Is Missional Going the Way of the Evangelical Movement?

As I’ve said many times before: human beings are creatures of overreaction. We have a tendency to jump from ditch to ditch – often throwing the baby out with the bath water. We just can’t help ourselves.

After decades in ministry, I’ve seen what this tendency can lead to over time. And one thing I’ve noticed are trends, where an area of emphasis dominates the Christian subculture before cycling to another for a decade or so.

Without trying to make a theological statement (merely a cultural observation), I’ve noticed the evangelical church hones in on one of these three things for approximately 15-20 years at a time — before inevitably moving on to the next. These areas are:

  1. Leadership
  2. Discipleship
  3. Mission


It’s as if we choose to hang our hat on one of these hooks exclusively, before, in time, moving the hat to the next hook down the line.

The 1910′s and 1920s saw a focus on world mission the likes of which the church hadn’t seen since the 6th century. In the 1950s we saw a real burgeoning discipleship movement with some of the most recognizable organizations and robust thinking on this topic. Eventually, in the late 1970s this gave way to a new Leadership renaissance and the rise of blending business philosophy with church leadership, leading to the existence of a more corporate-structured church. Make no mistake about it: the church growth movement was about Leadership, primarily from a corporate perspective. And by the end of the 1990s there was a new movement afoot that focused far more on missional engagement, re-engaging each and every person with the Missio dei.

Even now, as I look around — read the cultural signs and observe the conversation online — I can feel in my bones that the evangelical focus is starting to drift towards Discipleship again. It may be one of those things you only see when you’ve been through the whole cycle before. I’ve heard others of
my generation make the same observation.

Here’s the big issue: With each shift, we tend to eschew the other area as passe — rather than recognizing the false dichotomies we form in each rejection. We need all three functioning together to be effective. 

  • How do you do Biblical discipleship without mission?
  • How do you train and release people in mission together without strong leadership?
  • How do leaders invest and multiply leaders with character without a strong discipleship foundation in place?

Leadership. Discipleship. Mission. The three are vitally important and inextricably linked.

If you aren’t good at discipleship, you can’t really be good at Kingdom-oriented mission or leadership, can you? Same goes with mission. Or with leadership. You need all three. I don’t know how to talk about one of these without talking about the others.

Somehow we forget this just long enough to drift to the next big thing. The next missing piece. We see the worst, warped version of the phase the church has been living in and reject it wholesale. Corporate church for organic church. Inwardly focused for outwardly focus. Gathered for scattered. We trade one problem for another.

For example: The last Leadership cycle gave us a very real version of corporate Christianity. In reaction to this, the missional movement we that followed, by and large, rejected Leadership unless it’s consensus based. Now there are times for consensus (sure!), but there are also times for directive leadership. It’s hard to read the stories of Jesus, Peter or Paul and not see this through and through. And as I’ve covered quite extensively on this blog herehere and here (to name a few), we’re in a massive discipleship crisis right now. Our metaphorical hat isn’t hanging on that hook.

Championing one area of focus to the exclusion of the others implies that there’s nothing to learn from the last cycle. Are we saying that we’ve learned nothing from 20 years of study and teaching on leadership within the church? Isn’t there a measure of arrogance in that perspective? I’m not saying you have to buy into “Corporate Christianity” (and if you’ve read this post by me, you know that I don’t), but haven’t we learned some pretty important things too?

In my opinion, nothing is wasted. Nothing.

And what we must understand is that until we come to live in the tension of holding all three of these things together at one time, we will continue to walk around this perilous cycle over and over again. They key is INTEGRATION.

No longer can we pretend that one piece can be dealt with in a vacuum. It’s about living in tension, learning to integrate all of these together well in a community at one time and being honest when we aren’t seeing the fruit that Jesus was after, even as we always pursue faithfulness first and foremost.

Seeing the pattern is half the battle. The other half is the ability to read scripture and interact with the theological imperatives of discipleship, mission and leadership — forming a community that truly lives out the Great Commission — which clearly speaks to all three of these!

Sometimes, in my conversation with people about the work that 3DM does, I’m asked “Yeah, but isn’t this just the next fad? Everything moves from fad to fad. This is probably the next one and will die out when it’s run it’s course.” And in a way, they are right, aren’t they? They are actually making a reference to the cyclical problem I’m describing. If we don’t learn to integrate, we will continue to live in a world where fads dominate the conversation of the church for years to come — handicapping our effectiveness and diluting our impact. 

Discipleship. Mission. Leadership. It’s got to be all three. No longer can we afford to reject out of overreaction. It must be about integration and not polarities. It must be about tension and discernment and not babies and bathwater.

In the next few weeks I want to examine this phenomenon further by taking a blog post for each of these three and what each looks like when you abandon the other two. So stay tuned!

But in the mean time, what do you think? Do you see these cycles happening? Are you conscious of the effects? Am I overstating? What nuance would you add?

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Mike Breen

Mike Breen

Mike Breen has been an innovator in leading missional churches throughout Europe and the United States for more than 25 years. In his time at St Thomas Sheffield in the UK, he created and pioneered Missional Communities, mid-sized groups of 20-50 people on mission together. The result, less than 6 years later, was the largest church in England, and ultimately, one of the largest and now fastest growing churches in the whole of Europe. In 2006 Mike was approached by Leadership Network to lead an initiative into church planting. Through this partnership, more than 725 churches were planted in Europe in just three years. Today, Mike lives in South Carolina, leading 3DM, a movement/organization that is helping hundreds of established churches and church planters move into this discipling and missional way of being the church. Mike is the Senior Guardian of The Order of Mission (TOM) -a global covenant community of networked missional leaders. He has authored numerous books, including Launching Missional Communities, Building a Discipling Culture and Covenant and Kingdom. Mike has been married to Sally for over 30 years and they have 3 grown-up children. Mike’s passions include contemporary design and architecture, travel, movies, cycling, golf, fine wine and food…though not necessarily in that order.

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