I have been following Jesus for 30 years, stumbling along the faint path, trying to discern His will. Although I’ve called Christ my lord and savior since I was baptized, there was a 20-year gap between when I called Him savior and when I truly began to acknowledge Him as lord. For the last dozen years, as I’ve made a move to intentional discipleship, a picture of my life is coming into focus.
I’ve devoted countless hours to studying where the church is heading, and the factors that set apart thriving churches from those on plateau or dying. I’ve toured the country, consulting and speaking in churches, and over the past decade a picture has begun to form in my heart and mind of the Body of Christ that God is calling forth for a new century.
In this final chapter, I will explore what a church for a new century looks like. In many ways, building the future church really means reviving the first-century model of the church planted by the Spirit through the Apostles.
These five themes are characteristics of a healthy ancient/future church community:
Community built on trust, not fear
Community built on discipleship and mission
Community of transformed hearts and souls, growing mature in Christ
Community built on collaborative leadership
Community built on multiplication and sending
As we explore the building blocks of a healthy Christian community, I encourage you to reflect on how well your church community embraces and lives out these characteristics.
Over the course of my business career, I learned that you can organize around two different orientations: fear or trust. My father built a business on fear and control. He learned management and leadership in the military, during World War II. Power was centralized and top-down. You didn’t ask questions of your superior; you just did what you were told.
TAKE A MOMENT Is your work culture based on fear or trust? Why do fear-based cultures persist? How might increasing trust improve your bottom line?
Since my father second-guessed everyone, people soon learned not to make decisions on their own. Even his partner would defer. When mistakes were made, everyone tried to avoid blame. Because of my father’s temper, people grew reluctant to tell him anything he didn’t want to hear. The rate of change in the ‘50s and ‘60s was slow enough that this management style wasn’t a fatal disease. But after my brother and I joined the company in the mid-1970s, we immediately began to chafe under this system. People were being asked to leave their brains at the door. Some churches are like that.
The problem with a system like this is it generates compliance, not enrollment. In fear-based cultures, people will do what is necessary to keep their jobs, but they’ll often express their dissatisfaction through passive-aggressive actions. This inhibits the accomplishment of the vision. As we began to grow the business, my brother and I worked to create a culture that would draw forth people’s best efforts, to get them fully enrolled in the vision.
TAKE A MOMENT Are people in your work culture fully enrolled in a shared vision? Do you see passive-aggressive responses to change initiatives? How will you help people move past compliance?
After our father died, my brother and I began to transform our culture into one of participative management. We spent a decade working to transform the organization from a bureaucracy to a learning organization of empowered teams working to accomplish a shared vision.
In my EMBA program, I discovered the importance of trust in moving an organization beyond survival to success. I realized how the roots of a fear-based culture had held us back. During this time, 1996-1998, I was asked to step in and lead the old core business. I reorganized the business into customer-focused teams. We moved decision-making closer to the customer and began to empower our people.
I decided to run an experiment with my senior team, one in which I would intentionally demonstrate a high level of trust in my direct reports, and see what impact followed. Over six months, the performance of the team jumped significantly, as they responded to the confidence I showed in their abilities. I began to see the benefits of a trust-based culture. It took me more than 20 years in business to realize the incredible value of trust in an organization.
TAKE A MOMENT Does your leadership/management style encourage trust? People cannot trust an organization; they can only trust a person. What steps could you take to increase trust in your circle of influence?
In the dozen years I have consulted with Lutheran churches, I find many of them have developed a culture of control that masks a fear of the unknown. Order is paramount. The problem is, the work of the Holy Spirit is messy and impossible to control. We spell things out in constitutions and bylaws to make sure people don’t stray from the accepted course. Instead of coaching, equipping, developing and sending people, we give them a rulebook. It's about orthodoxy and control. This model screams at people, “I don’t trust you.”
Most churches I’ve seen are organized as a democracy, a form of governance we’ve imported from our culture. Leaders are elected to council. Annual budgets are voted on by the people. Committees must approve every new idea. Sometimes it takes three levels of approval to get to a yes. At each level you can receive a no.
I have not seen one instance in the Old or New Testament where a majority came down on the side of what God wanted. How do we expect to find God’s will for our churches if every major initiative must have majority support? It is rare indeed to find a Lutheran church that has trust, and not control, at its core. And I don’t think we Lutherans are alone in this. I think it holds true across many denominations. These churches are characterized by high control and low accountability.
TAKE A MOMENT Does your church culture lean more on control or trust?
One problem I have with many evangelical churches is they still try to draw converts by fear: Turn or burn. Luther’s theology, on the other hand, focuses on the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10. It’s not an insurance policy against an eternity in Hell, but a passport to a better life now.
Where discipleship is absent, evangelism, stewardship and social justice are often motivated by guilt. God looks more to motivation than to the specific act. Jesus honored the widow’s mite far more than the large contributions of the self-righteous Pharisees. When we embark on a discipleship journey, we begin to see that all we have is indeed a gift from God. We begin to grow a thankful heart. We soften to all the things God calls us to do. Our motivation is gratitude rather than guilt.
So, how do we build trust instead of fear and guilt in the Body of Christ?
The first building block is competency. Leaders, this requires an inward look. Are you demonstrating competency in everything you do? When you ignore problems and refuse to deal with conflict, people will soon begin to question whether you’re a capable leader. If they can’t trust you to get the job done, a culture of trust will never emerge.
The second building block is consistency. Consistency allows people to track our trajectory and anticipate where we’re headed. They know what to expect from us. I find many pastors are constantly on the lookout for new ideas. The problem is in the follow-through. Too often, before bringing a plan to fruition, the pastor is off onto the next great idea.
If I’m trying to anticipate where the leader is going and making an effort to move in that direction, a quick turn off the set course is very disconcerting. When the leader zigzags, the followers lose trust.
So, what happens to this control-based model of church in a new century? Plateau and decline. Very few control-based churches offer people a clear pathway to spiritual maturity. Discipleship is just about lost.
I led a workshop with mission developers from a Lutheran synod a few years ago. At one point, I asked the 20-plus participants to break out in groups of three and discuss the question, “By what means will you disciple people in your new church plant?”
