Discipleship Leads to Mission?

Mike Breen is wrong about missional ecclesiology. Here’s his claim:

Now one of the buzzwords around today is the word “missional.” People want to create missional churches or missional programs or missional small groups. The problem is that we don’t have a “missional” problem or a leadership problem in the Western church. We have a discipleship problem. If you know how to disciple people well, you will always get mission. Always. You see, somewhere along the way we started separating being “missional” from being a disciple, as if somehow the two could be separated. Pastors started saying they didn’t want to be inwardly-focused so they stopped investing in the people in their churches so they could focus on people outside their churches. Granted, we should focus on people who don’t know Jesus yet, but Jesus himself gave us the model for doing that: Disciple people. If you know how to actually make disciples, you’ll reach people who don’t know Jesus. Because that’s simply what disciples do. That was Jesus’ whole plan. If you disciple people, as these people do mission in their everyday comings and goings, with the work and shaping of the Spirit, the future of the church will emerge.1

He is wrong for six reasons.

  1. The equation of missional ecclesiology with “missional programs or missional small groups” is simply a theological misunderstanding on the part of both those who would do such a thing and on the part of Breen who assumes it for his argument. Not only is it evident at face value that ecclesiology is a different category than programs and meeting sizes or styles, the meaning of missional in the great number of publications by the theological movement’s thought leaders and practitioners is quite specifically not what Breen suggests.
  2. I’ve never read anyone writing on missional ecclesiology who separates “being ‘missional’ from being a disciple.” This is patently caricature. Undoubtedly there are church leaders excited about missional ecclesiology who lack discipleship practices. That scenario seems obviously not to be a valid basis for a critique of missional ecclesiology’s weaknesses.
  3. In the Christendom ecclesiology that missional ecclesiology attempts to correct, “inwardly-focused” does not mean “investing in the people in their churches so they could focus on people outside their churches.” As if, before this missional “buzzword” came along, churches were just equipping members for mission! Inward focus—and I suggest that most readers know this very personally—has for most Western churches demonstrably entailed neither a concomitant second “focus on people outside” nor even a purposive investment. In my tradition, which is not unique, there are certainly many churches that hope and even expect that an inward focus on growth necessarily or naturally results in outward service, witness, etc. This is not a purposive “so that” but rather a mistaken “therefore”—trickle-down mission. Clearly, inward focus, which is very often called “discipleship,” does not necessarily entail equipping for outward focus (I’ll leave aside the basic problem of two simultaneous foci, with its implication of being cross-eyed).
  4. Moreover, the reduction of mission to “focus on people who don’t know Jesus yet” is wrong. But Breen would only acknowledge this if he had, in the first place, understood the theological affirmations that underlie missional ecclesiology.
  5. Discipleship only necessarily leads to mission in one sense: The assumed meaning of the word discipleship has to be broad enough to substantiate the claim, “That was Jesus’ whole plan” (an astonishing assertion!). And at the same time, it has to be specific enough to designate not the “discipleship” that Western churches have been doing for decades upon decades but rather the practices Breen advocates, which ostensibly lead, at a minimum, to “focus on people who don’t know Jesus yet.” The fact is, however, not even Breen’s discipleship “huddles” necessarily become “missional communities” (Breen’s phase later in the book, apparently interchangeable with “huddles”). He claims pretty strongly that they do: “What we have found, over and over again, is that if you disciple people it will always lead to mission. We’ve seen this in Europe. In Africa and South America, in Asia and yes . . . in the United States. Jesus’ model for seeing heaven colliding into earth, for seeing the Kingdom of God advance in community, for seeing the world put to rights and people becoming Christians, was discipleship. Period. That was his whole deal. So if you’re counting converts, budget or buildings first and foremost, you’re not counting the things that Jesus counted, and you’re not counting the thing that will change the world: Disciples.”2 His experience is a compelling argument. And I would agree to a great extent—of course it makes sense to say that making Jesus followers results in them following Jesus in mission. The difficulty here is that Breen is actually implicitly affirming missional ecclesiology (this is evident later in the book).3 Instead of admitting that his paradigm of discipleship is missional (in the correct sense), he wants to present it as discipleship plain and simple. The result is a failure to clarify the theological framework necessary to make sense of the claim that “mission is the point of all of this.”4 This brings me to reason six.
  6. To say that we don’t have a missional problem but rather a discipleship problem is wrong on the most basic level because it fails to recognize that we have both a discipleship problem and a theological problem. Fixing one without the other—or worse, fixing one by dismissing the other—is disturbingly wrong. To be frank, though, Breen’s argument is basically nontheological and at times emits a whiff of antitheological disdain. Here are the seven times he discusses theology (search term: theolog*) explicitly:
  • “There are endless things that divide us: theologically, philosophically, practically. Some of those divisions are very real and quite important. For all of the things that divide us, we cannot deny that we are sensing and watching some pretty seismic shifts happening in the world in which we live. And for all that separates us, we are sharing that common experience. Recently, we commissioned a study to get to the heart of this. Our goal wasn’t to figure out what divided us. We wanted to figure out what we are all experiencing together as orthodox Christian leaders. What are the questions that unite us? More specifically, apart from denomination, biblical hermeneutic, theological framework or practical application, what are the things that are keeping all orthodox Christian leaders awake at night?”5
  • A quotation from Eric Metaxas’s book on Bonhoeffer, which mentions “students of theology.”6
  • “Teaching is incredibly important. Theology is incredibly important. Doctrine is incredibly important. But Jesus wasn’t able to compartmentalize teaching, theology, and doctrine into ethereal, cognitive realities. Teaching and theology were ways of describing reality, and then he showed his disciples how to live in that reality. ‘What is reality? The Kingdom of God! And if you do what I do, you can live fully in that reality.'” 7
  • “Remember, you may be someone who has advanced training or theological education, but most of the people in our churches do not. These simple shapes that form a discipling language give people handles for their own life, as well as the ability to remember and teach them to the people Jesus is calling them to disciple. It’s never just about us. Are we giving the people in our communities (laity) the tools they need to disciple people and lead out into mission? Those are whom this language is for.” 8
  • “We need leaders who will step out of ‘managing church’ and make discipling others their primary objective. The time has come to humbly acknowledge before God that we have failed to train men and women to lead in the style of Jesus. Whether through ignorance or fear, we have taken the safe option, training pastors to be theologically sound and effective managers of institutions rather than equipping them with the tools they need to disciple others.” 9
  • “Developers look to put down roots while pioneers are hacking through dense jungle growth in the search for new territory. Many churches split, not because of theology, but because they don’t understand the interplay between pioneers and developers.”10
  • “Our eighth shape, the Octagon, is about sharing the Good News in the same way that Jesus did and as he taught his disciples to do. Don’t let the fact that our Octagon has eight sides put you off. We are not going to load you down with eight major theological lessons or eight principles you need to memorize. The Octagon has one key message: find the Person of Peace.”11

