the contemporary discipleship conversation

Photo: Devan Foster, 'pieds' 3 of 20

Photo: Devan Foster, ‘pieds’ 3 of 20

I find it hard to avoid the contemporary discipleship conversion.

And I don’t think it’s just because I’m doing a PhD on discipleship. As soon as I edge towards any discussion on Christian living, mission or evangelism, I’m either taking part in it or eavesdropping on it.

It’s certainly bubbling away in the missional church movement.

Take Mike Breen’s famous article, ‘Why the missional movement will fail’, for example. (At the time I wrote this, the article had been shared 9500 times on Facebook. So it’s pretty influential.)

Breen begins by contending that discipleship is the engine of the church — and mission: “If you make disciples you will always get the church. But if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples.”


As a sidebar: I am 100% on board with the sentiment here. But I’m more hesitant about the precise formulation.

I totally get that ‘building the church’ particularly through pragmatic church growth techniques doesn’t always/often yield mature, proactive Christians. But I wonder if it would be different if we followed the biblical game plan for building the church — speaking the truth in love, using our gifts in love to serve and build each other up, stoking the fires of faith in Christ and joy in him, etc.

And I’d also question whether making disciples does in fact always yield the church. I’ve seen too many ‘sold out disciples’ who struggle with and ultimately give up on belonging to an actual flesh-and-blood church because it’s not radical/missional/whatever enough…


But according to Breen, the priority of discipleship is both true and pragmatic.

On the one hand, it’s true as a matter of simple, biblical definition. In the New Testament, disciples do mission. But mission is only “one of many things Jesus taught his disciples to do well”.

(Of course, we will need to contend at some point with whether ‘disciple’ should be our go to way of characterising those who belong to Jesus. And even if it is, we’ll need to be aware of where it has limits and needs supplementing with the other possible contenders for this crown: ‘Christian’, ‘child of God’, ‘believer’, etc)

On the other hand, as Breen shares from his own experience of the messy, challenging, protracted, spiritual war zone of mission and missional community, it doesn’t work without discipleship: “Without a plan for making disciples (and a plan that works), any missional thing you launch will be completely unsustainable”.

So when he concludes with this stirring cry, I can’t help but nod in agreement:

The missional movement will fail because, by-and-large, we are having a discussion about mission devoid of discipleship. Unless we start having more discussion about discipleship and how we make missionaries out of disciples, this movement will stall and fade. Any discussion about mission must begin with discipleship.

Maybe the discipleship conversation I can’t avoid is somethingĀ I shouldn’t try to!

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8 comments

  1. Reading through McKnight, Chester, Halter etc I think that often their ‘missional’ conversation has come out of a world where discipleship has not yielded mission, and so they start talking about mission. Really they need to be the two sides of the same coin, and yet we treat them as intrinsically separate.

    Perhaps the confluence of the two is the conversation that we really need to be having?

    1. Interesting, Chris! And quite possibly true — especially when it comes to the practice of discipleship (which I’m inclined to fault because it doesn’t yield the church in NT terms) and of mission (which Breen faults because he thinks it isn’t motivated by/grounded in discipleship).

      Theologically, I think I’m probably more with the mission guys — because, as Barth so powerfully argues, mission makes the church (which in turn is swept up in the mission). Although, feel the force in practice of the call for more serious attention to discipleship/formation/etc…

    1. Instead of asking how to make missionaries out of disciples, it makes the two inseparable. You hear a story of Jesus, you pass on that story of Jesus. You become intrigued by Jesus and you begin to identify with and emulate him as your Master, whether or not you have accepted the label ‘Christian’. It decouples our expectations that belief comes before behaviour, knowledge before obedience, and so on. Here’s a critical review of T4T. It’s stuff that Tamie and I began exploring with Lauren and Isabel a few years ago and it’d be worth picking their brains about it!

    2. Interestingly, the sort of soft-boundary approach you describe — ‘You become intrigued … and you begin to identify with and emulate him as your Master’ — sounds like it moves in the opposite direction from most of the discipleship stuff I’m familiar with. Hauerwas only slightly overstates it when he says that it’s about making it harder to be a Christian (that certainly seems to be the effect of Jesus’ teaching in passages like Luke 9.57-62).

    3. Yes, it’s a very ‘centred-set’ approach, which even if the boundaries are squishy maintains a stern heart-focus — and this focus on obedience certainly goes some way to ameliorating some (perceived?) difficulties of squishiness.

      At the same time I must say I’m drawn to the ‘Hauerwasian’ angle, at least in the West, because it suggests communities that are rare and beautiful, and the more beautiful for their rarity. I’d like to think that this heightened purity is in part a payoff of Christians deliberately adopting marginality. But this could just be a post-Christendom pipe dream!

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