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If Everyone Likes Your Church, There’s a Problem

Mar 24, 22
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Can a Christian be liked by everyone when Jesus said we’d be “hated by everyone”?  His prophecy was not “if” but “when you are persecuted”.  Jesus was hated and persecuted.  Our only escape from a similar fate in our world today is to be very little like Him.  Churches are charged with making disciples who understand and live out Jesus’ example.  However, most cherry pick aspects of Jesus’ teachings and life, knowing adopting the whole package would put churchgoers in harm’s way.  They emphasize His love and mercy, His forgiveness and sacrifice, knowing it was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God that led to His death.  There’s no risk in being nice and kind, but proclaiming Jesus is the Son of God exposes Christians to hatred and persecution in many nations, including ours.  Jesus is the only hope for humanity, the cure for its terminal illness, but surrendering to a Savior flies in the face of all the world holds dear – power, control, wealth, tolerance (of sin), and self-righteousness.

The gates of hell will not prevail against” the Church, but cultural Christianity is no threat to Satan’s domain.  Churches that challenge members to diligently obey the Great Commission will make enemies not only of Satan, but of secular humanists and any religion based on mankind’s goodness, not God’s.  A church with no enemies is likely focused on building a congregation and not disciple-makers that transform their community.  If members and visitors love the sermons, music and programs with little turnover, proudly displaying “I love my church” bumper stickers on their cars, that may be a bad sign – that they’re not getting the whole story of what following Jesus entails.  Why would anyone turn down a free ticket to heaven with no expectation of sanctification?  On the other hand, if church consumers storm out in protest, that may be a good sign – that leaders are being forthright about the costs of discipleship.

Churches can have too many enemies or too many friends by making both in the wrong ways.  In fact, those paths can intersect – making enemies in trying to win friends (e.g. when members breed cynicism about a church by not living according to the beliefs they profess).

Making Enemies the Wrong Way

Contemporary American church growth models have shifted loyalties and priorities inward, toward attracting and retaining members rather than training and deploying disciples, alienating “outsiders” by instituting a…

  • New Definition of Church – Centralizing “church” around a place, pastors and a weekly event gives the unchurched the impression that the only path to God passes through the front door of a church, when all have direct access to the Father.  Reducing the “ask” of congregants (who are the embodiment of “church”) to inviting people to church services disenfranchises those not only authorized but commanded to play a key role in God’s redemptive plan.  Meanwhile, our culture is losing faith in institutions, particularly churches, putting their trust in self and a shrinking number of close relationships.  Directing non-believers to a church building or a leader was never the intended roadmap to the Father and doesn’t work well in post-Christian America.
  • New Definition of the “Customer” – In business, whoever pays is the customer.  Not so with churches.  Those paying the bills are the (unpaid) Kingdom employees who should be trained to pursue the real “customer” – those within their circles of influence who don’t know Jesus.  However, the discipleship required to execute that biblical model is too time-consuming to dare request of people churches hope will come back next Sunday.  Treating members and not the community as “customers” also explains why the Church has almost entirely outsourced the integral role it played for 1900 years on the front lines of compassion confronting issues (e.g. poverty) near and dear to Jesus’ heart.
  • New Approach to Sin – To make the experience more hospitable and comfortable, most churches address sin less frequently, directly, and aggressively today from the pulpit and within the congregation.  Marketing slogans like “no perfect people allowed” under the guise of humility fuel hypocrisy as churches adopt the world’s definition of “tolerance” and circumvent biblical commands to preserve the holiness of the body of Christ.
  • New View of Society – However, lowering moral standards internally hasn’t translated into lower expectations of those outside the 4 walls.  Even though it’s unreasonable to judge non-believers by rules of a God they don’t worship, pointing fingers is much easier than sharing the Gospel.  Judgmentalism is the logical consequence of retention and growth strategies that deemphasize personal discipleship, accountability, and evangelism.

Imagine the chaos if employees at a hospital swapped places with customers, demanding medical attention from patients.  Treating Kingdom employees sitting in America’s pews like customers, doing their jobs for them and trying to meet their expectations (rather than raising expectations of them) – all while largely ignoring the real “customer”, the “lost” in the community – explains the decline in church attendance, influence, impact and perception.  Having too few disciples (inside the church) creates too many enemies (outside the church).

Making Enemies the Right Way

Churches no longer have a prominent voice in America, the price for conforming to culture or fighting ill-advised battles against it.  For Christians, there are only a few hills worth dying on…

  • Jesus – The name of Jesus invokes both power and ire.  When I’ve given speeches in schools, His name is the only word I’ve been forbidden to say out loud.  The mere mention of it brings non-believers face to face with their (suppressed) need for His grace and forgiveness.  Ironically, most admire Jesus and His teachings but few churchgoers have the courage to speak His name, much less share about Him, where it’s not socially acceptable.
  • Truth – Most churches have reduced evangelism to a testimony and invitation to hear the Gospel (and get answers to tough questions) from a “professional”.  Yet if they do come to a church service, they may not hear the entire story – the good news (grace) without the bad news (sin).  Members are better positioned to build the relational equity through time, love and compassion required to open (closed) doors to confession that surfaces sin, sorrow that leads to repentance, and acceptance of God’s grace.
  • Holiness – Churches are sacred houses of worship, a gathering of the ekklesia or “called out ones”.  Congregants should be equipped and commissioned to lead friends and family to the foot of the cross, and then invite those new believers to join the kirk or “fellowship of those belonging to the Lord”.  All are welcome but not at the expense of the unity and integrity of the body.
  • Justice – Churches must not turn a blind eye to the powerless and defenseless like the unborn and the persecuted.  Venting anger at those who don’t live by God’s standards may make us feel better about ourselves, but anger is only righteous if it is on behalf of others, particularly those who can’t help themselves.  Yet taking a stand for preborn infants and persecuted Christians invites animosity from those who question their viability and value.

Jesus loves the Church – it’s His bride.  As John’s visions in Revelations reveal, Jesus expects a lot of His Church – evangelism, truth, holiness, and justice are among His non-negotiables.

Making Friends the Wrong Way

Some strategies churches use to make new friends and keep current ones aren’t biblical, like…

  • Convenience – Transactional, event-oriented worship, activities and compassion
  • Self – Emphasizing what Jesus does for “me”, not what we do with Him
  • Fun – Cutting back on Bible study for kids and ramping up games to attract parents
  • Catering – Giving people what they want (like businesses) rather than what they need
  • Conforming – Making the Word fit the world, avoiding controversial passages
  • Clinging – Not dealing with toxic members because it risks stunting growth or a split
  • Measuring – Counting nickels and noses rather than disciples and impact

Attempting to make a faith predicated on the sinfulness of human nature appealing by appealing to the sinfulness of human nature is clearly contrary to Scripture.

Making Friends the Right Way

The alternative to, and complete opposite of, growing a church by exploiting self-interest is…

  • Prayer – Seeking personal and community transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit
  • Dying to Self – Risking hatred and persecution for the sake of the “lost” who we love
  • Confession – Admitting we’ve made church and our faith too self (internally) focused
  • Repentance – Turning from therapeutic religion that exploits consumer-driven interests
  • Humility – Elevating Jesus, not our church, realizing humility is at the core of Christianity
  • Dependence – Childlike trust in God’s goodness, not our own, to combat the world’s independence
  • Compassion – Relational hands up, not transactional “hand-outs” that perpetuate poverty

These strategies are too passive and counterintuitive for most Type A, business-minded Americans.  Parting ways with those not aligned with Jesus’ vision for His Church hurts growth in the short term, but losing weight always makes us healthier in the end.

It’s Your Turn

Has your church made enemies by holding its ground for what is truly biblical or made too many “friends” by doing what is expedient?

I Have a Confession…

Mar 22, 17
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Part 4 of 4

In writing the last of these four blog posts asking the question “Do Non-Believers Belong in Worship Services?“, I realize I need to make a confession.  As I’ve studied the scriptures on this topic and shared the repercussions of the “seeker” movement on the hundreds of churches I’ve worked with over the past 15 years, it’s become clear I’m guilty of many of my own assertions.  Although I’ve tried to be a voice for discipleship, compassion and evangelism within churches I’ve attended, I haven’t done enough in my own life to combat the powerful temptations and tendencies that attempts to attract non-believers have created toward Comfort, Complacency, Confinement, Compromise and Conformity.

