Why the difference between Discipleship & Spiritual Formation Matters

Why the difference between Discipleship & Spiritual Formation Matters

Increasingly I’ve noticed that many people confuse or blur the difference between DISCIPLESHIP and SPIRITUAL FORMATION. When I hear people talk about it or write about it or even the way they share their personal spiritual story, it feels like they use each idea interchangeably.

This may sound nit-picky on my part, but I think it has some interesting implications for the frustration we’re experiencing in the Western Church.

Practical example:
Maybe I ask someone, “Have you ever been discipled before?” They will probably answer “yes” and describe what their experience was like. But as I listen, I can’t help but think to myself, “Wait…you’re not talking about discipleship. You’re talking about Spiritual Formation. Do you mean to tell me you’ve been a Christian for ____ years and you’ve not been discipled yet? Holy crap, that’s tragic.” (I might be exaggerating what my internal monologue sounds like, because after reading that, it feels like there’s a constant Greek tragedy running through my mind…but I digress…)

The point is, I think a lot of people are running around thinking they’ve been discipled and they probably haven’t, and I think a lot of it comes down to what we think discipleship is. So if I may, I’d like to give two quick definitions for how I understand it.

Thought it’s probably worth saying from the get-go that I’m not necessarily ‘right’ about these exact definitions. In fact, a few people might flip them and give the opposite of how I’m giving it. In some ways, what’s most important is having distinct categories for these two things so our pursuit of Jesus is happening in an intentional manner and not just haphazardly.

So here we go.


“Anything that forms, either intentionally or unintentionally, the kind of spiritual person you are becoming.”


“The intentional relational process of one Christian investing into the life of another Christian, through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that the person being discipled becomes more like Jesus.”

Think of Spiritual Formation this way: Everything is spiritually forming you in some way. The culture we live in is shaping you to be a certain kind of spiritual person. The movies, music and television we watch are spiritually forming us. The church family we are a part of, the worship songs we sing, the friends we have, our prayer life (or lack thereof), the things we do for fun, the spiritual disciplines we engage with (or lack thereof), the jobs we labor at…these are all spiritually forming us. They are pressing down on you, molding you to be certain kind of spiritual person, like clay in the hands of a potter. 

In the way I understand it, things like small groups, Missional Communities, Bible studies, Sunday School classes, church programming, worship services…all of these things are spiritually forming us.

But this isn’t Discipleship. This is Spiritual Formation.

We also recognize our culture is forming us in a particular way that is malforming us away from the likeness of Christ. It’s why Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

The prevailing culture is not forming us to Christlikeness. In fact, most of the time it is forming us in the opposite direction of Jesus. There are many, many things that are spiritually forming us. The question isn’t whether or not we are being formed. The question is do we like what we are getting?

Discipleship, however, is a kind of Spiritual Formation. And in many ways, it’s the gateway for the outworking of the intentional spiritual formation we are looking for in the rest of our life.

If you are being discipled well, it means the person investing in you recognizes that Jesus is actually the one discipling you. He’s the Great Shepherd and you are his under-shepherd. Your primary responsibility is to help the person you are discipling attend to what God is already doing in their life; as Henry Blackaby says, “To join in the work that God is already doing.”

Discipleship is the difference between someone telling you that you SHOULD do something and someone showing you HOW to do it by walking alongside of you, so you can do as they do it. In many ways, the starting point is being able to identify where God’s Spirit is already working. To know when it’s happening, how it’s happening, how to hear what God is saying, and how to then be the Wise Man by joining Jesus in what he’s doing (Matthew 7:24-27).

Discipleship is the gateway.

As I grow in my ability to sense how Jesus is discipling me because of the investment of a real flesh-and-blood person in my life, I have a much greater sense of how God’s Spirit is at work in all of the other things that are seeking to form me. Now that someone is walking alongside of me, a worship service isn’t just something I attend out of duty or for prayer of spiritual fireworks. No. God is there. He’s working. What’s he up to and how can I participate in how he’s forming me and the rest of the church body today? Spiritual disciplines can start feeling like an outworking of grace where I’m trying to stay in step with the Spirit. And when the prevailing attempts to malform me with every commercial or Facebook post, I develop a sense of how to do battle and fight the good fight of faith through the Spirit’s power.

