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6 Ways the Local Church Can Set the Table for Discipleship

Table

I grew up attending church A LOT. I was in a church classroom A LOT. When I was a kid, my family attended Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night preaching and prayer services, plus Sunday School, plus missions education programs and Vacation Bible Schools. But… I didn’t grow spiritually, didn’t really experience spiritual depth, and didn’t really learn what following Jesus looked like outside the walls of the church.

When I hit adulthood, I started to grow spiritually, but I would say it was still rather slow going. I started attending church with my wife and soaking up biblical knowledge like a sponge. I entered ministry and attended Bible college and developed the spiritual disciplines. But something was still missing.

Finally, several things happened that prompted a complete perspective change in me and kickstarted my journey toward being more like Jesus. In particular…

  • I walked through pain – depression, specifically.
  • I began to repent of pride, self-centeredness, and other sins.
  • My wife and I began to have tough conversations.
  • I went on staff at a church with a strong culture of discipleship.
  • We joined a small group of people who cared a lot about doing life together.

After a year in that atmosphere, God led us to Northwest Arkansas to plant a church and gave us a passion for creating a place were people could truly grow. We started planting Grace Hills with some particular convictions about the role of the local church in discipleship, such as…

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Who Are Your 3? Your 12? Your 70? Your Thousands?

Jesus Washing FeetWith whom are you doing life? What I mean is, with whom do you spend time hanging out and talking about the deepest things of life? Whom do you sharpen, and who sharpens you?

Jesus lived toward the cross and the resurrection, and his singular focus on his end game motivated him to live very intentionally. He depended on God for constant guidance and made choices rather strategically. For example…

One day soon afterward, Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night. At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles.

– Luke 6:12-13 NLT

Jesus had thousands of followers.
He had dozens of disciples.
He picked twelve to train more deeply and send out.
And he had three that were with him even more often.

I think there’s a pattern there for us to follow when it comes to the goal of our lives as Christians. Whether you want to call it discipleship, leadership development, or just plain friendship, I’m convinced we need to intentionally develop relationships with these circles of people in our lives. We need to pour ourselves into others, and we need to be poured into ourselves by others.

We need to gather with our “thousands.” I don’t think this is about the number, I think it’s about the environment. To put it more simply, we need to be part of a weekly gathering with other followers of Jesus, some of whom we might know personally, but many of whom simply share our common bond of being part of God’s forever family together. We can sing together, be taught and equipped together, and serve together, but we can’t go deep together. Therefore…

We need to have a network of “dozens.” Beyond attending a weekly worship service with a large group of friends and acquaintances, we need to get to know people by name. This is our network. Whether you attend a church of 100 or 100,000, you’ll never go deeper with the entire body. But you can go deeper with a network of people with whom you intentionally stay in touch. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that the average human cannot cognitively maintain friendship with more than approximately 150 people. I think he was onto something. We may have thousands of “friends” via social networks, but we probably only maintain actual friendship with a small percentage of those.

We need a small group. There isn’t anything magical about the number twelve, but there does seem to be an interesting correlation to the average small group that gathers for a weekly time of Bible study and prayer. This is the circle of people with whom we will pray together, talk about life on a personal level, and mutually encourage one another. It’s where accountability begins in an informal sense. People who tend to “stick” to a church are usually those who have tied themselves to a small group.

We need a handful of close friends. Jesus spent more time with Peter, James, and John than the rest of the disciples, and this was intentional on Jesus’ part. He wasn’t showing favoritism. Rather, Jesus knew that there needed to be a tightly knit core of friends in his life. This is the circle of people with whom we hang out to talk about our spiritual growth and development on the deepest levels. We pour wisdom into them, and they pour it right back into us.

If you want to grow in any sense – spiritually, intellectually, professionally, etc. – you’re going to need to intentionally develop and foster a close relationship with a few grace-oriented truth-tellers. Who are your handful?

Master PlanSo, who are your 3?
Who are your twelve?
Who is your network of dozens?
And with whom do you gather as a larger body?

If you can’t spit the names of your few or your dozen out pretty quickly, start working today on developing relationships. How? Well, not by passively waiting for friendship to happen. Reach out. Encourage. Invest. Give. And BE a friend, a mentor, and a leader.

And if you want to read the best book ever written on this subject, check out Robert The Master Plan of Evangelism

Three Pillars of a Strong, Dynamic Ministry

Pillars

When it comes to leading a strong ministry and building a healthy church, it takes more than solid theology or smart strategy. In fact, it takes a combination of those, plus the Spirit’s leading and empowerment. I think of these three as pillars of a dynamic ministry.

Every church needs to be led by a Pastor with a strong ecclesiology – a strong theology of church and mission. Out of our ecclesiology flows our mission, in fact. The mission doesn’t change. Jesus defined it in the Great Commission and has never revised it. How you see the story of the church unfolding in the New Testament should have a lot to do with how you lead the church today.

A Strong Ecclesiology

My ecclesiology encompasses the truth that Jesus founded the church Himself during His earthly ministry. It wasn’t “born” on Pentecost. It was born when the first apostles followed Jesus.

