“Pastor, I need to speak with you a moment.” Of course—this is usually right before service.
“I’m just feeling like God is leading us to another church—something that offers much more.”
I’ve heard this “revelation” before, but I’ve come to an understanding. They’ll return at some point for pastoral care. That’s not an arrogant or boastful statement, but an observation made from time.
All the bells, but no whistles
I’ve seen church members go to larger congregations with thousands. They love the feel of vibrant worship, gads of opportunities for their children, and the overall mega-environment.
Who can disagree—the church I pastor doesn’t have a coffee shop?
Don’t get me wrong, I wish we did! And, I’m not a disgruntled small church pastor. I love Christ’s church—big or small. And some of my pastor friends of larger congregations get this—not everyone will want to “plug-in.”
I think, for the most part, small church people move to large churches in search of the bells and whistles. However, they don’t understand the small group concepts of missional living. The result is they’re left with some bells, but no whistles.
When major life tragedies occur—a death in the family, hospital visitation, prayer covering, spousal failure or infidelity, or a traumatic family addiction—there’s no pastoral care and support. There may be vibrant worship in the larger church they’re attending, but there’s no “perceived” fruitful care.
A bell and a pomegranate
The priest would come before the Lord on behalf of the people—and upon the hem of his robe were “a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate” (Exodus 28:34). I’ve always thought this was a fascinating verse.
I’ve often wondered, why a bell and a pomegranate? In my humble opinion, I believe there must be evidential worship and fruitful nourishment—both—not one, or the other.
The emblematic bell and pomegranate—like modern day emojis—expressed to Israel how the Lord’s “kingdom of priests” were to serve. It is imperative for God’s people to have outwardly expressed lives of worship and nourishing soul care.
When a believer leaves a small church for a much larger one—not understanding the missional DNA of small group—they may perceive that “pastoral care” will be like the small church. Hence, in due time, the believer will return to the small church for pastoral “pomegranate support.”
Can we be frank?
I don’t enjoy church bashing—that’s not me. Big church or small church—God should be glorified. But the reality and perceptions of pastoral care in the two entities are vastly different. The larger church pastor is more administrative than soul care. He may be available for tragedies, but rarely for visitation, counseling, or hospital care.
The larger the church, the more difficult it is to “tend the flock.”
Regardless, I have witnessed believers return to the small church after age, sickness, or tragedy occurs—they’re seeking pastoral care that they presumed would be available.
The only way for larger churches to provide the bells and pomegranates are communal groups. Yet, the majority of the transfer growth that “exoduses” the small church will not engage life groups. The statistic is true: Only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in any form of discipleship activity.
However, I also fear that “transfer growth” Christians, pursuing larger churches, are more likely seeking to slip-in-and-out unnoticed and prefer it that way. Until calamity strikes.
I don’t know of a formidable solution—maybe you have one?
But, here’s what I do know. When a member leaves for a larger church, the small church pastor feels neglected, hurt, and deserted. While they may understand that the person will eventually return for pastoral care—they feel used.
Perhaps those feelings are wrong? Perhaps. But pastors are people, too. They’re not immune to emotions. While the small church pastor struggles to get by on a “pint-sized” income with no benefits, they know in their heart that the deserting member is supporting another pastor.
Serving God is not about money, but there should be family and love.
David Kinnaman, “New Research On the State of Discipleship,” Barna Group, https://www.barna.org/research/leaders-pastors/research-release/new-research-state-of- descipleship#.VqDcJFJQmDU.
What would you say if I told you that about 50% of millennials would answer, “No”?
A recent Barna article validated that “Almost half of Millennials (47%) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.”
So, what’s the deal? How could a believer of the gospel, no matter the age, think sharing the story of God is “wrong”?
Well, I think I know why, and I’d like to help.
The Blame Game
There’s a lot of murmuring about the millennial generation—some say they’re lazy, self-centered, and they’re an entitlement generation (i.e. everyone receives a participation trophy).
Two of my children are millennials. They were part of the entitlement “project.” But I don’t place the blame on them. Honestly, I don’t think blame for anything is productive or problem-solving, unless used for solutions.
If the millennial generation is any of the aforementioned attributes, could it be because they were taught. What I mean is—who handed out those trophies?
Likewise, when I read articles like Barna’s—articles about the Millennials and their faith—their lack of commitment—I ask again—who’s to blame?
Was it the children that dragged themselves to baseball, soccer, and football on Sunday mornings? I think you see where I’m going with this?