Without discipleship, I’m usually left with a list of things I should be doing, but without a clue of how to do them.

Read my Bible. Great. Yes. That should form me.

But what if you don’t know how to read it well? It’s gigantic. There’s some really, really crazy stuff in there. I don’t just need to know I SHOULD read it. I need someone to show me HOW to read it and how to engage with the Holy Spirit as I read it.

You should definitely pray. For sure. I hear Paul even says I should pray unceasingly. But can we be honest? Unceasingly is code for “never stop praying” and what if you have no idea how to connect with God for even three minutes? After all…we are kind of talking to a person you can’t see at all. I get that prayer is supposed to form me. But what if I don’t know how to pray?

So many of the things that we want people to engage in that are supposed to be forming people into Christ-likeness are like a disconnected fire hose in a house fire. If people don’t know how to connect to God’s Spirit, it quickly becomes religious duty and not an outworking of grace. It can turn our hearts to stone. We start to judge our standing with God on all the “right things we do” and not the practical outworking of the grace of the Gospel.

Spiritual Formation is critical to our Christ-likeness. But Spiritual Formation without Discipleship? Well….we’ve seen the kind of spiritual people it develops, haven’t we? Maybe, just maybe, there is a very specific reason that Jesus’ final command, his whole plan, was this: “Go and make disciples…”

Innovation and Winging the “I Have a Dream” Speech

Innovation and Winging the “I Have a Dream” Speech


At 3am the night before, the speech wasn’t done and the pressure was mounting for the 34 year old pastor, community organizer and national rabble rouser. As had happened so many times in their ever-developing strategy, they’d pushed most of their chips into the middle of the table.

The stakes? There would be 250,000 people gathered around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and and millions more watching on their now antiquated television screens. Celebrities like Rosa Parks, Bob Dylan, Jackie Robinson, Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte would pepper the audience. Like all of the other speakers, he only had five minutes of allotted time. “If I can talk as long as I want,” President Woodrow Wilson once said, “it requires no preparation…If it is a ten-minute speech, it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it.”

In 272 words, Abraham Lincoln used the Gettysburg Address to reframe the struggle of the Civil War as a fight for justice, equality and ensuring the bedrock claims of the Declaration of Independence were enacted into reality. He received that invitation two weeks in advance. The young pastor had even more time than this to think and to craft.

Two hours before standing at the steps of Lincoln to deliver one of the most important speeches ever given, in the literal shadow of monument to rhetorical greatness from one hundred years before, Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t land the speech. Minutes before it was time, he was still furiously working on it, knowing it wasn’t there yet. “Just before King spoke, politician Drew Hensen writes, he was “crossing out lines and scribbling new ones as he awaited his turn. And it looked like he was still editing the speech until he walked to the podium to deliver it.”

He stood at the podium and delivered the opening pages of the speech, staying mostly on course, but ad libbing a few extras here and there. But about mid way through, the voice of King’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, came ringing through the audience behind him:

“Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”

As Clarence Jones put it, “In front of all those people, cameras and microphones, Martin winged it.”

The voice boomed through the microphone and into living rooms across the world and across the annals of history: “I have a dream….”

At that point Martin Luther King, Jr. diverged from his speech entirely to deliver what is considered one of the most important speeches in human history. The kicker? Starting with the phrase, “I have a dream,” none of it was in his actual prepared speech.

The question we’re left to ask ourselves is this: What does this story tell us about the process of innovation? 


Lesson #1: You have to put in the work to get the innovation.

MLK knew this was an incredibly important speech and he put it the work. Months before that day in Washington, he gathered three close advisers to talk through content and tone. He then brought in Clarence Jones, his lawyer and collaborative speechwriter. But he resisted landing the overall direction.

