Wineskins Archive

December 3, 2013

Disciplemaking and the Vanity of the Status Quo (March 2013)

Filed under: — @ 3:00 pm and

By Wes Woodell

I sat across the table from a pastor friend listening as he told a story.

“I had this youth minister growing up named Stan. Stan wasn’t the most eloquent guy. You’d never see him headlining a conference, read a book he’s written, or hear about him at all. His ministry wasn’t flashy – it was really simple. He’d pick a couple of kids each year, decide to invest in them, and then he’d spend time with them. They’d be mentored by Stan until they graduated high school and moved on, then he would find a couple more and repeat the process. I was one of those kids, and wouldn’t be the person I am today if Stan hadn’t discipled me like he had.”

My pastor friend went on, “If everybody in the church tried to do what I do, the church would be so ugly! Everyone would be competing for speaking engagements and trying to sell books – it would all be driven by ego – it’d be terrible!”

He paused before continuing.

“But if everyone in the church tried to be like Stan and simply do what he did, then the church would be beautiful.”

He was silent a moment.

“Sorry – I just put that together for the first time just now. Wow!”

‘Wow’ is right!

Epiphanies are like that. They can come at us out of nowhere – even in the midst of an everyday conversation. Often they’re simple, obvious truths that haven’t been hidden – we’ve just missed them somehow – then they hit us all at once causing these little moments of profundity. My pastor friend’s little moment caused me to experience my own, and I hope it gives you your own too.

Please savor this question: how beautiful would the church be if every mature Christian made it their goal to simply be like Stan – not flashy or charismatic – just concerned enough with others to really invest in a discipling relationship?

Don’t keep reading – please stop and think about that before going on.

What if every Christian decided their mission was going to be to make a couple of new disciples every year and help them mature to the point where they could begin making their own disciples?

What if every church leader were less concerned with program development and more concerned with people development?

The truth is the typical church in North America does not gauge effectiveness by the number of disciples being made or even the spiritual depth of present membership. While few admit it, most measure success by the number of people showing up to Sunday morning assemblies or the number involved in church programs.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I like crowds and think drawing them to church assemblies is a good thing, but when simply getting them to show up equals success the bar has been set sinfully low!

Are you aware we serve a King who regularly ran crowds off? The gospel accounts reveal a Jesus who was less concerned with the number of people listening to Him and more concerned with the number obeying Him.

Getting a crowd to attend on Sundays or at events can be a great way to introduce them to Jesus, but let’s be honest here: of the church leaders you know who love drawing a crowd, how many exhibit greater concern for the number of people becoming mature disciples over how many show up to things?

I know a few, but have found that type to be rare. <br><br>I’m afraid many of us are going to stand before the Lord someday only to learn that we’ve wasted our time and energy in this life building a ministry that’s a house of straw rather than one of lasting value (1 Corinthians 3:12-13) – that’s what vanity leads to.

Have you ever done a study of the phrase “in vain” in your Bible? It shows up between 30 and 40 times depending on translation, and reveals several things that constitute a waste of time and energy.

For instance, in Matthew 15:9 and Mark 7:7, Jesus quoted Isaiah in telling the Pharisees their worship was “in vain” if God didn’t have their hearts – in other words, their heartless worship was a big, futile waste of time that accomplished nothing.

Acts 4:25, Peter quoted David to remind hearers that plotting against God was done “in vain”. You may plot against God all you want, but no matter – you’re not going to win. Your plotting is a waste of time and energy – it’s done in vain.

In 1 Corinthia 15:58, Paul reminded the church in Corinth that doing “the work of the Lord” is never a waste of time or “in vain”.

In Galatians 2:2, Paul says the reason he had previously traveled to Jerusalem to check his teaching against that of other apostles was to make sure the time he’d spent preaching up to that point hadn’t been “in vain” – that is, a waste. In the same letter, he flatly told the Galatians that if they chose to accept the false gospel of the Judaizers instead of embracing the true gospel he’d been preaching, then their experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit had been “in vain” – a waste (Galatians 3:4)! Are you seeing a pattern here?

Now for the kicker.

In 1 Corinthians 15:2, Paul informed the Corinthian church that their faith was a waste – “in vain” – if they failed to faithful to the end.

And in both Philippians 2:14-16 and 1 Thessalonians 3:5, Paul says that if those he’d led to Christ did not hold to the faith through to the end, then all of his efforts in working with them had been “in vain”.

