Over the last month, in communities and organizations across the spectrum of the gospel-centered missional movement, I have come across a growing number of people on the cusp of burnout. Many were close friends, few were acquaintances, and at least one of them was me. Tired, worn out souls exhausted from community and mission. They are faithful people; well trained, well supported, and well resourced. What’s worse, their exhaustion with the mission usually coincides with financial, marital, and familial stress.
Causes of Mission Fatigue
So, what is going on? As a child of this movement, I have often been at a loss. I thought we had it covered? We are supposed to center our lives on the gospel and then live intentional and communal lives empowered by the Spirit, making disciples of Jesus. If this was the plan, why does it keep spitting out exhausted and discouraged people? It wasn’t until I personally stared this burnout in the face and searched my soul that I discovered why the gospel mission has become the exhausted mission.
1. Looking for the Wrong Fruit
We are looking for fruit. We desire fruitful lives. In my own journey, as the months and years continued to pass by without a rapid multiplication of communities with baptisms and new churches formed, I grew exhausted and discouraged. We must be doing something wrong! I must be doing something wrong! Eventually, I simply thought that I had wasted years of my life. I was fruitless. Many of the people I talk to experiencing missional exhaustion have the same experience. Interestingly, the fruit that is expected from us in the Scriptures, not in our heads, is not new churches, converts, or communities. Rather, God wants to produce love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control in us (Gal 5:22-25).
God wants to produce love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control in us.
On the other side, this is what the Spirit does through us: performs miracles, brings people to repentance and faith, produces new life, gives gifts, baptizes, and appoints elders, among other things. Leaders experience discouragement when we measure the wrong things. When you strive to produce things that the Spirit is in charge of, you work harder than you ought and place responsibility on yourself that you could never carry. This is a sure recipe for exhaustion.
However, when we pause and reflect on the fruit of the Spirit born in us, we are encouraged because we see things the way we are. When I stopped to see the things the Spirit had done in me, I realized my life wasn’t fruitless. In fact, it had been very fruitful. Over the years God had given me love for people I didn’t even know at the beginning. God had given me peace in my heart and marriage. God had created, seemingly out of nothing, a contentment with small budgets and his presence. The reality was, God had been working in me. Ironically, it was that fruit in me that God used to produce fruit in others.
2. Living with an Urgency of Ego
Leaders who are striving for success and ‘great stories’ expect them to happen immediately. This is one of the oldest tricks the enemy uses to destroy mission: get them to think we can make a name for themselves. The urgency to have a thriving missional community or life that produces results that are celebrated is exhausting. It is tiring trying to be an expert and gain the affections of ‘missional’ peers. Self-serving mission leads to burnout 100% of the time. If the urgency of ego isn’t for self-gain, it is for another’s. I have also witnessed people crushed by the burden of proving themselves to their leaders’ apparent expectations, which many cases, didn’t exist.
3. Living with an Urgency of Ideal
This is a slightly different urgency. This is where the goal is to do exactly what we read in the ‘book’ or saw at the conference. We expect and strive to do things by the book. The books are helpful and so are the conference speakers. What becomes exhausting is a newfound legalism—modelism. When you have a problem or get stuck, you are turning to the expert’s blog, book, twitter feed, and videos. These can be helpful, no doubt. But in the end, the mission is too difficult to look for strength and endurance in a model that can’t offer either.
The mission is too difficult to look for strength and endurance in a model that can’t offer either.
4. Agenda-filled Relationships
When every relationship you have comes with an ‘intentional’ and strategic plan to make them a disciples of Jesus, you run out of steam quickly—because you don’t have any relationships. Every holiday, season, sporting event, and errand has become ‘intentional’ in all the wrong ways. Agenda-driven intentionality is: “What can I do for God in these things?” Or worse: “How can I move this person one step closer to buying into my belief system?” To be clear, I am all for intentionality and I completely agree that God is using us and can use us all the time. However, I would add God also wants to do something in us at all times. Gospel intentionality, the opposite of agenda-driven intentionality, asks regularly: “What is God doing, where is he, what is he saying?” Or, better yet: “What can I do to see him clearly in all of life?” The gospel means we are reconciled with Christ. Our redemption is to life with him. Our commission is with him.
We often forget this in our rush to live intentional and missional lives. We aren’t trying to figure out how to make disciples all the time. Rather, we are trying experience Jesus in every part of life. Discipleship is inviting people to experience the reconciliation and redemption of Jesus in their lives, too. In this way, be a normal person who experiences the supernatural presence of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.
5. Lack of Patience
We often expect to see fully-formed disciples after a few months or even a few years. When we don’t, we throw our hands up and say, “This doesn’t work, what else can I try?” Imagine you move into a street where your house is the only one that believes Jesus is King and Savior of the world, and even you struggle to believe it in almost every area of life. However, you buckle down and go for it. After a few years, you have made great relationships with neighbors and have spoken the gospel in several ways and at several moments. You have wrestled with some of your idols, too. Your marriage went through a very difficult time, but you are starting to see restoration. You praise God for all your new friends, opportunities, and growth. But you feel that you have failed. You haven’t baptized anyone. You should stop what you are doing.
6. Bad Math
If you attempt to do more than you are called or asked of by Jesus, you will be tired. There is a simple equation found in the book Margin by Richard Swenson: Your Load (or what you are called to do) – Your Power = Margin.
