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?”
THE YEAR THAT WAS
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.
THE YEAR THAT COULD BE
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.