If you’re trying to level a three-legged table, you put a bull’s eye level on the tabletop and adjust  the length of the legs until you get the bubble in the center of the circle. To center the bubble, you have to extend the leg that’s too short. But if you only pay attention to that leg, making it longer and longer without keeping the others in mind, you’ll overcompensate and push the tabletop the other way. It still won’t be level.

This is what the North American church has done with the three legs of mission, discipleship, and leadership over the past four decades. It recognizes that something is missing, it raises awareness about the need, it makes the weak element the center of everything and ignores the rest, and it re- places one sort of lopsided church with a church that’s lopsided another way.

In the 1980s and 1990s, “leadership” became the hottest word in pastoral ministry. Megachurches were proliferating, and as churches became more complex organizations, pastors strove to rise to the challenge. Thinkers in the business world had just begun replacing the concept of “manager” with “leader,” and pastors of middle-class, suburban churches attended by managers-turned-leaders began adopting the concept as well—Bill Hybels typified the trend, but he wasn’t alone. Leadership Journal, a popular, influential publication for pastors, launched in 1980. After a while, “leader” came to be used inter- changeably with “pastor” or “minister” and in some circles replaced it almost entirely (1).

Then around the year 2000, an array of thinkers and ministry practitioners challenged the fixation on leadership by emphasizing mission. Of course, the previous era had been placing a high premium on having a mission, stating the mission, and being driven by the mission. But the new voices alleged that these mission statements fed the organizations but didn’t flow from the mission of God. They proposed decentralized organic movements of Jesus-followers dispersing into the world with the gospel. It was the birth of a missional reorientation that changed many minds. But leaders often struggled to stimulate, sustain, and spread such movements on the ground in such a way as to transform ministry far and wide (2).

Later, in the mid-2010s, another critique arose, this from the angle of discipleship. These crit- ics were by no means opposed to mission, but most didn’t come from the missional conversation. Some were founders of parachurch ministries built to train believers in Jesus’s way. Others were church leaders who were tired of the lack of discipleship fruit borne by the “worship, small groups, volunteer service” ministry model. Under their influence—and amid a series of scandals in the sub- culture that cast severe doubt on evangelicals’ holiness and faith—a rising tide of leaders are now pointing at discipleship as the church’s greatest need. In fact, we’ve never seen more church leaders with a heart for disciple making than we see today.

Unearthing the Real Problem

The problem is that each of these movements lifts up something missing without integrating it with the rest. In a local church, it often plays out in the string of pastoral hires. If you look at one church’s history, you may see a couple of leadership-focused pastors followed by a mission-focused pastor and most recently a discipleship-focused pastor. If your church has multiple pastoral staff, you may have all three represented, today’s biggest influence coming from your most recent personnel addition. And most likely, your leadership development leader, your mission leader, and your discipleship leader each oversee basically separate ministry departments with different philosophies and priorities.

Each thrust is legitimate, but it usually plays out as an overreaction to the overreaction that preceded it. Leaders gravitate to the one they’re naturally good at, overgeneralize it, and stand on it to critique the one that came before. But leadership, mission, and discipleship don’t work well when they stand alone, when they stand with their backs to each other, or when one stands over the others.

Wherever leadership stands over mission and discipleship, leaders establish an empowered elite who measure the mission with solely organizational metrics and deliver the goods and services to everyone else.

Wherever mission stands over leadership and discipleship, leaders send people out without adequate support or training, and they go out and fail—or if they manage to survive with their faith intact, they swear never to go out on mission again.

Wherever discipleship stands over leadership and mission, leaders prepare people for mission, but the preparation never ends and mission never starts, because leaders never get convinced that people have been prepared enough to be entrusted with the mission.

We need leadership, mission, AND discipleship—all three. Whenever we don’t have them, we substitute volunteerism for leadership, service for mission, and participation for discipleship. At worst, we make participants who volunteer to serve instead of making disciples who lead on the mission.

This is why today’s rising emphasis on discipleship is both a welcome opportunity or another ride on the ministry merry-go-round.  It could turn out to be a launchpad or and it may be just another fad. 

As crucial and badly needed as discipleship is , pushing hard on it isn’t going to solve the church’s problems and rescue it from its current crisis by itself.. Long-term, faithful success hangs on whether the church can integrate mission, discipleship, and leadership development into a coherent whole, a self-reinforcing ecosystem. 

The Power of a Disciple-Making Vision

But the good news is we can learn from the past and don’t have to repeat it. 

You can pull a few pages from Jesus’ playbook—found in the gospels and Acts—in order to step into the future with a shared disciple-making vision that is forged at the intersection of these three integrated and highly interrelated priorities.

Venn diagram showing disciple-making vision as the overlap of discipleship, leadership, and mission

When you, your staff and your leaders share a clarity around the kind of disciples your specific, local community desperately needs more of—it will fuel your church’s vision for your unique context. 

And at the same time, guided by a shared vision of the future becomes more meaningful when it can only be accomplished through lived and integrated disciple-making clarity that is shared by staff and leaders. 

Step off the ministry merry-go-round and into a disciple-making future you can believe in.

At Clarity House, we love being a safe place for leaders to wrestle these sorts of questions. We specialize in assisting church teams in discerning a shared vision that is coupled with disciple-making clarity.


(1) Abraham Zaleznik, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review (1977; repr. January 2004), https://; David F. Wells, No Place for Truth; or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 113–14, 232–33.

(2) Will Mancini and Cory Hartman, Future Church: Seven Laws of Real Church Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2020), 89–92.