I’ve created a poll on my linkedin profile that asks “what is the most effective environment for making disciples?”
Please go and vote, see what others are saying, and return here to share your thoughts.
I think a question church leaders need to be asking is, “What aspects of Jesus’ relationship with His twelve closest disciples were meant to be universal to all of Jesus’ disciples?”
We know that some things are probably going to be a bit different two thousand years later in our modern society. Most of us aren’t going to be asked to abandon our businesses, leave our families for months and even years on end to travel the dusty countryside and not know from one night to the next if we are going to be sleeping in a random person’s home or sleeping outside with a rock for a pillow.
On the other hand, in many of our churches today, the most that people are asked to commit to by church leaders is to attend a large gathering for one hour a week and tithe so that we can pay the light bill.
Radical discipleship for us today doesn’t really look like either of the above scenarios. We often consider the relationship that Peter, James and John had with Jesus, but we forget about Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Bartimaeus, Susanna and Joanna. These were men and women whose lives were transformed by their encounter with Jesus but it didn’t compel them to be with Jesus every minute of the day. More importantly, it didn’t compel Jesus to ask them to have the same relationship with Him that the Twelve had. In other words, they weren’t invited to spend the next 2 or 3 years wandering around with Jesus.
Of course, church leaders today aren’t promoting that sort of commitment anyway. Today, it is more common to bend to the lowest common denominator. A weekly service, a challenge to give to the church and to the needy, a 15 minute quiet time, and be a good father, mother, husband, wife, and don’t cheat on your taxes. We don’t do too good a job asking people to go deeper in their commitment because we don’t really know what that means.
So what was it about Jesus’ relationship with His twelve closest followers that we are meant to continue today? When Jesus prayed for His disciples in John 17, He asks the Father that He protect them (from stumbling?) “so that they may be one as We are one.” Then, for all disciples, He prays the same thing: “May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me.” (17:21) A relationship with God and with each other takes time. It takes sacrifice. It takes love. Certainly, in my marriage, I don’t leave it at one hour a week. Relationships take effort and we are asking way too little if all we are asking is a couple of hours a week.
But relationships aren’t scripted either. That’s why we can’t say that a disciple is more committed if she shows up at the church building 10 hours a week rather than 3 hours a week. We need to help people “practice the presence of God” and show a willingness to get together with other believers. Invite a couple over for dinner. Meet someone for coffee. Volunteer together at the homeless shelter. Gather for Bible study and prayer at someone’s home. Be consistent. Be available. Do it because you love your family and want to know how to pray for them.
The universal call to discipleship may not look exactly like the Twelve, but it is every bit as radical and transformational. It affects how we work, how we play, and how we live. For some, it may involve more time than we are currently giving, but for others it may simply be the quality of time spent that needs to change. The most important thing is that we are in relationship with God and with the Body and Jesus prayed that we would all be One. Oneness won’t happen with the back of someone’s head, it happens face to face.
Most Christians in America are overwhelmed.
The typical Christian in America works 50+ hours per week and sleeps about 50 hours per week. That leaves about 68 hours to spend on everything else: family, friends, hobbies, exercise, cooking, eating, housework, watching TV, playing video games, homework, lectures, and – oh yeah – God.
Our culture is on the move. A typical church attending Christian doesn’t want to spend more than an hour on Sunday spending time with other believers. In fact, many Christians have the perception that they go to church instead of recognizing that they are the church. As a result, church has become a place rather than a people, an hour rather than an identity, and an obligation rather than a privilege. The Christian begins to view their responsibility to church as the minimum set of requirements necessary to be considered a “regular”.
There are a lot of ways we can simplify our lives so that we can spend more time with other members of the church. I want to explore that in more detail in a forthcoming post entitled A Gathering Church. Meanwhile, how are we to perceive our role in the world?
#Should there be a secular vs. sacred dichotomy in our minds?
