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.