Why Isn’t the Church Growing: A Discipleship Dilemma?

A recent study put forth by Barna research discussed the current “State of Discipleship.”[1]

I’m a big discipleship advocate—constantly preaching and teaching about the Great Commission, mission, and disciple-making. Not only do I preach and teach it—I disciple and invest into others. I love relational community.

But, the Western church is hemorrhaging. I believe the number one reason is a lack of disciple-making. Barna reveals, “only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity.”

In the research, Christians were asked which term or phrase best described a spiritual growth process. Ironically, but very illuminating, “discipleship” ranked fourth on the list—being selected by fewer than one in five Christians (18%).[2] That’s disturbing. Only one in five Christians equated the term discipleship with spiritual growth. It seems that something is amiss within the contemporary church.

Spiritual Growth is Great?

Barna’s numbers seem contradictory. Only 25 percent of the polled respondents stated discipleship was very relevant. The research indicated “The implication is that while spiritual growth is very important to tens of millions, the language and terminology surrounding discipleship seems to be undergoing a change, with other phrases coming to be used more frequently than the term ‘discipleship’ itself.” So, the dilemma within discipleship is the fact that a majority of Christians do not equate themselves with disciples.

I found it ironic that 52 percent who attended church in the past six months, asserted that their church “definitely does a good job helping people grow spiritually,” while 73 percent believed their church places “a lot” of emphasis on spiritual growth. How can that many believers think their church is doing a good job at growing spiritually, and yet the church is not making disciples?

The problem is the perceived definition of spiritual growth and its relationship to disciple-making. It seems that a majority of Christians view spiritual growth as an individual construct—as if discipleship can be divorced from Christianity—it’s in a vacuum. Nearly two out of five of all Christian adults consider their spiritual growth to be “entirely private.”

Screen Shot 2017-08-29 at 10.34.25 AM

The Real News

Disciple-making is about reproducing—making other disciples. If 73% of the polled believers stated that their church places a major emphasis on spiritual growth—why is the church not making disciples?

Why is the church severely declining—with 80 to 85 percent of all Western churches in decline or stagnating?

I believe it has to do with perception. In the article, Barna stated that only 1% of church leaders believed their churches were discipling very well. That’s only 1%—one—uno—eine—en—no matter what language— just 1% believe their church is discipling very well. Opposite of doing well—60 percent (60%) of pastors state the church is not discipling well, at all!

Why would that be? Don’t three out of four Christians believe their church places a major emphasis on spiritual growth? Why the disparity?

As a pastor, I believe it’s because we (pastors) correlate discipleship with relational communion—life together. Barna’s poll revealed that 91% of pastors considered “a comprehensive discipleship curriculum” as the least-important element of effective discipleship. Yet, when polling Christians, a perception of discipleship, or spiritual growth is related to curriculum, class, and study—not relational connectivity and with-ness.

Barna notes “Only 17 percent say they meet with a spiritual mentor as part of their discipleship efforts.” That’s it! This is why the church is not growing and this is why the church is failing at making disciples. The majority of Christians do not see relational communion with others as important. And discipleship pertains to personalized spiritual disciplines.

How Did This Happen?

There’s a logical explanation—but not a quick one.

Perhaps due to infant baptism, from the fifth-century, and continuing into the Reformation period, discipleship progressed toward individual spiritual discipline more than communal interactive relationships concerning the daily rhythms of Christian life.

While catechesis still existed for new converts, the continued practice of infant baptism shifted discipleship away from the convert catechumenate (waiting three years prior to baptism, but partaking in communal life) to spiritual disciplines and devotions of individualized believers.[3] Perhaps the most notable reformer, Martin Luther, believed that discipleship guided the believer into deeper devotions toward Christ.[4] For Luther, discipleship referred to Christ’s inner working power and “not our attempts to imitate” the deeds of Christ.[5]

The early church had communal gatherings for fellowship, teaching, and life-on-life. But, due to ongoing heretical views—the church began to focus more on the individual development of personal character and devotion, along with theological and doctrinal polity. Albeit, Luther’s discipleship consisted of a deeper commitment to the spiritual devotions of prayer, fasting, and the Word of God, it was not communal.

John Calvin described discipleship as an automatic title for the regenerated believer, an identity by grace in Christ.[6] Calvin, a paedobaptist, considered all believers disciples (and I agree), but not in the same aspect of the communal spiritual nourishment, as that of the early church. For Calvin, baptism became the sign and ratified seal of a “professed” disciple (I find an infant professing anything as odd).[7] However, Calvin focused more on knowledge transference, with believers hearing the preached Word, than a day-to-day activity with believers who practiced fellowship-style catechesis and breaking of the bread (Acts 2:42–46).[8] But to his credit, Calvin believed that all Christians should carry out the commission of God within their lives.[9]

So, the problem was an eventual drifting from the early church communal relationship instruction and fellowship to a more individualized spiritual discipline-type formation. So then, you can see, for the contemporary Christian, discipleship is perceived as curriculum, not as much associated with communal spiritual growth. Discipleship became divorced from collective spiritual maturity, because it became divorced from the communal gathering and growth with others.

The solution calls for reverting back to the origin of Christ-following and being a relational disciple-maker of Christ. Disciples make disciples. Discipleship is not merely spiritual growth, but helping others, relationally, to develop into mature disciples, who make disciples, etc.


[1] State of Discipleship, Barna.org, https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-on-the-state-of-discipleship/

[2] State of Discipleship, Barna.org, https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-on-the-state-of-discipleship/

[3] Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), xviii.

