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State of the Evangelical Union

Customarily a “State of the Union” address does two things:

  • First, it makes some poignant observations about where we’ve been in the past year. In our context: “Broadly, what did 2012 hold for evangelicalism?”
  • Second, it gives some ideas and pictures of the future. “What will this next year hold and where might we want to put our time, resources and energy?”



To me, 2012 felt like an odd year for evangelicals. The phrase that keeps coming to my mind is, “All quiet on the Western front.”

We have come out of several years with quite a bit of public infighting within our tribe. There’s probably no need to highlight what these squabbles were and or the characters that made the most noise. Sufficed to say, they were loud, cantankerous, embarrassing (for us as evangelical Christians) and exhausting. My sense about this past year was that after several years of fighting within the family, many of these people/organizations appear to have collapsed in exhaustion.

Because there have been such vast measures of polarization I think people weren’t sure what to do next. As the dust settled, I have to wonder if people were left asking if anything was truly accomplished for all the contentious rhetoric. Are we more the “people of God” because of it?

Would the Kingdom of God more fully advance if we spent more time serving one another and less time labeling one another? It doesn’t mean that we should challenge ideas or push back ever; it means we probably need to change both the way and the tenor in which we do this. Christian brotherly/sisterly love comes to mind.

In that vein, this year was the slow emergence of a very important topic coming to the forefront: DISCIPLESHIP. Conferences like VERGE and Exponential announced themes that started to drift towards the all-important issue of how to start a discipling movement. Francis Chan and David Platt held a conference and released a book called Multiply (which has gone on to be a top seller). And I have to be honest: This truly excites me.

Because I believe it is the task of every Christian to make disciples who can make disciples. That’s the imperative of the Great Commission. You get a missional movement by starting a discipling movement. For too long we’ve had the missional conversation in lieu of the discipling conversation.

However, my optimism is tempered by this reality: I think the emphasis on discipleship is only a phase. My observation is that in the evangelical world, there are three areas of focus that we have, settling on one to hang our hat on for a time.






As I wrote in my April post “Is Missional going the way of the evangelical Leadership movement?”, we tend to focus on one to the exclusion of the other two. Eventually, that wears thin, we lose people’s interest, and we move onto the next.

We are currently experiencing sea change from a MISSIONAL focus to a DISCIPLESHIP emphasis. The move before missional? The corporate church LEADERSHIP focus of the 1980’s-1990’s. So while I’m delighted there seems to be a shift towards a focus on discipleship, I have to ask myself this question: “How long will it last before people get bored again?”

I really don’t want this focus on discipleship to be a fad.

My sense is that this last year has been the deep breath before people start to inevitably ask the question: “OK. We tried that…what’s next?”

This thought is only reinforced by the experience that many Christian leaders I meet are hampered by two distinct issues:

  • Ditch to ditch reactions
  • The constant search for the magic silver bullet

I think we are all familiar with the ditch-to-ditch propensity in our culture. We put our time, energy and attention into something, but when it doesn’t quite pan out like we thought it would, we reject the thing altogether. “Well, corporate, organized, seeker-sensitive didn’t work, so we’re going to do the 100% organic, missional route.”

As you know, Paradox is always the answer to Polarization. Moving out of the world of “Either/Or” and into the world of “Both/And” as well as “Neither/Nor.”

And so we jump to the other ditch, rejecting, wholesale, what we might have learned from in that season of life and ministry.

What this does is amplify our constant search for the silver bullet…the solution that will fix everything. Look. We’ve all read the statistics about church growth, attendance, personal transformation, outside perception, etc about people in the evangelical church. There’s no need to repeat them here when you probably know them better than I.

But there is something in the water of the evangelical church that is constantly searching for the solution that will fix everything…and one that will fix it quickly. When we find that the solution we thought we had isn’t producing the magic results, we jump to the next thing.

Like ships captured by gale force winds, we are blown here and there by whatever we think will give us the quick fix.

Here’s our take on this conversation: If you do discipleship, it means you’ll be creating leaders. Creating leaders rather than managing volunteers will make you re-think your Leadership conversation. And releasing Leaders into the missional frontier to make disciples will make you re-think you Missional conversation. Which is why we’re convinced that the move should never be DISCIPLESHIP or LEADERSHIP or MISSION, but always all three as an integrated whole.

So let us be clear: missionaries are always better than mission projects. Leaders are always more necessary than volunteers. And disciples are surely what we’re going for rather than mere converts.

The process of someone becoming a disciple, being released into leadership who then charges the missional frontier with a community of other disciples has got to be better than mission projects, volunteers and converts, right?

That’s where our destiny lies.