I then asked them to share the ideas that surfaced with the whole group. There was not a cogent plan in the room. Here’s the problem. Jesus did not ask us to build churches. He asked us to make disciples. If we focus on making disciples, Jesus will build a church. We start churches and hope for discipleship, but it rarely happens.
TAKE A MOMENT Is there a pathway to discipleship in your church? Are mature believers mentoring and discipling others? Who are the spiritual leaders of your community? Are they visible to the congregation? Are the formal leaders expected to model discipleship and spiritual leadership?
The second theme of churches that are built to last is that they are communities built on discipleship and mission. I heard Neil Cole speak at the Exponential New Church Planting Conference. Neil said it this way, “First you multiply disciples, then you multiply leaders, then you can multiply churches.” In the church, we often skip step one and start by trying to multiply leaders. In the absence of step one, a membership church grows, because those chosen for leadership positions have not personally committed to discipleship.
In my own coaching of mission developers, I see them become so anxious to recruit people to help share the load of starting a church, that they try to recruit leaders before they begin to multiply disciples. When our leaders are not first disciples, we will inevitably end up with a membership church instead of a discipleship community.
Mike Breen and the 3DM team have created the most effective operating system for discipleship that I have seen. According to Breen, “The church is the effect of discipleship, not the cause of it. For most pastors, the operating system is not discipleship, but the church. The problem: the church is not the operating system of Jesus.” He goes on to say, “The Gospel was meant to be simple, but hard. We’ve made it complicated, but easy. "
3DM offers a simple church model based on a triangle: up, in and out. The top of the triangle is the Up. We can best worship God (Up) as a gathered assembly, raising our voices together in song, prayer and praise, while hearing the Gospel proclaimed.
The bottom right of the triangle is the In, symbolizing our efforts to go deeper in our personal relationship with God. The In is lived out in small discipleship huddles, where you can know and be known deeply. This is the place of deepest transparency and vulnerability, where you do discipleship life-on-life. Here each is invited into a loving relationship, and challenged to share what God is saying to each individual, and being accountable to do something about it.
I never experienced this level of openness in any of the small groups I’ve joined, even gender specific groups, where it is easier to open up. As I heard recently in a coaching session for counselors, transparency means being open. Vulnerability means putting bullets on the table. This environment of trust and honesty is where real discipleship happens.
The third corner is the Out, our mission in the world. Huddles are limited to no more than eight people to allow trust and vulnerability, a safe place for everyone. In the 3DM model Missional Communities are formed out of the missional passions that emerge in the leaders during the early huddle with the Pastor. These communities are 20 to 50 people who organize as an extended family on a mission.
They share a passion for a place or a people, and serve the deep needs they encounter. This authentic Christian service draws others who desire to give back. They also share meals and fellowship together. Relationships form in Missional Community that help draw people closer to a true discipleship community. Most people will have their first contact with the church not through visiting a worship service, but by encountering this extended family on a mission, and wanting to help out.
Typically, discipleship huddles are formed within these Missional Communities so the deep relationships being formed help create a contagious flame out of the sparks of faith in each of these lives. So, rather than creating multiple programs, this path calls people into a rhythm of invitation and challenge, opening doors to an abundant life in Jesus. In this model, everyone who is leading a huddle or a Missional Community is also being huddled, allowing a high accountability, low control culture to develop.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you entered into life on life discipleship, opening your life to disciple and be discipled? Have you experienced places where the flames of faith can be kindled into a fire, and become contagious? Are there opportunities for that in your faith community?
The key element to this discipleship movement is to create healthy DNA and multiplication. Missional leaders create a healthy, discipleship DNA at the core of the church. It radiates outward, replicating the DNA as it spreads through networks of friends and family. Each family that moves takes the DNA into its next community. The DNA is no longer dependent on one leader, but is the culture of the Body of Christ. Now, the community has the strength to cope with the worst firestorms that might pass by, because at its very core is the DNA of discipleship.
Building a discipling culture starts with spiritual leadership. You see, effective leaders live out the values of the organization. You can't expect church members to embrace discipleship if their leaders haven't. So, if you are trying to plant a vision of discipleship in an existing church, you must start with your leaders. When the leaders begin to model discipleship, the people will follow and a culture of discipleship will emerge.
TAKE A MOMENT How are the formal leaders of your church modeling a personal commitment to discipleship? Are the spiritually mature visible to others in your church, discipling and mentoring others out of their gifts? What would look different if these elements were in place in your church?
I find that discipleship happens best in gender-based groups. As I’ve seen the men in discipleship groups share struggles with pornography and other issues of sexuality, I am aware that I never heard such things shared in mixed gender groups. Creating a safe space where such transparency and vulnerability can happen is key to effective discipleship. The willingness of the group leader to go to those places him/herself sets the standard for others in the group. I am amazed at how quickly deep bonds form with this level of intimacy.
For discipleship to work, we must embrace the blessing of accountability. I saw Mike Breen speak to a room full of fellow Lutherans. He said, “Lutherans are great at invitation, but terrible at challenge.” He then describes the rhythm Jesus lived out with his disciples, a mix of high invitation and high challenge. There can be no accountability without challenge.
In the decade years since I sold my business, I've been coaching and consulting with churches and leaders trying to create healthy Christian communities. One of the stark differences I find in the church world versus the secular business world is accountability. Businesses that do not measure the important things and hold people accountable for accomplishing agreed objectives do not last long. Churches take so long to die that they can persist for decades without accountability or adapting to a changing world.
I learned accountability as a sales person. I was getting a small base salary, less than a quarter of my total earnings. The rest came from commission on sales of equipment. My first couple of years went well, then we hit a recession. I called it the sliding scale of unemployment. I had a job, but if I did not sell equipment, we could not pay our bills. We had a very unpleasant year until the economy began to improve. We couldn't make our mortgage payment for a couple of months. There was no one to bail me out. If I did not produce results, I did not get paid. I learned time management, and improved my sales techniques, worked long and hard, and dug myself out of the hole. It was an invaluable lesson, accountability helps you learn and grow.
