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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.


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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!

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