Your load is what you are called to do, what is being asked of you, what you have taken on as your responsibility. Your power is your capacity, gifts, time, strength, and finance at your disposal to do it. Margin is either sanity or chaos, under- or over-utilization. It is a simple equation: if you are committed beyond your power, you will be exhausted. If you do far less than you have power to do, you will be bored. Too often, we assume the role of saving the planet or at the least our community. We accept great and worthwhile roles and responsibilities followed by a belief that we are omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. If you don’t believe you are those things, you have believed the laws of time, finances, and energy don’t apply to you. You press on with a packed schedule and slim bank account. The Spirit is powerful and works in remarkable ways. The Spirit does not call you to more than he will supply the power. Jesus calls us to more than we can do on our own, but he doesn’t call us to more than he will empower.
Simple prayers and questions: What is Jesus giving me power for? What is Jesus asking me to do?
Finally, at the end of the day, we are not gospel-centered, we are mission-centered. The noblest idol in all of Christianity is mission. We approve when people worship it, celebrate it, and lay their life down for it. The idol of converts is as powerful as it is subtle. It is easy to drift. Here lies the problem: mission doesn’t give power, energy, grace, or redemption. Reconciliation of the gospel makes us ambassadors for the Reconciler, not mini-reconcilers. This is the end result of all the things mentioned above.
We have drifted from gospel-centered life to a mission-centered life. When this happens, we make disciples of the mission instead of disciples of Jesus.
We are susceptible to mission fatigue. The question is, what are we supposed to do about it?
If you are believing and living any of the things above, you are worshiping false gods, telling God you are a better missionary than the Spirit and a better savior than Jesus. You’ve made the mission of God your god. Turn from those things and toward the true God:
The God who is great, so do you don’t have to be in control of the mission.
The God who is good, so you don’t have to look to the mission for personal satisfaction.
The God who is glorious, so you don’t have to look for significance in the mission.
The God who is gracious, so you don’t have to prove yourself in the mission.*
This is the God who invites you to join him on his mission. The God who is infinitely careful of you. What practices remind you of that truth?
2. Live in the Urgency of Spirit
God is patient. Somehow we think that the Spirit is frantic and urgent, but he is actually patient and powerful. Consider the lame man healed by the Spirit in Acts 3. This man had to have been passed by Jesus multiple times in his life. Somehow God waited to heal the man much later. Or consider the decades of patience as the gospel slowly moved into Europe and only after a dream appeared to Paul after days of being denied by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not a yes man. The Holy Spirit waits, says no, prepares, and works over time as much as he works in an instance.
3. Seek Rhythms of Rest
Finally, learn to rest regularly. First, learn what rest means. Rest does not mean doing nothing. Rest also doesn’t mean doing chores around the house. Rest also doesn’t mean ‘family time.’ All of those things may be components of rest for you. However, rest truly means to marvel at all the God has done and is doing. The first day in the life of a human was not building, organizing, it was resting in the goodness God had created. It was only after that day of resting in God and what he had done did we go to work doing the things he commanded them to do. We live on mission from a starting point of rest. We don’t rest from the mission, we get on mission because we rest.
We don’t rest from the mission, we get on mission because we rest.
This means that you learn how to remember and worship the goodness of God. Make space within your life to focus on resting in God’s work. You will do this daily. You will do this weekly. You will do this monthly, seasonally, and annually. These are patterns throughout the Old Testament with sabbaths, festivals, and jubilees. In each of these, people stopped trying to make things happen. They left their fields, their military posts, their labor, etc. The point was always to remember and celebrate the things that God had done to redeem them and form them into a people. It is good wisdom for us to do the same. What does this look like? My example:
Daily, I take a 15-minute walk through my neighborhood praying and reflecting on what God had done the day before. Asking him on that day, “Help me see you and step into the things you call me into.”
Weekly, I take a day where I intentionally focus on what God is doing and has done. I remember the gift of him. For me, I journal, write, read, and spend time with my family. We remind me of grace. We also spend time with friends and neighbors on this day. However, the point of this day is to celebrate and worship who God is and what he has done.
Monthly, I get out of town or at the minimum my neighborhood. I read, write, and mostly pray. I’ve found a monastery an hour and a half away and the drive alone is worth it. Also, at different times in our marriage, my wife and I have been able to spend a night out of our context once a month. This is an amazing practice everyone should try. As we leave, we pray and ask God to bless our time. While we are away we reflect on the past month.
Annually, I take a real vacation, even if it is a stay-cation. During this week or so, do what is relaxing and enjoyable to you. Hike, ski, swim, sun bath, read, whatever is enjoyable. Eat good food and listen to good music. Reflect and worship God for what he has done and pray for the things you hope God will do in the next year.
As you do all of these enjoyable things of rest, take time to reflect on these questions:
What were the low-lights and hard things last year?
What were the high-lights and clear blessings last year? (Oddly, these answers end up being the same as the hard things.)
What did we see God doing last year?
What do we hope to see happen this next year?
What fruit do we pray to see this next year?
What are our fears with this next year?
How is God good, great, glorious, and gracious?
The Best Way to Spend Your Life
I want to leave you with an appeal. Do not leave a life on mission because you have made it your life. There is a way to be on mission and for your life to be about Jesus. In fact, this is the only sustainable way. As you press into seeing Jesus present, involved, and relevant at your dinner table, at work, in the garden, and with your friends, you will be on mission. The gospel is the only agent of perseverance. This is one thrilling life of repentance, faith, and fruit.
Jesus is worth it! You will find Jesus on the mission, but don’t substitute the mission for Jesus.
Brad Watson serves as a pastor of Bread&Wine Communities in Portland, Oregon and is the co-author of Raised? Doubting the Resurrection. His greatest passion is to encourage and equip leaders for the mission of making disciples. He is Mirela’s husband and Norah’s dad. Check out his website and follow him on Twitter: @BradAWatson.
*Adapted from Tim Chester’s 4G’s.