In most denominational churches I've seen, there is very little accountability. It's sad, because where I see strong leadership and high accountability, it usually correlates to excellence. Typical council/committee structures in denominational churches are control structures. People are not empowered, and micromanagement by the council and pastor is common. When people do not perform, no one talks about it. Whole committees and programs suffer entropy, a slow deterioration of function and capability as the passion of whoever started the program wanes and no new leader steps up. Yet, councils do not ask what's gone wrong, because we wouldn't want to make the person feel bad. They are volunteers after all. So, we see very high control/low accountability systems at play in many churches.
I have observed what almost seems like an unholy agreement between pastors and the business leaders in the congregation. It goes something like this, pastor won't hold the business leaders accountable to do more than write checks, and the leaders won't hold the pastor accountable for actually accomplishing anything. "I won't hold you accountable to be a leader if you don't hold me accountable to be a disciple," describes the unspoken sentiment. Nothing is measured, no one is held accountable, and mediocrity ensues. I've heard many a pastor say, "You can't measure the important things, like spiritual growth." So, they refuse to give credence to any of the proxies, like worship attendance.
TAKE A MOMENT How willing are you to be in accountable relationships? Does your church create and encourage accountability?
By equipping and empowering people, we can create a high accountability/low control organization. The quandary is that empowered organizations inevitably fail if there is not high accountability. I was a Lutheran for over 20 years before I was ever really challenged to discipleship. To serve at the highest levels of leadership did not require such a commitment. I was President of my congregation, and no one held me accountable as a disciple. In my consulting work, I rarely found expectations that leaders on Council also be spiritual leaders of the congregation. If the formal leadership of a church is not committed to discipleship, everyone is off the hook. Without accountability, there can be no real discipleship.
So, the major shift is from high control/low accountability to low control/high accountability. True leaders love accountability. They will measure themselves even if no one else is measuring. They abhor committee meetings where nothing is accomplished and no progress is measured.
My spiritual director, Mark Ritchie, helped me understand the blessing of accountability. So, how do we teach accountability as a blessing? Mark suggests that we start with what is going on in the big picture with the individual. If we seek to follow Jesus' model, we start with: whatever you've done, I forgive you. With Jesus, first we offer love and forgiveness, before admonition. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster's order of meeting is all about accountability. The meeting begins by recognizing all the ways I am called into serving and stating all I plan to do in the next week or two, then coming back and reporting what I have done.
It is a very nonjudgmental form, it is individual accountability for a Godly life well lived. So that is different from accountability to a group or a board or an organization. The situation is different when you have to hold others accountable for their commitments to the organization.
To hold others accountable, begin with 'this is where we are, now where do we go?' Begin with forgiveness, and give permission to walk away if the person is not ready to do that which is required. Perhaps, without shame the person can see something bigger than the circumstances that bring about the conversation. It would be very easy for the person to feel attacked in this conversation. Defensiveness leads to denial and excuses and blame, and ignores the essence of the issues.
Given the lack of resources in nonprofit ventures, even greater accountability is required. How do we build accountability into a volunteer team? Through the lens of Christ that starts with forgiveness, not blame.
Here's how Mark unpacked it. From the standpoint of our Christian walk, it is best for me that I be accountable, not best for others. We will be better served in our Christian walk if God holds us accountable. Even in the Garden, the lesson is God holding Adam and Eve accountable. Without a strong accountability process in place, we will never achieve excellence. We must help others understand why accountability is a blessing, that it is best for us.
The world does not teach us this. We don't like to get caught; it brings too much shame. But shame can be a blessing, if it turns us back to God, not away from Him. So, these are some simple lessons that are quite a challenge to get right. True leadership, even servant leadership as Jesus taught us, requires accountability. We will never achieve what God intends in our lives and churches without accountability. It requires we speak the truth in love, and surround ourselves with truth tellers who speak into our lives. In organizational leadership, recognize that when we have people in roles that they either do not have the gifts, the passion or the commitment to fulfill, we are doing them and the body of Christ a disservice.
TAKE A MOMENT How willing are you to surface and deal with performance issues with co-workers, team members, or those you lead? How will you disciple others without accountability?
When we begin by multiplying disciples, everything falls into place. Long-time Methodist church consultant Bill Easum describes the environment created in a healthy church as a process where people are changed, gifted, called, equipped and sent.
Here’s how it works. People who enter the community are changed by an experience of the living God. With millennials, you get one chance. If they don't experience God in worship, they won't return (and recent studies report most people have not experienced God in worship in their church in the last year). Then, as people seek a deeper spiritual journey, the church helps them discern their gifts. Prayer and meditation about our gifts will help us define the calling nested within our gifts (if you agree that God has prepared us for the plan He has for our lives). Once we begin to get clear about our call, we are ready to be equipped. The fact that I might feel called to be a Christian counselor does not mean I will excel without some practice and equipping. Once people are equipped, they are sent out into the world to serve others as the body of Christ.
TAKE A MOMENT How often do you experience God in worship? What is the impact on your life when you experience God instead of just hearing about Him?
The healthy motivation for missional service, as said before, is gratitude for all God has done for us. As we perform acts of service out of gratitude, our hearts change even more. I have had my attitude towards homelessness changed more by spending one day feeding homeless people under the interstate bridges of Atlanta than all the sermons I ever heard. My attitude towards illegal immigrants changed more by helping a family who had been left at our church’s door with only two garbage bags of possessions than any of the political rhetoric splashed across newspapers and peppered into political speeches.
However, I would never have gone under the bridges, or helped that family of illegal immigrants, had I not been in a discipleship small group that had been challenged to do something missional together. This is what I mean by a transformed heart. Paul says to us in Romans 12:2:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I truly believe discipleship is the critical variable. Invite people into discipleship, and you will change everything else in the church. However, the road to discipleship requires that we place our identity in Christ. Our movement to maturity in Christ will be stunted until we live into the belief in salvation by grace through faith.
For years, I didn’t read the Bible. I didn’t see the point--it didn’t seem to change people. They held onto rituals and practices that insulated them, and they didn’t seem interested in reaching out to the unchurched. Since entering my post-denominational phase, I’ve come to realize that I spent my entire Christian life worshiping in and working with churches full of Elder Brothers from the Prodigal story.
