of meaning for an outsider. Other phrases like “talk the talk” might not be solely used in the Christian sphere, but it’s also outdated and tired.

    Bottom line: It’s really easy to critique language, but the criticism is usually not based on the words themselves as much as a deeper frustration that one has with that group. If we like the group, we assimilate their jargon. If we don’t like it, we critique it.

    1. I’d echo John – words don’t originate in in a vacuum. Christians started using ‘misisonal’ to talk about exactly the kinds of communities you describe using Matthew 28 and Acts 1. It’s a good word for people who grew up in an inward-focused church (and hence weren’t living out Great Commission sort of stuff). For many of those kinds of Christians, it’s hard to reframe faith, to enter into the mission God calls us all to. Using a word – like missional – can be a good, constant reminder of that.

      I’d rather they describe themselves as missional than as “real Christians” or “people who actually want to be like Jesus” or something like that.

      I think I’ll start a movement called GreatCommissional. Thanks for the idea ;)

      (also, I don’t have a dog in this fight – I’m not part of a ‘missional’ community by name, nor am I particularly troubled by the word)

    2. Jon well put. Like “Organic Church”.. Which I have seen posted on this blog. (BTW I have used Organic Church myself several times)

  7. Although probably not a “catch phrase” the “unspoken prayer request” gets me …. really? I’m being asked to use my most private intimate time to pray for ‘you’ and it’s “unspoken” …. and if I can’t be trusted with the request don’t invade my intimate alone time with my Savior.

  8. missional isn’t really about being a missionary at all, at least not in the colonialist way we’ve sometimes practiced missions/evangelism historically. some missionaries and christians are missionally-oriented, but not the majority. others have picked it up as a buzzword, but there is definite distinction to missional ministry.

    i wonder what value you find in the word “organic” church? apart from USDA labels and the slow/real food movement, that one seems especially buzz-y to me, as an outsider. there is real value in words describing concepts; i suspect the breakdown happens sometimes when “in-house” terms get thrown around or picked up more broadly. (see: “evangelical” in the media to describe a million and one things!)

    1. Suzannah,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I wonder, you mention a “definite distinction to missional ministry.” Could you elaborate or point me to some sources? I read a few articles, church sites, and watched a couple of videos regarding the whole “missional” movement (eek, I hate even referring to it as a movement) and they all pretty much said the same thing–be a missionary here, where you are, in your communities.

      As for raising the value of the term “organic church,” might i just say tous chez and well-done. However, in being perfectly candid, I hate that I have to use that term at all. My church doesn’t refer to ourselves as an “organic church.” We just say church or family, actually.

      The term organic church, however, unlike “missional” is not simply a redundant phrase already found in the Bible and while the Acts church model is certainly not a new vision, it is new among most American Christians. That is why the label is sadly necessary at times. More than that, the term “organic” in this case holds great meaning, so as to distinguish this type of church from a house church, which is simply a smaller, shrunken down version of a Sunday service.

      Also, our church operates organically, meaning we have no one leader, no head pastor, no program, no agenda, except Christ as our Head and Him having His way. If that isn’t organic, I don’t know what is. All that to say, your point is well taken.

      Sorry my comment is so long, but I also wanted to address your last point that “in-house” terms get picked and often misused by those outside of the church. Excellent point! And one that, in my mind, underscores the need to NOT use such terms. We can’t even communicate the Gospel well, so why are we adding to the noise? Let’s focus on pursuing Jesus, no labels required, and let our actions speak for themselves.

      1. The other aspect to “missional” though is that you can now be a missionary in your own home culture. “Missionary” traditionally means going to another culture but “missional” does not necessarily mean that. In some ways it allows us to be called missionaries without really being one. On the other hand, if someone understands themselves to be a missionary in their own context (rather than calling themselves a witness or a Christian, etc.), and they are glorifying God with their lifestyle, then go for it.