#Should we feel guilty if 95% of our time is spent in the world and only 5% is spent in “sacred” activities?
#How can we move from “regular attender” to become a faithful follower of Jesus (regardless of how much or how little time we spend in a church building)?
#How can we be the church when we aren’t with the church?
I’m Glad You Asked
Too many Christians are not asking those questions. If you are one of the few who is genuinely asking questions like these then you are on the path of a disciple. You are learning what it takes to truly follow Jesus. Keep asking those questions and others like them. Now let me see if I can provide some thoughts on the matter.
A church that merely packs out a church building for an hour each Sunday with regular attenders may look successful but is in fact disobedient to Christ. If the leadership of a church isn’t calling its members to costly discipleship then it is ignoring one of the most central teachings of Christ. We aren’t called make converts or church attenders, we are called to make disciples. But where do we look for new recruits (so to speak)?
A Church on the Move
In the Matthean Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), Jesus tells his followers, “As you are going, make disciples…” Every pastor has pointed out this nuance that “Go” is not the command because it is a participle and it means “as you are going”. In other words, this isn’t new stuff but it is a very important point: “Make disciples” is the command. Jesus commands his church to be on the move. It’s hard to escape from the busy pace of the American lifestyle, so let’s take advantage of the fact that much of our day is spent with unbelievers.
We are on the move because we are Americans and we are the church because we are Christians. So, as we go about our daily activities, let’s keep in mind that we are ambassadors for the kingdom of God. It’s kind of silly to think that we would try and be ambassadors only when we are in the walls of a church building during “holy hour”. America doesn’t send out ambassadors to America, they send ambassadors to places and people that need to hear the message we have to communicate. In the kingdom of God, our role in the world is to go to the people that need to hear God’s message of love and truth. We are going anyway (job, gym, restaurant, store, etc), so why not fulfill Christ’s commands “as you are going”?
Following Jesus 9 to 5
I once waded through every single verse in the gospel of Mark to determine where Jesus spent his time. Jesus spent most of his time on the seashore and in the marketplace with business people. Coming in as second to spending time with business people, Jesus spent his time with his disciples. Then, Jesus spent time in homes, and finally he spent time in the temple complex. So, in order of importance Jesus spent most of his time in the marketplace, then with his disciples, then in homes, and finally in the temple complex. Jesus made disciples as he was going.
We are called to be the church, not just when we are with other believers, but significantly we are called to be the church when we are not with other believers. It’s easy being the church with like-minded friends, but discipleship wasn’t the easiest thing in the world for Jesus’ original Twelve was it? We don’t just choose to be disciples when it’s easy for us. Peter and John said they considered it a privilege to suffer shame for the name of Jesus. (Acts 5:41) Suffering was one of the core values of the early church. We will never experience the kind of suffering of the first disciples, so can we not have enough boldness to share with a co-worker or a friend about our relationship with Jesus?
We freely talk about our spouse, our children, our pets, our hobbies, and our interests, but not about our God?!
The reason God never comes up in conversation is because we have misplaced priorities. Our job is something that is of absolute necessity so that we can pay the bills and eat meals. We forget that we are a child of the King. He is the source of our needs and He has placed us in our jobs and in our circles of friends to share God’s love with others. That is why we are employed: not to make money but to make disciples. Rather than view the workplace as a mission field for making disciples, too many Christians just try to get through the day so they can collect their paycheck and go home, never thinking about what “as you are going, make disciples…” might mean for their lives.
The church needs to develop the habit of calling its members to follow Jesus. Our leaders are often not willing to challenge the church to go beyond regular attendance at worship gatherings. Success for a church is not in filling a building on a weekly basis. Success is determined by how many lives are being transformed. It’s about quality not quantity, depth not width. Followers of Jesus recognize that church gatherings are pointless if the church is never going. But when the church is a going church, the church gatherings are that much better!
