Getting the Message Out or Getting the Message Right?

I came across a fascinating post this past weekend from the missional website  It was titled, “Why the Missional Movement Will Fail” and was written by missional guru Mike Breen.

He cuts to the chase and offers an interesting perspective: 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.”

What’s the engine that is missing? Without question, Breen says, it is discipleship. In short, he says that the North American church has become so obsessed with getting the message out that they are failing to get the message right, and are therefore failing to actually make disciples: 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). 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.”

Breen cites another fascinating (must read) post from the missional website (Out of,; the July 18, 2011 post by Skye Jethani) titled “Has the Mission Become Our Idol?” Here, too, there is an internal alarm being sounded about the recent “missional” push by the North American church.

Jethani offers no small indictment: [M]any church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.”  He goes on, “When we come to believe that our faith is primarily about what we can do for God in the world, it is like throwing gasoline on our fear of insignificance. The resulting fire may be presented to others as a godly ambition, a holy desire to see God’s mission advance–the kind of drive evident in the Apostle Paul’s life. But when these flames are fueled by fear they reveal none of the peace, joy, or love displayed by Paul and rooted in the Spirit. Instead the relentless drive to prove our worth can quickly become destructive.”

That the missional movements’ own leaders are sounding such alarms should make us sit up and listen. Still, it’s not that they are necessarily giving up on the movement. They want to offer a course correction to the overall missional movement’s perceived correction for the greater church. However, the ironic thing is, at least from a confessional Lutheran perspective, the course correction they are urging is what evangelical Lutherans have always maintained to be the course of the church—the making of disciples! The long cherished use of Luther’s Small Catechism is an ample reminder of how confessional Lutherans have an affinity for getting the message right so that we can then get the message out rightly.

Breen’s sentiments echo this: 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. Thus, it seems catechetical Lutherans simply ought to stay the course and do what they have done for centuries.

Nonetheless, the notion of getting the message out continues to remain an intense push among many Lutherans circles, motivating some to take increasingly confusing steps towards the end of getting the message out. From adopting theologically foreign methodologies, to measuring the faithfulness of a church solely by the numerical growth of members, to forcing the sale of an active congregational church building to turn a large profit—all are being done in the name of getting the message out.

But what we are finding is that such measures do not have the impact many thought they would. Consider what Detlev Schulz offers in his 2009 book Mission from the Cross: The Lutheran Theology of Mission:

Christianity has voiced its optimism of those who have and continue to envision total  world evangelization… Many evangelical groups conceived of mission in unrealistically optimistic terms… Today, this optimism has surfaced again… Denominations and movements of every kind—whether Protestant, Evangelical, Ecumenical, Roman Catholic, or  Pentecostal/ Charismatic—launched global plans and made solemn pledges to complete Christ’s commission on earth in that decade. But as Barret points out, the results of such campaigns were disappointing. The envisaged ten-year period of unstoppable expansion of Christianity did not materialize. Despite an overall increase in expenditure during that period (topping more than $70 billion), Christianity made no substantial progress (p.7).

Consequently, then, is there any evidence that the priority of getting the message out has somehow morphed into getting the message wrong? Christian Smith’s 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, would seem to answer in the affirmative.

In the largest survey ever of its kind, Smith and his team assessed the faith life of American teens and their families. What he found is that, despite all the concerted efforts of Evangelicalism for the last three decades to Christianize American culture, America has its own unique religion, which he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” where, in short, people “believe God exists,” but only to “help them when they are in need,” yet “wants them to be good, fair, and nice,” but is otherwise “uninvolved in their life,” where, in the end, “good people go to heaven when they die.” (162-163).

Compound this with what missional guru Skye Jethani observes about the profound pressure some Christians feel to be “missional,” and it is easy to see how people get the message wrong: Sometimes the people who fear insignificance the most are driven to accomplish the greatest things. As a result they are highly praised within Christian communities for their good works. This temporarily soothes their fear until the next goal can be achieved. But there is a dark side to this drivenness. Gordon MacDonald calls it “missionalism.” It is “the belief that the worth of one’s life is determined by the achievement of a grand objective.” He continues: “Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader’s attitude. Before long the mission controls almost everything: time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics, and convictions. In advanced stages, missionalism means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem. In its worst iteration, the end always justifies the means. The family goes; health is sacrificed; integrity is jeopardized; God-connection is limited.”

