It’s not lost on anyone that the Western Church is in a state of upheaval right now with the spread of the novel coronavirus. People are losing their jobs, bills are piling up, church buildings remain empty and church finances are already beginning to creak.
Largely, the church’s response has been to pause all in-person programming and quickly innovate through taking everything online, using tools like Facebook Live, Zoom rooms, livestreaming and a whole host of other digital options.
In the last few weeks, along with some friends of mine across various organizations, we’ve been able to cobble together a network of coaches around the country and have started dozens of temporary coaching groups to help them create a custom church response plan; to date, more than 10,000 churches are in an ongoing group.
What’s become glaringly clear to most everyone is churches were largely unprepared for such an immediate shift. Most churches struggled (and many continue to struggle) to move online. Many small group leaders have no idea how to lead the people entrusted to their care. Many pastors and church leaders are realizing how so much of their church expression was based on the two “Big P’s” of Western Church life: Personalities and Programming.
So what happens when you largely unplug access to those two things in the way we’re accustomed to?
My friend Rob Wegner has a really interesting metaphor for this. He says what’s happened is akin to a string of old-school Christmas lights. When you pull just one bulb out, the whole thing goes dark. There’s been a centralization to our church expression that relies so heavily on Personalities and Programming that many churches are reeling as a result. Do the people of God know how to be the church and not simply go to church?
In the midst of this, a number of prophetic voices have been stepping up (and quite loudly so) with a kind of “I told you so” message and tone.
And it’s this response that’s been troubling to me.
Right now, the Western Church is under tremendous pressure, not unlike a thirteen year old who was playing with firecrackers and blew his hand off. The most important thing for a parent to do is to get the bleeding under control and make sure the child doesn’t go into cationic shock and bleed out. They need to calm down the terror the child is feeling and get them to the hospital as quickly as possible.
In this scenario, the worst thing the parent could do is decide to focus their energy on saying things like, “See! I told you so! I told you not to play with firecrackers! What were you thinking?!”
The rightness or wrongness of where the church finds itself at this exact moment in time is beside the point. We have to triage the place we find ourselves in and care for those right in front of us.
What this highlights is a shift that prophetic voices need to make in this current climate. (And a shift that many are having a hard time making.)
I was talking about this shift with a close pastor friend of mine and member of the Catapult team, Andy Graham, who himself is deeply prophetic. I thought he made a really astute observation about the prophetic voice:
“In a time of plenty, the prophetic voice should bring challenge. But in a time of great crisis, the prophetic voice should bring great hope for the future.”
What I’m hearing is a great lack of those prophetic voices bringing hope for the future. We need prophetic voices more than ever, but we need them to shift to the moment we find ourselves in.
There are prophetic voices we need more of right now, and prophetic voices we need far less of. The thing I’ve been reflecting on, praying through in my own life and leadership and having discussions with quite a few leaders about is that clarion call of hope right now. It isn’t that we won’t have a different conversation in one month, three months or whenever it’s the wise time to do so. In the same way that eventually that parent will have a conversation about playing with firecrackers.
But when surrounded in darkness, we need to point to that glimmer of light and say, “There. That light? That one flicker? More of that is coming.”
Why? For “that light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”
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.
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 backthen. 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 muchmore. 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.
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.”
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.
There’s a fantastic story I’ve been thinking about the last few years. I certainly won’t do the story justice, but I’ll swing for the fences and hope to hit a triple, then give some thoughts at the end.
There’s a man who is from Nepal, deep in the mountains of the Himalayas. When he was a teenager, his mother became deeply ill and on her death bed. Because this region of the world still believes heavily in animism, the father took her to several witch doctors for healing and no one could heal her.
Not knowing what else to do, he then took her to a hospital in a town far away. The doctor (who happens to be a Christian) looked at her, examined her and told the family, “There’s nothing more than can be done. I’m afraid she’s going to die. All you can do now is pray.”
More than likely the doctor made the “all you can do now is pray” statement probably as something to tag onto the end, but the father immediately says, “Ok, will you pray for her?” So the doctor prays for her and immediately she is healed (much to the surprise of the doctor as well!).
This small family become Christians and visit a small church in the town and leave a few days later, taking with them only their personal story, the story of Jesus they’ve learned from hearing the Bible, and two Nepalese hymns (the family, along with the other people in the village they are from, are illiterate, so having a Bible would do next to nothing, they can’t read it!).
As time passes, the 17 year old grows up and as people are sick, as he had seen the doctor do, he prays for the sick and many of them are healed.
