Better to lose one part of your body than the whole body go to hell” — Church discipline, pastoral authority, and schism


One of Jesus’ most extreme instructions to his disciples was this one in the Sermon on the Mount:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29–30).

That was instruction to anyone committing adultery or even looking at a woman lustfully. Most Christians have tended to take this in the same way: figurative and for our individual bodies.

We usually read this as hyperbole, intended to make a point but not to be followed. Surely Jesus wouldn’t ask us to gouge out our eyes! I still have both eyes and both hands, despite the sins that have come by them.

But even if we take this as hyperbole, we dare not miss the point: avoid sin at all costs. Because sin leads to death, eternal death, hell. What’s worse than going through life without an eye or a hand? Losing your life for all of eternity—the whole body going into hell. And if willful sin persists, that’s our trajectory.1

This is usually where we stop when it comes to this passage, if we even make it this far, but I wonder if its application can be broader.

What if we read this in a different way: literal and for our corporate body—the church?2

It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell

The early church practiced this kind of instruction about cutting off parts. We see it from both Jesus and Paul.

Jesus’ instruction

Jesus instructed his disciples to cut people off, if necessary. For a “brother or sister” who sins, he gave a whole process for trying to turn them from their fault. The goal was restoration, not punishment! The last step: bring it before the church, “and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17).

We know from his other interactions that Jesus didn’t treat pagans and tax collectors with scorn. He treated them with love. But he also didn’t treat them as “brothers and sisters” in the faith.3 He treated them as sick, as sinners, as those he was calling to be healed through repentance and faith.4

Paul’s instruction

Later, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. He was apoplectic.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?5

His final instruction to them was a quote from Deuteronomy, “Expel the wicked person from among you.” That line occurs seven times in the book of Deuteronomy, where my version translates, “You must purge the evil from among you.” 6 Seven repetitions—that’s enough to be taken seriously.

(A note for those who ask why the church should be so obsessed about sex, the passages we’ve looked at above were both about sexual sin. Sex is not, and should not be, our only issue. But it is one of the most prominent issues of morality in Scripture, which warrants our attention.)

On church discipline

It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell. This was part of Paul’s rationale in the situation above. He asked, “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” 7

When we tolerate outright sin in the church among “brothers and sisters,” we aren’t just doing them damage because we’re unwilling to have the hard conversation. We also risk potential damage to the whole church—devastating damage. We teach the church that we don’t really believe avoid sin at all costs. We treat sin not as our menacing enemy, but as a minor nuisance—or even less, as something we shrug off and tolerate.

When we tolerate outright sin in the church, do we risk the whole body being thrown into hell because one part caused it to sin? A little yeast leavens the whole batch.

John Wesley longed for preachers who “fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God.” 8 When we treat sin with anything less than fear, as anything less than cancer, we have treated it as too little. When we fear offense, impropriety or misperception more than we fear sin, we have treated sin as too little.

Brothers and sisters, we must flee from sin. We flee not just for ourselves, but for the sake of the whole body. A little yeast leavens the whole batch.

The Protestant Distortion

In the earliest Protestant tradition, the church was defined by three practices, as the community where (1) the Word of God is preached, (2) the sacraments are administered, and (3) church discipline is observed, all according to Christ’s institution.

We have largely abandoned the third part of that definition. This may be the logical end of Protestantism, at least in its cheapest form.

Where we have emphasized above all else the private reading and interpretation of Scripture, what place is left for church discipline? What place is left for anything but someone’s private reading and application of the Word of God? What authority does anyone else have to tell a Christian brother or sister that they’re in the wrong?

As we abandon the authority of the church and the authority of the pastor, no space is left for church discipline. Though I don’t believe my doctor is infallible—or in perfect health himself!—I generally trust him when it comes to my physical health. I give him authority to tell me where he sees problems in my health, to tell me where things look good, and even to prescribe new things for me.

Pastors today rarely hold that same kind of authority regarding people’s spiritual health. This isn’t to suggest a domineering relationship (just as our relationships with our doctors tend to avoid that extreme), but a relationship that recognizes the pastor as a spiritual authority, someone who should be expected to examine, diagnose and prescribe, as needed.

Instead, American religion today is more akin to that sad observation in the book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” 9 That line makes Phillip Tallon’s remark in my interview with him especially interesting: “We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king.” 10

How can we flee from sin when we give no one permission to name it? How can we help the church to flee from sin when we go on tolerating it in our midst?

If the church is a body, and if it is truly better to lose one part than for the whole body to go into hell, then we must restore the practice of church discipline.

On Schism

The largest form of this “cutting off” members of the body comes in the form of schism. This is an extreme form of church discipline.