I CONFESS my propensity to overindulge in…

1. Comfort

For too many years, I’ve treated church as a place I go on Sunday mornings.  Failing to grasp that the Bible defines “church” as me (and all other believers), I haven’t fully lived out the enormous responsibilities that definition entails.  I’ve enjoyed eloquent sermons telling me how to be a better husband and father, yet didn’t share the gospel of Jesus Christ a single time that week.  I’ve worshipped the Lord, hoping the band will play one of my favorite songs, yet didn’t tell any of my neighbors how much I love the Lord before the following Sunday.  I’ve let the children’s ministry entertain and tell Bible stories to my son, yet didn’t unveil just how much more it may cost him to be a disciple.  I’ve served as a greeter and usher, yet didn’t serve anyone in Jesus’ name once I stepped out of the building.  I’ve fellowshipped with my Christian friends before and after church services, yet didn’t intentionally connect with any non-believers all week long to be the “church” for them.  Even though seeker churches have tried to make church as comfortable as possible for non-believers, studies show that I’m likely the closest skeptics will ever get to “church”.

In all of this, I allowed church to become far too comfortable for me as well.  However, Jesus never sought to make anyone comfortable.  He made them squirm, coming right out of the gates preaching repentance and sending disciples out into the mission field with no money or accommodations.

2. Complacency

I often forget that unsaved people are going to Hell.  Or maybe I just find it difficult sometimes to come to grips with the full extent of the dire consequences facing those destined for eternal damnation.  Am I more happy that I’m not going to be there than I am concerned for those who will?

Not to shift blame, but I believe the presence of non-believers in worship services has contributed to me (and other churchgoers) thinking that pastors bear primary responsibility for rescuing the lost from the brink of Hell.  First, we naturally assume that pastors are on the hook for leading any non-believers who show up at church that day to Jesus.  Then, as pastors have stepped up requests for congregations to invite their unchurched friends, that perception has gradually widened to grant pastors responsibility for all conversions.  By asking to us invite more and discipling us less, the job of Christians has been reduced to convincing non-believers to attend a church service so their pastors can preach the Gospel to them.

However, if only believers were in church then churchgoers couldn’t possibly abdicate their evangelistic role to pastors.  Without the option to invite those who don’t worship the Lord to a worship service, the task of sharing the Gospel would necessarily fall to church members.  The assembly of “called-out ones”, the biblical definition of church, would have to fulfill their intended disciple-making roles – and be prepared by pastors to do so effectively.

I wish I (and all Christians) had a sense of urgency around the Great Commission mandate commensurate with the fate awaiting those we love who don’t know Jesus.

3. Confinement

I confess I tend to huddle up with my Christian friends, inside and outside of church, because they think like me.  A form of groupthink pervades our conversations, affirming each other despite our essentially dormant personal ministries when compared to what Jesus actually expects of us.  Although the biblical meaning of the word “church” implies that relatively few non-believers should find salvation inside of a church building, we count last weekend’s professions of faith and congratulate ourselves, taking partial credit for a duty we’ve wrongly entrusted to the “professionals”.

Modern day church growth models have centralized and convened Christians into “skyscrapers”, prominent buildings that only occupy a small footprint.  We gather under one roof one morning with our like-minded brethren speaking openly about our faith, then scatter into our workplaces and neighborhoods where we rarely broach those subjects.  Some of us reassemble one evening during the week into Small Groups with fellow believers into a house where we once again boldly proclaim the Gospel to each other while non-Christians on that same street go to bed hurting and hopeless, with no one to encourage them to take their problems to the Lord in prayer.

The “seeker movement” taught us that church is for everyone.  Come one and all and do life together.  Since all are invited IN to a church, fewer are well equipped to go OUT and be the church personified.  Rather than build disciples, we build institutions. We worry more about those who are INSIDE the church and less about those who are on the OUTSIDE looking in.

4. Compromise

I don’t rock the boat often enough.  Sometimes I don’t live out the Prayer-Care-Share lifestyle I urge others to adopt.  Like the church leaders I criticize for offering slow indoctrination into the Gospel and limited discipleship for fear of alienating non-believers they deem unprepared for either, many times I’ve hesitated to speak a truth that John the Baptist, Jesus and the disciples knew all needed to hear even though few would accept.  I blog about the dangers of “stealing sheep” from other flocks and attracting people to an event they weren’t meant to attend in the first place even though I’m not alleviating the pressure on pastors to advance the Kingdom and keep the lights on, instead forcing them to pick up my slack whenever I fail to lead people to Jesus, disciple them and (only) then invite those newly “called-out ones” to a worship service.

5. Conformity

Another area where I’ve compromised that we’ll discuss more next week is tolerance of sin – in my own life, within my church and in the lives of Christian friends.  Paul (in 1 Corinthians) and John (in the Book of Revelation) spoke in no uncertain terms about the importance of keeping the church body holy.  However, in our efforts to attract and retain non-believers, we’ve become more cautious about confronting sin within our churches.  I tiptoe around issues of sin in Small Groups and personal conversations for fear of offending non-believers, new believers or friends I want to continue to like me.  In raising our sin threshold, we’ve lowered God’s bar.  As a result, churches and church members look a lot like the world in how they operate and behave.   We’ve adopted the world’s “I’m ok, you’re ok” attitude about sin – you don’t bring up mine and I won’t bring up yours.  Although our sensitivity to sin within our churches has decreased, God’s hasn’t.

It’s Your Turn…

Which of those tendencies do you recognize within yourself and/or your church?

Where Should Non-Believers Hear the Gospel?

Mar 15, 17
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Part 3 of 4

Last week, we looked at the first 4 of 7 common reasons why most Christians answer the question “Do Non-Believers Belong in Worship Services? with an emphatic “YES!”   Today, we’ll summarize and respond to the remaining 3 arguments behind their belief that church members should invite their non-Christian friends to church.  The Bible states clearly in 1 Corinthians 14:22-25 that non-believers who show up at church “unannounced” should be warmly welcomed, but that their presence should not impede pastors from preaching “the deep truths of God”.  However, what was in question in our last post “Is Church Really a ‘Hospital for Sinners’?“and again here is the biblical foundation for proactively inviting and advertising to entice non-believers to join worship services…

5.  “What about all those who won’t hear the Gospel if we stop inviting non-believers to church?”

When you read that question out loud, it does make no longer inviting non-believers to church sound heartless and “unChristian”.  At first glance, the question conjures the image of non-believers left out in the cold to fend for themselves.

However, what that argument does not take into account is how many more would likely come to faith if churchgoers would do more than simply invite them to come into a building.  In other words, when we contended last week that church is not a “hospital for sinners”, we were making the point that “church” by definition is not a building but an assembly of the “called out ones” who are “devoted to the Lord”.  Therefore, church is not an Emergency Room where those critically ill and hopelessly lost are supposed to arrive by ambulance for urgent care on Sunday mornings.

ER doctors and nurses only practice medicine inside the confines of a hospital.  However those who do not yet know that they have Stage 4 spiritual cancer are highly unlikely to rush to the pastoral “oncologist” at the “hospital for sinners” for sanctifying chemo and radiation treatments.  Instead, individual Christians were intended to be the “church” personified, nurse practitioners making house calls in their workplaces and neighborhoods delivering the great news that Jesus can bring instantaneous and complete healing.

Imagine the Kingdom impact of reverting to the biblical definition of “church”, equipping and mobilizing the millions of “hands and feet” who sit idly in the pews of America’s churches, hoping their non-believing coworkers and friends will one day accept their invitation to a worship service.  The simple, convicting truth that dispels the myth behind the argument raised in this section is that fewer non-believers would be on the “outside looking in” if churchgoers would adopt their intended roles, commissioned by Jesus Himself, as evangelists and disciple-makers.  Seekers would find what they were looking for without ever having to step foot into a church building.

6.  “Isn’t it a great thing to have lots of non-believers checking out our church?”

At the risk of sounding like a politician, the answer to that question is “it depends…”

…on why they’re checking out your church

  • Is church attendance a prerequisite for social acceptance (as it is in many small towns)?
  • Are they responding to a mailer or invitation promising a fun environment for kids and practical messages, with no expectations?
  • Or was their curiosity sparked by members who continually demonstrate compassion despite hardship, love despite animosity, and forgiveness despite injustice?

…on what they find when they get there

  • A comfortable, warm environment free of challenges or commitments beyond returning next Sunday
  • Answers to their tough questions, confronted with the truth about sin and their need for forgiveness
  • Opportunities to grow through discipleship and live out their faith through missions

…on how the church has changed to accommodate them

  • Compromising and conforming so as not to offend yet consequently defiling what is meant to be holy
  • Reluctant to hold the congregation to the Great Commission standard, failing to equip and empower those called to be the “church” between Sundays
  • Resorting to occasional compassion events, checking the box rather than following Jesus’ model of serving first and then telling people who He is

7.  “Just think of the opportunity that having non-believers here gives our church family to rally around them and put our faith into action.”