Now where they are from, the customary pay to a witch doctor for services rendered is a shot of whiskey. Not really knowing any better, the man takes the shot as payment. Eventually, after praying for several people in a night, it would not be uncommon for this man to come home rip-roaring drunk. Again, all he knows are the stories of Jesus and two Nepalese hymns. He doesn’t know that Paul has written, “Do not become drunk, as some are in the habit of doing, but be filled with the Spirit.”
One night, after he is walking home and after having a few too many shots of whiskey, he loses his shoe. He wakes up the next morning (probably pretty hungover) and prays about the experience and says: “I really feel like God is telling me to give up drinking. I need two shoes and if I hadn’t had so much to drink, I would have them!”
So he stops drinking. From then on.
Over the next few years, under this man’s leadership, literally hundreds of churches are started in the back country of Nepal, deep in the Himalayas. It is a revival the likes of which we read in the book of Acts with thousands and thousands of people coming to know Jesus. And he’s illiterate. No high school education. No formal training. Just the bare essentials of the gospel, a week in a small, rural Jesus community and the power of the Spirit.
You see, no one told him that it couldn’t happen this way. Now would we say that this is the optimal situation Probably not. We would probably all say that we’d at least like some formal training, some education, etc.
But this story really tapped into a stream of thought that’s been running through my mind the last few years: Here in the United States, we over-value education and to a certain degree, information, when it comes to the church and Kingdom of God. Notice I’m not saying education isn’t important, I’m simply saying we overvalue it.
It’s a little like (real) Heresy
Many of us approach books, education, seminary and the like as if to say: “If I can just learn more, gather more facts, know this a little bit deeper, then I’ll really understand and the puzzle pieces will fit together.” And if this is the case, isn’t this a different (and more elite) form of the Aryan heresy and what led to the spread of Gnosticism? That somehow we who have “special knowledge” and ascent to a higher level of thought have the answers?
I wonder if we have put education over and above the work of the Spirit, his work in his Body, and trust our Father who, in case we didn’t know, wants his Kingdom to advance and succeed more than we do.
I wonder what would happen if we spent less time trying to “educate” ourselves via post-graduate education, endless sermon and theology podcasts, spending hour upon hour reading everything that comes out…and a little more time practicing and learning the rhythms and power of the Spirit.
What if we spent just as much time actively listening to God as we did reading about him?
The fact of the matter is that the church we see exploding in scripture was led by, for the most part, uneducated, unqualified, often illiterate, average men and women.
They simply did what Jesus told them to do: “Do everything I’ve taught you and teach your future disciples to do everything I’ve taught you.” What were some of the basics? Well, Luke 9 & 10 outline it pretty clearly when Jesus gives the most basic instructions to the 12 and 72: When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases,and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Like a loyal Christopher Nolan fan, I really do enjoy the movie Inception (and I’m a fan enough to think that Interstellar is a highly underrated movie!).
What struck me hardest, though, was that it was an infinitely simple plot: What if you could dream inside of a dream? It really was that basic. But where the movie became complicated was when it dove further into that simple principle: What if you could dream inside of a dream inside of a dream inside of a dream?
Suddenly, it gets quite complex.
But the thing is…it wasn’t terribly complex if you fully understood the simplicity of it from the beginning.
I think there might be a very strong parallel here for us when it comes to education. I think we have never fully embraced the simplicity of the Gospel and chosen to give ourselves, through grace, to the very simple things that Jesus has asked of us. After all, the Gospel is not complex, but hard to do. Rather, it’s simple, but hard to do.
What is the fruit of our lives revealing? I wonder if it reveals we are over-educating our obedience levels.
What if we chose to live out of simple obedience first and then dive deeper down the rabbit hole into the complexity of theology. I realize this isn’t a binary thing, sequential thing. But I’m suggesting maybe it’s a posture of our heart. I think we sometimes believe that the reason people aren’t more like Jesus is because they just don’t have all the information, as if the right puzzle pieces need to be put together and then it will all just click.
That really is just a different form of Gnosticism! If the answer is to believe the Gospel harder, or to understand doctrine or theology more fully, that feels like we’re right back where we were pre-Reformation. Rather than “salvation by works,” it’s become “salvation by right thinking.”
What if what people really need is for us to do and live out the simplest truths of the Gospel and the simple things that Jesus gave us authority to do and then they’ll listen more as we dive deeper into the complexities of theology? Do we have a lens, a world view, a pair of glasses that would let us believe that an uneducated, simple, illiterate man is capable of being one of the next great leaders in the Christian faith? Here. Today. In the 21st Century.
If we don’t, how do we ever hope to lead out into mission ourselves?
Disclaimer: I understand I’m not stating important points on things like theology, doctrine, scripture, etc. I’ve specifically left those out to over-exaggerate the point I’m trying to make.