The previous year, he’d traveled more than 275,000 miles and given more than 350 speeches. What this produced was a whole host of “oratorical fragments.” Hansen again gives some insight: “He collected a repertoire of…successful passages from his own sermons, sections from other preachers’ work, anecdotes, Bible verses, lines from poets. King did not so much write speeches as assemble them.”

And in the last year, he’d assembled a lot of them.


Lesson #2: You have to trust yourself and your intuition.

When Mahalia Jackson called out to him in the middle of the speech, encouraging him to tell the crowd about the dream, something inside of him responded. With more on the line than almost any other time, he knew it was time to jump off script, but he had the confidence to deviate. There was as belief in himself, in the work he’d put in and in the moment. The timing felt right. So he went for it.

But this wasn’t simply a blind leap of faith, and as we think about innovation around the things that we lead, we shouldn’t be so blind either. King had a track record of success when he used his intuition in spur of the moment situations. This wasn’t happening in a vacuum or even that rarely. It just happened to be a much bigger moment.

So yes, trust your intuition, but use the smaller decision to hone that intuitive sense so when the big moments arrive, you’re ready.


Lesson #3: You have to cultivate your half ideas and slow hunches.

What’s interesting is that the “I have a dream” fragment had made its way into lots of his speeches in the previous year. But it had never really worked. He knew there was something there, but he hadn’t stuck the landing yet. So he kept working on it, kept iterating it, kept experimenting with that phrase and, most importantly, the description of the dream itself. The previous versions were clunky and felt uninspired. But there was a sense that it was worth cultivating.

Stephen Johnson is an innovation and ideas writer and he calls this the practice of “cultivation.” It’s the process of knowing you have a half idea or a slow hunch that is worth digging into and not letting go of. It’s about collecting them and constantly honing them.

It’s what you actively see at work in the year leading up to this speech.


Lesson #4: You have to know when it’s not actually there yet.

Ultimately, I think it’s fair to say that King didn’t think his original speech was good enough. It wasn’t just his intuition, it wasn’t just the moment at hand, and it wasn’t just Mahalia Jackson. The speech in front of him, that he’d feverishly worked on, completely thrown out and rewritten with a room full of people the night before, was editing and scratching things out literally seconds before he hit the podium…it just wasn’t working the way he needed it to.

We are conditioned to think he was taking a risk. He couldn’t deliver a subpar speech, and with the notes in front of him, he was about to give a good speech, but certainly not an all-timer. King was not actually taking a risk; he was mitigating one. He needed greatness and what was in front of him wasn’t great. He knew it wasn’t good enough, but he knew he’d put in the work, he knew he grew up in a rhetorical tradition that apprentices preachers in improvisation just like a jazz musician, and he knew he’d spent a year cultivating the ideas behind the description of the dream.

It was a greater risk not to deviate. He was safer improvising than he was sticking on script. He needed this win, his speech wasn’t going to make the mark he needed, so he innovated in the moment.

And we, ladies and gentlemen, are all beneficiaries of that.

As U.S. Congressman and Civil Rights activist John Lewis said: “Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.”

6 Predictions that Didn’t Make the Cut

6 Predictions that Didn’t Make the Cut

Recently, I released a 6-month project I worked on with a cultural anthropologist to make 10 Church Predictions for the next 10 YearsAll told, we ended with a list of 31 predictions that we felt fairly confident in making. (You can download the PDF here.)

But rather than bury the whole list, just for fun, we decided to release 6 more predictions, with just a few sentences explanation for each. Enjoy!

Bonus Prediction: A few prominent seminaries will break with ATS and start training pastors in an entirely new and innovative way.

