IMITATION: Getting Beyond Information-Based Discipleship

Karl Weick, in his book Making Sense of the Organization, says, “…whenever you have what appears to be successful decentralization, if you look more closely, you will discover that it was always preceded by a period of intense centralization where a set of core values were hammered out and socialized into people before the people were turned loose to go their own ‘independent, ‘autonomous’ ways.”* Weick is pointing out an important ingredient here when it comes to decentralizing the church for missional ventures. As much as we would like to see the church decentralized for mission, we cannot successfully de-centralize for mission until we first go through a period of centralization where the necessary foundations for movement are embedded within the community.

Centralized or Decentralized for Mission?

This is exactly what we see taking place in the life of Jesus, the revolutionary founder of a global movement. For 3 1/2 years Jesus discipled the twelve and modeled for them what discipleship, community and mission really looks like. When it came time for the disciples to launch out into a decentralized mission of disciple making and mission, they had the necessary training and tools to lead the movement. You can’t get to Acts without passing through the gospels. And you can’t make it through the gospels without passing through discipleship. The reality is, Jesus did not expect the 12 to know how to be or make disciples, live in community, or be on mission with God until he had modeled and trained them for 3 1/2 years.

Trying to catalyze a decentralized movement without laying a good foundation of discipleship is just trendy new-speak. In fact, if you try to decentralize without first going through a period of centralization where the core practices of being and making disciples along with living as an extended family on mission, you will not end up with movement at all. What you will end up with is a fragmented group of disillusioned people with no point of reference for how to move forward. To put it another way: Decentralization before discipleship equals diaspora. Decentralization after discipleship equals movement.

Imitation as the Missing Link 

Most churches find themselves stuck in a stage of centralization, but it is not the kind of centralization Jesus has in mind. Instead of centralizing around the core practices of being and making disciples, and living as an extended family on mission, the church often centralizes around teaching and information. In this model of centralization, discipleship and mission take a back seat to the centralized gatherings that are primarily focused on preaching and the band. If there happens to be any mission minded leaders in the bunch, they typically challenge the church to go and do mission, but in essence they are wanting people to spontaneously go out and do mission on their own.

The only problem with this approach is that people tend to do what you model for them. So if you give only give them information, then challenge them to do mission, they will most likely equate mission with giving people information…about the centralized gathering where you receive…thats right….more information.

The missing link in this informational approach is discipleship; specifically, the principle of imitation. In order for me to learn how to be and make disciples, and live on mission, then I need to be invited into a relationship where I can have access to someone who actually lives it out in their own life. To get me going I need something to imitate. My friends at 3DM use this triangle to illustrate the proper relationship between information, imitation (discipleship) and innovation.

It starts with information, then leads to imitation, and finally moves into innovation. Centralization takes place during the first two phases. Decentralization takes place as you move towards the edge and innovate with new expressions of ecclesia. The order is really critical if you want to see a decentralized movement of disciple making and mission to emerge. The missing component, for most church plants (and churches for that matter), is the phase of imitation where a leader invites people into a relational process where they model for them how to be and make disciples and live like an extended family on mission. If the leader is aiming for decentralized mission where people move towards the edge and innovate new expressions of ecclesia within every nook and cranny of their context, then they need to invest the necessary time and energy to centralize around the patterns of Jesus’ ministry. Those who take the time, like Jesus, to build a discipling culture will always get what Jesus got……a movement. If we want a movement like the one Jesus started, then we need to do it the way he did it. There is just no way around this.

It is true that anyone can start a movement, but the sustainability of that movement will hinge upon whether or not the leaders of the movement can be and make disciples…that make disciples…that make disciples. Imitation is the portal through which all successful movements travel.


Tim Catchim co-authored The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church with Alan Hirsch. He grew up largely in the metropolitan region around Washington D.C. His leadership experience revolves around urban and semi-urban church planting, discipling, and working with at-risk youth. Tim functions as a multi-vocational entrepreneur. In order to support his church planting habit, he started a curbside recycling business. He is the founder and director of Generate, a coaching and consultant agency for apostolic ventures. As a practitioner of grass roots church planting, he brings a unique perspective that can only be forged through experimentation, failure, and success.