State of the Evangelical Union

Customarily a “State of the Union” address does two things:

First, it makes some poignant observations about where we’ve been in the past year. In our context: “Broadly, what did this year hold for evangelicalism?”
Second, it gives some ideas and pictures of the future. “What will this next year hold and where might we want to put our time, resources and energy?”


To me, this year felt like an odd year for evangelicals. The phrase that keeps coming to my mind is, “All quiet on the Western front.”

We have come out of several years with quite a bit of public infighting within our tribe. There’s probably no need to highlight what these squabbles were and or the characters that made the most noise. Sufficed to say, they were loud, cantankerous, embarrassing (for us as evangelical Christians) and exhausting. My sense about this past year was that after several years of fighting within the family, many of these people/organizations appear to have collapsed in exhaustion.

Because there have been such vast measures of polarization I think people weren’t sure what to do next. As the dust settled, I have to wonder if people were left asking if anything was truly accomplished for all the contentious rhetoric. Are we more the “people of God” because of it?

Would the Kingdom of God more fully advance if we spent more time serving one another and less time labeling one another? It doesn’t mean that we should challenge ideas or push back ever; it means we probably need to change both the way and the tenor in which we do this. Christian brotherly/sisterly love comes to mind.

In that vein, this year was the slow emergence of a very important topic coming to the forefront: DISCIPLESHIP. Conferences like VERGE and Exponential announced themes that started to drift towards the all-important issue of how to start a discipling movement. Francis Chan and David Platt held a conference and released a book called Multiply (which has gone on to be a top seller). And I have to be honest: This truly excites me.

Because I believe it is the task of every Christian to make disciples who can make disciples. That’s the imperative of the Great Commission. You get a missional movement by starting a discipling movement. For too long we’ve had the missional conversation in lieu of the discipling conversation.

However, my optimism is tempered by this reality: I think the emphasis on discipleship is only a phase. My observation is that in the evangelical world, there are three areas of focus that we have, settling on one to hang our hat on for a time.




As I wrote in my April post “Is Missional going the way of the evangelical Leadership movement?”, we tend to focus on one to the exclusion of the other two. Eventually, that wears thin, we lose people’s interest, and we move onto the next.

We are currently experiencing sea change from a MISSIONAL focus to a DISCIPLESHIP emphasis. The move before missional? The corporate church LEADERSHIP focus of the 1980’s-1990’s. So while I’m delighted there seems to be a shift towards a focus on discipleship, I have to ask myself this question: “How long will it last before people get bored again?”

I really don’t want this focus on discipleship to be a fad.

My sense is that this last year has been the deep breath before people start to inevitably ask the question: “OK. We tried that…what’s next?”

This thought is only reinforced by the experience that many Christian leaders I meet are hampered by two distinct issues:

  • Ditch to ditch reactions
  • The constant search for the magic silver bullet

I think we are all familiar with the ditch-to-ditch propensity in our culture. We put our time, energy and attention into something, but when it doesn’t quite pan out like we thought it would, we reject the thing altogether. “Well, corporate, organized, seeker-sensitive didn’t work, so we’re going to do the 100% organic, missional route.”

As you know, Paradox is always the answer to Polarization. Moving out of the world of “Either/Or” and into the world of “Both/And” as well as “Neither/Nor.”

And so we jump to the other ditch, rejecting, wholesale, what we might have learned from in that season of life and ministry.

What this does is amplify our constant search for the silver bullet…the solution that will fix everything. Look. We’ve all read the statistics about church growth, attendance, personal transformation, outside perception, etc about people in the evangelical church. There’s no need to repeat them here when you probably know them better than I.

But there is something in the water of the evangelical church that is constantly searching for the solution that will fix everything…and one that will fix it quickly. When we find that the solution we thought we had isn’t producing the magic results, we jump to the next thing.

Like ships captured by gale force winds, we are blown here and there by whatever we think will give us the quick fix.

Here’s our take on this conversation: If you do discipleship, it means you’ll be creating leaders. Creating leaders rather than managing volunteers will make you re-think your Leadership conversation. And releasing Leaders into the missional frontier to make disciples will make you re-think you Missional conversation. Which is why we’re convinced that the move should never be DISCIPLESHIP or LEADERSHIP or MISSION, but always all three as an integrated whole.

So let us be clear: missionaries are always better than mission projects. Leaders are always more necessary than volunteers. And disciples are surely what we’re going for rather than mere converts.

The process of someone becoming a disciple, being released into leadership who then charges the missional frontier with a community of other disciples has got to be better than mission projects, volunteers and converts, right?

That’s where our destiny lies.


Now here are a few things I’m observing in the world around me where I think the Holy Spirit is at work and where I plan to focus my (and my team’s) time, energy and attention.

There is a very interesting shift happening right now in three generations. As has always been true of GenY and the younger Gen X’ers, there is an unbridled optimism about the future. They see the rubble of the great cultural earthquakes the Western world has experienced in the last 50 years and they say, “Well ok. I think we can build something with this!” Like the Celts of old who saw the ancient Roman temple ruins and built buildings under existing archways, they long to connect to the past to build out a new future.

But they’ve reached a new point, I believe. It is not a crisis of belief, but they are asking HOW. “How do we do that? We’re ready to go all in. We’re ready to do this change, ready to change the world. But we need some older, more experienced people to show us how to do it.”

