to what end?

First, thank you, Erika, my lovely bride, for providing a platform for these comments. As part of a class I am taking at Fuller, I must present several public writings that come from my interaction with the course materials. These will be short, incomplete, and perhaps even unsatisfactory ‘snapshots’ of the bigger picture. They are thoughts from a much broader conversation. My hope remains that they will provoke, inspire, prod, whatever, and that you will be willing to jump in.

We have read A LOT about culture, the ‘missional’ corrective, education (particularly regarding the religious educator), and more recently the role of the pastor.

I have been left wondering one thing: what is the point? To what end for all of this? From my position at the seminary, I have a front-row view of the recent trends in theological education (in so much as they have reared themselves at my institution): ‘classical training,’ ‘homogenous church growth,’ ‘healthy church growth,’ ‘natural church development,’ and now ‘missional’ and ‘emerging church.’ To (over)simplify the conversation, these trends fall into two categories: “how to get people in (attractional) and plugged in to getting people in” and “how to get people in by going out (missional) to get them in and then plugged in to go out to get people in.” Delivery systems – not development. Does anyone know what to do with people when they are got? Into what are people coming and how? Or should the question be: what are people becoming and how?

Dallas Willard offers us this:

“It is, I gently suggest, a serious error to make “outreach” a primary goal of the local congregation, and especially so when those who are already “with us” have not become clear-headed and devoted apprentices of Jesus, and are not, for the most part, solidly progressing along the path. Outreach is one essential task of Christ’s people, and among them there will always be those especially gifted for evangelism. But the most successful work of outreach would be the work of inreach that turns people, wherever they are, into lights in the darkened world.”


  1. Really love this post. Remind me to tell you about my Iron Man analogy I’m currently fastening after seeing it tonight with Jim Rispin, Allen Corben, and a bunch of ITS boys…

  2. I couldn’t agree more. When we convert people, what do we convert them to? How can we bring people to Christ if we’re not following Him ourselves?

  3. This was one of the most frustrating things for me in a congregation I was apart of a couple years back. I felt like were so good at bringing people in but there was no discipleship model – no thought to what people were becoming, what our vision was for them. It was like…once they are in – great! our work is done. I feel like we’re missing the main point.

  4. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I disagree with Dallas Willard.

    I think the primary goal should always be out, not in. If the purpose of outreach is ultimately to get people in, then we still have the wrong focus. It is the very fact that we don’t see our purpose as going out that those who are “with us” never become devoted apprentices.

    Outreach isn’t just for those who are especially gifted in evangelism. Unless we see our primary identity as disciples sent into the world, we will never reach some imaginary moment of maturity and enlightenment wherein we will be compelled out to the world.

    The focus of discipleship is going out, not plugging in.

  5. Thank you all for your comments.

    Grace, I would like to respond to you in particular. I think your response is hitting the point exactly! Thank you. As my wife always says, “we are saved for what?”

    I have a wonderful friend who thinks Christianity is a sham. His biggest exhibit is his experience with the church. He has met many people convicted of the need to “evangelize” but claims to have been soured by those who claim the name Christian but look no different than the rest of the world (the vast majority of us, he would argue) and some who are far worse. I know we can get into a huge philosophical conversation about how the church will always be imperfect, but his point is very valid. As a born and bred churchgoer, I feel the same struggle.

    I believe what Dallas is saying is that the greatest witness is the body of believers who actually display the likeness of Christ, not the megaphone model we tend to fall into today. He is most definitely stating that evangelism must happen but is challenging its dominating orientation in the way our churches function. And I do think there is something to his point that some will be better at the specific role of evangelist than others. The role of the community, I believe, is not that we all aspire to be the greatest evangelists but that we all aspire to live as the ‘great cloud of witnesses’. This great cloud is the greatest form of witness.

    Here is perhaps another way to look at it. Does everyone in the church play an instrument in the worship service during the singing? Do we have an expectation that everyone will aspire to do so? Or is that role for those in the body who are skilled and gifted as such? I have no expectation that the whole congregation will be musicians (or that that role should be exalted in any way in the congregation and thus aspired to for the sake of its exalted status!) but I do expect they will all participate in the music making. And the greatest cloud is not the solo musician or the gift that makes their music making possible but the full chorus of believers living as devoted and faithful apprentices of Christ. Without this context the music quickly becomes a loud clanging cymbal or a resounding gong.