Sadly, in the end, by the testimony of those closest to the missional movement, the priority of getting the message out has confounded getting the clear message of Jesus Christ right. Thus, I believe it is time that evangelical Lutherans be allowed to be evangelical Lutherans. I believe it’s time we stop being afraid of practicing the profound catechizing, discipling, and confessional faith for which we are known! I believe it’s time to have honest, open, candid, and collegial dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts.


Rev. Woodford


11 responses to “Getting the Message Out or Getting the Message Right?

  1. Thanks Lucas for wrapping this all up in your post. I wonder what would happen if we evangelical Lutherans actually started to catechize? However, I have learned it’s much harder to catechize than to be merely “missional.”
    Lord have mercy on His church.

  2. It seems that our Lutheran church is in need of a catechetical renewal, but will it come?

    Pastors are increasingly pressured to show results from within their own congregations, and from without in the form of district and synod proclamations and programs. Catechetical renewal is a generational change in how we believe, teach, and confess. it is more than two or three years of instruction that confirmation has been traditionally built on. it includes the whole congregation, but especially focuses on families and children who are currently members of the church. It takes time. It takes faith and courage that the Lord Christ will sustain His church without the added work (or busywork) of well meaning Christian pastors and lay people. Doing missional things is immediate, that is why, as Bill says, it is easier to be “missional” than it is to catechize.

    That being said – we have the sure promises of our Lord that he will prosper the work of His church. Behold, I am with you, to the end of the age.” Christ will be with us as we move forward in His mission – getting the message right and getting the message out.

    • I think you are on to something with the notion of a catechizing renewal being a generational change in how we believe, teach, and confess. I think it is worth exploring further. No, it won’t be easy, but, as you remind, Christ is the Lord of the Church and will be with us as we move forward in his mission. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Pingback: Steadfast Lutherans » Great Stuff — thisweconfess on Getting the Message Out or Getting the Message Right?

  4. Amen. We need to get back to the Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ! Not the good news of ‘missional living’, or whatever trend comes along next, but simple, plain preaching and teaching the Gospel. The word of God. There is a place for ‘the social gospel’, but it needs to be an out-flowing from our discipleship, not the center of our faith and belief!

    And that’s where our teaching and catechesis comes in clearly – that those who have believed, will learn more, and be secure in their belief, that they can witness this same gospel to others. That is where making disciples really hits the ground – not that we will live in a ‘social gospel’ or ‘missionally’, but we will live honoring God.

    Thanks for bringing all these thoughts together 😀


  5. Wonderful and thought provoking!

    I wonder though if we are ready to be disciples and not merely vessels for the message… It seems people will give the effort of telling others about Christ, but are not willing to go the extra step of being a disciple and daily walking with the Lord. But I believe that if we give up what we think we are suppose to do, and do what Christ has asked us to do, that we will find that being a disciple is actually easier than being missional, and through us being disciples, Christ will use us and we will be missional as well…

  6. What a silly idea that mission should happen with anything less than good doctrine. But here we are, us Lutherans and our good doctrine, talking about how we shouldn’t do mission; saying, “Hey, THOSE guys are doing mission and it isn’t working, and sheesh, they are MISSIONAL.”

    Where is the Lutheran BOTH/AND when we really need it?

    “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:7

    See also: 9:31, 12:24, 16:5, 19:20, 28:31

    (Uh oh! The Holy Spirit felt it important to report numerical growth in the midst of making disciples and the continued actions of mission performed by the church as they fired across the ends of the earth with the raw power of God’s Word. No worries, this is all DESCRIPTIVE stuff and not PRESCRIPTIVE stuff…right? No need to get out of the pew.)