      2. thanks, nicole. seriously, it was an honest question, not meant to be a “gotcha!”, and i appreciate hearing why the term organic is meaningful to you. i just really like words, even the ones some people are probably ready to junk:)

        this page is helpful in clarifying: http://friendofmissional.org/
        the book that changed my thinking and let me resonate with the whole missional idea is The Shaping of Things to Come. there is a definite sense of being a missionary where you are, but in a way that tries to narrow/erase the divide between “Us” and “Them”. (yes, christians are a people set-apart, but not in proximity/love/relationship.)

        this line from the site suggests part of the difference: “The missional church understands that God is already present in the culture where it finds itself. Therefore, the missional church doesn’t view its purpose as bringing God into the culture or taking individuals out of the culture to a sacred space.”

        it’s been a while since i was affiliated with a missional church, so i’m certainly no spokesperson, but i do find the concept to be compelling and distinct from “missionary-minded” which may still be centered on programs and projects over people.

      3. not sure if my reply got eaten or is in moderation. if it’s gone, send me an email or DM, and i’ll point you to some missional resources. (i wasn’t trying to flip the tables on you. this word lover appreciates you fleshing out organic:)

  9. Oh, Nicole. You know as well as I that Jesus is in desperate need of a facelift and His Church and Gospel message are really in need of a new coat of paint. I mean, haven’t you been reading Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Matthew Paul Turner, Rachel Held Evans, etc, etc? It is high time the old fundamentalist and hate-filled Gospel be thrown away, since we all know Paul’s writings are evil. (He hated women and homosexuals, don’t you know)

    So, yes, we need new labels. We need to come up with flavor-of-the-week catch-phrases that we can put onto a t-shirt or a wrist bracelet. Better yet, we can make a design, representing our New Trendy Jesus, and have people tattoo themselves with it, showing their fealty and commitment.

    Of course we still *cough* believe in Jesus. I mean, it is all *cough* about Him, after all. It’s not like we are, you know, *cough* coming up with our New Progressive Christianity because we are really looking to use it as a personal ‘screw you’ to our parents and grandparents and other oppressors in our lives. *cough* No way!

    I will stop coming here until you fess us and admit that Jesus needs new public relations. He needs to change for our culture’s sake. We need better marketing. He needs better marketing. People can’t really attach themselves to the stale, old, Salvation message. We need to throw some social-activism (pro-choice/feminism/homosexuality) in there as well, since Jesus is all about changing with the times.

    Now then. Where’s my Gaia Worship Bible? I have a study to lead at my local Starbucks with the others, followed by a riveting documentary on “Global Warming and Al Gore: The Prophets Have Spoken, And Mother Earth Is Not Happy”. Of course Jesus will be there. *snort* Who do you think His Mother is?

  10. I’ve never heard missional, but now that you mention it- it’s pretty irritating. The one that gets me though is ‘love on’ –
    “We’re going to go out and love on this hurting community” or “go out and love on someone today”

    I honestly don’t believe there’s a creepier phrase among the Christian community.

      1. Seriously! If I heard someone say they were going to “love on” me, I’d probably run in the opposite direction!

  11. Oh, how about these:

    “Don’t die and go to Hell. Become a member of this church and get a free pass!”

    “God created Adam and Eve, but He loves Adam and Steve!”

    “If God is your co-pilot, feel free to spend more time in the bathroom!”

    “Christians aren’t perfect,…oh, wait…yes we are!”

    “Jesus is whomever you want Him/Her to be, so chill and have a coffee!”

    and my personal fave-

    “We are The New Church: Because your old stuffy uptight church basically sucks!”

  12. I really don’t care what they label “sharing the gospel”, as long as its done. In some respects, I also think its depends on motive. If your trying to be cute, sound intellectual and display your marketing genius, then obviously your motive is corrupt.

  13. “Leadership” The fad of “being a leader” doesn’t belong in the church. We can do a lot better than learn from CEO’s.

  14. I’m not sure that we could do without terms such as “social justice.” I don’t think it’s exclusively Christian-ese. As far as Christian-ese goes, it makes sense that since God has called believers to not be of the world, we’ll come up with unique words and phrases to describe what we believe and do. Even silly terms like “love on” can be motivational, for a while and for some people.

