As I mentioned on Monday, I seem to find myself having variations of the same conversation over and over again. I’m not complaining. In fact, I enjoy being forced to present ideas in a variety of angles, being forced to whittle them down until they’re concise and clear.
One of the reasons the Church of the Cross family organizes itself around missional communities, or as we sometimes call them, “gospel communities on mission” (which we’ll talk more about today) is that we are convinced that we should, as much as possible, place people in contexts where change is likely to occur.
By no means are we saying that we can really make people change. God does that. However, we do believe that local churches should do as much as possible to encourage and facilitate that change in people’s lives. We believe that this change is more likely to occur when we place people in the “sweet spot,” the intersection of Gospel, Community and Mission.
I’ve never been a big sports guy, but I did play tennis for several years growing up. In tennis, as with several other sports involving making contact with a ball, there is, on the racquet, a “sweet spot.” There is a spot on the tennis racquet where, you know it when you make contact. The ball responds better. You have more power and control. You can hit the ball across the net with just about any part of the racquet; even the frame. But when you make contact with the sweet spot, it is better. You’re still playing tennis if you’re just getting the ball over the net, but you’re not experiencing the fullness of the game without learning to connect with the sweet spot.
Likewise, in envisioning what a missional community is, it helps to envision another sweet spot. This time, it is not a place on a racquet, but the intersection of three life-factors: Gospel, Community and Mission. It might look something like the overlap of three circles. As much as possible, we are looking to facilitate the life of the missional community within that “sweet spot” (the little white space where all three factors intersect).
This means that each factor is not negotiable and, as much as possible, all three at the same time are necessary. If we take away just one factor, the entire dynamic changes and it is no longer what we’re looking to foster. For example, if we remove Gospel, leaving Community and Mission, we have the possibility of some good being done in the world. We might have something like the Peace Corps or the Scouts. We have people coming together to serve but but not out of gospel motives so it can’t produce the sweet spot missional communities strive to exist within and we’re less likely to see real, lasting life change.
Take away Community, leaving Gospel and Mission. We might have a street preacher, “out in the world preaching the word” but it is often removed from daily life and it is often done in isolation. Or we might have a great short-term missions trip. You and your friends are going to change the world in a week and you come back with the church-camp high and you feel on top of the world but as the rhythms of real-life begin to pull you under again, chances are that most of those relationship you thought would last forever have deteriorated; that long-term shared communal life is just not there so it can’t produce the sweet spot missional communities strive to exist within.
Or take away Mission, leaving Gospel and Community. We might have a truly moving gathered worship experience or a moving and challenging group bible study. But if mission is removed, the external-focus is taken away, it will, by default, be inward focused so it can’t produce the sweet spot missional communities strive to exist within.
Gospel, Community and Mission are non-negotiable for missional communities. But it is not enough simply to have all three; we are looking for their intersection and the space it creates, you cannot have a missional community without all three Gospel, Community and Mission being present. When all three are present and the “sweet spot” of their intersection opens up, we believe that people are more likely to be changed into maturing and multiplying disciples.
In days to come, well flesh out a bit more how some of this might look in the life of a local community but for now, I just want to paint some very broad strokes of what a missional community (as we understand and practice them) is and isn’t. Though it may look different for different missional communities, I have come to believe that some attempt to place people within this sweet spot is part of what a missional community is always aiming for.
I seem to find myself having variations of the same conversations a lot. I’m not complaining, it just interests me. More often than not, the conversation is with other pastors who hear about “missional communities” and want to hear more. Church of the Cross, where I serve, organizes itself around missional communities (or, we also call them Gospel Communities on Mission) so I find myself explaining this quite a bit. This is great because it has forced our own church family to be clear about what we mean and what we don’t.
Part of the problem, though, is that “missional communities” has become sort of a “junk-drawer” term. Lots of homes have that drawer (we actually several) where you throw everything you can’t seem to find a place for. It is common for words and terms to take on similar status, adopting definitions (sometimes even contradictory definitions depending on who you talk to) along the way until no one is quite sure what the term means. This can be quite frustrating for someone who just wants to understand.
So, I want to take a few posts here and explain some of the things that we mean when we talk about organizing ourselves around gospel communities on mission (missional communities). I am not pretending that these are the only ways to undertand these terms or that we speak for everyone using the terms, just that this is what we mean.
The first thing to consider is the expectation of Scripture that God’s people will grow. This seems rather self-evident but consider the reality: we understand and accept the notion that: “oh, he’s just a baby Christian” and that someone can remain a “baby Christian” for a very long time. My wife and I have four boys. If any of them didn’t grow, we would be extremely worried and we would take drastic measures to make sure that they started growing as expected.