    Sometimes I wonder if some Lutherans’ actual operating material principle is not “Justification by Grace through Faith” but rather “Justification by doctrinal purity.”

    Hmmmmm. What is the real passion folks? Being missional doesn’t mean you are abandoning the Book of Concord and joining the likes of Rick Warren. It means you are embracing the Book of Concord, and it’s incredibly powerful implications, and you are joining the likes of Paul and Silas.

    • Dear Mark,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts. I also agree with you that mission must flow from good doctrine. But please know I am not contending, by any means, that we (Lutherans) “shouldn’t being doing mission,” but, as I noted in my post, that our goal is and has always been “to get the message right so that we can get the message out rightly.”

      Perhaps the post was taken by some as another divisive venture of “us” against “them.” I hope not. My desire for this blog is not to solidify “sides,” but to provide a collegial venue to dialogue openly and honestly about what it means to be a 21st century confessional Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

      Thus, part of this endeavor is the intentional effort to take an honest look at the current theological movements and trends afoot in the North American (Lutheran) church and willingly dialogue about what is helpful and not helpful, as well as what is theologically appropriate and theologically questionable, from a evangelical confessional Lutheran perspective.

      To be sure, your critique, though pointed, may have merit. I am not denying that there might be those who operate with the caricature of the material principal you provide. But that does not then mean we should not candidly and collegially discuss the merits of various movements within the church, particularly when members from within any one movement themselves become critical of it, not to mention when any such movement and its theology has noticeably reshaped, or has the potential to reshape, Lutheran theology and practice in unhealthy manners. Thus the aim is for collegial, healthy, honest, theological Lutheran dialogue.

      Thanks again for your thoughts. I welcome your call for Lutherans to be passionate about the mission of God, along with the Book of Concord, and invite you to continue to share your perspective.

      Rev. Woodford

  7. Mark – I think you have hit the nail on the head clearly – mission comes FROM the commands of Jesus.

    I think the concern (and certainly my concern), is that people work from this basis.

    Jesus called us to go out into the world.
    So lets go out into the world.
    How can we go out into the world better?

    Instead of focusing on the source, they focus on the outcome. It is like one of those ‘exam cram’ books – instead of focusing on the core knowledge that something or someone teaches, just focusing on the answers becomes enough. And in that focus we then start to make ‘living missionally’ more important than the Gospel.

    Like you said, if we truly lived out our faith in good doctrine, then ‘mission’ and all those things will come as a response, instead of them becoming a ’cause’, outside of our faith, which is then nothing more than good works without grace!

  8. Rev. Woodford,

    Thank you for your careful and thoughtful response. It was a blessing to me! I readily admit that I overreacted to many of the thoughts in the article, not paying enough attention to your call for balance. And, your reply to me helped me to better recognize the nuances that I missed during my initial reflection. Thank you for your grace and love!

    One of my seminary professors taught us last quarter that most theology (and related discussion) is a reaction against something. My rant was no exception to this and my frustration is with brothers and sisters who are reacting against the use of Church Growth practices in the Synod. While I share their concerns about CG practices (and note from your post that even those outside our own circles are discovering similar problems) I have often felt that sometimes the reaction against CG has caused a swerve of the wheel so hard that the “car” veers from one ditch all the way across the road to the other ditch (which is clearly what I was worried was happening here).

    I’m convinced that when we focus everything we’ve got on Jesus and His Gospel, mission is something that will necessarily follow. This is the pattern repeated at the end of each of the four gospels (albeit Mark’s varied ending is one possible exception, though we do make use of it in the Confessions). The pattern is clear: Death, Resurrection and then, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” (Luke 24.47).

    Your reply shares in this notion and, more importantly, reminds us that we are indeed trying to “walk together.” I sincerely desire such unity. And, I really do love my “tribe” (as it were) so very very much. It is from this love that flows my passion.

    You have taught me much today! Most importantly, you have taught me about “collegial, healthy, honest, theological Lutheran dialogue,” which you have demonstrated so wonderfully. Thank you!

    Your brother in Christ,
    Mark Hunsaker

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