    In the same way, some will be evangelists (like musicians) while we all are part of the community that gives chorus and proof to the evangelists’ claim.

  6. Douglas,

    First… thanks for the post. Not having a seminary education (yet?? hmm) and still knowing many that do, I haven’t heard much discussion surrounding the issue of discipleship as standing separate from evangelism. I think far too many in the church equate getting involved with a particular (outreach-focused) ministry with discipleship. The former may be part of the latter, but the latter is the goal. Jesus didn’t tell us to go ye into the world and boost your attendance/involvement numbers.

    Now having said that, I think many outreach ministries can end up serving as a crude, makeshift indicator of how much discipleship is actually happening in the church. But just because you have one doesn’t mean you have the other.

    good werk homie

  7. oh and one other thing… from one worship leader to another, I feel you 100% on your analogy! It definitely helps to have a gifted musician leading the cloud of witnesses, but the real thing to behold is that cloud of witnesses all simultaneously bearing witness together. Without it, it’s just some people in front of guitars or keyboards making music. It’s nice, but it’s not the same thing.

  8. Thanks Jelani, you are spot on!

    Let me holler right back. This post came from a personal sense of heaviness on the state of discipleship in the church. Your comments about the interrelationship between evangelism and discipleship are dead on as far as I am concerned.

    Personally I think we jump too quickly into sending people out. There are many things I would not ‘send’ my three year old ‘out’ to do. Much training and growing must come first. The goal is obviously to get her to a place where she can be an adult, parent, etc, on her own. That, however, is decades in coming.

    I am not at all afraid to think that years (or even decades) might be an appropriate expectation regarding the length of time before the faith community ‘sends out’ anyone who has come to the faith.

    We have our culture’s “give it to me now, I can be mature at this immediately, who are you to tell me what I shouldn’t be doing…” to contend with. I can go back to the music analogy here. Are there times as a leader where I know I need to say to “not yet”? Yes! Do I usually get blasted for it? Yes! 😉 Is it still the right decision? Yes! Do I have a responsibility in bringing that person to a place where the answer will be “yes, now.” Most certainly! And this is what is most often shirked.

    (and here is where I will get into a lot of trouble). I do not believe the end game is to go out. That is, in my view, the dominant misconception of our day. The end game is to ‘do what we see Jesus doing’ and to ‘obtain the fullness of Christ within our community’ not, as you said so well already, ‘get as many people as possible as quickly as we can’. just as Jesus only did what he saw the Father doing. Within that is absolutely the going out. But it is derivative, not primary, and I struggle to applaud ourselves for accomplishing the secondary task while failing miserably at the primary.

  9. I wonder if one practical way to resolve the apparent tension you’re addressing is to view outreach as a (the?)fundamental vehicle for discipleship.

    I tend to agree with those who believe the church exists for those outside the church, though I’d expand the discussion of outreach well beyond evangelism alone. I think it includes all forms of useful and practical service to others, and particularly, as you and your family are witnesses, to the poor.

    Personally, I think Christians should engage in outreach as soon as possible. In my experience very young Christians are often the best evangelists since many still have large networks of non-Christian friends. In fact, I’ve found that many searching people who are close to making a commitment are powerful witnesses even before they become Christians.

    But getting people into outreach immediately isn’t simply a good idea pragmatically. It also models right off the bat that mission and love of neighbor are at the center of Christian life.

    How do you get depth of discipleship (your original question) along with vigorous service and evangelism?

    I think the way outreach is conducted is crucial. Without a clear ‘mentoring’ and ‘discipling’ focus that makes use of vigorous outreach as the crucible for growth right from day one, I think ‘delivery systems’ do little to help people mature.

    Seems like Jesus developed the disciples ‘on the fly’ and ‘in the midst of mission’ because He used their experiences together in mission as an opportunity to intentionally teach and develop folks.

    Churches and movements and organizations I’ve seen that have solid discipleship and vigorous outreach going on tend to utilize mission as a fundamental tool for discipleship. Basically, they’re committed to the idea of getting out to bless people outside the church while at the same time using those experiences as one of their primary discipleship tools.

