Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mission Perspective: Why Structure Your Church for Discipleship?

By Robin G. Jordan

The conventional Anglican or Episcopal parish church is poorly designed to partner with God to move people through the different stages of spiritual growth. This is to a large extent due to fact that Anglicans and Episcopalians apt to do things the way that they have always been done. The way their churches have always been organized is haphazardly and without careful thought to the design of the church. Groups are formed and programs are adopted because other Anglican or Episcopal churches have them.

Each group and program has a different vision of the church and pulls the church in a different direction. They do not serve a common vision or move the church in the same direction. Each group and program demands its share of the resources and considers its ministry a priority. The result is a church that is ineffective in reaching and evangelizing the unchurched and which has a spiritual immature congregation that is ill equipped for the work of ministry to which God calls all Christians.

In the twenty-first century in a country in which the unchurched population is growing while the churchgoing population is shrinking and which is experiencing a period of economic recession, high unemployment, and reduced church giving, Anglican and Episcopal churches cannot go on doing things this way. It is unwise stewardship of the resources that God has entrusted to the church even in better times. These resources God has given to the church for one purpose—to carryout the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all people groups, baptizing them and instructing them (Matthew 28:18-20), to go into the world and to proclaim the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15-16), to be Christ’s witnesses to the farthest corners of the earth (Acts 1:8).

A growing number of churches are taking a hard look at themselves and are pruning away the groups and programs that do not serve these ends. They are not adding any new groups and programs unless they clearly do so. The church with which I am sojourning is one of them. It is a five-year old new church plant so rather than cutting off the dead wood, it started lean. It is designed around a clearly defined, easily understood discipleship process. This discipleship process has one aim—“to make fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.”

To this end the church has created three sets of environments. People enter its discipleship process through its worship gatherings—its front porch using the nomenclature of Northpoint Community Church. Both newcomers and regular attenders are invited to become involved in one of the church’s ministry teams—its living room. In the ministry teams they work and pray alongside committed Christians who have moved through the stages of spiritual growth to the stage where they have committed their lives to Christ. They are also invited to participate in one of the church’s small groups—its kitchen—that meet on Sunday evenings or during the week. In a small group they apply their own lives the teaching of the sermon preached at the previous worship gathering. In the small group they fellowship with the other participants and pray for their own concerns and those of the other participants. They develop small group leadership skills. They engage in evangelism and community service projects with the other participants and other small groups. Newcomers and regular attenders are encouraged to invest in their relationships with friends, neighbors, relatives, colleagues, and fellow students and to invite them to the worship gatherings.

The church’s leadership team rejects many ideas for new ministries and programs because they would not serve the church’s discipleship process and would take needed resources away from those ministries and programs that do serve it. The church does have a nursery and a children’s ministry. It has a couple of specialized ministries geared to young children and their parents and to teenagers. It is also involved to ministries to the poor in Central America and in its own backyard. It is a growing church both numerically and spiritual. The lives of those attend the church are not only being transformed but also the community is being impacted.

I was involved in three Episcopal churches over a period of 40 odd years. None of them was structured around a clearly defined, easily understood discipleship process. Two of them had simply accumulated a variety of groups and programs over the years. New groups and programs were added because a number of people wanted them and the rector and the vestry thought that they were a good idea. They were not a part of a deliberate plan to help people move through the stages of spiritual growth. Someone could attend both churches for years and not grow spiritually. The preaching was largely devoted to expounding upon topics suggested by the lectionary readings and not to the systematic instruction of the congregation in the core doctrines of the Christian faith and the basic skills for the Christian life. If anyone became a fully functional disciple of Christ it was entirely the doing of the Holy Spirit. It was not done in partnership with the church. The third church was a new plant in the very early stages of development.

From my survey of their websites I have found only a few ACNA churches appear to have a discernable discipleship process. More AMiA churches appear to have such a process. Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger’s Simple Church has been promoted as recommended reading on the AMiA web site.