    The tension lies in the fact that even inside our churches, we are also in the world whenever unbelievers or new Christians are present. We need to speak their language, yet without going so far as to remove words like “redemption” from our Bible translations (or at least the more literal ones). When someone asks what “redeemed” means, I think it can open up a wonderful opportunity to personally share the gospel message.

    In addition, scholarly-minded Christians need words to describe various theological beliefs, such as “dispensationalism.” In this regard, I confess that I’ve complicated matters by introducing the terms “early reconstructionism” and “biblical premodernism” in my book, Return to Genesis.

    1. Yes, this is a good correction. Some of these terms are just popular these days but that doesn’t mean they are wrong or used incorrectly or should be abandoned. Your example of “social justice” is a helpful one. It is not a biblical term, per se. Neither is social justice a new or fresh idea or some kind of revelation. It is, however, an emphasis of today’s generation to change the world for Christ, and that is refreshing. The emphasis will fade away in a few years.

      I think it is also a reaction to the previous generations lack of emphasis on social justice. If one generation ignores a command, praise God, a new generation will find it, like in the days of King Josiah.

      1. “I think it is also a reaction to the previous generations lack of emphasis on social justice.”

        Excuse me?? Who liberated the German camps? Wiped out diseases like polio? Opened hospitals and schools all over the world? Flew airplanes into jungles to bring medical attention and written language and the gospel, often at the expense of their own lives?? (I better slow down; my blood pressure is rising.) Each generation has faced their own set of unique challenges and left us heroic legacies to follow (“of whom the world was not worthy”). May their example give us all courage to face our own daunting assignments.

        1. Lauren,
          Amen and thank you for making this crucial point.

          I think the difference here too, Brian, is that previous generations didn’t need to label everything. They simply did, instead.

  15. Here here! YES! Absolutely! It sounds like “missional” is such a new idea, but it is just new packaging.

    Except for one thing. Every generation needs to understand the gospel in a fresh way. We have the responsibility to communicate it in a way that they understand it. If “missional” does that for this decade’s church, I’m for it. However, if it only distracts us and doesn’t help us to make more disciples, then let’s reject it.

    Thanks for your fresh perspective.

  16. I completely agree with all of your article today. missional, like many other created words, distract us or create a longer path to the true meaning of what we are supposed to be doing. In the case of missional, it’s true meaning is obedient, or obedience. If we are obedient to God, His commandments, and His call; well, we are “missional” then. By the way, as a side note; if spell check doesn’t reconize the word, is it really a word?

  17. It’s one term in a lexicon that defines what type of Christian you are attempting to be. Why should we need to differentiate one Christian from another? Shouldn’t “Christian” cover it? Guess not. I’m not a fan because it points out that there are non-missional Christians and it tends to be a covert celebration to those who “get it.”

  18. Could it be that the lack of congruence of our practice and theology, in all churches, “organic” or “institutional” is what makes us so picky, because these words function like mirrors that point us to all the places we have failed to be Christ-like?

    And I think a certain man named Jesus said the greatest thing to do to show our love for him was to start with keeping two simple commandments: Love the Lord your God. Love Your Neighbor as yourself (Love God. Love People.) Why are we trying to do away with that because it irks us.

  19. Your Twitter feed has one about Jesus not dying so we could merely have misery with a new label on it. Brilliant!

    I wonder if culture hasn’t encroached too far onto The Divine. I wonder if The World hasn’t been allowed to cozy-up too closely to His Church. In our quest to create the newest flavor-of-the-week theological one-liner that can catch fire on Facebook and Twitter, have we sold out that which is beautiful for that which is solely tempting?

