Mission Viruses That Can Kill Disciple Making Movements
C. J. Peters’ life is the stuff of legend. For 30 years he traipsed the world’s most remote places hunting hot viruses and then chronicled his Indiana Jones life in a fascinating book (Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World). Hot viruses are the ones known to be lethal to human life, like Ebola. It is more obvious today than ever before that we need people like C. J. on the dangerous front line identifying threats to human life before they are allowed to ravage through populations, indiscriminately extinguish human lives.
Not only are there viruses that can extinguish human life, but there are also viruses that stop dead in its tracks the movement of the Good News of Jesus. Wait, I know what you are thinking, “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.” We are not saying that there is anything wrong with the biblical gospel, but often the very methods we use to plant the gospel are counter-productive to it reaching the commission Jesus gave us.
Whether it was Baron Justinian von Welz, a Lutheran noble of the 17th century, or Hudson Taylor in the 19th century who coined or popularized the term “Great Commission,” it has become synonymous with the
mission of Jesus’ followers. We are called to “make disciples” of every ethne. Regardless of the etymological arguments surrounding ethne, it is universally accepted that we are called to give every man, woman and child a repeated opportunity to see, hear and respond to the message of Jesus.
With the Great Commission as our primary mission, it seems necessary that we would want to hunt those things that keep this Good News from spreading. And spread it has over the past twenty years; we are seeing an increase in small outbreaks of the Good News spreading virally through populations even in the most difficult of circumstances (see Justin Long’s blog for details). There are over 1,350 church planting movements currently being reported and at New Generations we are involved in 127 movements that have spread far and wide enough for us to be able to identify “virus killers” of these gospel movements.
Just as C. J. Peters’ work is valued by all sectors of society, especially in the midst of a pandemic, so must the work of our “virus hunters” be seen as paramount in gospel ministry. Why? Because there is nothing more important than eradicating gospel poverty. Early in Jesus’ discipling of the Twelve He taught them to pray, “may it be on earth as it is in heaven.” There is no gospel poverty in heaven. In the kingdom of heaven everything is ordered on the character of the King. The glory of God our King, in His experienced goodness, orders heaven because He is the king and it is His kingdom. Everyone there is a child of the King because of the gospel.
As we seek to fuel the efforts of fulfillment of the Great Commission we see that that fulfilling the promise of Habakkuk 2:14—finding and extinguishing everything that hinders, creates friction and stops the movement of the gospel—becomes our priority.
Biological viruses are classified on the basis of shared properties and grouped at different hierarchical levels of order, family, subfamily, genus and species. More than 30,000 different viruses are known today and grouped in more than 3,600 species, in 164 genera and 71 families. Disciple Making Movement killing viruses also come in families with a variety of expressions. Let’s look at five families of viruses and the species that find their way into some movements of the gospel.
Exceptionalism: a dependency on individuals with exceptional passions, enthusiasm, temperament, skill and gifts.
Materialism: the naive practice of allowing money into the wrong places in movements.
Professionalism: the inherent belief that the trained, qualified or certified are more dependable than those who lack formal training.
Mechanicalism: a belief that movements are a matter of physical effort rather than spiritual power.
Partialism: the practice of fusing several different movement strategies together.
Exceptionalism (not in order of priority) is a cultural phenomenon that plagues humanity. Whether it is a set of letters before or after a name or public acclamation for talent, we have a fond affection for the exceptional. It doesn’t matter if it’s music, athletics, academics or the Church, those with exceptional skills are often elevated to positions of influence or counted more valuable that the rest.
Exceptionalism in movements arises when we become dependent—for instance—on highly gifted trainers. Training rubrics that require better than average presentation skills eliminate ordinary disciples from passing on the training. The problem is not with having some gifted practitioners, but for the gospel to consistently multiply through ordinary people everything has to multiply at every level. That means that all activities that foster movement must be available to the everyday people. If outreach strategies require special skills, if training can’t be delivered by ordinary people, if coaching regimes can’t be accomplished by ordinary people or then a movement will experience friction due to the dependence on exceptionally talented people.
The theological antidote to exceptionalism is found in the concept of the priesthood of the believer. Peter calls each follower of Christ a royal priest (1 Pet. 2:9) and declares that we have everything pertaining to life and godliness.(2 Pet. 1:3) Not to mention that Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations is given to every disciple since the first. However we organize the progress of the gospel, it must be bounded by the truth that every disciple gets to play, not just for a few exceptionally gifted ones. It is very common for people who seem very ordinary when they experience Disciple Making Movements (even oral learners or people who have not seen themselves as leaders before) to become extraordinary disciple-makers and church-planters.