I think millennials get blamed for a lot. But I know my own children—they don’t fit that description. They’re hardworking, driven, and committed to their faith.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s our fault because we’ve taught them the wrong story?
The Western Story
The problem with much of Christianity is its draw into the Western story. Christianity has taken on the values and declared allegiance to its foreign neighbors of Western culture.
Greek tradition and philosophy have played a tremendous role throughout Western history. The current Western culture derived from a humanist ideology birthed during the Enlightenment—that human reason and intellect (what we call “science and fact”) are far superior than the Bible, which can only be believed by faith.
Newton employed mathematics in defining physics.Eventually, the Western story developed into man as relatively good, implementing immense reason and intellect to overcome negativity, disease, and poverty. Man becomes capable of creating an eschatological (end times) utopia where everyone and every form of love is accepted (accept God’s story).
Which leads us to one reasonwhy 47% Millennials believe it is wrong to share the gospel.
The Western story stands in great contrast from God’s story. Nevertheless, the Church marriedWestern humanism—refashioning the biblical metanarrative into short stories consisting of reasonings of literary genre, hermeneutical criticism, and theology.
But God’s story cannot be reduced to theology—as the biblical story is a comprehensive story about what it means to be truly human. It’s about being human as God designed, as He places us in the midst of His story that finds “its center in Jesus Christ.”
The hinge of Western culture finds its identity in human reason—Cogito, ergo sum— “I think, therefore I am.”
God’s story is not Western, it is an account of all of cosmic history—of the entirety of creation, nations, peoples and the purposeful design of the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, and Judge of the entire universe.
And the hinge of God’s story is the kingdom of God breaking through into God’s world. It is the birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus Christ.
If half of the Millennials think that sharing their Christian faith is wrong, it’s because they view Christianity as one ofmany religions—instead of the story.
The comprehensive story of God is not man’s escape from this world, but God’s victory within it. All humans are parts of God’s story, awaiting God’s triumphant return to renew and restore all things as they were designed.
As Newbigin elegantly writes, “Salvation means that man is released from bondage, and that the contradictions of which we have spoken are overcome…It means ‘wholeness.’ It means the healing of that which is wounded, the mending of that which is broken, the setting free of what is bound.”
God’s story—is about cosmic restoration centered in the work of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God broke into this world to renew creation—one person at a time, sharing God’s story, until the King returns.
God’s story is not about the deliverance of man to escape the troubles of this world to enter into a heavenly paradise. God’s story is about what it truly means to be a person.
“The Bible tells a story that isthestory, the story of which all of human nature is a part.”
This means the Bible is not a book about condemnation—but God’s story. The Word of God is not telling the story about anotherreligion or faith, but how God has demonstrated great love and compassion to man.
The Scriptures are not about evangelism, but “an appeal of personal love which seeks not to coerce submission but to evoke love.”
The call of God— “Follow me” (Mk. 1:17) is a personal invitation from the brokenness of this world, to enter into God’s inviting and communal story of freedom, restoration, and Kingship.
“Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong,” Barna.com, Faith & Christianity, Feb. 5, 2019.
Don’t get me wrong, literary genre, hermeneutics, and theology are a good thing, but if we’re too focused on criticisms and not the metanarrative, we miss the point. Michael Goheen, The Church and Its Vocation, 23.
Recently, I was having coffee (of course) with an experienced church planter/pastor—he’s a very respected friend. We were discussing the many models, programs, and classifications of planting and revitalizing churches. A great edifying conversation.
We briefly touched on the topic of how church planting gurus utilize demographic data for missional engagement but have no concept of psychographics.
What is psychographics? In a nutshell, psychographics is detailed qualitative consumer market information. It is the results, opinions, activities, and interests of specified demographics.
In layman’s terms, psychographics helps to know what people enjoy, are passionate about, participate in, and love—it’s basically an Instagram photo.
Let me give you two of the most important psychographic information tools.
A psychographic view provides the possible ways and means in which a church may reach a demographic. One such way is by examining the activities that people enjoy.
For instance, I have demographic information (true story) about the county and town where my church is located. I have spent six years in a revitalization, here. The demographics, from census.gov, illustrate that the town has grown faster than the county—but the African American population has grown by an astounding 120%, while the Caucasian population has decreased by over 7%. What does that tell me? It tells me a lot about the people group I am reaching.
However, what demographics do not tell me is how to reach the new African American members of the community—and what they value. This is where psychographics comes in handy. Psychographics will show me what activities my community is passionate about—the online gaming, crafts, fishing, fortnite (if you have to ask, forget it!), football, surfing, kayaking, sewing, bingo, etc.
