Archives For Discipleship

Small Cloud RisingI recently came across Dave Gibbons’ small book, Small Cloud Rising. I know nothing about Dave Gibbons or his ministry aside from the little I gleaned in reading the book, but I’ve been blogging about a “post-consumer” version of the Church, and I want to interact with some of his ideas as a means of continuing that discussion.

Gibbons’ book is clever, thought-provoking, and engaging. The book uses clouds as a metaphor for our approach to “doing church.” Gibbons uses Babel as a symbol for a typical consumeristic church, the kind of church that he had originally set out to create. Babel builds a tower up through the clouds in order to make a name for itself, in order to build an empire. He contrasts this approach of rising through the clouds in greatness with the story of Elijah waiting for rain to end the drought in Israel. The answer to Elijah’s prayer came with a small, barely noticeable cloud on the horizon. Gibbons uses this image of a small cloud to represent God’s people joining together to flow out into the world and bring God’s blessing.

Gibbons says that he had tried to build a grand church around his dream of what a church could do in his town. But he became uneasy with this approach, realizing that it would require the mass-production of church members in a one-size-fits-all pattern.

“Instead of rallying people around the pastor’s dream, I wondered: What if we equipped our people to discover—and live—each person’s God-given destiny?

This is an important question to ask. It’s not wrong for church leaders to have a vision for their churches, but Gibbons’ question pushes us beyond what we might like to see our churches accomplish, and invites us to dream about what the unique people that God has brought around us might accomplish if we equipped them according to their gifts and callings. He continues:

“The effort to build more walls required a one-size-fits-all training manual focused on unleashing the power of the mass. Names are not really necessary for achieving the success of someone else’s dream. In a nameless culture, everyone began to:

Look the same.

Do the same.

Require the same.

Conform to the norm.

It was all the same kind of same in a place without names.”

Gibbons became very concerned about knowing people’s names, knowing their stories and abilities and passions, rather than simply calling them to fall in line with church-created programs designed to mass-produce disciples in a common mold. He confesses that the church had originally functioned this way:

“Instead of knowing their names, we asked them to sign up.”

“Nearly all of our job descriptions engaged projects and programs inside our walls. We asked an entrepreneur to lead a church Bible study and requested an artist to paint crosses in the nursery. Most of our resources went to creating spectacle and precious little into shaping lives. By failing to know and equip our people, one creation at a time, we defrocked them of their priestly roles in the real world. We began to witness mechanically and call that evangelism. Because we looked more and more the same, we branded others because unique people scared us.”

I want to be clear that I don’t know enough about Dave Gibbons or his ministries to know whether or not I would advocate the solution he came up with. But I do find his questions and many of the concepts he wrestles with in Small Cloud Rising compelling. We might find Gibbons’ probing questions threatening, as if he’s saying that all of our hard work in creating programs to minister to people is worthless or harmful or self-focused. But I don’t think we need to take it that way. Instead, I think we should take this as a challenge, and we should push ourselves to dream a little. Don’t start with the logistics, just dream about what could be:

  • What if we could get to know the individual people in our churches?
  • What if we could find those areas in each person’s life where they are unusually gifted and passionate?
  • What if we could find a way to equip each person according to their unique situation?
  • What if we could send people out of our church walls with an understanding of the mission that God has given them and how that fits with their unique talents, passions, and experiences?
  • What if we could resource our people as we sent them out, so that every time they hit a snag in furthering God’s kingdom beyond the church walls, the pastors and the rest of the church body were right there, offering support, creative solutions, and a never-ending supply of encouragement?

The truth is, we can be overly critical of our churches. Our churches are not doing everything wrong. But I love these sorts of challenges. I love calls to dream about what the church could be. I love imaginative suggestions as to how we might embody discipleship in our churches and how that might flow out into the surrounding communities. If we would all engage in this imaginative process more often, we would find it easier to move beyond the consumeristic rut that many of our churches have fallen into.

 

In my previous post, I argued that consumerism has affected the church in ways that we rarely consider. We don’t try to convince church members that they need to be buying more stuff, but our structure and overall approach does tend to communicate that each person’s role in the church is more about consuming the goods and services (in both senses of that term) that we offer and less about living as the body of Christ. In this model, church is where we go, it’s the organization that plans our activities; but it’s not necessarily who we are.

Notice that you can be very involved, you can have a great heart, and you can be doing genuinely beneficial things within this consumerist model. There is a real difference between consuming lattes and consuming sermons and programs that help you learn more about God. I don’t mean to suggest that the consumerist model that has influenced most of our churches is somehow wicked, but I am suggesting that this consumerist approach shapes our lives in unintended ways.

In this post, I want to explore the concept of discipleship and how the consumerist mentality might be skewing your perception of it.

 

First, Keep the Church in Proper Perspective

I want to present discipleship in the highest possible terms. From the moment that sin entered the world in Genesis 3, God has been at work to reverse the effects of the fall. His plan of redemption focused in on Abraham, then Israel. It played itself out through the kings and the prophets. And then God’s plan of redemption took on flesh in Jesus. For the disciples, it was obvious that through Jesus, God was bringing his plan to redeem the world to completion.

