If you are looking for an authority on the missional movement, Ed Stetzer is your one-stop shop. A leading figure in contemporary evangelical thought, Stetzer has been called “the best missional thinker in North America” and has written some of the best books on the subject (see here and here). On his popular blog, Stetzer authored a “Meanings of Missional” series of posts that have been among the most trafficked on his site.

Currently serving as Director of Lifeway Research and Lifeway’s Missiologist in Residence, Stetzer is also a preaching pastor and a church planter who has planted churches in New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia and transitioned declining churches in Indiana and Georgia. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Stetzer served for three years as seminary professor at the Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and has taught at 15 other seminaries, including Biola’s Talbot School of Theology.

To supplement the current issue of Biola Magazine and its focus on missions and the missional movement, managing editor Brett McCracken talked with Ed Stetzer about the uses, complexities and challenges of “missional.” 

BM: Ed, would you say that the average Christian has an understanding of the term “missional”? Or is it still an “insider term” among church leaders and theologians?

ES: I would say the term has started to gain wide acceptance since the turn of the millennium among Christian leaders, however I don’t think it has gotten down to the rank-and-file level. I’ve written a book, Compelled by Love, which is trying to be a lay-level explanation of missional, and other authors are trying to do the same. But yeah, primarily it’s still a pastor’s or theologian’s word.

BM: My sense is that there is widespread confusion about the word, even among the pastors and theologians. Is the word useful? Is it too confusing for its own good?

ES: Well, it certainly has become the descriptor du jour. I think the problem is that people tend to see in missional what they want to see. If they want to see the church do more social justice, that’s “missional.” If they want to be more evangelistic, that’s “missional.” But I still think there’s a power in a new or modified word that enables us to say, “We do need something different.” I think missional has become a descriptor — an imperfect one — of the shift we might need in evangelicalism.

BM: So it’s a useful word, but it’s just been misappropriated?

ES: Well, when something’s cool and hot, that’s what people do. Every new magazine wants to put missional on the cover. At our church we have a joke about it: When we needed to put in new lights, we said, “Well, maybe we should get missional lighting.” So, yes, we know we need a change, but we just need to define more clearly what the word means.

BM: In your interview with David Fitch, you recently said that missional is like an “ecclesiological junk drawer,” which I thought was funny. It’s like we’re using the term to justify whatever definition of the church that we prefer.

ES: Yeah, whatever the church isn’t — that’s missional if we did that. So yeah, it’s concerning.

BM: Why is the missional movement happening now? What brought it on?

ES: Recently the New York Times quoted me referring to the “modern evangelical machine.” And I think there’s some discomfort with the modern evangelical machine that has produced a catered, franchise, packaged Christianity that is pretty neat and freeze-dried. I think people are looking for something that is more transformational, more organic, and missional has become that which people rally to. There are other people using other words — like “externally focused” — which are describing similar ideas. So the question is: Does the word “missional” have enough redefining influence to help us think more biblically about the church, or will the word become a distraction? As of yet, I don’t think it has become more problematic than it is helpful. I think it’s still helpful.

BM: I like how you always say that being missional is just a way of joining God on his mission; it’s not about shaping it to our needs or our agenda for the church.

ES: Yeah, exactly.

BM: So the core purpose and idea of mission is good, but there have been some unintended consequences?

ES: I think every movement has unintended consequences. The unintended consequence of the church-growth movement was that we taught churches how to meet consumers’ needs, and perhaps an unintended consequence of the missional movement will be that we will deemphasize some things we need to emphasize, like sharing Christ and biblical orthodoxy and things like that. And I want to learn from both.

BM: What would you say are the good, positive contributions that you’ve already seen coming out of this missional movement?  

