How often is The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) misconstrued? People associate Jesus’ words in the first Gospel with bigger congregations, more programs and staff. However, was that what Jesus meant? Was the intent to have super-sized seeker services with hot worship music and a cutting-edge hipster behind the pulpit--if there even is a pulpit?
For Jesus, the model follower seemed to be a fallible, struggling human being, just like you or me. This model disciple would stumble and fall, famously in the case of Peter’s denial or suggestion of staying on the mount of transfiguration. The model disciple did not stay in this state of having stumbled. Jesus helped him get back up again, affirmed his commitment and instructed him on how to keep on the spiritual journey. Continuing this example of Peter, he is credited with founding a church in Rome. Catholics claim him as the first Pope. According to legend, he went from bumbling follower to disciple and was crucified upside down for his unwavering commitment to Christ. How many church-attenders would be willing to lay down their lives for their faith?
The challenge, then, becomes turning attenders into disciples. In church, we should be trying to help people grow in their spiritual journeys and move from an immature and easily dissuaded interest in God to unwavering commitment to Christ. A disciple is a follower or student of a teacher, leader, or philosopher. The name Christian implies a person who has accepted Jesus as the Christ and follows his teachings.
The question of turning church-attenders into disciples does not relate to eternity. This has nothing to do with heaven or hell. Questions of eternity are best left to God who will be the final judge in these matters. In churches, the goal is to form people into more and more mature Christians. Church life is (or should be) about following Christ. When Christ is the basis for all church activities, people will grow deeper and deeper in their relationship with God through Christ.
What can a church do to turn attenders into disciples? The truth is a church cannot do anything to turn a person from an attender into a disciple. This transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. However, people in churches, like ministers and other leaders, can try to create an environment that fosters spiritual growth. Here are some positive steps people in churches can take to nurture spiritual growth:
- Make Christ the foundation
- Talk about missional living
- Invite participation in leadership
- Create an environment of openness and dialogue
A woman once said to me: “Your plan has not been bathed in prayer.” I chuckled at her supposed clairvoyance but was sad at her judgmental approach to dialogue. A group of people were discussing possible mission projects, and the woman who spoke out was both right and wrong. One the one hand, she was wrong to assume that I, or anyone else, had not been praying. Only God knows the human heart and the true depth of one’s being.
On the other hand, she was right. Plans, mission projects, ministries, and everything else we do in the life of the church should be bathed in prayer. I love the phrase and have appropriated it for approaching ministry. Before starting anything, I pray. Before making a decision, I pray. Before visiting someone, I pray. And so on. Prayer should be the centerpiece of ministry and the basis of building space for people to go from attenders to disciples.
2) Make Christ the foundation
This might sound obvious, but too often churches make other things their foundation or driving force. For some churches, growth becomes the foundation. As long as new people are coming in, they assume that they must be blessed by God. Sometimes God works in spite of human efforts. In these growth-focused places, God might be working despite the emphasis on the something other than Christ. The number of people is not as important as the basis for people gathering together. If Christ is the foundation, then God’s intended ministry will happen.
3) Talk about missional living
Simply put: If we want people to think about something, we have to talk about it. If church leaders want people to grow, then the conversation needs to be about spiritual growth. Part of growth is attenders reaching out to other people. Any teacher knows that the teacher usually learns more than the students. Therefore, if a regular church attender starts reaching out, practicing missional living, then that attender will get more engaged in his or her faith. This increased engagement will lead to more study in order for the person reaching out to be prepared. More study yields deeper knowledge and higher commitment. This process begins moving the participants toward discipleship. It also allows the attender to experience the richness of God’s presence and connects back to more prayer and making Christ the foundation of daily life.
4) Invite participation in leadership
By inviting people to participate in leadership, a church can avoid the tendency to find volunteers by badgering people into submission. Too often nominating committees beg and plead with people until they can no longer say “No” and they reluctantly agree to serve. This does not breed discipleship. When a church invites people to express where they feel led to serve, the body of Christ focuses on responding to God’s call to serve. When this invitation is a regular part of the church life, attenders will feel the call to respond. They might even experience the movement of the Holy Spirit and a sense of God’s nudging them to respond. By responding, they get more involved and move deeper into discipleship.
5) Create an environment of openness and dialogue
If there is not already an environment of openness and dialogue, this step takes hard work. People have to feel comfortable to share, but if they try it and feel attacked or ostracized after expressing an opinion that is divergent from the majority, it is difficult to get people to try it again. Being open starts at the top, with ministers and key leaders. Having a frank conversation about openness will help. Having a second, third, and fourth conversation about hearing one another will also help. Creating an environment takes time, but it is worth investing the time because the results will be a congregation that is more in tune with God’s spirit than one that is trudging along, simply following inertia.
These steps are not a panacea for creating disciples. They are part of a larger process that can only be achieved when God is in the director’s chair, calling the shots, and telling people when/where they should move. Following these steps means that a church or its leaders would like to see more disciples. The desire to see people grow deeper in their faith is a precursor to any first step.
My prayer is to see more disciples in more churches around the world.