Losing the Baggage: What We Mean When We Say  “Missional”

“Missional” is a somewhat embattled term among modern ministry practitioners. But Bishop Todd Hunter, Founder and Leader of the Telos Collective, isn’t ready to let it go. He unpacks the original intent of the missional movement’s founders, and shares why he uses “missional” to best describe our work. This is part of an ongoing blog series called “Defining the Terms” that we’ll share over the next few months, focusing on what we mean when we say “culture,” “missional leadership,” “sacramental” and more within the Telos Collective. 

By Bishop Todd Hunter

Almost 20 years after the publication of Missional Church[1] by Darrell L. Guder, there is a lot of misunderstanding and misuse surrounding the term missional. But the missional movement generated by Guder and his colleagues is substantive, and I’d like to give the authors of the book a fresh hearing.

The missional movement, as it became known, sought to convince the church that:

  • North America is a mission field.
  • God is the initiator of missionary activity.
  • The Church is a missional body via God’s purposes in election, calling and vocation—and therefore does mission, and in doing so must take on the mindset of a missionary. Jurgen Moltmann says: It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill to the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit though the Father that includes the church, creating a church as it goes on its way.[2]

But the missional movement has been criticized for a few reasons:

  • Ecclesiology: Some people find the missional movement too utilitarian in its view of the Church, lacking an appropriate emphasis on the ontological connection between the head—Christ—and the Church.
  • Diversity: Others criticize the missional movement for being monochromatic and stemming from church leaders who were feeling the Church’s loss of power and increasing social marginalization. But most people of color have never been at the center or yielded power; thus, they have a different perspective and voice that needs to be heard in the modern missional conversation.
  • Discipleship: Some suggest that the missional movement does not have enough focus on properly catechizing, disciplining, or nurturing Christians.

Given all those minuses, for me, the sum of the plusses strongly outweighs them. Let’s get to the goodness of the missional conversation by giving some of its core insights.

A mission statement is not the same as being missional. The former is a temporary writing project that ends up in the iCloud. The latter is a never-ending struggle of discernment leading to action for the good of others. The missional movement sought to take seriously the incarnation and eschatology and how those areas of theology inform and shape a missional ecclesiology.

Mission is a never-ending struggle of discernment leading to action for the good of others.

To be missional includes evangelism, but it also calls the church to join God in the whole kingdom work of healing, deliverance, deeds of justice and public worship. As Lesslie Newbigin describes: Ecclesiology reminds us that the Church is the sign, foretaste, instrument and witness of the kingdom of God. The Church is the primary means through which God loves the world.[3]

This is what sounds too utilitarian for some. But I must say, I don’t see it that way. I would want to keep ontology in the picture, but not lose purpose. The Bible is full of what I call cooperation. That term keeps relational ontology in the picture while creating a large space for God’s intention in the creation of Adam and Eve (come rule and reign with me); for Noah (cooperate with me in saving the world); with Abraham (cooperate in the restoration of the world with me); the incarnation itself; and the calling of the Twelve, etc. All that calling for cooperation does not negate ontological connection—it reveals its meaning and purpose.

The missional movement meant to express a kingdom-based alternative society. Christian churches stay connected to the world as a non-anxious presence, without sharing its values, practices and telos. The kingdom of God is active in the secular world, not just in heaven or in the Church. Thus the Church works in the world with a God who is always already there.

The missional movement tried to teach the Church the crucial missional and evangelistic practice of listening, of paying attention, of discerning where God was already at work in the world. The Apostle Paul imagined this reality in these words:

The missional movement tried to teach the Church the crucial missional and evangelistic practice of listening.

I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.
(1 Cor. 9: 19-22, MSG)

And as Mark Lau Branson has written: If we accept the Newbigin framework that the West is a mission field, then, like the best of missionaries, we need to become reflective participants in the context. We need habits of listening, observing, participating, and discerning.[4]

The missional movement was grappling with the notion of: How does the church do evangelism in a culture that was previously “Christian,” but has now rejected Christianity? It is like trying to sell a car brand to someone who has bought that brand in the past, only to discover it is a lemon.

The missional movement had a sharp focus on giving the Church a new imagination for missional vision-casting, for raising and sending missional leaders, and for learning creative, contextually-sensitive missional practices.

In gratitude to our missiologists, the Telos Collective seeks to:

  • Foment a vision for ministry that takes seriously Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom, a “1 Cor. 9” engagement with culture; the raising up of missional leaders; the creation of missional churches who are living into their election through the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Assist Anglicans, given the intelligence and passion in our history via Cranmer and others, to believe that we have much to contribute to a missional conversation from which we have been largely absent. Cranmer’s sole focus was to disciple his nation. Read him and implement him that way, and Anglican spirituality, with its ability to foster spiritual formation via spiritual disciples, comes alive in worship, discipleship and mission.

In the late 1990s, when it looked like truth was permanently flying out the window (postmodernism) and the Church was increasingly mocked in popular culture and set aside in important civil issues, and when fear, skepticism and cynicism filled the hearts of Christians, many of us did not know where to turn. But the missiologists came to our rescue. They took the enormous lessons they had learned in trying to disciple unreached people groups and turned that brilliance onto our modern North American challenges. We can never be too grateful for their work. They need to be read again—not just read, but discussed among practitioners who are sharing their learning with one another in the Telos Collective.


[1] Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998).

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, trans. Margaret Kohl, (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 64.

 [3] Nick Warnes in Starting Missional Churches: Life with God in the Neighborhood, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014), 27, summarizing Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 60-63; The Gospel in a PLuralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 136.

 [4] Mark Lau Branson and Nick Warnes eds., Starting Missional Churches: Life with God in the Neighborhood, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014), 28.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Todd Hunter is the founding bishop of The Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others and founding pastor of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, CA. Todd is Founder and Leader of the Telos Collective, a missional task force serving the Anglican Church in North America. He has authored many books including Giving Church Another Chance and The Accidental Anglican. Todd and his wife Debbie, with two adult children, live in Costa Mesa, California.


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