not listeningI once volunteered in a congregation that attracted hundreds of young people to a monthly worship service.  It was initially attractive because the leadership team was savvy in the ways of branding and social media and innovative in their approach to providing those who came with a powerful experience.

As members of that team moved on over time, things began to unravel.  Those of us involved after their departure gathered to discuss the future of the ministry.  After a lengthy discussion about ways to draw large numbers of students back to the monthly service, it eventually became clear to me that there were glaring deficiencies in the ministry.  These deficiencies led me to ask the six words no one ever wants to hear in ministry.

 “What are we trying to accomplish?”

While the monthly service fostered emotional intimacy with God for one night, it did nothing the rest of the month.  Students would come to see their friends, but had no sense of authentic community outside of the event.  There was a call to share the love of Jesus with the world, but no intentional efforts to equip students for missional living.  And so while it was an emotionally powerful event, it produced limited lasting transformation in the lives of those who attended.

I see so many churches in the same boat, who say they want to be missional, to make an impact on the world, and to spread the Good News of Jesus.  However, when the vast majority of the resources are tied up in maintaining the institution of the church, then I again feel compelled to ask those six words: “What are we trying to accomplish?”  While their mission statement may say one thing, functionally, they value something completely different.

I truly believe every pastor and ministry leader wants to make disciples. As stated in previous posts, we believe the rhythms of discipleship to be intimacy with God, authentic community, and missional living. I don’t know of a leader that would disagree with these.   The reason church leaders don’t like those six words is that they force leaders to evaluate what their programs are actually accomplishing, and they may not like what they find out.

If you are a ministry leader, you must have a definition of discipleship.  It does not have to be our definition, but it must be one rooted in the teachings of Jesus. You also must honestly evaluate the ministry in light of that definition.  If the processes and programs do not align with that definition, you have to be willing to ask what those ministries are really trying to accomplish.  Asking these six words can be painful (which is why no one wants to hear them), but they are necessary in order to be good stewards of the ministry God has called each of us to.

So how about your ministries?  Do you have a definition of discipleship? What are you trying to accomplish?


leapIn my last post, I argued that, in order to change, you must start small, and be willing to invest in the spiritual formation of a “launch team.” Eventually, your launch team will learn to “creep,” branch out, and extend its reach. You will begin to do mission together as God stirs a shared passion amongst the team. The growth will not yet be visible throughout the whole church, but, below the surface, strength is growing and power is being prepared for release. This cannot be rushed. Consider all the time Jesus spent with his “launch team.” How could we hope to do it better or faster?

This will require investment of your life into these people, and you must become friends with them. I know. That flies in the face of what many of us were taught by our seminaries. I heard the same thing: “You cannot have friends in the parish.”

While that may have worked in the age of Christendom where the office itself secured the pastor a position of leadership, they do not work today. Relationship is the new road to leadership.

Of course, this is not so new. Jesus Himself said, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) Interestingly, these words of Jesus come on the tail end of a narrative about “abiding” or “resting” (dare we say sleeping) in Him. If the branch is not connected to the Vine, it withers. If we rest in him, we produce much fruit.

Like roots sprouting from the rhizome, the individual members will be encouraged and equipped, to reach out,  gather, and begin to disciple others. all while you continue to keep them accountable for their growth in the Vine and the growth of those they now lead. The root structure spreads and grows.

This all prepares the church for the next phase: Leap! Only after ample time and nourishment has been given to the root structure will the strength and power be present for visible, substantial growth of the whole. Up to now, the pay-off of all this work can seem slow and unrewarding. Just as it takes bamboo up to three years, just as Jesus spent up to three years with his disciples, so should you expect for this to take up to three years. Each year you will see increasing signs of the strength that lies within, but almost suddenly you will see a massive change as your congregation passes the tipping point towards being a discipleship-driven, Holy Spirit-empowered movement of the Kingdom.

There you have it. There are no adequate short cuts. We started this conversation with focusing on the right thing. We followed with the importance of starting small. We end with the important answer that we all know to be true, yet we hope for another way: give it as much work and time as it needs.

Do you agree? How are you engaging the process of discipleship? How long are you willing to give it?

bamboo“First bamboo sleeps, then it creeps, then it leaps.”- Old Chinese saying.

Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on earth. There are varieties that grow over 3 feet in a 24 hour period. Check out this 24 hr time lapse video via the BBC. However, that is only true for mature bamboo. For approximately the first 3 years, the stalks or “culm” as they are called grow much slower and are stunted in their growth.

What is the reason? It is the root system. Bamboo grows from a rhizome, a perpendicular growing, subterranean stem. In the first few years, the bamboo devotes most of its energy to developing the rhizome and its system of roots. Each year the culm birthed from the rhizome will grow faster and become larger in both diameter and height. Eventually, it can reach heights of over 40 feet in just 3 months! But it takes time and a considerable amount of energy given to the rhizome over an extended period of time for that growth to happen.

Your launch team, discussed in our last post, is the rhizome. Discipleship is the energy that needs to be poured into it over an extended period of time. Like bamboo, your launch team will begin by “sleeping.” It is not truly sleeping. There is much growth going on, but it is out of sight, hidden, more internal.

This growth begins by the team learning the kind of Christian accountability that is vital to discipleship. In our context, they learn through studying and practicing what an “I AM” life of discipleship looks like- Intimacy with God, Authentic Community, Missional Passion.  They also learn how to pray with and for one another. They learn how to study Scripture together. They learn how to be on mission together.

For the purpose of Bible study, I prefer to use the “Simple Church” model. It centers around 6 questions:

  1. What did you like about what you read?
  2. What didn’t you like?
  3. What did you not understand?
  4. What new thing did you learn about God?
  5. What idea or phrase do you want to take with you this week?
  6. What are you going to do about it?

The power of these questions is that they allow each person to be their own “expert” regarding the text. Only they can answer these questions, so everyone has something to contribute. Also, your goal is that as you disciple them, you model a reproducible style of discipleship. Meaning, throughout this process, you must have in mind not only the person you are discipling, but the person they are going to disciple.

These are some suggestions, but I won’t give you a curriculum. That needs to be organic to your contest. What are the essentials of discipleship for you? What tools have you used? How do you encourage both the “being” and “doing” of discipleship? Next time, we will look at the creeping and leaping stages of change in our churches.

launch teamIn the last post, we discussed the importance of a launch team. So, who should be part of it?

  1. 1. You choose them AND they choose you

Discipleship is passed on through the sharing of life.  Therefore, the launch team must be comprised of people you want to share life with. You also want people that have demonstrated a propensity to “serve” both you and the church in the recent past. Note that this is not merely serving the church, but that they have responded with service with you and because of you. In other words, they have demonstrated a respect for your leadership.

2. Choose people who are teachable

Being teachable is a character issue that demonstrates humility. I have met people with great ability that I have decided not to work with because they lacked the humility to be teachable and, thus, demonstrated a major character flaw. If their ability is significant enough, you might be tempted to engage them with the hope of changing them. Resist this tempation. There may be appropriate places and times, but the endeavor of creating positive change towards mission and discipleship is not the place or time. Character first, ability second.

3. Choose people who are yours in a God-given way.

Do you believe God sends people for the purposes of the Kingdom? If yes, discerning who these people are and gathering them for this purpose is your job as a leader. This is what I mean by being “yours in a God-given way.” God has sent them to you, to be your aid and encouragement, to be your Timothy. Pray for the wisdom to recognize them then use them. God has sent them to you for this purpose.

This team should be only 6-8 in size. It is within this team that the DNA of discipleship is planted and where it will grow. This team will intentionally function outside the normal operating systems of the existing church. This is key. It will do so with the blessing of the church leadership and will act like a satellite, guided by its relationship to the church, but not pulled in by its institutional mass.

In this team, you will begin to build a discipleship-driven movement of God. Slowly, you will live into an apprentice/mentor model of discipleship. You will practice doing life together. The vision and values of biblical community will be instilled and, eventually, this team will spontaneously produce new ideas and leaders. It will grow. Others will join you as they see vision and mission actually happening. Then you will release your those in your launch team to move beyond growth to multiplication. The church will give birth to new satellites.

In time, its satellites will define the church. It will be changed by their existence. But note, this can happen without ever actually trying to change the church! It will still be, in some ways, the giant hairball that it was. Its evolution will come in the form of the ministries that now orbit it.