While there have been some advancements in seminary training in the last twenty years, most notably the move to distance learning cohorts, the strictures seminaries must adhere to in order to stay in good standing with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) puts significant limits on the kind of innovation schools can experiment with. But in a world where we regularly train pastors for a world that no longer exists, coupled with significant rising costs, we believe there will be a few bold institutions that figure out how to successfully experiment, which could become the future training grounds for pastors. If this subject is of interest to you, JR Rozko and I wrote a whitepaper on the subject a few years back.

Bonus Prediction: There will be a crisis in how people relate to local spiritual authority.

Between podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube channels, Reddit threads, online communities and a plethora of articles, people will be more committed to a tribe online than they will be to a particular people in a particular place. There is ongoing macrotrend within culture of people aligning themselves with people who tend to agree with close to 100% of what they believe. The Christian community is no different in this respect. Locally speaking, it will be hard for churches to lead with spiritual authority as people will increasingly live out a more individuated existence, choosing to belong to an online tribe of peers they agree with.

Bonus Prediction: The efforts of churches to reach cities and rural America will look wildly different. Forget your models.

There is a global trend of people moving towards cities, particularly among people younger than 40. These people are more diverse in terms of religion, ethnicity, worldview, education and background experiences. There has already been an end to the monoculture that long dominated the American consciousness and that is having profound effects on the church. But the end to that monoculture means the church models that “worked” will do poorly at reaching people who aren’t already predisposed to church. To reach people in cities will mean a diversity of missional models will be pioneered. But for every action, there is a counter-effect. If people move to cities en masse, the other side of the coin will be rural areas that feel more isolated, more spread out, smaller populations and fewer job opportunities. There will be a mission landscape (and opportunity) that is quite different than what it looks like today.

Bonus Prediction: Gospel saturation will hit a tipping point in a few cities.

The idea of “Gospel Saturation” is an idea that is already catching on. The principle  of saturation is that to fulfill the Great Commission, people in a geographic place need multiple opportunities to hear and respond to the Gospel and the only way to do this is for churches to work together, and not in competition. There are already a number of organizations making significant strides towards activating this principle. ChristTogether is currently working in 88 cities. The NewThing Network is seeing a wave of church planting happen with this principle that we haven’t seen since the Vineyard movement. And Saturate the Sound is one example of a city prototype that’s coming alive.

Bonus Prediction: The church will have a poverty crisis to contend with. 

Economists are predicting there will be an unemployment and refugee crisis coming and the American church will need to choose its’ posture towards the problem of poverty. Some of it will be people of color from different countries, but most people will be white and come from middle-to-upper-middle-class-backgrounds. There are 2 dominant factors at play: Unemployment will be driven by automation and the burst of the education bubble, while the refugee population will (possibly) soar due to climate change and global political terrorism.

Bonus Prediction: Many of the most “successful” churches will have a team-based leadership structure.

There has been a move in both business and the church towards more fluid, flatter and team-based leadership structures. While there will always be models of the genius with a thousand helpers, the significant movement of the APEST principles and practice in the church, coupled with the proliferation of similar visions of leadership in Silicon Valley, will dramatically shift the way the future leaders of the church choose to operate.

Futurist Church Series :: Where is “Missional” 10 Years after the “Conversation” Peaked?

Futurist Church Series :: Where is “Missional” 10 Years after the “Conversation” Peaked?

Ten years ago, the idea of “missional” was driving almost all conversations in leadership circles and I think it’s fair to say 2009/10(ish) was the hay-day of the “missional conversation.” But was there a difference between the “conversation” happening in evangelical leadership circles and the movement itself?

Obviously things are different now. For this article of the Futurist Church Series, I invited 5 thought leaders who were in the thick of it 10 years ago to speak on the matter; people everyone would consider leading voices within the missional conversation. I asked each of them the same 5 questions to get a sense of where missional is and where it might be headed.

