Discipleship and Mission: How do They Relate?

By Dr. John Bowen

Just the other day, I was challenged about the idea of “mission” and being “missional.” My friend said, “You can’t put mission before discipleship.” He cited a well-known missional leader, Mike Breen, who wrote an article a couple of years ago with the startling title, “Why the Missional Movement Will Fail.” Let me give you the flavour of it:

It’s time we start being brutally honest about the missional movement that has emerged in the last ten to fifteen years: Chances are better than not it’s going to fail.

That may seem cynical, but I’m being realistic. There is a reason so many movements in the Western church have failed in the past century:

They are a car without an engine.

A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.

So what is the engine of the church? Discipleship. I’ve said it many times: If you make disciples, you will always get the church. But if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples. (You will find the full article at www.vergenetwork.org)

Strong language! After all I have written about the importance of mission, and since I have just taught a course called Mission 101, it may surprise you to know that I think he’s right. At least 66.6% right. Let me tell you about the two-thirds that I agree with and about the one-third where I think he’s wrong. 

One way that Breen challenges us is that we may turn to the idea of “mission” as a way to save our church. More than once, I have heard church people say, “How can we get more people in the pews?” and (even more often) “How can we attract more young people?”

But this is where Breen is correct. If our goal is survival, the car lacks an engine. Jesus is highly unsympathetic to the idea of survival. Remember his words: “Those who want to save their life [i.e., those who want to survive] will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35). So, we need to abandon that idea. According to Jesus, just trying to survive isn’t going to work. In fact, it’s counter productive. It only guarantees that we will die. 

So maybe we need to ask, what is the “engine” Mike Breen refers to? 

He says the engine of mission is discipleship. That’s partly true. But I want to go deeper. Why? Because the idea of discipleship can also be a way of grasping at straws to save us from drowning. “What we need is a discipleship course!” And that’s not going to work either, because discipleship isn’t a program to help us survive, any more than mission is. 

We won’t understand either mission or discipleship unless we first understand the Gospel.

Dr. John Bowen

Here’s the deal. We won’t understand either mission or discipleship unless we first understand the Gospel, the Good News announced by Jesus. The core of our problem is that we don’t really know what the Gospel is. I have been told, for example, that the Gospel is the command to love our neighbour as ourselves. I’m not sure in what sense that is good news for anyone, either my neighbour or me. One church decided that, since their neighbourhood was always pleased when the annual garage sale was announced, that was the good news for them and their neighbours. But I have a feeling Jesus had a little more than garage sales in mind when he announced the Gospel.

You know the problem with this kind of answer? They are about us and what we do. We have lost sight of one absolutely fundamental dimension: the Gospel begins with God and comes from God. It’s not even about the good news that our Creator loves us—although that itself is a breath-taking surprise, something we would never have figured out for ourselves. It’s about the fact that this amazing love of God is at work in the world to deal with sin and suffering, with evil and oppression. Jesus says this work is like yeast working in a loaf, invisible but powerful. And (as Christians understand it) that healing love of God is focussed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s truly Good News: that God is this kind of a God, that God is doing this kind of thing. 

Once we grasp that, the rest makes sense. “Mission” is just a fancy word made up by theologians to describe this work of God. And “discipleship” is simply our response to God’s gracious invitation to join in this work by becoming apprentices of Jesus. So what about a “missional church”? One that is committed to the mission of God. A “missional leader”? One who leads their congregation in following the leadership of our missional God. 

To put Mike Breen’s point another way: you can’t participate in this work of God without apprenticing yourself to Jesus. Otherwise, you are like a teenager who refuses the offer of an apprenticeship and tries instead to teach himself plumbing by a process of trial and error. Frankly, that’s not someone I’m going to call when my toilet is blocked. 

But here’s my final reservation about his argument. You can’t separate discipleship and mission quite so simply. You don’t learn to be a disciple just through a study group, any more than you can learn to be a plumber by attending lectures on plumbing. Neither do you spend a year learning discipleship, then change gears and get involved in mission. The two are inextricably woven together. A plumbing apprenticeship alternates classroom learning and on-the-job training. The two things are symbiotic.

Disciples engage in mission. And engaging in mission shapes disciples. It’s as simple as that.