Psychographics tells me how people spend their time, not merely their interests. It’s great to know the socio-economics of my community, but if I don’t know the psychographic activities then I don’t know the community.
This psychographic analysis is very insightful. I, not only, want to know about the community’s passion, but I want to know their attitudes towards those passions. How does my community feel about President Trump may not mean much to you, and you may not care, but if the community strongly despises the President—probably my first missional outreach should not involve a “Trump 2020” booth.
What does the community think about Christianity? Adoption? Sports salaries compared to teacher salaries? What do they think their greatest social need to be? Do they care about environmental protection, recycling, or clean water?
Knowing the attitudes of the people that you are reaching is a major bonus. This is nearly identical to the Apostle Paul walking through Athens, making the summation, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’” (Acts 17:22–23). The people of Athens were passionate about their gods—Paul used their passions to reach them.
There are several other facets of psychographics that are very helpful, I listed the two that I enjoy researching. To me, activities and attitudes tell me how people “tick” and what motivates them. I’m going to provide some graphics below. Each of the graphics has a linked source—do yourself a favor and click on some of those links.
The Western church has been traveling along the highway of culture with punctured tires. With warnings from passersby, finally, the hazards began blinking as a testimony to the crawling headway of expansion. For years, a passionate plea from prophetic missiologists and the apostolic elite—the Church must pull over and change its treads.
Throughout the eighties and nineties, a call for Western and global church planting was being received—by some. Today, the message of missional engagement has caught on and with a millennial onslaught of hipster urbanization, the Church began birthing city-wide movements.
Along with the missional paradigmatic shifts, God-molded zealous individuals—the crazy and the called—the weathered, tattooed, past-soaked, ex-addicted, and grace-delivered entrepreneurial-type persons—to reach an unreached world—gladly answered the call.
Coupled with the crazed and called (or confused), more and more church planting networks popped up around America. Each network—with its devised models, programs, and assessments—concentrating upon the inevitable and highly anticipated— “launch.”
Some planters focused on raising funds, some centered on the social aspects of society, some others on music, others on outreaches with bouncy-house-packed block parties, and still numerous others on sending masses of people from one church to another city to create an “insta-church.”
While it’s not productive (or wise) to point blameful fingers as to what went right and what went wrong over the last ten years in planting—I believe it is essential to analyze and learn. Admittedly, I long and love the passion and attempts for any missional engagement to reach the lost.
Once, a woman complained to D. L. Moody:
“Mr. Moody, I don’t agree with your evangelism methods.”
Without hesitation, Moody responded, “I agree with you. May I ask what your methods of evangelism are?”
The woman quipped, “I don’t have any…”
To which Moody famously retorted, “Then I like mine, better.”
With that clarified, I believe the Western church has been planting churches in reverse—backwards. And, we can do better.
Planting in Reverse
Once again, let me reiterate, I love the fact that the Church is planting churches, period. I also believe that to effectively reach unreached cultures, the church will have to utilize a multi-pronged approach to planting.
There is no “cookie-cutter” approach to planting. But, there is one aspect which should be the center-focus of all churches, missions, and plants—making reproducible disciple-makers.
The Church may have changed her tires, but without reproducible disciple-making, depress the hazard button now and prepare for another blow-out!
We’re planting churches in reverse.
While an overall focus is beginning to shift, a more concerted effort and awareness are imperative.
When planters focus on core groups and launch teams, instead of Great Commission multiplication, it is certain that people-centered “churches” will form. Most church planting networks emphasize their programs and upon numerical gatherings than people? Not all—but most.
Discipleship becomes an after-thought of what the church does, once people are gathered within it. While the Church may have seen a shift from the attractional model to the missional model—that was only a change in cheap tires, not in run-flats. As you can see—the discipleship after-thought approach is backward.
There are key components to biblical reproducible disciple-making (Matt. 28:18–20). But instead of looking at the main factors (gospel proclamation, baptism, commands, etc.), let’s understand one important principle—disciple-making does not begin with a conversion.
Disciple-making begins with relationship. This is the current church’s major dilemma. As if in a dense fog and driving with the high beams on—the Church is oblivious to effectively navigating the culture highway.
Most church planters are (or should be) trained to build relationships. The problem is that most networks do not focus on disciple-making at the core of those relationships. Discipleship is placed at the end and not the beginning. How so—you may ask?