[4] Allan Rudy-Froese, “Learning from Luther on Christian discipleship.” Vision (Winnipeg, Man.) 13, no. 2 (September 2012): 55–63.; Reformation period (c. 1517–1648), Martin Luther (c. 1483–1546).

[5] Ibid., 57.

[6] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries XVII, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 385.; John Calvin (c. 1509–1564).

[7] Ibid., 385.

[8] Thomas A. Bloomer, “Calvin and Geneva: Nation-Building Missions,” biblicalworldview.com, 2008, http://www.biblicalworldview.com/Calvin_and_Geneva_Bloomer.pdf.

[9] “The Cost of Discipleship,” www.ligonier.org, 2017,

http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/cost-discipleship/.

Re-Plant or Re-Vitalize, Part III

replant

Part 3 of the three part series, (part I and part II)

Should Dying Churches Replant or Revitalize?

Aubrey Malphurs has extensively researched the characteristics and attributes of what it takes to revitalize a church—I’m not going in that direction. I agree with him—it takes an apostolically gifted individual, someone charismatic, a self-starter, self-motivator, and magnetic personality, gifted by God, to revitalize a church.[1] All that stated, we don’t have a lack of pastors, we have a lack of gifting and understanding of the gargantuan task at hand.

Revitalization is extremely difficult—yes, I’m showing my cards, now, looking at the diagram again (below), once a church has moved from the downward turn (not to a downward turn, which ambiguously can be a myriad of factors: pastoral change, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc.) and drifts toward dying—the closer that church body gets to dying, the less of a chance it has of revitalization. This is not an opinion, and assuredly, there are exceptions, but seems to be the rule. The church I serve may be one of those exceptions—possibly—only time will tell.

Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 12.40.06 PM

In nearly all of the cases that I’ve looked at (and I haven’t seen them all, I’m not declaring I have), replanting is better suited. Why? For a congregation of people affected by culture and demographics—all churches will be—but now facing a constant downward spiral—they become more concerned with keeping it alive than in flourishing and making disciples. This is a natural inward digression, but it’s a church killer. The reality of keeping the doors open can be correlated to when my 13-year-old Lab had cancer—I know Labradors are bigger dogs and have an approximate 8–12-year window of life. My wife and I decided it was better to love and lose than not to love at all. But when the veterinarian stated that our beloved companion had cancer, refusing to eat, we knew the answer—we had to put her down. To keep her alive was to not face reality— (1) motivated by selfishness; keeping her alive for us, (2) the inevitable was still going to take place—death, and (3) we would not be good stewards of God’s creation. There comes a time when “putting the church down” is the better way.

I know you’re asking…What constitutes a downward turn?

Remember, I stated, from a downward turn—meaning, the church is not facing a sudden decrease, but have progressed into a continual unhealthy downward spiral and now face the inevitable—cancer.

For a church to revitalize, it usually needs to substantially alter its missiological (and at times, orthodoxical) DNA. The DNA is culturally created to match that of, and for, the reaching, serving, and making disciples among the community. Often the building is emphasized more than the people, who make up the church. The dying church no longer views itself as living, breathing, and untethered to material possessions, to serve out the mission of God.

Replanting on the other hand is a new beginning—which seeks to begin the process all over again. Usually replanting includes renaming, selling property, revisiting the mission and vision, for the purpose of seeking a vibrant passionate gospel calling back into the community. If a dying church assesses that close to 75% of the members are not living within the community—my advice—shut the doors—offer the building (if it’s paid for) to a church planter for the kingdom, or sell the building and proceed with a replant somewhere else—but make no mistake—either a replant or revitalize will take a new “leader” and equipping of the five-fold ministry gifting (Eph 4:11–12).

I’m not saying that a revitalize cannot work—surely, God can do all things. But the likelihood of it happening for any length and sustaining time period is unlikely. There’s so much more to this conversation—but I pray it leads you and others into that conversation and if you want me to join in with you, feel free to contact me at matt@newbreednetwork.org

[1] Aubrey Malphurs and Gordon Penfold, Re: Vision: The Key to Transforming Your Church, 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 30.

Re-Plant or Re-Vitalize Part II

replant

This is Part II of the series, Re-Plant or Re-Vitalize, click here for part I

I was at my usual coffee hangout with a church planting strategist from a major Baptist association, he asked about revitalization and replanting. I revealed to him what I am about to reveal to you. This is not theoretical jargon, but applied praxis and observations, coupled by research. We agreed that each church has a beginning, and for the most part, each church has an ending—a shelf life— so to speak. Before I give my conclusion and answer the question if we should replant or revitalize (don’t just scroll to the bottom), let me provide much needed insight. Why do all churches have a life span—lifespan occurs for several reasons (not exhaustive): (1) culture, (2) demographic changes, and (3) apathy.

Culture

Culture is always changing and evolving, generation by generation. Lesslie Newbigin describes culture as “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another.”[1] Whether we like it or not, geographical landscapes look different than they did years ago, views of acceptance, tolerance, and even orthopraxy—change. What once was is no longer.

When I was young, the church congregation dressed the part—little boys in ties, little girls in dresses—now, boys and girls are not even genders, but subjective thinking. However, not argue genders—the point—culture has changed in the way that people dress for gathering in worship, and so much so, man may dress up as women—the pendulum has swung. What effect does that have on church? Most churches adhering to dress codes as a form of holiness are on the outside looking in—they’re either dying or already dead. This isn’t a cause and effect—this is an observation concerning culture. What was once unacceptable is now acceptable and the churches which did not move with the cultural change, died or are dying (most, not all). Dress codes are just one example, there are numerous others regarding culture—I could have chosen a myriad.