I think the tenor of these comments makes it clear that, despite saying “theology is incredibly important,” Breen basically sees “theological framework” as “apart” from what leaders are really worried about (discipleship), sees “theological education” as too complicated in comparison with the tools people really need for discipleship and mission, and sees training pastors to be “theologically sound” in contrast with “equipping them with the tools they need to disciple others.” Beyond how he talks about theology explicitly, however, there is the fact that neither a theological framework nor theological formation figures in his account of discipleship—in practice, theology is secondary.

The result is that the “shared language in which we can create a discipling culture” that Breen advocates is divorced from the grammar and internal systems that stipulate the coherent usage of the language.12 Perhaps the best way to state the issue, since Breen appeals to a sociological basis for his core claim that “language creates culture,” is that this claim, stated baldly, is anthropologically erroneous.13 He is onto something vital with this approach—it is right to think about ecclesiology, including discipleship practices, in terms of culture. Yet, shared language both facilitates culture creation and is itself a cultural product. Moreover, shared culture (including language) is a function of other anthropological phenomena. Theology plays an indispensable role in the formation of the evaluative and interpretive systems on which a discipling culture should depend. And so missional theology plays an indispensable role in the formation of the worldview according to which the language game of discipleship can proceed in actually missional terms.

I’m a fan of Building a Discipling Culture. I’m using it presently in ministry, and it is very useful. I recommend it. I cannot, however, affirm the way Breen positions his practices in relation to missional ecclesiology or theology more broadly. It is counterproductive. Make use of Breen’s work, but put it always explicitly in the framework of a Trinitarian theology of God’s mission, and make robust theological formation a nonnegotiable aspect of discipleship.


  1.   Mike Breen, Building a Discipling Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People like Jesus Did (Pawleys Island, SC: 3DM), Kindle locs. 84–94.
  2. Ibid., Kindle locs. 101–5.
  3. E.g., “Every disciple is missional. It’s part of the deal! Most of us simply don’t live that way” (Ibid., Kindle locs. 2531–32). The buzzword lives!
  4. Ibid., Kindle loc. 2722.
  5. Ibid., Kindle locs. 44–51.
  6. Ibid., Kindle loc. 273.
  7. Ibid., Kindle locs. 396–401.
  8. Ibid., Kindle locs. 663–66.
  9. Ibid., Kindle locs. 1400–3.
  10. Ibid., Kindle locs. 1882–84.
  11. Ibid., Kindle locs. 2234–37.
  12. Ibid., Kindle loc. 588.
  13. Ibid., ch. 5 and passim.


  1. This is good stuff. I need to read it about six more times. I think you’re right that Breen has a particular idea of “missional” in his head — probably the “missional is service/justice work” truncation that crops up in some churches; and not missional ecclesiology as an academic/theological discipline. I agree, too, that he undercuts himself to distance theology/theological formation from discipleship. If you were to revise Breen would you say we have a discipleship + theology + missional + leadership problem in the church…or would you say it some other way?

  2. Something like that. I think we have both a theology and a praxis problem, and the two are interconnected in ways that make the distinction troublesome even if sometimes useful. On one side of the circle, theology should be missional in a robustly Trinitarian sense, at home in the church (among disciples) rather than a separate guild, and a fruit of theological leadership that guides the church continually back and forth between imaginative contextual praxis and reflection rooted in tradition. On the other side of the circle, praxis should be geared for the formation of participants, facilitated by leaders capable of translating the practices of life together into a culturally meaningful language, and rooted in missional theology. So probably the shorthand is a theology + discipleship problem that calls for missional leadership. Breen helps with a couple of points on the praxis side.

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