We should avoid schism at great pains. Because God loves unity. Because Jesus prayed for unity among his followers. We demonstrate that unity most specifically at a common table, at shared Eucharist. When any church comes to the point that it can no longer share at the one table, schism has already occurred. All that’s left is the crying, and perhaps the lawyers.

We avoid this schism at great pains, but we cannot avoid it at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid schism at the cost of tolerating sin. Because we must avoid sin at all costs, even at the cost of losing a member of the body.

In times of severe strife in the church, our best option is to compromise and be faithful to one another while we work for a way to reconcile. But this is a solution only if the presenting issue is anything less than sin.11 If a minority group believes they would have to sin to submit to the church’s authority, then they have no options but sin or schism. And they must not choose sin.

Similarly, if the dominant group in a church believes the other is willfully practicing or endorsing sin, they have no options but to condone the sin or expel the group12 (i.e. create schism). And they must not choose sin.

If we’ve come this far, let’s be honest about what’s happening. Each side believes the other is in sin or heresy. They’ve already stopped believing the other is truly Christian. They’ve stopped treating them as “brothers and sisters” and begun to treat them as pagans or tax collectors. Schism has occurred in spirit, only institutional trappings remain. In those cases, we would be better to acknowledge that schism and treat each other as pagans or tax collectors—but this in the best possible sense: not with scorn, but with love, gently but persistently calling the other to repentance and faith.

In marital counseling, I tell people that I’m biased toward reconciliation. I will go to great pains to avoid divorce. But I won’t avoid divorce at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid it if there has been violence in the relationship (in the form of infidelity or abuse, in any of its varieties) and there’s reason to believe that violence will continue.

In the church, schism becomes necessary at the same point. We should take great pains to reconcile, even if it means tolerating anything less than sin. But when violence has occurred (in the form of infidelity to our mutual covenants or abusive behavior toward each other) and there’s reason to believe it will continue, it’s time to separate. In fact, a relatively amicable separation may offer the greatest hope for future reconciliation.

Postscript: A note on judging “outsiders”

The church in recent times (maybe always?) has done pretty well about identifying immorality “out there” among the pagans. This is exactly the opposite of what we see in the passages above. Paul specifically said that when he wrote about not associating with sexually immoral people he was “not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral… In that case you would have to leave this world.” 13 He asked, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” 14

For those who don’t claim faith faith, we don’t judge. We go to them as they are. We love them as they are. And we gently but persistently call them to repentance and faith.

Some people don’t like the first part of that—they prefer to keep their distance, and perhaps hurl some stones. Others don’t like the last part—calling people to repentance implies that they’re sinners, which could be offensive and seem intolerant. Jesus did both without apology. If we have the same love for others as Jesus, then we will go and do likewise.


  1. Many balk at this. “We all sin. We’re human!” First—by that very statement, you deny Christ’s humanity or his perfection. Be careful. Second—passages like 1 John 3:6 say the opposite: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” Third—see my article “Why I Love Wesleyan Theology” for more.
  2. I’m not suggesting that Jesus intended this statement for that purpose. But I am suggesting that it properly applies, as Jesus’ and Paul’s later words demonstrate.
  3. Unless they had come to faith, at which point they would no longer be pagans and no longer keep the unscrupulous practices of other tax collectors
  4. See Matt 9:12–13
  5. 1 Cor 5:1–2
  6. Deut 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7
  7. 1 Cor 5:6
  8. From his letter to Alexander Mather on August 6, 1777
  9. Judg 17:6; 21:25
  10. emphasis mine
  11. I could also say “sin and heresy” here, but I’m allowing heresy to come under the broader umbrella of sin.
  12. assuming, of course, that they have first attempted to correct and restore them
  13. 1 Cor 5:10
  14. 1 Cor 5:12–13

The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith, catechesis and other wisdom on theology and ministry: An interview with Dr. Philip Tallon

Philip Tallon
Picture courtesy of


I want to introduce you to Philip Tallon –– for two reasons.

First, Philip is one of the most perceptive and creative theologians I know. He works on heady topics like theological aesthetics and chairs the apologetics department at Houston Baptist University. He also served as a director of student ministries and writes about Spider-Man, Fight Club, and The Legend of Zelda.1 I know several people doing deep, scholarly theological work. I know several people who are comfortable talking to teenagers and discussing pop culture. I know very few who live in both of those worlds––and combine them––as well as Phil does. I think his wisdom and practical insights below will be worth your time, even if you never read the book or watch the videos we discuss. His reference to “pastor-as-king” and his discussion of “mankind” and gender-inclusive language were alone worth the whole interview for me.

The second reason I want to introduce you to Phil is because of the book and videos I just referenced. He recently put out a new resource called The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. One of my greatest interests is to communicate deep theology (i.e. beyond superficial or flawed pop theology) in a way that normal people (i.e. not academics) can understand and apply it.2 The Absolute Basics is a great example of that. I think a lot of you would find it useful. Maybe on your own, but much better if you could use it with a group.