For Boomers and older Gen X’ers in Christian leadership, it’s a different reality. They are coming into the twilight of their vocational careers and realizing they’ve learned some things along the way. Many of them have had profound experiences of discipling people, but are realizing their life and ministry are primarily built on something else: The operating system of trying to grow a church. (To be clear, in that system, you get more seat-warmers than disciple-makers. It often misses the imperative of the Great Commission.)

They are not having a crisis of faith so much as a wrestling match. They say to themselves, “I know I want to build a discipling movement out of my church — to put discipleship and mission at the center of everything, but I don’t know if I have it in me.”

They are counting the cost.

In essence, they are asking this question: “Do I ride my career out or do I really go for it? I can’t tell you how many Christian leaders I meet who are wrestling with this as their fundamental question.

What this really goes back to is the problem we’ve already looked at with ditch-to-ditch thinking and the constant search for the silver bullet. You see, there is such a bullet. It’s called discipleship. But it is “a long obedience in the same direction.” It isn’t complex and easy. It’s simple, but hard to do.

Discipleship to Jesus is the answer. You get Leadership and Mission within that, I promise you! It’s an integrated reality, that one. To compartmentalize is to not understand the very nature of it.

But if we’re looking for the easy fix, we’re not going to find it. Or the quick one. That’s what we’ve got to get our minds around. I have to wonder that if we are looking for quick and easy we’re after something different than Jesus, yeah?

So what am I and my team asking?


Who’s in for the long haul?

One of the places where I see God at work is a growing understanding of a “Scattered and Gathered” reality of the church. I believe every community needs to have scattered expressions of being the church (most effectively done in groups of 20-40 people) and gathered expressions of the church. From the very beginning of the church’s story in Acts 2, we see that people are meeting in the TEMPLE and the HOME each and every day (remember that home’s were built around the extended family of 20-60 people).


There is a paradigm shift that needs to happen. We need to move from being a worshipping body that sometimes does mission to a missional body that gathers to celebrate and worship.

For this to happen well, there needs to also be a shift in the way we’re leading worship:

1. From simply providing karaoke worship in the large gathering, to worship as a central part of life in both the Gathered and Scattered realities of church. An understanding that if we aren’t truly worshipping God together well in large settings (regardless of whether the “unchurched” show up or not), it is difficult to sustain mission. It can be done, but the preference ought to be to keep it. This means we’ll need to shift the way we lead worship in our large gatherings. But it also means we’ll need to equip people who lead the body of worship in their scattered expressions. Are there people up for that exciting task?

2. We need more robust worship songs. While the quality of music has certainly gone up in the past 15 years, I’d argue that the content of the songs has gone down. Way down. We often forget that people used to learn doctrinal truths and the metanarrative they could place themselves in by the songs they sang each Sunday. The songs were even catchy. Charles Wesley put his songs to popular bar tunes. But have you read a Wesley hymn? It was chalk full of the truth of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. Where are the Charles Wesley’s of our day?

3. Worship leaders as leaders. One of the things we try to ask worship leaders is this: “If you didn’t have an instrument and couldn’t sing, would everyone still see you as a leader in your church?” The sad fact is this isn’t often the case. Many worship leaders are hired guns and without the talent of their instruments or vocals, they would be little use to the church. It shouldn’t be that way. What we need are ways of equipping worship leaders in the task of leading God’s people into the presence of God, but also people whose lives are marked by their ability to disciple people who can disciple people. Are they truly leaders? There is an incredible opportunity here.
For us, we are starting where there is already grace. There are three worship leaders we are increasingly spending more time with who we believe could shape the need for this. Aaron Keyes (check out his video below, as it combines a more dispersed quality with incredibly deep, meaningful lyrics, as well as a worship school that trains worship leaders), David Walker (here’s a free download to a new worship song for Easter by him) and Cameron Walker (you can check out his work here). Stay tuned for more on this conversation.

For me, this is the whole ballgame.

There has been so much talk about Missional Communities and discipleship in the last year, but people forget one grounding reality from the scriptures: In the New Testament, discipleship and mission always find their flourishing in an extended family. But in the last 100 years, we’ve really lost the extended family and we’ve lost the oikos on mission. (Oikos being the Greek word used in the New Testament for “households” that refers to the extended families existing as households on mission for the first 300 years of the life of the church).

Now hear me clearly: I’m not saying Missional Communities aren’t important. What I want to say is that MC’s are the thing that gets us to the real destination: Oikos.

What we are doing with Missional Communities (20-50 people acting as an extended family on mission together) is constructing an oikos that helps us understand what the NT church did and how it did it. Missional Communities aren’t the end goal. They are the vehicle that gets us back to the original thing.

In 50 years time, people will look back and say, “It’s hilarious, they used to make people join MC’s because they didn’t know how to do this. Isn’t that amazing!?”

Missional Communities are the training wheels that teach us how to ride the bike of oikos.

For Sally and I in the past year, this has becoming an all-consuming thought. We have been so convicted by the need to pass this on to people. How convicted?

1. Much of what I write about on this blog this year will revolve around Family on Mission. I think it is THE make or break thing for the American church.

2. In 2014, we’re looking at having a massive training/retreat/gathering that isn’t aimed at church leaders, but aimed at moms and dads, husbands and wives, friends in urban families, who are wanting to learn how to live into this reality.

If you don’t have Family on Mission, discipleship, leadership and mission aren’t possible. Family on Mission is the context needed for the rest to flourish. And at the end of the day, I want to be part of a movement that puts missional discipleship back into the hands of every-day people. You get that by learning Family on Mission.

An incredibly bright woman named Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small, committed group of [people] can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

We have never needed to hear that word more than we do now.