An After-Publication Editorial Addition:

It’s been a little less than ten hours since publication of this piece and there’s already been a lot of conversation online. I’d like to add one clarification to this piece as the facilitator of the article. This piece is not to attempting to communicate that “missional” as a movement has peaked. Rather, that the “missional conversation” happening within the wider evangelical industrial complex saw its apex. (See Skye Jethani’s article on the industrial complex idea.) The movement that is missional as the original and potent idea is not only alive, but growing, and in some places in the Western Church, thriving. I believe we are at the beginning of this. However, from my vantage point, one of the important things to learn from the last ten years is the way that ideas are co-opted and spit out by “the machine.” But that doesn’t mean these ideas are done. In fact, I believe they are just beginning.

The 5-on-5 Voices

Q1: When the “missional conversation” was at its peak 10 year ago, what was your hope about where it would take the Western church?


For one, I’m not sure if it peaked ten years ago or was simply just first registering in the minds of many leaders across North America. But that aside, my hopes and dreams were that we would see a new wave of missional activity, the rise of new movements, and more by way of innovative church planting.  My belief then, and still is, is that if we do not find our way to a missional expression of the church, Christianity in the West will continue towards precipitous decline. 


Nearly ten years ago, I wrote The Road to Missional, and if you read my introduction to that book you’ll see I was responding to people who were saying the missional conversation was over back then. I wanted the book to be a gentle rebuke to those people who were saying the missional thing was good, we liked it, but it’s kinda over now. My point was that if you think this was a passing fad, the latest get-church-quick scheme, you didn’t understand the missional conversation in the first place. So if you’re asking what my hope was ten years ago, it was exactly that – that the church would stop seeing mission as a fad or a scheme or a strategy, and start to see it as the means by which we mirror God’s work in the world and glorify him. Ten years ago, I wanted the church to (a) embrace the cruciform nature of incarnational witness, (b) understand mission as bringing reconciliation, justice and beauty to a broken world, (c) see mission as wider than evangelism, (d) practice evangelism as more than the four spiritual laws, and (e) embrace its identity as a sent community of disciples. That’s all.


My hope was that the priesthood of the believer on mission in the everyday stuff of life would become the new norm – that every Christian would not only see themselves as a missionary, but be actively participating in everyday mission in effective ways that would lead to each believer making disciples who make disciples. As a result, the Church would grow in unprecedented ways through conversion grow and multiplication grow.


I simply hoped that more and more churches would see the need to activate all the people of God to engage in God’s mission more fully. I had no illusions that the entire Western church would make the shift, but I was hopeful that many would.


My hope for the “missional conversation” was a hope for renewal of mission in North America, not North America to the world, but incarnational mission in North America. For me this meant a wave of incarnational church plants, incarnational renewal of traditional churches. By ‘incarnational’ I meant Christian presence for the gospel outside the traditional four walls of church gatherings.

Q2: In one sentence or short phrase, how would you describe the state of “missional” today?


Well I think there is still a lot of activity going on that could be called broadly missional.  For instance an uptake in church planting, new focus on discipleship, fledgling movements emerging, the phenomenal uptake on APEST typology of ministry across the spectrum, etc. (I listed some of these in my new edition of The Forgotten Ways).  These are hopeful expressions….it is simply that there are not enough of them and we have yet to unequivocally demonstrate proof of concept.


Splintered. Those who saw missional as a strategy, and felt disappointed by it, have pursued its ideas into specialist areas, searching for the silver bullet to grow their churches. This has led to whole sub-conversations like fivefold, the parish/neighborhood conversation, bivo/covo, missional discipleship, community development, etc. etc.  Missional was never meant to be a strategy so thinking you can parse it into increasingly bite-sized strategic objectives is to lose the beauty of what we all dreamed of 20 years ago.


For many Christians, missional seems optional and especially reserved for the most mature Christian.


Because the muscle memory of church growth thinking is so strong, the move towards mission is still in process for many churches.


“Missional” is a brand that has become domesticated to (and by) the traditional forms of protestant church in N. America.

Q3: In your opinion, what happened to missional conversation since its hey day? Why did it fade out or morph into something else?


