The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism
and the Precipitation of the Missional Movement
Part Eight: The Big Picture of Features and Frameworks in Our Discipleship Systems – Approaches to Discipleship Activities
In Part Seven, we considered what it looks like to be a congregation that either welcomes, conditionally accepts, or rejects specific kinds of individuals or groups who do (or might) want to follow Jesus Christ as His disciple. That was about access to discipleship. In Part Eight, we’ll look at these approaches’ potential companion parts in discipleship activities and their focuses.
What’s Okay and What’s Not – Discipleship Activities Issues
Once people are insiders in a discipleship community, what happens then? As I’ve watched various systems operate, it seems to boil down to three basic approaches to how we build disciples and what we focus on.
- Communally Affirming – automatically accepting of people’s self-labeled personal identity and social group status, with no need or intent for either to change?
- Mutually Transforming – gently developing in one another deeply redemptive character change toward Christ-likeness and comprehensive, biblically-rooted values?
- Religiously Conforming – strongly focused on external behavior modification and public adherence to precise doctrinal beliefs to conform to the standards for acceptance laid out by authoritarian leaders?
I would argue that the “mutually transforming” approach is the most consistent with being missional. It encourages challenging of one another to go deeper into all biblical imperatives and values on personal morality and social ethics – plus learning to apply discernment and wisdom on issues where the Bible does not give us formal, specific commandments. But it does all this in an environment where we can cultivate freedom of conscience and responsible choice to follow Jesus as a devoted disciple, while considering how our choices affect others.
So, the mutually transforming approach does not allow all the power to be in the hands of individuals – whether those are leaders or parishioners. Instead, it promotes relational interdependence (liberty with altruism) rather than false independence of self (license, antinomianism) or false dependence on leaders (legalism, authoritarianism). This is the ideal, but is it real?
As I’ve shared about this with friends from the evangelical and missional streams, the one main push-back I get is that it is too easy to act “nice” and welcoming, but there is a bait-and-switch that goes on which creates mistrust. As one friend put it, the label may say “welcoming and mutually transforming, but that turns out to be “temporarily tolerance with delayed religious conformity.” It is difficult to keep a paradoxical connection between both individual priesthood of the believer with true freedom of conscience to choose and act – and the kind of mutual one-another commands of what God wants for His people as a community of the redeemed that is growing more like Christ.
I see some of the key issues being: What would people’s journeys toward Jesus Christ look like if they connected with our learning community of disciples? How would/should being part of us affect them in their identity and status, character and values, behaviors and beliefs? Would participants be affirmed and endorsed to stay who they are and whatever they do? Would they be challenged to change course to develop more Christ-likeness in various dimensions of personhood? Would they be drawn into someone’s program and have their course enforced and their identity, character, and behavior modified to what is deemed acceptable?
Discipleship activities implies some kind of action and movement, so it makes sense that one of the big issues in discipleship is the kind of pattern of movement we create in following Jesus. Hopefully, we are in a trajectory that ultimately moves us forward together in becoming more like Christ. But we could end up orbiting around an integration point, in which case there might be a lot of activity, but circling around a fixed point is not the same as a forward trajectory. We might be static, standing our ground on a specific set of supposed doctrinal truths and righteous ways, but being stuck and having no dynamic personal change or social impact of our faith.
Another big issue is what in us actually moves or changes as we go on that journey. I’d suggest that if we are submitting our lives to Christ as Lord and the Holy Spirit’s transforming work, then we should expect potentially anything and everything to be open for change.
- Our identity and status. This is where we ground our personal and social existence – our home base from where we connect with others, and to which we always return.
- Our character and values. This encompasses our morals, ethics, and aesthetics – how we treat ourselves and other individuals, social groups, and all creation. It also involves our level of maturity, discernment, and wisdom.
- Our behaviors and beliefs. If our character constitutes what we abstractly value in the ways we act, our behavior shows what we concretely do. We can perform behaviors without the support of underlying character, but that is forced. Usually, what character we have developed drives us to consistently act in line with it – unless someone or something interferes.
All three of these sets of elements to our personhood and paradigm are crucial. However, I am of the mind that values are among the deepest, unseen drivers of who we are and what we do. Our identity and status are closer to the surface and part of a culture we create. And any behaviors and beliefs that come from compliance to an external authority figure aren’t genuinely deep. So, the ideal would be having all of the six elements line up from a deep and consistent paradigm. And that is an activity we can participate in as God changes us, but it is a task beyond what we can do on our own.
But then, the word transformation itself implies forming ourselves to something beyond ourselves. As Christians, it should be obvious that we are being transformed to be more like Jesus (even if that isn’t always the case). When we belong to Christ and agree to be His bondservants, we don’t get to proclaim any area off-limits to Him. So, the way I see it, spiritual transformation in Christ involves movement on all of these dimensions – all of who we are, and everything we do. And they do affect us deeply!