Demographics

This is a big observation: demographics are not the cause but the observations of research regarding population data and particular people groups. But, within our context, we’re going to assume that you’ve done your homework, and know about how demographics plays a role in contextualizing the gospel and exegeting communities (if not, see my article: Why Demographics Matter). The specific “why” question regarding churches having a life span, relates to demographic observations. Obviously, demographics cannot cause anything, I am utilizing the term demographics because of the things which demographics expose.

With modern technology and transportation, people can now access areas in which they once could not. Back in 1900, a church was planted to meet the needs of the community of people residing within walking distances. However, now most new-comers scour the Internet for churches they align, get in the car, and perhaps make a visit. Likewise, older congregations have members moving further away from the church building, and driving longer distances (e.g. it is hard to reach a community when no one lives there!).

Demographics shoes that urban areas have been affected by gentrification, immigration, and globalization, causing city dwellers to move to the suburbs. Urban areas not effected by any of the three are in decline and dying themselves. Some rural areas show stagnant job growth and a lack of stability for growing families—usually when this occurs, the rural church declines with only the older generation left to shut the inevitable door.

Suburban areas can vary with geography and tend to fluctuate, but suburbia is a new concept, so because of wandering populations of people groups within Western society, each generation may swing—this means that generational homes are rarely made. For example, it is rare that parents stay in the same home in which they grew up, even though the “mover rate” is the lowest recorded rate since 1948.[2] The average person in the United States moves 11.4 times within their lifespan.[3] So, what do demographics shows us about the reality of church life spans? We’re living in a transient society—people come, and people go—if the church is not reaching new converts—it dies.

Apathy

Lastly (but not exhaustive), the NT writers continually exhorted their readers to avoid spiritual complacency and a lack of gathering together (Heb 10:25). As well, Jesus warned six of the seven churches in Asia minor about apathy (Rev. 1:11–3:22). So, we shouldn’t be surprised that if the early admonished churches closed their doors due to apathy (or possible persecution), why do we think we’re invulnerable. As the writer of Proverbs asserts, “For lack of wood the fire goes out…” (26:20).

I would also contend that for a lack of discipleship intentionality a church dies out—that is clearly an apathy issue. With many Christians inactive in discipleship, a necessity for intentional participatory gospel-centered community becomes essential. The Barna Group reported, “Only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity.”[4] Twenty. Percent. Think about that for a second—let that sink in—that means that 80 percent are NOT engaged in disciple-making—at all! Dare we even evaluate what the 20 percent label as discipleship? Needless to say, apathy is a church killer.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983), 5.

[2] “Mover Rate Reaches Record Low, Census Bureau Reports,” Census.gov. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/mobility_of_the_population/cb11-193.html

[3] Mona Chalabi, “How Many Times Does the Average Person Move?,” fivethirtyeight.com, January 29, 2015, https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/how-many-times-the-average-person-moves/.

[4] David Kinnaman, “New Research On the State of Discipleship,” http://www.barna.org, https://www.barna.org/research/leaders-pastors/research-release/new-research-state-of-descipleship#.VqDcJFJQmDU.

Church Re-Planting or Re-Vitalization?

replant

Western Christianity is hemorrhaging. With 80 to 85 percent of churches in America either plateauing or in decline, an urgent appeal for revitalization and church planting exists.[1] To keep up with the current pace of population growth, Western churches would need to plant approximately 3,000 new churches each year.[2] As well, church planting remains as one of the most effective means of following the Great Commission in multiplicative disciple-making.[3] Likewise, since the West has a devastating amount of churches in decline and plateauing, the call for revitalization has been trumpeted throughout evangelical circles.

For the record, I have been a church planter and a revitalization pastor. I am now in my fifth year as a revitalization pastor. I’m the director of operations for New Breed Church Planting Network and nearing the completion of my doctorate in developing a reproducible disciple-making strategy for church planters. In my doctoral research, I’ve studied other church planting organizations, examined revitalization, unreached people groups, discipleship, and in over two years, probably read every book about church planting and discipleship that exists. I add that information only because I believe I understand this issue.

So, let’s explore the question, should dying churches revitalize or replant?

I want you to understand what I just wrote, “should dying churches … ”

Here’s the kicker—what constitutes a dying a church and when will that church know? I’m not going to address that—there’s much written about it—however, I will add to the conversation that a breaking point exists. A church simply cannot continue to do things as they always have—some churches see change occurring and attempt to adjust and some do not—thereby, dying. At launch, a vibrant gospel-centered gathering of individuals make up the body of Christ—a church. These gathering believers reach new converts, serve, and disciple their new community. Over time, the church body grows and becomes a healthy living organism. But after a few generations (or less), the church body encounter factors that cause a downward turn. Somewhere in between the downward turn and dying (see figure below) revitalization tends to take place—what I believe to be true, may have you thinking differently. I am also fully aware of what is at stake.

Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 12.40.06 PM

I was at my usual coffee hangout with a church planting strategist from a major Baptist association, he asked about revitalization and replanting. I revealed to him what I am about to reveal to you. This is not theoretical jargon, but applied praxis and observations, coupled by research.

…to be continued. This is a three part series. 

 

[1] Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 200.

[2] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 181.

[3] Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 20.

You Can’t Do It Alone

2427822660_f183fc1c1d

It’s 10:02 am. My iPhone’s alarm reverberates through a crowded Panera Bread.

People begin to stare in my direction. I fumble to reach my phone—you’d think I’d be aware of it by now.

The “you-pick-two” crowd obviously peers over in disgust, as to say, “Shut that thing off!”

I politely look at my church planter invitee, “Excuse me for a second.”

I turn off my alarm, bow my head and silently—but fervently—pray. As if I’ve never prayed before.

I’m pretty sure by now that my guest is staring at me—I know he’s wondering, “What’s up with this guy?”

