There is No Discipleship Without Mission: A Response to Mike Breen

Mike Breen, an English author and clergyman, recently wrote a two-part article entitled: "Why the Missional Movement Will Fail." Despite the title, Breen doesn't really talk much about the missional church. He never articulates his understanding of it and doesn't site any leading author on the topic. It's really a piece about discipleship, and Breen argues that the missional church will fail because of the lack of a focus on discipleship. While Breen is correct about the importance of discipleship, what he misses is the fact that mission is the very catalyst of true, transformational discipleship.

In Part 1, he uses the analogy of a car to argue that "missional" is simply the wheel on a vehicle whose engine is discipleship.
A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.
He argues that anything a church does that is "missional" will lead to nowhere without successful discipleship. "The reason the missional movement may fail is because most people/communities in the Western church are pretty bad at making disciples." He writes that discipleship must be front and center because, if you do mission without it, you're sending people out into a "war zone" unprepared. "When we don’t disciple people the way Jesus and the New Testament talked about, we are sending them out without armor, weapons or training."

In Part 2, after an apparent fury of responses, he attempts to clarify what he means by "discipleship." He says that it can be boiled down to the two words "character and competency." He writes, "A disciple is someone who, with increased intentionality and passing time, has a life and ministry that looks more and more like the life and ministry of Jesus."

But wasn't the life and ministry of Jesus all about mission? Here's Breen's problem: he clearly assumes that discipleship happens within the confines of the faith community; that transformation happens independent of and before mission. This is precisely the kind of thinking that the recent missional conversation has called into question. While Breen is correct that many churches have adopted an empty focus on the community that is devoid of a concern for making disciples, mission is one of the best vehicles we have for making disciples. Even if many churches have neglected the mandate of discipleship, the literature on the missional church has not. As Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile point out, the idea of "every believer growing as a disciple by engaging in mission" is one of the major themes that have emerged in the literature (The Missional Church in Perspective, 2011).

Breen's approach is this: we become better and more mature followers of Christ in our Christian cocoons, and then when we're thoroughly cooked, we can go out and engage the world. Church leaders thought this way for a long time. Only recently have we begun to realize that it just isn't true. Experience teaches us it's not true, research teaches us it's not true, and, most importantly, Jesus taught us it's not true.

Peter Rollins once wrote: "Theology is the aftermath of God." It is only after we experience God that we begin to understand God. If you think about it, this is just how humans function and learn. Take language as an example. As children, we use language long before we learn its rules and construction. When we finally do crack open the grammar book, we gain a whole new understanding of what we've been doing all along, but without first learning and using language experientially, the grammar book would be useless. We see and learn things first, and name them later. Take love: Do parents sit their infant down in their lap and philosophically explain what love is, or do they simply love the child and connect the dots by saying, "I love you"? As someone who grew up in church, I could have quoted you chapter and verse where the Bible said, "Do not judge," but it wasn't until a friend called me on a judgmental attitude, saying, "I didn't think Christians acted that way," and until I formed relationships with non-judgmental people that its truth was activated in my life.

Some of the staunchest supporters of slavery in the 19th century were well-oiled Sunday School graduates. We could go on and on about atrocities and evils committed by religious people throughout history who were not in any way lacking in biblical knowledge or training. Mike Breen and I would probably both agree that, in such cases, they weren't "true disciples." But the question is, what would have made them such? George Barna conducted an interesting study in which he tried to categorize Christ-like attitudes vs. Pharisaic attitudes and, based on a survey, found that a majority of Christians hold attitudes similar to that for which Jesus criticized the Pharisees in the Gospels. What is it that makes us more Christ-like? I've read many books and articles by people who talk about how they came to let go of their hatred or suspicion of a certain people group and became more loving and accepting Christians. What was it that transformed these people? Do you not think they had heard and read countless times the words, "Love thy neighbor?" It's not within our faith community that we learn to love our neighbor. As Jesus pointed out, that's too easy (Luke 6:32-33). Every time, whenever you read these stories, the catalyst of the transformation was a personal, real life encounter with someone of the hated group. And it is mission--our calling to engage the world--that is the doorway into these transformative encounters. There's a reason that people so often come home from an international mission trip inspired and on fire. What we often miss is the follow-up and opportunity to frame and direct that fire with good biblical theology. It's here that I find a point of agreement with Breen. We neglect discipleship. But what we're neglecting is the opportunity to take these life experiences and apply them to biblical stories and theological concepts. Discipleship is not the learning of these stories and concepts in isolation, but their application in and through the experience of the "war zone" that Breen speaks of. Faith is manifest in praxis, not knowledgeTransformative discipleship is an internship, not a class. To be fair, Breen seems to understand this to a point. In his 2011 book Building a Discipling Culture, Breen acknowledges that learning does not take place through classroom/book learning only. But when he talks about the need for things like "immersion," what he means is immersion in effective faith communities, not the world at large. He is right that the church is facing a discipleship crisis, but I would argue that this is true precisely because of incubation approaches to spiritual growth. It's immersion in the non-Christian world that the church is missing.