Rainer and Geiger describe four steps to becoming a church structured around a clearly defined, easily understood discipleship process. The first step is to design a simple process—on paper. They stress the importance of beginning with a blank sheet of paper and not trying to squeeze the process into existing programs.

The second step is place key programs along the process, choosing one churchwide program for each phase of the simple process. Here they stress that the program should coincide with that particular part of the process.

The third step is to unite all ministries around the process. They stress the importance of involving other church leaders in the design of the simple process as the more involved they are in its design, the more easier it will be to unite them around it.

The fourth step is to begin to eliminate things outside the process. This step Rainer and Geiger stress requires wisdom. However, if the process is to be clear and to move people, what does not fit and is not aligned with the process must eventually be eliminated. The process should not be allowed to become cluttered.

Rainer and Geiger acknowledge that establishing a clear defined, easily understandable discipleship process around which their church is structured will be easier for church planters than for pastors of established churches, especially those with a lot of traditions and programs. Church planters are not faced with the complexity and the clutter that pastors of established churches are.

One thing that I learned from being involved in a “simple church,” I have discovered that a lot of things that folks think are necessary to life and worship of the local church are not. In a church that has small groups as a part of its discipleship process does not need to form committees and guilds to perform tasks such as organizing a food drive, putting together backpack food packets for poor school kids for the weekend, or preparing the communion table. One or more of the small groups are invited to take on a particular task. In the case of preparing the communion table the small groups might take turns.

In the 1980s I was the worship coordinator on the launch team for a new Episcopal church. Instead of forming a sacristan guild, I invited a different family each week to prepare the communion table. The younger women were delighted to assume this responsibility. In the previous Episcopal churches that they had attended if they were Episcopalians, preparation of the communion table had always been the province of the older women of the church. While the altar guild might occasionally adopt a newcomer, it was otherwise a closed group. The same group of women prepared the communion table every week.

The children also enjoyed helping to prepare the table. Inviting families to assume this responsibility helped to assimilate whole family into the life and worship of the church. Sadly the new vicar had very fixed notions of how things ought be done. He established an altar guild, made up of the older women in the congregation. This was not done because they had been excluded from the preparation of the communion table but because it had been the practice at the parish church where he had served as a lay reader before going to seminary and the larger parish church where he had served as a deacon. It was also how Episcopalians, he argued, were accustomed to doing things, which I learned as I grew to know him better, meant that it was what he was accustomed to. I had read widely and knew that it was not the only way that things were done in the Episcopal Church, much less the larger Anglican Church.

The reality is that most Episcopalians or former Episcopalians do not make good new church pioneers. They are lacking in adaptability and flexibility and are not open to new ideas and practices. Like my former rector, then vicar, they have preconceived ideas as to how a church should operate. What they believe is customary or traditional may be relatively recent in origin. They will treat it as if it is hoary with age and mandated by God. Or it may be the custom or tradition of a particular church and not be found elsewhere. It may be a deviation from a wider custom or tradition and idiosyncratic to that church. In any event they put it before the Great Commission. They will try to recreate in a storefront a conventional Episcopal parish church, modeled upon past churches in which they have been involved, irrespective of whether it is the best way to carryout Christ’s commands in their particular community, indeed any community.

The implication is that they are not the group that should have the last word in how a new church is structured. This may prove difficult in that they may form the core group, or nucleus, of the new congregation and may be the most vocal regarding the structuring of the new church. They are also one of the groups that is most likely to try to highjack the church planter’s vision for the new church and to sabotage his efforts to structure it around a clearly defined, easily-understood discipleship process.

One way the church planter may reduce their opposition and gain their cooperation is devote number of sessions in the preparation of the core group to the concept of a “simple church,” as Rainer and Geiger develop that concept in their book. They need to understand and accept that it is an essential part of the ministry philosophy of the new church. If they are not comfortable with it, the new church may not be the church for them. The same thing should be done with the vision for the new church. Being on the same page from the outset is critical to the success of a new church plant.