I’m also pretty sure that thoughts are probably going through his head— “uh—organic onlookers alert! —WTH is he doing?”

Surely, I’m not invisible with the sun glaring off my shiny head. That’s the down side to being follicle-ly challenged (don’t hate, man).

So—when I’m finished, I look up and humbly explain to my coffee confidant, “I’m sorry man, that’s my alarm. I have it set for 10:02 every day.” I begin to talk as if nothing happened.

This of course prompts a conversation!

A puzzled look and reply, “Wait, wait, wait—10:02? Why 10:02? C’mon, that’s sort of a weird time—isn’t it? You don’t like 10 O’clock or something?”

I chuckled under my breath. My reply was reassuring and yet caught my guest as provocative.

“No, I have nothing against 10 O’clock, bro—it’s just that I pray every day at 10:02—it reminds me of the words of Jesus from Luke 10:2, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

His reaction was even better—I could almost see and hear the gears in his head begin to connect and crank out an illuminating thought— “I need to be doing this.”

I added, “If you’re not praying for more laborers, bro, I guess you’re content with being a Lone Ranger.”

That wasn’t his deal at all—he’d just never thought about applying Luke 10:2, as I had.

But there’s a bigger picture—the realization that we can’t do mission alone!

Praying to the Lord of the Harvest

Enmeshed within a culture filled with nones, dones, and unchurched “labeled” people—sometimes church planters forget about who is doing the actual work. Don’t get me wrong—we’re called as frontlines missionaries, and to be obedient disciple-makers, but we can’t do it alone. Prayer must be intrinsic. And prayer engages and enacts the director and commander of the harvest.

There are three essential aspects of harvest servitude. The first is Christ as the Lord of the harvest, the second relates to the harvest itself, and lastly, there are supposed to be other laborers.

Lord of the Harvest

In David Bosch’s paradigmatic book, Transforming Mission, he renders Matthew’s Gospel as “essentially a missionary text” providing “guidance to a community in crisis” concerning their calling and mission.[1] Matthew’s Gospel also shares the Lord of the harvest passage, but I was not ready to have my alarm go off at 9:37 every day. However, Matthew begins his writing with the prophetic Isaianic Immanuel passage (7:14) and ends with the words of Christ, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). You’re never alone and were not designated to be alone.

The Great Commission (Mt. 28:18–20) begins with the authority of Christ’s cosmic rule and reign and closes with his continual omnipresence with the laborers. The resurrected Jesus rules over, “angels and archangels, powers, principalities, might, dominion, thrones, and the saints in glory … over the evil spirit world, whose prince is conquered and despoiled, and whose hosts lie in abject submission beneath Jesus’ feet.”[2] That’s the authority of the Lord of the harvest.

Christ has commissioned his church with marching orders, and yet, he’s supplied it with Holy Spirit enabling empowerment (Acts 1:8). The Lord of the harvest has ultimate and abundant power—given to you for the purposes of mission. While the world may currently be positioned within a cosmic conflict of spiritual clashes between the forces of bondage and evil, and that of righteousness and liberation—but, God has positioned his people, equipped them, and provided his omnipotent presence to abide in them. This gloriously translates to—you’re never alone.

The Harvest

Abraham Kuyper once declared, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine. This belongs to me!’” The “harvest” belongs to Jesus.

The reality is that natural harvest time is usually temporary or seasonal—finding laborers for temporary work can easily be achieved. However, the harvesting of souls—or gospel proclamation and liberation—will never cease. The harvest that Jesus refers to is a continual-persevering spiritual harvest.

I have a confession—when I say to myself, “I got this!” it’s usually about that time when I fail. Church planting is one of the most difficult, sometimes depressing, and arduous callings on the planet. We’re dealing with eternal salvation, not used cars or insurance sales.

In Luke’s passage, the laborers are told to pray because the harvest is not theirs, but God’s. The Lord will supply every need and every resource needed for the harvest. The mission is not about me, but about God’s reconciling power bringing back his people to him—this means that God has way more invested in the harvest than I do. I ‘m also only one laborer. The vastness of the field can be overwhelming—I cannot harvest everything by myself. The job is too big.

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful!”— it’s abundant! With a world population of over 7 billion people, the harvest surely is grander than what I can accomplish. This is sobering in many ways because it relieves me of the guilt that I may have (for not reaching enough people), humbles me to recognize that I need help, and wisdom to pray for more laborers like me. Daily, at 10:02, I’m praying that God will not only send more laborers into the harvest, but that he helps me to train laborers, and to be a laborer.

Charles Spurgeon once proclaimed, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” The beauty of church planting is that you were not meant to be alone, or to do it alone. Christ gave his command to go and make disciples—there’s a need for more laborers, and a new disciple becomes a “co-worker” (Phil 4:3; Col. 4:11). Empowered with Holy Spirit presence and ability enablement, the goal is to make disciples—co-laborers of the harvest.

Laborers of the Harvest

Sometimes church planters go the route of “parachuting” into a location. This happens. It is also one of the most difficult ways to church plant. Reaching a large city can feel daunting. The size, span, and magnitude of the harvest is a reminder of the need to pray for more laborers. Church planters need co-laborers.

I’ve been asked, “Why are you bent on core groups?” Why? Because these are your teammates—your core group and congregation—they are the committed family of God—your co-laborers in the harvest. You were not meant to “go it alone,” but to have helpers. Jesus never sent out the disciples on mission alone. Even within the context of the harvest passage, Jesus sends out the seventy-two in pairs. And for good reason.

