Mission vs Discipling – a false dichotomy

An interesting article titled ‘Why the missional movement will fail‘ was posted in one of the Facebook groups I’m a part of earlier this week. While my immediate church context would not identify itself as ‘missional’, we’ve often been described as a ‘mission church’ and we’d probably often accept the label. I also have friends who would unselfconsciously  describe themselves as missional and would in fact seek to be leading the conversation where they can. I’ve read a little on the subject and I feel I have some kind of a handle on the approaches that characterise the movement.

In very brief summary, Mike Breen says that the missional movement is bound to fail because it focusses on the wrong thing: mission should come as the natural response to discipling. He uses a couple of colourful metaphors – a car that’s all wheels and no engine and the Red Army in WW2 – which have drawn mixed opinions, but should not mislead us from the key issue here. For me, the key issue is not ‘will the missional movement fail’ – it is just a part of a movement to reinvigorate Christianity and  Evangelicalism in particular. No, the far more concerning thing to me is the false dichotomy that has been drawn between mission and discipling.

Drawing clever distinctions is an easy way to write an impressive blog post (or even a thesis!) but does not necessarily draw us closer to understanding the problem. But this contrast is not newly drawn up for this one blog post – it is one that is common among many Christians, but one that I think is dangerous and un-biblical.

Now it goes without saying that the church structures that we’re used to were not present in the New Testament church. There were no youth programmes, no ministerial training, no women’s meetings or fellowship for older people – and these are all important, even necessary, in the contexts of today. Still, there is absolutely no distinction that I can tell in the New Testament between discipling and mission. I suggest that they are both aspects of one action: gospeling.

Gospeling is not to be identified solely with mission. It is the declaration that Jesus is Lord of all, the climax of all God’s redeeming action in the world and an invitation to get involved. The response that is called for is not simply a moment of decision, not ‘asking Jesus into my heart’ but an ongoing quest to engage in. And at least part of that quest must be the telling and acting out of the story itself. So gospeling includes both what we call ‘mission’ and ‘discipling’, for each is really about making Christians who are truly engaged in the plans of God.

Perhaps the problem can be seen as a definition of ‘mission’ that is far too short sighted and small scoped. ‘Mission’ has been reduced to a stripped down, sound-bite message that aims for the bare minimum response that will switch the hearer from one camp to the other. While salvation is a part of the gospel message, it is certainly not the whole thing. Modern Christianity, especially Evangelicalism, has relegated the bigger picture to another category, implicitly reducing its importance and so has shrunk the gospel. I’ll be back with more this week on what gospel really is (following up on something I did at church on Sunday).

Maybe I’ve missed the bigger picture of what Mike Breen is trying to say. Perhaps his real suggestion in his book is the same as I’m trying to say but framed in different language. I certainly agree with him that any movement that focuses merely on conversions and not on growing fully developed Christians will struggle to make a lasting impression. However, I don’t think the answer is to perpetuate this small gospel, but to call people to a big, astonishing life that is a real mission.