As someone who assesses cultural trends, demographics, and global movements, it is not easy in today’s shifting world as a visionary and trainer.
One of the hardest aspects for “early adopters” is translating what you see coming and then getting others to invest in that vision. For the most part, only a small percentage of people are early adopters of vision and even a smaller part are vision casters.
The Reality of Inner City Churches
It’s amazing how we view the works of Schaeffer, Wagner, or McGavran with deep regard (at least some, do), yet when they were writing, the church didn’t seem to pay attention to them. But, their words have become somewhat prophetic as the church leads into the 21st century. We see before our eyes the proofs of global movements, urban areas, and immigration.
If you’re a church planter or pastor and haven’t heard the term diaspora, you will. If you want to know what is coming to urban churches then you need to become a student of diaspora movements (and immigration).
One of the major shifts in global population is the flowing dispersion of immigrant people groups. God is sovereignly moving people around the globe like never before. As a church planter to the military, I purposefully see the reaching, equipping, and sending as an identifiable diaspora-like movement.
If we couple the influx of hipster urbanites, gentrification, and urban renewal, it’s a massive powder keg awaiting implosion within inner-city churches.
Because most of our inner city and suburban older churches are not prepared for what is coming. The reality—these churches will die out. With the movement of refugees—either fleeing persecution or temporary visa status for work—they’re coming to cities all over the world.
What Immigration Tells Us
Western churches in urban areas will be forced to reach people of ethnicity. It’s not that urban churches haven’t always tried to reach ethnicities—but cities will be more ethnically and culturally diverse than ever. We should know that immigration to the United States is the only cause for population growth.
And, where do most immigrant groups go? Cities.
Without immigrants (legal), the United States would not be growing in population—but plateauing or even declining. Just to clarify, if you’re linking immigration with the Hispanic culture, let me help you. Currently, Germany and Ireland are the top two countries with diaspora peoples coming to the U.S.—Mexico is third, but only by a small portion of one percent, compared to the United Kingdom (4th).
How Does This Change Urban Evangelicalism?
Immigration and diaspora models play a major role in engaging urban areas with the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20). As well, the combined hipster, gentrification, and urban renewal (for taxation) models will come into effect.
I’ve heard it said, “We need to stop mega-churches from “gobbling” up old city churches for satellite campuses because they know nothing about the people in the city” or “we already have ‘churches,’ they just need more people in them.”
Supposedly, as the theory goes, mega-churches and Anglo church planting in urban areas won’t work because both are viewed as outsiders looking in. The theory suggests that anglo planters and megachurch models do not understand an inner-city culture, and will not be able to engage the people.
This erroneous theory is caused by thinking Anglo church planters cannot reach African Americans, which are the prominent majority of the urban population.
This argument suggests that Anglo planters and mega-churches should solely invest in small “indigenous” churches, working with and alongside already existing minority inner churches—but not create new spaces of worship. While I may have agreed with this model ten years ago (for outreach purposes)—it’s as archaic as the tape cassette—well, maybe the CD.
Within the next five to ten years, domestic churches and church planters will be forced to reach across the cultural lines of socio-economic barriers, engage ethnic diversity evangelistically with E–2 to E–3 evangelism, and evaluate demographic and ethnic data. If a church doesn’t know who is in its neighborhood, it cannot reach it.
Research any recent urban demographic data and compare it to fifteen years ago. However, census.gov reports won’t provide a true picture—as many people groups within a city, either fail to report their true identity or will not report at all (mainly because of privacy, legal issues, or fear). Think about the major influx of Islam—in just fifteen years this people group has surpassed caucasian and evangelical reproduction.
Do you know how many mosques are now within your city?
While I devoutly pray that brothers and sisters in Christ would no longer view skin color, race, or religion as barriers—the fact is—immigration is a game-changer!
Even the inner-city African American culture will be melded into the many ethnic cultures already here and those arriving in the future. To reach an entire city the church must yield to a concerted effort.
Most cities are becoming more and more ethnically diverse: Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, and European. To think that things are going to stay the same, especially in light of gentrification (even though I disagree with it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening), are antiquated and ignorant. Urban churches wishing to survive must engage foreign people groups.
The Good News
First, we have the ability to know, study, engage, meet, and communicate with every people group within our cities. Major mission organizations are working side-by-side in mapping the nations within cities. This information is available and can assist churches and church planters in engaging urban areas with the gospel.