The Bible talks about salvation as a “new birth,” (John 3:1-15) as being “born again” from spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1-11). Peter says that, “like newborn infants,” we should long for that which will help us grow (1 Peter 2:2) and Paul says that we should not stay like children forever (Ephesians 4:1-16). This is common sense. People grow, they change, they mature; and the Christian life is no different. We are expected to grow, change and mature.
This means that part of the role of the local church is to create a context in which growth and change in the Christian life are most likely to occur. By this I am not saying that we can guarantee anything or even that we can make people grow in the Christian life. But I do believe that we should encourage growth as much as possible.
Another way to say this might be that we are called to make, mature and multiply disciples of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20). An apprentice sits under a master, watching, learning and doing until it is time for them to go do it on their own, hopefully taking another apprentice along with them. We call this process of helping each other change, helping each other “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13)” discipleship and if it is not at the center of our churches, something else will be.
I can’t find anywhere in Scripture where we are commanded to plant churches, but I can find where we are called to make, mature and multiply disciples. So we must ask ourselves: how well have we done at discipleship, at helping people grow, change and mature more and more to reflect Jesus and, if we haven’t done all that well, what (if anything) might need to change in order to place people in contexts where they are more likely to experience the change the Gospel (the good news about who Jesus is and what He’s done) expects of us.
We believe that people are more likely to experience Gospel change as the events on the church calendar are stripped away and the Truths we discuss are applied in everyday life and people are equipped to help each other (Galatians 6:1) experience God’s change in their lives. So we have intentionally cleared much of the traditional church calendar and focused on our Gathered Worship, our Missional Communities and what we call DNA (Discipleship/Nurture/Accountability) Groups and tried to move away from our Gathered Worship being the engine that drives our life together as a church.
This does not mean we don’t preach or value preaching. This does not mean that Sunday is not important or that we don’t strive to do it well. It just means that, it is common for churches to use Sunday as the thing around which they organize and energize people and we view Sunday as a gathering of people who have tried to live out the Gospel scattered throughout the week. It means that Sunday is a family reunion rather than a performance. It means that we believe that change is more likely to happen when people are asked to really live out what the bible says rather than simply learn more.
I realize that I haven’t defined or described much about missional communities yet. But it’s important to see that we organize the life of our church family this way, not because it’s a new fad but because we are sincerely pursuing the growth, change and maturity that God has in store for us. Your church may do it differently and that’s OK as long as the goal is spiritual maturity and multiplication rather than a big church.
Over the next few days, we’ll flesh out more of what a missional community is and isn’t. For now, I just want to say that it is the organizational principle for a local church that we believe is most conducive to seeing real, lasting change in people’s lives.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how local churches can best create contexts in which God’s truth is more likely, not just to be clear, but become “real” for people (for more on this concept, see my feeble post here, listen to Tim Keller’s fantastic lecture series Preaching to the Heart, or read Jared Wilson’s wonderful book Gospel Wakefulness). We cannot, nor should we try to force people to change. And yet, I do believe that Christianity is most powerful outside of the institution. By this, I don’t mean that local churches should have no structure. I simply mean that, to a large degree in the West, Christianity has become institutionalized.
We have largely helped people in the segmentation of their lives. We have encouraged them to abandon their “non-Christian” friends to enter into the “Christian” world. We have replaced their movies. We have replaced their music. We have replaced their friends. This, of course, has been done in order to protect Christians from “being pulled down.” Because, as we all know, it is much easier to pull someone off a ladder than it is to pull someone up onto the top of a ladder.
The result, of course, has been that many Christians have isolated themselves from those who don’t (yet) believe. We encourage our unbelieving neighbors to join us in the sports league at the local mega-church and we ask those who don’t (yet) believe to cross cultural barriers that we ourselves are not willing to cross. All the while, we forget how much we love to sing “Jesus, What A Friend Of Sinners,” without really wanting to live like Jesus lived.
I should have mentioned at the beginning that, alongside my thinking about making the Gospel “not just clear but real,” I have been thinking about the idea of discipleship in light of Matthew 28:18-20, which has become known as “The Great Commission:”
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
The more I think about these verses and its implications, the more I have come to personally distinguish between “disciples” and “discipleship.” In his fascinating book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard describes a “disciple” as:
A disciple or apprentice, then, is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is.
I think (but please help me understand if I’m wrong), that we can safely distinguish between the process we have come to know as “discipleship” and someone who is actually a “disciples.” Let me explain. Based on Willard’s explanation, coupled with the “Great Commission,” I understand a “disciple” to be someone who has actively decided to follow in Jesus’ ways and strive to become more like Him.