The church is local and visible. While I appreciate the Apostles’ Creed, I also fear that the point about believing in the holy catholic (universal) church has shifted our focus away from the local, visible body which is where the mission of Jesus gets organized in a visible, tangible, effective way.

The church will continue its mission, in the protection and power of Jesus, until He comes again. The church can’t and won’t fail. The gates of hell won’t prevail against it. While its easy to point out what’s wrong with the church, this core conviction motivates me to celebrate what’s going right with the church.

The New Testament presents a church that gathers and scatters. They meet in temple courts and from house to house. Sunday’s service matters. It’s a redemptive gathering of a covenant community to worship and to witness. Small groups matter just as much. Call them missional communities, house churches, or Sunday School classes, they matter as much as the gathering, but not to the exclusion of it.

The New Testament church is led by shepherds. I love the image of the flock under the care of its shepherds, who answer to the Great Shepherd Himself, Jesus. He is the head of the church. He has pre-eminence, and Pastors need the freedom to lead strongly while being accountable to the Chief Shepherd.

I could go on, but the way we build a healthy church, even if it is an organic movement of people gathering in a movie theater and in homes around the community, is determined by our biblical view of the church.

A Wise Strategy

One of my pet peeves is what happens when a church leader talks about a smart idea, a good strategy, or a sweet system. Inevitably, some critics line up to point out how “man-made” methods and marketing strategies and systems are evil and how leaders who develop them must have no strong theology at all. It never fails. Every time we publish an article on Pastors.com designed to help modern leaders face modern problems in their modern context, accusers show up in the comments to point out how Jesus, or the Spirit, or the Bible wasn’t mentioned even though the article is about strategy with an assumed strong theology undergirding it.

The fact is, I need to know about systems and strategies and I’m convinced that thousands of churches are stuck today with a really strong theology but no strategy for engaging the culture and making disciples. The fact is, you need healthy systems for accomplishing the timeless, biblical mission of making disciples. For example…

  • You know you should develop leaders, but what’s your leadership ladder?
  • You know you need to spread the word, but how are you equipping the saints to do so?
  • You know you need to challenge people to take a next step, but have you defined the next step?
  • You want everyone to catch the vision, but have you articulated it an understandable way?j

These are strategy questions, and there are plenty more where they came from. Don’t resort to juking leaders with a “just follow Jesus, just trust the Spirit, and just preach the word” response. You may mean well, but you’re crippling the church when you do so.

Be harmless as doves. But be wise as serpents too. Develop a strategy for accomplishing the mission.

The Power of God

Some churches have a strong theology and a good strategy, but are still stuck. Sometimes it’s because we’ve left out the third pillar of a strong, healthy ministry – the power of God. Having defined our theology and developed our strategy, it is still absolutely imperative that we go forward with an attitude of complete and utter dependence on the Spirit of God to bear fruit through us.

We can set the stage, arrange the chairs, and roll out the red carpet, but we cannot save people. This is a work of God.

And I’m not urging us to tack this onto the end. Just because I’ve listed it last doesn’t mean it’s least in importance. Leaning on the power of the Spirit of God is essential as we study the Scriptures and form our theology as well as when we’re creating the strategies to help us fulfill the mission in our present ministry context. His job, in fact, is to shed light on the teachings of Jesus as we study.

One of my favorite quotes comes from a guy who would likely disagree with most of what I write about, but I love his words. Shelton Smith said, “The difference between mediocrity and excellence is midnight oil, elbow grease, and the power of God.” THAT is so true.

If you want a strong, healthy, balanced ministry, find its definition in the New Testament, develop a strategy that works in your present context, and start and finish with trusting the Spirit of God’s empowering presence.

photo credit: Today is a good day

A Scalable Model for Making Disciples in Small Churches

Church In a Theater

“The New Testament is the only model we need!” There, I went ahead and said that for you. It’s out of the way. For those pastors and church leaders who highly value the New Testament AND actually want to accomplish something meaningful, read on…

Every church follows a model. Most of the church leaders who criticize following a model follow a model that tends to criticize models. Follow that? There are traditional models with an age-graded Sunday School, a morning worship service, evening worship service, and a midweek prayer meeting, plus some other programs. W. A. Criswell (one of my biggest heroes) was a pioneer in this model in the 1940’s. Back then, grading ministries by age was innovative.

Other churches follow the “simple church” model. They have weekend worship, small groups, and that’s about it. The ministry and mission is carried out by the groups and the individuals in them. It works well for those who do it right. There are also house churches, and still a few quarter-time churches that only have a Pastor once per month. There’s the Amish and Mennonite model – very community-centric. You get the picture.

We started planting Grace Hills in the summer of 2011 and launched in January of 2012. Since the beginning, we’ve experienced slow and steady growth. We’ve never had a quarter of a million dollars to spend on advertising, so we’ve never done any. The new people who show up come because of relationships, word-of-mouth, and social media. So to what do I attribute our growth so far? Well, to please the “New Testament is all we need!” crowd, God is responsible. We affirm His sovereignty, the Spirit’s work, and the fruit of the Word of God. But here’s a reality check… tons of Bible-believing, Christ-honoring churches are dying. Maybe it’s the model?