Jesus describes the harvest—it’s a ferocious world of “wolves.” It’s a world of sick people in need of healing. It’s a demon-possessed and spiritually blinded world. As Lord of the harvest, Christ is the missionary Commander sending out his workers into hostile environments. They’ll be rejected on all sides. Companionship is essential—co-laborers that will walk with you.

Jesus never asked for Lone Rangers. You were not meant to be alone. Co-laborers share in the mission: they rejoice when you rejoice, weep when you weep, and when areas of strongholds are conquered—they pronounce victory and triumph. The mission of God is a shared mission, dependent upon God. Every believer is called to the mission field—some far, but all within their neighborhood, home, and community.

Lastly, making disciples is part of the harvest prayer—that in praying for more laborers, you’re praying that you’d be an obedient Great Commission disciple-maker, creating more laborers to be sent out. The fields were meant to be harvested. No one plants seed without an expectation of harvest. Jesus expects a harvest and commands laborers to pray for more laborers.

So, the next time 10:02 comes around and an alarm goes off, don’t look at the person in a strange way—he’s your co-laborer. You weren’t meant to do it alone.

[1] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 57.

[2]  R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 1171.

What is the Future for Church Planting in America?

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-10-24-12-am

December 2016 Church Planter Magazine cover article http://bit.ly/17KGc6S

Due to the rising spring temperatures, the small winter stream that Christopher hiked across had become a widened, deep, raging, impassible river. In the blockbuster hit, Into The Wild, Christopher McCandless leaves society—rejecting the corruption of modern conventional life—and finds himself exactly where he desired to be—without intrusion, people, and absent from culture.

McCandless was from a good home and earned a distinguished degree from Emory University, but he found modern society disturbing and corrupting. He purposely destroyed all of his identification and credit cards, along with gifting away his $24,000 in life savings.

However, in McCandless’ identity-less trek across America, his journey took him to “The Magic Bus,” an abandoned outpost in the Alaskan wilderness. Finally by himself, McCandless comes to the self-realization that life was to be shared—unfortunately—it was too late. The river could not be passed and he became deathly ill. While slowly dying, McCandless recorded his last days in a journal, recollecting the days he had with family.

The current and future state of the Western church has much in common with McCandless’ story. cpmagcover

Identity-less?

McCandless changed his name to Alexander Supertramp—an empty shell of who he was. “Supertramp’s” transition reminds me of what Jesus declared to his church, “you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4). Like McCandless, the church has taken a long trek to get away from culture —to find itself identity-less, without intrusion, and absent from the power of Christ.

In the church’s obsession for “growth” or “empire building,” it has lost its true identity. The church has become the ultimate “Supertramp,” leaving the power of the Holy Spirit. It has disregarded the command to make disciples and instead, sought out intellectual self-realization for another identity.

But, the reality is that Christ commanded the church to “go and make disciples” (Mt. 28:18–19), with the power from the Holy Spirit to be his “witnesses…to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Like McCandless, perhaps some in the church are coming to the consciousness that we need to go back to the basics—back to first century principles, actions, and engagements.

Church planting brings the church back to the journey of passionate evangelism, devotion to a powerful God, and a willingness to reach the unreached. Regardless of whether the path seems impassable—church planters must move forward.

Is It Too Late?

            When McCandless first arrived in Alaska, he fell in love with the serenity, the beauty, and the solitude. But, in just a few short months, the thawing snow caused his only homecoming—a once small stream—to become an impermeable chasm. The church finds itself in a similar situation. It was too late for McCandless—but is it too late for the church?

With over 7,000 churches closing each year, and only 4,000 starting, some estimates demonstrate a need for 15,000 new churches to be planted each year, just to keep up with the growing population.[1] While this number seems large and estimates may vary, the number that does not vary, but only decline is the twenty-six percent (26%) evangelical rate in America. And, with the recent election, I would even question how the term “evangelical” is currently defined. The point? America goes the way of Europe—we may be facing a chasm of impassibility—or at least a point of no return to the days of old.

What does this mean? As the late C. Peter Wagner declared, “Church planting is the most effective form of evangelism.” While some churches have relegated to “recording their last days,” desiring to be absent from culture via isolationism, and/or abandoning their true identity in Christ, we realize that unlike McCandless, there is a supernatural working power through the body of Christ, raising up bold, courageous, and innovative church planters. But it will take more than courage and innovation.

A Kingdom-Minded Collective

Like McCandless, the church will see that it’s imperative to share life together—to be kingdom-minded. A gospel-centered life must be shared with community—this was the reality of the first century church (Acts 5:42). The church was never meant to become isolationist, but a fiery unstoppable and penetrable force of God—a tangible collective of kingdom-minded people.

The future of church planting resides in how well church planters can collaborate. What is inevitable is the millennial trend of collaboration and their disdain for exclusion. Entirely exclusive denominations will find themselves on the outside looking in. Kingdom-mindedness will be the future of church planting, as planters glean from every viable resource. Why? because church planting models and resources fluctuate with culture—more than the stock market. This means that church planting networks and missions must realize that their material has a time stamp. The great and new thing today is tomorrow’s fodder.

The effectiveness of church planting that Wagner expresses will only occur when churches are planting churches that plant churches—with the understanding of reaching the unreached with the goal of making disciples. It’s the realization that church was designed to be lived-out together (Heb. 10:25). Church planters will flock to kingdom-minded collectives…

What’s the Future Hold?

With 80–85% of all American churches either plateauing or in decline, and only 10–15% of pastors equipped to turn them around, we need to admit there’s a huge problem.[2] An elephant in the room—and a dire need for church planters.

