Jan 302013

This is the fourth in my series inspired by an article in The Lutheran Magazine called The Shrinking Church. That article is about the decline taking place in my denomination, the ELCA.  Two weeks ago in The Shrinking Church: Part Two I shared my thoughts on that decline, and shared that God is bringing about a new way of being church. Last week I posted what that new way of being church looks like. Today I will share how The River is trying to bring that new vision about. Next week, in the final installment, I will share some of the miracles of personal transformation that have taken place because of our shift to a discipling church.  The week after that I will share details about a workshop to share how to be a discipling church.

Here’s what we have done to become a discipleship church:

1.  I found someone to disciple me. I had been hearing for years that the key to this new way of being church was to disciple people, but no one could tell me how. Bill Easum drove me nuts because he would talk and talk about discipleship, but despite attending several of his workshops Bill could never tell me how to actually do it. Bill knew how to disciple people, but couldn’t tell others how to do it. I finally found someone who could. They are called 3DM, and they showed me why Bill could never explain discipleship. It’s because the only way to learn how to disciple someone is to be discipled. 3DM discipled me, and that is the first step in becoming a discipling church. There is no other way.

2. We made Up, Out and In our rhythm of life as a church. Worship, outreach and community are what The River does. That is how Jesus lived with his disciples, so it’s how we live too. As I shared last week, most churches are strong in two areas but week in the third. By becoming a church that is healthy in all three, we made our church into fertile ground for discipleship. Being church together prepares people for the next step. Making church an Up, Out and In culture is crucial if discipleship is to take root.

3. I started discipling others as I had been discipled.  I started a group called a “huddle” where the stated goal, from the beginning, was for me to share everything I’d learned about following God. I offered to pour out into my huddle all my knowledge, wisdom, and mistakes. In short, I discipled them as I had been discipled, to be a disciple of Jesus.  My huddle is small, but it isn’t a small group. The bible is at the center of every conversation, but it isn’t a bible study. It is discipleship, and it doesn’t just take place in a room. It takes place in our lives, as I mentor and coach and support them to become disciples of Jesus. As part of that group, they are learning how to disciple others.

4. The people in my  huddle started huddles.  My “first generation” huddle is still ongoing, and while only one of the five people in my huddle has begun a second generation huddle, two are getting close. Before the year is out I expect that we will have at least one third generation huddle. That is how discipleship multiplies from just one person into disciples who make disciples who make disciples. That is how we are becoming a discipling church, which is God’s new way of being church. It is happening in The River. People are being changed and becoming more like Christ. It is awesome to see.

If you would like to see for yourself, stop by worship sometime. On the surface, it will look like any other small church. As you start to meet people and get to know them, though, you will notice the difference. You will see it even more if you join us not just for Up, but also for Out and In. I hope for more than that though- I hope you decide to take the plunge and join a huddle. I can promise you that your life will be much better for it.

Next week I will share some of the miraculous personal transformations that have taken place in The River because we are a discipling church. The week after that I expect to announce an exciting workshop on how to become a discipling church.


Jan 232013

This is my third post on The Shrinking Church. In the first, I pointed to an article in The Lutheran Magazine called The Shrinking Church. That article is about the decline taking place in my denomination, the ELCA.  Last week in The Shrinking Church: Part Two I shared my thoughts on that decline, and shared that God is bringing about a new way of being church. Today I will post what that new church looks like. Next week the series will conclude the series (I think) with what we are doing in The River to bring that new vision about.

God’s new way of being church is built on discipleship, not membership.  A traditional ELCA church invites new people to join and become members. When you are a member of a church, you are allowed to vote, participate in programs, and are eligible to receive care from the pastor. Obviously, people who are not members are not turned away from any of these, but that is essentially the way membership works. Discipleship, on the other hand, seeks personal transformation.  Discipleship is mentoring, or apprenticeship, where the disciple learns how to be like the teacher. In discipling churches, the teacher is Jesus.  Discipleship is the call Jesus issues in the New Testament, and the call he issues to us today is still the same. Jesus discipled his followers, who discipled others, on down through the centuries to us.  As we are discipled, we learn how to disciple, and churches become full of people who are disciples who make disciples who make disciples. People grow, the church grows, and the Kingdom of God grows in the world. That is the core of God’s new way of being church.

Discipleship takes place in a culture that contains three foundations. These are not in any particular order, but if a church is going to be focused on discipleship, it must have these three things.

First, it will be a culture of invitation and challenge.  Discipling churches are going to love you more than you could ever believe, but they’re also going to push you to become more Christ like.  When we know someone loves us, we don’t mind if they challenge us.  In fact, we welcome it. Invitation and challenge must be calibrated constantly, but when done together they are one of the foundations of a discipling church.