When the planter targets creating a collective body, known as an ekklesia (the church), the focus is already numbers centered, instead of people-centered. The planter becomes burdened with the mantra “meet more people…gather more people.” The conclusion, the planter will feel like a failure if they’re not gathering masses of people. Likewise, it is not foreign for the planter to wait to engage in any form of discipleship until converts are gathered, as the church.
Reproducible disciple-making begins the church planting process with relationship. I know, if you’re like me, you’re desiring application.
What does this look like?
If a planter is parachuting into a city (let’s say, a husband and wife team), the main focus should be on finding an “anchor trade” (a term I coined for New Breed). An anchor trade is an occupation that meets a community need and provides income. Most planters seek to find maximum income potential but will have minimum exposure to the community.
Think of an anchor trade as the proverbial “tent-maker.” Paul’s occupation was making tents (Acts 18), a need that nomadic peoples of the first-century required and utilized. Paul’s tent-making placed him in the center of the community, buying, selling, and making—an anchor trade.
While in the anchor trade, the planter begins the disciple-making process. The planter proceeds to find the Mars Hill of the community (i.e. Mars Hill=what do they worship?) For you and me, a community may worship football, craft-beer, cross-fit, coffee, LGBTQ, or eclectic art. It is the planter’s obligation, as Paul achieved, to find the Mars Hill and engage it.
Next, the planter becomes a reproducible disciple-maker by necessitating natural gospel conversations. One of my favorite movie scenes is from The Princess Bride. Inigo Montoya is frustratingly waiting for Wesley to climb the Cliffs of Insanity. As soon as Wesley is to ascend to the top, Inigo will challenge him to a sword duel. The entertainment happens when Wesley reaches the top and sits down to take a rock out of his boot.
Inigo Montoya impatiently prods him, “You don’t by any chance have six fingers on your left hand?”
Wesley humorously responds, “Do you always begin conversations this way?”
A very funny scene, but the church has been so methodically programmed to think in “Christianese,” or to “complete the sale,” that it has forgotten how to have natural gospel conversations—church planters are no different. The first words from planters’ mouths should not be, “Are you saved?” A question the unreached world has no concept.
Discipleship begins with natural gospel conversations—not at a person’s conversion.
Jesus called his twelve followers, disciples. These men did not have illumination, nor were they regenerated. As well, understanding and applying the gospel doesn’t make a person a disciple, either. Clearly, Peter had the gospel all wrong (Gal. 2:11) and no one would reject his disciple “credentials.”
As the church planter continues to work an anchor trade, knowing the Mars Hill, and engaging in natural gospel conversations, true relationships form—which in turn, establish life-on-life disciple-making. From life-on-life formulations, an ekklesia is formed.
Think about the two processes. There is a distinct difference between gathering, establishing, launching, outreach, and then discipleship programs—with anchor trade, Mars Hill, gospel conversations, disciple-making, and ekklesia. One is backward, and the other is in Great Commission order.
Knowing these two processes, the question for you becomes: which will you choose? Let’s just admit—making disciple-makers is difficult and tedious. It’s not glamorous or fun. It is pull over, down to earth, nitty-gritty, go through the trunk, find the car-jack, and greasy lug wrench-get-the-hands-dirty-tire-changing application.
Disciple-making is real life-on-life Christ living. But, if the church is looking for healthy multiplicative reproducibility, starting at relationships is imperative.
Are you a disciple-maker? A church planter? A revitalizer? Pastor? Missionary? or maybe just an early church geek?
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to be listing some of the books that I’ve read. Most of them will have the same theme—reproducible disciple-making (my passion), but they all derive from a different aspect and have a different purpose.
I know that several of the books that I list will be academic in nature—but they’re excellent resources, while yet others are extremely practical and may seem to not have much depth. In all, they work well together and I’m sure that you can glean from them.
If you don’t see a particular book, don’t worry, I have over 500 books regarding missiology, discipleship, and church planting. But, feel free to ask me—maybe I’ll post it next.
Here, are ten books—not in any specific order of importance, but ones that I find edifying.
Hastings, Ross. Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelizing the West. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.
Ross Hastings has served as a pastor and professor of pastoral theology. I truly love this book—one of my all-time favorites! Hastings provides thoroughly academic work—always footnoted and cited—yet highly captivating. His book reflects upon the character of God and his mission on earth. There’s a working thesis that correlates with John’s Great Commission (Jn. 20:19–23) that Hastings utilizes as the focal point. The book is divided into two parts: (1) discovering and (2) disseminating the shalom of God, through the Church, to the world.