Second, nationalities within city-limits sometimes have unreached people groups (UPGs) among them. Many of the refugees will one day desire to go back home—so, what better way to engage missions than to have UPGs return to “go and make disciples” in their own homeland.
Lastly, churches should be working together, collaboratively, as kingdom workers to reach every city with the gospel. However, this is going to take a multi-pronged approach. Existing mega-churches should find ways to purchase dying empty church sarcophaguses—keeping these “kingdom properties.”
Targeting areas of resurgent growth and ethnically diversified areas with house churches works well, too. Strengthening and revitalizing churches, which can be saved, and churches within lower socio-economic areas are a must.
As well, traditional style church planting (having a sending church) and more innovative church planting techniques (parachuting) must be implemented.
We’re all on the same team—let’s reach our cities and the peoples of the world.
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.
Is your church struggling? Is it plateauing? Is your church planting core team losing interest? Are you having difficulty in reaching the unreached?
Become a force seven multiplier—sounds awesome—doesn’t it? It’s reminiscent of one of my favorite movie titles, Force 10 from Navarone!
What’s a force seven multiplier?
Click. bait. We’ve all been hooked at some point, sorry. We read a sweet eye-candy infused headline and take the bait! For church planters and revitalizers, there are tons of baited hooks.
But, for the most part, many of the “hooks” are baited with buzzwords that appeal to emotion.
There’s something about catchwords that church planters love—and thrive on. They eat them up and spew them out like sunflower seeds. Missional, attractional, immersion, engagement, bi-vo, co-vo, relational, and so on… I even used them—I’m guilty.
At any church planting conference, these hipster slogans become incantations over coffee as lyrical prose.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about pipelines, champions, and co-vocational topics. Maybe you have, too? But, can we address the overall picture of why? Can we hit reset for a second?
The Truth about Gospel Engagement
As I stated, I’m guilty. In my last article, I wrote about the psychographic viewpoint and the fruitfulness of their examination (I’ll stick with my claim, too). Recently, I’ve been asked to speak at several small events. I met with planters and revitalizers—and listened to their heart.
Vocabulary is good. Humanity uses it to glorify God, build relationships, express emotions, feelings, opinions, and also to define specific contexts. So, hear me out, I’m not against all of the “hipster” terminology—it has purpose and can be edifying. I merely want to “lift some fog” and bring clarity to what we’re doing.
The truth about gospel engagement is derived from our captivation by God’s love, through Jesus Christ. Natural gospel conversations will occur when our hearts, minds, and souls are aligned with the first and greatest commandment—to love the Lord…
Sometimes we make things more difficult than they need to be. We seek out instantaneous low-hanging fruit. We try to mimic the Apostle Paul’s journey, utilize tested programs, or buy into the newest network.
Observation: I’ve never seen a garden grow overnight. That’s fairytale stuff. There’s always plotting, plowing, sowing, weeding, and then reaping. Only to do it all over again each year and each year the variables are different (sun, rain, clouds, temperature, soil).
Sometimes we get delusions of grandeur because we read a best-selling-megachurch guy’s book. We get depressed when we don’t see multiplicative fruit, immediately. We’ll say, “What and where did I do wrong?”
Our focus is wrong. We’re concentrated on tertiary concepts more than obedient disciple-making. And the cause is our reliance on self or man, more than Christ.
Community gospel engagement is not about an event, but Jesus. If we see the world through the lens of Christ, we will see humanity’s brokenness, lostness, addictions, and a sin-laden culture. When we look upon Christ, we will see our own sin, the great forgiveness granted to us, and our hearts will burn with passion.
None of us want to hear the words given to the church of Ephesus—you have lost your first love (Rev. 2:4). So, let’s just set aside some of the jargon for a second and be intentional and practical.
The Practical Side of Missional Engagement
I get it. Most church planters, and more revitalizers, are finding themselves in bi-vocational settings. I love much of what is being written about navigating these waters. Kudos to the “heroes” who devote time and energy to pour into others. We all know that it’s not easy juggling family, ministry, and diverse occupations—needless to say—remaining an obedient disciple-maker in the midst.