Now here are a few things I’m observing in the world around me where I think the Holy Spirit is at work and where I plan to focus my (and my team’s) time, energy and attention.


There is a very interesting shift happening right now in three generations. As has always been true of GenY and the younger Gen X’ers, there is an unbridled optimism about the future. They see the rubble of the great cultural earthquakes the Western world has experienced in the last 50 years and they say, “Well ok. I think we can build something with this!” Like the Celts of old who saw the ancient Roman temple ruins and built buildings under existing archways, they long to connect to the past to build out a new future.

But they’ve reached a new point, I believe, in 2012. It is not a crisis of belief, but they are asking HOW. “How do we do that? We’re ready to go all in. We’re ready to do this change, ready to change the world. But we need some older, more experienced people to show us how to do it.”

For Boomers and older Gen X’ers in Christian leadership, it’s a different reality. They are coming into the twilight of their vocational careers and realizing they’ve learned some things along the way. Many of them have had profound experiences of discipling people, but are realizing their life and ministry are primarily built on something else: The operating system of trying to grow a church. (To be clear, in that system, you get more seat-warmers than disciple-makers. It often misses the imperative of the Great Commission.)

They are not having a crisis of faith so much as a wrestling match. They say to themselves, “I know I want to build a discipling movement out of my church — to put discipleship and mission at the center of everything, but I don’t know if I have it in me.”

They are counting the cost.

In essence, they are asking this question: “Do I ride my career out or do I really go for it? I can’t tell you how many Christian leaders I meet who are wrestling with this as their fundamental question.

What this really goes back to is the problem we’ve already looked at with ditch-to-ditch thinking and the constant search for the silver bullet. You see, there is such a bullet. It’s called discipleship. But it is “a long obedience in the same direction.” It isn’t complex and easy. It’s simple, but hard to do.

Discipleship to Jesus is the answer. You get Leadership and Mission within that, I promise you! It’s an integrated reality, that one. To compartmentalize is to not understand the very nature of it.

But if we’re looking for the easy fix, we’re not going to find it. Or the quick one. That’s what we’ve got to get our minds around. I have to wonder that if we are looking for quick and easy we’re after something different than Jesus, yeah?

So what am I and my team asking?


Who’s in for the long haul?


One of the places where I see God at work is a growing understanding of a “Scattered and Gathered” reality of the church. I believe every community needs to have scattered expressions of being the church (most effectively done in groups of 20-40 people) and gathered expressions of the church. From the very beginning of the church’s story in Acts 2, we see that people are meeting in the TEMPLE and the HOME each and every day (remember that home’s were built around the extended family of 20-60 people).

There is a paradigm shift that needs to happen. We need to move from being a worshipping body that sometimes does mission to a missional body that gathers to celebrate and worship.

For this to happen well, there needs to also be a shift in the way we’re leading worship:

  1. From simply providing karaoke worship in the large gathering, to worship as a central part of life in both the Gathered and Scattered realities of church. An understanding that if we aren’t truly worshipping God together well in large settings (regardless of whether the “unchurched” show up or not), it is difficult to sustain mission. It can be done, but the preference ought to be to keep it. This means we’ll need to shift the way we lead worship in our large gatherings. But it also means we’ll need to equip people who lead the body of worship in their scattered expressions. Are there people up for that exciting task?
  2. We need more robust worship songs. While the quality of music has certainly gone up in the past 15 years, I’d argue that the content of the songs has gone down. Way down. We often forget that people used to learn doctrinal truths and the metanarrative they could place themselves in by the songs they sang each Sunday. The songs were even catchy. Charles Wesley put his songs to popular bar tunes. But have you read a Wesley hymn? It was chalk full of the truth of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. Where are the Charles Wesley’s of our day?
  3. Worship leaders as leaders. One of the things we try to ask worship leaders is this: “If you didn’t have an instrument and couldn’t sing, would everyone still see you as a leader in your church?” The sad fact is this isn’t often the case. Many worship leaders are hired guns and without the talent of their instruments or vocals, they would be little use to the church. It shouldn’t be that way. What we need are ways of equipping worship leaders in the task of leading God’s people into the presence of God, but also people whose lives are marked by their ability to disciple people who can disciple people. Are they truly leaders? There is an incredible opportunity here.

For us, we are starting where there is already grace. There are three worship leaders we are increasingly spending more time with who we believe could shape the need for this. Aaron Keyes (check out his video below, as it combines a more dispersed quality with incredibly deep, meaningful lyrics, as well as a worship school that trains worship leaders), David Walker (here’s a free download to a new worship song for Easter by him) and Cameron Walker (you can check out his work here). Stay tuned for more on this conversation.



