Mission, Schmission: Say That Ten Times Fast

If you hang out with people who’ve gone to or taught at a seminary during the last ten years, or maybe if you just hang out with a certain kind of church folk, you’re probably aware of the trendiness of certain Christian words. Usually there are churches built around them, church conferences planned around them, and lots of books written with them in their titles. Recently words like community, emerging or emergent, koinonia, intentional, or relevant might make it on such a list.

Another one of those words is “missional,” as in, the missional church or missional living. (If you aren’t one of those people mentioned above, you might be thinking, “What the heck does ‘missional’ mean?” And that’s okay. You’re in good company. Back in 2008, after “missional” had started popping up “everywhere,” Christianity Today featured an article about what the heck it means. For more information, you can also check in with the all-knowing Wikipedia.)

I’m sure there are quite a few long, well-thought-out books written about why the contemporary church has shifted away from thinking solely of “missions” as sending money or people overseas or “missionary” as only a full-time sharer of the Gospel in a foreign land.

I haven’t read them, but I, for one, am glad we’re in this new place, a broader understanding of “missions.” Now, I’m not saying I don’t support overseas mission work: of course I do. The hubster was even in Honduras over spring break working in an afterschool program. We support people we know–friends in Haiti and other far flung places–and people and work we don’t know.

But I am not called to move my family overseas, and I’m not called to only–only–give money to support the mission work of others. I’m called to do mission myself. In my everyday life. Here in the middle of America. With my neighbors.

And you are, too.

A Christian life is a life of mission. Isn’t it?

A friend of ours came over on Sunday night to interview us for a seminary class he’s currently taking on ‘the missional life.’ It’s actually the second of two missional life classes he’s required to take for his degree. (Another sign a Christian word is trendy? Seminary classes use it in their titles.) As part of his final project, he’s to interview a member of the clergy and a layperson about their understanding of the missional life. We, even though there were two of us, counted as the layperson for the project. I guess two really do become one in marriage.

Before the interview, I tried jotting down some notes, just to see what my initial thoughts were about living a “missional” life. I like making lists, so I do this sort of thing a lot to get my brain loosened up. In teaching composition, we’d call this a form of ‘freewriting.’

Here’s what I wrote, and as usual, I promise that I did not edit it.

What is “mission”?

* staying put
* planting roots
* building community even when it's hard and you just don't feel like it
* everyday decisions for justice:
--  buying the slightly more expensive diapers or formula because of a 
    brand's rating on Better World Shopper
--  buying secondhand--and being satisfied with it--even when you can 
    afford new
* making due with holey underwear
* being faithful in a church community and offering your gifts even 
    when you're discouraged
* praying for people

Weird, huh? No mention of telling people about Jesus.

At least not in words.

But you can kind of tell what’s been on my mind lately.

For the interview, I didn’t say these things, at least not in this way. I talked instead about being thoughtful, about being intentional in everyday decisions and in everyday encounters with people.

I think being missional is really loving people, cultivating genuine community, and being vulnerable. It’s staying when going is easier and more convenient, doing when what we really prefer is not doing, listening even when we feel distracted.

These are very difficult things.

At least they are for me. Maybe you’re a pro. If so, rock on.

To close the audio interview, our friend asked us to fill in the following blank, based on the hour of conversation we’d had:

Missional living is ______________.

I knew my answer immediately, because it’s been on my mind a lot.

Being the hands and feet of Jesus.

That’s what I said.

Being the hands and feet of Jesus.

How would you respond?


11 comments on “Mission, Schmission: Say That Ten Times Fast

  1. Beth M says:

    I especially like that “being faithful in a church community and offering your gifts when you’re discouraged.” A pastor of mine once said if we weren’t using our gifts in the church, we’re robbing the church. But, it’s definitely hard when you’re discouraged either by other people’s devaluing (or undervaluing) of your gifts or you are downcast. (Not sure how you meant discouraged, but I think either can be valid in a church setting.)

    What is missional living – selling what you have, and not buying in the first place, being faithful, being authentic, giving generously of your time, money, and talent. Speaking up for Jesus in a world that wants to put everything else, especially hard data, first.

