Posts from the Past: A Guide To Mission Terminology

This one is four years old…

A couple of years ago, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I wrote the definitive guide to Bible translation terms. In the same spirit, I feel that I should write a guide to terms used in discussion about mission, so here goes:

  • Missional: my church is more exciting than your church.
  • Missiology: the study of the way that I do mission and why other people are wrong.
  • Missiological: you agree with me.
  • missio Dei: not only am I right, but God agrees with me (eg, an approach based on the missio Dei means…). This is the equivalent of playing the ‘God card’ in discussions about guidance. “God told me to do it” actually means, “I don’t need to listen to your advice”.
  • Missional Hermeneutic: reading the Bible in the way that I want you to.

Before you throw something at your computer, or write a rude comment on my blog or Facebook – this is posted under humour. However, behind the humour is a real issue. Reading widely in mission studies both on paper and on the internet, I find that different authors use these terms in very different ways. I have already blogged on this with reference to the terms missiology and missio Dei

Recently I came across another couple of quotes which deepened my conviction that we do confuse ourselves by the way in which we talk about mission. In a review of Shawn Redford’s Book Missiological Hermeneutics (American Society of Missiology Monograph) Jerry Hwang writes:

In conclusion, the overarching weakness in Redford’s book appears to be the ambiguity over what a “missiological hermeneutic” actually is. Redford frequently uses the terms “missiological” and “missional” interchangeably, yet this tendency to conflate distinct terms while simultaneously using them in a maximalist way (i.e., anything to do with cross-cultural ministry, missiology, the Abrahamic blessing, or a deeper awareness of God’s international purposes) fails to bring clarity to the ongoing debate over what is entailed by the terms mission, the missio Dei, and missiological/missional/missionary hermeneutics.

… Though it may seem trivial to argue over definitions, the history of mission in the twentieth century has shown that confusion over the scope of the missio Dei results in paralyzing disagreements over the missio ecclesiae in the world.

While I found this on the Gospel and Our Culture Network Site (the whole paper is worth reading):

A couple of meetings ago, I began to notice what seemed to me to be some sharp differences emerging between the various proposals being made about what a missional hermeneutic is. We had not achieved a uniform definition, it seemed to me, and perhaps not even a uniform way to pose the question. Now some of the proposals were beginning to speak to and about each other, cordially, but with some degree of candor, as well. Even where the proposals did not present themselves in that way, distinctions of approach and nuance and accent and aim were becoming more apparent, at least to me. All of this, I believed, and continue to believe, is a sign of maturation in this emerging field of hermeneutical reference.

As this latter quote indicates, there is no clear shared understanding of the term missional hermeutic. However, this is not necessarily negative, it is a sign of the way that the field is developing and growing. The same could be said for any of the terms for which I gave my definitions at the top of the post. Different authors use them in different ways and to apply to different phenomena. The problem arises when we don’t realise that those differences are there.

Update: as I was writing this post, Simon Cozens posted the following on Facebook:

It’s often hard to tell the difference between “theology” and “missiology”, but here’s a useful rule of thumb: if it has any actual practical applications at all, it’s missiology.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if you agree or not.

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