That statement carries with it an underlying, flawed premise.  Today’s prevailing church growth models have not only redefined the word “church”, but also the Church’s intended, biblical “customer”.  Members are the embodiment of “church” and are therefore “insiders”, more like employees of a company than its customers.  And like employees, church members should be trained and deployed to pursue “customers” – the lost in the community where that church is planted.

Yet the fact that the investment by the average church in caring for its community has dropped from 40%-50% (when churches were the food bank and homeless shelter for the better part of 1900 years) to around 2% today shows that churches no longer see “outsiders” as “customers”.  Instead, churches devote the vast majority of their time, energy and dollars to attracting and retaining (congregants) rather than equipping and releasing (disciples).  Likewise, words like “outreach” (now redefined as “church marketing”) and “ministry” (now code for “church chores”) have taken on new meanings as well, with emphasis redirected toward institution-building versus disciple-sending.

As a reader recently commented, “God will judge the church NOT by how many people come off the streets and into the pews, but by how many people get out of the pews on onto the streets.”  It’s a sign of our times that inviting people to church has become the primary way that Christians share the gospel, because it’s the primary evangelistic function that churchgoers are asked and prepared by pastors to perform.  Ironically, the fact that the biblical “customers” of churches today feel ignored by the Church makes it all the less likely that those non-believers will accept those invitations to church.

Much like when a company leaves a customer on hold for what seems like an eternity waiting to speak with a human being, Christians who do not live Prayer-Care-Share lifestyles provide poor “customer” service.  Churchgoers are the only personal interface most non-believers will have with “church” during their lifetimes, so if those who are essentially “employees” continually miss opportunities to exceed customer expectations through caring and to “sell” through sharing, they do a disservice to both those non-believers and the body of Christ.

Pastors unwilling to risk challenging their members to endure all the time and effort the Great Commission truly entails for fear of losing them to a church down the road are treating those “insiders” like “customers” – and likewise doing a disservice to the Kingdom.  Understandably, it’s daunting to be one of the few pastors to step out onto that limb when it will make other churches more attractive by comparison.  However, the upside of choosing obedience in spite of the risks surely makes that “gamble” worthwhile.

It’s Your Turn…

If non-believers are not the “church” but should be the target “customer” of the church, then isn’t inviting them to church much like a company inviting its customers to staff meetings and employee training sessions?  Instead, shouldn’t those company functions be reserved for employees (i.e. church members) who in turn leverage that training to pursue “customers” out in the field?

Is Church Really a “Hospital for Sinners”?

Mar 08, 17
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Part 2 of 4

There was little doubt that the question “Do Non-Believers Belong in Worship Services?” would stir controversy.  Frankly, I felt the same way as most until recent topics addressed on this weekly blog (now in its 90th week) led me to see what the scriptures had to say about that question.  Like most readers, I had assumed and never dared ask a question that conventional church growth models, nearly all churchgoers and even seminaries considered a foregone conclusion.  Of course non-believers should be encouraged to attend church – any opinion to the contrary is callous and exclusionary at best.

However, it doesn’t take a great deal of biblical investigation to realize that “church” is by definition the assembly of “called out ones” who are “devoted to the Lord” – not a building, and not designed for non-believers.  Countless verses support the argument that believers are supposed to BE the church between Sundays, responsible for leading people to Jesus – and only then are those new believers to join the body of Christ in collective worship.

Some readers understood how our modern-day redefinition of “church” has shifted responsibilities from members to pastors and staff – and turned attention from equipping and mobilizing to attracting and retaining.  Yet others reacted quite differently, reflexively citing essentially 7 common arguments for why non-believers do belong in worship services.  We’ll address the first 4 of those today…

1. “It’s the ‘sick who need a doctor’ and Church is a ‘hospital for sinners’”

Considering the sources (the first Jesus and the second generally attributed to St. Augustine), these two common quotes are often considered irrefutable evidence that there’s no better place for a non-believer to be than at church.  It would seem that the “lost” are exactly who church was established to accommodate.  In other words, all who don’t know Jesus are terminally ill so we should invite and encourage them to come to the place where they’re most likely to find healing – church.

Yes, the sick do need the Great Physician, but Jesus didn’t wait for or expect non-believers to show up at the temple.  He didn’t set up His medical practice within a building.  He was a traveling Apothecary – healing and preaching as He went from town to town.  He also sent His disciples out to meet the “sick” right where they were – with the power to heal and instructions to evangelize, not to invite to a gathering.  We should follow suit and not simply extend invitations to a “hospital for sinners”.  Pastors can’t forgive sins and offer redemption, only Jesus can – and Jesus can do that anywhere.  Churchgoers should act as medical advisors, telling people where to find healing – which is in Jesus, not in a church or pastor.

Each Christian knows the cure for spiritual “cancer” and yet few tell non-believers what it is.  The “cancer” of sin has consequences far greater than those of the bodily illness (i.e. “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul…).  Missing the opportunity to unveil the cure for “cancer”, withholding that potentially life-saving information in hopes the non-believer will make the unlikely decision to darken a church door, borders on spiritual malpractice.  Much of that liability falls on church leaders who haven’t equipped and trained Christians to communicate that cure for sin “cancer” effectively.  Pastors fear the consequences of holding a congregation consisting largely of fence-sitters and non-believers up to the lofty Great Commission standard.  Therefore, most substitute a softer ask, that of inviting non-Christians to church, enabling members to believe that invitation fulfills the Great Commission and alleviating them of personal responsibility if their invitation to church is rejected.  A church calling itself a “hospital for sinners”, failing to build disciples, and asking members to tell non-believers to come next Sunday for spiritual “healing” is effectively saying Jesus (the Great Physician) and forgiveness can only be found inside a church building (the hospital).  Yet each of us is by definition the embodiment of “church”, called to be His hands and feet everywhere we live, work and travel.

2.  “How else are non-believers going to find the Lord?”

Members are the personification of “church” so they are “insiders”, much more like employees to be trained and deployed than customers to be attracted and retained – to use a corporate analogy.  A business would never rely on a 30 minute weekly presentation and 1 hour discussion led by an uncertified volunteer as the full extent of its training program for new hires.  Yet that’s what most churches do today, conducting a weekend worship service and optional Small Groups, concerned that congregations don’t have an appetite for a greater commitment than that.  As a result, few churchgoers are ready to step into their intended roles as evangelists and disciple-makers.

That failure prompts the question asked in this section, realizing that those most qualified to occupy the evangelist and disciple-making roles today are employed by churches.  It’s true – churches have become the best places for non-believers to find the Lord.  But that’s not what Jesus intended – He meant for His Church to be living, breathing believers fully equipped and empowered to take the Gospel to “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth”.  Instead, “church” is now seen as a place or event we should invite non-believers to come to hear the Gospel preached by the “professionals”.

3. “So we’re supposed to turn non-believers away at the door?”

…phrased another way, “What’s the better side of the door for them to be on?”  First, let’s consider whether there should be a “door” at all.  Given that Christians are the “church” personified, shouldn’t there be a seamless interface between the churched and unchurched, at least physically, before and after Sunday services?  Maybe it’s not about where non-believers should or shouldn’t be (i.e. in worship services), but more about where believers should be (and what they should be doing)?

On a related note, we’ve heard the argument, “Aren’t we as Christians supposed to be hospitable?”  Yes!  As we discussed last week, 1 Corinthians 14:22-25 says that even though preaching is meant for believers, no one should be turned away who wanders in.  However, even though some non-believers may be present, pastors should not divert from teaching “the deep truths of God”, nor from offering deep discipleship.  Any non-believer who comes to church to learn more about the Lord should be eagerly and enthusiastically welcomed.  Yet the Bible clearly spells out that nothing in the message should be adjusted to make it more palatable for non-believers.  Nor should churches proactively invite or market to entice those who don’t worship Jesus to join a worship service.

There are many alternatives for engaging non-believers in church-related activities in lieu of inviting them to Sunday services.  Some churches reach out to their communities through local missions, fairs, workshops, counseling, and other initiatives and events open to any and all.  Others encourage Small Groups to invite those who wouldn’t likely show up on a Sunday morning, some even renaming them Neighborhood Groups to in effect serve as a decentralized “churches” to the communities where the groups meet.

4.  “But I accepted Christ in a church…I wouldn’t even be a believer now if I weren’t invited by someone.”

No doubt, many do come to faith during worship services.  This argument for why non-believers should be invited to church carries powerful and personal emotional weight for those to whom this statement in this section applies.  However, God had a plan to save each and every person who enters the Kingdom of Heaven and nothing, or no one, can thwart His plans.  Also, who’s to say that millions or billions more wouldn’t have come to Christ if each and every churchgoer lived out the Great Commission mandate rather than largely abdicating that responsibility.  Few non-believers are willing to attend or would be comfortable in a worship service, particularly given the prevailing reputation of most churches as more judgmental and hypocritical than caring and compassionate.  Too often non-believers when asked about “church” echo the response the demon gave when confronted by the false disciples, I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?”  Society knows Jesus is compassionate and caring but doesn’t recognize the same characteristics in today’s internally-focused Church.

