Future Church: Part 6

By: Justin Anderson

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“I’m good with saying that the mission of the church is basically to ‘make disciples.’ I like it because it safeguards the centrality of what the church alone can really do—bring people to faith in Christ. But I might differ with others on what those disciples look like. I’d say you haven’t discipled someone if they only have been equipped to evangelize and bring people to church. If they are truly discipled, they must be motivated and equipped to love their neighbors, to do justice and mercy. And they also must be equipped to integrate their faith with their work, namely, to engage culture. One problem I see is that many churches insist that the church’s job is to only to make disciples and do virtually nothing to help disciples grow in these areas, even though it is clearly part of the biblical job description for individual believers.” – Timothy Keller

Leading a church can often be an exercise in saying no. There are so many good and worthwhile pursuits that it can be daunting to know when to say yes and when to say no. In fact, I think one of the most important things a pastor can learn how to do is to say no. “No” is often the key to unlocking your own potential and your church’s potential. So what do we say no to, and what do we say yes to? That’s the question we are answering this week.

In past years, the church in the West has been so flush with cash, people, and influence that it had the luxury of dabbling in things that aren’t the main thing.

My own churches have invested heavily in the arts, athletics, and content production. These are all worthy pursuits, and I don’t regret doing them. They produced a lot of evangelistic and culture-making fruit that I’m proud of. In fact, some of the churches I’ve led have functioned like big non-profits, with hands in many different activities. We saw ourselves as hubs of gospel ministry that could have a major impact on adoption and foster care, trafficking, and other humanitarian crises.

But, in the future (I believe), we will not have the luxury of wandering into areas that aren’t the primary focus of the church. I don’t want us to take on a scarcity mindset, but I think we are entering a season where we need to ensure that the main thing we are called to focus on is getting the attention it deserves. In other words, we need to get back to basics.

And what are those basics? Timothy Keller’s quote above hits it on the head. We are in the business of making disciples of Jesus. That is the church’s primary goal, as set forth by Jesus himself in the Great Commission. Job #1 for the church is to make disciples. What does this mean?

Let’s not get fancy. Making disciples is very simply the work of helping people become more like Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit and the ordinary function of the church. This means that we focus our preaching, groups, classes, etc., on helping people grow in their knowledge of, love for, and obedience to Jesus.

This is our first priority, and everything flows from it. Evangelism is a part of this; it’s the first step of discipleship. Leadership development is also a part of this, especially when we consider elder development.

So, what should our discipleship look like? I have a few thoughts, but I would encourage you again not to get fancy. Teach people the Bible, model Christlikeness, introduce them to spiritual disciplines, and do it all in the context of a vibrant human community.

My only caution is that sometimes, our discipleship simply looks like training people to be good church members. This is important, of course, but there is far more to discipleship than learning how to give, serve, and lead at your church. Men need to be taught how to be godly men, husbands, and fathers. Women should be taught how to be godly women, wives, and mothers. We need to give people a biblical vision for their work and their role in society. All of this should roll naturally out of our basic discipleship.

When we teach our people about the virtue of humility, we should explain where it comes from in the Bible, how it connects to a larger behavioral vision, and how to apply it in normal aspects of life. For example, we can teach men to be godly fathers by discussing how to parent teenagers or how to lead their team at work humbly.

All of this is fairly elementary, but I encourage you to answer some basic questions for yourself.

1. Where in our church would a newish believer learn the books of the Bible and how to find them?
2. How would someone learn about the doctrine of the Trinity?
3. How would your people cultivate the spiritual discipline of prayer or fasting?
4. How are you holding your men accountable for being godly husbands, fathers, and coworkers?
5. Are your children being catechized in any kind of systematic way that will prepare them for their teenage and college years?

Whatever your answers are, are those expectations clear, and are they actually happening? For instance, often, when I ask pastors these questions, they will say that small groups are where most discipleship happens. I then follow up by asking if their small group leaders know that those things are expected of them. And are those small group leaders equipped to teach about prayer, the Trinity, or how to find Habakkuk?

Lastly, do you know how effective your church is at discipleship? In other words, what are you measuring? I see the idea of measuring discipleship can seem wonky and overly statistical, so choose whatever method you feel good about measuring with, but you have to measure something. You have to have some idea as to whether your discipleship plan is working, right?

Let me give you one idea. This is something that I used in my last two churches and am still working out. As I see it, there are four elements of discipleship: Biblical Knowledge, Theological Ability, Personal Holiness, and Spiritual Vibrancy. I think we all know that discipleship cannot be one or even two of these things. We’ve all met theological geniuses who are some of the worst people to be around, and we’ve met wonderfully kind people with trash theology.

Each of these things plays a role in a vision for overall discipleship, and each must be attended to. People need to know their Bibles and read them actively. They need to be able to connect the Bible to itself and the world to create theological coherence. A disciple should increasingly resist sin and treat people well, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. People should practice spiritual disciplines in a way that connects their whole selves to God, not just their heads.

Now, how do you measure progress in these areas? Some are easier than others. Bible and theology are fairly straightforward categories that can simply be tested. Personal holiness and spiritual vibrancy are far more subjective and are best evaluated through self-assessment. Don’t get hung up on the testing methods or even the results themselves. Simply having a plan for discipleship and a means of assessment will be a giant step forward for most churches.

Let me get one step more granular. In my church, we would meet with members each year (or more if they desired) to make annual discipleship plans for them. We would establish a baseline in the four categories and then let them choose areas of emphasis or growth for the year, and then we’d help them make a plan. So if they wanted to grow in their knowledge of the Old Testament or a particular theological discipline, we might suggest books or sermon series that they could engage. We would have them choose an area of holiness to focus on and a spiritual discipline to learn, providing them with the resources and community to make it happen. Then, we’d set up check-ins for people to talk through progress and reset expectations if necessary.

Obviously, you don’t have to do it this way, but I think you need to have a plan. Discipleship is like losing weight, it doesn’t happen accidentally. You have to have goals, a plan to reach those goals, and an environment that supports those goals.

This week’s main point is that discipleship ought to be the church’s primary focus, and I believe it will only be more important to be rigorously focused on it in the coming years. In the end, all of these social changes happening around us are discipleship challenges. We need to teach our people how to see the world and interpret the changes that are coming at them so rapidly. If we don’t, my fear is that we will lose them to the foolishness and illogic of the world.