    • elizabeth says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. By “discouraged” I meant discouraged with the church in general as well as with the local congregation. I have friends about whom I care deeply who feel like giving up on the church because they don’t see the church living out its calling to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. I think we are called to be in community even so, and maybe especially so. (Your interpretations certainly work as well, so I’m glad you mentioned them.)

      PS It makes me so happy that you responded to the question. 🙂 It’s always (ahem) discouraging when I throw out a question and get *crickets.*

      • Aunt Diana says:

        Chirp Chirp!! I hear Crickets??? No! I was not really familiar with the term but very quickly caught on. We had a slump in our church for awhile and then we had the very hard conversations with the church council and pastors, It seems we were all so consumed with our own causes and demanding our own way that we were not united! (in anything) The Christian Ed folks offered the course by Rick Warren ” 40 Days of Community” IT WAS A GAME CHANGER….What a difference we saw as our hearts were softened.We offered it as a Sunday School class, Bible Study and several small groups including the youth fellowship. I would say that we are well on our way to being ” missional” in our thinking and service.
        Thanks, Liz! You always get me thinking.. Love to You, Jon and Clara

      • elizabeth says:

        Thanks, Aunt Diana, for sharing about your church’s experience. It’s really inspiring when a church can come together and first acknowledge that there is a problem and then second work together to remedy it. I wonder how many churches in that position would be able to acknowledge the first thing?

        So glad you’re reading and sharing your thoughts here. Love you, too!

  2. Sarah says:

    First, I really enjoyed your article. Second, building community is one of the very best ways to be the hands and feet of Jesus. And “doing it even when it’s hard and you don’t feel like it” really spoke to me. Having a busy, young family with four children seems to become a great excuse to postpone involvement. Because face it, it’s hard to drag kids along when they don’t want to, handle little ones in busy situations, find something that all can participate in and be careful what they are exposed to. But as our children grow I see that service as a family is exactly what will change the world for Christ. Most people really love and respond to children. Also, hopefully we’re “being the hands and feet of Jesus” to our kids by doing this. Double the benefit. Thanks for a though provoking read today!

    • elizabeth says:

      You’re inspiring, Sarah! I “don’t feel like it” with just one little bean pulling at my ankles. I have a hard time imagining what it would be like four little ones. I like what you said though about being the hands and feet of Jesus to our kids, too. It is so important to me that my child(ren) will consider selflessness/community/giving the norm in our household, not the exception. I would love it if our kids find it stranger not to have guests than to have guests sharing our table with us. What a world that would be!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Liz's Dad says:

    Our denomination is missional by doctrine, our people are missional by heritage but our church lost its mission for awhile when we forgot that loving each other really does start at home and our home church. We too are on the way to recovery but many people were hurt in the process.

    Jesus said the world would know his disciples by our love for each other. When that fails all our good work is for naught.

    When our loves for each other shows, people want to be part of that love.

    Again you have touched me deeply. Thanks and much love! Dad

    • elizabeth says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Dad. If we don’t love each other, how can we love others? It’s a good question to be asking. I think a lot of churches are good at–or at least seem on a surface level to be good at–loving one another. At least based on the number of programs they offer to church members and the amount of time the members spend together. In those cases, I would encourage them to spend more time loving others outside the church–and not just through organized outreach, but in every day interactions. But at the same time, we can’t focus only on interactions outside the church and not love those within the church. That’s certainly dysfunctional and won’t bring anyone to Christ. There’s a reason why in Acts, we see the apostles bringing the Gospel to communities and then building church communities before moving on (though Paul continued to encourage those communities via letters and with visits). Communities of faith are so important.

  4. You’re so adept at bringing it all down to earth and making me think. Thanks, I needed it.

  5. Beth M says:

    Normally, I’m a scoffer when it comes to World magazine, but this recent article really hit a tender spot with me, because it’s placing books/movements/thoughts that I hold near and dear up to a harsher interpretation.


    in light of this post, where you discuss missional living (briefly touched on as a fad in the article). Wondering if you’ve read it or if you have thoughts on it?

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