Missional God, Missional Church is (in my opinion) a must-read for anyone interested in missiology and the revitalization of the Western church. For Hastings, the missional church’s identity in Christ becomes more revealed when sharing the Trinitarian presence. He analyzes the importance of John 20:19–23 in a Christocentric engagement within daily worship, liturgy, and practices, as they relate to how the church incarnates within a diverse Western culture—that is something the modern church needs.
One thing I love about Hastings’ book is its refreshing and comprehensive approach to missional cultural engagement of the Great Commission, NOT deriving from the Matthean gospel, but from the Apostle John—very insightful and illuminating.
Hull, Bill. Conversion & Discipleship: You Can’t Have One Without the Other. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.
If you’ve read any books on discipleship, you’ve come across Bill Hull’s work. Hull has authored several well-written books regarding the topic of discipleship; add Conversion & Discipleship, the newest of Hull’s books to that list.
Hull does a remarkable job in illustrating the dilemma facing evangelicalism regarding the aspects of “completed conversion and a salvation-culture,” compared to disciple-making and gospel-culture. Why is this important? Because the modern church has neglect disciple-making by replacing it with a once saved always saved ideology causing apathy. From page one, Hull compares the varied views of the gospel and how each f them will determine the disciple’s worldview.
For Hull, a false view of the gospel will not develop disciples. He establishes a gospel-centered thesis for making disciples—I love that! Conversion & Discipleshipoverflows with biblical insight, rich theological examination, ecclesiological dilemmas, spiritual formational applications, and personal accounts. This may be Hull’s best-written book on discipleship.
McGowan, Andrew, B. Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.
Well, this is another academic piece, but I really enjoyed it.
It’s been stated that if you want to know the future then look back at the past. Andrew McGowan, president, and dean of Berkley Divinity provides a transparent picture of the early church’s construction, practices, and worship, helping you gain a fresh perspective of orthodox Christianity.
McGowan writes about the ritual lifestyle of early Christian communal faith, spiritual development, and sacramental practices—something that I’m somewhat of a nerd about. But, Ancient Christian Worship offers a comprehensive researched and thought-provoking book with excellent insight into biblical and extra-biblical works.
McGowan’s contextual attention toward Greco-Roman, Roman, and Judaic culture surrounding the Eucharist was well established. Ancient Christian Worship would not be considered a light read or probably desirable for a new believer, but it is one worthy for scholarly research or greater early church understanding.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Ok, seriously, what can we say about anything of Newbigin’s?
Lesslie Newbigin has been credited with being one of the greatest missiologists of the twentieth century—indeed. The books that Newbigin wrote still have an impact and application upon today’s culture and missional life.
Newbigin’s book was first published in 1978 and has been revised, but the thesis concerning the mission of the Church being an “Open Secret,” has not. The Open Secretmay seem prophetic to the modern reader as if Newbigin had revelation concerning the Church’s enculturation and decline–I believe he did.
But, I also love the Trinitarian depth, theological exploration, missiological truths, and practical experience—they are beyond impressive. Any person engaging or contemplating vocational or bi-vocational church planting would do himself or herself a favor, by reading Newbigin’s Open Secret.
Ogden, Greg. Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2003.
This is a decent book, not the best, but still very edifying. To write his book, Ogden utilizes his involvement as the director of the doctoral program of Fuller Seminary and his pastoral experience. He illustrates how Jesus and Paul utilized discipleship as transforming and empowering agents of people and the church.
Exposing today’s weak manner in which churches engage discipleship, Ogden provides biblical solutions to assist in fruitful multiplication. I thought Ogden’s book was well developed, reflective, and very practical, but it’s not a “one size fits all” band-aid to correct years of church disciple-making neglect. For Ogden, discipleship and transformation take patience and time and occur best in sharing life.
Schnabel, Eckard, J. Early Christian Mission: Jesus and the Twelve. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
This two-volume work is by far one of my all-time favorites. In actuality, I think I love anything written by Schnabel—his work is very thorough. Schnabel teaches New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has been a missionary to the Philippines and Germany. This exhaustive and immensely in-depth academic work make Early Christian Mission a must-have resource for any serious student of Christian history.
Jesus and the Twelve(vol. 1) contains over nine hundred pages expounding upon the early Jewish Christ-following movements into pagan societies and their missionary practices. Leaving nothing out, Schnabel’s work includes illustrations, a multitude of scholarly resources, biblical exegesis, cultural hermeneutics, theological analysis, first-century missionary strategies, and more.
Schnabel’s work becomes an excellent resource for information, background, and understanding of early Christian mission.
Watson, David, and Paul Watson. Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.