I’ve been attending worship “religiously” for 30 years now, and over those three decades I’ve listened to 10 pastors preach in my home church. I’ve heard many sermons about the Prodigal Son, but each focused on the younger brother who strayed from the father. In all that time, I never heard a Lutheran pastor unpack the sin of the elder brother. Then I joined a spiritual formation group with five other men from City Church. We started a Bible study of Galatians written by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City.
Keller started this church in 1989, and they now draw 6,000 people to worship every week. They have been planting churches for many years, and Keller is revered as the father of church-planting in the Presbyterian tribe.
Here is a brief take on Tim Keller’s view of this parable. He unpacks it wonderfully in his book The Prodigal God. Keller writes:
Here is the shocking heart of the parable. Jesus shows us a father with two sons, and actually both are equally alienated from his heart. One has expressed alienation by running far away, but the elder brother is just as angry and just as much a stranger to the father.
But notice — what is keeping the elder brother out? Why does he stay out when the younger brother goes in? He tells us: It is because all these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed… (v.29). It is not his badness keeping him out, but his “goodness.” It is not his sins that are keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father so much as his “righteousness.” As one writer put it, “The main thing between you and God is not your sins, but your damnable good works.
My point here is that our churches are full of elder brothers who aren’t being challenged as they look through the moral lens and judging everyone else. They’re not seeing and embracing the Gospel Jesus gave us. Keller puts it this way:
The difference between a religious person and a true Christian is that the religious person obeys God to get control over God, and to get things from God, but the Christian obeys just to get God. Religious persons obey to get leverage over God, to control him, to put him in a position where they think he owes them. Therefore, despite their moral and religious fastidiousness, they are actually attempting to be their own saviors.
TAKE A MOMENT Pastors, how have you called out the elder brothers in your church? How do you challenge those who place their identity in their careers and businesses?
I have done a lot of striving in my life, trying to prove myself. In the structural consulting I'm doing, I see tremendous striving amongst the twenty- and thirtysomethings I'm encountering. Perfectionism, fear of failure, “not good enough” are deeply ingrained, and they drive behavior from an unhealthy place--a place of fear, not grace.
This passage speaks to all the striving I'm seeing in my young Christian friends:
I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? - Galatians 3: 2-3, 5
We place our identities in so many things other than Christ: our career, our accomplishments, the approval of others, our bank accounts. Whenever we place our identity in anything other than Jesus, we limit our spiritual growth, because we are trusting in other things besides God.
TAKE A MOMENT The only true Sabbath rest is when we rest in our identity as a child of God. How often do you feel peace? Does rest come easy for you? In what ways do you focus on trusting God instead of proving yourself to Him?
Salvation by grace is not only one of Paul’s basic teachings, but it was the defining belief through which Martin Luther launched the reformation 500 years ago. The centrality of this belief has now been documented by scientific research.
The Reveal Spiritual Life Survey was developed after several years of research, and the results have been validated by its use in over 1,200 churches generating 280,000 individual surveys. Their findings have been published in a series of books. What they have found is the building block of spiritual formation is this belief fostered by Paul and Luther. Until one truly believes in salvation by grace, spiritual growth will be thwarted. In other words, as long as we think we can do it ourselves, our spiritual growth will be stunted.
Hence the challenge with identity issues. One form is perfectionism, which often rests on the belief that “I am a failure.” To disprove this, people will expend tremendous effort proving the belief wrong. Yet paradoxically, every effort to prove the belief wrong fails, reinforcing the feeling of failure. Of course it fails, because we cannot be perfect. People in this structure are strivers, driven to perform at higher and higher levels, and they tend to drive those around them as well. This structure often leads to becoming a workaholic. My father was driven by this pattern and expected everyone else to be a workaholic as well.
TAKE A MOMENT Are you driven to succeed? Why? Is your drive coming from a healthy place, or are you striving to prove something that you really don’t believe yourself?
As long as we are trying to prove ourselves acceptable, what role does salvation by grace through faith have? Often, when we are trying to prove ourselves, we find ourselves seeking approval of others to disprove those deeply embedded beliefs about ourselves that we hold.
Paul speaks to this seeking approval of man in Galatians 1:10:
Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or, am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
This language is a strong condemnation of those who are people-pleasers. In the Lutheran church, I've met many pastors whose primary focus is keeping people happy. They value harmony over truth, and they often sweep unpleasant situations and conflict under the carpet to maintain the illusion of harmony. They offer invitation, but no challenge. Paul is calling out such behavior as wrong and sinful.
These identity belief structures are a distortion of reality, and out of each comes some form of self-limiting behavior that sabotages relationships and success. These strategies ascribe to the myth that it is possible to be perfect, and to be good enough. Since these issues are often operating below the conscious level of thinking, people don’t realize that they are holding up a myth with all their might. They are afraid of what’s lurking in that dark corner just outside their view, and the fear of looking in the dark corner is what gives the structure its power.
As long as I am laboring in one of these structures, I am really substituting myself for God. The striving is really works righteousness, an attempt through my good works to prove myself worthy to God. Even the idea that perfection is possible keeps us from admitting that we are sinners incapable of winning God’s grace. How can I live deeper into God’s grace if I am still trying to prove I don’t really need it?
TAKE A MOMENT Do you think God supports the idea that we could get our identity from anything other than Him? How have you caused pain by investing too much of yourself in your career or your business? Your church or ministry?
If I can be perfect, or prove myself worthy, I don’t really need the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross or the gift of the Spirit. I can do this myself. In these identity structures, we are trying to hold onto the wheel and control fate. Even the faith to believe in God is a gift from God. As long as I am in denial of God’s role in my salvation, I cannot grow into His grace. All of my efforts go into proving myself, and not into walking humbly with my Lord, doing good works as His Spirit enables me.
This illustration, cited in the last chapter, that Mike Breen shares at 3DM tasters illustrates this point.
God the Father pours out his grace on us. We get our identity from Jesus' promise that we are adopted children of God, heirs to the kingdom. As I recognize Jesus as not just savior but lord of my life, I respond with submission and surrender to His will, conforming my life to His. In grateful obedience, I try to live by God's commandments, recognizing that I am still a sinner and will only be obedient as the Spirit gives me strength each day.