As mentioned above, I’m not sure it has faded out.  While the word missional is not being used as extensively, the phenomenon it has morphed into sub-conversations, e.g. multiplication, 5Q, etc.  This is good and bad.  Good in that the conversation is keeping, bad in that it is being done in ways that are reductionistic….many of them lack a comprehensive model of the church as missional movement.  There is not as much ’symphony’ going on right now.  


As I say above, it has fractured into specialist areas. Church leaders are looking for the special sauce. But while the missional vision includes fivefold, neighborhood, bivo, discipleship, etc, it involves much more. You pull each piece out from the whole at your peril. Fivefold won’t work in a traditional, unchanging church. Emphasizing neighborhood makes no sense in a dispersed suburban megachurch. I sometimes compare it to the 1980s third wave charismatic movement. That movement insisted that the gifts of the Spirit hadn’t ceased, demanding that we submit to this new move of God, encouraging us to speak in tongues and practice deliverance and words of knowledge. It represented a wholescale rethink of who we are and how we do church. But within ten years, conservative Protestant churches had just incorporated contemporary music, bands, and hand-raising while resisting full renewal by the Holy Spirit. I fear we’re at that place in the missional era. It’s as if the church is trying to retro-fit a few missional pieces into their existing machinery. But in The Shaping of Things to Come, Alan Hirsch and imagined a complete ecclesial overhaul with mission as its organizing principle.       


First of all, I don’t believe it was carefully defined. As a result, every co-opted the term for anything they were doing outside the formal gathering of Sunday. Second, I think missional was seen as an action-oriented push for believers to look and move outward while lacking the deep formational aspect of developing believers into maturity in order to sustain any kind of healthy gospel movement.  As a result, in a very pragmatic context, it turned into a new fadish strategy to grow a church (wrong goal). In turn, many churches did not see the outcomes they had hoped for and concluded that “missional” doesn’t work. They saw it as a strategy that turned into a short-lived fad because they failed to recognize that their theology, and theological vision was broken before they ever tried a ‘missional approach’.  We needed a deeper repentance and correction about what we believe about God, the Gospel, and our view of the Church and her mission. Because this didn’t happen in most cases, the church merely shifted its programs and practices, while failing to repent of its poor theology and ministry philosophy.


I wouldn’t say it has faded out, it has simply been discovered to be difficult and counter to how many Christians have been taught and therefore not often embraced on a deep level.


“Missional” never moved, in my opinion, from an idea, a concept, challenge, or aspiration, to an actual practice of church in mission. It therefore got absorbed into modern Christendom systems of church.

Q4: What was the biggest positive contribution the missional conversation made in Western church culture in the last 20 years?


Mission has awakened the church to God’s purposes beyond the narrow confines of the worshipping conversion.  It has led to numerous ‘fresh expressions’ (innovations) in new forms of church, it has indelibly impacted theological discourse (most seminaries will now have missional subjects and streams whereas these did not exist ten years ago.  


It challenged the gross over-steer of the church growth movement, which had come to reject the importance of social action, and emphasized evangelism-as-recruitment, the homogenous unit principle (where like attracts like), and the Sunday service as the doorway to the church. Missional was like a rock thrown into the steady flowing stream of church growth theory. It interrupted the flow. It questioned the assumptions and gave new ways of thinking about the church’s mission, ways that emphasized go rather than come. It unleashed young evangelicals into the world of justice-seeking, placemaking, and church planting.


It has led to a more honest critique of our scorecard and a willingness to admit we are not actually making disciples in the church as we thought. It also has shifted the conversation away just conversion and addition to a more holistic mission that includes all of life (as evidenced by faith and work initiatives) and is raising awareness about a need to focus on multiplication as well.

For those who have actually leaned into the conversation, it has been the recapturing of the missionary nature of the church.

The missional conversation led to a invigorated discussion on how to engage culture with the gospel. It offered many an opportunity to ‘reset’ what it means to be church. There are lasting effects to this day among many because of it.

Q5: What is your hope for the soul and deeper meaning of missional moving forward?