    So I do think it can be done. But having said that, I haven’t seen a lot of good examples so I feel your frustration (and disappointment?)

  10. Thanks Tom, I always appreciate your comments.

    Yes, I resonate with your comments. And perhaps part of the problem here is semantics and a very loaded word: evangelism. I have one friend who says ‘stop evangelizing and start blessing people’. This may be a bit simplistic but you can grasp what he is getting at.

    I want to also be clear that when I said we should be cautious about how quickly we ‘send out’ people I by no means meant keeping recent converts from doing the work of the faith with the faith community. I actually believe having all walks of life with us doing the work, believer or not, is best (as opposed to the Sunday service which is often made the main locale for connection, evangelism and conversion).

    We have an older friend who says “our generation produced no Yodas for yours”. Perhaps that sums it all up (even if in a corny kind of way). Personally I feel like we have way to many adolescent Luke Skywalkers – I one of them – running around out there chomping at the bit to play Jedi and very few listening, or even wanting to listen, to our Yodas. Do we have any? Shouldn’t there be several in every congregation? Ultimately, I guess I feel that whatever learning our communities do it is typically a learning on how to get more people into our communities. Shouldn’t it be about what our communities are supposed to be?

  11. I really like your younger friend’s comment :^)

    The Yoda deficit may be part of the spirit of the age.

    In general, I think there are plenty of potential mentors and plenty of potential learners in potentially serious churches, but I think my generation and yours have bought into some things that inhibit the transfer of spiritual wisdom and knowledge.

    Whether there are lots of mentors for people trying to do what you and Erika and your kids are doing, well, probably not.

    Sometimes there’s no Yoda.

    I don’t say that flippantly and I thoroughly understand how hard it is to move ahead without many models.

    You guys are on a creative edge. The kind of place Jesus comes in especially handy :^)

  12. I’m not a seminary student, either, so there may be some concepts I’m totally missing…..

    But, why do we always feel that evangelism and discipleship must be two separate activities? I think these labels that we use don’t always fit.

    We hosted a Soup Night in our home for 5 years, with the intention of getting to know our neighbors better. I knew I needed to love them and share Christ with them, but it always felt so contrived. So, we started this Soup Night thing just to develop relationships. And guess what? The evangelism piece followed.

    But the biggest surprise of all was how much growth took place in me and my husband. (is that what “discipleship” is? A believer becoming a follower, living out our faith 24/7?) So, taking a step of obedience to be evangelistic actually led to discipleship in us…if that makes any sense.

    The conclusion I came to was that Jesus doesn’t tell us to go into the world and make disciples because He needs us to be His recruiters, but because it is a tool He uses to grow us AND to spread the Good News.

    What is the church’s role? I think to equip us to follow Jesus’ command.

  13. Douglas,
    A few thoughts now that I have heard more of your perspective…

    A problem the church has had besides being attractional is that it has also been extractional in that it has removed people from their relational spheres.

    I see discipleship as a ripple movement, going further and further into the relational spheres of those we disciple and fellowship with. I am not really talking about evangelism or mission, but an ever-expanding circle of real relationships.

    I agree with Tom that modeling mission and love of neighbor right off the bat is a fundamental change needed in how we perceive discipleship. It reminds me of geese imprinting. We model what a disciple is from the start.

    Over the years the church has trained people into church attendance and consumer christianity rather than in how to be disciples. And I believe that starts with walking beside them in their sphere of relationships.

    I am aware that your context isn’t evangelical suburbia, which is where I’m coming from, and that from your pastoral perspective the issues are more complex than what I have addressed.

    Thanks for the dialog.

  14. Wonderful comments all! Thank you so much for enriching this discussion. I was so moved by much of what you have said.

    There are a couple things that I would love to pull out and appreciate.

    Tom, you stated this:

    “I think my generation and yours have bought into some things that inhibit the transfer of spiritual wisdom and knowledge.” – And that is an aspect of this whole conversation that I couldn’t figure out how to include. It may come in a later post. The cultural shifts that we (read the West over the last century) have bought into (literally!) have had a profound effect on transfer of anything. We have demoted memory and history in favor of the future and the ‘new’. If the old is no longer worth anything, why would anyone want to pass it along! Therein lies one of our major obstacles of the day.