It’s Your Turn…

Which of the above statements summarizes your past or current opinion on this topic, or have you been swayed at all by the arguments these past two weeks that non-believers should not be invited into worship services?

Next week we’ll address the other 3 common reasons many churchgoers give for why non-believers do belong in worship services…

Do Non-Believers Belong in Worship Services?

Mar 01, 17
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Part 1 of 3

Over the past two weeks we’ve wondered out loud why so few pastors are willing to challenge churchgoers to live out the Great Commission.  We’ve discussed the many internal and external factors behind the near extinction of intensive, personalized discipleship in churches today.  We’ve taken a stab at who would be the first to walk out the door if they were asked to endure the level of life change and disruption involved in becoming a disciple maker, as Jesus commanded.  We’ve pointed out the direct, inherent conflict between the driving force in American culture today (obsession with personal identity) and the driving force behind discipleship (dying to self, “crucified with Christ”).   If, as some would argue, the words “Christian” and “Disciple” should be synonymous, we’re left to consider whether churchgoers unwilling to invest in discipleship warrant the label “Christian”.  If the pews would empty if a pastor tried to hold a congregation to the Great Commission standard, how many of them truly are “believers”?  Add to that number any non-believers only there because a friend invited them, plus any fence-sitters or seekers who responded to an ad or pangs of guilt.

If the presence of so many unbelieving and uncommitted to becoming disciples is causing pastors any hesitation to lay out the full costs of discipleship and launch discipleship programs, it begs the question – “should those folks even be in a worship service?”  That potential connection is concerning enough to make us take a step back and recognize an oxymoron concealed by the near universal acceptance of modern church growth models: “why are those who don’t worship God even in a worship service?”

To answer those questions, we have to go to the source – God’s word.

Church – The Biblical Definition

The Greek word ekklesia is translated as “church” in the New Testament and means “called-out ones.”  It’s comprised of the Greek words kaleo (to call) with the prefix ek (out).  However, the English word “church” does not come from ekklesia but from the word kuriakon, which means “dedicated (or belonging) to the Lord.”

Therefore, the root meaning of “church” does not refer to a building, but to people.  In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul speaks to those “called out” and “dedicated to the Lord” who make up the Church, saying “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink”.  Again in 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul addresses the church in Corinth specifically as “…those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours;”

At its core, Church is an assembly of those who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  They are all believers who have received salvation, filled with the Holy Spirit.  Universally it is the body of Christ, scattered abroad.  Locally, it can meet anywhere, even in homes, because church was never about a building, only believers.  Romans 16:5 says “… greet also the church that meets at their house.”  Paul calls the “church” those meeting in a house, not the house itself.

Jesus intended for His followers to BE the church, not passive participants in something called church.  1 Peter 2:4-5 says “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood,…”  Jesus is the Cornerstone and believers are His “living stones”, His followers are His hands and feet that He uses to build His Church.

In several instances such as Colossians 1:18, 1 Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 5:29-30 and Ephesians 1:22-23, the Church is defined as the body of Christ…“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”  His body, the Church, should be made up of those united with Christ as His physical manifestation on earth.  As His body, Jesus expects His Church to be holy and undefiled.  Ephesians 5:25-27 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”  Consistent with the numerous verses referring to “church” as a gathering of believers, those not already made righteous in God’s eyes through the blood of Jesus (i.e. those who don’t worship the Lord) were not intended to be openly invited into a holy worship service.

Further evidence that churches were initially made up of only believers was the first century church in the Book of Acts.  It was growing rapidly not because non-believers were showing up but because the converted were joining the assembly of believers.  Indeed, being part of that congregation could cost them their lives and was not worth the risk for non-believers.

What That Definition of Church Means…

22 “So you see that being able to “speak in tongues” is not a sign to God’s children concerning his power, but is a sign to the unsaved. However, prophecy (preaching the deep truths of God) is what the Christians need, and unbelievers aren’t yet ready for it. 23 Even so, if an unsaved person, or someone who doesn’t have these gifts, comes to church and hears you all talking in other languages, he is likely to think you are crazy. 24 But if you prophesy, preaching God’s Word, even though such preaching is mostly for believers, and an unsaved person or a new Christian comes in who does not understand about these things, all these sermons will convince him of the fact that he is a sinner, and his conscience will be pricked by everything he hears. 25 As he listens, his secret thoughts will be laid bare, and he will fall down on his knees and worship God, declaring that God is really there among you.” (1 Corinthians 14:22-25)

Churches Shouldn’t be Inviting and Advertising to Non-Believers…

Pastors understand those verses.  They know non-believers aren’t ready to hear “insider” messages intended for those “called out” and “devoted to the Lord”.  That’s why churches who ask members to invite their non-believing friends and advertise to anyone and everyone are more reluctant to preach as boldly about the costs of discipleship and Great Commission as they would if only believers were present.  That would be less troubling if churches at least offered separate tracks of one-on-one or triad discipleship for believers looking to go deeper.  However, most pastors cite Small Groups first when asked about their discipleship efforts (but Small Groups aren’t making many disciples) and few churches offer “collegiate or graduate level” alternatives.

What’s most concerning is that churches today have altered how they conduct weekend services and how they market to attract people to an event they weren’t biblically meant to attend in the first place.  They’re not ready to experience what Churches are supposed to offer.  They’re not ready for worship.  They’re not ready for discipleship.  They’re not ready to be fed “solid food”.  Their mere presence and attempts to accommodate them influences numerous aspects of church, both on Sundays and throughout the week.  Meanwhile, all of those ready to go deeper are held back a “grade” as time and resources are poured into engaging and retaining those who aren’t actually part of the body of Christ.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll discuss the affects that inviting and advertising to non-believers have had on the today’s Church:

  • Changed our modern day definition of “Church” away from its biblical roots, and redefined other words such as “outreach” and “ministry”, redirecting their emphasis toward institution-building versus disciple-sending
  • Increased the temptations and tendencies of today’s churches toward Compromise, Comfort, Complacency, Conformity and Confinement

However, Churches Should Welcome Non-Believers if They Wander in…

According to 1 Corinthians 14:22-25, even though preaching the deep truths of God is meant for believers, no one should be turned away.  However, churches should not divert from teaching those “deep truths”, nor from deep discipleship, just because non-believers are present.

Is It Too Late to Turn Back?

Maybe we’ve already made our bed.  Churches haven’t done of good job of discipling members for at least the past couple decades.  Christ intended for His followers to BE the church, but most feel unqualified and are under-committed to live out the Great Commission between Sundays.  Therefore, in this day and age, most of those best equipped to lead people toward Christ are on staff at churches.

As a result, many Christians would argue that if we stop attracting non-believers into churches (through invitations and advertising), many may never hear the gospel and turn to Christ.  In other words, ironically the argument many Christians make is that non-believers may never come to faith if we don’t continue with the current (unbiblical) model.  Even if they understand the biblical definition of Church, they aren’t in favor of reverting to that definition.  Their intentions for parting with scripture in this instance likely originate from a heart of compassion and concern for the “lost” but if that compassion and concern were stronger among more churchgoers, there would be plenty of well equipped workers going into the fields that Jesus said are “ripe for harvest”.  In that case, “seekers” wouldn’t have to step into a church to find what they’re looking for.

It’s Your Turn…

How do you suggest pastors deal with the challenge of staying true to scripture’s definition of “Church” yet still reaching those who don’t know Christ with the Gospel?

Why Discipleship is the Ultimate Church Growth Model

Feb 22, 17
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Not all church growth is healthy growth.  Unhealthy growth attracts people from other churches by catering more to them and expecting less of them.  Healthy, exponential growth involves sending those who’ve experienced genuine life change out into the community to demonstrate and share the love of Jesus Christ with those hopeless and hurting.  The growth potential from discipleship is about leverage and empowerment, fueled by the Holy Spirit.  There is so much latent potential sitting idle in America’s church pews.  The job now is to disrupt their comfort and complacency in order to mobilize that manpower.

Intensive discipleship gives churchgoers the courage to seek the lost, the compassion to serve them, and the knowledge to speak words that bring them life.  It transforms your church into a fully trained and equipped army of ministers.  When a pastor asks the proverbial trick question “Raise your hand if you’re a minister”, for the first time all hands can go up with confidence.  Disciples know that their responsibilities amount to being the church personified, not simply inviting people to an event next Sunday.