I heard Mike Breen say it this way,
I told God I would be more obedient, so that more of his power would flow through my life and touch others. And God said, 'No, I will give you more power so you can be obedient.'
Those who are still trying to prove themselves are trying to reverse this flow. In that scenario, because I try to obey His law, God owes me something. By behaving in a certain way, I can control God's response. The problem is, it never works.
In Micah 6:8, we learn:
He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?
Walking humbly with my God requires that I understand the He is God and I am not. Only God could have brought forth out of me any humility. On my own, there is not a humble bone in my body. But through the work of the Spirit, I am slowly learning to live out this passage. Transformed hearts and minds are the fruit of the Spirit in those on a discipleship journey.
In John 10:10, Jesus says: “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” The abundant life is what flows into us when we allow our minds to transformed by the Spirit. I don’t know about you, but when I look around the pews of many churches, most people don’t seem to be living the abundant life. It makes me wonder why.
Scott Seeke, a pastor I coached for several years, did a sermon series on the abundant life. One Sunday, a member of his congregation approached him after church and said, “I don’t even know what an abundant life would look like. What would it mean?” Scott replied, “What if you had more of what matters more, and less of what matters less in your life?” That was a great response, because it gets us reflecting on what matters.
TAKE A MOMENT What would your life look like if you had more of what matters more, and less of what matters less? What would you start doing, or doing more of, and what would you prune away?
From my earliest experiences learning about Jesus, and his life, I have wondered why people I met in church did not seem to really believe all those promises He made.....
Ask, and it will be given...
Knock, and the door will open....
My peace I give to you...
Do not let your hearts be troubled...
Worry not what tomorrow brings....
What are the obstacles to receiving Jesus’ promise of abundant life? The identity issues I’ve noted are one of the significant obstacles. In my life, I’ve sought solace from many sources other than Jesus.
Several years ago, after a business failure, I found myself the loser in a lawsuit that would have wiped me out. At a time in my life when it felt like everything that mattered was at risk, God invited me to reexamine this simple question: “Where do you put your trust? Do I have to take it all away from you to show you that is not where to put your trust?” Through this time of trial, God enabled me to see that anything I try to substitute for my trust in Him will fail me.
When I identified myself as an adopted child of the King, I began to experience abundance. Don’t get me wrong; I was truly blessed before. But until I started daily to live into the Kingdom, I did not really experience abundance.
Key to this was my recognition that all I have is truly a gift from God. I spent many years trying to prove how smart I was, how capable, how good a leader. But in my striving, I was trying to overcome a feeling deep inside me that I wasn’t good enough. Most of my striving, in life, at work and in church, was driven by the need to prove myself.
God has helped me to see that I could never be good enough to earn His love or my salvation. Even though I fall short, God loves me anyway, and Jesus went to the cross for me, a sinner. As I look through the scripture, I’m amazed at how God continually used imperfect humans to do his will. I am so thankful to be in a place where my worth does not depend on my accomplishments.
The joy that comes from using my gifts to help others see and use their gifts brings more satisfaction that my greatest business success. Seeing how the Spirit uses me to touch others strengthens me for deeper obedience and submission. Serving out of our giftedness, allowing ourselves to become channels of God’s grace, instead of reservoirs of His blessings, is a door to abundant life.
I once heard my friend Mike Foss preach a sermon whose focal point was the simple assertion that “it’s not about me.” Church is not here to meet my wants or even my needs. The Body of Christ exists to live out Christ’s mission of love and service to the world. We are His hands and feet. I heard it said recently that God’s church does not have a mission; the mission has a church.
I think we all come into the church seeking to have our own needs met. Whether it’s for our children, to protect them and teach them values, or for ourselves, to bring meaning and assuage our generalized guilt and anxiety about living so well when so many do not. But if we don’t realize that it’s not about us and our needs, we’ll never create anything but a consumer culture in our churches. Discipleship communities are about serving, not being served.
TAKE A MOMENT Would we still see worship wars over musical preferences, the use of screens in the sanctuary, arguments over how liturgical the worship is, if people realized that “it’s not about me?” How have you realized that in your own faith walk?
Since realizing that it’s not about me, a grateful heart has grown inside me. I try to treat each day as a blessing. My health, my finances, my wife, my kids and grandkids are all a blessing from God. As I have walked this path, I have found many ways to serve God by serving others. I have more peace and joy and deeper satisfaction than ever before in my life.
Sadly, I see people continuing to reach for control in churches, trying to preserve traditions and worship styles. Their wants and needs, their comfort zone is what’s at stake. They haven’t learned the lesson that is the key to a joyful Christian life.
An old friend turned down a call at a big, traditional Lutheran cathedral a few years ago. He said to me, “I think they’re more interested in preserving the museum than reaching people for Christ.”
Another key to transformed hearts and souls is equipping people to discern their gifts and calling in this life. After being baptized in my late twenties, I felt the touch of God calling me to something, but I didn’t know what. I had two small children and was working in the family business. The way I understood it, the proper response to a calling was to leave my business and pursue ordination so I could become a pastor. No one ever affirmed to me the possibility that my calling was my work in the business world. After a year or so praying and agonizing about whether to go to seminary, I finally settled on the Via de Cristo mantra to “bloom where you’re planted.”
The main impression I got from church was that the business world was evil, and business people were primarily greedy and self-serving. So how could I possibly be serving Christ in business? To serve Christ, I thought I had to come to church, join committees, attend council meetings and generously support the work of the church with my offerings.
Twenty-five years later, when I sold my business and left to pursue my “calling” in the church, I still didn’t have a clear understanding Luther’s notion of vocation. The idea that my company and my work could be a calling, a Christian vocation, was still not on my radar screen.
What is a Christian vocation? Vocation means “calling.” From Luther’s viewpoint, pastors or others who work for the church have a vocation, but Christians who work outside the church do, too. Any job or career becomes a Christian vocation if a Christian remembers to do that job as part of her or his call from God to serve others. Christians in every walk of life are called to demonstrate love, do good works, and share the good news of Jesus. Everything we do is to be done for the glory of God, including our work.