    Julie, thank you for joining us. I very much appreciate your example. I think you highlight something that Erika and I always talk about. Agenda! Agenda! Agenda. We are surprised at how much ‘evangelistic’ activities are flush with agenda. We look to numbers and (I think somewhat inappropriately) validate those numbers by saying they are converts – even if we never see them again. A very wise friend of mine has been wrestling with these two phrases and maybe they are helpful here: “responsible for” and “responsible to”. My take on them is that the church has put so much effort into being “responsible for” the conversion of the world. Thus when we have low numbers coming from an event we drop it for not producing. Since we are “responsible for” producing better numbers we should find a better way to do that (incidentally I believe this is where our push for mega churches and massive budgets come from – what do those really have to do with disciple-making?). On the other hand, if we live “responsible to” what it means to be a follower of Christ 24/7, that of course will include ‘outreach’ as we like to call it but changes the purpose.

    There was once a huge harvest party in our neighborhood. It drew hundreds of people to a street that was safe and lit and filled with homes of people how knew it was coming and were welcoming. Very different from the rest of the South Central neighborhood. If the purpose of our actions were to be responsible to participating in God’s redemptive work here in this neighborhood – a redeeming space, relationships with people, safety, etc – then of course the event is accomplishing its purpose. But if the purpose is only that we would have numbers of people join our specific congregation of the Body of Christ and we only had 4 people come to our church of the 400 who came to the event then it makes sense that we would stop doing it and move on to something more ‘profitable’. All that effort was tiring people out. Why exert all that energy for only a 1% return?

    Your last comment intrigued me. I think the church IS the people who are in pursuit of following Christ as the sole orientation for their way of life. The church is the people who are doing this together. For me the church isn’t something other than these people or a structure set up to support the growth of these people. It IS these people working together.

    Grace, what a wonderful conversation partner you are. Erika told me she really likes you and I can see why :).

    Your comments on the training of church people into attendance and consumer Christianity is so timely. And not only has the church done this, EVERYTHING around us is telling that very tale. I read recently that a person experiences 16,000 marketing images daily. DAILY! Can the Church of Sunday morning even begin to compete with that in the formation of people?

    And your geese imprinting is excellent. In my previous comment about Skywalker I also thought of the monastic movement. Before you became a monk/nun you participated alongside the brothers/sisters in their work. Even those who didn’t intend to join were still welcome to participate. Some things were explained outright, other things were left for later explanation when they would actually make sense. Our consumerist mentality demands getting things right now and lacks patience in learning – thus it challenges this type of learning and undercuts any type of successful mentoring.

    Recently I read that those working toward baptism into the faith community in the first couple centuries had a three year process. For one year they studied Mark – nothing else. For the next year they studied Matthew – nothing else. For a third year they studied Luke/Acts – nothing else. And at the conclusion of that year they were offered (or not offered, mind you) baptism into the community. Then, only after baptism, they were given the gospel of John. In this regard, Baptism was not just the spiritual cleansing of the recipient but an act also representative of the hard work and life-change of the person (I would argue a physical manifestation of that cleansing we all say happens in baptism). It was the inducting of the person into the faith community and an affirmation of their commitment to be “responsible to” the work of the Body of Christ and the Body of Christ’s continued “responsibility to” that person.

  15. One thing that resonates with me here is something that has concerned me in the past about some of the language I have heard dominate the “missional” conversation. I’m pretty sure I have written a bit on this before, but there is a theme of “this is not about you” or “check your needs at the door” when talking about the formation of missional communtiies.

    Now obviously this is a reaction (and a well-founded one) to the overly me-driven-ness of so much of what has gone on in church growth and church planting and church development in recent years, however the language bothers me. It bothered me this past year because I was extremely needy. I had very little to offer. I did very little to serve anyone outside of my children and the growing baby in my womb. And as I would read different voices in what is called the missional movement, I would find myself feeling alienated. Because I was in survival mode and was in fact consumed with the realities of having my needs and the needs of my family met. And according to many voices, that was simply antithetical to participating in the mission of God.

