Mission and Outreach: Is Missional Just the Flavour of the Month?

 on September 26, 2022

“Mission,” “missional,” and even “missionality” seem to be everywhere. Bishops are talking about it. Candidates for ordination are talking about it. The leader’s guide to the recent Mission Action Plan uses the word “missional” no fewer than fifty-five times! And, of course, the Diocese of Niagara has its own School of—guess what—Missional Leadership. Everyone, it seems, is trying to be missional. 

  Quite rightly, people are asking, “Is this just the latest flavour of the month?” Is “missional” just one more in a long line of bright ideas guaranteed to solve our problems and grow our churches? We’ve seen this before: terms come and go, like those famous Baskin-Robbins “Flavours of the Month”—horseradish ice-cream, anyone?—but nothing really changes. How is “missional” any different?  

  One way to explain missional is to contrast it with a more familiar term, outreach. We often treat outreach and being missional as the same thing, but actually they’re not. Make no mistake about it, both are important, and many churches naturally engage in both. But I think it is fair to say that historically we have been better at outreach than at being missional.   

  What has changed? Fundamentally, our cultural situation has changed. It’s a familiar story and hardly needs repeating: The Church has moved from the centre of society to the margins. That means our ministry has to change.  

  Imagine a church which once had a thriving youth ministry but whose neighbourhood is now a community of empty-nesters and retirees. What should the church do? Our instinct is to look for a dynamic new youth leader who will miraculously renew the youth ministry out of thin air! But no, it is better to think about how to minister to those actually in the community already. This is not failure, but change. The shift from outreach to mission is that kind of change. Let me illustrate the difference:  

  • Outreach: collecting food from church members to donate to a local church-run food bank 
  • Mission: working with the local Neighborhood Association’s annual food drive 
  • Outreach: running Alpha or a similar introductory course out of a church basement 
  • Mission: running Alpha or a similar introductory course out of a local restaurant 
  • Outreach: praying for the Church and Church leadership around the world during the Prayers of the People 
  • Mission: praying for the restaurants, offices, stores, and homes around the church during the Prayers of the People 
  • Outreach: clergy having open office hours at the church every week 
  • Mission: clergy having open “office” hours at the local coffee shop every week 
  • Outreach: inviting neighbours to attend the annual Carol Service at church 
  • Mission: inviting neighbours to go carolling with you around the neighbourhood 
  • Outreach: inviting someone from the Primates World Relief and Development Fund to speak in a Sunday service 
  • Mission: inviting the local councillor to speak about their work in a Sunday service 
  • Outreach: having a church website which is inviting to Anglicans or other churchgoers looking for a spiritual home 
  • Mission: having a church website which makes people with no church background say, “Wow, I should go and check this out!” 

None of these, whether outreach or missional, is a bad thing—they’re all good! Who wants to decide whether a speaker from the PWRDF is more or less important than hearing from our local councilor? But I think you can see that there is a difference of emphasis: 

  1. Outreach focuses more on the building and inviting people in. Mission focuses more on going where people are and working with them there. 
  1. Outreach works with what we perceive to be important. Mission asks people outside the church what they find important. 
  1. With Outreach, we remain in control. With Mission, we are partners, and not necessarily in control. 
  1. We don’t usually need to know someone’s name to engage in Outreach. Mission is by nature relational.   
  1. Outreach assumes God is at work in the Church. Mission assumes God is at work outside the Church, and seeks to work with God at work “out there.” 

So are mission, missional and missionality the flavour of the month? Well, it’s a flavour we are not particularly accustomed to, certainly. I grew up in a small town in north Wales, and the culinary range of my home and town was healthy enough but, well, pretty limited. As a result, it was not until university that I encountered such exotic flavours as Chinese food, chili, and mango. Now, of course, I take those flavours for granted as a delightful part of life. So the missional flavour may be unfamiliar, but if we can experiment with it, it can be life-giving for us—and for our neighbours.  

I remember Archbishop Michael Peers, former primate of the Canadian Church, saying how he remembered the days when social justice was the passion of a small fringe minority of the Anglican Church, folks who were regarded as somewhat peculiar and off-centre, in some cases not even very Anglican, and easy to dismiss.  

But those who saw the importance of social justice persisted, and gradually persuaded others that it was central to authentic Christian faith. Today, as a result of their persistence and faithfulness, social justice is rightly considered central to the life and ministry of the Anglican Church. You can see where I’m going with this—social justice may at first have seemed like the flavour of the month, but it has become a normal and welcome part of our daily life. May the same happen with the idea of mission. 

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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