Related Post: My Top Concerns for the Local Church
I hate trying to figure out titles for church related ministries. It’s not always necessary. Titles tend to confine a person or organization into a narrowed definition. On the other hand, “small group ministry” as a title is merely descriptive and doesn’t tell you anything about the goals and purpose of the groups.
Description or Purpose?
In my previous church we used the term “community groups” to indicate that we were hoping to foster community by being intentional about meeting together with a small group of people. Not bad. There are “fellowship groups”, “life groups”, “home groups” and “Bible-study groups”. These titles tend to intentionally or unintentionally, for better or worse, confine your group to focus on fellowship or on life or on homes or on the Bible.
Some of those titles are descriptive, others have to do with the purpose of the group. A home group simply indicates that the group meets in a home. A life group indicates that the group wants to learn how to live life together as followers of Jesus. You get the idea. Each title gives a description or a purpose to the group. There is nothing wrong with any of these terms. The problem is choosing one.
Jesus’ Small Group Ministry
So, I’ve been asking myself a question: What do we call the “small group” of people that Jesus led? We usually call them the Disciples. Well, that small group has gotten to be pretty large as all of us who follow Christ are disciples. That’s good to remember when we encourage small group leaders to foster growth in their groups. “The Disciples” is a good term because it tells us who they are and the purpose for which they are together is presumably for discipleship.
The Disciples were also called The Twelve. Twelve is a descriptive term that merely reflects that this close-knit group was, in fact, small. It wouldn’t do to call our small groups “The Twelve”. Like, “I’m going to go hang out with the Twelve tonight.” Especially if your group actually consists of nine members. A descriptive term merely describes reality. That’s why “small group” is a basic term that is functional and helpful even though people will say, “But ‘small group’ isn’t in the Bible” or “That sounds so formal.” Fine, it’s got its pros and cons but it doesn’t hurt anything to refer to gatherings of a small group of people as small groups.
My Favorite Names for Groups
Anyway, all of this reflection has led me to rank these names for small groups in order of personal preference:
1. Discipleship Groups (81% satisfaction) – It’s descriptive, it indicates the purpose of the group but it also reminds us of who we are: disciples. I’m basing this group name on my reflection of the question “What do we call the small group that Jesus led?” I think this is my new favorite name for small groups.
2. Life Groups (74% satisfaction) – I think Life Groups is a pretty good name. A healthy small groups ministry will be encouraging people to not only believe but to live the Truth. It’s important for us to put our faith in action. If Christians were living the life they were supposed to our country and our world would be a different place. A small group is a warm and loving environment where faithful followers of Jesus are incubated to maturity.
3. Absolutely No Name (58% satisfaction) – There would be some benefit to going completely organic and going out of our way not to give these gatherings a name. The problem here is that if we are too loose and eschew any sense of order and structure then that’s exactly what we will get. No definitions, no values, no set times, no stated purpose, etc. = perish. The Laws of Entropy apply even to our church and our small groups. As many people have noted before me; structure is like the fireplace and the Spirit is the fire. No one is trying to suggest that the success of any group has to do exclusively with what it’s called or with it’s vision statement. Still, there is some value to intentionally going with no names…it just doesn’t go in the bulletin very well. I tend towards less structure but I value a sense of guidance and organization here and there.
What does your church use to describe or give purpose to your small groups? What are the limitations to giving groups of people some sort of name? What are the benefits?
I have a passion for the life of the local church. The purpose of ChurchETHOS is to redeem the prophetic and influential role of the church in American society. Ethos basically means the habits or character of a group or individual. It can also mean the sort of reputation one person or group has with another person or group. So, ChurchETHOS explores how we can restore habits and customs that conform to the Way, Truth, and Life of Jesus and develop a good relationship with those outside the church.
So here are a few of my top concerns for the local church:
1. Members are just going through the motions.
Many Christians spend only about one hour per week involved with their church. They go to a church building. They know when to stand or sit. They know when to sing or listen. Most importantly, they know when the “hour of power” is supposed to be over. And may it never be that the pastor ever forget.