This means that any honest work can be a Christian vocation or calling. We do our jobs as Christians when we do our jobs as effectively and honestly as possible, honoring God by our work. For example, a Christian factory worker may want to lead a Bible study during lunch break, but doing so doesn’t make that job a Christian vocaiton. Doing quality instead of shoddy work while on the assembly line does. Why? Because doing so contributes to the wellbeing of society and thereby serves others.
Maybe my best grounding in this notion of vocation comes from Brother Lawrence, in his book Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence lived in the 1600s. An uneducated layman, he entered the monastery and spent his life working as a cobbler and cook. From his humble post, Brother Lawrence learned how to experience God in the most mundane. He dedicated his washing of dishes to the glory of God, and that made it holy work. The book is a compilation of letters to his spiritual director, gathered and published upon his death. It still sells today.
The idea of Christian vocation also extends to unemployed people and people whose lives do not include work for pay. For example, teenagers who are Christians share in a calling to do their work as students as honestly and effectively as possible.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you discerned the calling that is nested in the gifts and experiences of life God as led you through? Do you see your career as a calling from God? What might change about how you do your work if you were trying to honor God in your work, and treat it as a calling?
Benjamin Franklin said, “Hide not your talents. They for use were made. What's a sundial in the shade?” I have found several good tools to bring us deeper understanding of how we are wired and equipped for Christian service, that we may discern the calling God has for us.
If you have not done the Gallup StrengthsFinder instrument, I recommend it. StrengthsFinder identifies your five major strengths from a list of 34, and it gives characteristics of the strengths and specific recommendations for how to use them. Rooted in more than 40 years of research, this assessment has helped millions discover and develop their natural talents. It is a great tool to help us find meaningful work in our careers as well.
Over the years, I found many ways to serve in the church, but most of them were life-draining rather than life-giving. I tended to confuse serving my church with serving God. The idea that God had a unique plan and purpose for me resonated, but I had a hard time discovering the ways I’m unique and how that might be tied to some greater purpose or destiny.
For years, maybe decades, I walked around with generalized anxiety that I knew I should be doing something for God, but I didn't know exactly what. So I dabbled at different things, and, lacking focus, did a mediocre job at most of them. I was still nagged by this feeling that I hadn’t done enough, and that one day I’d have to stand face-to-face with God and give a report. The thought filled me with dread.
In embarking on Life 2.0, I began to pray this prayer: “Lord, I know you have a plan for my life. If that's so, surely you would have prepared and gifted me to accomplish what you designed me to do. What would you draw forth from the gifts, passions and experiences of my life that could serve Your purpose?”
As I prayed this prayer, shapes in the mist began to emerge, and as I moved towards them, over time I found my path: a path with a heart, a purpose and a calling.
A few years ago, I met David Stark at the Changing Church Forum and learned about a course called LifeKeys: Discover Who You Are. I had been looking for tools that would help people short-circuit the decades-long process of finding a purpose and calling as Christ-followers in the world. I now facilitate this course. I have seen LifeKeys help people in transitions from school to career, from career to career, and for finding Christian vocation.
LifeKeys helps individuals find meaning and focus in their lives by looking through five lenses: personality, values, talents, spiritual gifts and passions. Through an experiential learning process, the facilitator helps you to find a focal point where these five lenses all intersect, like a magnifying glass with sunlight. It is a great tool for discernment of gifts and calling.
Mike Breen and 3DM come at it a different way. They have created an instrument based on the fivefold ministry described in Ephesians 4: Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher. The instrument shows which is the strongest of these five and ranks the others. Apostles, Evangelists and Prophets are pioneers. They take the Gospel into new territory, start new things, draw people to Christ. They take new ground and then move on. Pastors and Teachers are settlers, or developers. If settlers and developers do not follow closely behind, the pioneers will move on to the next frontier, and wilderness will retake the ground they left behind.
Mike points out that the church needs both pioneers and settlers. Pioneers are the adventurers, who strike out for new territory. They plant the flag in new land and claim it for the Kingdom. Settlers come in behind them and develop the new territory, building community, organizing and civilizing the new land. Nothing sustainable is created until the settlers come in to stay. In churches, pioneers are always anxious to conquer new territory for the Kingdom. Settlers are caring for the people and teaching the abundant life in Christ in these new communities. The problem is pioneers and settlers don’t mix well in churches.
As we talked about this concept with a group of leaders at City Church, two of the elders clearly identified themselves as settlers. They were there from the beginning, following closely behind the pastor who was planting the church, doing the pioneer work. These guys laid the foundation that allowed the Gospel to take root, and the church to organize itself, grow and become sustainable.
Breen points out that most of the pioneers have been distilled off the denominational church into parachurch organizations that are now doing much of the pioneering work. That leaves churches full of settlers, who have lost the evangelistic zeal to reach new people. Churches full of settlers become complacent, and will plateau and slowly die, without the pioneers to spur them onward into new territory, bring new souls to Christ and new energy to the fellowship.
These are good tools to support growing spiritually, finding gifts and calling, and living an abundant life. Those who find their spiritual journey stalling out have resources that can transform their hearts and souls and kick-start a discipleship journey, if they are willing.
TAKE A MOMENT Pastors and leaders, are you using the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey, Gallup Strengthsfinder or LifeKeys to help your people find the path? Will you help your people find the abundant life that discipleship promises?
Community Built on Collaborative Leadership
In this new millennium, effective churches are moving away from a committee structure and are instead gravitating to ministry teams to help them live out Christ’s mission. For some reason, God chose to construct His church in such away that a healthy body of Christ emerges, only when we each find our own spiritual gifts, and then find how they fit together with the gifts of others. Together, we are Jesus' hands and feet in the world.
I think the Spirit gives each of us a piece of the picture of what He is calling forth in the local church. It’s kind of like a holographic image. Each of us sees the image from our perspective, like a two-dimensional slice. It is only when we can come together and see how our slice of the picture fits with others that a three-dimensional picture can emerge.
For that kind of synergy to happen, we must first have good relationships. I don’t know about you, but when I’m surrounded by a group of people who aren’t like me, they mostly aggravate me. It’s only when I have entered into a deeper relationship that I will hear what you have to say, if it is dissonant with my own beliefs. We rarely listen to opposing viewpoints unless we believe that person has our best interests at heart.
