There is some debate over the history of the term “missional.” I first heard the concept, although not the term, when I went through the Inquirer’s Class at Perimeter Church (PCA) in 1983. In the class, Randy Pope makes the point that the church is supposed to be both a home to her people and a mission to her community. That is, the purpose of the church can be divided into two parts: 1) A home – this includes worship, nurture, edification, training, etc.. and 2) a mission – the church exists to announce the gospel to its community.
The first time I heard the term "missional" was in listening to and reading information on ministry from Tim Keller. I loved both its corrective to some of the problems I saw in the seeker-church movement as well as its emphasis on reaching the lost with the gospel.
According to an article in Christianity Today, the term “Missional Church” was first used in the book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending Church in North America, edited by Darrell Gruder in 1998. However, D. A. Carson claims that Tim Keller coined the term “missional” in 1989 (he makes this claim in his lecture Keeping Up the Conversation).
However, it appears both are wrong, Ed Stetzer, who is a missiologist in residence at LifeWay (the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Church. You can read his blog here) says that the first use of the word (at least in the way it is used today) occurred in a 1983 book by Francis Dubose called God Who Sends. Dubose was a professor at Golden Gate Baptist Seminary, a Southern Baptist Seminary which, according to Al Mohler, "trains clergy in the most conservative branch of a conservative church." Stetzer probably has done more research on the historical use of the term than anyone. He recently spoke at Dallas Theological Seminary’s conference on “Beyond the Church Doors: Developing a Missional Culture in Your Congregation.”
From Stetzer’s sketch of the history, the term was first used at a Southern Baptist Seminary, popularized further by The Gospel and Culture Network, and even further by Tim Keller, and has been used widely by such diverse groups as the Southern Baptist, a keynote address by Randy Pope at the PCA’s General Assembly, Dallas Theological Seminary, the emergent church, and Mark Driscoll and his Acts 29 Network. Furthermore, I as noted above, I have seen the term used positively by such conservative stalwarts as D. A. Carson, John Piper, and Tullian Tchividjian (the successor to James Kennedy at Coral Ridge Presbyterian, PCA, although Tullian prefers the term "missionary minded").
So, if the term is being used so widely by a variety of people in such varying contexts, some question if it is a helpful term. I will address that in a later post.