Contagious Disciple Making won’t be considered a comfortable read. The Father and son duo, David and Paul Watson, analyze the differences between contextualization and understanding culture, teaching doctrine and Great Commission obedience, and the importance of making disciples, not converts.
The Watsons do create an easily readable format, but if you’re a traditionalist, be forewarned, their hard-hitting emphasis on thinking outside of traditional practices may cause your blood to boil.
Far from the classic style of classroom discipleship models, Contagious Disciple Making will stretch your understanding of mission with practical experiences of church planting movements and perspectives. Overall, the Watsons’ book illuminated me for innovation and development of new and extant methodologies concerning the goal of making disciples—but really good for parachuting church planters.
Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991.
AWESOME! This is the all-time best book regarding the theology of mission—but, be prepared, it is NOT an easy read. This book even comes with a manual on how to read it! The picture shows a yellow cover, mine is purple, so it may be different, but the content is the same.
But, Transforming Mission has become one of the most popular books concerning mission. David Bosch was a missiologist and professor at the University of South Africa. Bosch’s book illustrates the shifts within the ecclesiastical mission throughout the centuries. He identifies the dilemma of postmodernism and the paradigm shift that needs to—or must—occur.
Bosch expertly explains how to see and engage the mission during the shift. For Bosch, Christian mission transforms the realities of everyday life that surround it. Bosch’s in-depth biblical, theological, and ecclesiological understanding of the Great Commission makes Transforming Mission a bank vault of knowledge. With nearly six hundred scholarly pages of research, Bosch’s book should be on every church planter’s library shelf—I’m not kidding.
Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.
I think this book has also become one of my favorites, but once again, I’m an early church nerd.
Michael Green is not some academic push-over, he has served as the senior professor of research at Oxford University’s Wycliffe Hall. Green has also published several books illustrating his knowledge regarding the early church—yet, I think this is his best work.
Green revisits the early church and the secularized relativistic and pluralist society it lived within. He addressed how the modern church would benefit to engage the first-century church’s evangelistic fervor. For Green, the modern church lives when it sacrifices itself and it grows when it gives itself away.
In this revised edition, Green examines the transforming power of the gospel. As well, Green validates his points with hundreds of footnotes from scholarly sources—that’s the real deal. With multiple mentions concerning the early church’s baptismal rite and the Great Commission, Green’s work can be beneficial to revitalizers, planters, and disciple-makers.
Ok, I threw this one if the pile. It’s not one of my favorites, but it is well written. Floyd McClung has published over fourteen books. He founded All Nations, a church movement that engages disciple-making, leadership training, and church planting—so, he’s got the clout.
Plus, this isn’t McClung’s first go around regarding discipleship. I will admit, Basic Discipleship far exceeds anything ordinary, for this reason, do not expect the basic definition of discipleship. McClung challenges the aspect of obedient discipleship and an enacted Christ-centered faith. A consistent theme of Christ’s Lordship over life, seeking God through humility, and the compassion of others, reveals Basic Discipleship as an edifying tool for spiritual formation and Great Commission living. Disciple-maker…put this book in your quiver.
Dr. Fretwell is passionate about reproducible disciple-making, church planting, and church revitalization. Seeking to publish his next book on reproducible disciple-making, he has already published 4 books and edited two others. He frequently writes for other sites and is available for consulting work and speaking.
70% of the U.S. population reports a connection with Jesus Christ, yet according to David Olson, on any given Sunday, less than 17.5% of the population actually attends an orthodox worship service. Even more sobering is the reality that American churches would need to plant 2,900 new churches a year, just to keep up with the current pace of population growth (some research states 15,000).
In an interview with a Liberian church planter, he revealed that God called him to come to the United States to plant churches; he’s not the only one among the diaspora missionaries from Africa. With 80 to 85 percent of churches in America either plateauing or in decline, there is an urgent call for church revitalization and planting. For this reason, the church must re-engage the missio Dei, the sending of God, and shift to a missional praxis. The Western world has once again become the mission field.
When relating to Western culture, I understand the ambiguity involved in such terminology; therefore, for the purpose of this article, the term “Western culture” refers to the United States of America. I hope to illustrate our culture’s need for an apostolic movement and a call for a reestablished Trinitarian mission.
First, I’ll address the historical and present reality of the Western church’s decline and imperative nature as a mission field. Second, I’ll explore a biblical and theological reflection on the Western church within culture.