Unlike McCandless leaving society to seek solitude, church planters must leave the comfortable serenity of the church culture to seek out the lost. They will find themselves facing a raging, violent, and nearly resistant chasm, a climate consisting of post-Christendom. For this reason (and a few others), I believe the twenty-first century church mirrors the first century church. I believe our future resides in unpacking our past.

The first-century Roman world was very superstitious. It delved into syncretistic spiritualism, and professed many gods—one of which being the emperor himself. Our modern society is eerily similar. American culture may not sacrifice to Zeus or the president, yet it does sacrifice to sports, spiritual new ageism, and is the salad bowl of religion. As Paul proclaimed to the Athenians, “You are religious people with many gods,” so are Americans (Acts 17:22).

During the pre-New Testament days of the first century, all roads led to Rome. Rome was the great empire of the known-world. It existed during the time of Pax Romana, Roman Peace—Rome was the world’s elite police force. I think it’s easily observed that the United States, and its people, views itself as a sole super power.

Not only do many Americans worship the country with a lustful pride like a first-century Roman, but with a gladiatorial UFC-endowed lack of love for one another. America is much like Rome and the twenty-first century mirrors the first century in many ways. So, how can church planters navigate the future of such a prideful, self-centered, and religious culture?

Into The Wild

Unlike McCandless’ journey for self-realization, the church was called to go into the wild, to reach the unreached, to make disciples of all people groups (Mt. 28:18–20). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaimed, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Church planters know that they’re on the precipice of culture, that’s why they’re usually apostolically gifted—to navigate the turbulent waters with godly vision and insight. Planters were created for white water rafting!

The river of impassibility should be viewed more like the river in Ezekiel’s vision. It began with a sprinkling at the Temple and became ankle-deep, continued to knee-high, onward to waist high, and eventually swelled to an immeasurable depth:

And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live…so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea…it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. (Ezekiel 47:9-10)

Though demographics, statistical data, and even social media demonstrate a culture of intolerance enmeshed with post-Christendom, we ought not fear—for God gave us not a spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7).

The future of church planting resides in its dedication and devotion to the great Commission and to Christ (Mt. 28:18–20). The call is real. The dangers are real. The difficulties and obstacles are very real—some visible and many more invisible. Yet, church planters must trek into the wild to reach the unreachable. They must rely on the power of God, through prayer. As the Lord declared to Zerubbabel, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).

[1] Rebecca Barnes and Linda Lowry, “Special Report: The American Church in Crisis,” Outreach Magazine, June 2006, 1, accessed October 16, 2015, http://www.simplechurchathome.com/PDF&PowerPoint/AmericanChurchCrisis.pdf.

[2] Matthew Fretwell, “Is Church Revitalization Necessary?,” Urbanchurchplanting.co (blog), September 7, 2015, accessed November 14, 2016, https://urbanchurchplanting.co/2015/09/07/is-church-revitalization-necessary/.

Intentional Battle: Recovering the Disciplines

08cbc6_0af154773401462db38393032b324c10-jpg_srz_299_218_75_22_0-50_1-20_0-00_jpg_srz

Within the sphere of church planting, there’s much talk about the Great Commission—Christ’s command for the church to “go and make” disciples (Mt. 28:18–20).

While some are going and being sent, the struggle is real. I hear the confessions and feel the angst of many planters. My heart and prayers are with always with you—it’s lonely, depressing (at times), and an uphill spiritual battle (home, streets, & church).

So, I would like to encourage you today with some sound advice.

The words of Christ are powerful, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). The urgency to stay plugged in and get back to the basics, carry the purpose and veracity of the spiritual disciplines.

Let’s re-examine a few—

Prayer

You have been called to a specific and courageous task. You have been awarded enemy territory for the kingdom. Like Joshua, God speaks to your heart, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9; Matt. 28:20).

However, I think we march off to war without getting the day’s battle plan. As Martin Luther once declared, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” We neglect the spiritual discipline of prayer—connecting to our Lord and Master. By example, Jesus demonstrated the importance of being alone with God: “he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matt. 14:23).

Let’s ask the question: how many hours do you devote to prayer? Do you set aside alone time with the Almighty? Maybe things are so busy that you need to write down your daily thoughts in a prayer journal? Or utilize an App like Evernote?

Note-taking and journaling allow you to quickly jot down needs/concerns and pick them up later— praying over the contents? Prayer journaling sets up intentional organization, which leads to good discipline—especially during times of trial. Try it; click here for some cool affordable prayer journals, or here (and here) for some special ones.

The Word

            Jesus is the Word (Jn. 1:1, 1:14; Rev. 19:13). Jesus declared, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). The work of the Holy Spirit is to teach us all about Jesus and to glorify God (Jn. 16:6–15). Therefore, studying and being in connection with the Word of God brings us into connection with the Trinitarian Godhead.

Assuredly, you read the Word of God when you felt called into church planting. But perhaps over time, you’ve been so busy that you neglect your time in the Word?

How important is praying over what you’re about to read? In my book Sanctificagious: The Sanctifying & Contagious Fire of Scripture, I mention how vital it is to seek God’s heart and wisdom before reading. I believe that! There is something holy and devout about getting into the Scriptures—there should be a fire within us that becomes contagious.

The spiritual discipline of reading the Word for transformation, challenge, and change becomes neglected when we count our “ministry” more important than our spiritual formation. Reduced down, we’re called to be disciples of Christ, first and foremost. Following a daily schedule of reading through the Bible (and not hunting for verses) should be a foundation for our spiritual growth.

Fasting

Let’s be honest—this is probably the most neglected discipline of all. But, the reality is that you’re encountering spiritual forces of wickedness—celestial giants of deception and evil (Eph. 6:10–18). You need focus for the task at hand and protection from the adversary. Fasting sets aside the carnal for the spiritual. You enter the realms of spiritual warfare.

