Off Mike Recap: Memetic Exemplars
The Off Mike podcast features my in-process thoughts about a large number of topics. In order to continue the conversation, I will present a written version of the key thoughts of these podcasts.
In this edition, Sally and I again work together to share what’s on our hearts.
Welcome to the newest edition of the OffMike podcast. Today, I have Sally back again, and we thought today we would give an idea about what we’ve been doing in our Huddles recently and what we’ll be navigating in the future.
As you remember, last week we talked about our season in the desert, and now we want to turn to the celebration of moving into a new territory of promise that we need to take possession of. In this post, I want to share about some of the particular ways that I will be doing with leaders of movements and churches around the world. (It’s also true of us together as a couple, although there are distinctive elements in our individual calling.)
In John 1:14, it says:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
So many people in the missional movement have focused on that verse, interpreted that verse, translated that verse, given all kinds of nuances and meanings to that verse. At its very heart, it is the message of God contextualizing his communication to us as human beings.
He is stepping into our world so we can understand his world. He is stepping into our world so we can hear his Word.
The Word takes on our lives—is enfleshed in our lives—not simply the blood and skin but all of our lives, the very realities of our lives. God comes among us in the second person of the trinity, the Son of God. We know him as Jesus, and he dwells among us. He dwells among us temporarily as a tabernacle. He moves into our neighborhood, into our world, into our lives, and he contextualizes his message to us so we understand it.
Over the years the people I’ve led and discipled and trained have often said to me that they don’t understand what I’m doing when I use the same content, the same message, the same material, and speak on that message on that material in a new
location in a new context, and somehow the people to whom I’m speaking think it’s designed for them.
I can’t tell you how many times leaders and people on my teams have commented to me afterward, “What is it you did there that made it possible for those people in Canada, Scotland, New Zealand, wherever it is to hear that message we’ve heard back home as if it’s a message designed and crafted for them.”
Of course, the answer is contextualization. But I’ve never been able to take that contextualization gifting from the intuitive and make it intentional. Over the last couple of years, one of the things that I’ve done particularly is to really go after that as something to understand, analyze, and break down into its component pieces, so that I can understand what God is doing in me, and what God is doing through me. By doing this, we can break it down to the point where it becomes an intentional process we can multiply and reproduce into the lives of others.
Clearly, one of the great obstacles for us as missionaries to our neighborhoods and networks is the whole issue of the message we have being understood by the people we are living among. They won’t understand it unless we can…
- Communicate it
- Live it out
- Express it
…in ways that are understandable to them.
Contextualization is the key.
Preaching and Contextualization
From the earliest days of being a Christian, preaching was foundational to my sense of calling. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the first books I read was by Martin Lloyd Jones on preachers and preaching.
I can remember when you went to hear him. I didn’t go and hear him, but you went.
Manchester Free Trade Hall. Two thousand people went to listen to the doctor. He was an ancient man then. He looked a little bit like Winston Churchill in that he wore those old-fashioned suits and overcoats and a white shirt and a tie.
I remember very clearly what he preached on. “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but to God that which is God’s.”
I can’t remember last week, let alone 40 years ago.
You know what my memory’s like. I can’t remember anything in my short-term memory because I have no short-term memory. But once it’s in the long-term memory, I can’t forget it.
It’s always been there, the preaching thing. It’s always been central to my sense of calling and to the way in which we have formed and fashioned the discipling ecosystems in the churches we’ve led in London and around the world and in Sheffield.
We always used to say that Sunday was the event and the week was the process. Discipleship was about event and process, kairos and discipleship, and that Sunday was really about the event—the kairos. Preaching and worship together, shaped, crafted, well-led, well-communicated, was the crucial component that got people started in the process of discipleship. So preaching had a foundational part in the discipleship process.
I can remember people’s responses over and over again to your or somebody else’s preaching on a Sunday, and how they referred to it through the week. It would be a point of conversation or referred to at one of the times of prayer.
It was almost like the beginning of the week that they heard the preaching, and then it was absorbed and worked out.
I was thinking about it, because I didn’t preach. That was not part of my role…
Although you are preaching now…
I am doing my first preaching in Canada.
I think a lot of the people who have been sitting around your kitchen table think you’ve been preaching for a long time.
I did lots of discipling in the week, but there were times when I did teaching in the church or for set reasons. I think preaching was absolutely crucial to the whole process and the movement that came out of Sheffield at our time there.
Some of the leaders who migrated to the North American shores or have gone elsewhere around the world have said to me that some of the movement that has been represented by 3DM or the Order of Mission doesn’t necessarily always carry with it all of that DNA from the Sunday experience. So much of what we did through 3DM and the Order of Mission, and what they’re continuing to do, is dealing with the process of discipleship and not so much the preaching event that so often in Sheffield got the thing going.
The thing about the Sunday event was it gave people an insight into our lives, the things you were thinking, movies you were watching, books you were reading, places you were going, conversations you were having. It made you so authentic and real, because it wasn’t an isolated moment. It was every week. You talked about what was going on inside of you, what God was saying to you. So you used it as the start of the discipling process.
That’s the key, isn’t it? If we’re right in saying that discipleship is about
- Acquiring the right kind of information about Jesus and what it means to be a disciple
- Imitating the right model
- Having the freedom to be creative and innovate what you’ve learned
…then that whole thing about information in preaching is well understood, and everybody gets that.
But I think the thing about imitation in preaching is not often embraced or understood. This is the mimetic exemplar, as I would call in academics.
In academic circles, the way I would describe it is that there’s an exemplar—an example—and the example is offered intentionally for someone to imitate. There’s an imitation—mimesis.