Historical and Present Reality of The Western Church
We don’t need to go too far back into American history to notice that a transformation has occurred. Just one hundred years ago, back to the 1920’s, Christianity was once was so enmeshed within its culture that capitalism and faith were nearly inseparable—it was virtually improbable to receive a bank loan without church membership. John D. Rockefeller, who organized the Interchurch World Mission (IWM) once proclaimed, “A Christian is a Christian no matter what church he belongs to…What nobler aim can a man have in life than to be Christlike?”
Studying Rockefeller’s business practices, it would not be against popular opinion to question his biblical faith, but as many Americans, Rockefeller assumed that everyone in American society were automatically Christian. Alan Hirsch clarifies, “In the American expression, Christianity was not married to the state but is nonetheless seen to be an inextricable part of American culture and identity; until the last thirty years or so, if you were American, you were a Christian.” Church membership was more about being a part of the social norms and values than it was conviction of the heart.
An interesting statistic from the North American Mission Board (NAMB) shows research concerning American churches. NAMB found that in 1900 there were twenty-eight churches for every ten thousand people; by 1950 that number declined to seventeen; by the year 2000 it declined even more to twelve, and by 2004, it was down to eleven.! There are no current numbers, at least that I have discovered.
As stated, Olson’s statistics display that only 17.5% of the population in North America is attending Sunday services, but Doug Murren of the Murren Group, declares that number to be too high and suggested Olson’s 2008 numbers were lagging a bit behind—his ghastly number of only 12% is staggering. Furthermore, Murren’s research indicates “20% of people leave their church every year, which would require a visitor rate of at least 30% of a church’s size per year, just to grow.”
The Western church is surely in decline and hemorrhaging, as the culture pulls away from Christianity. The Barna Group assesses that “more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice.” With a population of roughly two hundred forty million Americans, one hundred seventy million of them (71%), either consider themselves as having no religious affiliation at all or Christian in name only. As JR Woodward observed, “Functional Christendom has given way to a ‘spiritual,’ secular and pluralist society where a growing number view the church with suspicion and some with downright disdain.”The Western world is officially a mission field and is in dire need of apostolic movement.
However, while it’s good to recognize numbers and statistics, the church should not become depressed—only motivated. As the culture shifts, the contemporary church must be reminded that it’s not in the first-century. As early church historian Michael Green notes, “They lived in a world more relativist and far more pluralist that our own.” Of course, to some, like Ted Turnau, who projects in his book, Popologetics, that “each idolatrous cultural act inspires another that is darker and more deceptive,” this would place humanity into a more darker culture than ever before.
It’s probably safe to say that humanity is, well, humanity, and a depraved unregenerate people will not flock to the gospel, but toward sinful tendencies. One cannot fault culture for shifting, nor for humanity in embracing relativism, new age spiritualism, or even atheism. If the church is not spreading the love of the gospel and making disciples within its community then the current culture cannot be faulted for failing to possess a Christian worldview. David Hesslegrave defines, “A worldview is formed by hearing and learning a big story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
The church is failing to present a transformation story in Christ, filled with the Scriptures, and the application from within our current lives. Society is only doing what is expected of it, to live life according to the desires of the heart. Western culture must be a mission field engaged by a missional people with a passionate and harmonious unified church at its core. The culture has shifted from the church to the workplace—hence, the church must engage the marketplace—and engage it as a movement.
The call for an apostolic movement is vital. If as Malphurs stated, “Only five to twenty-five percent of pastors are equipped to turn around churches” then only a paradigm shift in thinking will work. J.D. Payne rightly observes that the American church, which once was filled with missional church planters has developed into a pastoral missiology of “maintenance and conservation of structures and organizations.” Hirsch adds to this line of thinking, “We forgot that it’s not so much that the church has a mission as that the mission has a church…missional church is apostolic church.”To combat the decline of Western culture, the church must reengage its apostolic past, while communally embracing its missional future.
Biblical and Theological Reflection on The Western Church
As Lesslie Newbigin so eloquently, yet blatantly put it, “The Christ who said, “Come unto me and I will give you rest,” also said to those same disciples, “As the Father has sent me so I send you,” and showed them the scars of his battle with the rulers of the world (John 20:20-21). John’s passage reveals the Greatest Commission; the missio Dei, it’s theologically steeped foundation within the Omnibenevolence of God.
To know God is to love him. Jesus told his disciples that they must love their neighbors as they love themselves; this is the second greatest commandment (Matt 22:39). When questioned as to whom was their neighbor (Luke 10:29), Jesus responded with a story pertaining to the Jews’ detested race of people, the Samaritans (Luke 10:30-35).