For me, this is the whole ballgame for 2013. Who knows. Maybe even 2014.

There has been so much talk about Missional Communities and discipleship in the last year, but people forget one grounding reality from the scriptures: In the New Testament, discipleship and mission always find their flourishing in an extended family. But in the last 100 years, we’ve really lost the extended family and we’ve lost the oikos on mission. (Oikos being the Greek word used in the New Testament for “households” that refers to the extended families existing as households on mission for the first 300 years of the life of the church).

Now hear me clearly: I’m not saying Missional Communities aren’t important. What I want to say is that MC’s are the thing that gets us to the real destination: Oikos.

What we are doing with Missional Communities (20-50 people acting as an extended family on mission together) is constructing an oikos that helps us understand what the NT church did and how it did it. Missional Communities aren’t the end goal. They are the vehicle that gets us back to the original thing.

In 50 years time, people will look back and say, “It’s hilarious, they used to make people join MC’s because they didn’t know how to do this. Isn’t that amazing!?”

Missional Communities are the training wheels that teach us how to ride the bike of oikos.

For Sally and I in the past year, this has becoming an all-consuming thought. We have been so convicted by the need to pass this on to people. How convicted?

  1. Much of what I write about on this blog this year will revolve around Family on Mission. I think it is THE make or break thing for the American church.
  2. In 2014, we’re looking at having a massive training/retreat/gathering that isn’t aimed at church leaders, but aimed at moms and dads, husbands and wives, friends in urban families, who are wanting to learn how to live into this reality.

If you don’t have Family on Mission, discipleship, leadership and mission aren’t possible. Family on Mission is the context needed for the rest to flourish. And at the end of the day, I want to be part of a movement that puts missional discipleship back into the hands of every-day people. You get that by learning Family on Mission.

An incredibly bright woman named Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small, committed group of [people] can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

We have never needed to hear that word more than we do now.


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23 Responses to State of the Evangelical Union

  1. Ray Olson 2013/01/31 at 1:09 pm #

    Thanks Mike! i deeply appreciated this review of where we have been, and a clear preview of the direction we need to take. You have greatly impacted my life since I first met you at Exponential 2011. Now our EFCA team is multiplying disciples, huddles and communities. We are also thrilled to assist in hosting the 3DM Discipleship and Mission Workshop in Milwaukee in May. Going forward together.

  2. Ben Hardman 2013/01/31 at 1:14 pm #

    Brilliant thoughts / Well done guys – I couldn’t agree more!

  3. Deacon Godsey 2013/01/31 at 1:15 pm #

    Thanks Mike & team…so glad to be connected to a movement that so closely reflects my heart & so consistently points me (& our people) in such life-giving, Kingdom-building directions.

    This will be required reading for all our MC/Huddle leaders, as well as our primary leadership teams. Extremely helpful!

    Thanks again,

    deacon godsey

  4. yurgenweezlid 2013/01/31 at 1:21 pm #

    thanks Mike.

  5. Sam Lovell 2013/01/31 at 3:36 pm #

    Really good thoughts Mike.

    I was reading an interesting article this week about organizational change and development by Karl E. Weick and Robert E. Quinn. The article addresses some of the differences between episodic change and continual change. Within the area of episodic change they comment on replacement strategies – in which “one entity sequentially takes the place of or substitutes for a second” and go on to say that “replacement of one program with another seldom works. The problem with such a logic is that it restricts change to either-or-thinking.”

    As you said, it’s definitely a pattern we see happening in the Church! So I really enjoyed reading your comments on the “ditch to ditch reactions” and the “search for the silver bullet”. Constantly hopping from one program to the next seems to inadvertently communicate that, somewhere out there, there is actually a perfect program that could be our saviour and that all the other churches programs are wrong or inferior.

  6. Steve Keyes 2013/01/31 at 3:40 pm #

    The three worship leaders mentioned by Mike are also my TOP THREE of all time! I’m a little prejudiced by Aaron (as he’s my son!) When he left our church, he recommended David Walker, who is absolutely amazing as well. David brought over his friend Cameron and tah-dah – I not only know all three of them but LOVE each of them as well. You can’t go wrong with music/songs from any of these three musical artists! They know how to LEAD worship, not just SING songs….

  7. Craig Dale 2013/02/01 at 10:20 am #

    Your observations and challenges are spot on. Now let’s be a part of making them a reality!

  8. Greg 2013/02/01 at 10:23 am #

    Thanks for the very thoughtful post, Mike.