Here’s our interview about that resource and more…


You’re so interesting to me for the variety of work you’re doing. Your other two books were an aesthetic theodicy and the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes. And you’re contributing essays to books like The Legend of Zelda and Theology and Tarantino and Theology. How does this project fit in with all your other interests? And how do those other interests affect how you approached this project? Would this be different if it weren’t created by someone who’s also thinking about aesthetic theodicy and if Jesus could save aliens?

It’s funny that you ask this question, because I’ve often felt like The Absolute Basics was a bit of a side project for me, but now I realize that it’s more deeply connected to my other projects than I thought.

In pointing to all these other projects (my book on aesthetic theodicy, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) I guess the abiding interest is how theology and the arts talk to one another. There’s nothing I like more than thinking about how the arts enrich theology and vice versa. This is one of the reasons why C. S. Lewis is such a fascinating figure for me and many people. He did all this work in what we might call “public theology” and then he also went and wrote amazing stories that speak to what it means to live in God’s world. The avid Lewis lover gets the pleasure of thinking about how the two modes of discourse differ and connect. Since a pastor (Jeff Hoy) mailed me a copy of The Great Divorce when I was in middle school, while I was away for the summer, I’ve been enchanted with imaginative Christian writing. If anyone hasn’t read The Great Divorce and has to choose between two books to buy, his or mine, the choice is an easy one. Lewis all the way.

But back to the subject at hand, most of my writing has been meta-level reflection on theology and the arts, not an attempt to do theology through the arts myself. The Absolute Basics was an attempt to dip my toe into that. Specifically, I wanted to lay out some Christian theology for beginners in a way that was unapologetically doctrinal (speaking from the church) but was also creative. In this regard I was helped greatly by finding an illustrator who was a serious Christian and could help translate the ideas into images. I really can’t speak too highly of Andrew Chandler, the artist who helped me. Without him, I don’t think the book & videos would have had the reach they’ve had so far. He was able to take these images I had on the page and translate them into visual form with deft lines and a deep understanding of the Gospel.

Again, this synthesis of word & image, of conceptuality & creativity, is what I’m most interested in academically. I think sometimes we’ve regarded concepts as primary and creativity as a secondary ornament. Images being the biblia pauperum (the Bible for the illiterate) as it were, with spoken or written theology occupying pride of place and the arts being a secondary medium for filling in the margins, but of course the New Testament offers us a more integrated model. Jesus is the “Word made flesh,” the “express Image” of God incarnate. Therefore images and the imagination are already bound up in God’s self-communication. It isn’t that Jesus tells us about God with his words. He is God in very flesh. When we look at Jesus we see God. And Jesus, of course, used word pictures to talk about the Kingdom of God. This isn’t an accident. Aesthetics is bound up in the business of theology.


I love the medium: a set of videos rather than just a written catechism. What inspired that?

The idea was there from the beginning. I was working in a church and knew I wanted to make something for students to use in theological education. I love those RSA Animate videos that illustrate lectures by famous thinkers. So I wrote something that could be feasibly animated. Something short with a visual hook, but where the visual element helped to enable the viewer to see the doctrinal ideas clearly.

In this sense, The Absolute Basics is really properly “read” by watching the videos, rather than just reading the text, because the illustrations are meant to be their own kind of faithful visual systematics (though a very minor systematics), where the images themselves can carry the content and help us to see the beauty & truth of God’s work in the world.

I loved some of the analogies you used. They were so easy to apprehend—trying to reconcile with friends after you ruin their Thanksgiving meal… except you can’t cook, or waving a white flag as analogy for justification. In fact, in almost all of your videos, your explanation is heavy on analogy and then you say something like, “That’s what happens in Acts…” Is this just how your mind works, or did you choose that approach for a particular reason?

Well, yes, this is just how my mind works. And I suppose it is probably how most minds work. We’re sensate, incarnate beings. Eugene Peterson says something like “stories are verbal acts of hospitality.” Most preachers get this intuitively or explicitly, and try to hang big slabs of ideas on meat hooks of the imagination in their sermons. I know some philosophers who prefer pure argumentation with premises lined up in straight rows of valid reasoning. And I appreciate this too. But even philosophers will often use analogies or thought experiments to engage our intuitions to support the plausibility of the premises. So analogies are just part of the work of communicating ideas. Again, back to Jesus, the parables invite everyone into Jesus’ way of seeing the world with unmatched economy.

