Another Book Salad

I just finished Leading Kingdom Movements by Mike Breen. It’s worth reviewing for sure, but this is also a good occasion to look back over Breen’s output in the last few years. The man has written four books since 2009, which is an accomplishment all on its own, and the four taken together are his team’s distilled experience in a ministry self-consciously modeled on Jesus and Paul to a degree that’s unusual in the modern Christian world. I started reading these books in 2011, and read all four in order, so this will also be autobiographical to some extent.

I want to commend all four of these books to your attention, even if you aren’t even remotely interested in taking the sort of approach to ministry that Breen and company advocate. It’s working really well in some settings. Doesn’t mean God’s calling you to try to replicate it in yours. However, in my experience, there is great value in studying the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s Church — learning how God is pleased to work, what He is presently doing, and so on. Great value. These four books taken together will give you a good look at a fascinating slice of the Spirit’s work in the contemporary church.

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For me, the journey began with Building a Discipling Culture. This is an outstanding book. Organized around a series of shapes, it seems at first kind of hokey and overproduced. In a way, it is exactly that. Breen’s target market for this resource is American megachurches who have lost their way when it comes to really making disciples, so the hokey slickness is contextualization. This is a resource on disciple-making that you might get a purpose-driven church to buy and implement. It’s slick, it teaches easily, and it’s memorable, easy to keep track of all the material. Mentally walk through the shapes — circle, semicircle, triangle, square, and so on up to octagon — and you’ve got it all. Most importantly, once you get past the packaging, the content is deeply biblical.

But that is most definitely not all. Accompanying the book is the social model, called a huddle, that helps to inculcate real discipleship. See, if you come from a teaching-heavy tradition, it’s easy to degenerate into teaching yet another “discipleship” curriculum, from which your congregants depart with full notebooks and empty lives. Huddle is not another “discipleship group,” exactly. It is a group of 3-8 people who are presently in leadership somewhere (at least in a family leadership role), and it provides the opportunity for some formal teaching and debrief time. Huddle is not discipleship by itself. It is one component; the other key component is access to the leader’s life. participants will be invited to join the leader doing this or that — and not just ministry stuff. You are as likely to be invited out for a beer as you are to be invited to help clean up after the youth group’s annual movie-and-silly-string night. When Jesus went to a party, after all, He took His disciples. Why shouldn’t we?

I’m here to tell you, being huddled and working my way through the material in Building a Discipling Culture in that context was life-altering. I’m a teacher by gifting and calling, and I’ll never see teaching the same way again. I recommend it highly — but in a proper context. Don’t just rush out and buy the book. Even if you have to do it by distance (which is how the guy who huddled me had to do it) find your way into a huddle and go through it that way.

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Breen’s second book in the series is Launching Missional Communities: A Field Guide. I’m just going to admit at the outset that of the four books, I’ve found this one to be the least helpful. Full to the brim with practical nuts-and-bolts advice, warnings, and how-tos, the book is designed to be very helpful, but in a particular context. The target audience is a large church seeking to “go missional.” Now, the way that Breen and company mean it, I’m a fan of missional, so that’s not my problem. My problem is that I’m not at the helm of a large church. Or a medium-sized church. Or even a small church, really. I’m a shepherd-at-large in the One Church in Englewood, doing a variety of things that may ultimately result in a church plant, but haven’t so far, may never, and if they don’t, that’s okay. So as advice, the book is pretty useless to me, and it’s too thin to be a good doorstop.

I don’t say this just out of a general sense that I haven’t got the resources to pursue the plan Launching Missional Communities recommends. I say that because we did actually try to follow the model laid out in the book as closely as we could, and in our context it failed spectacularly. I hasten to add that I know of other people right here in Denver who are applying the same model with roaring success. I’m not at all blaming Breen and company for our failure. Different contexts call for different approaches.

However, I commend the book to you whether you’re in a context that’s amenable to its approach or not. It provides critical nuts-and-bolts insight into the advice that Breen and his crew are giving, and you may find, as I have, that while you can’t follow the track laid out in the book, you might be able to reverse-engineer some pieces — same truths, different approach — to your great benefit.

