Disciples making disciples
It was a classic scene repeated in with little variation in spoof movies and sketch comedy many decades ago. The scene always seemed always to focus on the good doctor, one leg slung casually over the other, looking rather bored, sketch pad in hand, occasionally jotting notes, and eventually mugging the camera in mock disgust as the conflicted patient lay on the couch, face contorted with anxiety, pouring out some minor tale of woe that had been ridiculously inflated to the point of crisis. The gag line varied little, perhaps accompanied by a different look or nuance, as the overwrought patient finally paused for a breath, the doctor would mutter, deadpan and clinically, “And how does that make you feel?” The effect was humorous, as the poor patient, becoming ever more agitated and distraught each time the doctor, never offering advice or counsel, repeated the question again. So the sketch would continue, the culmination coming with some kind of assault upon the doctor (in good fun, I promise) or with the patient running from the set completely out of their mind in frustration and despair.
While I recognize there is a legitimate need for good counseling (I’ve been grateful for the many good counselors who have poured out their lives in my behalf on many occasions) and that there is nothing light-hearted about mental illness, what made it funny to me, as a teen and young adult, was the obvious jab at our cultures’ compulsion to make feelings the most important factor in life. Living that way can certainly lead to trouble. After all, we know how feelings can skew our perceptions of others, steer us to unwise choices, and even affect our health, right?
In the smugness of my youth, however, I forgot one important thing: Feelings are real. “Feelings can’t be trusted,” I would say to myself, trying to mask my youthful pride behind a face of intense thought and a rational posture. And I’m sure the irony is not lost on anyone who knows me, since I tend to leak rather profusely at even the sappiest commercials or a hint of family sentiment. It was a tough act, trying so hard to appear detached and objective while all the while a bundle of, well, feelings!
In the context of real, day-to-day life, the issue isn’t just feelings, it’s their origin. In my thinking, feelings are the tentacles of emotion - the outgrowth, the expression. Remember, by the way, emotions were created by our Heavenly Father! This being true, then the outcome depends on we’re feeding our minds and our emotional state. Thus, some feelings are good, helpful, and even true. Like the joy of a newborn baby or the elation of realizing that you really are God’s kid! Others, though, not so much. Like bitterness, which causes utter corrosion of the soul on every level.
As I’ve been considering Jesus’ call to be a disciple who also makes disciples (who make disciples), it struck me how crucial it is to understand the human heart as we build relationships with new followers and not-yet-followers. Our current study in the book of John portrays Jesus as the master of taking people right where they were and presenting truth in a way that helped them see things clearly. They sensed the True Life that He carried. The key was his compassion - he loved people first. Bad ideas and the crazy feelings they created were taken as they were. Never endorsed, just accepted at face value. That’s the way real love is.
His ability to speak into their lives wasn’t dependant whether they agreed or disagreed, but rather on whether he cared first. What set him apart from every other rabbi/teacher was that His internal compass was fixed somewhere much deeper than feelings, emotions, thoughts... his anchor was his Heavenly Father. That relationship is what compelled John to describe Jesus as “full of grace and truth”. Not a balance between them, but a fully integrated ‘fullness’ reflection of the Heavenly Father! The complete package -- full of grace & truth -- put skin on and came to live so we could reflect the Father, too! Pretty amazing.
Even as we stumble and falter, we still bear the reflection -- His grace and His truth. We’re compelled to tell about Him. Even to those who oppose it. Gracious to the wounded, compassionate to the lonely, and a challenger to the self-righteous. He loved them all enough to share all of his life and shepherded those who would become followers until they became followers, too. We’re called to the same; take people where they are, love them like He did, and, when He opens the door, offer them His story of grace and truth. And, even if they never respond, love them anyway, just like He did.
Maybe you know that awkward moment? It sneaks up on you when, in casual conversation, a friend or family member makes a comment or asks a question about something or somebody and you realize you really don’t have a clear comment than you can muster on the spot? It’s one of those weird things, assuming that the person, thing, or organization they mentioned is important to you, but you find yourself fumbling for words or some kind of explanation of why it’s significant in your life. Whether it’s the great aunt who hardly remembers you or maybe an old club you’ve been a member of for decades. They are a crucial part of your life but you sometimes have a hard time expressing exactly ‘why’.