Many of the extended analogies I used have theological precedents. Of the two you mention, these are nothing more than examples used by other thinkers with a fresh coat of paint. The Thanksgiving analogy–you wreck the dinner but can’t cook a new one yourself–is basically ripped from the pages of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (man ought to repay the debt of honor but can’t) and repurposed for an age that isn’t well acquainted with the feudal honor system. The white flag image is stolen from N. T. Wright’s discussion of repentance, where he talks about how Josephus commanded the rebels that tried to kill him to “repent & believe” in language that is basically identical in NT Greek to Jesus’ same words. Basically just “surrender and follow me.”

Maybe one thing more should be said about the analogies. One of the most common bits of feedback I get on the book is “great analogies.” I take this as the best kind of compliment, because I think analogies are so fundamental to understanding anything. Our language is shot through with analogy and metaphor even when we don’t realize it. We talk about good people as being “upright” or “solid.” We talk about bad people as “crooked” or “slippery.” We think about things in connection with other things. Nothing is ever really comprehended on its own, conceptually. Even God has to be grasped through analogy (as Aquinas articulates). God is best known to us through the metaphorical language of Father, Son, and Spirit. These metaphors are truthful, they show us who God is, but they also connect to us by way of analogy.

Anyway, this all went into my approach (intuitively or otherwise). The rhythm of the book is just a constant movement between ideas and analogies for this reason. If, in the end, the readers & viewers remember the analogies exclusively, I’ll still consider that a success.

A few questions about what you’re doing here as it relates to catechesis… You have 16 questions and answers and memory verses, too. Is your intention that people memorize the catechism answers and also the memory verses? Why the emphasis on memory?

It was my intention, at the very least, to offer something that was memorizable, and encourage that in the book. Hopefully churches will use it in this way. It’s certainly doable. If people can memorize the many, many lyrics in all 47 songs in Hamilton they can handle my 16 questions and answers. I mean, it’s good to ingrain the words of scripture on our hearts and minds, and to be able to repeat formal theological language. It’s even scriptural, as we read in Deuteronomy 6. It’s also not as hard as we often think. Once you get rolling, memorization becomes easier. And, of course, memorization isn’t just about getting down the content, it’s an act of meditation on God’s revelation. We’re delighting in scripture & theology through memorization & repetition.

There’s also, of course, a necessary role that memorization plays in the life of the church. If we want to be certain that Christians have really learned what the church believes, then accurate memorization is a clear way of testing that. We live in an age, at least in the American church, that has poured more resources than ever before into Christian education, but I’m skeptical that we’ve produced better educated Christians as a result. Part of this is that we put all the emphasis on top-down teaching–clear communication, engaging activities, and so forth–but very little on bottom-up responsibility for learning. On cloudy days, this strikes me as a flaw in our conception of the role of the pastor. We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king. A responsible reflection of Christ’s threefold office should at least reckon with the ways that pastors have a duty to ensure that new Christians have truly learned what Christians believe (not to mention how Christians live). What all this looks like in practice is fuzzy to me, and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and critique the coach, but it seems that at least part of Christian education should include real examination of the theological literacy of church members and, if wanting, insist on some kind of basic standard. At least in doctrinal terms, some kind of catechesis members can faithfully repeat from memory seems to be a fitting expectation. I’m still working through all this, but my sense is that our bar for real learning (not to mention living) is far lower that of other great periods in the church.

You and I have talked before about the benefits and drawbacks of creating new catechisms. Seedbed alone has four different catechisms available. Part of me wishes we could all use just one so that we could have that language in common among a larger group of people. What’s the benefit, in your mind, of creating a new catechism rather than all rallying around one that’s already available?

Right now it does seem like “of the making of catechisms there will be no end.” There’s your revised version of an older Methodist one. And more on Seedbed. And newer ones in books like Key United Methodist Beliefs. And now mine. And yes, I agree that there is something seemingly contradictory about having a bunch of different catechisms. It’s a bit like having a bunch of different sets of traffic laws taught in different driver’s ed classes. Not that the various catechisms necessarily contradict, but it is odd to say, “Here are the basics” when in fact there are other lists with expanded or contracted sets of basic ideas. This was very much on my mind & heart when I wrote up my 16 Qs & As. With this in mind (and without trying to sound too defensive) I reviewed most of the other extant catechisms so that I was working with these other, wiser voices. Hopefully they fit together in the way that various “longer and shorter” catechisms work together, like Luther’s catechisms or the Westminster catechisms.

I was, at least, encouraged in reviewing the UMC Book of Discipline to note that the Articles of Religion already contain a complimentary plurality in that the articles of the Methodist Church and the articles of the Evangelical United Brethren were both included, rather than being unified into a single set. And of course Wesley himself edited the Church of England’s articles for Methodism. All of this suggests a healthy underlying logic, that these doctrinal statements are attempts to faithfully express God’s self-revelation in scripture, and by that they are judged, and are therefore open to revision and re-expression in the life of the church as the Spirit and wise judgment lead us.

All that being said, hopefully anyone using this catechism in the church would come to these other longer catechisms with greater understanding and appreciation.

