In church growth circles, there’s always some new trend that promises to revitalize and grow our churches in size, and sometimes in maturity. Conferences are held, books are sold, and participants come home from the mountaintop with grand hopes that are often smashed, or wane in light of the inertia of their home congregations. Or worse, they try the new methods and formats, and it barely makes a difference in the life of the local church.
For years, the magic pill has been evangelism training, small group systems, attractional culture-relevant churches, and of late, purpose-driven and missional churches. All of these have been great and additive improvements to how we do corporate life in the church, but there have still been problems. Initially, we realized that mere Sunday attendance, the mainstay for most church members, involved only passive engagement, listening to a sermon, then going home. Few relationships were formed, and opportunities to live out the gospel didn’t happen except perhaps as planned campaigns and outreaches. We started small groups, and hoped that they would provide a venue, not only for forging relationships, but for new people to come and hear the gospel. We did form relationships, but still, few were coming to faith.
But even though small groups fostered relationship, they didn’t really forge enough individual maturity and accountability in their members. And bringing friends to the ‘open chair’ just didn’t really work because you were bringing a new, often unchurched person into a group that already had growing relationships and an understanding of the religious content of the studies they used. So what is the solution?
Personally, I think the all of the structures of the communal life of the church, including Sunday gatherings, adult and youth education, child care, small groups, and outreach need to be thought through and improved. But there is one trend which I think will benefit the church hugely if we follow it. And that trend is Making Disciples Who Make Disciples (MDWMD).
What problems are we trying to solve?
The contemporary Church has many strengths, but many shortcomings as well. Those shortcomings include:
- A passive rather than participatory experience of Church
- An emphasis on ideas instead of action
- A negative image in the public at large
- A lot of members that never mature into generative spiritual people
What is MDWMD?
I just returned from the DiscipleShift conference held at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church near Irvine, CA, and the whole thing seemed to be focused on two trends that promise to take us to the next level of true success – church planting, and a return to real discipleship. This ‘new’ view being promoted is our current, arguably biblical attempt at solving the problems listed above. I am not the first to bemoan the perpetuation of spiritual infanthood among believers (see Why most churches suck) – and I have wondered, how WILL we change our structures to fix this?
While some attempts are being made, such as Chip Ingram’s R12 program, or the often controlling and cultlike G12 system, a true discipleship program has not taken root across evangelicalism. But Rick Warren and many upcoming Church leaders are about to change that. What I heard this weekend was excellent – church depth, not just church growth. And the method is that of Jesus himself, but we have been unwilling to do it with a plan that is flexible enough not to be abusive. And that plan? One that we’ve all heard of, but not really put at the center of our Church life – the Great Commission:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” ~ Matthew 28:16-20
What we’ve always missed is this – while we’ve taught people to know and obey God, we didn’t teach them to make their own disciples – you see, this command to ‘obey all that I have commanded you’ also includes the command to make disciples. We’ve created followers of Christ, but not disciplers.
Not merely a church growth strategy
Robert Coleman’s timeless and excellent 1963 book The Master Plan of Evangelism actually taught this principle, but none of us took it seriously enough to make that the central DNA or our Church planning and experience. Initially, when I heard the phrase “Making disciples who make disciples,” I thought of just another program to grow numbers. But as the weekend progressed, and I heard the speakers explain how, if done right, it was not that at all, I sensed that this was one of the missing pieces of public church life I had been looking for.
This is the key perspective shift which should jazz you as much as it does me:
True maturity is becoming able to love and mentor others in (a) living biblically in all of life, (b) finding their calling, and (c) fitting their calling into the work of God, which in our framework, is the great commission That means that, when a person agrees to be discipled by us, we aren’t really training them to be part of our program, but equipping them to find and do the will of God for their lives, no matter where they spend their energies in vocation. It is about relationship and maturity, not programs.
I don’t know if that speaks to you like it does me, but I have much more to say on this.