What does this process look like and how long will it take? That’s the topic of our next post.

save me from hairballsSome years ago, when my heart and mind first began to drift towards new missional and discipleship-driven models of church, a good friend of mine and kindred spirit of creativity gave me a book. It was a small book with a cover and name more akin to a children’s book. It was titled Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. What is the “giant hairball” and how does it relate to the church and change? Check this out:

“Creativity is crucial to business success. But too often, even the most innovative organization quickly becomes a “giant hairball”–a tangled, impenetrable mass of rules, traditions, and systems, all based on what worked in the past–that exercises an inexorable pull into mediocrity.”

For anyone who has worked in the church endeavoring to bring productive change, this should sound familiar. Gordon MacKenzie, the author, worked at Hallmark Greeting Cards for 30 years. For all those years, but one, he was the head of a small, irreverent, and highly profitable division called Shoe Box. He suggests there are only two ways out of the hairball.

  1. Getting sent away: you are asked to leave
  2. Going away: you decide to leave, either to a different hairball or you decide to start a hairball of your own. A few learn to create dynamic, self-regenerating movements.

The latter was my decision and the hope is that we are building such a movement. However, Gordon suggests a “middle way.” Learn to orbit the giant hairball.

“Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mindset, beyond “accepted models, patterns, or standards” — all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission… To find Orbit around a corporate Hairball is to find a place of balance where you benefit from the physical, intellectual and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed in the bureaucracy of the institution.”

I would suggest that this, too, is the key to the path of creative, productive change in the hairball known as the church. What might this look like? First, you need to create your satellite. I do not mean satellite as in “satellite worship” or some other mega-church application of the term. I mean a small body launched into orbit around the hairball. It’s a launch team that will begin to vigorously explore and operate beyond the “accepted models, patterns, or standards” while remaining connected to the church.

Who should constitute the membership of this team? They should be among those with a holy discontent. Note this is discontent, not malcontent. These are individuals with a respect and love for the institutional church while having a passionate desire to see mission and discipleship done more effectively. Once you have identified this subset of people, there are additional qualifications to consider that impact the selection of an effective team.

We will look at those qualifications in our next post.

honesty_aheadIn my last post, I shared three keys to creating positive change in your church. Over the next several posts, I want to address practical steps, starting with the first key: Focus on the right thing.

The call of Christ is to build the Kingdom by making disciples, not to fill a church building.  It should go without saying that those are not the same thing.  However, as churches, our focus is usually on the ABC’s- attendance, building, and cash. That may get people in the building, but that does not lead to the Big D: discipleship.

What we measure and where we spend our time indicates what is important to us. For example, when someone looks at your bulletin or newsletter, what is being communicated as important? Weekly attendance numbers? Programs? Cash receipts?

Looking beyond what we measure, to what extent is church attendance viewed as the primary expression of the Christian life? While worship is essential to discipleship, worshipping at a church building should not represent the vast majority of one’s faith expression. Yet, so much of what we do as churches encourages that. Just consider the vast resources dedicated to running the building. We pay for worship supplies, lighting, sound equipment, videos, grounds maintenance, and so on. We spend countless hours planning Sunday morning services.  We recruit greeters, ushers, Sunday School teachers, altar guilds, sound techs, and camera operators.

If we are honest, our philosophy of ministry looks more like Old Testament, building-centric temple worship then the radical Kingdom expansion seen in Acts.

There is nothing wrong with wanting excellence in worship.  God is certainly worthy of that, but Micah 6:6-8 communicates that the desire of God’s heart is far more than our cozy Sunday worship in our comfortable, well-maintained buildings. Micah speaks of worship, but then says:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

So, how can you begin to shift resources in such a way that it will reflect a more holistic view of discipleship within your church, a view that does promote intimate worship but also community and mission? While we may have our hearts set on the right things, much of what we do and say can communicate something quite different. Here is an exercise in honesty for you:

Make a list of all the ways in which your church is communicating the value of attendance, building, and cash. Then, make a list of all the ways your church is communicating the value of discipleship. What can you eliminate from the former? What can you add to the latter? What can you shift from one list to the other? Some things may teeter between the two lists. How can you weight them towards a clear discipleship bias?

Making this kind of list can lead to some overwhelming conclusions.  The next key is to start small, and we will address this in the next post.