ES: I think a move away from preference, from church being defined by the preferences of its attendees to church being more focused on how we can be a sign and instrument of the kingdom of God in this community. So I think it’s a little less self-focused, which is positive. I think its forced people to think about what is the source of our mission, and that mission is an attribute of God himself. It’s helped people to see their lives as part of redemptive history, on the move, as sent ones and sent churches. I think the rediscovery that the Jesus of Luke 19:10 — who said “I come to seek and save the lost” — is the same Jesus as in Luke 4 — who came to pronounce freedom for the captives, sight for the blind, and caring for the poor — is also a positive contribution.

BM: What about church cooperation? You’ve written about that on your blog.

ES: Yes, this is part of it too. I think when you have more of a kingdom mentality, you want to work together with other kingdom partners. It probably leads to more cooperative ventures. I think church planting is benefitting from the missional movement. If it’s not about us, then we’re going to send out people to plant churches.

BM: Is “missional” necessarily anti-megachurch? Can you be a megachurch and also be missional?

ES: Depends on who you ask! I think it’s harder to be missional if you’re a megachurch, because the machine has to be serviced. I preach every week to a church with 9,000 members, so obviously I’m not anti-megachurch. But I like to think that the church functions like a yo-yo. There are two functions at work: sending itself out, like the centrifugal force, but also the force pulling us in, which is the organization that needs to be maintained. When you spin a yo-yo, the centripetal force pulling it in and the centrifugal force pushing it out are in equal balance. But I think the more your church has, the more you have to service it, the thicker the tether. I think many megachurches spend all their time servicing the tether and not sending it out on mission. If you have 10 people in your living room, all you have to worry about is the centrifugal, but if you have a megachurch you have to worry about the centripetal as well. So I think its harder as a megachurch.

BM: One of the criticisms about missional that Dan Kimball, among others, has pointed out recently is that there have not been new converts in the missional church. Do you think this is a concern? 

ES: I do think that a church should not defend their lack of converts, but rather repent of it and resolve to change. I think that some missional churches want to defend it. I do think that conversion takes longer these days. People don’t really know what “getting saved” means anymore. In a secular society, missional engagement and conversion are going to take longer, but at the end of the day, if all we have is reform but no one getting born again, then I don’t think that’s a better situation than what we have right now.

BM: I think another criticism that has been raised is just this balance that missional tries to strike between social justice and “living out” the gospel on one hand and the proclaiming or preaching of the gospel on the other. And you even talked about this at your talk at the American Society for Church Growth conference here at Biola. How do we balance these things?

ES: I think, ultimately, if I push on two fronts — A and B — and I only get resistance on B, then I’ve got to push harder on B. Now, from my perspective I might think they are equally important, but we have to remember this: When you speak of justice, people will praise you, but when you speak of Jesus, they’ll condemn you. But we can’t speak of Jesus without speaking of justice and we can’t biblically speak of justice without understanding Jesus, so ultimately we will have to overcompensate in the area of evangelism because that’s where there is resistance.

BM: You talked here at Biola about the younger evangelicals and their passion for social justice. How much of this do you think is just because it is the cool cultural thing to be interested in as opposed to a biblically motivated interest?

ES: I don’t know. Were young Christians concerned about social justice before MTV was concerned about social justice? I think the answer is, we don’t know. I will say that socially concerned Christians have been talking about this for a long time — people like Ron Sider — but did social justice catch on because Ron Sider thought it was important or because the world and Bono decided it was important? I don’t know. But it’s a good question.

BM: Can you talk a little bit about how missional is different from emerging, and how they overlap?

ES: I would say you can be emerging and not missional, and you can be missional and not emerging, so I think that you can just as likely be a contemporary missional church as a traditional one. I think the people in the emerging conversation are more conversant in the language of missional, but I think Christians across the spectrum and of all stripes are trying to figure out how to be “missional.”

BM: Do you think the missional movement might bridge the gap and divisions between, for example, the “emerging” people and the neo-Reformed crowd?

ES: Well, I don’t know if it will be the great unifier, but I think we can all agree on missional — that we need to be focused on the mission of God, not on us. I speak to a lot of pastors about missional, from Assemblies of God to Reformed, and I think that all of them more or less get it, and get why it is important.