2. Prayer is not effective.
Not that the prayer of a righteous person isn’t effective, or that God isn’t listening. Instead, most of our churches are infected with lazy Christians who have no vibrant relationship with God and think that prayer is just rubbing the lamp and the genie-god comes out and does everything we want it to do.
3. The local church isn’t led by the Spirit of God.
It’s not just the people in the church that concern me, it’s the leadership. Elders often think they are the decision makers and they lack the close connection with God necessary for the health of the church. Acts 14 gives a good example of the elders being led by the Spirit to act.
4. Preaching is talking.
Often the preaching elder doesn’t know how to exhort or rebuke or encourage. He doesn’t spend time discovering what God is saying to the Body through His word. Preaching becomes a series of talking points that lack persuasion or correction. Preaching isn’t prophetic anymore.
5. The American Dream is more important than the Kingdom of God.
For most people, life with Christ is crowded out by regular life. Working hard to be successful, to make money, to become more powerful, these are the reasons most members have for why they can’t invest more in God’s kingdom. They can’t imagine how their wants
needs could possibly be provided for without working 60+ hours a week. Since prayer isn’t effective, surely God can’t be relied upon to fulfill His promises.
6. Serving and hospitality are no longer values.
Since the American Dream is such a powerful force, there’s little time left to help someone in need. We have our excuses: “Based on how they dress, if I give them money they’ll probably just spend it on alcohol or cigarettes.” “I can barely afford cable TV and the payments on my flat screen, much less give to the church.”
7. Making disciples is for the paid professionals
In fact, everything that needs to get done around the church is up to the pastor to do it. At the heart of this is the fact that members are no longer following Jesus. They don’t care about what He said. They don’t care about what He did. They don’t care that they are supposed to be following His example. Primarily what Jesus wants us to do is to love God, love people and make disciple-making disciples. There aren’t even a whole lot of paid professionals (pastors) that are fulfilling that commission.
These are just a few of the concerns I have for the church. What concerns you? What are your ideas for how to solve these problems?
Recently I was asked by my pastor to start a new small group. Our group has grown to about 16 people and that gets to be too intimidating for some people to share. This has led me to reflect on the question “Why community?” This has certainly been a question I have visited before, as small groups were the building blocks of my previous church. But I thought I would take things I’ve learned in the past and merge those with what God is teaching me at present and give a concise but thorough Case for Community.
Biblical Foundations for Community
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus encourages His disciples to make disciples. Paul echoes that commission when he writes to Timothy, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2). As we are making disciples helpful to be reminded of Jesus’ prayer for us as disciples and disciple-makers in John 17:21 “May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You send Me.”
In thinking about this prayer, Francis Schaeffer writes, “we must never forget that the final apologetic which Jesus gives is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians.” Gilbert Bilezikian says, “According to that prayer, the most convincing proof of the truth of the gospel is the perceptible oneness of his followers.” Without love and unity the world will disbelieve. On the other hand, it is our love and our unity that enables the world to understand and receive the Truth. Jesus’ prayer is the one we should be praying for ourselves and for those we are discipling that we would be one. Colossians 3:14 reminds us that “Above all, put on love – the perfect bond of unity.”
“May They All Be One”
So, the goal of our discipleship should be unity – unity with God, and unity with each other. But how do we get there? Ephesians 4 gives a great answer. Verses 12 and 13 tell us that the leadership of the church is a gift from God “for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” Step one, train the saints to do the ministry! Does it even seem feasible for one man to do all the hospital visits, to people he hardly knows, on time he hardly has? Instead, the members of the church should be mobilized to care for the sick, reach out to the lost, feed the hungry, and care for the spiritual needs of their neighbors and friends. The leaders are mobilizers and it should be all of the body serving one another and those outside the faith.