However, the growth that comes from challenging members to live out the Great Commission, given all of the time and effort that entails, also comes with ups and downs.  Healthy growth is a roller coaster.  You may “preach it down” at first, but you’re in good company – that’s what Jesus did.  At possibly the height of His popularity during His time on earth, Jesus preached His most challenging sermon – and many left His side.  Myopic scale wasn’t the goal for Jesus.  He was looking to build a rebel band of Spirit-filled followers fully committed to changing the world.  And they did.

Like people, churches often need to lose some weight to get healthy.  If someone is looking to get in better shape, that typically means dropping a few pounds.  Maybe to become healthy, churches have to lose some church “consumers”.  However, they won’t leave (or repent) until they experience the “sticker shock” over the price they’ll have to pay to BE the church.  Presenting congregations with the Great Commission price tag is scary in this day and age with so many church buildings and aspiring pastors yet fewer frequent attenders, particularly when some of those leaving may be key contributors.  But the trajectory of a thriving church is typically and necessarily down before it follows the “hockey stick” back up.  Those remaining will create a firm foundation for rapid growth, while also breathing life back into the church’s culture.

Unfortunately, many pastors aren’t willing to take the risk of enduring the short, downward slope and therefore miss the rapid ascension in growth and health up the “hockey stick”.  Many therefore lose their passion and burn out, never recapturing the excitement they once felt back when their church first started.

Who you’ll lose…

It takes faith to boldly preach the whole truth of the gospel – including sin, repentance and the costs of discipleship.  On the surface, it would seem few want to hear that sermon.  Many in the congregation may not come back for a second dose of that medicine.  It also takes courage to ask churchgoers to muster the level of compassion and sacrifice demanded in the Bible of those who choose to follow Jesus Christ.  Many will find another church more willing to spoon feed them.  Others won’t step back into another church again and risk being confronted with such unreasonable expectations.

But let’s look more closely at who is most likely to leave your church when you begin to challenge them to become disciples:

  • those obsessed with their own personal identity (who we discussed last week):
    • want to associate themselves with Christians as part of their (self-conceived) identity or (public) social standing, as often occurs in smaller towns where church attendance is expected
    • more interested in religion than a relationship (with Jesus)
    • pursuing God for what He can do for them to improve their situation in life
  • long-time complacent members and attenders who aren’t ready for changes or challenges
  • “consumers” who complain when some aspect of church is no longer to their liking
  • those in it for “cheap grace”, belief without confession, surrender, discipleship or material life change
  • luke-warm fence-sitters undecided for years whether to stop dipping their toes in the water
  • people intent on being “fed”, unwilling to serve or give sacrificially
  • those who when they do serve, do it to “check the box” and feel better about themselves

Do you want a church full of those?  Jesus and His disciples didn’t try to appease them either.  They confronted sin and never tempered or qualified the gospel message regardless of whether listeners were ready to accept it or not.  Of course, keep in mind that Jesus and His disciples had already “primed the pump” by performing awe-inspiring miracles and jaw-dropping acts of kindness prior to sharing the gospel – a model most churches rarely imitate today.  Maybe that’s why churches have had to resort to softer, more palatable messages to attract and retain – because ears are not as ready to hear nor hearts to accept words not preceded by action. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

What you’ll gain…

Pressing forward in the face of the risk that your attendance will shrink if members are challenged to BE the church between Sundays and relentlessly pursue the real “customer” (the lost in the community) is not optional – it’s Biblical.  Pastors should have the faith to follow the Lord’s leading, whatever the outcome.

While there’s risk, there’s also tremendous upside.  The congregants who do stick around will be those who are:

  • hungry for truth
  • eager to grow deeper in their relationship with the Lord
  • possibly poor in material wealth but are rich in faith
  • disciples, or willing to become one
  • ready to make an impact within their circles of influence
  • committed to growing the Kingdom
  • all in!

Imagine what your church could do with pews full of those folks!  Twelve disciples changed the course of history.  However, the only way to weed out the “who you’ll lose”, leaving you only with the “what you’ll gain”, is to spell out what it REALLY means to live out the Great Commission.  And you haven’t yet rooted out the “who you’ll lose” at your church – because they’re still there!  Without trimming the excess and training the remaining “insiders” to be unabashed Christ followers bent on pursuing the lost in the community, your church will never morph into a beacon of light in your otherwise darkening city.

What about infrequent attenders, visitors and non-believers?

I know what many of you are thinking.  What about these folks?  Launching straight into the costs and effort involved in discipleship next Sunday would send most window shoppers and CEOs (Christmas and Easter Only) running for the doors, right?  There are several schools of thought on that topic in the church today:

  1. Most Common – The prevailing theory is that “seekers” need to be brought along slowly – from Connection, to Conversion, to Cultivation. While nearly all churches try to attract seekers and work toward Connection and Conversion, few offer Cultivation beyond Small Groups, which aren’t building many disciples.
  2. Most Concerning – Too many churches short-change those wandering into a church who are looking for truth, instead providing thinly-veiled counseling.  Rather than hearing a saving gospel and credible plan for life change from their meager existence, they get relationship and parenting advice.  Rather than getting answers to their tough questions and hard evidence to quell their doubts, they get promises of a better life and hope to help get them through difficult situations (the theme of most Christian songs today).  In their reluctant to call seekers to repentance, pastors miss the opportunity to offer genuine forgiveness and amazing grace.  It’s interesting that Jesus’ first message at the inception of His ministry, when there were no Christians on earth, began with a call to repentance.
  3. Most Controversial – Should non-believers even be invited to worship services?  Or should disciples be the “church” between Sundays, leading non-believers to faith, at which time they should join the body of believers in collective worship?  We’ll start with that most controversial question first next week and see how attempts to attract and engage non-believers are impacting today’s churches.

It’s your turn…

Have you watched a pastor do what Jesus did and “preach it (church/followers) down” to a smaller number of committed disciples, only to see that church explode in growth?

External Factors Keeping Churches from Discipling

Feb 15, 17
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In addition to the internal impediments to discipleship we discussed last week, there are cultural norms making it difficult for churches in America to build disciples.  Even if pastors were fully committed to implementing personalized, intensive discipleship programs, they would encounter three significant attitudinal roadblocks pervading the psyche of most Americans today:

1.  Do What’s Best for Me…

Baby Boomers were dubbed the “Me Generation” in the 1980s and 1990s as conspicuous consumption, career ambition and narcissism precipitated an explosion of self-help books and me-first TV shows like Seinfeld.  Today, Millennials are commonly referred to as “Generation Me” for their obsession with their own personal identity.  Advertisers, Hollywood, media and the music industry drive home the idea that each of us should individually:

  • Define my own identity
  • Define my own morality
  • Define my own gender
  • Define what I do with my own body
  • Define my own take on religion (or god)
  • Seek my own happiness and fulfillment as the top priority

No one is permitted to question any of these self-conceived definitions of who I (or anyone else) is.  Everyone is permitted to live in a (self) bubble free from the imposition of values, ideals or standards by others outside of that bubble.  In fact, much of the controversy surrounding politics today involves the perceived (and often real) attempts to draw gender, racial or moral lines based on ideological or religious beliefs and force them on those who have already defined those for themselves.  Those questioning or attempting any infringement on anyone else’s self-image is viewed by Generation Me as a bigot and vilified in the media.  In the name of respect, compassion and understanding, you are required to respect my “I” to a fault.  In contrast, those taking a stand for their personal identity (however they want to define it) against any assailants are passionately supported by onlookers and praised by the media.

The rise of selfies, self expression on social media, becoming an alternative self via video games and virtual reality, makeover shows creating instant self transformations, etc. are all clear indications of America’s self-infatuation.  Self-actualization, realizing your true self, or reinventing that self brings a sense of happiness and liberation – but it’s fleeting.

It’s also, for all practical and Biblical purposes, the opposite of how we were meant to live.  In Romans 8, Paul refers to self-obsession as living in the flesh: “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”  That’s our true identity and intended purpose – to empty ourselves and be filled with the Holy Spirit to accomplish His plan, not ours.

In a culture inundated with Self-itis, pastors find it very difficult to implement intensive discipleship programs.  Discipleship runs directly counter to self-absorption in every respect.  Discipleship teaches:

Because identity in Christ versus identity in myself is so hard for the Me Generation and Generation Me to swallow, church leaders resort to “lighter” versions of discipleship like Small Groups that provide a palatable format for those still consumed with self.  Small Group members are free to tell their personal stories, receive sympathy and prayer, and hear supportive messages to help them deal with the challenges they face.  However, Small Groups aren’t building many disciples and few churchgoers today are willing to endure the costs of discipleship outlined in Luke 9 and Luke 14Few love Jesus unconditionally, pray unceasingly, share their faith unapologetically, or serve those in need unreservedly.  In other words, unlike disciples, they don’t look a whole lot like Jesus.

