One of the most recent trends and phrases among the “missional movement” is the notion of developing congregations who make “disciples that make disciples.” It sounds noble. It sounds good. In fact, it sounds rather biblical. After all, isn’t the point of the Holy Christian Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ? Absolutely! However, what this actually looks like, and exactly how this should take place amid the Holy Christian Church, is the issue today.
But first, a word to my critics: Please note that though I may often critique elements of the “missional movement,” I am by no means “anti-missional” in the sense of not desiring “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), nor am I above receiving, or even making, a critique of historic Lutheran practices.
I do love people and I do love Lutheran doctrine. And when it comes down to it, my practice as pastor is in fact to love people more than doctrine, with a tendency to err on the side of grace, while simultaneously striving and straining through the grey areas of pastoral care to uphold my doctrine, but letting my “desire for all people to be saved” be that which guides me. I am not as rigid as some of my readers may think. Perhaps my forthright desire to let Lutheran theology guide Lutheran practice makes me appear more unyielding than I truly am. Nonetheless, I do acknowledge that I have an affinity for a particular understanding and practice of the mission of the Holy Christian Church, along with the desire for honest, collegial, and frank discussion about that mission from a distinctly Lutheran perspective. Thus, on to the task at hand.
Yesterday’s post from the missional website vergnetwork.org, entitled, “A Call to Radical Disciple Making,” articulates the urgent necessity to form congregations that “make disciples who make disciples”:
Disciple-making takes place through intentional relationships where spiritual life and maturity can be passed on from one person to another. A pastor cannot personally disciple hundreds or thousands of people by himself, but that is what our current church model expects him to do. The Sunday morning sermon is not discipleship. We need a new biblical model for doing church that equips all believers to be disciple-makers, not just the pastor. Here is one notable example from which we can learn.
From its founding, Real Life Ministries of Post Falls, Idaho has been committed to creating a new model for doing church. They determined that absolutely everything they did would be to achieve the goal of making disciples who can make disciples. They are based in a small town of just 26,000, but in just 12 years they have grown from a church plant of four couples to 8,500 members. They have also established six other church plants in their area, each with over 1,000 members. From 2002-2006, they were the fastest growing non-de- nominational church in America.
Every year hundreds of people come to faith in Christ for the first time through their 600+ home-based discipleship groups. It is not the pastor of the church who is leading these people to faith. It is the disciples of this church making new disciples… The church provides frequent training for church leaders in their discipleship model… The global Church must learn how to make disciples who can make disciples, or the task of discipling the nations will always remain a distant and unattainable vision. We must answer God’s call to radical disciple-making. http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/11/10/a-call-to-radical-disciple-making-part-2/
The congregation is to be commended for its zeal and apparent growth of members. However, the claims of outstanding growth are not new. Countless other evangelical churches have held this title before them, and interestingly enough, through different methods.
The challenge, at least from my perspective, is that there is so much ambiguity about what a “disciple who makes a disciple” truly is. There are countless words written on this, but I still have yet to know what this truly means. First, what actually counts as a disciple? Are they measured on what they know? How they worship? Who they love? How they act? How much they give? Or whether or not they have ever used drugs, or alcohol, or had sex before marriage? And second, once this is determined, what do they then need to teach, pass on, give, and do to truly be a disciple who makes disciples? Is it just words about Jesus? Or do they actually give Jesus, i.e. absolve sins? Do they baptize? Do they confirm? Is doctrinal specificity necessary or just the basics about Jesus? And, if just the basics, which ones?
I ask not to be facetious, but to provide perspective for the Lutheran tradition of disciple making as well. The Lutheran tradition has historically used ritual/liturgical word and sacrament worship and formal catechesis to form disciples, but where parents also certainly disciple their children, along with neighbors serving and witnessing to neighbors. However, the recent claim is, “Look at the Lutheran Church. It’s shrinking!” which has caused some to conclude our historic forms of disciple making must not be working. And when compared with the “fastest growing” congregations like the one above, the corresponding conclusion is “Their discipling must be better, so let’s do what they are doing!”
However, what is being revealed is that what these mega churches are “doing” is not actually creating “disciples who make disciples.” Membership may be growing, but discipleship is not. One need only look at the flagship of all mega churches, Willow Creek, to see what has actually been happening and how it is actually a systemic issue among multiple churches of the same vain.
Since 1975, Willow Creek has avoided conventional church approaches, using its Sunday services to reach the unchurched through polished music, multimedia, and sermons referencing popular culture and other familiar themes. The church’s leadership believed the approach would attract people searching for answers, bring them into a relationship with Christ, and then capitalize on their contagious fervor to evangelize others.
But the analysis in Reveal, which surveyed congregants at Willow Creek and six other churches, suggested that evangelistic impact was greater from those who self-reported as “close to Christ” or “Christ-centered” than from new church attendees. In addition, a quarter of the “close to Christ” and “Christcentered” crowd described themselves as spiritually “stalled” or “dissatisfied” with the role of the church in their spiritual growth. Even more alarming to Willow Creek: About a quarter of the “stalled” segment and 63 percent of the “dissatisfied” segment contemplated leaving the church.
As Willow Creek expanded its research into churches of varying geographic locations, sizes, and ethnic and denominational backgrounds, the church said the same general pattern emerged, an indication that the problem extends beyond Willow Creek. (“Willow Creek’s Huge Shift,” Christianity Today, 5-15-2008, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/5.13.html)
Couple this with the September 14, 2011 post of missional guru Mike Breen (ironically also from http://www.vergnetwork.org) and the push to have congregations that “make disciples who make disciples” becomes suspect at best. As Breen summed it up: This is the crux of it: The reason the missional movement will fail is because most people/communities in the Western church are pretty bad at making disciples. Without a plan for making disciples (and a plan that works), any missional thing you launch will be completely unsustainable. http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/09/14/mike-breen-why-the-missional-movement-will-fail/
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).