“Discipleship,” however, I understand, to be the process teaching people to “observe” or “practice” all that Jesus commanded, so that we can baptize them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit” in the promise and strength that, not only has “all authority in heaven and on earth” ben given to Jesus, but that He is with us, “always, to the end of the age.”
But, let me further explain. As I understand it, “discipleship” applies to both those who have made the decision to become “disciples,” but those who haven’t. And, to add to the mix, “discipleship” is not just about modifying people’s behavior. Because, let’s be honest: we can tweak people’s emotions and we can scare people into certain decisions, but, in our own strength, and in our own ways, we can never really change people’s hearts. That’s up to God and God alone.
So, what are some of the things that Jesus has commanded people to obey? Think about Matthew 16:24-28:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Here, Jesus basically says that we should love God so much that the rest of life is simply rubbish to us (a sentiment the Apostle Paul expressed years later). We love God so much that we’re living to give up the rest of life in order to follow Him. Or, when asked what the greatest commandment is/was, what was Jesus’ response, was, if I may summarize, “Love God and Love Others” (Matthew 22:36-40). Or, what about the time when Jesus said that it was by our love for one another (not our political affiliations or the “family friendly” radio we listen to or the movies we watch or don’t watch, or the neighborhood we live in, or the car we drive, or the church we “go to” or drinks we do or don’t drink) that the world would know that we are His (John 13:35)?
Here’s the thing: “discipling” those who profess to follow Jesus and those that don’t often boils down to the same thing: getting people to realize that they can’t possibly meet God’s standards on their own. They need Jesus. They need His perfect, Spirit-dependent, Law-abiding, God-loving, perfectly dependent, God-glorifying, joyfully obedient because it flows from Worship of the Almighty who created Heaven and Earth life. What Jesus did, we need but could never do. What Jesus is, we should be but don’t want to be. We have loved other things. We have pursued other loves. We have bowed down to the altar of _____________ when all that said “god” represents is only found in the One true, Creator God who somehow exists in Three Persons in One Being and demands our worship because it is good, right and perfect.
So, as I meet and talk and live life with my Christian friends, we are continually finding the myriad of ways in which we fail to meet God’s standards. And we are so thankful that Jesus has d0ne what we do not and could not and, frankly, do not want to do: glorify God in utter dependence with every breath. We learn to show one another how utterly dependent on Jesu we truly are and how utterly beautiful His life of perfect obedience not only was, but is for my everyday.
And, as I talk and live with my friends who do not yet belong to Jesus, my home becomes an example of my worship/joy-fueled pursuit of the Perfect Model, Sacrifice and Intercessor. They will begin to witness the way I lay down my own life for my wife’s best interests and, in response, she joyfully yields herself to my lead. They will witness how we sacrifice our time, our money, our resources for the sake of others. And we will continually seek opportunities to tell them that it is only because we have come to know the depths of how much God has first loved us by giving His only Son (1 John 4:8-12) so that we may have everlasting life (John 3:16).
In other words, as I see it, the point of “discipleship” is to get those who already believe and those who don’t to get to the point where they throw there hands up and say “I have no hope other than Jesus.” The point of “discipleship” is always to get people to the Gospel, to get them as close to hugging that bloody, splintery Cross as possible.
For some, this will result in belief and new life and following Jesus through earthly death unto eternal life. For others, this will result in eternal judgment from God. At some point, everyone, everywhere, at every time, must decide what to do with Jesus. He is the the one inescapable historical figure who everyone must deal with. After all, He claimed to be God and that makes Him either a “liar, a lunatic” or a truth-teller, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.
So as I understand it, though a “disciple” is someone who has been spiritually raised from the dead (Ephesians 2) and has committed themselves to Jesus and the glory of God in all things, “discipleship” is the point of getting people to the point of realizing that they have no hope before God other than Jesus. So, “discipleship” applies both to “disciples” and not-yet discipels, since the Gospel is the hope for both.
I hope you’re tracking with me and I’m not sure I’m communicating my point here well, but what I’m trying to say is that I understand “discipleship” as something that applies to both “Believers” and “Non-Believers” (to use more traditional Evangelical terms) because the point of discipleship is never just behavior modification but heart modification which comes only through contact with God which comes only through the Spirit leading us through contact/confrontation with Jesus and His Work at the Cross.
As we bring everyone into contact with what is expected of them by God (Matthew 5:48, etc.), which is nothing less than perfection, we all begin to realize that the only way we can meet such expectations is by a perfect substitute inserting themselves between us and God, which is exactly what Jesus has done. So, the idea of “discipleship” means bringing a professed “disciple” through, not only the initial changes that come at salvation (I used to smoke/drink/think about that and now I don’t) but the heat issues behind the sins (I now realize that I smoked/drank/thought about that because I was looking for _____) and it also means bringing someone who does not yet follow Jesus to a point of crisis, whether it means they realize they can’t possibly do it on their own or they don’t want to curtail their “freedom” to follow Jesus.