2.  Do What’s Best for My Family…

Scott is a dutiful husband and a devoted father.  Although Scott’s not the kind to wear his faith on his sleeve, he tries to live an exemplary life hoping others will notice, opening the door to invite them to church.  By setting a good example, caring for his family and serving at the church, Scott feels he’s doing everything he’s supposed to as a Christian.  His church doesn’t ask or expect more of him and frankly, Scott has little time for much else anyway. 

However, what if God expects more – much more? 

It’s hard to argue with Scott or others like him.  How can there be anything wrong with working hard all week to provide for his family, then spending every Saturday at soccer games and cheerleading practice with his kids, and volunteering at his church every Sunday?  Churches reinforce Scott’s perspective by continually emphasizing taking care of our families and serving at the church.  Entire sermon series are devoted to marriage, child-rearing and relationships – often tying back into opportunities like leading a Small Group or working as a greeter or usher. 

But what about the Great Commission?  What about evangelism, the poor and the lost in the community?  That’s who Jesus, His disciples and the early church spent nearly all of their time pursuing.  What if your children follow suit and only take care of their own families?  Then what if your children’s children do the same when they grow up?  Who will ever look out for the hungry, hurting and hopeless?  And what about life transformation?  That’s what Jesus’ disciples experienced.  Where are our broken hearts for those who die without knowing the Lord?  How can we restrict our time and attention to our family and church while those in our workplaces and neighborhoods have contracted a fatal illness for which we have the cure?

Yes, churches have bred generations of Passive, Pensive and Private Christians.  Scott’s story resembles far too many churchgoers in America today, but how many pastors are willing to tell members to be less devoted to their families and more committed to making a dramatic impact in their world for Christ (i.e. Powerful Christians)?

3.  Do What’s Best for My Church…

Ironically, the success some pastors have had in the recent past in building personal brands, marketing their church and trying to increase loyalty among churchgoers, has backfired.  Invite-Involve-Invest, the prevailing church growth model over the past couple decades, not only hasn’t grown the Church in size, impact, influence or perception – it’s also trained members to abdicate their personal ministry responsibilities (handing them over to their church) and substitute performing religious obligations (for their church).

Jesus intends for His followers to BE the church, not passive (or active) participants in church.  1 Peter 2:4-5 says “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood,…”  Jesus is the Cornerstone and we are His “living stones”, His hands and feet that He uses to build His Church.  However, modern day church growth models have adjusted to fit the Me Generation and Generation Me, asking much less than Jesus does of His followers.

Rather than challenging churchgoers with all that discipleship entails (outlined earlier), pastors have lowered expectations, knowing few are willing to fully die to self, be crucified with Christ, and define their identity in Christ alone.  Instead, by implicitly defining church as an institution rather than as the congregation, church leaders kill two birds with one stone, both meeting self-absorbed Americans where they are and focusing them on supporting the organization itself.  In other words, rather than building disciples, which asks people to identify themselves as the church personified and therefore risks driving away those who want to retain their own identity, pastors appeal to them with services, programs and requests to build up the organization, which requires teams of faithful workers.

In some ways, churches have begun to imitate the Me Generation and Generation Me.  Each church differentiates and many rebrand, working hard at creating its own unique identity.  However, churches should adopt the core principles of discipleship they should espouse, dying to self and identifying themselves solely within the context of the larger body of Christ.  Instead, churches are increasingly establishing their independent identities and breaking away from denominations, affiliations and partnerships.  Many hand out “I love my church” bumper stickers, advertise in ways that would only entice Christians from other churches, and advocate their unique views of how worship and life should be conducted.  Yet both believers and churches were meant to be collectively depending on Christ alone, not asserting their independence.

It’s Your Turn…

Do you see a correlation between the increase in the level of self-interest among Americans and America’s churches and the rise of the “Nones” and “Dones” during the Me Generation and Generation Me?

What’s Keeping Churches from Discipling?

Feb 08, 17
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Part 1 – Internal Factors

As we showed last week, discipleship expands the Kingdom, changes your community and grows your church.  So why do only 1% of church leaders surveyed believe American churches are discipling well.  Why wouldn’t more pastors emphasize discipleship and implement a discipleship track that goes well beyond sermons and small groups (which aren’t making many disciples)?  Why don’t many churches utilize more intensive and effective discipleship methods?

It’s not for a lack of understanding that discipleship is important.  Most pastors list discipleship as a priority.  Few deny its Kingdom-building potential.  The story of Jesus’ ministry cannot be told without reference to how fervently He invested in, empowered and released disciples into service.  For all those reasons, discipleship is addressed in sermons at least on occasion at nearly every church.

4 Discipleship “Pump Fakes”

However, today pastors seem more willing to preach discipleship principles than the corresponding actions and expectations that true discipleship entails.  Too many pay lip service to discipleship and fall short on execution, anticipating few churchgoers will go beyond dipping their toes in the discipleship waters.  In other words, in football terms during this Super Bowl week, in one of 4 ways pastors “pump fake” the congregation and hand off rather than throwing the ball downfield:

  1. Preaching without Principles – Not revealing the full costs of discipleship outlined in Luke 9 and Luke 14.  This isn’t restricted to prosperity or “name it and claim it” churches, but applies to any church that fails to disclose that following Jesus may mean losing everything.  Jesus’ high standards for His followers stand in stark contrast to the life improvement plan touted in churches that not only tolerate but cater to “consumer” Christians.
  2. Preaching without Programs – Fearless presentation of what challenges may await those who take a full-fledged leap of faith, but not offering a discipleship plank off which to leap.  No company would rely solely on a weekly lecture and an optional weekly forum led by untrained employees as the full extent of its training program.  Likewise, it is unreasonable for churches to think sermons and small groups should suffice as adequate discipleship training for those intended to be the personification of “church”.
  3. Preaching without Practicing – Sharing a hard message with a soft landing.  So often Biblical truths passionately introduced throughout the first 25 minutes don’t seem to match the action items laid out in the last 5 minutes.  You’ve seen it before – right message, wrong conclusions.  A demanding sermon that seems to push the limits of life transformation (e.g. discipleship, evangelism and community impact), but ends with the same old Invite/Involve/Invest institution-building requests (e.g. invite friends, sign up for “church chores”, join a small group, give to the church).
  4. Preaching without Progress – Even with appropriate principles, programs and practices, real progress in disciple-making requires some form of accountability and tracking, either personal or corporate.  A discipleship-driven church seeks to know whether its congregation is living out the Great Commission.  It lays out a discipleship path and measures degree of life change as people move down that road.  It may even abandon internally-focused “nickels and noses” metrics, replacing them with externally-oriented metrics like lives touched and impacted by its members.

Preaching with Power involves not only unveiling the costs of discipleship, but instituting an intensive 1-on-1 or triad discipleship program, deploying disciples into personal ministry inside AND outside the church, and expecting life transformation in line with what Jesus asked of His disciples.

Discipleship Works…so Why Not?

There are powerful INTERNAL forces (next week we’ll discuss EXTERNAL factors) at work within the current psyche of church leaders that deter all but a few from implementing full-scale, Biblical discipleship:

  1. Graduation – Churches provide different levels of Biblical “education”: Elementary School (“milk” Paul spoke of in Hebrews 5:13); High School (beginning to eat “solid” food); College (in-depth Bible study); and Grad School (deep personalized discipleship).  Few churches provide all four levels.  Yet I’ve never come across a church who admits that and refers members to another church once they’ve exhausted all the depth it can supply.  A church who simply doesn’t have enough senior, mature leaders to start a “college” or “grad school” level discipleship program should either commit to fix that problem, or congratulate and bid farewell to those ready to earn their “bachelors” or “masters”.  Instead, nearly every church tries to hang on to every person.  That’s a disservice to those churchgoers and the Kingdom.  Some may argue that those senior, mature leaders should stick around to disciple others, but their skills are likely underutilized by elementary and high school level churches where serious discipleship isn’t a priority.  Regardless, truly transformed disciples probably won’t be content for long in a church that subscribes to conventional growth models – eventually leaving for a church with a higher “ceiling”.
  2. Centralization – Some pastors even get upset when members step away from church responsibilities to engage in community or world-changing external ministry.  Leaders whose aim is to transform and release (build disciples) versus attract and retain (build an organization) would be excited for them.  Serving on a finance committee or as a greeter builds that church, but serving in an external ministry that equips and unites many churches may do more to build the Kingdom.  However, as pastors and staff have gradually come to be viewed as the “professionals” and “church” as a place to go to on weekends, the need for member engagement and loyalty has increased.  A centralized concept of “church” is far more labor intensive and expensive to maintain than a decentralized church model.  Discipleship decentralizes as members increasingly function as the embodiment of “church” between Sundays and more actively seek ministry opportunities outside the “4 walls”.  A cycle of institutional dependency revolving around a single organization slowly gives way to a wider view of one’s personal responsibility to impact the community for Christ.  In that respect, discipleship threatens a church’s viability by releasing its most valued resources.  In fact, some churches have even asked me whether all external service opportunities that conflict with their internal volunteering needs can be eliminated from Meet The Need’s database.
  3. Expectation – The tables have turned.  The “balance of power” today has tipped in favor of members.  The law of supply and demand has given churchgoers the upper hand.  A large number of churches, each carrying fixed expenses that have to be covered, are going after a shrinking “pool” of frequent attenders, each of whom donates less on average.  The landscape is also filled with more “Walmart” churches, making life difficult for “mom-and-pop” churches who are unable to provide the same weekend “experience” for adults and children.  Meanwhile, seminaries are producing significant numbers of aspiring new pastors every year.  The math will only get worse – fewer people and funds to spread over the remaining base of church facilities and pastors.  As a result, churches too often choose the path of least resistance to cling to members.  As we discussed, they’ve reduced Worship, Compassion and even Salvation to events.  Expectations have flipped – emphasis previously was on leaders expecting members to “perform” (e.g. life change; community impact) but now members expect pastors to perform (e.g. entertaining worship; availability for counseling and family events).  Pastors are more hesitant to regularly make high commitment (and high Kingdom “payoff”) requests for discipleship, local missions, and evangelism – instead offering lower commitment alternatives (with lower Kingdom “payoff”) like serving on the usher,  greeter or parking team.