    What I learned over the course of that very difficult year was the power of a community to cover weakness with strength; to share pain and burden as a common meal; to lay down life and sacrifice joyfully for the sake of someone with nothing to offer. That was how my family, my church family, treated me and Doug and Mercy and Aaron and precious little Elijah when he was yet unborn: the very example of one most fragile and useless. And the witness of that to my OB’s, to a film crew, to our neighbors, our landlord, to friends and family was immense.

    I share this because I think that being missional is not about pretending that we are not ourselves needy or that our needs are invalid simply because they are ours. Being missional as I see it is practicing life together, and including those least like us, with the kind of generosity, compassion, and sacrifice and commitment that our community showed us this past year.

    One of the things I have wondered about too is that as the needy among us are touched by the love of God and welcomed into our missional communities, they don’t suddenly shed their neediness. My experience here has certainly taught me that. It can be a long haul to walk with anyone through their healing, just as it is with each of us, and it would be disingenuous to welcome needy individuals into a community that promises to only focus on the needs of those outside of itself. It would seem like attending to our own growth, and to serving one another, would have to remain at the center (though never to the exclusion of seeing beyond ourselves).

    I wonder if that is related somewhat to what Doug is pressing here…

  16. Thanks Doug. Ben Sternke recently wrote a post about the service not being the entry point that flips the seeker-service mentality on its head. I think this gets at what you are describing where we are inclusive in outreach, fellowship, and mission. Yet there is a core to our community that is defined by deeper maturity and commitment.

    I can certainly relate to what you said here. My husband and I are in survival mode due to health issues, and it is really easy to feel like we are benched from any useful purpose.

    I try to remember things like this quote from Ron Cole:

    “Missional does not have to be spectacular. It is simple. There has not been a day in my life where I have not had a chance to be missional. If I have the eyes to see, and the ears to hear…the opportunities are aways before me, and around me. The challenge is to take that little mustard seed of faith, and plant it missionally in my everyday living.”

    I have a post in my drafts called “Missional Mommies.” There are several mothers of young children like yourself who inspire me toward missional living in the midst of everyday life.

    It is humbling to be needy. Yet it is good to realize and experience that ministry is bi-directional. We always have an opportunity to receive and learn as well as to give.

  17. I read over the posts in this rich discussion. Thanks for this.

    I think the concept of outreach versus inreach itself strikes a dissonant chord in me. When I read through the gospels, I find no striking characteristics that necessarily made someone in or out. There are those who are in, who are also out (Judas) and those considered most definitely out, who are ultimately elevated to kin-relationship with Jesus (woman with hemorrhage). Yet even those who are healed and want to follow him are not always given “disciple” status. Troubling!

    The other thing I wanted to bring up was the issue of church. When most people (including myself) think of church, we think of a physical space, like a building. Maybe some of us are sophisticated enough to “know” that a church is merely a gathering place, not the end-all. OK, fair enough.

    But then we still discuss the issue as one of outreach. I think it’s problematic for so many clergy-people who spend most of their “working” time in the physical space known as the church. Most of my days are spent “out,” and so my basic question isn’t “how do I do outreach?” or even “how do I do inreach?” but “how can I have meaningful relationships with people I interact with on a day-to-day basis?”

    As someone who works in retail, I strive to turn superficial consumer conversations into interactions that exposes our common humanness. If I can break through a barrier where I can speak to you as one human being to another and not as strangers, or salesperson-to-consumer, then I like to think that’s something Jesus would have done in my shoes.

    When I go “out” there, I expect for Jesus already to have been there. Similarly, when I go “in,” I expect for there to be quite a bit of messed-up-ness. I think the more we cling to static concepts of who is in and who is out, the less we are able to grasp the dynamic journey-quality to discipleship.

  18. Grace, thanks for the continued insight. Your name is fitting and we are blessed to have you as a conversation partner.

    Masaki, well stated as always. And I don’t mean to demean your thoughts to simply words – I am aware of the physical reality behind your statements.

    You have touched on something that sits behind my original post though was not highlighted. I do hope you will come back and bring your insight to future posts I put up as this conversation will continue though with a slight shift in focus.

    A lot has been said in this dialog using the “I” word and riffs from that theme. I will be looking to push that concept a bit in future posts and your insight will be most welcome! I think you are on something with this notion of in and out and will revisit that in future posts.

    Thank you, all.

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