But when Jesus died, raised from the dead, and returned to his Father, he handed the mission to the Church and sent the Holy Spirit to empower us for this purpose. So the Church is more important than we can imagine because God has made it so. As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

The Church carries on the mission, and Jesus gave us the mission in two words: make disciples. So whatever goals or plans we have for our churches, they had better fit within that command to make disciples. We are not allowed to have plans for our churches that do not fit within God’s plan for his Church.

 

Small ChurchThen, Evaluate Your Church’s Programs

And this brings us to church programs. Jesus never commanded us to have men’s ministries or women’s ministries or youth groups or any of the other programs that fill our church bulletins. Does this make our programs bad? Of course not. But it should make us think about what our programs are for. Since Jesus set disciple making as the church’s agenda, our church programs need to be focused on making disciples.

I’ve seen many great examples of programs that create disciples. I’ve seen ministries that help men and women grow in their ability to follow Jesus and provide them with tools and opportunities to reach out and make disciples. Programs are not bad. But if we’re not careful, programs can become focused on hundreds of things that are unrelated to making disciples. I’m not anti-program at all, but I am firmly convinced that programs can become a distraction.

So the crucial thing is that we evaluate our programs to ensure that the busyness in our churches is focused on making disciples.

In the consumerist church, programs are the unspoken goal of the church. If we can get people attending services and participating in programs, then we’ve got a successful church. But if our people are fully engaged in programs, yet they are not growing as disciples or actively making disciples, then our churches are actually not pursuing the mission Jesus left for us.

Ask yourself what your programs are producing. Who is coming out of these programs? Are you producing people who sit in on program after program, who can work through curriculum with the best of them, who know which services and series they need to attend in order to be fed? Or are your programs producing people who are actively meeting needs, who are following Jesus in real-life situations, who can skillfully and lovingly show a friend, neighbor, or coworker what it looks like to follow Jesus? One of these is a legitimate goal for our churches, the other is not. One fits the consumerist model, the other does not.

All of the momentum in the modern church movement pushes us to continue with the consumerist model: keep attending, keep signing up, keep being fed. And we may indeed become better disciples and disciple makers through attending, signing up, and being fed. But this is the not the end goal. If our people are not taking the next step and making disciples, then our programs have replaced discipleship, and that is a turn of affairs that we have to fight with every fiber of our ecclesiastical being.

 

 

Josh GraumanAs I mentioned in my previous blog, I am excited to be starting a new program in South LA for training cross-cultural church planters. In this post I want to dive in to what the program is going to look like.

My heart as a pastor is to walk in discipleship with people. Some might take that to mean that study should be informal and non-structured, but discipleship doesn’t mean “non-academic.” Discipleship should include rigorous study of Scripture. We have designed The Apprenticeship to include both structured teaching (a full 3-year, 93-unit M.Div. level program), as well as walking alongside our pastors in inner-city ministry. We will study Hebrew, Greek, and Genesis to Revelation chapter by chapter.

Why go into so much depth in such a “practical” program (roughly 75% of the formal program is Bible and original languages)? In short, it is because we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. Studying the Bible in depth is extremely practical. While some may view Judges, Jonah, or Jude to be books that may change your theology but aren’t very practical, we believe each of these books have massive implications for your daily lives and topics as commonplace as how you relate to your next-door neighbor.

At Eternity Bible College, we spend about half of our class time doing Biblical Theology. This means that we study Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, which allows us to focus on what God focuses on in the Bible. As a professor, I don’t choose the topics that are important to me. God has already set our agenda in Scripture. And by walking through Scripture chapter by chapter, we can see how revelation unfolds in God’s time, and keep context primary in our study.

We are adopting this same model for studying Scripture in The Apprenticeship. Students will develop the tools to derive their theology and practice from Scripture alone, and will be freed from the shackles of pragmatism and legalism.

This fits perfectly into our vision of equipping apprentices to plant churches cross-culturally. Church planters must be able to rigorously study Scripture on their own, and know how to derive theology, philosophy of ministry, and application to a wide variety of circumstances and topics. Every culture is unique, and yet the Bible is the answer to all the problems of every subculture around the world. So that’s why such a large portion of our program focuses on teaching the apprentices how to rightly divide the Word and apply it in various contexts. (Click for more info on the importance of Biblical Theology or Hebrew and Greek.)

Hebrew BibleYet we still believe that our study of Scripture must be applied to daily life or it hasn’t been understood correctly. In fact, it is impossible to understand the Bible as God intended without applying it to real life. The Bible addresses our thoughts, motives, and lifestyles, and so to understand it properly we must be in contexts where these are dealt with. And so that is why I am so passionate about the rest of our program. There will be lots of time for “fireside” discussions, prayer, and doing ministry and life together. Although I am going to be heading up the program, our apprentices will also learn from and walk with other pastors as we minister in the inner city together. Here we have cultures colliding as many hispanics are moving into one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and we have the privilege of planting a church here that brings the unity and hope of the gospel.

Once again there is a lot more information on our website, but that gives you an idea of what I am going to be embarking upon. We would ask that you keep us in prayer and if you know anyone interested in training for cross-cultural church planting, that you direct them our way! Click here for more info.