Jesus didn’t say, if you fast, but joined fasting with an expectation of “when” (Mt. 6:16). We should have intentional periods of fasting. Fasting sets the Spirit in control of the flesh. From the onset of creation, man has been tempted by food—and miserably failed.

The enemy knows our weaknesses and our need for sustenance. Humanity must have food for nourishment, but there are times when it is better to remember, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Sacrificing food, not to manipulate God, but for a closer walk with God is vital. Fasting replaces eating with prayer and nourishment with God’s presence.

Devotionals

While it is imperative to have time to study the Scriptures and to reflect upon God’s magnificent grandeur and sovereignty, devotional reading can be necessary. There are many great men of the faith that have poured out their souls with the pen. We should look to their inspiration to encourage our journey, walking with them.

Devotionals should bring glory to God, exalt Christ, and challenge us by the Holy Spirit. They should manifest the presence of God. I would recommend that you read them with a pen—meaning, take notes as you scour over the pages. Don’t read for completion, but reflection. Take your time—it’s not a race. Pick it up. Put it down. Think. Pray. Meditate. These should be used as field manuals for your journey.

Here are just a few that have inspired me:

  • My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers
  • Prayer Treasury, Richard Foster
  • The Imitation of Christ, Thomas A Kempis
  • The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard
  • A Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life, William Law
  • The Confessions, Saint Augustine
  • The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of Religious Imagination, Esther De Waal
  • The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Recalculating Discipleship

Recalculating—Recalculating—Recalculating. You’ve probably heard those words. I’m guilty. If I’m not sure of the address, I plug it in my smart phone and drive. Sometimes I’ll hear—make a U-turn—this usually happens when I’m not paying attention.

I’ve been driving for thirty years. Growing up in New York there were hundreds of highways and expressways: north, south, east, and west—even diagonally! As I began to venture out, I would grab a paper map and write the directions down on a piece of paper. The first time in the City was a little nerve-racking—cabs don’t slow down—or use blinkers! But always, with directions in hand, I set out, carefully observing signs, buildings, road conditions, and routes. I quickly learned my way around an unknown place. The next time I went, I knew where I was headed, and stopped at some great delis (NY is known for their delicatessens—and super good ethnic foods).

But technology has made things easier! I’ve been living in Richmond for almost five years—confession—I still rely on my smartphone. As I was driving it hit me—this is a great analogy regarding discipleship—and I believe it’s time for recalculating—for the church to make a U-turn.

Everything traditional is not bad and everything new is not good. The modern church has become so enamored with growth and numbers that we’ve neglected discipleship. But, we have a mandate and command from Christ, to go and make disciples and be disciples (Mt. 28:18–20). Unfortunately, what we label as discipleship is someone lecturing about what the Bible says.

I notice that when I use my smartphone’s directions, it’s easy—I just follow the voice—but I rarely pay attention to the actual side streets, buildings, billboards, and such. Basically, I’m not learning or navigating the area—I’m just driving it.

I think the modern church views discipleship this way. We’re not learning how to navigate life with others in Christ. We’re listening to the pastor or Sunday school teacher speak, or even small group leader in discussion, but we’re rarely engaging what the message means, applying it, and watching where it takes us. We’re not observing the “streets” of life—we’ve boxed up discipleship and are selling it as a program or format.

Discipleship is becoming more like Christ. It’s living with others and cannot be done in isolation. Discipleship is about learning and navigating gospel-centered life with others. It’s not about getting to a destination (namely, heaven). The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

The church needs to make a U-turn, back to the 1st century principles of devotion, fellowship, and discipleship. It’s time for us to recalculate where we’re headed—to be intentional about our direction—not blindly moving along in our faith, but growing in maturity and dedication.

Are Church Planting and Disciple-Making the Same Thing?

FullSizeRender-29

This article is posted in September 2016’s issue of Church Planter Magazine.

            Let’s get right to it. This is becoming a hot topic.

I’ve heard the arguments, “We shouldn’t call it church planting—it should be called sowing the gospel,” or “Let’s call it missional disciple-making,” or how about this one, “Nowhere in the Bible does it command disciples to plant churches”—and the list goes on and on.

So, to find our answers, let’s go to the source, the Word.

Why do we plant churches? The answer: to obediently follow the Great Commission, right? Why do we make disciples? The answer: to obediently follow the Great Commission, right? So which is it? Is it one, and not the other? Are both synonymous? Are they interchangeable? What does the Bible say…?

What is the Great Commission?

What is the Great Commission? At the close of Matthew’s Gospel, he records a missionary meeting with Jesus and the disciples (Mt. 28:16–20). The resurrected Christ was given ultimate authority as the cosmic king and would provide his presence on a continual mission to baptize and make disciples of people from all nations. The Commission from Christ ordered the newly assembled Israel to go forth into the world with a mandate, a mission, and a promise.[1]

Matthew’s “Great Commission” displays an all-encompassing divine rule of Christ; Jesus has “all authority” (28:18), sending his disciples to “all nations” (28:19), to obey “all that” he commanded (28:20), being with them “all” of their days (28:20).[2] The Great Commission exalts Jesus as the missional Lord over all the earth and all people, sending obedient servants to teach everyone how to rightly serve and obey him. Lastly, Jesus reassured his disciples that his perpetual presence would be with them throughout their missional days. The Immanuel, God with us—has been fulfilled.

Are We Making Disciples or Church Planting?

Most notably within the Great Commission is the command to make disciples and to “baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). Baptism becomes a major part of the command—along with teaching people to obey Christ’s commands (28:20).