You’re especially recommending this for use in confirmation. I know that was your initial use for it. What inspired you to create it for confirmation? Was there something you found missing or insufficient in any of the other confirmation curricula?

Indeed. This all started from a pastoral context. I was charged with the teaching part of the confirmation process and tried to figure out how to do it faithfully and well. There’s a lot of material out there, much of it good, some of it not-so-good, but nothing that I thought would work for my confirmands in our situation. Sociologically speaking, confirmation is still an important rite for many in the church. Most of the parents in our church thought it mattered that something happened with the students, and I wanted to make sure we seized the opportunity. I care about theological education and if I muffed this opportunity to invest the talents given to me I’d feel that as a failure.

But there was also a deeper, objective purpose. Confirmation is the moment when people reaffirm their baptismal vows and commit to discipleship. That’s huge. And a key part of that is knowing what Christians believe. (Here I should note that the confirmation process is about more than that. It is also about Christian living, but we’re talking about theological education mostly, so I’ll focus there.) I wanted to make sure that my confirmands really knew their stuff when they stood up and affirmed their belief in the Triune God. This was the reason behind the catechism & memory verses, but more distinctly, it was the driving reason behind the image-rich videos. We were catechizing 6th-graders, and I wanted to make sure I offered an act of “intellectual hospitality” to them in meeting them where they were, but also not leaving them where they were.

Most of the other resources (to my mind) were either a) theologically astute or b) fun & engaging, but weren’t both. Some resources were neither. (Though, of course, nothing in Seedbed’s catalog would ever fail to be theologically astute.) Given the response I’ve gotten from other youth leaders, it seems I’m not alone in wanting something more than what was on offer for students especially. In this regard, I’ve been fortunate to have accidentally-yet-providentially stumbled on a widespread need. And that need seems to go beyond youth ministry, as there seem to be many adults who are looking for something that is unapologetically doctrinal while also being engaging and accessible.

Saying all of this puts my temperamental self-effacement on edge, because it sounds to my own ears a bit like bragging. To put my nerves at ease, I will add that I never intended to put my work in the conversation for fundamental Christian education, but the needs of ministry at the time seemed to call for it, and a publisher wanted it, and the reports I’ve gotten suggest that it’s been a help to ministers in the field. Hopefully God approves as well. (This also sounds kind of braggy in a faux-humble way.)

You used the NIV translation for your Scripture passages. That includes the use of “mankind” in some passages, like the ones you use for creation. I know some people have a problem with “mankind” not being gender inclusive. Any reason you chose to stick with that translation?

I used the NIV because it is a common translation, and, although imperfect, as all translations are, it is clear and yet not too wooden. It works well enough, and it was also the version in our church’s pews. I also have some specific gripes (probably uncharitable) against some other translations that have denominationally-unhelpful theological underpinnings or are hard to memorize. Specifically, I didn’t want to use the ESV because the Study Bible version reiterates a lot of Calvinist theology in the notes. So I didn’t want to initiate students into that version. This is where the (perhaps) uncharitable bit comes in. But maybe not. Calvinism is, in my view, a seriously flawed theological tradition that is fundamentally opposed to the core of Wesleyan teaching. Other versions just don’t flow nicely for memorization, such as the NASB or the CEB. I strongly considered the NRSV. The KJV is a work of beauty, but is so removed from common language that it requires additional ‘translation,’ which is a problem for contemporary church use.

Regarding traditional gendered language, I have no quibble at all. In this regard, the NIV’s use of “mankind” is a strength, one could argue. First off, gendered usage reflects more closely the original Greek. Secondly, words like “mankind” or “man” (referring to humans) are just part of standard English usage. I don’t tend to use “man” or “mankind” in my own writing, but I don’t object to their usage, and I don’t think we need to exile the word to the dustbin. “Mankind,” properly understood, refers to man and woman inclusively. Now that I say this, I’m regretting my own capitulation to standard academic usage by not using the term more. Further, outside of academic circles, I’ve rarely met anyone who raises the issue. So I don’t think it’s a relevant pastoral issue. At least, it hasn’t been one for me.

So as not to end answering this question on a rant, I’ll say that I am at least philosophically committed to preserving traditional language. Returning to the KJV, there is something that is lost, I reckon, in losing the formal addresses (“Thou,” “Thy,” etc.). Looking back at the distance between our common language and the variety and beauty of older English expression makes me wish that we had done more in the past to preserve it. I suppose this suggests I should have opted for the KJV as my translation of choice (or something akin), but again, one wants scripture to speak clearly now, and so as a pastor, using such an old translation seems imprudent. These are the tensions one lives with.

I’m curious, what did you learn from doing this project?

