why the word “missional” bugs me.

kathyescobar church stuff, crazy making, incarnational, the refuge 67 Comments

blog why i don't like the word missionali know the word “missional” is popular in a lot of christian circles these days.  it has gained traction as churches are attempting to become more outwardly focused.  now, there are all kinds of groups, networks, ministry initiatives, new book lines, and other programs dedicated to challenging the church to become more “missional.”

even though i’m glad the winds are shifting in this direction, i’m still not crazy about the word.  the truth is, i’ve never liked it, even though i use it in certain wider contexts.  in fact, a few months ago i was facilitating a learning group around down we go, sharing why i don’t like the word “missional”.  as i was talking, i turned the book over and right there in big bold letters on the back cover it said “creating missional community.”

yes, i’m well aware i am a hypocrite sometimes!  it was definitely ironic, but we had a good laugh over it.

i get that it’s a word that makes sense to a lot of people, and language helps us.  but just because i use it sometimes as part of shared context doesn’t mean i have to like it!

a few weeks ago we had a youth “mission” team come from indiana to serve and learn at the refuge (i would have preferred the word “learning team” because that was a better descriptor).  regardless of semantics, their eyes were opened to pain & poverty in the suburbs; it was a very interesting and good week.  my favorite part was an evening we facilitated a justice panel, where 4 friends from the refuge shared their stories about mental illness, addiction, poverty, loneliness, low self-worth, divorce, and a whole host of other real issues they face.  they knocked it out of the park describing what life was like and sharing what they are learning through loving community.

it was so beautiful.  holy.  powerful.  redeeming.

and exactly what this visiting team needed to hear–the difference between being someone’s mission and being someone’s friend. 

in so many contexts, my friends would be considered someone’s “mission” instead of a friend. a project instead of a person.  a person to change instead of a person to love and learn from.  a person that follows instead of a person that leads.  a person who is used to having their dignity stripped, not restored.      

they articulated in such clear beautiful ways that God reveals himself through others, how Jesus-with-skin-on has made a difference.

their stories reminded me why i am not crazy about the the word “missional”.

here are some reasons why:

  • it feels pretty cruddy to be someone’s “mission”.  seriously.
  • it often tends to be one-way.  there’s a focus on giving and serving (which are obviously good) but it can also be used as a protection from relationship & connection & equality. we must practice receiving, too, and that’s usually harder than giving.
  • it keeps power protected.  those who have it keep it, and those without it never fully do.  issues of power have damaged many, and in the kingdom of God we need to do what we can to keep intentionally breaking down power differentials.
  • the main people talking & writing & coordinating conferences about “missional” are white, educated people with margin. i fall into this category, too, so i’m not just pointing the finger.  we are making progress on new voices from the margins in terms of homosexuality & women, but the truth is poor people aren’t influencing change the way that they could be because they never sit at the tables where changes get made. these are the voices we need to hear from! but that’s too much of a mind-bender in a system bent toward privilege & power.
  • we can hide behind mission and never learn to love.  real love, real relationship, real connection is hard work.  both mission and love require sacrifice and time, but love requires a whole other level of vulnerability, the kind most of us are afraid of, but the kind i believe Jesus calls us to.

so those are a few of the reasons off the top of my head why the word kind of bugs me.

i realize it’s not really fair to critique an alternative.  i do sometimes use “incarnational” instead because it really is about Jesus-with-skin-on.  however, similar to “missional”, it only makes sense in the inner-circles of christianity.

the more i reflect on the wisdom shared on the panel and what i keep learning in the muck and mire of life connected to the refuge, the word that best describes this crazy beautiful path God calls us to is also the simplest one–love.

isn’t love what we’re supposed to be known for? 

isn’t love what Jesus embodied and empowers us to reflect? 

isn’t love enough?     

i wonder if maybe love is the scariest thing of all. 

mission, that’s in our control. 

messy, raw, sacrificial, tangible, long-haul love, now that’s dangerous.

i don’t think a lot of people are sitting around waiting to be someone’s “mission”.

but i do think there are a lot of people hoping to be loved & love others, to have friends and be a friend, to be connected to a little pocket of love that could bring hope & life & dignity & joy & peace in all kinds of wild and mysterious ways. 

yeah, i like the word love instead of mission.