The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism
and the Precipitation of the Missional Movement
Part Seven: The Big Picture of Features and Frameworks in Our Discipleship Systems – Approaches to Discipleship Access
So far in this series, we’ve looked at how cultural fragmentation and re-formation plays out in the “missional” movement:
- Underlying information processing modes (i.e.,epistemology) hide at the deepest DNA level of a paradigm system – but affect everything else in the system, both the seen and unseen.
- That paradigm system is all inclusive of values (axiology), theology, strategies and structures for organizing ourselves, culture, behaviors/lifestyles, and modes of collaboration.
- Based on some key paradigm differences, the generic “emerging” movement separated into six distinct streams.
- Some of these streams are more likely to resonate with the missional paradigm and find a sort of magnetic attraction to it, and some not so much because they’ll find missional features more or less repulsive to their paradigm. Still, individuals within those streams might gravitate toward being missional.
- Significant differences in paradigms often make it difficult for people or partner organizations to function together – constant culture clash on goals and means are indicators of potentially irreconcilable differences.
- The systems of legalism versus license versus liberty are irreconcilable. Only liberty brings true freedom and healing; legalism and license bring bondage and wounds.
- Three central features of being missional are: (1) Contextual – making truth accessible in the current culture’s language, without compromising the truthful nature of the content. (2), Incarnational – living out our faith so people can see what Christianity and Christ-like character looks like. (3) Sojourning – seeing ourselves as guests in our host culture, not controllers of it, because the Church is not a theocratic nation like Israel.
These aren’t just tasty little theoretical hors d’oeuvres for some nice theological snackathon. All of these elements have weighty implications. They affect how we go about our everyday lives as individual disciples, ministry teams, and communities of Christians. And to some of those key impacts we now turn.
… and Preview
In concluding this series, I want to focus in on how our theological-organizational-cultural systems for discipleship manifest themselves in our stance of the Church among people and in culture. I’ve spent months of reflection while writing about all of this. I’ve concluded that the range of how we set up our churches and treat people inside and outside of them seems to all boil down to two issues: access and activities.
- Access – Who’s In and Who’s Out? Is our entry system inclusive, temporarily tolerant, or exclusive?
- Activities – What’s Okay and What’s Not? Is our discipleship system grounded in license, liberty, or legalism?
Some of the resulting combinations of access plus activities are likely familiar to those who’ve tracked the unfolding of conflicts in North American denominations over their stance toward people from self-identified LGBTQ backgrounds. For instance, there are “open and affirming churches,” “transforming congregations,” and those that could be labeled outright “rejecting and condemning” like the infamous Westboro Baptist.
But our discipleship access and activities systems apply to far more than just LGBTQ individuals and groups. In fact, I’ve developed my conclusions more from in-depth studies of spiritual abuse and recovery issues than from thinking about how the Church and LGBTQ communities relate. And, as I hope to show, access/activities combinations create the basic framework for how any church or ministry operates toward anyone and everyone, and how they either demonstrate or negate a true spirit of Christ-likeness in society.
In Part Seven, we’ll look at the big picture of access to discipleship, three different approaches that organizations take on those factors for how they build communities. In Part Eight, we’ll do a similar overview on three approaches to discipleship activities and how they build individual disciples.
Just to state it up front, my take on things is that the missional movement takes more of a “welcoming and mutually transforming” stance in general. This means that discipleship in following Jesus Christ is open to all people. It also assumes that all people are sinners in need of transformation in their identity and status, character and values, and behaviors and beliefs. All people are also image-bearers of our Creator, in need of validation and activation of their unique gifts. It isn’t too loose chaos, or up tight compliance, but hopefully it is about a paradoxical way that connects individuals in community and also offers a trajectory of both radical help and hope.
Also, I’m intentionally tackling these topics in a very different way from my other posts in this series. I’m using many images to show and not just words to tell what I mean.
All of my graphic illustrations come from the same artist: Scott Maxwell. (In case you are interested, his images are available on Fotolia for limited, licensed use for a very reasonable fee.) What I particularly like about Scott Maxwell’s “gold guys” is that, because they mostly have no facial features, meaning has to be shown by their body language and surroundings. So, sometimes the expressiveness has to be exaggerated. But actually, I think this makes it more intuitive to see and directly experience the concept involved instead of just read and reflectively think about it.