Step two is spiritual maturity. Notice that this step follows service and ministry. We don’t wait until we are seminary trained to begin our ministry. It is precisely that service that we perform with and for one another that develops our maturity. We don’t grow in isolation. We need community! It’s within the community that our faith is formed. Our relationship with God is personal but it’s not private.
I have discovered that I have no problem reading my Bible and praying daily when I know a friend who is in need, or when I have a stimulating discussion about God’s Word, or hear a challenge to the faith that I’ve never heard before. These interactions with others is what fuels my relationship with God. It is my connection to people that reinforces my connection with God. If I hadn’t had that discussion I might not be interested to see what God has to say on the topic. If my friend weren’t in need, maybe I would be spending less time in prayer. You get the idea. Close, spiritual, open, and honest friendships within the family of faith are vital to my personal walk with God.
The Cost of Community
It’s hard to be unified with someone you only see once a week. Especially if you are staring at the back of his head from the pew behind him. In fact, it’s quite easy to have a disagreement with such a person and never resolve the issue because there’s no reason to resolve it. You can just stop talking. But, if you are serving together in ministry, if you are helping him and he is helping you grow stronger in faith, then you are unified. It is this unity that is so essential to the mission of the church. Without this unity that is brought on by serving together and growing together, the world is hopelessly lost. The world needs us to be the family they never had. They need us to love one another.
But we need one another too. We were created for community but that doesn’t mean it comes easy (or even naturally). Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” We need to be together regularly if we are to show one another the care that is necessary to promote love and ministry. Do we want to be followers of Jesus? Do we want to make disciples, as He commanded us? Then we will regularly meet together because of our love and our concern for one another. I know I won’t grow in my relationship with God in isolation, but that means my brother or sister won’t either.
To be a disciple is to be in community. In order to make disciples, we need to encourage them to be in community. To change the world we need to invest in community. As the church, we are the final apologetic and it’s because of community. Jesus is only going to make one more appearance and that will be to call His Church home. Until then, we have a definite commission, and a definite course of action: As disciples, we are called to live in community with one another. This is achieved as we get together regularly and care for one another and serve together and grow together and show the world that we are disciples because of our love for one another. We need this! They need this! No longer can we simply come to a building once a week and expect that to be enough. In fact, we can’t merely come to a small group Bible study for a couple of hours per week and expect that to be enough. We are a family and a family is a huge time commitment. So let’s be disciples and not just complacent Christians. It’s messy and scary and you might just have to open up and share your life with someone, but don’t all the good things in life cost something?
I am a seminary student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Each day brings new insights so I thought I would try and reflect upon my day and the big ideas I’ve learned. It’s hard to find space to ponder and meditate when I’ve got so much to read, so many papers to write, so many lectures to attend, and so many tests to take. But I think the most valuable times in seminary are the times we can reflect on the big ideas, talk them over with friends, and put them into practice. These posts will be an attempt to engage with you who are reading so that we can process these ideas conversationally.
How do we go about forming an ecclesiology? What are the essential ingredients of church life that should be universal to all followers of Jesus living in community? Are there Scriptural norms that should inform the way we live life together and the beliefs that we believe together?
The Pre-Constantinian Model
Today I was speaking with a couple of friends about a book we have been reading called Journey to Jesus by Robert Webber. I really enjoyed the book but just like most books about ecclesiology, the author seems to get stuck on one system or one paradigm that seems best to him. A lot of it is great stuff but I find it hard to believe that this is the best or only way. This particular author wants to renew the ancient traditions and rites of the pre-Constantinian church. I like studying the ancient church but I think this is a bit short-sighted. Even the second and third century church was a product of its culture. Some of that culture is similar but much of it has changed in our Post-Constantinian Christendom of today.
