Back in 2009/2010 there were a few books around that ‘spoiled’ traditional ministry for me. By traditional ministry I mean being content to just preach the sermon on Sunday, visit a few folks in the week, run programmes, keep busy and hope that by all the activity, you might attract a few folks and the church will get bigger. It was the model I had inherited from the earliest days of my faith, and it matched with my desire that more people should come to know Jesus like I had come to know him. It wasn’t a bad assumption that the way to do mission was to get more people to come to your church, and not a bad assumption that doing things might attract people to be part of the crowd. Church should have an attractional side to it, after all.
It was, however, a bit of a bet that we could put on the kind of stuff people would a) want to come along to and, b) be the thing that would lead them to Jesus then somehow lead them naturally to want to learn more about Jesus and deepen in the life of faith. Looking around, experience was telling me that you don’t make disciples by accident, but by being very intentional.
The books: one by Floyd McClung, a few by Frank Viola, more by Neil Cole, and eventually stuff by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. What can I say? Mindset blown to smithereens. Forever!?
What most of them spent many pages saying was, ‘our job isn’t to build the church, our job is to make disciples: one by one, life on life, in community – face to face.’ More than that, that there is an apostolic dynamite at the heart of the church which is asleep and needing to be reawakened so that we can recover the missional heart of the church.
I realised that not only had I been more focussed on building a particular expression of the church than I was on making disciples of Jesus, but that what I was building was so culturally nuanced and distant from ‘everyday people’ that it was unlikely to cut the mustard. This blog actually records some of that journey and the conclusions I came to back in the history of it (along with all sorts of other weird notions over the years – it’s rather humbling to have a rather long record of ‘working out what on earth this ministry thing is!’).
My response at the time was to ‘leave ministry’ and, as I shared recently with a group of people, I haven’t gone back. ‘What? But I thought you are a pastor? Haven’t you been working in churches for nearly 20 years?’ Yeah – I am, I have, but what I mean is that I refuse to just go back to ministry as a career choice, to run the show, put on the performance and hope that, somehow, we can pull em in by the sheer weight of the character of our organisation, the dazzle of our Sunday worship, or the proficiency of our programmes.
Now, not much of that is bad. However, if it doesn’t lead to transformed lives by the power of the gospel, and a growth in the ways, patterns and life of discipleship, then we haven’t been carrying out the mission of Jesus. We’ve been doing some other thing. Some other thing.
Ten minutes spent overhearing regular conversations in your local coffee shop will tell you that the future of the church doesn’t belong to the ability to put on a show, but in the ability to connect with people one-to-one, connect with their stories, and do so with the intention to disciple them towards Christ. Gently offering them one step towards him at a time. Certainly, there are churches who do well with the show and it still has some impact amongst some in our culture, but that impact is diminishing and regardless of how you dress that model up, it doesn’t always lead to depth or to transformation or, indeed, perseverance in the faith.
It all comes down to what our faith is built on and bolstered by: is it on our preferred model of church and the extent to which is ‘meets our felt needs’, or is it on being utterly convinced that the call to follow Jesus actually means giving up your life, losing your comfort, and carrying your cross?
Ten years on from all that reading, reflection and response that led me to move in a particular path, and to stop building church empires, nothing much has really changed in the sense that I, and every church leader and every church member, have to make a really solid resolution: to make the making of disciples our number one priority over and above building the institution at every turn.
Sure, every church needs its structure – organisation is required. But it is so easy for the balance to tip from the mission to the model. The model becomes the sacred cow and the mission becomes a pesky inconvenience.
We’ve recently been working on a project which uses the contrast between a vine and a trellis. The vine is the living organism which produces the fruit: the trellis is the support system that keeps the vine upright and enables health. Both need attention. The vine needs pruning and tending. The trellis needs mending or changing, not for itself, but in order that the vine can produce fruit. Reality is – it’s easy to tinker with the structure of the trellis because it’s largely man-made systems that we understand and comprehend, or even create to give the illusion of success. Vines? Well, there’s so much organic factors in there that we can’t control and so we often don’t know where on earth to start. Easy to see how we go about making our choices based on what seems easiest to do or tinker with. I call it ‘shuffling chairs on the Titanic’.
Let me tell you where I started: I started paying more attention to my own discipleship and devotion to Jesus than I did to x number of other stuff which all felt worthy and necessary. It is out of our own intimacy with Jesus, our relationship with him, that our ministry, whatever that looks like, finds significant expression.
I’ve said it before: I genuinely hope I am part of the transitional generation of leaders in the church who will work to shift the balance from empire building to disciple-making as the default position for the church in our age. Building the church is God’s job, and he will do it when we are faithful to our call to conform our lives to Christ and help others do the same. The church of the future is fluid, dynamic, flexible and relational…like taking a walk through winding deserts, twisting roads, deep valleys and rocky hills with some first century Jewish Rabbi, encountering others on the way.
As my kids keep reminding me: ‘Dad, the church is not the building – it’s the people.’