In connection, the story of the Good Samaritan is an applicable imperative to know and love those within our culture. Christ’s incarnation provides an example of not only understanding culture, but tabernacling within it (John 1:14). In Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Everyday Theology he explains, “Cultural literacy—[is] the ability to understand patterns and products of everyday life—[it] is thus an integral aspect of obeying the law of love.”To effectively engage Western culture, the church must not abandon the ancient faith, striving to embrace secular values to become relevant, but adhere, apply, and act within Trinitarian koinonia.
At the heart of the reconciliation of all things, whether Western culture or otherwise, is the love of the Father, explicitly sending the suffering Son, to vicariously be victorious over sin and death for humanity, “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14). The love of God cannot be disseminated from the three persons of the Trinity, nor divorced from the missio Dei, as the conceptual understanding of homoousis underlies the Christ as the same eternal substance with the Father; so to, Christ is the head of the church.
Robert Webber’s book, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World expresses the church’s role and functions within a changing culture— “Our calling is not to reinvent the Christian faith, but, in keeping with the past, to carry forward what the church has affirmed from its beginning.” The church was given a mandate to make disciples while going about life (Matt 28:19), through the worship of the Father (Matt 4:10; John 4:23), obedience and submission to Christ (John 14:15), by intentionally heeding the Holy Spirit’s voice (John 14:26; Acts 1:8).
Making disciples means that the church expresses,reveals, and manifests to culture the reality of the Trinity’s nature, by the gospel of Christ. As Adam Dodds confirmed, “Jesus cannot rightly be identified without describing the triune nature of God…Although the gospel is the gospel of Jesus Christ, this gospel begins with the Father sending the Son who is conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, for the church to engage the Western culture with the gospel, it is to reveal God’s Omnibenevolence with the missio Trinitas. A call back to understanding that the Godhead propels and sustains the missional church community is at its core. Woodward validates, “since the church is the icon of the Trinity, true personhood is found in community.”
When the Apostle Paul was called to go to Macedonia, he first made plans to go to Asia, but as Erwin McManus linked, “The entire Trinity got involved in keeping Paul from going to the wrong place.”Currently, the Western church is not listening and it seems to be going to the wrong place. The church abides in Christ, having its resolve to fulfill the missio Dei, as the Imago Dei. As Christ’s body on earth, the church’s missional DNA (mDNA) exists in Jesus as Lord.
Enculturation occurs when “an existent, prevailing culture influences” a church to “imbibe its accepted norms and values.” By enculturation, the contemporary church has separated itself from the imago Dei. Rather than retaining its innate DNA (2 Cor. 5:17), Western Christianity has lost the power of the cross, the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, and the fear of Almighty God. The church’s enculturation has stripped it of the convicting influence of the Holy Spirit (John 16), causing, in part, the West to become the mission field.
However, all is not lost. As Jesus stated, “I will build my church, and the gates of hellshall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18b). The church, from its earliest inception, faced political, religious, and even internal opposition with councils, proconsuls, governors, kings, and tribunes, but the “powers that be,” hinder as they may attempt, could not and cannot cease a missional movement of God. When the church relinquishes control of all earthly things to God and basks in his presence, it can expect an apostolic Trinitarian movement to occur. During trials, tribulations, and opposition from society, the New Testament (NT) church was in the midst of an expansion explosion, and God was on the move.
The church must re-engage Western culture by relinquishing its boundaries to the missio Trinitas. Rolland Allen expresses this as the church’s primary fear, “There is always something terrifying in the feeling that we are letting loose a force which we cannot control; and when we think of spontaneous expansion in this way, instinctively we begin to be afraid.” As the Apostles Paul and John declared, “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7) and respectively, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a). Therefore, in moving ahead within the cultural divide, the church must relinquish its thoughts of controlling Christ’s body. The church has all the resources, power, vision, people, and God-given authority to reach the West for Christ—may we be so emboldened to do it!
David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based On a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 181.
J.D. Payne, Strangers Next Door: Immigrations, Migration, and Mission(Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2012), 151.
Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 200.
Charles Edward Harvey. 1982. “John D Rockefeller, Jr and the Interchurch World Movement of 1919-1920: a different angle of the ecumenical movement.” Church History51, no. 2: 203. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 7, 2015).
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 124.
Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelizing the West(Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 19.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, eds. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 19.
Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 17.
Adam Dodds. “Newbigin’s Trinitarian missiology: the doctrine of the Trinity as good news for Western culture.”International Review Of Mission99, no. 390 (April 1, 2010): 17. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 6, 2015).