Thank you for asking this question. It’s an easy question to answer, though with a harder resultant implication. There are two key things I learned in the process. One is that, in working with confirmands, we had not dedicated nearly enough time to the process. The default schedule was only 8 weeks. Even covering what I took to be the basics of theology requires, in my view, at least double that. Secondly, I focused on doctrine (as befits an academic egghead), but a faithful confirmation process needs to attend as much to Christian living. This is a gap in my work. There really should be a second part to The Absolute Basics focusing on spiritual disciplines, Christian morality, and so forth. Not to mention there’s a need to talk about Methodism specifically, its history and distinctions, which my work largely overlooks. Perhaps we’ll be able to create some supplementary materials in the future, but until then I hope that anyone using the material in churches will be able to make up for the deficiency.

Have you heard any good stories from people who are using this yet? Anything that surprised you from how you expected it to be used?

I’ve been flattered by the good feedback. Many folks are using it much like I have, for confirmation mostly. But I’ve also heard it is used for adult education classes or in new member initiation. The reality is that most churchgoers really don’t have much of a theological grounding, so it seems to be a help in a range of contexts. Probably the most unexpected use was its adoption in a systematic theology class at HBU (not taught by me). The professor used it to get all his students up to speed with basic doctrine in the first few weeks before they dove into heavier material. This was a bit surprising because the book looks so unassuming. It has cartoons on the cover and throughout. I never expected the book to be on a college syllabus. But it seems to be helpful to the students. Honestly, I never expected this to go much beyond confirmation class. It’s a helpful reminder, I suppose, that sometimes the best things you do aren’t the things you expect to have an impact.


I hope you enjoyed this interview. Now two things:

1 — Go to Seedbed and check out The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. You can see the catechism, a book preview, the first two videos in the series, and several leaders’ guides.

2 — Click here to subscribe for my blog updates. My goal is to provide thoughtful articles on theology and ministry and to introduce you to others who are doing the same.


  1. That’s a small sample. See his CV for more, or to see where you can find those articles.
  2. As part of a grant I received through the Louisville Institute’s Pastoral Study Project, I’m having several conversations this year with people who are doing this kind of work––work I call catechesis.

Your mission statement just isn’t that interesting

missionI hate to break it to you, but your mission statement just isn’t that interesting.

No – come back! I’m not suggesting that you schedule a leadership retreat, or a years’ worth of all day monthly meetings, so that you can develop a more interesting one.

More, I’m suggesting that the mission statement itself just isn’t a very compelling piece. Two primary options for how this plays out:

Option 1

Someone tells me about their beautifully crafted mission statement. Many of these really are a work of art –– carefully worded, maybe with some fine-tuned alliterations (“We Cherish Christ, Cultivate Community, and Care for our City”) or a nice acrostic (First Church used to Find, Ignite, Reach, Strengthen and Train people).

After the person tells me about the mission statement, I ask them how they’re actually living it out. The most common response I hear goes something like this: “Well, that’s what we’re working on now.” You might not believe just how common that kind of response is.

That’s usually because some team has just recently––within the last two or three years––come up with that shiny new statement. They invested a lot of energy in that statement. That was a fun and exciting time, dreaming of what the church would be like. Then came the hard part: actually doing it. That takes much more work. It’s mostly done out in the real world where things may or may not work, not in the conference room world where our diagrams seem unimpeachable.

Many of the people I talk to have moved on from crafting the statement to organizing and educating. They’re trying to get all of the church, or at least its leaders, to memorize the new statement. Maybe there’s a sermon series about it. And they may be reorganizing their leadership structures to get it to fit. In the alliteration church above, they’ll be reorganizing into Cherish, Cultivate, and Care Teams.

This is a time of great excitement for leadership around the church. There’s a new, bright future just up ahead. But still, none of the hard work has happened.

I’m wholly uninterested in mission statements at this point in the process. Because I’ve learned that this is usually the end point of the process. 1 The problem is that this “transition” point never seems to actually end. Go around a room of ministry leaders and ask them what’s going on in their ministry, and the most common response will be, “Well, we’re in transition right now.”

In some sense, we’re all always in transition. Each day is a new day––transitioning from yesterday to tomorrow. Total stability is either a myth or an incredibly boring state. But in ministry, “transition” often has to do with trying to move from something that wasn’t working to something that we expect to work. We remain constantly in transition because we thought we had found a magic bullet in that last program or curriculum or mission statement. There was a time when that old thing was the shiny new magic bullet that would change everything… until it didn’t. And so we’re “transitioning” to something new because the old wasn’t working well enough. (There are exceptions––the old was great, and has enabled this transition to something even more. We’ll get to that below.)

Now if the work that followed actually helped the church live into that mission statement, maybe it would all be worth it. But I’m dubious. If the last mission statement didn’t help them achieve all their dreams and didn’t get total “buy-in” from congregation or leadership, why will this one? They may point to problems in how the last big idea was crafted or introduced… My question: was the mission statement the problem?