    Based on the blogs & books I’ve been reading lately, it does seem that the focus on discipleship may be a new fad, and I feel the same in hoping that it isn’t. I have hope that it will be much more than that and become something the church sees as the foundation to build a faith community upon where leadership & mission flow from it.

    On a more personal note, I’ve felt like God has placed on my heart this passed year the need to be a spiritual leader in my family and encourage/equip our family to be on mission together, so your thoughts about Family on Mission really resonate with me.

    I also appreciate your thoughts on worship and the recommendations you’ve made. I’m listening to Aaron this morning and enjoying it very much!


  9. Michael Johnson 2013/02/01 at 1:31 pm #

    Thank you Mike and 3dM oikos. It will be interesting to watch what God brings us all in 2013 and 14. I appreciated your musings.

    You write “For Boomers and older Gen X’ers in Christian leadership, it’s a different reality…they’ve learned some things along the way… In essence, they are asking this question: “Do I ride my career out or do I really go for it? I can’t tell you how many Christian leaders I meet who are wrestling with this as their fundamental question.”

    Personally, I am a very late boomer. Born on what is often considered the last year of that generation before Busters/Xers. The further questions surrounding “go-for-it” are “what is the ‘it’ to go for? Rather than ditch to ditch, what is the this/and? What is the Discipleship-Mission-Leadership culture that will benefit the church scattered and gathered for the long obedience?” We really need to move forward wisely focused, rather than flitting from one emphasis to another.

    I appreciate you asking the bigger questions. Thank you.

  10. Patrick Watters 2013/02/01 at 6:44 pm #

    Breen’s State of the Evangelical Union – da Moose notes & comments:

    Church as we know it in the west is deteriorating, and more rapidly than we may be aware! A paradigm shift away from the big box entertainment system bring ‘em in model to something much more simple and organic (think Body of Christ) is desperately called for!


    Yes, I do believe discipleship is the key and foundation to the other two happening. As we obey Christ’s command to “Go and make disciples,” we will see leaders come forth naturally out of that apprenticeship to use their particular gifts. Likewise, missional communities will arise among disciples with similar passions which become identified during intentional discipleship. Both Bonhoeffer & today Willard understand the importance, the cost of discipleship and nondiscipleship! These kind of renovations only happen where there is deep intimacy and vulnerability, which for the majority of us translates to small, very small disciple gatherings; 2′s & 3′s firstly, then family size <20, then larger missional communities or networks depending on locations, people and mission. All of this requires a much greater role of the Holy Spirit (Chan's "Forgotten God"). Less planning and control on our part, more leading of the Spirit in all aspects; personal, corporate and certainly any structural aspect.


    Yes! A resounding YES Mike! But without stopping short of Christ's greater vision; a global Body of Christ that may look and act very differently depending on circumstances, geography, culture, etc. We must all find our "stories" within that vision, and the Holy Spirit can show us the way, Christ's Way. Lord have mercy, send Your Spirit afresh and give eyes and ears and hearts to follow.

  11. Landrum Leavell 2013/02/02 at 9:54 pm #

    don’t understand why you or someone don’t reprint your books that are not available in print
    the copies for sale are obscenely priced, so there must be demand

  12. bdonahue80 2013/02/04 at 9:37 am #

    Thanks Mike: I have been on this journey for about 5 years, having seen our transitions at Willow, learned from our past successes, and seeing us try to move into the future. Many places like ours were kind of “forced” to spend lots of time explaining what we were doing in response to the tidal wave of questions, and missed the future in the process. (something new movements should be wary of).While new tribes and pathways were emerging we were doing conferences and workshops to meet the demand of the incoming questions. It the busyness of helping others understand what we HAD done and WHY, we had little or no energy to focus on where we should be going, what we needed to change and how to empower a rising generation to take the lead. So we are/were very late to the party.

    I left the WCA/WCCC staff in 2010 after 18 years and now do 50% consulting and writing on leader development and community, and 50% working with emerging leaders at TIU (college and seminary) in a very special grant-funded arena. So I am watching emerging streams and movements with interest.

    Willow is trying to build “missional communities” on campus in the weekend service using a section strategy (10-hour per week section leaders, for the 26 seating sections in the auditorium). We taught about about “oikos” this weekend as the backdrop for this strategy that we have just gone public about (I still attend and am watching this unfold with some reservations). However, we applied the oikos concept to seating sections in the auditorium. (The idea is to connect people better since so many feel like strangers in the big, vacuos 7500-seat room. I think it will make us better at helping people feel welcome and connect at a 101 level).