It’s Your Turn…

Stop pump faking and throw the pass downfield.  Get beyond words and put in place a life-changing discipleship program at your church that transforms people into the image of Christ.

Then, utilize Meet The Need’s software to point your members to opportunities to follow Jesus’ model of evangelism – letting loving acts of service open the door to presenting the Gospel message.

Finally, encourage your members to live Prayer, Care, Share lifestyles by introducing our new initiative #MeetAnEternalNeed.  #MeetAnEternalNeed is a challenge to Christians and churchgoers everywhere to be intentional about:

  • Bringing help and hope (found in Christ alone) to a friend, neighbor, coworker or complete stranger
  • Posting a pic and telling their story on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #MeetAnEternalNeed (and #WWJB, #WhereWouldJesusBe) to inspire others
  • Specifically challenging 3 friends on Facebook or Twitter to “pay it forward”

Maximizing Kingdom, Community & Church Impact

Feb 01, 17
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Gone fishing sign at weathered doors

Jesus selected an odd cast of characters to be His disciples.  If you were asked to pick a team of 12 people to change the course of history, I’m guessing you wouldn’t head straight to the local marina or IRS office looking for candidates.  Yet that’s exactly what Jesus did.  In fact, the Old Testament, New Testament and the annals of church history are riddled with stories of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.  God gets all the glory when those least capable achieve the seemingly impossible.  Maybe those who truly understand they are powerless without the Holy Spirit are most qualified to receive the Holy Spirit’s power.  Maybe those who’ve heard “no” most often are those most willing to say “yes” to whatever God asks of them.

Yes, disciples are those who are transformed from ordinary to extraordinary – and leave an indelible mark on the world around them.  Life transformation through discipleship is so powerful and important that Jesus invested heavily in a small band of average Joe’s – knowing a few fully committed followers is all it would take to spark a wildfire that would circle the globe.  So when only 1% of church leaders today say American churches are discipling well, is it any wonder why the Church is declining in growth, impact, influence and perception?  As we discussed last week, when asked about discipleship, most pastors are quick to cite “Small Groups” – yet a church where Small Groups are the primary discipleship vehicle isn’t very serious about discipleship.

Maximizing Kingdom, Community and Church Impact in America hinges largely on resuming intensive, personal discipleship within and outside of our nation’s churches…

Discipleship Expands the Kingdom…

…As You Follow God’s Growth Plan

Only disciples can make disciples.  It “takes one to make one”.  Disciples look like Jesus.  They act like Jesus.  Jesus was loving, selfless and compassionate.  As a result, He attracted a large following.  So did His disciples.  Nothing has changed.  Disciples are still the key to expanding the Lord’s Kingdom.  God’s math remains the same – a few followers on fire for Him have an exponential impact as they disciple a few others, who in turn each disciple a few others, and so on.

…As You Invest in Disciple-Building, Not Institution-Building

If disciples are the means by which Jesus intends for people to come to Him, then the most critical function of the church should be to make disciples.  Seek to grow disciples and you’ll build a church; seek to grow a church and you’ll build an institution.  Our contention in this blog series that churchgoers are too often treated like “customers” doesn’t mean churches should pay less attention to them.  In fact it’s the opposite.  Churches should focus even more on members and attenders but spend that time quite differently, shifting from attracting and retaining to discipling and deploying.  Rather than measuring “nickels and noses”, pastors should measure life change and the resulting ripple effect on those around them. 

….As You Turn Your Church Inside Out

Those in the pews are the definition and embodiment of “church”.  They are the conduit through which the Church accomplishes its objective in the world – the Great Commission.  Therefore, they are “insiders” who should be trained much like a company trains its employees.  The company’s revenues decline if the customer service and sales staff isn’t adequately prepared to “care” and “share”.  Likewise, churches aren’t maximizing returns for the Kingdom if they’re not effectively training disciples to be Jesus’ workforce – His hands and feet.

Discipleship Changes Your Community…

…As You Confess

Are our hearts broken for the helpless and hopeless around us?  A pastor once told me, “I’d love to have a church full of Nehemiahs who weep for the lost and poor in our community.”  That should be our response too, but is it?   As we become more like Jesus, our hearts meld with His and compassion begins to outweigh comfort.  Churchgoers will lack the impetus to radically shift their priorities if leaders are reluctant to challenge and train them to truly become disciples of Jesus Christ.

…As You Commit

There’s a clear, compelling linkage between discipleship and local community missions.  Why would a church teach people how to share their faith if it doesn’t send them out to do so?  Conversely, if a church is going to put people in position to “share”, it needs to prepare them to be effective evangelists.  As you’d expect, churches that pull away from discipleship typically pull away from local missions as well.  If churches aren’t highly focused on the one, they won’t be focused on the other.  Churches who don’t feel at liberty to impose the commitment and costs of discipleship on the congregation are likely equally hesitant to request they step out of their comfort zones to follow Jesus’ model of evangelism – opening the door to sharing the gospel through loving acts of service.

…As You Coalesce

Signing up for an occasional service event or mailing out a check is not the full extent of a disciple’s responsibility to impact the world around them.  Discipleship provides the inspiration and motivation to do more, but uniting around a common cause can provide the direction.  There are pressing social issues all around us.  How can your church respond?  In the absence of an outside cause around which to unite, many churches make themselves the “cause”.  How frequently do you hear requests from the pulpit for volunteers to serve inside the church versus to volunteer for community activities to reach those outside the “4 walls”?

Discipleship Grows Your Church…

…As You Abandon Conventional Wisdom

Bucking current trends entails convincing Christians that church is not a place, it’s them.  As the Church, reaching the lost and poor with the Gospel is in their job descriptions, not just the pastor’s.  The starting point for revival in America and at your church will be when churchgoers undergo a discipleship-driven transformation in their thinking about their role and responsibilities between Sundays.  Expectations must flip from evaluating what they’re getting out of church to what they’re putting into becoming church personified.   As members “grow” then “go” through discipleship, your church releases more powerful advocates for Christ into their circles of influence, vastly increasing your church’s leverage.

…As You Pursue Church Health, not Size 

The healthy way to go wider (i.e. grow) is to go deeper.  Unhealthy churches go wider by allowing members to wade in the shallow end.  The waters are calm and no dangers lurk beneath the surface.  Churchgoers dip their toes in the water, knowing they’ll never drown or become “lunch”.  They’ll never be compelled to head into the deeper waters of real life change and discipleship.  Yet that’s where Jesus demands we swim.  Healthy churches are ones that pursue “organic”, not “acquisitive”, growth.  “Acquisitive” attracts Christians from other churches – offering facilities, sermons, music and programs that others can’t match.  Acquisitive growth without discipleship leads to internal turmoil you’d expect of churchgoers who aren’t fully committed disciples – squabbles, splits and consumerism.  However, “Organic” growth actually increases the size of the “pie” by making disciples who lead others to Christ – adding a face who didn’t simply come from another church.

