I talked in a previous post about the tendency to weasel-word our mission statements so we can pretend that whatever happened is what we were aiming for all along. There’s a second issue also in play in our evangelical culture of ineffectiveness. When we do aim for something definite, we often aim for the wrong thing. Often a good and glorious thing — but God didn’t tell us to aim for it.
For example, we focus on planting churches, but where does the Bible ever tell us to plant churches? It doesn’t. The closest we get is Paul’s instruction to Titus to appoint elders in all the churches — which is not church planting; it’s organizing the churches that are already there. Jesus said He would build the church: “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” What He told us to do is make disciples: “Go and make disciples of all the nations….”
The evangelical church in America is pretty good at building churches, but has forgotten how to make disciples. In fact, we’ve gotten so bad at disciple-making that at least one major ministry operation I’m aware of gets paid handsomely to travel around the country and teach churches how to do it effectively. They’re pretty good at it, too. I’m glad they do what they do, but I can’t overemphasize the absurdity of the situation. A church that doesn’t know how to make disciples is like a library where the staff can’t read or an army where the soldiers don’t know how to shoot. It’s crazy — this is the primary mission Jesus gave us.
What are these pastors and their flocks doing, if they’re not occupied with making disciples? They’re building churches. When we focus on building churches, we tend to get preoccupied with marketing, building programs, group dynamics, corporate papers, committees, and all the appurtenances of 21st-century organizational structure. In the process, we lose sight of the priority of making disciples, and we end up not making very many…if any.
There’s a very compelling built-in motivation to focus on building the church organization rather than on making disciples. Building an organization is a process we understand and have some control over. Send out x number of mailers to get y number of responses, do demographic surveys, run some focus groups, meet the felt needs of the community, buy some radio spots, etc. There are definite action steps to take, and far more often than not, they work. The hard part is getting the money to do what needs to be done.
Making disciples is a lot cheaper, but it’s a slippery, messy process. We have to trust God to operate in other people’s lives, and we have to be willing to accommodate what He is doing rather than try to program it to our convenience. Disciple-making doesn’t work in semesters, or 10-week series. It doesn’t confine itself to Wednesday nights from 7 to 8:30. It’s about inconvenient phone calls, spur-of-the-moment painful conversations, dropping everything to attend to a crisis. It requires being present, involving people in your life, getting elbow-deep in theirs. It doesn’t just end at a pre-defined point; disciple-making creates relationships (and obligations) that last for years.
Churches are a good and glorious thing. If we focus on making disciples, we will eventually have churches — Jesus said He would build His church, did He not? But we have to trust Jesus to do it His way while we do what He told us to focus on. That’s really uncomfortable for us.
There are a lot of other areas where similar loss of proper focus has occurred. The “worship wars” of the 80s and 90s were about whether we ought to sing the old hymns or the newer spiritual songs. Paul says twice (Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16) that we should do both — and sing psalms, too. We focus on social justice programs for third-world coffee farmers and Albanian victims of human trafficking because Jesus said we should love our neighbors — but we don’t even know our literal neighbors’ names, much less tangibly love them. I could go on, but you get the idea.
But if we focus on the things God told us to, and those things are messy and impossible to program or control…then what do we do? What does that look like? Stay tuned….
“God, what are my real priorities, the things I really focus on? Not just the things I would say on paper, but what I really do?”
Take some time to list them out.
“Father, is there something You want to adjust in my priorities? What is it?”
Wait in silence and see what God will say to you.