3 keysIn our last post, Eric introduced the concept of undermining unhealthy structures.  We usually think of an undermining force as something negative.  In this case, we are not undermining people. We are undermining unhealthy systems.  Structures that prevent I AM discipleship are not prone to change, particularly if they have been in place for decades.  The process of undermining these structures is really the only way to avoid the collateral damage that comes from change, and even then, it isn’t guaranteed.

We see three keys in starting this process.  First, there is proper focus. Too often we are focused on growing churches. The purpose of a church is not to grow itself, but to grow the Kingdom. The former may lead to the latter, but the focus is critical. Understanding that discipleship leads to Kingdom growth, what does Jesus have to say about the Kingdom? Much, but I want to focus on one teaching.

“To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Luke 13:20-21

There are two aspects on which I want to comment. First is the yeast. Typically,yeast in the Bible represented a negative infection, something of which a small amount could overtake the whole. Here, Jesus suggests that the growth of the Kingdom is like that. That which is small “infects” and overtakes the whole.

Second is the amount of flour. Three measures of flour is a little over a bushel. This would produce sufficient bread to feed about 400 people. One woman kneading yeast into 3 measures of flour would take a very long time. In other words, according to Jesus, the yield of the Kingdom will be massively abundant but only in due time.

This suggests two important principles for discipleship that leads to Kingdom growth. It begins small and it takes time. The yeast of discipleship will infect the whole, bringing Kingdom growth. This cannot be rushed.

Jesus showed us the way. Start with a small group of people to invite into discipleship. Pour your life into theirs. Love them. Commit to them. Give them your time. Most of all, apprentice them in the life of I AM discipleship. Do this for as long as it takes, and release them to do the same. For Jesus, that was anywhere from one to three years. I doubt we can do any better. It will take effort and time. The good news is that a few committed disciples of Christ will transform the whole of your church just by their presence. They, in fact, cannot help it because there is an infectious, reproducible quality to a lifestyle of discipleship.

So, these three keys:

  1. Focus on the right thing
  2. Start small
  3. Give it as much work and time as it needs

Practically, what might that look like? That will be the topic of the next post.

sick churchRecently, our church was privileged to host our denomination’s Summit for Evangelical Justice and Leadership.  Tom was the keynote speaker on the first day, and after his presentation, there was a common thread to the questions of many church leaders. In various ways from several different people, they wanted to know how to successfully transition an established, traditional church into a missional, discipleship-driven environment.

Before beginning to answer this question, we need to address a couple of its underlying assumptions.  If we agree that missional, discipleship-driven environments will exist in healthy congregations, and the lack of said environment is a sign of spiritual sickness, then the issue is not that the church is traditional or established, it’s that it is sick.

It is important to name this reality, because we otherwise run the risk of being viewed as simply replacing one church structure with another, which will invite pushback from those heavily invested in the system we are trying to replace.  Understanding that all is not well allows us to say that, at one time, the church was healthy and had effective systems for making disciples.  Somewhere along the way, something changed that was no fault of those who had invested so much in the ministry, and that, while their contributions should be honored, that sickness must be addressed to preserve the vibrancy of the ministry.  Whether we really believe any of that to be true is immaterial. The prevailing perception of those we need to be on the side of change will be that all was once well, and we must act accordingly.

Not only do we not want there to be a perception that we are simply changing structure, we also don’t want that to be the reality.  Another underlying assumption of the above question is that new structure is the answer.  It is not.  I AM discipleship is not produced by STRUCTURE, it is produced by POSTURE.  Posture must be modeled by leadership before it will be adopted by a congregation.  In other words, if you want to lead a missional, discipleship-driven church, you must be living a missional, discipleship-driven life in full view of those you lead.

With the leaders we provide coaching to, we STRONGLY advise against standing in the pulpit and announcing a new ministry posture. We do this for two reasons: 1.) It won’t work and 2). It invites conflict.  Instead, what we suggest is a more covert approach.  When dealing with physical illness, some medicines work by directly attacking the problem.  This would be akin to the pulpit announcement.  However, other medicines work by undermining the conditions that cause the illness to thrive.  In upcoming posts, we will outline what this looks like.  We recognize that the word “undermining” can carry a negative connotation.  However, we are not talking about undermining people.  We are talking about undermining systems. More on this later in the week.

In the meantime, what evidence of spiritual health or sickness exists in your context?

