I’ve been wrestling a lot with what I think about the church, making disciples, and the organization we call the church. Even that last sentence probably gave some people a headache; that’s okay. A lot of people in my generation are asking the same questions. I don’t want to add to the cacophony. However, I have to learn in community. If I don’t learn in community then I lean on my own understanding, and that is terrifying.
I’m not trying to start a fight. But, what I know is that I have spent years frustrated with the “church” till I started examining what we really meant by “church.”I realized that I wasn’t actually frustrated with the church, I was frustrated with how different what we called “church” was from what the New Testament portrayed as the church.
I know that this may be a deviation from some tradition. But even the word tradition is funny; because what we often mean is that we want to continue following a trajectory in a certain direction without ever asking if the initial direction was right.
So…caution ahead, you might think I’m a heretic. I know I’m not. It’s okay. This is what I’ve been wrestling with.
1. What is a disciple?
We will start with the obvious, not because my definition is different, but because it lays a groundwork.
First, a disciple is NOT someone who refers to themselves as “Christian.” A disciple is NOT someone who just reads his or her Bible regularly, or gathers with the church regularly. Those may be included, but that is quite reductionist. A disciple is NOT someone who is a Baptist, or a Calvinist, or a cessationist (or not).
There are a million ways to define this, but here is my shot:
A disciple is someone who has confessed Christ as Savior and King and is seeking to live life with Christ’s Kingdom’s values.
I keep trying to simplify, however, any part that goes away leaves a gaping hole.
In the Western world we often determine if someone is a disciple by the doctrines to which he holds.
Above, there is a simple confession “Christ is Savior and King,” and that is followed by a life that aligns with that confession. If Christ truly is King, then He has a Kingdom with values aligned with His teaching. The disciple seeks to live life in accordance with those values.
2. What is a church?
A church is a group of disciples that gather for exhortation and scatter on mission.
Yes, this is its simplest, most basic, microscopic form. We could include that biblical leadership is necessary, the sacraments, proclamation of God’s Word and we can continue to nuance till death by nuance. The point is there is a regular gathering for exhortation and a regular scattering on mission.
Most definitions of the church are heavy on the “gathering for exhortation,” few definitions include scattering on mission. If a group of disciples is not living their life on mission they are not a church. The church is the corporate agent for God’s mission on earth.
3. We are called to MAKE DISCIPLES not plant churches.
As silly as it may sound, this was a revolutionary concept for me. Don’t misunderstand the phrase. It is not saying that starting churches is bad; rather it is a standard case of cart and horse. If the horse moves forward…so does the cart.
The church is a product, a result of making disciples. The end goal is making disciples, not making churches. You can’t make a church unless you make disciples. It is impossible.
It is amazing the pressure that, as a missionary, one can feel about starting a church. Few missionaries could come back with an anecdotal report of the disciples made. Supporting churches and supporters often want to hear when missionaries are starting Sunday services, when will they consider building, what preaching series are they doing, how many retreats did they do last year…and so forth.
Making disciples is the end, not starting churches. And even at that, most of those questions aren’t insightful questions about church planting, which is a great segue to my final point.
4. A church Service is NOT the Church.
Commonly what we call “church” is actually just a church service. We say that we are “going to church,” or we heard that song “at church.” We don’t actually mean “church” as defined above; we mean church service.
Somewhere along the way we ended up with the notion that to plant a church means you are starting a church service.
A church is started WAY before a church service takes place. A church is begun at the sign of the first person to confess that “Christ is King.” A church is started. From that point, you teach, coach, and mentor (i.e. discipleship) that individual as they grow in their understanding of Christ as King. They share it with someone else and you do that in perpetuity.
You don’t have to sit down in a room with all the chairs facing one direction, sing 5 songs, listen to a guy talk for 40 minutes, and take an offering for it to be a church.
But all too often, that is what we think. When we talk about church planting, what we assume is that people are starting church services.
The fascinating part is that in the Western world we put all of our effort and focus on the weekly church service. Seriously, 75-85% of most church staff weeks are spent on details for the weekly church service. Because quantifying results is SO important in the western world, the church service is the easiest way to do so. It is one event that we can count and tally their donations to determine our success. Then we feel bad about ourselves if they were less than they were the week before.
In the Western church we have settled for cheap alternatives to making disciples. We perpetuate old, broken programs to keep people happy and in turn, we keep working our tails off to attract people to these old, broken programs and then we feel good about ourselves when one Sunday more people showed up than the previous Sunday.
What’s the definition of insanity?