Interestingly, within the New Testament (NT), we read that Paul did not baptize the Corinthian church (Acts 18:8b; 1 Cor.1:13–17)—so, then who did? If Paul was sent to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 1:14–17) then we believe baptism was an ordinance that belonged to the local church.[3] Christian baptism was the first obedient action of a new convert and “an expression of solidarity with Jesus.”[4] Through baptism, new disciples identified with Christ and were initiated into his community of followers. John Lightfoot expressed to make disciples signified to, “bring them in by baptism, that they may be taught.”[5]

So, the church baptizes new converts with the expectation of them becoming obedient Great Commission disciples. While there are a few examples of individuals receiving baptism within the NT (Eunuch & Centurion; Acts 8:27–36, 10:47–48), a question was posed whether someone could prevent the person from being baptized. The new convert was baptized and became a member of the body of Christ, with an expectation, of himself, being discipled and a disciple-maker. It’s reciprocal.

Can We Have One Without the Other?

We can have discipleship without church planting (sort of), but we cannot have church planting without discipleship—if that makes sense. In certain circumstances, church planting and disciple-making are interchangeable, but they’re also unique. In essence, a church planter must make disciples who will gather together and become a church (ekklesia).

But, if a planter merely gathers people, but lacks the observance of the ordinances (baptism & Communion) and does not teach obedience to Christ’s commands then it’s never a church—it may be partial discipleship—or mentorship, but not a church. Yet we know that discipleship occurs more effectively within a community of believers that engage and apply Christ-like actions to the daily rhythms of life. As the word ekklesia implies, the church are “called out ones” that gather together.

As well, the uniqueness of the terminology shows that an existing church can (and should) be engaged in discipleship—but they may not be engaged in church planting. One may argue (and rightly so) that if you’re not church planting then your not making disciples, or applying the Great Commission. Technically speaking (I despise that term), if you’re not church planting then you’re not following the Great Commission. Why?

Church Planting Fulfills the Great Commission

Ott and Wilson declare, “Church planting is essential to God’s salvation purposes and the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”[6] In my opinion, church planting is discipleship, so I agree with Ott and Wilson. I don’t think a planter can effectively sow the gospel into a community of people without making disciples (see what I did there?). In this aspect, church planting is directly related to and engaged in discipleship.

By obediently following Christ’s directives, we may say that church-planting reaches unreached peoples, gathers them together to form an ekklesia, baptizes them, and makes disciples of them by teaching them the commands of Christ; thereby, fulfilling the Great Commission. Essentially and foundationally, church planting is disciple-making and disciple-making (done right) is church planting. Therefore, church planting obediently fulfills the Great Commission to make disciples—the two cannot be divorced from one another.

[1] Michael W. Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History, and Issues (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 61.

[2] David L. Turner, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 687.

[3] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church, vol. 2 (Leicester, England: IVP Academic, 2004), 1370.

[4] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005), 1268.

[5] John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 379.

[6] Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 20.

Why does this keep happening to me?

1406499332654

Why does this keep happening to me?

Have you ever uttered those words? If you’ve been a believer for any length of time, you’ve probably heard someone say, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Both of these statements are connected—but only one has been taken out of context. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he writes:

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

The Test

In High School it was rare that I failed a test—but if I did, it’s because I failed to pay attention and study. Paul is saying that God can deliver us from temptations—but, the temptations that are occurring are not extraordinary—they occur to everyone. So, why would God provide a way out? Well—that’s one reason why we have the question, “Why does this keep happening to me?”

When we fail to endure a situation, we’ll most certainly see it again. Think about it—we learn more from our failures than our successes. Why do teachers give tests? To make sure students know the subject.

Escaping the Test

When we groan, “Why does this keep happening to me?” We’re failing to face the trial. We’re failing to pay attention to the spiritual principles that God has placed before us. We seek to escape. But God created us and knows our inner workings (Job 10:11; Ps. 139:13; Heb. 4:12). When God takes us out of those situations, as a merciful teacher who hates to see failing students, He will allow us to re-take the test at a later time. We have not learned the spiritual subject. Recently, I met a man during a church outreach. This man didn’t believe in God—or so he said. I told him about a miracle working God. I asked him, “If you could have one miracle in your life, what would that miracle be?” The man replied, “I just want to be comfortable.”

Enjoying Comfort

One major reason why we will continue to see the same test over and over again is comfort. We’re afraid to leave our “comfort zone,” or we view the test as too difficult. But we must remember that God created us. Let me provide an analogy.

Imagine that I create an off road racecar. My desire is for the car to climb steep hills, run on jagged rocks at high speeds, and jump to great heights. I want to see it go through thick muck and mire. It will be my prized possession.

Finally the day comes. My all terrain mud-bog racecar is ready to go! I’m also in luck. It rained the night before and the ground is muddy. I take my beastly car into a nearby field—it has tons of dirt mounds, jagged rocks, sandy pits, and the ultimate deep muddy trails. The moment of truth arrives. I fire it up—then slowly and carefully, I steer it around the puddles and jumps. I make sure that I don’t touch any rocks. I then drive it back without a splash or speck of mud on it. Wait—that doesn’t sound right? Why? Because I created my racecar to get dirty, muddy, and climb to its potential!

J.A. Shedd once asserted, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Likewise, God created us, not with a spirit of fear but “of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). The testing in our lives will help us climb fears and learn to navigate through the muck and mire of life. We’re not made for comfort, but to overcome fear—trusting in God. Reoccurring things may happen when we fail to trust God. Salvation is free, but discipleship costs everything. We must learn to yield our lives to the Creator. There’s no situation we face that surprises God. So, do not pray, “God take me from this situation,” but rather, “God give me strength to endure and learn, in your most perfect will.”