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Is “missional” going the way of the evangelical “leadership 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 here, here 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?


This blog post is part of a 5-week series related to the release of my new book, Multiplying Missional Leaders: from half-hearted volunteers to a mobilized Kingdom force. You can check out the paperback version here, or the e-book version here.

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9 Responses to Is “missional” going the way of the evangelical “leadership movement”?

  1. breemills 2012/05/29 at 8:54 pm #

    I noticed a while ago that Youth Ministry seems to be following the same pattern, jumping from one focus to another (evangelism, discipleship, fellowship over the past 20 years), never being able to fully achieve integration! I like your thoughts! http://breemills.com.au/?p=143

    • 1Cor9_24 2012/05/30 at 9:54 am #

      And, Bree, how often has the larger church looked at the success of the youth ministry and decide, we need to follow them, or do what they’re doing? Certainly cycles/patterns that fit together.

    • Doug Flett 2012/06/11 at 5:28 am #

      Kingdom has much, much more than three pegs. Western church life may have three hooks, but society is multi faceted. In Mike’s ‘Apostles Notebook’ he wrote, “Quite clearly, God is up to something! He is allowing the decline of mainstream Christianity to follow the social and cultural changes in the West, while at the same time birthing a new church movement committed to apostolic mission.” Experience and observation shows that apostolic mission is led 20% to 25% through the clergy/pastor channel and 75%-80% through others. The wider picture is usually seen by the 75%. Decline is as much the result of 3-peg-leadership as by societal change.

  2. Hannah 2012/05/29 at 11:03 pm #

    Yes! I loved the way that John Paul Jackson (I think it was him?!) said it — that when God does a new thing, he builds upon what has gone before, He doesn’t eradicate it (i.e. Jesus being the fulfillment of the law).

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week as it happens. I think that there are too many diagnosticians in the body and not enough deliverers! It is easy to accurately find flaws in every part of the body but not so easy to love them, build them up and minister to them in spite of them. But that’s how God treats us and He is our standard. (& I am learning this for myself as much as anything — I have been wildly reactionary and flailing in my time!).

  3. nate shoemaker 2012/05/30 at 11:41 am #

    i love reading and hearing your work. you always have such a great teaching ‘voice’ for how the Holy Spirit is leading.

    regarding the cycles you’ve observed in western church culture, something i think i’ve observed in the history of the cycles is that each ‘fad’ or ‘new hat hook’ seems to follow a cultural grasp and then perversion of where God is leading His church. so as we enter a missional phase on the heels of the leadership phase, it seems like direct prodding and guidance from the Holy Spirit; a constant leading of His bride. and we, rightly so, adjust fire and attempt to take on the next thing (often losing where we just came from). but, being broken, each guided phase becomes an opportunity for using the church for personal gain. power, influence, affirmation, ambition, pride, even wealth. each shift brings with it a different set of risks that, inevitably, we will eventually fail on.

    i think this helps show why the shifts are relatively short (40 years before a revisit to a particular phase shift provides almost a perfect generational passing so that we can forget how we failed in those risk sets the previous time we experienced that ‘hat hook’), and it also shows a bit why we have such a hard time maintaining the previous hook as the Holy Spirit bumps and pushes our hat to straddle more than one hook. the new risks are both exciting and exhausting, and they’re both a chance for restoration and for further brokenness.

  4. Janet Hanson 2012/05/30 at 5:54 pm #

    A very astute observation of an issue that has long troubled me. The cycle seems to center on either the “experts” that are currently in vogue, or, in my experience, the gift mix of the senior pastor or whoever is in charge. If his/her passion is evangelism, for instance, other gifts are seen as less important, and there is a lack of understanding that we all don’t have identical passions/gifts, nor are we meant to.

    And then there is the pressure to be the hot new thing. We abhor the admission, “Well all the churches in this area are pretty much the same!”

    i’m grateful for your thoughtful voice.

  5. Dr. Rob Scharstein 2013/02/20 at 1:54 pm #

    In your blog you discuss mission, leadership, discipleship being inextricably linked. They may be linked but the order of priority is vastly different. Only discipleship was given as our last directive from our savior. The primacy of discipleship throughout the New Testament and Old cannot be denied. I do believe the missional is more fad then substance. Life Shapes is confusing at best in my opinion, and the Covenant and Kingdom summary is a dangerous and inaccurate “Reader’s Digest” version of scripture. Not a good combination. Missions and leadership are a natural fruits of discipleship done right. I think it a major leap to construe geometrical shapes out of scripture. I do hope your discipleship focus will yield much fruit but have found the missional materials to be exegetically weak to nonexistent.


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