This happened to me last year, and it was a little embarrassing, considering what I do. Somebody asked me about the distinguishing characteristics of FCC and what made it important to those who were a part of it. Simple enough... right? I immediately started talking (quite natural, as you know!), but realized after a few sentences that I didn’t really have an succinct answer to the question. Feeling very inarticulate, I fumbled through ideas like good friendships, the sense of family, our efforts in reaching families, and our commitment to solid bible teaching, all the while very aware that I was just rambling.
The conversation went on to other things, but it left me pondering several questions. Was our purpose really that fuzzy? What would other members of the congregation say? Was my answer even to the point... or really more of an loose assemblage of ideas mashed together simply because...?
As I mulled all of this around, I was struck by the possibility that, if we asked the same question of other FCC folks, we might find as many answers as members. It even seemed likely, since I would typically assume the leaders should have a fairly clear sense of our purpose... don’t ya think!? Adding to the puzzle was the reality that, if this was really Jesus’ Church -- and not just some religious ‘family’ or club we could shape to our liking and our tastes -- then our purpose and goals should be a direct reflection of whatever He had set out for us and thus pretty simple to define. Then why the fuzzy? And why so many different answers, some which might even be opposed to one another!?
Thus the roots of our current journey. We decided to start with what Jesus said! Novel idea, this. While allowing for creative variation in how each of us might approach it -- depending on our diverse gifts, skills, and maturity levels -- Jesus laid down a rather straightforward and doable strategy. Recorded in Matthew 28, as He completed His ministry here on earth, He told those who he had raised up as disciples -- followers -- to replicate the process He had taken them through in others, teaching them to replicate themselves, and so on. To their credit, they took Him at His word, each leading individuals and small groups to become obedient, replicating followers. The result was they turned the world upside down in less than a generation. And the ripple effects are still in play today in any society or church who will do the same: Make followers who make followers who are equipped to make followers who are also equipped and so on.
Back to the conversation last year. Even though I did manage to muddle through, I keep thinking about how different it would have been if I had been taking Jesus seriously, not only in strategy but in practice. Not only would the strategy have been on the tip of my tongue, the stories of changed lives and families that resulted would naturally follow. Strategy, purpose and outcome all in one package. From embarrassed fumbling to enthusiastic reporting. On point instead of grasping for ideas. Clear purpose rather than a compilation of actions. That’s quite a change! And it represents exactly the mission that Jesus left for us in a much more authentic and appealing way. Stay tuned!
It’s probably happened to you, too. One of those conversations that leaves you kind of stunned because of the insight that came from it!? So it was with my rather new friend, Ed Wilgus, who serves as the Lead Pastor at Family Church in down in Sutherlin. I met Ed through Ty Travis last August when Ty and I traveled to Sutherlin to get a look at what Family Church was about. About 12 years ago, Family Church set its course on becoming an intentional Disciple-Making church. Ty had suggested that Ed might be a good resource for FCC’s transition, as Ed had been a key shepherd in their transition and was more than willing to share their story, insights, mistakes and ‘lessons learned’ with other churches who also wanted to become disciple-makers. He has already proven to be a great help!
A few weeks ago, Deb and I were heading for Southern Oregon to see some of our friends, so we made a lunch appointment with Ed and spent a couple of hours talking over the necessary transition steps that are needed in the near future. Now, Ed’s a doodler. By that I mean he carries out a lot of conversations while sketching out diagrams and illustrations on a yellow pad. It may not come as a complete surprise to you to note that this works great for guys like me, since I’ve always preferred books with pictures! Anyway, at one point, he drew three overlapping circles, each with a mathematical symbol in the middle. From there, he shared three ways of thinking into which every church fits. It looked something like this:
As he talked us through it, he started from the left, noting that any church in a ‘Declining’ season was usually very aware of it, likely a bit alarmed, but often at a loss as to how to turn it around. The same was true for churches in the ‘Plateauing’ stage; struggling but often uncertain on what to do about it. We’ve been there. We know. (In another book I recently read, it is estimated that more than half of American churches are in one of these two stages... and slipping. Yikers!)
Ed then described a church that is ‘Adding’ as what a church we would typically consider healthy, meaning that there is a sense that God is leading and things are in an upswing. Having been in this place before, it is pretty nice! Of course, with this in mind, we became immediately curious to really understand what was up with the Reproducing and Multiplying churches! I mean, really, if ‘Adding’ seems healthy, then what was he driving at!?
