Why do some missional ventures that look so good “on paper” fail so miserably in real life? Why do some of the best-laid plans for mission end up not actually accomplishing all that much? Because of how I’m wired up, I have a propensity to believe that an efficient system, a simple plan, an elegant strategy should automatically yield good results. But this just isn’t the case sometimes. Why is that?
One answer, I think, has to do with the relationship between discipleship and mission (yes, I know we shouldn’t bifurcate those two things from a theological standpoint, but from a practical standpoint I think it will help us). Last year my friend Tim Catchim wrote a little blog post that got me thinking about this. (Incidentally, Tim has also recently published a fantastic book with Alan Hirsch called The Permanent Revolution.)
In the post, Tim quotes Karl Weick, who writes, in his book Making Sense of the Organization,
whenever you have what appears to be successful decentralization, if you look more closely, you will discover that it was always preceded by a period of intense centralization where a set of core values were hammered out and socialized into people before the people were turned loose to go their own “independent, autonomous” ways.
Think of decentralization as mission, and centralization as discipleship. It seems to me that when we push for rapid mobilization for mission before taking the time to build a solid foundation of discipleship, we see ineffective or short-lived mission. The way Tim put it was “decentralization before discipleship equals dissipation. Decentralization after discipleship equals movement.”
Discipleship is the “intense centralization” process that happens before the “decentralization” of mission. Discipleship is where the core values are hammered out, where people are socialized into a new way of life before being “turned loose” to join Jesus in the renewal of all things. The disciples were trained extensively by Jesus for three years before being sent to “make disciples of all peoples.”
The problem is, as Tim points out, that most of the centralization/discipleship that occurs in churches is purely information-based. We expect a sermon/Sunday service to be sufficient for training, equipping, forming God’s people as disciples of Christ. As most of us know, it ain’t working. This is not the kind of centralization we need.
We ought to take our cues from the way Jesus “centralized” his own disciples. He did teach them, of course, giving them a theology of the kingdom that took awhile to digest. He wasn’t light on information! But he also lived out his mission in front of them, and then invited them to do what he was doing. In short, the disciples were able to imitate the things Jesus was doing, and this formed a key part of their training regimen in missional living.
3DM has a useful tool for talking about this process, shown below:
“Innovation” is the goal (disciples living out their missional calling, making more disciples of Jesus). But we can’t get there if all we do is give great information. We also need to offer our lives as an example to imitate. So Jesus gave them the Sermon on the Mount (information), but he also sent them out two-by-two do cast out demons and heal the sick (imitation). Imitation is the missing ingredient in most of our discipling (centralization) processes.
Thus one reason missional ventures fail, whether they be church plants or missional communties or training programs, is that we attempt to decentralize before we have sufficiently centralized. We try to send folks out on mission without really discipling them into a way of life that will sustain mission. We try to get them to move into missional innovation without giving them adequate experiences of imitation first.
Does this resonate with your experience? Can you think of examples of merely information-based discipleship/centralization? Examples of dissipation (decentralization before discipleship?) I would love to hear your thoughts.
Aaron Thomas says
Great thoughts and very timely for me and our church plant right now. This definitely resonates because we are nearing the end of our "information" period and moving towards imitation.
I tried a missional/discipleship oriented movement about 4 years ago with our Jr./Sr. high youth group when I was a Youth Pastor. It didn't totally fail, but one of the major issues we had was I poured all this information into them (the leaders and students) and then decentralized almost overnight. I literally pulled the rug out from underneath their feet and yelled "Now Go make disciples!" and a few months in, the momentum was really dying down because I didn't create any space for imitation. It was a valuable learning lesson, however, I wish I would have grasped this Biblical philosophy back then.
Ben Sternke says
Fantastic example Aaron. Thanks for commenting!
This is really good stuff. Wish I had been thinking this way a few years ago. Thanks.
Spot on, friend. Thanks for posting!