We have to keep focussed and not let the broader cultural malaise and ideological debate derail what is likely to be one of the most important conversation in our time.  But I do think we now have to major on correcting the defective Christology that lies at the heart of what is the prevailing cultural Christianity.  Unless we get Jesus right, everything else will be fundamentally wrong…even toxic and dangerous.  


It’s so important to remember that missional is intrinsically rooted in Trinity and Kingdom. The missional mandate emerges from the character and action of the Triune God, not from the need to reach out. And its mission is not chiefly about planting and growing churches. It is about alerting everyone everywhere to the universal reign of God through Christ. This involves evangelism, but also has implications for racial reconciliation, social justice, creation care, and community development. There’s still so much more work to be done in these areas. As I said earlier, I think missional is in danger of becoming church growth theory 2.0. I truly hope the church can recover a more biblical missiology moving forward.    


I am hopeful that we will see a true affirming and mobilization of the priesthood of every believer which includes an affirmation that all of life is ministry. I also am expecting a much deeper emphasis on spiritual formation that moves out on mission, not just one or the other. I am also hopeful for a greater ownership of the mission of the church by unpaid staff. In all of this, I am praying for a gospel saturation movement in North America.


My deepest hope is that the church would do everything possible to diminish the clergy-laity divide, which would lead to activating ALL the people of God to engage in His mission.

I hope and pray the “missional” conversation turns into a movement of some kind that cultivates leadership, practices of ecclesiology, sufficient to replant the church of His Kingdom in N. America at a time when evangelicalism is imploding and protestant mainline church keeps shrinking.

BONUS QUESTION: In one way, the burnout of the missional conversation is a cautionary tale for how things are co-opted and then changed. What advice would you give to leaders who will experience thought movements going forward?


Keep focussed.  Steady on the ship. Have a ten year plan.  Cut the faddish nonsense and the need for reductionistic formulas.  Do the right thing because it is the right thing not because it expedient or pragmatic.  


I think the challenges posed by missional thinkers as long ago as Bishop Newbigin in the 80s and the American Newbiginians in the 90s and the emerging missional church leaders in the 00s are as fresh and as necessary as ever. Such movements need their prophets to stay the course, to refuse to give in to domesticating forces, and to continue to ruffle feathers. It’s lonely work, but important.    

Properly identify the real problem. Clarify terms where a new word or concept is introduced, ensuring that the concept is deeply biblical. Recognize that the change needed is not just strategic, but theological and philosophical. Call leadership to repentance. Make sure leaders fully embrace and embody whatever it is they intend to lead others in. Then, be very clear about the cost necessary.


Again, I would push back a bit on the idea that the missional conversation has experienced “burnout.” If a movement is rooted theologically and missiologically, then it will not fade. I think what was called the “emergent movement” was a renewal movement that was more about style than mission. However, because a genuine missional conversation is rooted in the missionary nature of the Triune God (theology) and the interplay of the church with culture (missiology) I am not too concerned about it becoming a fading emphasis.

Don’t get sucked up in the hoopla. Focus on slow, steady, on the ground cultivating of actual communities where change and sustenance happens.

One Last Word from Alan Hirsch:

I am more convinced than ever of the rightness of the movement.  The degraded state of the contemporary evangelical Christianity necessitates the very focii that the missional movement brings—a radical recentering on the life, teachings, and ministry of Jesus Christ; a theology of Lordship and not just personal salvation; a call to integrate justice into mission; incarnational forms of church planting; a recovery of full biblical typology of ministry (APEST); a recovery of the priority of discipleship; calling the church to rally around God’s purposes in the world as opposed to theological navel-gazing; etc..  We need these now more than ever!  We must not stop in our efforts to remissionalize the church, in fact I believe we need to double down on them.

How your Expertise is KILLING Innovation in your Church

How your Expertise is KILLING Innovation in your Church

 In 1990, a famous study was conducted by a student at Stanford named Elizabeth Newton. She got a group of people together and divided them into two sets: “Tappers” and “Listeners.”