Jesus describes himself to be the vine and his disciples to be the branches. The vinedresser drastically prunes the branches of the vine in the winter so that they will bear fruit in the summer. Unless they are pruned, they will produce more leaves but not fruit. Jesus tells his disciples that God will do the same thing to them so that they yield an abundance of fruit. He will cut away whatever will consume the energy of the branch but will not produce fruit. The vinedresser cuts back the branches of the vine so that the vine is almost a stump.

In our day the local church has become like a vine with many leafy branches but no bunches of fruit. Another way of looking at the concept of “simple church” is pruning the excessive growth so the church will bear fruit. An Anglican church does not need a raft of committees, guilds, women’s auxiliaries, men’s fellowships, and other groups and programs to fulfill the Great Commission. It needs a clearly defined, easily understood process for making disciples of Jesus Christ.

One of the greatest benefits that I see coming from being intentional about the discipleship process in a church is that we must give serious thought to what is a disciple of Jesus Christ. A disciple of Jesus Christ is more than someone who goes to church, hears a sermon, takes communion, and goes back into the world where he or she is indistinguishable from everyone else. For Anglicans this means considering how we can follow Jesus Christ in an authentically historical Anglican way while at the same time following Him in a Biblically faithful way. The latter must take priority over the former.

We also must serious thought to what we as a church can do to partner with God to move people through the stages of spiritual growth—from seeker to mature disciple. It will no longer suffice to offer churchgoers a smorgasbord of spiritual experiences such as Anglican prayer beads, Buddhist meditation, labyrinth walking, Native American ceremonies and rituals, Tibetan sand mandalas and throat singing, and Wiccan ceremonies and rituals from which they could choose as it has increasingly become the practice in a number of parishes in the Episcopal Church.

Instead of helping to form churchgoers as Christians, the objective in these parishes is to support them in their personal spiritual journey and, in doing so, caters to a number of cultural trends. One is to view spirituality and spiritual practice as private matter. Another is the tendency to select elements from different traditions and religions and to design one’s own personal spirituality.

It will also not be appropriate to teach and encourage such practices as praying before the consecrated host exposed in a monstrance, lighting candles before statues of Jesus’ mother or Mary and the infant Jesus, praying the rosary, receiving Holy Communion every day, carrying statues of Mary and other saints in procession, and other Roman Catholic practices that have crept back into the Anglican Church. These practices are neither consonant with the Bible nor authentic historic Anglicanism. They rightfully belong with their accompanying doctrines in the Roman Catholic Church from which they came.

A carefully thought-out and well-planned discipleship process will make a tremendous difference in the life and worship of an Anglican church. It will help an Anglican church to focus on what is really important—“to major on the majors and not the minors” as the late Peter Toon put it. Lives will be transformed and communities impacted. The North American Anglican Church may yet be a shining light in a dark land and bring glory to God’s name.

Note: The "simple church" concept discussed in this article is not the same concept as Tony and Felicity Dale promote in their book, Simply Church. The two concepts are sometimes confused.


Reformation said...

There's something to be said about Celtic ecclesiology, to wit, that Presbyters elected, directed, and dispatched Bishops to do their legwork, bidding, and admin-work while the Presbyters got on with study, inquiry, preaching, writing and prayer. A novel idea worth analysis.

Haven't met a Bishop yet--e.g. REC--worth emulating or following. The Western model is old, tiring, boring, and modifiable...for those with ears to hear.

Reformation said...

Imagine being "catechetized" by an REC or ACNA Bishop, e.g. Iker, Ackerman, Duncan, Schofield or similar ilk?

Glad for my pre-Anglican, pre-1980's, catechetical background. Without it, would be at a serious loss and disadvantage. The Murrikan Anglicans have no catechism of accuracy, thought, depth, merit, caution, or catholicity. Suffer on, fellow Anglicans-in-exile. Let us bear it nobly, albeit quietly.