For instance, it is easy for those of us who have been harmed by malignant ministers to view our identity as “victim of spiritual abuse.” While that is an important stage to go through in acknowledging that we actually were harmed by supposed church leaders and/or fellow Christians, if we stay in a victim identity we will not grow. At some point, a better identity is that of “spiritual abuse survivor.” Otherwise, we may find ourselves stuck in the past and passivity instead of moving forward toward a more positive and healed future.
We must be open to identity change as a key to having everything else about ourselves transformed. I would also argue that, ultimately, our identity must be “in Christ Jesus.” That is one of the more frequent phrases in the New Testament epistles, and I believe it represents our deepest and truest point for integrating who we are and what we do. Our identity should not remain in what we used to do or what’s been done to us, not in what we feel about our former life or in what we plan to do, not in our cultural base or social status. Any and all of those tend to create an integration point around which we orbit, while pursuing Christlike character as those in Christ who follow Jesus tends to give us a forward trajectory.
On the subject of conforming “behaviors and beliefs,” when I shared this material with friends, several were set off-kilter by the order I put them in. They wanted to reverse them to “beliefs and behaviors.” The conventional view in traditional education is captured by the statement, “If we believe the right things, we’ll do the right things.” In other words, beliefs govern behaviors. In my experience, churches and ministries that emphasize religiously conforming actually turn adhering to supposedly correct biblical beliefs into a behavior! It is ironic that the act of “believing” pure doctrine easily becomes an act. In this case, what one truly believes is not governed by our own internal free acts of conscience, but by external coercion to conform to community “standards of right and righteousness.” And so, Christianly behaviors and beliefs do not necessarily represent Christ-likeness. There is much to think about with how that plays out in our churches …
Transformation is governed by such principles, but it cannot be legitimately reduced a point-by-point program. There simply is no predicting of the exact pattern or process that God will use for a given person in a specific learning community. There is no formula or guarantee about how fast or slow personal change will take place, what order our issues might be addressed in, whether we will always feel like we are making progress, if there will be pitfalls and personal stall-outs along the way. We are not in charge of the process or the product, only of our responses along the way. So, “success” is faithfulness in submitting to the process and choosing to move forward, to an increasingly more full biblical paradigm for life and by the constant empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The following chart captures some big-picture aspects of the identity affirming versus character transforming versus behavior conforming focuses to discipleship activities and relationships. (Click on the chart to bring up a screen that gives a more clear view of the text and images.)
Concluding Thoughts: Movies That Embody Access/Activities Combinations
This has been a very long series. Instead of ending with a summary, I decided to conclude by suggesting a few films I think embody many of the core principles about legalism, liberty, and license. (All of them are available on both Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.) If how you now “live your faith and share your life” is your take-home exam, consider these films as some worthwhile homework to help you prep for success. And as you continue on your journey with Jesus, may you strongly sense His presence and His grace to keep you on a trajectory toward Christ-likeness.
Babette’s Feast (1987). What happens when a culture of austere legalism, perfectionism, and self-negation that goes beyond just abnegation (self-sacrifice) is confronted with a lavish gift of extravagant grace?
The Way (2010). What happens when a closed-off man who is constantly and conditionally qualifying others realizes he cannot survive on a transforming journey alone?
The Tree of Life (2011). What messages are ingrained and what conflicts transpire for children when the intimate internal culture of their family pits a father’s harsh realism, condemnation, and up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy against a mother’s unconditional love, care, and relational support?
Moulin Rouge (2001). Though the Bohemians’ values of “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love” may seem biblical enough, how do they create a destructive environment when integrated around indulgent individualism?
Les Misérables (2012). “Fight, Dream, Hope, Love.” How can a self-sacrificing act by one person change the life of another and through that changed person, also alter the course of many peoples’ lives for the better? How can the impossibility of remaining perfectly consistent with one’s logic of law lead to and through a resolvable crisis of philosophy – if one is willing and humble – or irresolvable angst if one is not?
P.S. As a sidenote, I do plan on expanding upon some of the material from this series in a forthcoming book – while also dividing it down into smaller chunks, and adding more graphics and deeper movie studies – all to make it more accessible to people with different learning styles.
Thoughts on the Missional Movement – Series Links:
- Part 1 – Making Taxonomies in the Midst of Transformation
- Part 2 – Six Streams in the “Missional Movement”
- Part 3 – Principles of Paradox, and Magnetic Attractions and Repulsions in the Making of a “Missional Movement”
- Part 4 – When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: The Way We Process Information and What We Value Create “Irreconcilable Differences”
- Part 5 – When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: “Irreconcilable Differences” on Operating Systems for Discipleship
- Part 6 – When Collaboration Just Won’t Work Well: Operating Systems of Legalism or License Instead of Liberty
- Part 7 – The Big Picture of Features and Frameworks in Our Discipleship Systems – Approaches to Discipleship Access
- Part 8 – The Big Picture of Features and Frameworks in Our Discipleship Systems – Approaches to Discipleship Activities
- Part 9 – How These Frameworks Play Out in Our Overall Attitudes, Styles of Interaction, and Community Connections