  20. My immediate reaction to the word “missional” and its definition here is that it’s a cop-out. It reminds me in a weird way of the day my mother got an email from a US megachurch that informed her, after more than twenty years of support, that they were “reworking” their “missions strategy” and that my parents’ “project” no longer “fit their vision” – so they were cutting support (as if paying rent and feeding a teenager is something my parents just do on the side). As a rule, what with the economic downturn and this kind of brilliant thinking, the support dollars given by US churches to missionaries in Europe have been steadily dwindling, and I tend to view this as a form of backing out. So my first reaction to the word “missional” and its definition was “oh, so if you’re not going to commit to supporting people who do the Lord’s work in a faraway land overseas, you’re just going to start refocusing the missions stuff on yourself and your surroundings and call it ‘we’re still doing the missions thing!'” And it(s probably not fair at all for me to think that – gut reactions oftentimes are not fair.

  21. Okay, fine, I’ll say it. I know others are thinking it.

    When I saw the word ‘missional’, I first thought of a sexual position, and that Nicole was writing about how The Church needs to stop having sex in that position. Not kidding. That’s the danger of skimming the titles of blog postings.

  22. Ok. I don’t know you, but my college roomate (chad rowland) had to retweet your post, and then you go hating on a new term i just learned. I just got back to the states recently after years of doing the “missions” thing in the middle east, and I hear a new term, Missional, and think “wow, what a great term to describe what the church should be.” So I guess I am a few years behind the times.
    Now, I understand and agree fully agree with your sentiments. But… As one who has spent the last fifteen years working across languages, language is a constantly changing thing. Words come into and out of use over time. Some quicker than others. The more a word is used, the cheaper it gets. Words also can lose meaning and value over time. So I share your struggle with many of the words we use in the church. Not because they are not good words, but because they have lost meaning and value. Basic words like Christian, love, believe, and worship have lost value, not because they are not good words, but because most of the church has no clue what they really mean any more. So we have a few choices. Either we scrap them all, along with most of our language, or we redeem them and stop assuming people know what they mean. Both are valid options. I would propose that in reality, we create new words and forms of words, not because we have a “new idea or vision” but because the old words have lost their true meaning. As I did overseas, We have to always question and listen closely and ask more questions to see if people really understand what we are saying.
    So… I agree with your concern about just creating words to sound intelligent or trendy, never doing what the term implies. But sometimes, new words help us have clarity as to what we are communicating. So maybe we should be concerned with what we are saying, but even more concerned about what we are communicating. And if the term
    Missional brings clarity to help us better fulfill a really old command, then maybe that is a good thing. If it just provides a label and we use it because it is trendy, then it should be banned, mocked, and we should ridicule those who use it and find value in it. Some words are hated not because they do not communicate, but because they convict us in what we lack, and therefore we try to stop them. I have experienced this all too well in the middle east.

  23. I get what you are trying to say, but we must also understand there is good and right to use words to sum up, identify biblical truths. After all should we stop using the term trinity, rapture and even bible, after all the word bible is not in scripture. Words, tag lines, catch phrase what ever one calls them, some do have there place and even necessity in many ways. But you are right, they are over used, and most over overemphasized.

    To quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride “I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means” really applies to most church catch phrases, people use them with out knowing what they mean.

    I’m just saying lets not throw out the baby with the bath water.

  24. I think we invent new language because we loose interest in things like the great commission, it is our way of putting a fresh and attractive spin on things. We shouldn’t need these terms but we do, because we have short attention spans and we get tired of the same language. You’re right we should just need Jesus but finding or coining new words or phrases makes us think again, and maybe act again, in a fresh wave of interest and action. Can’t really say that is bad.

  25. Can’t this desire to control terminology and shaming it be divisive in the body and ultimately damaging? Frankly I don’t feel like censoring my speech or hanging around a snooty reformer who see my beard and says, “having a beard makes him feel REEEEEEEEEELEVANT”.

  26. “Missional” remains a good conversational word. We need to tell evolved stories, sing evolved songs, and tout evolved philosophies. In order to do that, we need evolved vocabulary. The word “Missional” is an evolving word.

    That said, I find it insufficient. It’s why I coined the word “Missiorganic.” It brings all missional & organic concepts together into a wonderfully uncontrollable mess.

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