The mimetic exemplar is offered in the sermon. There are basic three kinds of mimetic exemplars:
- Biblical examples
- Other people from history or the contemporary world
- Then there’s yourself
The Biblical examples, obviously there are all the different women and men of Scripture who are the great heroes of the faith. But principally of course, in the Biblical examples, you have Jesus who you present as the perfect example that you can follow, imitate, and pattern your life on.
Then there are all these others—people we may have heard of, people we find interesting in history or in the contemporary world. They may or may not offer a perfect example. In fact, they may offer a negative example. It may be that you say,
“You know, this person does X, Y, Z, and that’s obviously nothing like what we as Christians want to do.”
Jesus is only a positive example, but characters of the Bible, you can take the things they did in their life and say these are good people, but they didn’t offer a good example on this occasion.
- You can talk about Gideon being afraid
- You can talk about David and Bathsheba.
- You can talk about Peter’s denial.
There’s a lot of different ways you can say it’s not just a positive imitation or pattern.
I think that whole world has not been fully explored. It resonates within me and is captivating me right now. This is the reality from the point of view of the scholars that I’m now connecting with—in the missional conversation, in the missiological debates and discussions, there is literally almost no literature on the role of the sermon in mission.
That’s amazing. When you think about all the great revivals, the classic ones, they were all based on preaching.
There were other things, obviously. There’s a whole world that’s going on in a revival, but preaching is at the very spear point of the whole thing.
It’s amazing, that. I hadn’t realized that at all.
Neither had I. I don’t doubting the ability those scholars to identify that correctly, but I checked into it. There’s writing about homiletics, the study of preaching. There’s writing about rhetoric and the study of public speaking. But there literally is almost no literature on the role of preaching in the development of mission, the development of discipleship, or the development of the missional movement. I find that just stunning.
So why do you think that is?
I think there are a couple of reasons. I think that one reason is that the missional church has tried to get the church out of the building. One of the things that happen most often in the building, apart from singing and liturgy, is preaching. And so you’re saying, there are six other days in the week when you’re supposed to be out there doing the mission of Jesus, and so Sunday’s important, but… And they never really focus on Sunday. I think that’s one of the reasons.
I think the other reason—and I think this is the reason we haven’t done it in the movements we’ve started—is that you want to have the broadest appeal possible. If you’re going to have a broad appeal, you don’t want to start meddling that people are most precious and most protective of. And the things we are protective of are our spiritual traditions, our spiritual heritages, and our sense of denominational and spiritual identity.
If you start fiddling around with people’s expectations of what worship is supposed to look like and what preaching is supposed to look like, people will naturally become defensive. They’ll start asking themselves…
- “Are you saying I’m no good at doing these basic things?”
- “How do you know you’re talking correctly?”
- “Do you really know me?”
Generally what we’ve said is, “You have Sunday. We’ll train you on what it is to do on the back on Sunday.” It’s what you do as the process rather than the event. I think that was the right thing to do, the legitimate thing to do. I think it was the right strategy.
I think now, my sense is that God is prompting me both in terms of the academic world because I’m going to write a Ph.D. on this stuff, and a popular version on this for the world to read.
The thing I’m going to do is I’m going to take it to leaders and start training them on how to understand the message of their life, how to connect it with the metanarrative of Scripture, and how to contextualize it to the context that they’re supposed to be working in—whether they’re a preacher, a pastor, or some other kind of person.
You don’t have to be a full-time paid pastor to do this.
But you have to understand what your window on the gospel is, what your testimony is, what your message is that gives you access to the whole gospel. And you need to be able to connect that to the people around you. The way you do that is to understand what makes the connection.
I’ve been doing that with a lot of the women I’ve been coaching, and it’s been amazing. Surprisingly to me, it’s been a good evangelistic tool. The women have felt
much more confident about talking about their story because they understand the whole process better—why they have it and what the purpose of it is.
It’s the typical kind of Breen approach to things. Rather than saying do this and this, it’s saying, this is the way to understand it, and this is why you need to do it. If you agree with that, here’s the method by which you can actually apply the things you now think are important.
I think it’s important at this stage to realize that what you’re saying is not just for professional pastors. The message applies to everybody.
Yes. My particular task is to work with church leaders more and more so. When we first started out, we were working with lay Christian leaders, because we were lay leaders and then we were ordained and were running a church. With 3DM, we were working with church leaders. As we move into this new season, we are working with movement leaders.
And I think my particular gift is always to apply it to the ordinary and the normal.
A Final Word
The thing I think we need to go after in all of this contextualization in relation to imitation is to remember those three categories of mimetic examplars.
In our communication, it’s always good to have Biblical characters, Biblical models that we can offer both as positive and as negative examples of what we’re talking about. Jesus, of course, is always a positive example. It’s always a good idea to have other characters from the Bible who can give us both the positive and the negative to humanize the Scriptures for people.
It’s really important to have other characters from outside of the Bible, from history of the contemporary world, who offer both positive and negative examples.
And I think it’s really important in our communication to tell people how it is we are living this stuff out. Tell them both the positive and negative examples. Give people both the positive and negative of attempting to live it out. Sometimes we do well, sometimes we don’t.
I think in doing that, we’ll not only humanize our communication, but we’ll also—if we do it intentionally—begin to create the context for developing an ecosystem of discipleship.
- Of course, you can do this around the kitchen table with your children.
- You can do this in your missional community with the people you serve there.
- You can do it in your community Bible study and your discipleship group.
- You can do this in your huddle. It’s enormously important that you do it in your huddle.
- And you can do it in your public speaking and weekend preaching.
I’d encourage all of you to consider all these things and weigh what we’re sharing with you today. Take on this idea of offering mimetic exemplars—people who can be imitated because they offer a positive model, and people we choose not to imitate because they offer a negative example.
And in doing that, begin to create a world that people can relate to that becomes the beginnings of an emergence of an ecosystem of discipleship.