For as long as I can remember, most leaders consciously or unconsciously focused on receiving new members. Ask most pastors what size their church is, and most of them will tell you how many members they have. Low-commitment membership has been the emphasis for some time. In many cases people are hounded until they join and then are quickly forgotten.
However, cutting-edge ministries have turned all of this around. Instead of focusing on getting people to join and then forgetting them, the new wave of faithful congregations focuses on the longer term goal of discipling pagans into spiritual giants.
Emerging Discipleship Models
Many effective models for discipling the emerging pagan population are springing up everywhere. These models run the gamut of discipleship from nonbelievers to longtime Christians. All of the models I’ve seen have one thing in common: They seek to develop a servant mentality and model servanthood more than teach a doctrine, inform, or help people become active in the church.
All of the examples combine two disciplines: role modeling and teaching. However, unlike what we have seen the past few decades, they focus not on the curriculum but rather on the life and example of those who lead the experiences. It’s not so much what is being taught as who does the teaching.
If you look at first-century examples, people didn’t have a textbook from which they could teach. Instead, the disciples watched what their mentors did and how they lived. Modeling is at the heart of any form of legitimate discipleship. This does not mean you don’t need a curriculum. You just can’t teach discipleship as well on a blackboard as you can through seeing it in action. So don’t think curriculum; instead think role model. Service opportunities are more important than classroom teaching.
Here are just a few of the examples I’ve seen.
Watch What I Do Opportunities
Many churches have begun to offer opportunities for people to spend time not in study but in fellowship with some of their spiritual giants. One of the best examples is the Shadow Practicum at New Hope Christian Fellowship of Oahu www.enewhope.org. Rather than having a curriculum to study, the participants spend the week following in the footsteps of the pastor, Wayne Cordeiro. During the week they literally shadow him from early in the morning until late at night. The day usually begins around college classes taught by 5:30 a.m. with either an exercise program or attendance at one of the 5:30 a.m. devotional times with Wayne. These times are followed by breakfast together and then devotions. The day is filled with Pastor Wayne sharing from his heart concerning the role of pastor. Practicum pastors shadow at the staff meeting, weekend services, worship debriefings, and management team meeting. They also have the opportunity to interact with all New Hope staff and hear from the senior staff members on the relationship between pastor and staff. On the final night, a barbecue takes place at the Cordeiro home where the attending pastors are encouraged to share their experiences. Amidst much celebration and tears, stories unfold of pastors who have been given a renewed sense of calling and passion as a result of their experience at New Hope.
A similar emphasis is occurring in many of the more advanced church-planting
congregations. Instead of the potential church planters merely running through classroom training, they are placed in a newly formed church plant where they serve as interns as well as receive on-the-job training. This way they see firsthand what developing a church plant involves prior to actually having to plant a church. Again, if you look at the first century, Jesus practiced this form of discipleship. He lived with his disciples for quite a while before he sent them out into the world to practice door-to-door evangelism.
First-Time Service Ministries
Cutting-edge congregations are designing entry-level ministries for new people. Two examples will help. New Hope Christian Fellowship in Oahu believes it is important to have service roles for people who attend New Hope for the first time. Yes, the very first time people visit New Hope, they may be asked to serve in some role. Many new people come to New Hope on the arm of a friend. It is not unusual for the New Hope person to ask the first-time friends to help pass the offering baskets. It doesn’t matter if they are Christians.
World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (www.wochurch.org), believes it is important to provide service roles for day-old Christians. One of the best places to find ministries for new people is Servant Evangelism at www.kindness.com, originated by Steve Sjogren at the Vineyard Church of Cincinnati. I had the privilege of experiencing Servant Evangelism there a few years ago. The experience was like a biblical pep rally followed by various groups going out into the community. They did such things as giving out free bottles of water at Walmart, cleaning the toilets in local restaurants, and offering to wrap Christmas packages free in a nearby mall. What impressed me the most was that the ministry attracted people of all ages and provided a tremendous opportunity for older and seasoned servants to mentor and role-model servanthood to younger Christians as well as to the pagans they served.
Both of these approaches to discipleship focus on beginning to disciple the newcomer as soon as possible. Both models emphasize getting new persons to experience the joy of serving as opposed to teaching them about it. Leaders who use this approach have to be careful not to incorporate new, unproven people into ministries that directly shape the lives of people – such as in teaching a Sunday school class for children, leading a small group, or working with the youth. What these churches provide are safe places where newbies of all kinds can experience servanthood without putting other people in spiritual jeopardy.
The way leaders encourage the people to invite their friends to church is by modeling it in their lives and preaching. I’ve had lunch or dinner with Dick Wills, pastor of Christ Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, several times. Every time, I’ve watched him invite the person serving us to attend church the following Sunday and suggest why it would be helpful to her or him to do so.
From the conversations I could tell that Dick had been developing relationships with these people and knew their needs. I have also heard numerous pastors in their teaching make heroes out of people who bring their friends to church.
Many churches of a variety of theological persuasions have found that offering Alpha experiences to seekers is an effective method of reaching people because it involves fellowship, modeling, and teaching (www.alphana.org). In a similar way, many of the emerging churches have some form of a New Believers Class. The fact that the new believers haven’t yet joined that congregation changes the whole dynamic of the experience. The leaders role-model in their actions and behavior what it means to be a Christian. Doctrine is not the focus as much as experiencing authentic Christian community.
Over the years the models for small groups have changed very little and continue to disciple large numbers of people. Whether in house churches or meta small groups, such as those found at New Hope Community Church in Portland, Oregon, the dynamics are the same (www.newhopecommunitychurch.org). The focus is more on relationships, intimate community, and behavior modification than on teaching doctrine or faith. The group leaders are taught that establishing solid relationships and building biblical community are the goals. Again, modeling and behavior are the keys to discipleship. These small groups have a curriculum, but it just isn’t the main focus.
Long-Term, Ongoing Courses
Fellowship Bible Church (www.fbclr.org) in Little Rock, Arkansas, has a seven-year process whereby people progress through a series of intensive, deepening courses before they begin to lead. Lake Pointe Baptist Church (www.lakepointe.org) in Rockwall, Texas, applies its servant mentality to the Sunday school. All of its adult Sunday school classes are required to participate each month in a mission of their choice. In doing so, they are clearly saying that it is not enough just to know the Bible. Disciples must put into action what they are learning, and it must change the way they live.
Retreat venues like Emmaus are changing the lives of congregations all over the country, if one thing occurs: Upon returning from the retreats, the Emmaus participants are in churches that channel them into servant roles instead of allowing them to be cloistered in their tight-knit Emmaus group.
As you can see, a vast variety of opportunities for discipleship training is beginning to develop.
The Bad News
The bad news in all of this is that before most of the above does any good, the leaders have to begin modeling the role of servant. The most fundamental change in this shift is in the behavior of the paid and unpaid servants who lead a congregation. Your ministry as a leader must focus on developing people rather than offering programming or doing whatever it is that the congregation asks of you. Your delight must come in the servant ministries and leaders that emerge from them, rather than merely going around doing good and counting the number of new members. For many church leaders, this requires personal change.
The Good News
The good news is servant ministry doesn’t have to involve much cost, at least financially. The poorest and smallest congregations can participate in some area of servant ministry. So what’s keeping you from stepping up to the plate and shifting from warehousing members to discipling the people?