Before I reveal our model, let me explain the concept. A “model” is simply a paradigm or framework through which we accomplish the work of the ministry. And yes, the New Testament is our primary model. Jesus sent the apostles in the book of Acts to launch a movement that started in Jerusalem. Within a decade, churches were all over the place being led by people who were considered apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists (see Eph. 4:11) and their responsibility was to equip the whole body for the work of the ministry (see Eph. 4:12).

We learn from the New Testament how to make disciples like Jesus did, how to handle church messes like Paul did, and how to go about the work of missions the way the church at Antioch did. And plenty more. But God didn’t stop working at the end of Acts 28. He has continued to move and work and bless churches for two millennia.

In 1998, I ran across a book entitled The Purpose Driven Church which changed the way I thought about church. It’s an eighteen-year-old book now, so people either have the assumption that it’s outdated or that it’s new-fangled. I’ve met plenty of people on both sides. But the book provided a model, a paradigm, a framework through which our church could accomplish ministry in a scalable way. It’s not a book about how to build a megachurch. It’s actually a book about how to make disciples.

[bcoxlike]

I want to write more about the purpose driven model in the coming weeks, but here I wanted to offer a short synopsis to demonstrate why I think it’s a scalable model for churches. Briefly…

1. Being purpose driven is biblical.

The basic idea is that God has five intentions for the church – worship, ministry, evangelism, discipleship, and fellowship. You can re-tool that list to be four or six or maybe seven, but the point is, God has given us a great pattern for organizing all of our ministry around His purposes. These purposes are rooted in the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, which still serve to grow great churches 2,000-ish years later.

2. Being purpose driven provides a simple disciple-making process.

If you believe, as I do, that spiritual growth is incremental and measurable, then the purpose driven model provides a great way to help people grow in an incremental, measurable way. This year, we’re implementing our “class” structure which we call a series of conversations about four words: Love (what it means to be loved by God, to love God, and to love other people), Grow (the personal habits/disciplines for growing), Serve (discovering your unique shape for ministry), and Go (what it means to “live sent” and how to share Jesus).

Aside from that series of conversations, we gather on the weekends for corporate worship and we scatter during the week in small groups. So we’re simple, but not so simple that there’s no definition or direction for what it means to be a follower (disciple) of Jesus.

3. Being purpose driven is scalable.

It’s not a megachurch model. We watched our church in Kentucky grow from 45-ish to 100-ish, and most of that growth was people meeting Jesus for the first time (70% of our additions were baptisms). Then I was part of a church in southern California that has grown to the tens of thousands (it helps that the author of The Purpose Driven Church is the Pastor).

What really intrigues me is how many churches I see that are purpose driven and don’t even know it. I’ve run across independent fundamental churches whose prupose statement reflects the five purposes very well, and other churches that are charismatic, mainline, or even non-evangelical that follow a class structure to mature people spiritually. Like Criswell’s age-graded Sunday School model, I think Rick Warren’s purpose driven model has become a norm among today’s growing churches.

At the end of the day, every church is driven by something – money, tradition, politics, fear, etc. – but I want to lead a church driven by God’s eternal purposes!

Is Discipleship About Growing? Or Going? Yes!

Growing

photo credit: Merrick Brown

We often use the word discipleship in two different senses. We refer to our personal spiritual growth as discipleship – the process of becoming more like Jesus. But we also use the word to refer to a person or church’s ministry of making disciples. So when we talk about discipleship as a purpose of the church, to which are we referring? Both. For me, discipleship has always been and hopefully always be a challenging issue to understand. What I mean is that I don’t ever want to have it boiled down to such a simple concept that I see it as a short formula. There are different angles from which we have to view the concept. For example…

  • We need to be making disciples in the sense of telling people about Jesus who have never had the opportunity to hear about Him before. But discipleship is more than moving people to conversion – it includes moving them beyond it.
  • As we disciple others, we will naturally be teaching something from Scripture. But we have to be careful never to give the impression that discipleship actually happens through mere intellectual improvement. Real discipleship is somewhat experiential. It’s hands-on learning about being like Jesus.
  • Discipleship might mean taking someone “deeper” into the Word, but we must balance that idea with the concept of helping people to become self-feeders rather than having to rely on others entirely for their spiritual nourishment.
  • And discipleship certainly involves learning, but it also involves yielding, doing, telling, serving, and going to find others who aren’t disciples yet.
  • Discipleship is incremental. It is always possible to go to a “next step” in our obedience to God. But we have to be careful not to judge too harshly those who may not have made as many steps as us.

Discipleship isn’t simple. And that’s probably a good thing. It keeps us exploring, conversing, and searching for its true meaning. What I do know is that every gospel-centric ministry needs to carry out the work of discipleship in at least two ways: by growing into Christ’s image and by going after other people. When we forget the former, we strand baby believers without guidance to maturity. And when we neglect the latter, we generate stale, self-centered believers who struggle with pride. So discipleship is about growing. And it’s also about going. And we dare not attempt to do one without the other.