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Tribes and the Lost Art of Discernment

A week or so ago I wrote a couple of posts on how you can keep the unchurched in mind in your preaching and from the parking lot to the pew. The aim was to give practical, strategic ways churches and those who lead them can better reach those far from God. I was glad to write it. Frankly, I have no reservations opining about ways leaders can think strategically about being more effective in making disciples. I sure need and want to hear from other leaders on the same. That’s why I don’t have any problems looking to other leaders to learn about how to do what I do better. It’s also why, for example, when I spoke at my church planting network’s regional conference on being strategic with the unchurched, I quoted and referenced leaders outside my immediate tribe without giving it a second thought. This means that some of the men and women I’ve learned from are those with whom I have healthy disagreements concerning their theological and philosophical approaches to church.

Unfortunately for some, looking to leaders who don’t share your theological distinctives or church philosophy is anathema. I’ve been places where if you quote [a non-tribe leader’s name] or say you like [said leader’s] approach to dealing with a specific issue you run the risk of being regarded as some kind of sellout, pragmatist who’s a heartbeat away from purchasing a laser light show and circus clowns for your Sunday morning “event.” You definitely are in need of a strong rebuke…or better yet, a gossip session: “Did you hear who [leader in your tribe] has been influenced by? What’s he thinking? We started our tribe because we don’t want to be like those guys!” The sad result is that isolationism and insularity become shibboleths for who the real faithful are. Do they quote our guys, go to our conferences, read our books? Another unfortunate product is the fostering of an either/or mentality which tragically pits good things against each other, forcing a tribe’s faithful to embrace one at the loss of the other. For example, one person’s tribe is either into theology or leadership but it can’t be into both. Embrace theology and you’re regarded as too doctrinaire for your own good. Embrace leadership and risk being branded as guy who puts ends over means. It’s crazy, pick any tribe and often you’ll get subjected to all kinds of false dichotomies (attractional church vs. incarnational church, Sunday school vs. missional communities, etc.) forcing you to pick the “right” side.

Whenever I see this either/or mentality I want to scream, “Whatever happened to discernment?” Wise leaders at some point (usually those who’ve been around for awhile) recover the ability to go beyond their own circles and discern the good, true, and beautiful in the thoughts, activities, and wisdom of the broader Church. That doesn’t make them de facto sellouts or pragmatists. It doesn’t guarantee they’ve drunk the kool-aid or turned to the dark side. It could be that, while they love their tribe, they also recognize God has blessed the larger Church with leaders they can learn from…and still disagree with on issues. It could be that they’re simply being discerning leaders who want the truth no matter what church organization, umbrella ministry, or publishing company is behind the content. Frankly, it’s amazing to me that many of my own tribe feel a great sense of discernment (and offer great, articulate defenses) about the things they see, hear, wear, say, and drink, but mention this-or-that non-tribal leader/speaker/author’s thoughts on the church and it’s like we forgot how to chew the meat and spit out the bones.

Beware, thinking in these kinds of all-or-nothing extremes not only shows short-sightedness and immaturity but will hamstring your leading the church. Count on it. Being a good leader demands being a good discerner. It would do you well to ask yourself if you’ve judged a fellow leader simply based on him or her referencing someone you didn’t like even though what they said was actually true, good, and beautiful. If so, repentance is the next step to take. Then I’d challenge you to recover the lost art of discernment via learning from those outside your circle. You may find great, timely, God-glorifying wisdom for those you cherish most from those you may disagree with most.

Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

8 thoughts on “Tribes and the Lost Art of Discernment”

  1. Hi,

    Solid article. How about we drop the term “unchurched” and just call them “lost” like Christ did. “Unchurched” really means nothing when you logically think about it. Just b/c you are “churched” doesn’t mean you’re part of Christ’s universal church. I understand “unchurched” is the new PC term, but we should call them as they are “lost” or “unsaved”. I think it adds more urgency and actually views the person as an immortal soul who will stand before God and give an account for their lives vs. just another number to count (or not count) at a church gathering.

  2. Bryan – isn’t the point of ‘unchurched’ actually to differentiate between the lost who have been to church, and those who haven’t? Just as you say, plenty ‘churched’ people aren’t saved. But when we are thinking about how to reach people who are totally new to the church, who didn’t grow up in it, for instance, the challenges are very different to reaching a lost person who already knows the gospel and who feels welcome in the church. I don’t think Yancey is trying to be politically correct here! It’s a genuinely useful term.

  3. Just read the article (linked from I say “Amen!” I went through that struggle for a while but, as you state, I too grew out it. There are good people, with whom I disagree on some core issues, but they still have good insights and thoughts in other areas. I can still learn from them. Thanks for a well-written article.

  4. Thanks for the article. Question: how does one distinguish between those who disagree with us on “core issues” and false teachers?

  5. I liked this article right until your bio. There is no way I could trust the discernment of someone who likes Chelsea. I’ll try to learn from you in other areas… but it will be hard.

  6. Yancey Arrington

    Jesse, thank you for trying to apply the heart behind the blog post to my bio. You will be better for it! 😉

  7. I appreciate the general tone of this article and wish there was more discernment among those I go to church with.
    I disagree with this author on whether it is ok for Christians to be proud about their state (or anything else for that matter) but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn some things from him. 🙂

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