Two weeks ago, I started a series of articles to ask some questions about what we are doing as a church in both the local congregation and in the greater church beyond. I presented the idea that as a church, we are failing at the mission of the church and in all honesty, I think that has to do with paradigm shifts that have happened through the centuries that have drawn us away from the original mission and intent of the church. I posed three questions that I hope might help us to consider a different perspective for looking at what it means to embrace a form of discipleship which will help us become and grow into a better expression of what I see as Jesus’ vision for the Church.
The second question was how do we move from making church members to making disciples? I believe it has to do with focus, more specifically, with what is important to us. For years, the model has been a program model. Create programs like Sunday school, small groups, youth groups, children’s ministry. These are not bad in and of themselves and for that matter, they can be excellent tools for the real goal. But instead of being a means to the end they have become the end. Having the successful program (i.e. one that is full of people who show up week in and week out) has become the goal instead of what the program should create (i.e. people changing their hearts and lives to align with the person and mission of Jesus). That is not to say some people haven’t been changed but the program goal is often maintaining the program not creating the disciple.
What we are creating is classroom learners who know some things but not disciples, who take the knowledge out of the classroom to find and create more disciples. Very few, if any, church members take on disciples to teach and nurture. Most spend their lives taking turns teaching each the same things over and over with little if no challenge to the status quo.
For us to have an impact on the world again, leaders and churches must make discipleship—the learning and following of the Way of Jesus that leads to teaching others to do so—the priority rather than the number of church members or people present. That is, we must make change and consistent growth and maturity as followers of the Way the cornerstone of our efforts. Rather than rely on Sunday school as the principle teacher for discipleship, we need to treat it as a place to encourage and pray with one another. In my opinion, Sunday school is too short a time (30 minutes by the time you finish pleasantries and what not) to really delve into weighty matters and often is repetitive when it comes to material.
Discipleship happens when we make discipling relationships a priority. A discipling relationship is one where a person invests themselves in following the Way of Jesus by learning as a disciple from an established disciple and then finds another person or a few people to share that knowledge with. It becomes a sharing of Way of Life where you are not sharing book knowledge but life knowledge that has been passed down from teacher to disciple in a generational fashion. This requires the teacher in the relationship to be continuously being taught by their teacher as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This is a shift away from the current paradigm, which many have called churchitainment, where church exists for what the person can get out of it and not what they put into it. This mindset is why it is so easy for people to move from congregation to congregation. The shift will require leaders and churches to embrace different, and oddly enough, ancient ideas for the sake of discipleship. These methods focus on and develop the ideas of discipleship by an ancient Greco-Roman teacher-student model where a person who is disciple to the master/teacher/rabbi (heard any of the words before) teaches that Way of Life to another small group of a few students. Jesus tells his original band of disciples,
I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth… I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. – John 14:16-17, 25-26
The Jesus model says, Jesus has taught the disciples, when he is gone, they will rely on the Holy Spirit to continue teaching the things Jesus taught to their own disciples. There were no large Sunday schools, no programs, no denominations. Just a teacher/student who is teaching a group of students/future teachers. This is the model, the way to build the Kingdom of God, which the real goal of the Jesus Way of Life.