Discipling churches also emphasize support, trust and accountability. In  membership churches, anybody who is alive and breathing can serve in leadership, and there is no training  or preparation. Leaders are just thrown into leadership, and as a result they not only get burned out, they usually don’t do a very good job. It’s not their fault either, because they haven’t been prepared.  Jesus spent three years training his disciples before sending them out! Discipling churches invest a tremendous amount of time equipping, training, and supporting leaders so they can be more like Christ. Then, those leaders are sent out in trust. Discipling churches invest so much time in their leaders that reports aren’t needed. Instead, accountability exists. The leaders who are sent know what they are supposed to do, feel (and are) prepared, and welcome accountability.  When there is trust and support, accountability is a blessing to the disciple because it helps the disciple become a better person and leader. Support, trust and accountability are foundational to a discipling church.

The final foundation of a discipleship church is living Up, Out and In. Discipling churches do all three. They are close to God (Up), spending lots of time in powerful worship, prayer and bible study. They have a heart and a passion for the lost (Out), loving and serving and sharing Christ with those outside their walls, denomination and faith.  Finally, discipling churches love the people in their own church (In). Discipling churches are Christian communities similar to the ones we find in the book of Acts. They passionately love and serve each other, God, and neighbor. Membership churches, on the other hand, tend to do two of the three well. ELCA churches generally do Out and In well, but are often lousy at Up. This has made the typical ELCA church into one where people love each other and neighbor, but they do those much better than they love God. As a result, many people are served, but new converts are few and far between. Non denominational churches often emphasize Up and Out, but are lousy at In. They add converts every year, but lose the same number of people because they aren’t very good at community. As a result, they don’t grow either. Discipling churches, in contrast, do all three well. Living Up, Out and In is the final foundation of discipleship.

Next week I will share how we are building The River into a discipling church.

The Shrinking Church: Part Two

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Jan 162013

Last week I wrote a brief post linking to an article about how my denomination, the ELCA, is declining. I included the raw numbers from the ELCA website.  On my Facebook page my friend Gregg Burch posted his thoughts on the subject, in which he stated that the ELCA, and mainline denominations in general, are circling the drain.  Since I didn’t share my thoughts on the decline in my previous post, I thought I would do so here.

First, I want to say that I think it is foolish to question whether this decline is real or not. All the numbers are down. All of them. It doesn’t matter what you measure, everything is less than it used to be. The ELCA, along with other mainline denominations, is in decline. You can feel free to deny this reality, but it’s still reality.

The ELCA will probably never end, though.  What I expect will happen is a slow decline and transformation. The ELCA will die a little each year over time, and occasionally in bursts as it did in a major offering decline that took place last year. The ELCA shrank then, and it will shrink again in the future. As it does, God will continue to grow the new way of being church that is outlined in Gregg’s post that I mentioned earlier.  The new way is already taking root, and will grow as the old way declines, and at some point there may very well be a schism over it.  I hope not, but based on history it’s plausible. If there is a schism, one group will get the name, and the other group will leave and form a new church body. If there is no schism, then the ELCA will transform as it shrinks, and then as we get better and better at God’s new way the ELCA will grow again.

Either way, I see both old and new leadership in the ELCA today, and I think that’s a good thing. There are places where the old way of being church is still going strong. I see no reason to tear those ministries down. I also see people working hard to discern and implement God’s new way. I think that is exciting, and worthy of support. What I don’t want to see, though, is us putting time, effort and energy into keeping the old way going. It’s dying, and it needs to die so God can do this new thing. Change is hard, but it’s biblical. In fact, it’s biblical how hard it is. But it’s coming, because God is doing something new, and whether we like it or not, that is the future of God’s kingdom here on earth.

In my next post I will share what God’s new way is, my experience with it, and what I think the future looks like.

Sermon Podcast: TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) Weekend

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Jan 142013

As a group from The River prepares to go away on a TEC retreat next weekend, we hear about a time when Jesus did that very thing. Why Jesus went on retreat, and why we do too, was our topic this past Sunday. Based on Mark 9:2-9.

Here I am, in 1985, the year I went on my first retreat.

Here I am, in 1985, the year I went on my first retreat.

The first TEC weekend, in 1983.

The first TEC weekend, in 1983.

The Shrinking Church

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Jan 092013


The River and I are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  The ELCA has a magazine with the clever title The Lutheran, which normally runs articles about mundane things. To borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams, it’s mostly harmless.  The latest issue, though, was different. The Lutheran  ran a story called The Shrinking Church. It describes how the ELCA is declining, and what people and churches are doing about it. Since I’m not the kind of person who just believes what they’re told, I decided to check the numbers myself. The ELCA publishes it’s membership information, so I had a look at them. It shows a decline of twenty percent since the ELCA was formed in 1987.  Since the ELCA was formed, there was not one year where membership increased. We are definitely a denomination in decline.

I give the ELCA credit for being honest about what’s happening. The first step is admitting you have a problem. Is the ELCA willing to change to reverse the trend? That remains to be seen.

Sermon Podcast: We’ve Seen the Light!

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Jan 062013

How do we keep the joy of Christmas throughout the year? Today, as we celebrate the holiday of Epiphany, we hear how wise men came to Jesus. From them, we learn how we should come to Jesus, and how that makes the joy of Christmas last. Based on Matthew 2:1-12.

Three Wise Men