Autobiographically, I want to add that as I was grappling with all this, and griping to my mentor that “the 3DM model” doesn’t work all that well in our situation, he crisply informed me that there is no such thing as “the 3DM model.” 3DM’s staff of mentors and disciplers, right up to Mike Breen himself, was unanimous on the point. I pushed back pretty hard on the grounds that what they were selling in the field guide and the seminars certainly was a model. I was right — it was. We were disassembling that model and making use of the spare parts anywhere we could, in the context of entirely different social vehicles and a different model of ministry. But my mentor was right as well, as we shall see.

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Multiplying Missional Leasers is the third book in the series, and focuses on recognizing, training and launching out leaders who will go and make more leaders — from “little” leaders who will never lead more than three or four people at a time to “big” leaders who will lead thousands. Breen shows a rare grasp of the nuance involved in the task. Most leadership development material focuses on the “big” leaders, and tries to teach prospective leaders how to develop (or mimic) the charisma and organizational talent that characterizes high-capacity leaders.
Breen doesn’t go that route. Leaders can have any sort of gifting, Breen says. He proceeds to devote a considerable portion of the book to unpacking what leadership looks like in people with different kinds of gifts. It proved a valuable addition to my own understanding of how to be a leader within the bounds of the gifts God gave me.

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Leading Kingdom Movements is the latest in the series, and conceptually the most important of the lot. In this book, Breen finally gives away the core truths we had been forced to discover somewhat earlier: it was never really about missional communities, or huddles, or any of the social vehicles. The model of moving a large church into a culture of disciple-making where people were empowered to launch and maintain missional communities — that model was just a means to an end. In many contexts, it’s a useful means, but still just a means.

The end, the telos of it all, is the big-C Church taking on the character of an extended family on mission. The rhythms and relationships that characterize an extended family with a mission beyond itself create an extraordinarily effective culture for gospel witness and disciple-making. Getting there has always been the real point. The social models of huddle and missional community were really about bringing people into familial relationships with one another, and immersing them in rhythms of life that follow the examples set for us by Jesus and the apostles.

Explaining those rhythms and relationships through an extended treatment of the life of Paul takes up the latter half of the book, and it’s excellent reading. There is some necessary conjecture along the way — filling in the gaps with what we know from the history and culture of the time — but nothing extravagant. Breen’s treatment is sound on the essential points, and well worth your time.

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I have said throughout this review that there are four key books, and as far as the how-to part of Breen’s oeuvre is concerned, that is true. There is, however, a fifth book. Written very early on, Covenant and Kingdom is a brief treatment of the story of the whole Bible, told around the two key themes in the title. Covenant and kingdom, relationship and responsibility, family and mission, being and doing. If you break out in hives at the very mention of the word “missional,” if you are a traditional-church person to the very core and intend to have no truck with anything like what Breen and 3DM are up to, if you are not going to invest in any of the four books I mentioned above — this book is still for you.

There are other themes worth expounding through the Story, other strands that you can trace through the Bible from end to end. This is not the only way to tell the tale. But it is a way to tell the tale, and a very good one, too. For many of you reading this review, I guarantee that as you read Covenant and Kingdom, the Bible will ‘click’ together as a whole story in ways that it never has before. The way it will click together, you won’t just see the Story in the Bible — you’ll see the Story going on in your own life, too, and in ways you never noticed before.

If you get nothing else by Breen, get this one.

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I will close this review with one final note. Print editions of the 3DM books run on the slightly expensive side. This is partly because the physical books are designed to take a pretty good beating, so they’re a bit higher quality than your average mass paperback. It’s probably also partly because the 3DM team is supporting themselves, in part, by selling books. However, all the above books are also available as e-books for much less than you’d pay for paper, so if money is an issue, you might look into that option.

Illustrations do play an important part in these books, so effective reading sometimes calls for monkeying with the enlargement settings on the smaller e-readers (like the Nook Simple Touch, for example), but it can be done. I myself read two of the above books on my Simple Touch.

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