Materialism addresses the relationship between money and movement. There is no argument that it takes resources to get the gospel where it is not. The controversy arises with how much, when and from whom does the money come.
Money paid to those involved in movement activity challenges the motives of those receiving the money and potentially creates a dependency between giver and receiver. The question arises: if there is no money will there be movement activity? Often, there is not.
Frequently money is best used to further activity that was already in progress. When you find a movement activist who could go further or faster with an investment toward transportation or Scripture resources for example, you have a situation where money and movement work. Since most movements are started by movements it is not unusual for movements to send workers to nearby neighbor groups that don’t have the gospel available. Financial investment is necessary for these activities.
Not only is money and dependency an issue but also the use of money by “outside actors.” More than once fruitful leaders of movement activity have been lured away with money to another organization. The result is that the bad actors have surprising numbers they can report to their donors for a while because they have purchased them, but eventually the virus of dependency rises and often the movement slows or dies.
Professionalism is a two-edged sword. Certainly, gaining greater excellence of knowledge and skill is a worthy cause. When professionals appear, however, the masses begin to develop the attitude of leaving it to the professionals and it unintentionally creates passivity.
One of the maxims of movement is that an untrained insider is always more effective than a trained outsider. This cuts against the grain of a culture that values subject matter experts. It especially challenges cross- cultural workers and those who love to “do ministry” in foreign fields. In movements there are no heroes nor hero-makers, only ordinary people responding in obedience to Jesus.
Jesus, upon healing the Gerasenes demoniac, refused to allow him to accompany the disciples but instead sent him home to speak of what God had done for him. This was a far cry from the route of qualifying, certifying or even the ordaining practices that we use today. Even at the site of Jesus’ last command in Matthew 28, we are told in verse 16 that while some doubted, Jesus didn’t hesitate to commission both doubters and worshippers. Jesus’ practice was to release the willing rather than trust the qualified.
When the West hears of viral movements of the gospel in the east, the scientific thinking of the West kicks in; dissect, isolate, formulate and repeat. The desire to spread spiritual revolution globally is innocent and virtuous. Unfortunately, movements are God ordained and even though we can isolate certain practices that contribute to movements, they are in no way mechanical.
Mechanicalism denies the supernatural nature of the Spirit in the movement of the gospel. With great regularity we can correlate impressive movements of the gospel with equally impressive outpouring of prayer. It would be a mistake to think we can simply raise the amount of hours we pray to generate movement. I live in a city that has had 24/7 prayer for years and yet have only seen short glimpses of gospel movement. We cannot bribe God with our prayers. But when extraordinary prayer and radical obedience meet with God’s heart for the lost, He tends to do amazing things.
Similarly, many have gone through Disciple Making Movements training and become enamored with Discovery Bible Study (DBS). Mistakenly believing that Disciple Making Movements are synonymous with the obedience-based discovery Bible processes, they aggressively pursue the implementation of DBS believing a movement will break out. Again, God rejoices when His followers are obedient to His wisdom, but this one element rarely spawns a movement.
There may be a set of irreducible minimum habits found in gospel movements but they are not a mechanical process that can be reproduced at human will. When God ordains and humans cooperate, movements can break out.
Partialism is the last family of movement viruses we will address here. More than once I have watched very smart individuals from historic institutions sit in training by experienced movement catalysts, only to leave the training and during implementation add, subtract or self-style the habits of movements.
There is something deep, especially in Americans, that when confronted with something exciting responds, “I have a better idea.” In the face of experience and proven results, we often believe we can make it better. Rather than practice what we are taught and let experience be our teacher, we practice an ignorant hubris by changing well worn practices.
Another species of this virus in the western tradition is fusion. A rage in the food world now, you can find any mixture of ethnic cuisines smashed together. Oftentimes, out of naïveté, new practitioners of movement strategies take a little from here, a little from there and self-style their own version of a movement strategy.
Despite the fact that most movements end up at the same place, they don’t always take the same route to get there. The reasons may reside in many different variables, but denying the differences robs practitioners of different tools they can use to be more effective in varying circumstances.
The word “movement” describes a gospel-phenomenon that signals changing from addition thinking to multiplication thinking. This thinking moves the potential of the progress of the gospel beyond population growth and bringing into view the prospect of fulfilling the Great Commission. That potential should be shepherded as aggressively as humanly possible. Viruses that threaten to kill movements must be brought into the light and killed as quickly as possible.