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?
Ryan Tate says
Ben, this absolutely holds true for me, my situation, and my community. I like how you said "missional people don't fall out of trees." I've experienced in my own life that without a full compelling picture of the gospel and the narrative storyline of it in scripture that I don't understand what it means to be missional. When I start to look at the gospel and the "here-and-not-yet" kingdom of God I am convinced and, as Paul said, am therefore compelled to live on mission. (2 Cor 5:14-15).
This post gives much clarity to my experience and how my belief is growing. Thank you.
Ben Sternke says
Thanks for sharing, Ryan. I like the word "compelled" that you used. It's very different to be "compelled by love" than "pushed by ideas." This is why we need to ravish people with a vision of the kingdom that they're being invited into: it has to be an abundantly GOOD life that we proclaim and demonstrate.
As ever I really like this line of thinking and in many think you hit the nail on the head here!
When the gospel is reduced to intellectually assenting to some propositions about sin and atonement (as interesting and important as that it), there is simply no need for discipleship = not formation = no mission.
Here's the interesting thing though; in my locality, the gospel has also tended to be truncated, but in the other direction. That's to say, the prevailing opinion is that "Jesus cared about feeding the poor but not so much about my sin".
So you could argue, we have mission without formation, discipleship or a gospel of the Kingdom. Having said that, I think in reality, what we probably have is 'social justice' not mission. Missio Dei is always going to be rooted in a gospel of the Kingdom.
Am I right?
Ben Sternke says
Good to hear from you, Andy! I think the insight that you have "social justice" and not mission is the key. Mission (in the Missio Dei sense) will always be a holistic thing, dealing with justice and sin and everything in between.
Maybe another way to say it is that what you have there is "a form of mission without the power," to rip off the Apostle Paul. Just like the gospel is about way more than forgiveness, it's also about way more than helping the poor.
"Just like the gospel is about way more than forgiveness, it's also about way more than helping the poor."
Great summary – thanks for the reply!
I love this line: "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."
Great post. Thank you.
Ben Sternke says
Thanks for commenting, Cindy, and glad it was helpful
So how about some more blog posts that declare the gospel of the kingdom?
Ben Sternke says
Good idea! It would be good to keep articulating it, eh? In the meantime: https://bensternke.com/2011/06/the-gospel-evangeli… https://bensternke.com/2011/02/forgiveness-isnt-th…
One question I always have in this area – as much as I agree with the axiom – is whether or not mission truly happens without intentionally giving it focus and airtime. What I mean is that I do believe in the progression you present, but feel that we must simultaneously keep all three pieces in play. If we focus and give all of our airtime and energy to the gospel of the kingdom or to formation and discipleship, but we fail to keep mission lifted up as the goal, is it possible or likely that mission may be forgotten in the process? Or (and I may be talking myself into this as I write), maybe the reason I feel this way is because I've never really seen (or done so myself) the gospel of the kingdom truly preached, healthy discipleship practices truly engaged, thus causing formation to flounder and mission to cease.
Ben Sternke says
This is a great point. I definitely don't mean to suggest that it would magically happen without emphasis. I think that, actually, if anything, we would probably need to make sure that we make mission a more explicit element of the discipleship process, because of the ways that "discipleship" is typically thought about (i.e. "Bible study" or some such thing).
I think the idea of making sure we continue to emphasize all three at the same time is probably the right way to go about it.
Todd Hiestand says
good stuff friend….
In your statement
"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."
are you of the opinion that we will be instrumental in establishing the millennial kingdom.
Love the axiom…it's the UP/IN/OUT triangle in "reverse." Can't have the OUT without the IN; can't have the IN without the UP. Makes total sense to me.
Ben Sternke says
Great analysis Deacon!
Good axiom – also links to other sources and insights – thanks. I believe this is great in theory, but hard in practice! Not so much that talking about the Kingdom of God is hard … but that painting a picture of what the kingdom is like with people who actually stand outside the kingdom, in a different paradigm completely, don't have the experience or language to get it. (to the extent any of us 'get it') And I would argue a bit that social justice (although I am not a big social justice person) or acts of mercy … is one translation people can see, name and get. So, my question is simple but hard to figure out: How can we put the gospel of the kingdom in non-theoretical language, so someone outside the kingdom can catch even a fleeting glimpse of "this is what life could be like?" About the only resource I've found that does this is the book, The Shack (now, that'll be controversial). And I haven't sat down to think how the new movie, Life of Pi, might do something for picture making as well … And in my culture, parties are a good image, but lacking in the challenge part. Other thoughts?
Ben Sternke says
Great questions Sandy!I think part of the answer lied in realizing that every picture we paint of the kingdom will always be part of a reality that we cannot fully encapsulate in our story/presentation. This is what Jesus does with his parables of course. The kingdom is like a seed… Sure there's more to it than that, but that's a picture that evokes imagination about the kingdom that piques curiosity.