In fact, the incubator approach to discipleship actually makes us LESS equipped to engage the world. For example, recent studies have revealed that all of the apologetics training we try to pump into high school students before they graduate and go off to college has actually made it MORE likely that they will reject Christianity (at least the ready-made-answer version of it, because they go out and experience a world that is more complicated than the ready-made answers). Or I consider how many times I've watched people question their faith upon having a life crisis, having been told again and again in church that "God is in control." The crisis of faith would have never happened if not for this non-contextual theology.

(You might want to let that those last two sentences cook for a minute or two).

I'm not sure how we've missed it, but this is how Jesus operated. As we read about the calling of his disciples, their journeys all started with the simple phrase: "Follow me." (Matt 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, etc.). How much do you think they understood about who Jesus was? How well could they have explained justification vs. sanctification or explained all the spiritual disciplines? In fact, in so many of the biblical stories in which God calls someone, their main objection is that they are ill-equipped, and God more or less promises that he will give them on the job training (see, for example, Jeremiah 1:4-8). It was always throughout and after the concrete experience of Jesus that people came to understand Him, not before or independent of. It wasn't until post-resurrection that Jesus took his disciples and "opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). It wasn't until after walking, talking, and eating with Jesus that the men on the way to Emmaus recognized Jesus for who he was (Luke 24:30-31). Whether it was Nicodemus (John 3:2), the woman at the well (John 4:19), or the guard at the cross (Matthew 27:54), it was only after experiencing Jesus in real life that they were able to utter a theological affirmation.

It is the missional conversation that has brought us to realize we can most strongly experience this Jesus today on mission, outside our faith communities. Although the term “missional church” came into common usage just a few decades ago, the idea of Christ’s church being on mission is 2000 years old. David Bosch argues in his seminal work Transforming Mission that a “people on mission” was one of the primary self-understandings of the first century church; a revolutionary community based on the sense of mission demonstrated by Christ himself. R. Geoffrey Harris, in his book Mission in the Gospels, argues that the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and purpose can only be adequately understood if interpreted through the lens of mission. How else does one understand passages like Luke 10:1-9 where Jesus sends the 70/72 into the communities--totally unequiped and unprotected--as strangers who are to assimilate into the family life of their hosts? Jesus was often criticized by the religious elite for being out among the people and hanging with "the wrong crowd" (Luke 7:34). So if we are, as Breen says, to become like Christ, then one of the primary markers of that identity is to "go unto..." “Missional church”—no matter how the term has been used or understood, is in essence a return to the church’s origins and purpose. But the reason the church is missionary by its very nature is because it serves a God who is missionary in nature. Karl Barth was one of the first theologians to articulate mission as being first and foremost an activity of God. The term missio Dei (Latin for "mission of God") seems to have first been used by Karl Hartenstein in 1934 in a response to Barth. In the last half of the 20th century, the phrase began to see regular usage in theological works on mission. This understanding of God effectively made the church grapple with a disorienting shift in self-understanding. “In particular, we have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness," writes Darrell L. Guder in Missional Church.

God is on mission; we simply choose whether or not to join him. It is only mission--or a missional approach, if you will--that summons us out of our comfort zones, out of the social circles in which we are comfortable and can self-vindicate--to encounter the other. It is only in this encounter with the other that we have a real life encounter with the God on mission who is bigger than our community of faith. The reason Breen doesn't see this is because he is working from within another old model: the subject/object distinction of Christian mission.1 Based on his language and conclusions, it is clear that for him--as with many Western Christians--the church is the subject of God's mission and the rest of the world is the object. In other words, we are the givers or doers of mission, and others are the recipients. It is seen as a one way street. But the missional conversation has brought a serious theological challenge to this. If God's mission reaches beyond the walls of the church, and if the Holy Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8), then anyone is potentially the subject OR object of God's mission. If the church were to embrace this, a whole new world would open up not just in the realm of discipleship but also evangelism. What a transformative difference it makes in the lives of everyone involved when we are willing to "serve with" rather than "do for." Author and community developer Wendy McCaig tells the story of a woman named Via who was one of many people to come to a soup line at a local church. As Via came up to the table, she asked if she could help serve. She "came around to the other side of the table." Thus began Via's transformation, because she was finally involved in the work of the church rather than being its 102nd hungry mouth to feed.

So, no Mr. Breen, the missional movement will not fail, because mission belongs to God. It is therefore not a movement, nor will it ever fail. And if discipleship is important to you, you don't want it to fail.

1 Credit to Ron Carlson, Missional Church Strategist for American Baptist Churches, USA

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