Personality and leadership

Some of this has to do with the personalities of our leaders. If you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs Types, they show how some people tend toward abstract thinking and others tend toward concrete thinking. The abstract thinkers are Ns in Myers-Briggs language. They live with their heads in the clouds––dreaming and thinking and sometimes missing the real world around them. They come in two varieties: the Idealist type (feelings-heavy) and the Rational type (thinking-heavy).

Idealists and Rationals make up only 20–30% of the population. The other 70–80% are concrete thinkers––people who live in the real world. Let’s all thank God for that ratio!

I keep a spreadsheet of Myers-Briggs Types for anyone whose type I learn.2 Of all the pastors in my spreadsheet, 85% are Idealists and Rationals. Though these groups of abstract thinkers compose only 20–30% of the population, they compose 85% of the pastoral leadership around me (a rather broad survey of pastors, mainly United Methodists). As a proud Rational, let me tell you what these personality types enjoy: sitting in an air-conditioned room with coffee and snacks and thinking/dreaming about things. We can solve any problem with an 8-hour monthly meeting. Sometimes the Idealists don’t even know if there is a problem, but they still have the meeting. Dreaming is fun.

The business of crafting mission statements is a siren song for these kinds of leaders. After a few years of coming down from the high of creating the last one, people miss that great visioning/dreaming/missioning/visioneering experience, and they start angling for a new statement. This is also known as: we made a mission statement, but we never really did what it said, so the mission statement didn’t work. We need a new one.

And why didn’t we really ever do what it said? All of us who live in abstract world specialize in diplomacy (Idealists) or strategy (Rationals)––the idea work. What we don’t specialize in is logistical and tactical thinking––the actual, hands-on work. And guess who doesn’t give a rip about our beautifully alliterated mission statements? The concrete thinkers who actually know how to do the work! They’re generally uninspired by all the new education and organization around something dreamed up in a conference room.3

This is especially an issue in my UMC context, where pastors move frequently. One of the first things a new pastor wants to do when (s)he arrives: work out that new mission statement. Why isn’t the old one ever good enough??

For churches that aren’t actually living it out, your mission statement is just not that interesting. It doesn’t mean anything. And I’m not convinced that this next one is the answer, either.

Option 2

But then there’s the other scenario: the church that is doing it. That statement reflects the reality of how they’re living. Their mission statement is a bit more interesting. But only barely.

Our church has a mission statement: to make disciples across the street and around the world. Interesting? Maybe a little, not a lot. To be clear, I don’t mean that it’s bad! I like it. I use it. I hope to God we don’t schedule a series of meetings to reconsider it. (Although no acrostic, no alliteration…)

In the past 10 years, our church decided not to build a massive sanctuary, but instead to start two new, small communities. One of those communities moved to a different part of town nine years ago. The other––the one that I lead––just moved to another part of town a year ago. We have welcomed hundreds of new people into the life of the church because of those moves. Those are people we never would have reached with a giant sanctuary downtown. Just this past Sunday, someone walked in because her house is around the corner and we made a connection with her. When we say “across the street” in our mission statement, we really mean it. New communities give us a chance to meet new people and give them an invitation into the life of the church. A bigger sanctuary will do a lot of good things, but it won’t do that.

Did my community move because of our mission statement? No. I’m pretty sure we would have done that regardless of the exact wording of the mission statement. We would have done that because our church believes in going new places to reach new people. We believed in that before we incorporated it into a mission statement. The mission statement reveals our values, but that statement was not the key to our move. The key to our move and the reason for our mission statement were the same––we deeply value contextual discipleship and doing it in more and more places. While we have things on paper to support that, it’s something more internalized than it is formalized. And it’s internalized in our congregation because we repeat the stories, not because we make them memorize the mission statement.

What’s interesting to most people isn’t the mission statement, it’s what we’re actually doing. Another example: a first-time guest recently told me that she loved how our church values being a part of the community. She didn’t say that because I stood up on Sunday and said, “Our mission statement is to Care for our City…” or anything of the sort. She said it because I talked about a neighborhood Labor Day cookout we were hosting so we could meet neighbors and offer a community event as a blessing in the area.

Far more interesting than a statement of purpose/mission/vision is when someone can say, “We’ve been doing _____ for a long time, it’s what we’re doing now, and it’s what we expect to do going forward. And the reason we do that is [insert formal mission statement if you must; explain it in more normal language if you can].” If you don’t have the track record to show that you’ve done it before and it mattered, and that you’re doing it now and it matters, I don’t have much faith that you’re going to do it in the future in a way that matters.