If we each sit around trying to persuade others that "your picture doesn't look like mine, and mine is right," then we never see the big picture. The essence of collaboration is valuing the strengths of others, acknowledging our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and leaning on each other for strength as we work together to find solutions that are a win for everyone.
If we do not love each other, we will never work together in a healthy body of Christ. Yet in most of the team-based work I’ve done in churches, we never take the time to learn to love each other, warts and all. We always want to jump right into the work. Without understanding each other’s personality and negotiating style differences, we just end up annoyed and frustrated with each other, and the work suffers.
Do you want these patterns to stop? Want to see true synergy emerge in your fellowship? Engage your team in understanding personality and conflict styles, the gifts and passions in the room, so you can understand why you see things differently. Allow the bigger picture to emerge. Admit you don’t have all the answers, and commit to join in discernment to find the Spirit's leading. Balance a focus on task with a focus on the relationships on the team. Do that and you will be amazed at the results. Synergy!
TAKE A MOMENT Where have you seen true synergy emerge in your work or your church? Have you often found “flow” where everything was working together seamlessly to accomplish a goal? How can you create more opportunities to find “flow”?
So, what does scripture have to say about this?
Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. -Romans 12:4-8
The natural tendency is to let differences divide us. Implicit in these verses is that we can find ways to overcome differences. Paul says it this way in Ephesians 4:
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.
TAKE A MOMENT How often have you been willing to admit areas where you’re not gifted, and invite others to use their strengths where you are weak? Think of an example, and what happened as a result.
It’s as if God has composed a symphony, and each of us has our own part to play. The symphony can only be realized when we blend together with others under the Spirit's leadership. In a strong team, weaknesses become irrelevant, because others on the team have strengths where we are weak. Building strong relationships helps us overcome our differences and learn to trust those who can help us see our blind side.
There you have a great picture of team: different people coming together in unity around a noble purpose. This is the essence of the missional communities I described earlier. When we envision the shift from committees to ministry teams, we must make the contrast between the two clear and provide the coaching to make it possible.
When you work with a strong team, the end product is inevitably better than the ideas each individual brings to the room. When that team is intentionally listening and discerning where the Spirit is leading, true Kingdom synergy can emerge. And the culture that is created can draw our individual sparks together to make a strong flame, one that is infectious and draws others towards Christ.
This is what ministry teams and collaboration look like. Unfortunately, few pastors I’ve met truly understand collaboration. Clericalism is still rampant in the church, and it impedes pastors inviting lay leaders into collaborative leadership.
The clericalism that still exists in the church is not healthy, nor is it Biblical. The idea that "ministry is the pastor’s job” is crippling churches. I worked with the newly elected leadership of a large church recently. It was clear when we talked about expectations that many were holding onto the small church idea that the pastor should be the one “doing” ministry. That they were in a larger setting just meant there could be several pastors and additional staff to do ministry. In many churches, there is a general feeling that when a layperson does hospital visits or other such pastoral care, that “it’s just not quite the same as the pastor coming.”
TAKE A MOMENT What is the best team experience you can remember? How could you create such synergy in your work or church? Pastors, have you shed vestiges of clericalism in your church? Laity, do you still see the pastor as the one who should “do” ministry? In what ways is that limiting your church?
The idea that the pastor’s primary job is “equipping” rather than “doing” has not sunk in with many laity. They’ve grown up seeing pastor as chaplain and know nothing different, and many are somewhat suspect of the changing role.
In a healthy body of Christ, clergy and laity share the leadership roles. In such churches, the gifts of lay leaders are recognized, celebrated and integrated into a collaborative leadership team. For this collaborative environment to emerge, one factor is critical. Shared leadership in a healthy church is built on a foundation of trust. We can only truly value the diverse opinions of others when we have built this foundation. It begins with trusting God.
Once we can trust God, the next steps are to trust ourselves, be trustworthy, and finally to trust others. Where this trust exists, we can build a permission-giving environment that empowers others to lead. Most churches today have a governance system based on control rather than empowerment. Micromanagement screams to the people, “I can’t trust you to do it right. I have to control every step.”
So, what would a healthy body of Christ look like? The foundation would be a core of lay leaders who are committed to their personal discipleship, serving in their area of giftedness, discovering a passion for mission and working together to create a collaborative leadership team with the pastors and staff. Once established, this leadership team would work together to discern God’s calling and vision for the church and model servant leadership for the congregation.
A sense of mission emerges from the vision of the core team and radiates out from the center. As people commit to missional outreach rooted in their own gifts and passion for Christ, the church will start influencing a broader and broader circle of friends and acquaintances both in and beyond the church, drawing people to Christ, and growing a community of disciples.
It’s important to keep in mind that a radical change like this will cause anxiety. As we move from dream to vision to creating what God is calling forth, we are birthing something from the plane of imagination into the real world of our faith community. It can be a painful process. It is only when we can look past the pain of birth to the beauty of new life that we can bear the discomfort. If we don’t frame these changes as a birth process, then people just want the pain and anxiety to end.
Surrounding oneself with a diverse team will also ensure a clearer picture of reality. No one person can see all the facets of reality. Reality emerges in the divergent views. A clear grounding in reality is critical for a leader to stay one step ahead.
In the Bible, most of those God used as prophets did not come up through the system of religious preparation to be a rabbi. Paul was a great exception, and God had to break him of most of his rabbinical teaching to use him for the Kingdom.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you surrounded yourself with truth tellers in your life and ministry? How open are you to God speaking his vision through someone who has not gone to seminary? Can you recognize a calling in the life of one of your people? Honor it?
Pastors need support through this time of birth. They need to be in relationship with others who are on this journey. They also need mentors who have already been down this path. The great challenge is that so few pastors feel the call to move their church towards discipleship and serving. Consequently, there are few peers and mentors available to help guide the way and support those who are struggling with anxiety and conflict as they move towards the future God is calling forth.
