The Death of Missions: Response 3: Stirring the Hive with Perhaps Needed Redefinitions

by Bill Taylor

The 64-year-old memory is still strong. As a child in Costa Rica, I visited the Ross family farm. Mr. Ross warned, “Billy, do NOT push a stick into the bee hives!” Of course, I did just that. To this day, I can still almost feel the stings. Perhaps Andrews has done just that: irritated the bees, who in turn have stung a few people by his challenging words and ideas. That’s the only way some of us learn. Let me offer a few impressions of this provocative piece.

First, is he right? Why not just drop the “M” term and its relatives and create alternatives that give richer meaning and import? Years ago, Robertson McQuilken proposed a similar language change, challenging the mission world to use “apostolic” instead of “missionary.” It was a great attempt, but did not take hold. At least Andrew is in good company!

I do, in fact, think the term “missional” might have run its course, primarily because of an over-used application. For some time, everything was “missional”; hence, nothing was truly missional. But the imminent death of the “M” word is something I rather doubt. There is still a pulse there.

Why not dedicate more time on creative alternatives, instead of just irritating the bees? Only about twelve percent of Andrews’ article is dedicated to other options. Perhaps a better strategy is to minimize the use of some of our words and enrich our key language. Put some terms away for a while and then see if they return after some time has passed. Or, as others have suggested, maybe we can breathe new life into old language, thus creating new wineskins for a new world.

Second, I am not sure I agree with Andrews’ use of the term “colonial.” When we try to define “missionary,” we stumble upon the linguistic “fluke” of history, when Latin overtook Greek, the original language of Christianity. When that happened, we lost the entire use of the Greek “apostle” family and starting speaking of the Latin “mission” group. So who is at fault here? History? The Romans? God?

What strikes me most concerning the colonial charge is the presupposition that a missiological neocolonialism is valid today, which

Andrews in practice advocates. It seems that most of those who advocate we drop the “M” family are global northerners, not global southerners. Even the too-well-known “native missionary” users have no alternatives.

Third, who else in the global, apostolic, cross-cultural, leadership world is mulling these things over? Well I am, and I wrote some of my global South colleagues for input. Andrews can be encouraged. Peter in South Africa wrote:

I agree that the validation of terminology needs to be challenged from time to time. In many places around the world, I will not refer to myself as a missionary for a variety of reasons. When we think of missions in many settings in Africa, it still has a negative connotation that it is a white or Western thing. I would also venture to say that the younger generation, with their philanthropic focus, will also have a problem with the term. The other concern I have is whether “missions” is a biblical word. I personally like the term “service,” as in serving the nations, serving others, etc.

Serving in the Middle East, Filipino leader Bob, wrote:

In our country, as is often the case when no local word exists that can approximate the definition of an English word, the “foreign” term is adopted and integrated into the body of the language, but with a localized pronunciation or with slight changes in spelling (i.e., computer, technology, missions). I believe every non-English-speaking culture struggles to find and establish a decent translation when a new vogue term is introduced.

Why not submit this word-language-concept-reality-problem challenge to a global community of apostolic, cross-cultural leaders? This would be relatively easy for us to do in the WEA Mission Commission. Our global missiological teams are already grappling with a number of challenging issues, so this one almost tastes of honey.


Bill Taylor was born in and lived in Latin America for thirty years. From 1986 to 2005 he led the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission. He is now senior mentor and co-leader of the WEA global missiology team.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 238-239. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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