Another friend of mine believes we need to focus on today’s culture to the exclusion (almost) of the ancient way of life of the church. He would argue that in our postmodern culture, preaching and singing are antiquated and no longer connect. Organized religion is out and there is no need for elders and hierarchy. He would say that every believer has access to the Bible today so there is no need for one person to teach, let’s learn communally. Again, I find this to be limited and, though I think it’s important to understand the modern culture, I don’t want to reject all of the ancient practices and habits of the church.
New Testament Models
Then there are those who believe we should be going back to the New Testament church. This sounds great, but what do they mean? The Corinthian Church? The Church in Ephesus, Jerusalem, or Laodicea? Do we model the leadership of our churches around Paul’s tent-making, bivocational ministry or his full-time missionary journeys? I love discovering principles in the New Testament that informs the way we structure (or unstructure) church life today but is it right to do the house church thing or the large church thing…or both separately, or both together?
Yet another friend has rejected all of these concepts and is trying to be like Jesus before the church was established. He believes the church should grow and develop organically as we try and live like Jesus. So, he spends time in his neighborhood making disciples and gathering them together in intense and intentional community. As leaders emerge he empowers them to serve God and make disciples in their own neighborhood. If it grows into a large church, fine. But if not, he will always be discipling men and women to become true followers of Christ.
Wonderful ideas! One person is concerned with embracing our modern culture and making church relevant to them. Another person wants to revisit the ancient church and reestablish its rites and routines. Another person studies the New Testament for insight. A fourth person tries to live like Jesus lived with His followers. Why can’t all of these be viable options? What do they have in common? I think everyone would say our Greatest Commission is to make disciples. Is it best to do that in a large church or a house church, a postmodern church or a traditional church? No matter what way a person decides, I think there is room for all of them, even all of them together as one church, perhaps. I know a girl that never went to church until she found a small group of believers who met in a house and ate meals together and shared life. I know a guy who hated the intense scrutiny of such an intimate setting and needed (at first) the anonymity of the large crowd and the option to go deeper as the Lord led. Could one local church incorporate all of these ideas in their ecclesiology?
An Integrated Ecclesiology
As for me, where do I land on the issue? I’m not sure. I was the pastor for four years of a new church that focused on intentional, relational discipleship. Could I one day pastor a large church that has programs and policies and procedures? Maybe, if I can still invest in a few people one-on-one and encourage church planting rather than simply making our church as large as possible (numerically). Could I one day pastor a small house church where we don’t preach sermons or sing songs of praise together but spend most of our time in table fellowship? Maybe, if at various times we can gather together with a larger body of believers to celebrate what God is doing corporately. Whether in small or large churches I think the essentials remain the same.
So here are the essentials in my opinion: Love God, Love People, Make Disciples, and teach them to do the same. If there are ways that the ancient or New Testament churches have found to do that successfully that still work today, then let’s integrate that into what we are doing. If there are new ways in modern culture that demand a shift in thinking about how we do those essential things today, then let’s do that too. But let’s not get swept away by methodology and “tactics”. Let’s meditate on how we can love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and how we can love our neighbor as ourselves. Let’s pray for opportunities to make disciples and teach them to obey all that our Lord has commanded. What has He commanded? To Love God, Love People and to make disciples and to teach them to obey. It’s a beautiful circle that is clear and unchanging regardless of culture. These are the things we are to do as a church. It’s simple. It’s hard, but it’s simple. Love God, Love People, Make Disciples, and repeat.
I think Paul had this in mind when he told Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” Here we find four “generations” of disciples. Paul taught Timothy to love God, love people, make disciples and teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded. Timothy then entrusted that to reliable men who would then go on to teach others. These commands that we have been taught to entrust to others is why we have a church today. The church has stood the test of time because of the “ecclesiology” that Jesus instigated at the very beginning. Sure there are other commands and other aspects of church life: sacrifice, hospitality, preaching, fellowship, service, etc. But everything that we do should be out of love for God and people and from our desire to help others to do the same.
Related Post: An Unnatural Life
Subscribe to this blog!
Join the conversation!