Disciples make disciples. Shepherds train shepherds. Churches birth churches.
That’s the biblical pattern of healthy church growth. Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but we see a different pattern in the American church today.
Churches make MEMBERS. Churches HIRE pastors. Churches birth ORGANIZATIONS.
It’s not a simple matter of terminology, but a fundamental and consequential shift away from biblical teaching that leaves the church struggling to make authentic disciples, to raise up effective godly leaders, and to impact our cities and culture with the gospel. The flickering light of the church has seems to be one gentle puff away from being extinguished.
Still, the 21st century provides unprecedented opportunity if we return to disciples making disciples, shepherds training shepherds, and churches birthing churches.
SYMPTOMS OF THE PROBLEM
We know the signs of sickness—fatigue, fever, chills, pain, or nausea. Similarly, a sick church can be diagnosed by its symptoms when it adopts a false gospel and when it competes with other congregations for market share.
FALSE GOSPELS OF BUSYNESS AND HAPPINESS
A false gospel is any attempt for self-justification by works apart from the finished work of Christ on the Cross given freely by grace alone through faith alone. There are two false gospels so prevalent in the church today that we often fail to recognize them as such.
The first might be called the “gospel of busyness,” characterized by an attempt to curry God’s favor and blessing by working hard for Him as if He is expecting a return on His investment in us.
Though perhaps with well-intentioned motives to encourage believers to be engaged in kingdom service (Ephesians 2:10), at the heart of this false gospel is a “faith plus works” requirement. We mistakenly believe we are saved (justified) by grace through faith, but then think we must change (sanctified) by works. The Bible teaches we are saved and sanctified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
This “gospel of busyness” becomes evident as we become burnt out while serving the Lord in all the programs and activities that capture our time, but exhaust our hearts and bodies. It makes us all Martha’s, not Mary’s.
The second false gospel might be called the “gospel of happiness,” in which our personal well-being becomes the central focus of our faith, and where our own needs and our own happiness are paramount. The Bible then becomes a self-help book and church becomes a smorgasbord of culinary spiritual delight as we gorge ourselves on all it has to offer us.
We often ask seekers to come and experience our worship services and events, rather than equipping disciples to go and make disciples among all social networks of their lives.
LOVELESS COMPETITION FOR MARKET SHARE
Another symptom of our spiritual condition is the loveless competition for market share among church congregations in a city. Well-intentioned congregations desire to reach their cities for Christ, but find themselves pitted against one another as loveless competitors reaching for market share.
The very identifying mark of the church, that we love one another, is at best replaced by ignoring one another (John 13:35). Meanwhile, Millennials, generationally savvy to marketing hype and sensitive to hypocrisy, are fleeing from this church religion into the arms of pluralistic spirituality.
As a result, like the church at Ephesus, we lose our first love (Revelation 2:4), and like the church of Laodicea, we become lukewarm, attending church but nonetheless disengaged from intimacy with Christ (Revelation 3:15-16). We fail to see Jesus standing outside His own church knocking on the door to gain entrance (Revelation 3:20).
CAUSES OF THE PROBLEM
We need to go no further than to round up the usual suspects as the causes of our sickened condition: (1) our own sin and Satan’s opposition; (2) a lost focus on the written Word; and (3) mission creep and focus on programs and performance. The effects of these causes are magnified in our post-Babel world where we are capable of inventing sin that even surpasses what has been known before. Our globalized culture connects us all, which can cause a skin lesion to become stage four malignant spiritual cancer overnight.
The consequences of the church’s current state of affairs is that we seek to build God’s kingdom through our own vision and mission, rather than focusing on His vision to unite all things in Christ and His mission to make disciples of all nations. We create goals and strategies, measuring success by our own yardstick, all the while forgetting the Lord’s simple directive, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
We have made members, many of whom are not disciples at all, but think they are as they sit in church pews week after week.
Instead, we are supposed to make disciples who follow Jesus, hear His voice, and obey His commands.
We hire and lay hands on pastors and leaders relatively unknown from outside the congregation. We often know them only by a resume and a weekend of intensive interviewing. Is it a wonder there exists such a crisis of leadership in the church?
Instead, shepherds are to be known and tested by the congregation. They are to be mentored as Jesus trained the Twelve, and as Paul trained Timothy, Titus, Barnabas, Apollos, and others (1 Corinthians 11:1). Biblical and theological training are necessary, but not enough. Would you have brain surgery by a doctor fresh out of medical school without a number of years of residency under other skilled surgeons?
Churches birth organizations that are injected with their own DNA, values and vision. I’m not talking about multi-campus sites. I am talking about market share where churches compete for members. Where a market becomes saturated for a particular style of ministry, so we assume we need to plant in other cities and locations all the while our own city goes unreached and our fellow congregations ignore one another, which is far worse than just hating them.
Instead, churches are supposed to birth churches; and that requires all the people of the congregations to become involved through prayer, resources, and effort. Lives touch lives. The new congregation builds itself up in love; and at some point, the Spirit appoints overseers in the new congregation. The Lord builds His church, He just happens to use us.
GREATEST OPPORTUNITY AHEAD
We must never forget two encouragements given by the Lord concerning His church: He will build His own church (Matthew 16:18a); and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18b).
There have been times throughout church history when the Lord has brought renewal to His people through revival, and in the most extreme cases, through a reformation of the forms and structures, through which the church operates. Together they bring spiritual refreshment and new growth so that the church can continue to make disciples. We have such a need now.
We live in a world that daily grows spiritually darker making the distinction between light and darkness, good and evil, more apparent. Facing our challenges is difficult, but we nonetheless must ask the Lord to awaken His church and bring us back to the biblical pattern where disciples make disciples, shepherds train shepherds, and churches birth churches.
What lies ahead may look like the church’s greatest defeat as our country becomes more divided and as the culture becomes more godless, but in reality, this could be our finest hour.