Before we went there, Ed outlined the common strategies for the ‘Adding’ church, which typically center around events and programs, pointing out that if the core purpose is simply addition, then the source of growth and the actual spiritual depth of the members can quite easily become less of a concern than perhaps intended. Deep breath. He noted that a strong ‘Adding’ church will often grow with very few new converts, instead relying on their momentum in local Christian community to provide growth. This isn’t as terrible as it might sound, it simply means that most Christians are accustomed to the ‘Adding’ paradigm and so tend to gravitate to whichever church is doing it best. Not too many new kids added to the Kingdom, but a lot of excitement for those moving from here to there!
With this in mind, then, Ed drew another picture and took us back to Jesus’ command in Matthew 28 to bring new people to Him, teaching them to be disciples who would in turn, introduce others to Him, and so on.
The transition takes a church through ‘Reproducing’ -- a first generation experience -- to ‘Multiplying’, where every generation of Jesus Followers are multiplying their Kingdom work by guiding new brothers and sisters to become disciple-makers just like themselves: Making Disciples who Make Disciples. Ed’s statistic here was stunning. Only 4% of North American churches are actually doing it this way. Seems odd, no, since this is the only ‘strategy’ Jesus ever gave!? Putting this into practice and basic math makes it clear how God’s church has often historically overtaken entire regions or even a countries... simply by taking Jesus at His word! Brand new brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family being equipped from Day One to do the same for others! I can’t wait!
Looking back at it, it’s been a bit of a puzzle for me to explain how my in 58+ years of involvement with churches, I hadn’t really taken this seriously! You’d think that somebody who has never known a day when they didn’t identify with Jesus and His church, even in seasons of drifting and doubts, would have picked up on a glaring omission. You’d think. But no, it slipped right by.
When we review Jesus’ final words to the disciples, he spoke what has become known as the ‘Great Commission.’ If you’ve been around God’s church for even a short amount of time, you’ve likely heard it quoted and maybe even discussed. It’s pretty simple: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Pretty straightforward. Bring them to the point of surrendering their lives to Jesus. Baptize them. Then show them how to be a follower (‘disciple’) of Jesus, which includes teaching them to become disciple-makers on their own. Pretty straightforward, right? Indeed. But this points up the disconnect. In my 58 years, I’ve never been a part of a church that actually modeled this!
It’s almost embarrassing, since this is clearly what Jesus had in mind! And when it was the model, it worked very well. It’s obvious when we look at the exponential impact of the early church established by those first disciples as it rippled through the Roman Empire and created a titanic change in the culture itself. The world has never been the same. Reports of similar growth in the church in China today, while the church in the West languishes in mediocrity and decline, should cause us to ask, “What’s going on!?” Or maybe, “What’s gone wrong?”
It’s telling when we recognize that all the ideas and efforts the American church has employed over the past 30-40 years to shore up our decline haven’t really changed the outcome. We’re still waning. We tried political power, city-wide campaigns, church-growth schemes, and just about every other kind of marketing, but have little to show for it. It’s ironic is that these schemes always claimed to be the new/best way to do the Great Commission but typically side-stepped the very process Jesus described. Strange. And I still didn’t notice.
People like me have been taught to “do church” in a certain way for all of our lives and we got comfortable with it, even though only a handful of us were actually following Jesus’ stated process of making disciples who make disciples. Meanwhile, Jesus is known to fewer and fewer people, and the culture disintegrates before our eyes. And, I must confess, my tendency is to revert back to what I know simply because it’s what I know and what I’m familiar with. Something inside of me is pretty sure Jesus would suggest we get back to His process, not only because He set it in place, but also, because it’s what really works.
Disciples making disciples is the process that made that first-century church overrun the entire known world. It’s the process that is transforming China in spite of their government’s often brutal efforts to stamp it out (best estimates are that we have 100 million brothers and sisters in China!). All of this without the benefit of church buildings and paid staff. Wild!
So would you begin working through this for yourself? This isn’t a program. It’s not a scheme. It’s a process that starts with each of us looking with the eyes of Jesus around our scope of influence with the intention of becoming a disciple-maker in someone’s life. Or you might realize that you need someone to become that mentor in your life. It begins by building a reliable friendship and moves toward intentional growth. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct your eyes and He will! It can happen one-on-one or in a small-group setting. It all depends on the needs and personalities involved.
As you begin, know that the Disciple-Making Team will be working diligently to prepare training, support, direction, tools and resources for your journey, even as they become disciplers, too. Stay tuned!