James Paul says
This post (and Tim's) highlighted for me the importance of availability. A life worth imitating is worthless if it isn't available. Both structured and organic rhythms of availability are essential if imitation is to realistically occur. Sally Breen recently shared that availability is most easily realized when we invite others into the life we're already living (i.e. meals, errands, movies, trips out of town etc.)
Ben Sternke says
Definitely! Availability is key.
Really good thoughts, Ben. In our 3 year planting journey, we've experienced the "too-soon" movement out, and we've been in the process of shoring up foundation and identity over the last 6 months. Excited for what God will do with a strong missional center!
Ben Sternke says
Great to hear Zach! May God give wisdom and guidance as you go.
Todd Engstrom says
Reall insightful stuff Ben! Thanks for posting!
Yes, the centralisation component is long and hard when what you long to do is decentralise and 'get things going'. But until you change people's default setting then nothing is going to stick. Thanks for the reminder.
By the way – 3DM is seriously overusing triangles imho! Off the top of my head I can count 4: Lifeshapes Triangle, Covenant Triangle, Kingdom Triangle, Info-Imitation-Innovation. Just because there are three points it doesn't mean you have to draw it as a triangle! UP/IN/OUT works because the triangle demonstrates a kind of balance between the aspects. But Information–>Imitation–>Innovation does not seem to merit a triangle. What image would help fix this in people's minds? Something like a stick figure – with an arrow flowing from head (information) to hands (imitation) to feet (innovation)…? I know this seems minor but I think the right image is worth searching for…
Ben Sternke says
Ha! Thanks for your comment Richard.That is a common comment (about shapes being everywhere). There is something weirdly sticky, though, about putting information on a shape, even if it doesn't seem to correlate 1:1 to the concept being illustrated.It's just really difficult for people to forget any three points when you draw them around a triangle. So we'll go with it for now 😉
On the money, Ben.
Ben Sternke says
Thanks Jason. Hope all us well!
I think this is exceedingly helpful, both conceptually and with good language to frame it all. I, like you, most of the time believe that a good plan 'works itself out' but as your post is pointing out, the plan must still be worked out intentionally…the work of centralization/discipleship… Gonna be thinking about this for a while.
Ben Sternke says
Good stuff Adam. Great to hear from you.
Jason Coker says
Good stuff Ben. You're tengentially touching on something I've been thinking about lately and will be blogging on later this month.
The short of it is this: I agree there is a need for what you're calling centralization, and I agree that is a necessary correction to the anti-institutional sentiments that often run strong in the last decade's Gen-X expressions of church, but I suspect many church startups fail before the need for centralization actually arises and they fail for a more essential reason than lack of formation.
Namely, the market for what we're selling is rapidly decreasing. More pointedly, if nobody is buying what we're selling then there's no need for an organizational structure to sustain the sales effort.
I'm going to suggest that after ten or so years it's become apparent that the missional/emerging church in the U.S. is largely a movement without followers – or, at least, it doesn't have enough followers to justify spending very much time, energy, or money on the centralization stage where systems of sustainability are created.
I'll be blogging about this after Easter.
Ben Sternke says
I'll be interested to read about it, Jason. Especially to hear how you define “what we're selling,” and how it relates to the good news of Jesus Christ.One possible further exploration (to extend the market/selling metaphor) would be the possibility of “creating demand” for “what we're selling” by concentrating on living out the good news (Newbigin's “embodied witness”).
Charles Kiser says
I made the mistake of decentralizing before discipling. In the first two years of our church planting, we started 4 new churches in our network and grew by leaps and bounds – but didn't have a discipleship foundation. As a result, those four groups eventually plateaued then withered. A couple died.
Now we are discipling at the foundation with huddles and the groups are growing back up as healthy, vibrant expressions of mission.
Ben Sternke says
Fantastic story of how this stuff plays out! Thanks for commenting.
Roger Korsgren says
Stumbled on this blog and post from down here in Paraguay. Timely for us in our restarting of an almost dead church. Good point and one that my wife framed "we need to have something to take them to".
Ben Sternke says
God's blessings on Paraguay and your church there!
