One of the topics we discussed at the church planters’ round table in New York City last week was discipleship.
Ten of the people attending were on staff at a mega church in California that had experienced massive growth over the past few years, but the leadership has begun to ask some very challenging questions. Specifically, they looked at the 6,000 people who were attending on Sundays and said, “We aren’t making disciples.” High marks for asking the tough questions when things are going so “well” in terms of numbers!
Their willingness to question and learn was a challenge to me as well. I thought, “Is our community really making disciples, or are we simply doing the same thing as the California mega church, except on a smaller scale?” I came away resolving to remember to make disciple-making the main thing. Growing disciples of Jesus really is the foundation of everything else we want to see. Missional imagination, renewal in the arts, industry, culture, politics, neighborhoods, etc. all flow from the bedrock of a community people who have fallen in love with Jesus and are being transformed by the Spirit day by day. You can have great programs, but if people aren’t growing in maturity as disciples of Jesus, you’re not doing anything.
One of the pastors shared that he had gotten curious about how people are formed spiritually a few years ago, and started a series of informal interviews with everyone he could find who had ever grown spiritually. He asked them how it had happened. Then he studied Scripture to see what kinds of things happened to those who grew spiritually, and what kinds of experiences the disciples had in their time with Jesus. He boiled it down to 5 elements that seem to be necessary in people’s lives if they are going to grow as disciples of Jesus:
- Deep Relationships. People need relationships that go way beyond the surface level relationships most of us are comfortable with. It is vital that people are able to be completely honest and vulnerable with a few people.
- Transforming Practices. These don’t always have to be the same thing for everyone, but people do not grow spiritually unless there is some regular engagement with practices that slowly transform us over time by opening our lives to the transforming grace of God (otherwise known as “spiritual disciplines,” things like prayer, meditation and memorization of Scripture, fasting, serving, etc.)
- Faith-Stretching Experiences. People need to get out of their comfort zones and do things that make them decidedly uncomfortable. The disciples were sent out to drive out demons and heal the sick way before most leaders would do something like that today. People need to engage in experiences that stretch their faith so they can learn to rely on God to do what they cannot do in their own strength.
- Soulful Illuminations. People need times when they come face-to-face with their own darkness, sin, and brokenness. These powers usually operate “under the surface” but there are times in everyone’s life where God brings things to the surface and they must be dealt with instead of pushed back down underneath the water.
- Empowering Transfers. I’m not quite sure exactly what he meant here, but I think he was talking about being able to receive and give nourishment from others in the Body of Christ. This is not simply theological information, but real “impartation” of gifts from one person to another. The laying on of hands and mentoring come into play here, I think.
My impression was that this was a pretty thorough list (and would probably make a great book!). I was definitely challenged to look at what we were doing as a community and trying to discern whether or not these kinds of opportunities and challenges exist for people, or if we were perhaps a little too content to “do church” as usual without too much thought along these lines.
What’s your impression of the 5 elements? How have you grown spiritually in the past? Do any of the above elements strike you as particularly attractive or threatening? What’s missing in your life?
Geoff Holsclaw deftly points out a dynamic tension for anyone in leadership, especially those who lead in organizations that strive to be “starfishy.” We (leaders) want to make sure we aren’t doing everything, rushing in to solve all the problems. Instead we want to trust the community (people in the community) to work things out for themselves, to be patient with the mess, etc.
This is good. But there is another side to this: leadership really does exist, and leaders really are called to do something. Geoff points out the other side of the tension:
But, sometimes this hands-off approach to trusting the community turns into an abdication. For leaders, at least leaders commissioned by the church, have a responsibility to the community which has been entrusted to the leaders. While leaders (and there are always leaders no matter how democratic, or flattened your structure) must trust the community, they must also realize that the community has been entrusted to them for its care, protection, and provision. And while this idea of “entrustment” can lead to authoritarian abuse by those seeking to control a community according their own whims, we must not abdicate leadership when issues, problems, or sins threaten the general health of the church. If a wolf is loose in the sheep pen, it is the shepherd’s responsibility to take care of it, not the community of sheep.
It’s definitely a tricky thing to work out in practice. But I think a key lies in the word “trust.” In an age of abusive leadership and constant suspicion of any kind of authority, this is a tall order, but no less necessary for credible, vital Christian witness. We need to cultivate a “Mutual Trust Society” in our communities, where leaders can trust others in the community, and where people in the community learn to trust leaders.
As I think about it, perhaps it’s just another way of saying “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).