Why the Missional Movement Will Fail

Mike Breen says the missional movement is doomed to failure—is he right?

It’s time we start being brutally honest about the missional movement that has emerged in the last 10-15 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.

The Engine of the Church

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.

If you’re good at making disciples, you’ll get more leaders than you’ll know what to do with. If you make disciples like Jesus made them, you’ll see people come to faith who didn’t know Him. If you disciple people well, you will always get the missional thing.

Always.

We took 30 days and examined the Twitter conversations happening. We discovered there are between 100-150 times as many people talking about mission as there are discipleship (to be clear, that’s a 100:1 ratio). We are a group of people addicted to and obsessed with the work of the Kingdom, with little to no idea how to be with the King.

As Skye Jethani wrote in his Out of Ur post a little while back called “Has Mission become an Idol?”:

“Many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.”

Look, I’m not criticizing the people who are passionate about being missional—I am one of those people. I was one of the people pioneering missional communities in the 1980s, and have been doing it ever since. This is my camp, my tribe, my people. But it has to be said: God did not design us to do Kingdom mission outside of the scope of intentional, biblical discipleship, and if we don’t see that, we’re fooling ourselves.

Mission is the Umbrella of Discipleship

Mission is under the umbrella of discipleship as it is one of the many things that Jesus taught his disciples to do well. But it wasn’t done in a vacuum outside of knowing God and being shaped by that relationship, where a constant refinement of their character was happening alongside their continued skill development (which included mission).

The truth about discipleship is that it’s never hip and it’s never in style—it’s the call to come and die; a long obedience in the same direction. While the “missional” conversation is imbued with the energy and vitality that comes with kingdom work, it seems to be missing some of the hallmark reality that those of us who have lived it over time have come to expect: Mission is messy. It’s humbling. There’s often no glory in it. It’s for the long haul. And it’s completely unsustainable without discipleship.

This is the crux of it: The reason the missional movement may fail is because most people/communities in the Western church are pretty bad at making disciples. Without a plan for making disciples (and a plan that works), any missional thing you launch will be completely unsustainable.

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Mike Breen
Mike Breen is former Senior Rector at St. Thomas Sheffield, one of the largest and most progressive churches in England. Today, he lead 3DM, the global home for an organic movement of biblical discipleship and missional church that is centered in the United States.