Josh GraumanI recently announced that I will be leading an internship program through my church, Cornerstone South LA. We call it The Apprenticeship, and it’s designed to train cross-cultural church planters. This is something that has been in my mind for quite a long time, and I’m excited to see it becoming a reality.

As anyone who knows me well can attest, I have always viewed myself first and foremost as a pastor. For the past ten years I have loved being a part of what Eternity Bible College is doing, investing in students, and even being able to help design the curriculum. I love Eternity’s heart and vision. And yet I have always felt a tension when teaching students that I have not been able to disciple outside of the classroom. As much as I can teach students in class, my passion is to invest in people through the local church.

It was this tension that led me to pursue teaching the Old Testament module at our Simi Valley campus. The last few years have been amazing as I’ve been able to teach the same group of students for nine hours every week, guiding them through the entire Old Testament. This has been a great experience for me and I know the process benefits the students. Yet my heart yearns for the kind of discipleship that can only take place outside of the classroom.

The Bible was written to deal with real life. So it is only in the context of life that we can really understand and apply what the Bible is trying to teach us. If we are only thinking about the Bible in a theoretical way, we are missing the point! As Jesus says, all true learning results in becoming like your teacher (Luke 6:40). That is why I always encourage students who are pursuing further education not to go study under “smart” people, but under people they want to emulate.

The Apprenticeship

This tension between academic learning and practical application is at the heart of everything Eternity Bible College does. I have observed that it is only when I am walking with students in the context of real life that I can bring up things that we learned in class that apply to specific situations. It is only when we see weaknesses or blind spots in real life that we can remind each other about what we have learned.

So I want to spend whatever time I have left on this earth investing in life-on-life discipleship. We are all here on this earth to fulfill our God-given mission to make disciples.

As I teach in a classroom setting, I know that my students are walking with their pastors and church families to apply the truths they are learning in the classroom. This is something Eternity requires and takes very seriously. As I evaluate my own heart, I want to take personal responsibility for those whom I am teaching, as Paul commands Timothy to do (2 Tim. 2:2). I want to walk with younger men in the trenches of local church ministry as we flesh out the deep truths of Scripture that we are learning in class. I believe this is something that God has gifted me to do, and I am excited to invest more deeply into a smaller group in the context of inner city ministry.

In a future post I will talk a little bit about what the program will look like, but in the meantime, feel free to look at the program website.

Francis Chan 3I recently read Francis Chan answering those who call him crazy, and it brought me to a realization. He is crazy. He calls us to the impossible. He advocates giving up our dreams, lowering our high view of our families, giving away our hard-earned wealth, letting go of our most valued possessions, and structuring our lives around other people rather than ourselves. He insists that we should make decisions that will actually produce pain in the short term simply because God promises to reward us in eternity.

By nearly any standard, this is crazy. But that’s the crazy thing. The standard Francis is trying to operate by is Jesus’ standard. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d probably all agree that Jesus’ standard is crazy. Who says, “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)? Who takes commands against committing adultery and applies them to a person’s thought life? Or commands against murder and applies them to hatred? It’s hard enough to love a friend; who would command a person to love—to bless—one’s enemies?

Jesus’ standard is crazy, so Francis’ earnest desire to call the church to this lifestyle is crazy by association. And yet, we should wonder who is truly crazy in this situation: the person who makes it his aim to live like Jesus or the people who claim to follow Jesus and yet call people crazy for trying to follow Jesus?

To my mind, it’s crazier to say that the followers of a rejected, crucified, mocked, despised Savior (who promised that his followers would be equally hated and rejected) should expect to be accepted, pampered, praised, and indulged. It’s nuts to say that a follower of Jesus shouldn’t be following Jesus. That insisting on obedience to Jesus’ command to love him more than our own families is somehow unchristian. I don’t see the logic in it.

I’m not really trying to bolster Francis’ reputation or publicly praise him or anything like that (though I am a huge fan). But Francis and others like him give us a great opportunity to ask ourselves about the nature of Christianity. Is Christianity about a modern subculture? Is it about the modus operandi of the average American churchgoer? Is it about stated beliefs and occasional Bible reading and other religious identifications? If so, then Francis is the crazy one. Why go to extremes? Why give up so much comfort, and why bother the church to do the same?

But maybe—just maybe—Christianity is about Christ. Maybe being a Christian means being like Christ. Maybe being a follower of Jesus means following Jesus. Maybe when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and then told them to do likewise, he meant that they should do likewise. Maybe when he told us to pray for those who persecute us, he wanted us to do just that. Maybe when he told us to pursue his kingdom and righteousness before we seek our very real and very urgent daily needs, he was actually giving us a command, rather than a religious platitude.

Let’s just say that both sides are crazy. It’s crazy to say that we should actually be like Jesus. I’ll be the first to admit it. But it’s also crazy to say that we can be like Jesus without being like Jesus. I know which kind of crazy I want to pursue, and by God’s grace—by his love that surrounds, invades, and transforms me—crazy will increasingly replace normal in my life.