Don't Let the Periphery Displace the Center

From The Cross and Christian Ministry by D.A. Carson,

Western evangelicalism tends to run through cycles of fads. At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how "vision" consists in clearly articulated "ministry goals", how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements -- but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning. Again, I insist, my position is not a thinly veiled plea for obscurantism, for seat-of-the-pants ministry that plans nothing. Rather, I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of displacing the center, we are not far removed from idolatry (25-26).

Real Change

Real change happens when biblical truth and personal honesty intersect in repentance, faith, and obedience (David Powlison, "Getting to the Heart of Conflict: Anger, Part 3". The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 16:1, p. 32).

The Failure of Accountability

In Fight Clubs: Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Jonathan Dodson discusses the failure of accountability groups. He explains that accountability groups tend toward two extremes.

1. Legalistic Accountability

Although the aim of accountability groups is good, misguided accountability practices can lead to legalism. In legalism, performance replaces obedience, we are motivated by works not grace. In legalistic accountability, failures to perform are punished through graduated penalties...Even if the intention is to honor God; the motivation is reduced to merit-making before God. Instead of holding one another accountable to trusting God, we become accountable for exacting punishments. The unfortunate result is a kind of legalism in which the healing of repentance and faith in the gospel is substituted by peer prescribed punishments. As a result, our motives for holiness get warped (20).

2. Confessional Booth Accountability

Alternatively, accountability groups can devolve into a kind of confessional booth. We confess our sins and depart absolved of any guilt, fearing merely the passing frown of our fellow confessor. I confess my sin; you confess yours. I pat your back. You pat mine. Then we pray. Accountability groups become circles of cheap grace, through which we obtain cheap peace from a troubled conscience. Confession is divorced from repentance, reducing holiness to half-hearted morality...This approach to discipleship is hollow. It lacks the urgency required by the fight of faith (21).

Dodson goes on to describe how these extremes can be avoided.

We need to remove accountability from the center and replace it with the Gospel. We need to orbit around Jesus, not rules or confession. Instead of groups gathered around accountability, we must gather around Jesus. Only then will we find something truly worth fighting for. The question, then, is not only “Will we fight” but “How will we fight?” What will motivate us, and how can we keep the gospel central in our obedience (21-22)?

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on accountability groups and the issues Jonathan raises in his book.