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Missional Hairstyles: reflections on a weasel word

February 2, 2010


A weasel word is a word that takes on so many diverse meanings that it is effectively evacuated of meaning, thus creating its own politically unifying function out of its meaninglessness (or at least, that’s what I mean by it here). I reckon our conversation needs to be purified of such words for a season.

Here’s how I think ‘missional’ works as a prime example of a weasel word. Firstly, it’s an adjective, so you can add it on to almost everything and hardly notice it once you are proficient in the jargon. Secondly, when you begin to use it you can go through a familiar circular routine which gives the appearance of defining the term but does no such thing. This usually goes something like ‘the mission of the church is to participate in the mission of God’. It’s a perfectly true statement (imho), and does tell us something about the church and even about mission (involving participation in God) but hardly constitutes a definition, since it merely raises the question of our mission to a higher level. What then does ‘mission’ mean when applied to God? The statement is only useful if we know what God’s mission is. The way this word then becomes thoroughly weasel is that we avoid the question of the nature of divine mission. If we do not define the divine mission then our conception of the ‘missional church’ or ‘missional economics’ or ‘missional hairstyles’ is equally vague. In broad church traditions like my own it is common practice to encourage pluralism of theology provided we are all involved in a common missional life.

But lets consider the effect on missionality (I’m sounding weaslier by the sentence) of different conceptions of the missio dei. I contend that quite divergent practical outcomes arise depending on which of the following (simplified) examples of the missio dei informs our thinking.

  1. The notion that God’s mission is to save individuals from his own retributive justice by means of a pardon in accord with justification theory
  2. The notion that God’s mission is to both pardon and conform individuals to Christ my means of his sacramental body (The Church) centred on Rome
  3. The notion that God’s mission is to liberate distorted and trapped people by conforming them to the cruciform Jesus and thus transforming their relation to others and the rest of the created order by means of eucharistic worship (Rome or no Rome) in anticipation of eschatological fulfilment.
  4. The notion that God’s mission is to encourage us to live better lives with less guilt – modelled on the life of Jesus or someone like him.
  5. The notion that God’s mission is identical with the evolution of a higher form of personal existence.


We could go on. But notice, the first three do not work without a central role for Jesus Christ (albeit a very different one for each). The 4th has a marginal role for Jesus and the latter none at all. Imagine the divergent strategies which would inform the missional shape of these different ‘churches’. The first group would emphasise ensuring a clear and strong sense of guilt and the presupposition that justice can only be retributive. Their missionality would involve ways of leading to people to a certain point of intellectual clarity called a ‘decision’. There would be a strongly rational style to this ‘missional church’. The second group would talk a lot about ‘coming home’ to the mother church and would place a premium value on linking people to the institutional structures of ‘The Church’. The third group would place a heavy emphasis on the drama (and its liturgical re-enactment) of Jesus life, death and resurrection. For them sin is profound and pervasive. Communicating the transformative impact of that drama would be central along with participation in eucharistic worship (both Word and Sacrament). The fourth group would seek to encourage people to believe in themselves and to live in ways that are empowering of others, who like them, are able to ‘change the world’ in accord with the values of Jesus. Because Jesus is not needed to save or to reveal God, his role would be marginal to their practice of mission. Their mission will amount to a form of ‘social service’ and a moral drive. The fifth group will be able to sit by happily while the human race evolves to ever more divine forms… They could, of course be quite brutal, if it ultimately serves the ‘greater good’ of the evolutionary process.

These practices do not simply represent many aspects of one concept, they represent the practical consequences of quite divergent views of humanity, God, time, space… etc. To pretend this is not the case is integral to the dull art of using weasel words.

At the moment I’m on a mission to eliminate weasel words. The joy that motivates Christian mission does not come from talking about mission. It comes from the history of Jesus Christ presented to the core of our own being and history by the Spirit of God. Rather than theological rigour and clarity at this point being the enemy of the practical it must surely be its friend.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2010 3:59 pm

    I would add that adjectives like “biblical” and “christological” prove to be similarly “weasley.” As a rule, poor (i.e., vague) use does not bar proper use, and so I would not cease using the word “missional” simply because it doesn’t self-sufficiently capture the particular meaning I intend. I prefer to use “missional” as a conceptual framework within which to explore and locate the relationships between theological loci. I think it’s interesting that the word “missional” at least led you to ask what mission that God is up to. While we may have different answers to that question, isn’t that the right question to start off with? Shouldn’t we ask what God is up to before we talk about what we’re up to? Unfortuantely, there are a lot of self-described “missional churches” that aren’t pursuing a missional theology that looks to the history of God in Jesus Christ in Scripture. Instead, these ‘missional churches’ suffer the same fate as ’emergent churches,’ which are preoccupied with the isolated task of “how to do church” in culturally relevant and new ways. Meanwhile, all sorts of notions about the God-world relation can be at play in people’s minds without explication. If I can just talk “church,” I don’t have to do theology.

  2. February 3, 2010 7:31 pm

    Well put Chris. So if we are to de-weasel the words we need to do theology together (with a passionate concern about the conclusions) rather than talk church together. Where I come from that suggestion usually goes down like a lead balloon. Maybe its just unfortunate local conditions.


  1. Mission and ecclesiology: Cart before the horse? | S I L O U A N

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