But the practical side of any gospel mission is the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying and sustaining power. Whether we are building relationships within our first, second, or third job, with our next-door neighbor, seeking the rhythms of the community, or strategizing to reach out to our children’s sports’ moms, our obedience comes from our intentionality. We must yield to the Spirit’s control.
The practical side of missional engagement is to realize why we’re on the mission in the first place. Rescue, redemption, reconciliation, renewal, and rejuvenation. We have been set apart for God’s use—sanctified—and for God’s mission—gospel proclamation.
The practical side is whether we’re bi-vocational, co-vocational, full-time, or volunteering—the Apostle Paul’s confession should rend our hearts, “But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
The practicality is finding the rhythmic natural gospel conversation—and that overflow from a rescued and redeemed heart.
Let’s not lose focus on what is most important. Strategies, programs, acronyms, catchphrases, and resources are all tools to assist in gospel proclamation—but our first love and primary focus must be the gospel.
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.
Not necessarily beginning with, but accredited to, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner, the Church Growth Movement compelled churches to grow by utilizing sociological analysis.
I’m not one of the critics that thinks the church growth movement was evil. It was nearly 60 years ago! At the time, there were applicational questions that McGavran and Wagner presented, and I think that most will agree—the “status quo” was lackluster.
As well, I don’t think it’s evil for a church to count heads and know who they’re reaching and how many. I don’t like polarizations. I’m usually more of a both/and type of person (except in salvation—that’s black and white) than an either/or.
My point in this brief article is to help church leaders see people for who they are—people.
People need Jesus.
People need love.
People need healing and redemption.
Sometimes leadership can become so obsessed with bringing in more people that personability is lost. Numbers become personified—taking the place of people.
One of the first questions I get at conferences is “How big is your church”? As if this is relevant to anything? Must I explain that I took over a revitalization—that I work with church planters? Why are we justifying “numbers” with success?
The beautiful aspect of church is that it’s the only organization on earth that collects dysfunctional, hurting, pain-ridden, broken, and sinful people with an anticipation of being perfected (in Christ). An anticipation of redeeming love.
The overall premise of the church is reproducible disciple-making to bring about rejuvenation, renewal, and reconciliation (in God).
Once again, I don’t want to discredit churches that are doing amazing work—but let’s not get distracted from the goal—disciple-making. I speak to numerous church planters and pastors who see their work as a failure because they’re not growing at the rapidity of others.
These leaders read way too many books, listen to far too many podcasts, and see too many social media posts regarding numbers, programs, and the “quick-fix.”
The main goal of the church has always been about making disciple-makers(Matt. 28:18–20).
I wonder if the Thessalonian churches were envious of the Philippian church’s size—for they had deacons and bishops (Phil 1:1)? The Philippian church had wealth—they supported Paul on his church planting mission—perhaps they could show the other churches the “right” model?
Or, perhaps, the Ephesian churches wrote letters to the other churches with the best program “to reach the masses”? Maybe they distributed scrolls for, 8 Simple Ways to Be Awesomeor Grow Your Church Like Ours?
I never pick up on any of that in Paul’s writings. I see in Paul, a person who was a devoted disciple-maker (1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Tim. 2:2). Paul was a servant who was dedicated to two words, “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2; Gal. 2:20). And, Paul’s motivation was to see the churches reach maturity. I’ve never read a single statement from Paul consigning numbers over people.
I think in today’s church, leaders can sometimes make things more difficult than they are—instead of keeping it simple.
What if the church focused on only two things? (1)The gospel. (2) Reproducible disciple-making.
The gospel and reproducible disciple-making are centered in Christ and focused on people—the dysfunctional, hurting, pain-ridden, broken, and sinful people. If the church begins to look at people through the lens of Christ, growth will occur—naturally.
Let’s not over complicate the gospel. In the same manner, let’s not over complicate disciple-making, either.
If we do life together—as the called out gathered ones (ekklesia)—our lives will be centered in Christ, releasing us to live out our lives within the world.
If we focus on gospel transformative reproducible disciple-making, our hearts are directed at people and for people.
If all we’re solely interested in numbers, then we’re neglecting the missional mandate to love one another and make disciples.
Let’s not reinvent the wheel—but simply, go back to the basics.
Let’s be candid and free the air about some misconceptions regarding disciple-making.
For most of the church age, the comprehension that disciple-making begins with relationship building has been foreign.