MPSeveral years ago, I took part in a mission trip with a youth group I was leading to Tizimin, Mexico.  Tizimin had been ravaged by a hurricane a few months prior, and our crew was participating in the clean-up effort.  Lacking any useful skills, I, along with our group, was assigned to paint a local church. To be honest, at the end, it looked God-awful, but the locals were appreciative.  They even brought us apples for a snack.  Twenty-four hours later, we all had Montezuma’s Revenge.  Maybe they weren’t so appreciative.

Apart from the illness, it was an overall positive experience. However, as we travelled back to the States, I couldn’t overcome the feeling that this was not the experience I thought it would be.  There was something missing, something that I had not been able to figure out, until recently.

We went on a mission trip, but never did any actual mission.

When we think of what it means to be on mission for Christ, we must think of it in terms of the advancing the Kingdom, because that is how Jesus saw it.  Certainly, Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and spent time with the oppressed and marginalized.  However, His posture was towards bringing more people under the authority of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ works were service-oriented, but His posture was discipleship-oriented.

Fostering missional passion goes beyond programs. It means building the institutional structure around what God is growing organically in the hearts of His people instead of focusing on maintenance and survival. Pursuing missional passion is a posture, not a program.

Identifying missional passion is a process of walking a disciple though a series of conversations.  These conversations center around:

-How the disciple already spends his or her time:  Rather then convincing someone to alter their life schedule and potentially abandon something they enjoy in favor of something they might not, why not find a way to posture what they already enjoy doing or would want to do towards mission?

-Who the disciple is already spending time with:  So often we expect our people to abandon existing communities in favor of a church community.  Why not explore what it would look like for missional people to engage their existing communities, earn the right to be heard, and share their faith in Christ?

-How the disciple can leverage these to be a blessing while having a posture of discipleship:  Volunteerism is important and valuable, but we have so much more to offer the world then just our time and sweat.  We have the Gospel of Jesus, a Gospel that saves, transforms, and renews.  Why not discern what it looks like to bless others with our time and work and also with the Good News?

So many in the church have a certain view of what mission is, but it may not be a Biblical view.  How would pursuing missional passion change the view of mission in your context?

AC pic

One of the most common things I hear from Christians when I ask them what they like about their church is the sense of family they have with their fellow church members.  God created us to be relational, and so a gathering of Christ-followers should have a familial feel to it.  I celebrate when I hear this feedback.

Where this begins to run contrary to discipleship, however, is when the church looks more like a country club then it does an organic faith community.  Country clubs are typically homogenous. Members are involved in each other’s lives only as they relate to club activity itself and often do not engage with one another on any deeper level.  They are more concerned with keeping the status quo they prefer then adapting to the changing realities that lead to shrinking membership rolls and declining prestige in the surrounding area.  Sound like any congregations you know?

If your congregation resembles what I have just outlined, that sense of community members feel may be a cheap alternative to the authentic community we see in the Bible.  Community that only comes together around program is artificial and lacks the deep sense of knowing and being known that we see in the Book of Acts and what God truly designed us for.  This is not only the fault of leadership as it is the ethos of American Christianity to keep others at arm’s length.

Authentic community is found in loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus gives the example of the Good Samaritan as the standard for what being a neighbor looks like in Luke 10.  It is in this parable that we find the components of authentic community, the second rhythm of I AM discipleship.  (Click here for the Parable of the Good Samaritan)

-Authentic Community is Intentional –The Good Samaritan had an agenda for being on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which was an important trade route. However, upon seeing a person in need, he set aside his priorities to answer that need.  Being intentional in community means reorienting one’s life around being a part of that community.  Doing life together outside of the usual programs becomes a priority of those living this rhythm of discipleship.

-Authentic Community is Inclusive – For Jesus to say a Samaritan was more of a neighbor to this man then those of his own culture demonstrates the radical inclusivity of an authentic, Gospel-centered community.  Being inclusive means building community with others regardless of demographic.  Those “outside” the church should feel just as welcome in authentic community as existing members.

-Authentic Community is Incarnational – Jesus tells His disciples that when they comfort those in need, they bring comfort to Him. Those living incarnationally in community will live in such a way as to demonstrate Christ to those they are in community with.

Does the sense of community in your congregation feel authentic or artificial, like an organic faith community or a country club? How might you begin to bring about change?