The biggest challenge for pastors who are truly visionary leaders is to create shared vision. It is easy to go to the mountaintop like Moses, come back down, and cast a vision before the people. It is another thing altogether to see that vision lived out in the lives of the people. For the many pastors who are not visionary leaders, the only hope of igniting a Godly vision in your church will be to encourage those who are wired for visioning into their own discipleship journey, and then enter into a collaborative journey with them to discern God’s vision.
Collaborative leadership. It worked in the first century, and it works in the twenty-first.
TAKE A MOMENT Is your church on plateau or in decline? What have you done to build a sense of urgency? Gather a leadership team? Cast a new vision? Are you choosing, consciously or not, the alternative of a slow death?
Community Built on Multiplying and Sending
What’s the difference between addition and multiplication in churches? It’s the difference between being a leader, and being a leader of leaders. The great challenge is not for a leader to draw followers. The challenge is to empower and equip leaders who can disciple others. First, the pastor must commit personally to discipleship. Then he can learn how to disciple others. The final step is to equip those disciples to disciple others. At that point, you are equipping disciple-making leaders, and multiplication becomes possible.
We baby boomers like to build big churches. Look at the phenomenon of mega-churches. 25 years ago, there were 400 mega-churches in the United States. Now, there are 7,000. Many believe this trend will continue for at least another couple of decades, but I have my doubts.
Bill Easum says that the facilities we build today will become an albatross around our necks in 10 or 20 years. A Lutheran mega-church, Church of Joy in Phoenix, was averaging 6,000 in worship 10 years ago. They had an incredible campus with a school, a gymnasium, education buildings and a huge worship center. The campus is bigger than some colleges I’ve seen.
After suffering a heart attack, senior pastor Walt Kallestad took a sabbatical in England. There he met Mike Breen. Kallestad was so taken by the discipleship and mission at the heart of Mike’s church, he decided to make the shift to discipleship at Church of Joy. He convinced Mike and Sally Breen to move to Phoenix and began work to transform the culture.
Within a couple of years, worship attendance at Church of Joy had fallen nearly in half. How would you like to pay the bills when your attendance has dropped 50 percent? When you have massive investments in facilities and things go south, it’s just about impossible to cover the mortgage, insurance, utilities and maintenance without savaging the program budget.
Once a church has cut the program budget, the next thing to get trimmed is the pastor’s salary. Unfortunately, when it comes down to paying the pastor or paying for the building, it seems like the building wins every time.
Our country is littered with empty church buildings. Thousands of churches close every year. The buildings are torn down, repurposed for something else, or gain new life when a church plant rents the building for a fraction of what it would cost to own it. Yet we continue to build bigger and bigger churches with little thought about sustainability.
TAKE A MOMENT How effectively is your church attracting singles and young marrieds? Is your youth group continuing to show the same strength it had a decade ago? Will your ministry sustain itself into a new generation? Are you considering these questions as you consider adding to your facilities?
One of the challenges is that post-moderns don’t trust institutions. They seek authentic community and relationship. Will the mega-churches reach the post-moderns and sustain themselves through a new generation? Some will, but many won’t. Alternatives are appearing. House churches are striving to recreate the extended families of the first-century church. Church planting networks are multiplying campuses across cities.
These models are much more consistent with the early church, a movement that lived its first 300 years underground without ever building a cathedral. Some of the best theological thinkers I know say the church first got off track when Constantine made Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire. With legitimacy came power, prestige and money. The church accumulated riches and properties unmatched in the world at the time, building cathedrals and monuments to religion. (I say monuments to religion, because I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.) Discipleship took a backseat.
Jesus charged us with making disciples, not starting churches. We build churches and hope for discipleship. Where I see this discipleship movement taking root, health is reemerging in church communities. While most mega-churches have rooted themselves in the suburbs, churches planted in discipleship and mission are reclaiming the inner cities.
At City Church Eastside, our vision is a network of campuses, like a string of pearls around the Beltline that circles our inner city. We are renting space, and as God blesses our ministry and we reach 200 in worship, we plan to replicate. We are planning our second campus a couple of miles away. The pastor to lead this plant has done campus ministry in the area for a decade, developing deep roots in the community.
Before I left the Lutheran church, the leaders at the cathedral I attended were talking about an expansion that would cost a minimum of $5 million. That same money could plant a dozen churches around the city that would have a primary focus on discipleship and mission. Sadly, none of the leaders were very interested in talking about discipleship.
A friend of mine interviewed for the senior pastor position there a few years ago. He turned down the offer and instead took a call to a mission church with less than 200 people. He told me, “I’d rather have a hundred people absolutely on fire for Christ than a thousand lukewarm Christians sitting in the pews.”
Church planting networks with discipleship at their core are sprouting up across this country, and similar movements are taking root in Europe. In many ways, we are learning from the developing world, where the most powerful movements of God are happening today. The Holy Spirit is flowing in powerful ways as these missional movements grow out of discipleship communities.
When we build sparkling cathedrals, in many ways, it’s about those already in the building, not those starving under a highway overpass a few miles away. Maybe that’s why it seems like these churches full of elder brothers, looking down their noses at the poor, the unchurched, the downtrodden. “If they just took responsibility for their lives, they could be like us ....” Sadly, that attitude shows an underlying feeling that I am good enough. If I’m good enough, then why do I need God?
TAKE A MOMENT Is building a building the best way we can invest our resources in serving Jesus? What alternative uses of the money might better honor Jesus’ call to us to be disciples, make disciples and feed the sheep?
Jesus never asked us to build monuments to his glory. His was a movement of relationships. Relationship with the Father, through the Son, but lived out among the people. His focus was on serving, not being served. We build million-dollar buildings to serve us and the needs of the church. Over time, we find ourselves serving the building, trapped by mortgages and maintenance, a design that no longer makes sense. Our focus moves from the mission of Jesus--making disciples and serving the poor--to the maintenance of an institution and its buildings.
I would rather give the rest of my life to a church-planting movement that is focused on discipleship and mission. I gave up finding such a place in the Lutheran tribe. I now find myself worshiping at a three-year-old church plant in a rented loft space five minutes from my house in downtown Atlanta. And, my gifts are being used in ways I never imagined in the Cathedral. May God's faint path lead you to such a place.