Here’s how the study worked: A Tapper was partnered with a Listener and each were given a list of 25 popular songs like “Happy Birthday” or the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The tapper secretly selected a song and tapped the rhythm of the song by knocking on a table in front of them. The listener, having 25 songs to choose from, was to name the song the tapper was knocking out on the table. 

Newton conducted the experiment 120 times. Any guess on how many times the listener correctly named the song being tapped out?


3 out of 120. That’s 2.5 percent. 

But this is where it gets really interesting. After the tapper knocked out the rhythm of the song, but before the listener gave their guess, Newton asked the tapper to guess the chances the listeners would get it right. 

Where’d they place the odds? 50 percent. The results would yield not 1 out of 2 correct guesses — but 2 in 100. 

If you do this a few times with friends or family, you see start to see the same kind of response that Newton was seeing in the tappers. They were increasingly frustrated and irritated. (You should definitely do this one at home. I tried with my kids and it provided a good amount of fun and frustration for all of us!)  You see, when you tap the rhythm out of the song, you’ve got the song is playing in your head. You can almost hear it. You can’t NOT hear it. But at the same time you’re tapping out the tune, the listener isn’t hearing anything in their head. They just have a list of random songs to pick from and something approaching the sound of irascible morse code coming straight at them.  

What it produced in the tappers was an emotional reaction that went something like this: How could you be so stupid? How can you not hear it? It’s so freaking obvious!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the villains in our journey towards innovation in the church and it’s called the Curse of Knowledge. “Once we know something,” Dan and Chip Heath write in Made to Stick, “we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.” In a sense, our knowledge has “cursed” us.

As Adam Grant writes in his book Originals, “The more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world…As we gain knowledge about a domain, we become prisoners of our prototypes.”

Like one of the great villains in an epic story, the Curse of Knowledge is one of the key reasons why substantive Gospel Innovation rarely happens in churches. Why? Simple. The thing we know most intimately becomes a kind of cage for creative thinking and miraculous problem solving. Click To Tweet

There are two specific ways it hurts us as leaders. 

PROBLEM #1 of the Curse of Knowledge: The more expertise or specialization we have, the harder it is for us to see another way. It creates boxes that are hard to break out of.

Each of us are “prisoners of our prototypes.” We don’t exist in a practical cultural vaccum. We learned ways of leadership, discipleship and forms of church that are increasingly becoming more obsolete. For thousands of years, sociologists say that culture reinvents itself at the rate of a generation: Roughly every twenty years. Today? It completely shifts every 18 months. In other words, the most predictable thing about life is that our culture will constantly change. If the people of God are to step into their destiny of participating with the Kingdom coming more and more into every sector of human life, we need to stop looking for a “silver bullet” for a culture that won’t exist next year. 

We need to start learning the way of Gospel innovation as a core skill to leadership.


PROBLEM #2 of the Curse of Knowledge: What is plain and clear to us can feel like a completely different language to the people we are leading.

How many times have we said this in ministry? 

  • How can everyone else not see why I see?
  • Why don’t they understand?
  • Why are they so hard headed?
  • How can they not get it?
  • Don’t they know that if they just do this one thing, everything will change?

Perhaps you and a small team have, by the grace of God, stumbled on a unique Gospel innovation. But no one seems to understand or want to follow you to that place. The discipline we must learn as leaders is first to realize that what we’ve spent months or years thinking on, dreaming about or tinkering on have simply not been anyone else’s experience. We’ve been on a specific journey and no one else has. We can’t expect people to know the things we learned on that journey just because we gave them a couple of bullet points. What we need to work on are creative ways of casting vision, both through innovative content and crafted experiences, that open their eyes to the things that are now so clear to us.

Much of my work is spent helping leaders create game-changing innovation in their church that’s custom built for them. Make sure to check out the BRAVE Coaching Cohorts we’re starting up.

New Coaching Cohorts