Early on in my explorations of missional theology, I remember thinking that this stuff was so brilliant that all people really needed was permission to do it, and it would take off. I figured all this missional energy was just bottled up inside everyone and they were just waiting for someone to release them and bless them in it. I thought the reason people weren’t doing it was because they didn’t know they were allowed to.
You probably know what’s coming. Excitedly I began giving people permission to live missionally, explaining why it made sense, illustrating the possibilities. And people basically nodded in agreement. Some even got excited with me. But nothing changed (including me). Even people who wanted to couldn’t find their way into a way of life that was naturally joining God in the renewal of all things as a matter of course. A deeper problem was manifesting itself, one that I was just beginning to understand.
As I’ve read and prayed and pondered and worked with people and discussed with others, I think I see more clearly now what the underlying issue is. I’ve boiled it down to a little axiom that I want to offer and explain. Here’s the axiom:
No mission without formation.
No formation without discipleship.
No discipleship without the gospel of the kingdom.
I think this gets to the heart of why mobilizing Christians and churches for everyday mission seems to take so long and be so difficult. Here’s why.
No mission without formation
Underneath the issue of mission was formation. As Dave Fitch has said, “missional people do not fall out of trees,” they have to be formed. More properly, they have to be transformed (“changed from one form to another”). The reason we weren’t seeing any sense of “everyday mission” was because people hadn’t been formed significantly into the image of Christ.
No formation without discipleship
But why hadn’t they been formed in this way? These were people who attended church services regularly, led small groups, taught Sunday school, worked in the nursery, even! Why wasn’t all this activity and service resulting in spiritual formation in the likeness of Christ? Because they had never fully intended to follow Jesus as his disciple, learning from him how to be like him. This gets to the heart of why some of the most beautiful and theologically-rich liturgies can sometimes produce some of the meanest people you’ll ever meet: events and practices (even good ones), in and of themselves, don’t magically make us like Jesus. We must “enroll in the school,” as Dallas Willard says. I’ve written previously about how we do this. The truth is that we will not be significantly formed to look like Jesus unless we do so.
No discipleship without the gospel of the kingdom
So why don’t people become disciples of Jesus? Short answer: because they’ve never been ravished by a vision of the kingdom of God. In other words, they haven’t really understood or received the gospel of the kingdom. The “gospel” we’ve been predominantly preaching is a truncated version of the full vision of life in God’s kingdom that Jesus talked about (as did Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers).
The gospel is not primarily about dealing with our “sin issue,” it is about the invitation to live with God in his kingdom right now. If this is the gospel we are responding to, then all the rest of the dominoes fall easily into place:
Responding to the gospel of the kingdom naturally leads to discipleship, because we very quickly learn that we don’t know how to live with God in his kingdom, but Jesus does. This is a very different way of life that we must learn from Someone who knew how to do it well: Jesus. We are with him, learning from him how to be like him.
This kind of discipleship to Jesus naturally leads to significant spiritual formation, because the Spirit transforms us as we follow Jesus in kingdom living. We start thinking and speaking and acting and loving like Jesus. His life gets “into” us more and more.
Our formation as disciples then naturally leads to everyday mission, because ultimately this kingdom life we are invited into is simply a matter of being involved in what God is doing in the world, joining with him in the renewal of all things.
So ultimately it seems to me that if we want to cultivate a movement of people and communities joining with God in the renewal of all things, we must begin by preaching the gospel of the kingdom: giving people a brilliant picture of life in God’s kingdom (both in our words and lives), and telling them the shocking news that they can step into the kingdom right now.
Any additional thoughts? Does this axiom seem to hold true for you in your situation?