Don’t miss this: Paul believed that his efforts were “in vain” – a waste – if they did not result in the making of disciples of Jesus who remained faithful for life!

Is this how success is commonly measured today?

Because what was true for Paul then is true for us now: if our efforts in the church do not result in people following Jesus for life, then those efforts have been a waste of time – that is, those efforts were made in vain!

As church leaders we must stop putting “lipstick on a pig” by being proud of things that don’t matter, and get real about embracing God’s call to be disciples who make disciples.

Jesus doesn’t care how many visitors show up to our assemblies, how many community gardens we plant, how culturally relevant or savvy we are, how many video screens adorn the front of our auditoriums, or even how many people we’ve baptized if those things don’t result in people following Him to the end!

If Paul were here today, how many of our efforts would he describe as “in vain”?

We must ponder this and rethink how we measure success today.

Wax fruit is nothing to be proud of.

Numerous studies have shown that new church plants have the greatest potential to reach the most number of people in the shortest amount of time, and many are doing just that. It is my hope that existing churches will own the mission to plant new congregations, and I’m happy to see many already are (I’m part of a group engaged in a church planting movement in the Greater St. Louis area myself). However, I’m also concerned by a couple of things I see.

First, individuals and teams being selected to lead church plants often have little to no experience in evangelism or disciplemaking. Church planting is hard! Do we really think a person or group with no track record of making disciples will go into this very tough field and be successful?

My second concern is related to the first – the church planting strategy for many is unrelated to practical disciplemaking. Church plants often begin with the best of intentions, but inexperienced planters think that because they’re meeting in a coffee shop or bar or because their worship experience is different from what they’re used to lost people will come running. They woefully misunderstand what lost people are interested in!

Ecclesiological tweaks may draw in existing Christians looking for something different (mostly transfers from other congregations), but lost people aren’t going to run to your new church simply because there’s a smoking section.

Of the church plants I’ve heard about in our tribe (Churches of Christ) that are growing, most are doing so via transfers. The congregation I’m a member of is the exception (we are growing by reaching unchurched people) and I’m sure there are others out there, but most plants seem to be moving fish between aquariums rather than making a fresh catch.

Moving into the future, there are two ideas I hope we will keep in mind:

1. Being Disciples and Making Disciples is Our Mission.

Much more could be said about what it means to be a disciple. I’m sure someone else will write an article in this month’s issue telling readers that being a disciple involves becoming a student of Jesus who is striving as much as possible to be like Him in thought, word, action, and deed. They may also tell you that concern with the restoration of all things should be characteristic of all disciples, and they’ll be right.

But they won’t be right if they tell you that’s our mission.

Our mission is not to be chiefly concerned with community restoration, justice ministries, or service projects – our mission is the Great Commission.

Please do not misunderstand: concern for the things mentioned above should be characteristic of all disciples – I have been and will continue to be involved in numerous justice ministries – but our primary mission must remain the Great Commission. It is all too easy to lose focus on that when we’re involved with other good works. We must not!

Leading people into relationship with Christ is the greatest act of love we can share with another human being. We must keep our eye on this goal, otherwise our work and effort will not accomplish what God has called us to even though the work may be good.

2. We should plant churches, but disciplemaking churches

Our community doesn’t need another social club, it needs Jesus.

Individuals and teams that have no experience or success in evangelism or disciplemaking should get it before they enter the field to plant a church – I don’t care what they’ve scored on a personality profile or how charismatic a leader is at the helm.

Jesus never commanded us to plant new churches – He commanded us to make disciples. New churches start where disciples are made, and the best way to learn to make disciples is to be an environment where that is already occurring.

Instead of sending inexperienced church planters into the field only to have them fail, why not partner with existing churches that are regularly and consistently reaching people and have potential planters train in that environment? I realize many church planting organizations require new planters to serve for a while in an existing church before embarking out on their own, but what kind of environment are those churches providing? This question must be asked, as training in a church that isn’t reaching anyone will do more harm than good.

In sum, we have lots of work to do, but I’m optimistic we’re going to make a lot of progress in the coming years. A new generation of leaders are rising up, and more and more people are beginning to open their eyes to the wax fruit that is church attendance without discipleship or development.

While empty numbers may impress from afar, lasting impact occurs up close. I pray that we all come to see the vanity of the status quo, and that more leaders, regardless of giftedness, would strive to be more like Stan.

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