At the end of Part Eight, I’ll suggest films that show some of the main dynamics of access approaches that are inclusive versus exclusive, and learning activities that either cause us to stagnate or help us move forward toward Christ-likeness. So – with a combination of images and words – here we go!
Who’s In and Who’s Out? – Discipleship Access Issues
Over the last five decades, I’ve had extensive involvement with different kinds of churches, ministries, and Christian non-profits. This includes both established ones and start-ups. Some of my experiences are with theologically liberal/social gospel organizations, though more are with conservative/evangelical ones. Some were structured around legalism, others around license, and others around liberty. So, I’ve personally experienced the impact of different forms of access to the community and discipleship activities there, and been able to track the trajectories of where these systems took me and others.
After processing my observations about the access question of Who’s in and who’s out? in Christian organizations, it all seems to come down to three basic approaches to how we build our version of community in the ways we offer or deny people access.
Therefore, are we:
- Welcoming – inclusive and unconditionally open to embracing any person, regardless of his/her background or behaviors?
- Qualifying – temporarily tolerant toward people while deciding to allow access for some and deny it to others depending on our set of standards and conditions?
- Rejecting – exclusive and unconditionally closed to specific categories of people, plus “grooming” insiders so they don’t leave?
I would argue that the “welcoming” approach is the most consistent with being missional. If we believe that any kind of person can become a follower of Jesus Christ, then why would we deny anyone access to learning about Him? Why would we exclude anyone from grasping onto the gospel through evangelism or growth through discipling? Why would we disrespect the humanity and value of any person, as if they were not created by the same God as we are, and as if we aren’t both made in His same image? As I see it, either making up a set of conditions for access or rejecting people outright sends messages contrary to the good news of Christ’s saving work that removes our guilt, shame, and fear.
I know it is more complex than this, but I will suggest that there is a basic spectrum of possibilities within each of these three approaches churches and ministries take toward people – especially toward those who are significantly different from most of their members. For instance, there are welcoming churches among many different streams and denominations in contemporary North American Christianity. Some seem more modest and moderate about it, others more radical and even militantly politically correct about it. These differences tend to show up in whether they are also affirming or transforming about discipleship activities.
Another difference shows up in qualifying churches. The spectrum here was expressed well by a church leader who is the polar opposite of me in about every way. After he’d gotten to know me enough to comment, he said, “You really trust people. It’s like you start them out at 100 points and see if they lose any. I’m super skeptical. I start them out at zero points and see if they gain any.” Both of us had elements of qualifying, but the far ends of that spectrum could end up coddling and naïve (my potential “fatal flaw”) or cold and nasty (his).
Even Christian organizations that practice a welcoming mentality likely have some elements of qualifying. For instance, many churches these days rightly require a formal background check for any potential staff member and volunteer who would be working with minors. A welcoming church cannot remain a safe place if there are pedophiles working with children!
I see some of the key issues being: What approach dominates the overall practice of access in this church or ministry? How would our church or ministry look if it related to all kinds of people the same ways that Jesus Christ did? If we want to answer that question, we need to consider how Christ related with quiet, everyday sinners. Notorious, high-profile sinners like the woman at the well and the tax collector Zaccheus. Religious but perfectionistic sinners like the Pharisees. Religious but irreverent sinners like the Sadducees.
If we want to embody/incarnate a Christ-like approach to all people, then it seems to me that His overall approach was a whosoever-will-may-come kind of open invitation to anyone and everyone. “Come unto me, ALL who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” That seems to be the underlying modus operandi, even if He customized the invitation to the individuals or groups He was connecting with – more provocatively challenging with some, more gently engaging with others.
The following chart captures some big-picture aspects of the unconditional welcoming versus conditional qualifying versus outright rejecting approaches to discipleship access. (Click on the chart to bring up a screen that gives a more clear view of the text and images.)
It is my hope that many individuals, ministries, and churches from different streams can find their trajectory shifted toward becoming a missional congregation that welcomes all who would seek Jesus. And, as we will consider in Part Eight, I hope they can refocus on balancing the goals and activities of discipleship around being mutually transforming.
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