Peter Vandever says
Discipleship is only 15% of the Great Commissions anyways!
He NEED to put it in its' proper place.
@Peter Vandever Do you mind elaborating? I’m just trying to get a better understanding of your post. Thanks.
@Charles Kiser I’m new to making disciples in this context and I’m afraid I did the exact same thing. Now I’m simply starting with my family by equipping them and we meet once per month with other families who are on mission on their neighborhoods.
I get where this is going, but unfortunately, there’s some semantics going on here…I feel it’s important to highlight that centralization IS NOT discipleship! Centralization is synonymous with the centralization of power, which in this context would suggest a top-down command leadership by which ‘disciples’ (implied as junior in a power-rank) are indoctrinated. Semantics I here you cry, but words do matter because they shape our understanding. As Christians, we can hope for the best and ignore the world, thinking the problem (and thus the solution) lies in our own backyard. But the truth is that many christian leaders are only training for the church IN church, only venturing to read the latest business books every now & then and then getting caught up in the fad & lingo….but how many are actually studying MA’s in business, psychology, or other fields, so they can bring back fresh methodology by which to refresh the church’s strategy? But back to my point, Jesus’ discipleship did not happen in some central HQ mountain air-hangar where he brainwashed his disciples…No, he went on the road with them and whilst living with them in an everyday context, he offered (note – offered) them an overarching framework for thoughts and experiences they had had up till then in their lives and would have in the future. He then LEFT them…we often focus on his sending, but the truth is that if he hadn’t left, they would have continued to follow him…He Left them with the holy spirit and with this framework. More than a world view, this was a holy-spirit-level inspired all-encompassing guiding philosophy of philosophies for interpreting the world & making God incarnate within it. The last thing any disciple needs is “centralizing”, that’s just indoctrination & being lorded over by leaders who have become accidental control-freaks in their little fiefdoms. What disciples need is to be walked through consistent dates with Jesus 1-on-1 until they have by their own volition imbibed so much of Jesus that by their own volition, they shake themselves from whatever Christian bubbles they’re in and carry on walking even when the support of others is no longer as tangibly present as it was in earlier times. You can’t teach a kid to swim by getting them to sit on the back of a lifeguard. So, disciples ought to be encouraged to develop for themselves, a deep thirst for the bible, knowing it deeper&deeper, and a relationship with Jesus so strong that even lifelong isolation would not erode that relationship. I was very blessed to have been discipled under the hands-off watch of Jenny Eckersall at St.Toms Philadelphia in Sheffield, and although I have long flown the coop into the big crazy world and no longer have so many co-disciples walking side-by-side with me, it is precisely because Jenny & her team refused to let me become reliant on centralized support structures that I am still able to stand with none other than my wife and God by my side, and the occasional contact with friends&family. I now move amongst industry leaders in the global business arena, and it is because I learnt to walk without crutches that I am by the grace of God standing in a place where on has to be tough! So I beg of you, please let us not think that we need to “centralize”, “socialize”, or “turn loose” disciples like some kind of ‘disciple factory’…if anything, I encourage you to provide a distraction-free space where people can choose to come to be ‘broken’ BY GOD, re-moulded BY GOD, and sent out BY GOD…because when life gets tough & temptation & trials come, they will know only one strength by which to stand – God’s & God’s alone. Yours in Christ.
@PU thanks for the comment. I do think if you read the article, though, you’ll see that I use the term “centralization” synonymously with discipleship (for the sake of the article), because I am trying to counter-balance a lot of the fervor about “decentralization” that I’ve come across (which ends up being fruitless because it’s all vision and sending with no discipleship/imitation.
So while the word itself may be problematic for you, the kinds of things “centralization” means in the article are the exact same things as you describe in your comment: discipleship. The point of my article was to help people who are excited about “sending people out on mission” to realize that a lot of training needs to be done first if they are going to go out on mission effectively.
@Roger Korsgren Take them to your family living on mission together. Show them that. Then they’ll start asking how and you’ll be off and running. Great words from your wife!