    But I would prefer that we create these out in the community, not on campus based on where you sit. Many of them are affinity-based (artists seem to be gathering in a section, and singles sit in a section, though some sections are very mixed racially, age, etc). I see this as a “connect and care” strategy for new people who wander into a service unattached to anyone, and and encouragement for regulars who need to feel a warmer relational environment on Sundays. The staff’s hope is these section communities will become “a community of people on a mission” – we will see. It is still a “come to us” approach that we have always leveraged.

    Yes we still have an attractional model that we are trying to exploit – get more people in the seats and get them connected to each other. We are in a series on spiritual gifts and it is the typical approach – we help you discover your gift, and then give you a list of ministries/jobs in our church that need you (mostly based on campus and tied to the facility). It is still primarily about serving the organization, not equipping you to lead in the world you work in all week.

    Final comment: One area I do not see in your 3 (leadership/discipleship/mission) is community. I realize it undergirds much/all of what you are doing. I find many people do not know what it really is or how it functions, regardless of the many forms where it is expressed – groups, spiritual friendships, discipleship triads, missional communities, serving teams, congregational gatherings, etc. Though I have used small groups as a major step for people into this world (not exclusively but as a focus for years), I am writing and participating in other forms.


    Thanks for engaging the church. Looking forward to following your thoughts and practices.


  13. Mike Suit 2013/02/05 at 1:55 pm #

    Excellent post, Mike! Very thankful for you and the 3DM team paving the way towards a discipling culture.

    I am interested in your thoughts on where students and student ministry are heading/need to head. I know that Wayfarer is taking a lead on much of this. But what will the culture need to look like that young Gen Y and even Gen Z grow up in to help create the ‘missional movement’? I don’t believe we can keep student ministry the same (typical youth group, food, games, attractional, etc.) and switch the paradigm on them once they graduate or become adults. There needs to be movement at the younger level that will help the transition to a missional movement when they get older.

    Maybe Wayfarer could blog about the ‘State of the Evangelical Student Ministry Union’!

  14. Dr. Rob Scharstein 2013/02/20 at 11:33 pm #

    Hi Mike,
    I appreciate your heart for discipleship. It was our Saviors last words to his disciples and that’s not a coincidence, it reflects the importance of the task. I agree with you that mission will proceed from discipleship. I don’t agree with your premise of the importance of a certain number of folks in a group being ideal. In scripture there are countless examples of number variables: Jesus and the twelve, sending out the seventy, using teams of two, armies of hundreds, armies of thousands. After reading your books and following “the missional movement” over the past couple of years it appears to put the cart before the horse so to speak. I’ve not been impressed by the fruit and the theological/exegetical basis doesn’t appear very strong(life shapes and Covenant and Kingdom come to mind). Instead of talking about oikos try a word study like basileia. You’ll have enough material for 20 books! I’d recommend A Theology of the New Testament by George Eldon Ladd, it is a first year seminary book. Summarize it for layman and you’ll have some great teaching!
    The lack of disciple production, making sound biblical disciples, not just doing good works but never really understanding the why is again troubling. We can do right actions all day for the wrong reasons and have very little personal spiritual or generational impact. It can be numbing to serious study because after all I’m a good person, I built a new house for free why read my bible? It’s always disconcerting to me when church members nod their heads knowingly but never acknowledge the Emperor’s New Clothes don’t exist, i.e. the missional movement is not working and boy did we mess up! Blessings and Hopes for Great Fruit in your discipleship ministries

  15. Ryan Stockton 2013/03/11 at 1:02 pm #

    Hi Mike, great article. I would like to make a small point about your worship section… you say “we need more robust worship songs”. I agree that for a long time, much that was available or being newly written was fluff. However, I would say that there might even be more Charles Wesleys in our day than in Charles Wesley’s day. The nature of the way music is recorded, presented, disbursed, and consumed today makes it such that there is a massive influx of singer/songwriters who are perhaps lesser known than other times. This increase in quantity can bring with it some wonderful robust worship leaders and writers.

    I understand your point about Charles Wesley, but would like to add some context. The hymns of Wesley and other hymn giants have survived the test of time. Over the centuries, the best have risen to the top while the rest settled out of history. It wasn’t necessarily that every hymn back in the day was like Wesley’s, it’s just that Wesley’s work survived because it was so rich. I believe the same will be true of the worship music of our day. While we are in the middle of it, we might feel ourselves surrounded by fluff, but over time, the cream will rise to the top, just as it always has. I take this as an encouragement. Sure, there is some shallow stuff out there, I myself and guilty of writing tripe on many occassions! But the truth will rise to the top and it is up to the Church in the present context to find it as it exists now.

    Thanks again for your article!

  16. official site 2013/05/31 at 6:57 am #

    I agree completely with what you wrote. Great Stuff. Keep it up


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