….As You Take Big Risks

The Organic model involves great risk in today’s acquisitive world, but has a much higher upside.  Yet disciple-building has always been a high-risk venture.  At the height of His popularity, Jesus did the unthinkable.  He preached His most controversial, challenging sermon.  In fact, He knew few would be left standing beside Him after telling the crowd of followers to drink His blood and eat His flesh.  Imagine the pastor of a large church in the midst of rapid growth preaching the most demanding, difficult message members had ever heard, knowing with near certainty that few of them would come back the next Sunday.  Imagine that same pastor pulling all the members aside and laying out the full picture of discipleship costs and expectations, knowing it was a pill few of them could swallow?  That’s exactly what Jesus did.  He preached it down to a select few.  But through those remaining, sold-out disciples the early church grew at an astronomical clip.

It’s Your Turn…

People retain 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they discuss with others, 80% of what they personally experience and 95% of what they teach others.  In other words, the best way to fully absorb what it means to be a disciple is to live it out.

Meet The Need is about mobilizing disciples at your church into action…year-round!:

  • Software – Go to www.meettheneed.org to get your church started using all of our FREE tools
  • Coaching – Visit our website and blog for posts and eBooks with tips and best practices
  • Campaigns – Learn more about how to encourage others to live prayer, care, share lifestyles at #MeetAnEternalNeed

A New Year’s Resolution for Your Church

Jan 25, 17
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Blog Post 85 - Discipling (iStock_000005549171_Small)

Several weeks ago, we provided a simple answer to a difficult question – “Are You a Disciple?  A Surefire Litmus Test”.  Disciples of Jesus Christ assume His attributes, and foremost among those is that of a humble servant.  In 2017, we all have a fresh opportunity to show we truly are Jesus’ disciples.  One of the most important ways we can serve the Lord and advance His Kingdom is by following His final marching orders – to “go and make disciples”.

That clarion call to incessant action stands in stark contrast to the passive event orientation that epitomizes most churches and Christians today.  Disciples see the Great Commission as a way of life, not as participation in a series of religious events:

  • Salvation – More than a one-time profession of faith, but life change exhibited by a radical transformation in Eyesight, Empathy and Engagement.
  • Church – Not a place we go on weekends, but acceptance of personal responsibility to be the embodiment of “church” and fulfill the Great Commission all week long.
  • Compassion – Rather than “checking the box” during the holidays, living Prayer/Care/Share lifestyles because countless people are still helpless and hopeless year-round.

Why Aren’t We Making Many Disciples?

Church members and attenders are the conduit through which the Church accomplishes its objective in the world – the Great Commission.  Yet, we’ve seen previously how few in today’s congregations can be considered disciples, exhibiting the key attributes of Jesus.  Somehow church leaders aren’t providing an adequate level of depth necessary to build a sanctuary full of disciples.

What should they be doing differently in 2017?

As we’ve discussed many times, the fundamental flawed assumption behind the Church’s decline in growth, impact, influence and perception is the re-definition of “church” and its “customer”.  Biblically, “church” is a gathering of Individual believers, yet most churchgoers today treat church as a place or set of activities in which they participate each week.  Church leaders would love to build disciples, asking members to endure all that entails, but realize the future of their church depends on people coming back, knowing few today have the time and willingness to stomach the costs of discipleship. (Luke 9 and Luke 14)

Because members ARE the “church”, they should be treated as “insiders”, much more like employees of a company than its customers (“outsiders”).  When a company hires a new employee, training is the first priority.  Would a company consider a 30 minute presentation each week to be adequate training?  What if it added weekly group discussions with fellow employees for a few months each year?  Would the combination of those two be enough?  Of course not.  Companies know that proper training for employees entails 1-on-1 mentorship, intensive classes and on-the-job (OJT), in-the-field experience.

However, church leaders are careful not to challenge congregations to the point where they may leave, thereby treating them more like “customers” (outsiders) than “employees” (insiders).   Since discipleship is hard work, costly and risky, pastors don’t push it on them.  Pastors understand that 1-on-1 and group training classes led by professionals work best in business, but most consider those too demanding and risky to employ with members/attenders.  On-the-Job Training (OJT) is also poor at most churches because they know few members are committed to living out Jesus’ model for evangelism (i.e. regularly serving others as a door opener to sharing the gospel).

Instead, church leaders provide “lite”, easier versions of discipleship like Small Groups, and nudge them toward those options.  As a result, most members and attenders are improperly trained to be effective ambassadors for Christ.  

Disciples must be well-trained, but churches are not training members well.  And churches are feeling the effects – collateral damage from pews full of folks who are generally under-equipped to fulfill the Great Commission (i.e. to pursue the real “customer” – the lost in the community).

Small Groups Should Not be a Church’s Primary Discipleship Method

The discipleship process is:

  • Connection – Engendering trust through personal relationships, living in community with other Christians.
  • Conversion – This is just the starting point. It’s someone else in heaven, but it’s not a disciple.
  • Cultivation – Intensive training necessary to grow believers into disciples of Jesus Christ willing to undergo the requisite costs and undertake the Great Commission mandate.

Small Groups are good for Connection and possibly for Conversion, but aren’t intensive or personal enough to be the primary vehicle for Cultivation.  Yet if you ask 100 pastors today about their discipleship program, nearly all will begin with “Small Groups”.  Again, no effective organization would rely on occasional group gatherings led by untrained individuals as the primary means for delivering the intensive training required for “insiders” (“employees”).  Successful, healthy organizations know 1-on-1 and OJT training are required.

It’s no wonder the Church isn’t growing, in number or impact.  It’s not surprising that more members aren’t taking on more of the attributes of Christ.  As long as pastors don’t fully buy-in to “members ARE the church” they won’t dare challenge them to train at the same level of a corporate employee.

So Why Do Churches Push Small Groups So Hard?

Given all this, we have to ask that question.  Do pastors really believe Small Groups are the best method for discipleship, or is there another explanation?  As we’ve discussed the most common church growth model today is “Invite, Involve, Invest.  In that model, Small Groups are the predominant method for the “Involve” phase.  Small Groups do help bring people somewhat closer to the Lord, but they also build relationships and relationships are “sticky” – increasing the likelihood they’ll come back next Sunday.

Each church should examine its own heart – is it promoting Small Groups more to get people Involved (more loyal to the church) or more to turn them into disciples (more loyal to the Lord)?  Presumably, pastors understand that Small Groups, most done only a couple semesters per year and with a fraction of the members participating, should not be the main strategy for discipleship.  A church that’s more concerned with building disciples and not building an institution would certainly have additional, deeper methods of discipleship than just Small Groups.  Therefore, our contention is that a church leveraging Small Groups as its primary means for discipleship can’t be that concerned about discipleship.

All pastors say that building and sending disciples is key to their mission, but is that reflected in how they spend their time and in how willing they are to prod members in that direction?  In business, when goals and intentions often don’t line up with a company’s allocation of resources, that misalignment adversely impacts the bottom line.

Why 1-on-1 (or Triads) Work Best

Discipleship will scare off many of those who don’t view themselves as “insiders”.  Preparing for and leading a series of meetings with another person over a long period takes a lot of time, studying and effort.  And what’s the outcome of discipleship – possibly being called to bear the costs Jesus outlined – like leaving those you love and being homeless?  None of that is pretty when you present it as an “action plan” to the congregation!  Yet if pastors know 1-on-1 (or triads) is the best method for discipleship, then any hesitancy to promote it is further evidence of the tendency to cater rather than challenge, treating members as a “customer” and not as the personification of “church”.

1-on-1 and Triad discipleship are more effective than Small Groups because:

  • The process of becoming a disciple is personal
  • The best mentors in our lives were those who interacted with us personally, whether it was a teacher, a coach or some other role model
  • People won’t say in public environments that they would in private, intimate ones
  • One of Jesus’ favorite methods of discipleship was personal questions, allowing for self-discovery, not just telling them the answers but letting them figure it out for themselves
  • Sermons can only cast vision around what it means to be a disciple and encourage people to take the next step

How to Achieve this New Year’s Resolution in 2017

  • Pastor disciples leaders 1-on-1
  • Those leaders then disciple a couple people each 1-on-1 or in triads
  • Encourage all discipled members to disciple others (i.e. OJT)
  • Sunday School – Consider resuming this dying tradition, making sure it’s taught by disciples
  • Small Groups – Facilitated only by discipled leaders
  • Immersion Bible Study – One night a week (several hours)
  • Greater emphasis on private devotion – The fundamental blocking and tackling of Bible study, journaling and prayer
  • Lay out a discipleship track for members

This approach will quickly and exponentially grow a base of disciples who can make more disciples.  This is a significant part of the turnaround strategy for today’s churches.  It was Jesus’ model.  However, are we willing to chase members this far out of their comfort zones, knowing many will head out the back door to a church down the road that will cater to them?

It’s Your Turn…

Have you seen churches where deep discipleship took hold to the point where it was truly part of the DNA of the church?  What other effects have you seen from churches reducing “insider” training to Small Groups led by “untrained” members?