Off-Road Disciplines

Earl Creps, Off-Road Disciplines: Spiritual Adventures of Missional Leaders (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006). $23.95, 240 pages.

The American church is in crisis. Sunday morning worship attendance figures are declining. But interest in God and spiritual matters is increasing.

A typical pastoral response to this crisis asks, “How should we do our worship services?” In Off-Road Disciplines, Earl Creps suggests a better question: “How can I be changed so that others will find me worth following in mission?” (3, emphasis in original). The former question focuses on technique, while the latter question focuses on spiritual formation.

Off-Road Disciplines addresses the spiritual formation of missional leaders, that is, people who “see the world through the eyes of Jesus and see Jesus in the world” (xiv). Books on spiritual formation usually outline what the Bible (or a particular Christian tradition) teaches about spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study. For Creps, “an experience is a spiritual discipline if it has the potential to form God’s heart in me, and if it functions as one because I embrace it as such” (xvi).

The book consists of two parts. Part One, “Personal Disciplines,” examines six disciplines that form the heart of missional leaders: death, truth, perspective, learning, witness, and humility. Part Two, “Organizational Disciplines,” examines six further disciplines that form the practice of missional communities: assessment, harmony, reflection, opportunity, sacrifice, and legacy.

The context in which Creps wrote this book is the struggle of the North American church to respond to the issues of postmodernism and its emerging culture. For him, every church must negotiate the “impulses” of “preservation” and “innovation” (100-5), regardless of whether its “brand” is “traditional,” “contemporary,” or “experimental” (105-11).

Creps’s eschewal of technique in favor of spiritual formation is both helpful and frustrating. Helpful, because it entails that any brand can be missional. Frustrating, because technique problems are much easier to solve than spiritual formation issues. In other words, it’s easier to change a church’s style of worship than to change the hearts of its leaders. No amount of tinkering with contemporary styles will result in missional effectiveness. What is needed is a change of heart. As Creps puts it, “My best practice is me” (14).

That change of heart begins with death, that is, the death of the technique way of thinking and the level of personal control it offers leaders. “A missional life, then, experiences the centrality of Christ as our failures expose the illusion that we merit the center position. Failure, among other forces, reveals this illusion for what it is, crucifying it and giving us the chance to invite Christ to assume the central role in practice, instead of just in doctrine” (10).

Truth-telling, what Creps calls “sacred realism: the discipline of holding the truth in one hand and faith in the other” (26). In other words, missional leaders fearlessly face the church’s demise without despair, because they know God is bigger than their problems.

Missional leaders also cultivate the discipline of “perspective” or “POV,” i.e., “point of view.” Rather than answering the question, “Where are you a missionary to?” they answer the question, “Who are you a missionary to?” North American culture is often defined as “postmodern” or “emerging.” Pastors tend to respond to these abstract trends with emotional extremes, either passionate embrace or equally passionate contempt. But as Creps writes, “The Father did not send Jesus to redraw maps, or refine worldviews, or redeem music. He came for people, spiritual beings who sin and hurt and die” (38).

This way of framing mission, as personal and concrete rather than theoretical and abstract, leads into the chapter on “learning” or “reverse mentoring” (41-53). If the mission is personal, then we must listen to the people whom God is seeking to save in order to better understand how to serve them. “Reverse mentoring involves a specific form of friendship based on trust” (48).

This friendship extends beyond relationships with Christians to relationships with unbelievers. Creps’s chapter on “witness,” or “the discipline of spiritual friendship,” begins with an interesting discussion of “mental models” of unbelievers. Are they “souls with ears,” “barbarians to civilize,” or even “invisible people,” that is people the church never even talks about? Or are they, in keeping with Jesus’ three parables in Luke 15, “the sought” (57-61). And if “the sought,” do missional leaders make time for them and listen to them?

Humility is the last of the personal disciplines Creps discusses. Technique entails control and engenders pride. Spiritual formation engenders humility. “Negative humility” includes attitudes such as, “I am not omniscient,” “I am not omnipotent,” “I am not omnipresent” (73-7). “Positive humility” includes attitudes such as “I don’t know,” “I’m sorry,” and “I need you” (77-82).

To be missional effective, spiritually formed leaders must lead spiritually formed organizations. The first spiritual discipline Creps discusses is “assessment.” Creps distinguishes between “what we are not measuring (others’ spirituality) and what we are measuring (our own responsibility)” (93).

A second organizational discipline is “harmony” or “the blending of differences.” Every missional organization must negotiate the impulses of preservation and innovation, regardless of what brand of church (traditional, contemporary, experimental) they promote. Creps suggests harmony happens when we focus on “commonality” of mission, allow variety on matters of “conscience,” focus on the “cultivation” of healthy members rather than the palliation of unhealthy ones, focusing “concentration” on what’s good about other brands, and celebrating the “contribution” each brand makes (117-21).

“Reflection” or “discernment” is the third organizational discipline. Theologians often work with a “theory-practice” model, in which they determine theory and pastors put their theory into practice. This leads to a huge divide between disciplined theological reflection on ministry (in seminary) and more pragmatic practices of ministry (at the local church level). Creps advocates a “theological reflection” model, in which missional leaders “attempt to cooperate with God in ministry,” “process the event,” “use Scripture as a mirror,” and “respond in renewed cooperation with God” (133-4).

“Opportunity” or “making room” is the fourth organizational discipline. Here, Creps encourages missional leaders to think of mission three dimensionally. “Missional space” consists of “heart dimension,” “venue dimension,” and “Spirit dimension” (145). In other words, do we love God and neighbor, do we create space for love to grow, and do we leave room for the working of the Spirit? Missional space contracts whenever one of those dimensions is not working.

“Sacrifice” or “surrendering preferences” is the fifth organizational discipline. Healthy relationships in general, and missional relationships in particular, require that both sides make personal sacrifices. Creps illustrates that with the New Testament story of Paul circumcising Timothy for more effective missionary service among both Jews and Greeks. Surrendering preferences is “voluntary,” “sacrificial,” and “missional” (169-72).

The sixth organizational discipline is “legacy” or “passing the baton.” For an organization to have an enduring life cycle beyond its founding moment, it must cultivate and empower new leadership. Drawing once again on Paul’s relationship with Timothy, Creps argues that baton-passing must be characterized by “love,” “integrity, “and faith” (176-82).

Off-Road Disciplines challenged me to the core of my pastoral being. It forced me to address my need for control, my preference for technique, and my avoidance of spiritual formation both personally and organization. By that, I don’t mean that I neglected prayer and the Bible. Rather, I mean that I neglected to let God’s Holy Spirit form my own leadership. Whether I—or you—agree with all of Creps’s recommendations, his book is a timely reminder that missional leadership is the work of the Holy Spirit, with whom we cooperate or without whom we simply spin our wheels.


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