At this point, people may point to some exciting new announcement, and the way a group delivered on it. Think of Apple’s iPhone announcement. They had never done iPhone before. They announced it. They did it. And it changed… everything. But why did we care about Apple’s iPhone announcement and believe it? Because they had a track record of creating new things that people loved. Exciting new announcements only work if you fulfilled or surpassed the promise of your last several exciting new announcements.

In lieu of grand programs & fanfare

I read Good to Great by Jim Collins last year––a decade late to the party, I know. I thought it was outstanding. But the most profound part of the book was one that I haven’t heard quoted in leadership circles.

In chapter 8, Collins describes going to the great companies and asking their managers about when everything changed. When was that sudden moment of exhilaration, when they all “bought in” to the big new idea and everything changed? Most of the managers couldn’t name that point. Instead, they described a steady process of doing the work, leaning in a bit more and doing what they did a bit better each day. He writes,

We found a very different pattern at the comparison [not-great] companies. Instead of a quiet, deliberate process of figuring out what needed to be done and then simply doing it, the comparison companies frequently launched new programs—often with great fanfare and hoopla aimed at ‘motivating the troops’— only to see the programs fail to produce sustained results. They sought the single defining action, the grand program, the one killer innovation, the miracle moment that would allow them to skip the arduous buildup stage and jump right to breakthrough.

Those not-great companies probably often described themselves as “in transition.” What Collins calls the “grand program” is what I’ve been calling the “magic bullet.” Can’t you just imagine the long (and exhilarating to the dreamers) series of meetings that produced each one of those new “grand programs”? Meanwhile, the great companies just kept on doing the work, day by day.

The work of ministry

The work of ministry doesn’t need to be as complex as we often make it. Your mission statement… it may not be perfectly crafted the way that you want it. But it’s not that interesting, anyway. Much more interesting is the work. And you can probably figure most of it out without that perfect statement. (The church made it some 1,900 years without committee-crafted mission and vision statements, SMART goals, and 5-year Ministry Action Plans. There’s a chance that you could, too!)

A good place to start:

  • Lead your people in good worship. That may include gathering other members of the congregation to help in worship planning and in the worship service itself. This requires time devoted to preparation––diligent sermon study and development, hopefully other study about the nature, history and purpose of worship, maybe with that group you gathered above.
  • Visit the people. Visit people in crisis. Visit people in your congregation. Visit people in your community. This may require some creativity––how do you meet people who aren’t in your congregation? Spend more time talking about souls than strategy. Spend more time in living rooms (or across coffee tables) than in conference rooms. Use that time visiting people to know more about their spiritual condition and their personal history. Believe in them and give them opportunities to grow and lead.
  • Organize the people. Your mission statement or strategic plan or whatever it is probably has something in it about small groups and serving in the community. That’s great! Find some way to organize people into groups for the sake of spiritual growth. Give them opportunities to serve in the community. This also doesn’t have to be complicated. And remember that if you choose some fancy curriculum/program, it’s not a magic bullet… so it’s not worth a great fanfare and hoopla campaign.
  • Study. At a youth ministry conference several years ago, someone told us to read two theology books for every practical ministry book we read. That was a catalyst for me going to seminary. I wish I remembered who that person was so that I could thank them… and tell them to make it three for every one. (I use “theology” here to reference several kinds of non-practical books. My reading plan in “Related Posts” below says a lot more.)

My basic contention here is that it’s just not that complicated. Difficult, yes! Complicated, no. Do the work, learn as you do it, then keep doing it better. There are no magic bullets here. There are no magic bullets anywhere, only dreams of them.

If you love mission statements, if they’re the filter that you pass everything through before action, I’m not suggesting you kill yours. Maybe it really is something crucial for your leadership team to use. That’s just fine! But whatever that statement is right now, it’s probably good enough. Don’t invest your best energy in creating yet another one.

And don’t waste your people’s best energy on that new education and restructuring campaign. Unless you look back upon your last education and restructuring campaign as a monumental success, there’s just not much reason to believe this one will be, either. (I’ll be the killjoy for moving pastors: that monumental success of a campaign you look back to at your former church, it’s probably the one someone else is undoing now. One person’s sensational new plan is another’s problem to fix.)

As a thinker and dreamer, I understand our love for this kind of work. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just not that interesting, especially if it hasn’t accomplished what it should have in the past. If your church has the debris of several half-enacted slogans and statements in its wake, now is not the time for new slogans and statements. It’s the time for doing the work.

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See the “Related Posts” below for more on Worship, Visit, Study (in Classical Pastor posts), reading plans, and perishing without vision statements


  1. The other most common place in the process is even earlier: “We’re having a series of monthly meetings right now to build trust and then work on our mission.”
  2. You could have that bit of information alone and probably know that I’m an INTJ.
  3. This is hardly just an issue in church world. It’s why so many of the “front lines” people are baffled at the things handed down from corporate that corporate thinks they would care about.