Without delving into the early church—which I’m more than happy to do (I’ll save you the homework)—reproducible disciple-making was never designed to begin at conversion, baptism, or church membership. It also was not designed for categorical stages, but instead, was a commission to reach unreached people groups.
Disciple-making was always (and is) about continually making disciples from unbelieving people groups for salvific reconciliation harmony with God and a sanctifying journey through life to exalt Christ. (Matt. 28:18–20).
Jesus called Twelve men, “disciples,” prior to their revelation of his identity. It was clear that these new followers of Jesus—at least to the Pharisees—took the identity of “disciples” (Matt. 9:14). It’s understandable to make an argument that they were covenant Israelites, looking for the Messiah—but not even Peter’s renowned profession happens for some time (Matt 16:13).
Likewise, a person can be seeking God, but not be a Christian. For instance, Apollos was an adherent to the baptism of John, and knowledgeable in the “instruction in the way of the Lord,” but Priscilla and Aquila “took him aside” and discipled him “more accurately” (Acts 18:25-26). Of course, we have no idea of how long Apollos was in Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila or how long they discipled him—but to “explain to” Apollos the “way of God more accurately,” denotes more than a quick conversation.
Therefore, all Christians are disciples, but not all disciples are Christians.
The discipleship process shouldbegin pre-conversion—at building relationships, explaining, reasoning, walking, and living with others—hopefully, while they are in the searching process.
Unfortunately, when the church shifted to a more didactic form of “discipleship”—between the late second to early fourth centuries, mainly due to heresies—the communal life-on-life aspects of reproducible disciple-making changed.
Disciple-making doesn’t occur in stages
I’ve read many times and, in several publications, that disciple-making is about getting to, and recognizing, specific stages. Here’s some of the problems and arguments I have with stages of discipleship.
First, the Thessalonian church was only 3 weeks old when Paul and Silas were snuck out of the city—but no older than six months (Acts 17:1–9).How could this church grow in reproducible disciple-making, with a city of a hundred thousand persecuting them, in only a few short weeks? The truth is—reproducible disciple-making requires Holy Spirit gospel transformation, not programs or categories. In the case of the Thessalonian church, they would have been considered “babes in Christ.” Today, none of them would have been selected to lead or facilitate our modern small groups. Yet, Paul was encouraged by the report of their “faith and love” (1 Thess. 3:6).
Second, the dilemma with stages reduces disciple-making to a course to be completed. As if we enter a final stage of maturation. Believers are always learning and always growing. The Apostle Peter was rebuked by the Apostle Paul for representing a false gospel—what stage would we have placed Peter into during that period (Gal 2:11)? I’ve seen some models of discipleship list a requirement for a “mature disciple” to possess full knowledge of the gospel—guess that leaves Peter out? Paul asserted that Peter stood, “condemned” (Gal. 2:11). I’ll rest in the words of the Apostle Paul—that God is not finished with me, yet (Phil. 1:16).
Third, similar to my second point, when disciple-making is viewed as a program within the church, what happens to those who are not involved? I’ll tell you. Those “disciples” do not view themselves as disciples because they’re not in a “discipleship class.” The modern church values Scripture memorization more than Scripture adherence. Disciple-making is a continual life-on-life journey, which should begin at pre-conversion.
My point? Why bother with trying to measure believers up? Every believer is going to go through times of doubt, anxiety, turmoil, bitterness, error, sin, and so forth—perhaps the church should focus on being more like Christ—in unity—communally—not individualistically?
If the church could have a renewed vision of reproducible disciple-making, looking back at the early church, not trying to reinvent the wheel, perhaps evangelism and growth would be the outcomes? Perhaps the church could reach unreached peoples in communities, cities, and countries—beginning the reproducible disciple-making process.
The concept of reproducible disciple-making is not about finding a believer and discipling them, but a non-believer. What if each believer focused on discipling a non-believer? What would that look like?
It would look like multiplicative new conversion growth: salvation, baptism, identity in the Godhead, teaching to obey the commands of Christ. It would look like gospel transformation. It would look like communal life-on-life—sharing in troubles, failures, and successes. It would look like accountability and personal relationships, with God and man.
Is that so bad?
Fee, Gordon, L. The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians(TNICNT) (Eerdmans: Grand Raids, 2009, 6).