Mark D. Roberts

Part 12 of series: Missional and Formational?
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In this series on missional and formational I have been using some Christian lingo. It’s insider talk. If you went out “Jaywalking,” as Jay Leno used to do on the Tonight Show, and interviewed a thousand people on the street, asking, “What is missional? What is formational?” my guess is you might find one in a thousand that had any idea what you were talking about. So, yes, I’ve been using some fairly obscure Christianese in this series. I’ll admit it. But it’s helpful shorthand once you know what the words mean. (Photo: No, this didn’t actually happen on the Tonight Show.)
Yet I have been asked by people if the language of this series is “just lingo”? The sense of the question is: “Aren’t these words overused in some quarters? Aren’t they used in so many different ways as to become meaningless? Wouldn’t we be better off without the words “formational” and “missional”?”
In answer these questions, let me say at the outset that I’m not especially committed to the words “formational” and “missional.” If they pass away, I won’t be particularly sorry. But I don’t believe “formational” and “missional” are just lingo, if by this one means that the ideas they convey are just a passing fancy.
Formational has to do with individuals and communities being formed by the Spirit into the image of Christ. Formational is about not being conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:1). Formational is about churches becoming fully functional as the body of Christ in their life together and in their life in the world. So, whether you use the word “formational” or not, the idea of “formational” is essential to the Christian life.
Ditto with “missional.” This word has to do with our being sent by Jesus to do his word in the world. All individual Christians and all Christian churches have a missional calling, a God-given missional identity. This means we need to see ourselves, wherever we are, as God’s agents, sent by him to extend his kingdom. All churches should be missional in the sense that all churches have been placed where they are by God for the sake of his kingdom work.
I don’t care if a church uses the word “missional.” I do care if a church sees itself as essentially called and formed for participation in the mission of Christ. That could be framed in different language. A church could be “other focused” or “outreach oriented” or something like this. But these phrases miss a crucial element that is implied in the word “missional.” It points, not only to the work to be done in the world, but implicitly to the one who sent us. “Missional” embodies the notion of God as the sender and ourselves and the sent people.
In my experience, the word “formational” isn’t terribly popular. Nor is it generally understood, even by experienced Christians. The word “missional” is also often misunderstood. But in some quarters this word is way too popular. That’s especially true in the Presbyterian circles in which I operate. “Missional” is the hot word, the “in” thing to be. Thus we have begun to call everything missional. This works rather nicely in churches that want to maintain their current identity as basically self-absorbed communities, but also want to be cutting edge. So they simply use the word “missional” to label everything they’re already doing.
The only way we’re really going to know what “missional” should mean is by a careful, exhaustive, and ongoing conversation about the mission of God as revealed in Scripture, and the mission of God’s people that emerges from this mission of God. Such a biblically-based conversation will show us what it means to be missional. It will also help us to see how some of the actions we currently label as “mission” are, in fact, inconsistent with or distractions from the fundamental mission of God.
I’ve added to this conversation in a blog series: The Mission of God and the Missional Church. But there is so much more that needs to be discovered and shared than what I have written. An there’s so much more to be experienced than anything I have known as a missionally-oriented Christian. If we took the missional label seriously, it would transform our individual lives and our churches in ways we can only begin to comprehend.
So, it may be that the word “missional” is getting worn out, flattened by overuse and imprecision. It remains to be seen whether the word will last. But the vision it is meant to convey will last and must last. In fact, no matter the language we use, I hope and pray that the vision of missional disciples and missional churches will grow in its impact.

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