So the point of “discipleship,” as I’m beginning to understand it, is to always make someone a better disciple of Jesus, no matter where they’re at on the continuum; to always bring them closer to fuller belief (while realizing that there will be some who simply never cross over the full threshold of belief, which, ultimately, is God’s business, not ours) and full discipleship. It is always meant to bring us to the point of brokenness (the intersection of “law/gospel”), where we realize that we can’t possibly meet God’s standards without Jesus.
What are your thoughts? Am I right in distinguishing form “disciples” and “discipleship”? Is the point always to bring us (as Sovereign Grace Ministries has taught me to sing}, “Deeper Into The Glories of Calvary”? Am I right in understanding the process of discipleship to begin even with those who don’t (yet) believe in helping them to confront Jesus’ expectations and guiding them to the realization that they will never meet such standards on their own? Am I right in understanding that the ongoing process for those who have already professed allegiance to Jesus is the same?
By the way, iff you wonder why the image for this post is based on Franz Kafka‘s brilliant short story “The Metamorphosis,” please read it if you haven’t and then e-mail me if you still have questions. Or, if you have read it and don’t like my associations, also please e-mail me. Otherwise, please
Francois de la Rochefoucauld famously said: “The only thing constant in life is change.” Life is not static, it is dynamic. We mark the passage of time through the changing of the seasons, we measure our lives by the roadside monuments to change; births, marriages, career changes wins and losses.
God tells us that a life following Jesus is also a process of change. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that those who belong to Jesus are being transformed “into the same image” (the image of Jesus; we are being made more like Him), from one degree or glory to another. In other words, not only have we been changed at salvation, we are being changed as we continue to follow Jesus. As much as I’d like to stop an marvel how it is that Paul can say we have any degree of glory from which to be transformed in the first place, I want to focus instead on the idea that he simply expects continued transformation to be part of the Christian life.
Scripture uses the imagery of growth and maturation to describe the process we often call “sanctification.” In short, salvation is pictured as a new birth (John 3:1-15). Paul says that the church works together so that we can all attain “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). The goal is that everyone will be “presented mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). We know that this process of change, of becoming more like Jesus will not be complete until “he appears” and “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
All of this seems to me, to imply that the Christian life should be a process of active growth. When children are passive, when they simply sit and watch television all the time, they don’t develop the way they’re supposed to. Metabolism and growth slow. I worry that we have created a church culture where the excuse “oh, he’s just a baby Christian” has become all too common. I worry that we have created a church culture that has lulled people into passivity, making them dependent on on paid professionals and isolating them from the power of the Gospel in everyday life.
In his wonderful series on Preaching To The Heart, argues that the point of preaching is not just to make the Truth clear but to make it real. In other words, preachers should be applying the Gospel to the motivational structures of the heart while people are there listening. If you’re not sure what he means, I highly suggest listening to this series. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of Keller’s idea. I believe that it applies, not just to preaching but to the very ways in which we “do church.”
I’m not convinced that there is only one right model of church. In fact, I believe in contextualization and I love the fact that the Church is such a beautiful tapestry of different backgrounds and approaches all coming together. And yet, I do have lots of reservations about the “come and see/bigger is always better/consumer-driven” approach that seems to have become the default. I worry that it simply reinforces the false division between the “sacred” and the “secular” and enforces the false notions that the “spiritual” aspects of life are our “quiet times” and what happens at the church building. We see lots of teachers making God’s truth clear to people, but I’m not sure we really see it becoming “real” to people.
If you’re not sure what Keller means by the distinction between making it “clear” and making it “real,” Keller references Jonathan Edwards’ A Divine and Supernatural Light, where Edwards argues:
“There is a twofold knowledge of good of which God has made the mind of man capable. The first, that which is merely notional … And the other is, that which consists in the sense of the heart; as when the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it. In the former is exercised merely…the understanding, in distinction from the… disposition of the soul …Thus there is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former that knows not how honey tastes; but a man cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind.”
In other words, someone can intellectually know that honey is sweet without having tasted its sweetness. But you cannot taste its sweetness without also knowing intellectually that honey is sweet. In fact, once you’ve tasted it, the intellectual knowledge becomes “more real.” Psalm 34:8 urges us to “taste and see that the LORD is good!” I am concerned that our passive approach to church (sit in a pew, sit in a class, sit in a study, etc.) has led to many people being able to intellectually describe God’s sweetness without having ever actually tasted. We need to do a better job in the church of creating contexts where people have the chance to actually taste God’s sweetness, to see Him in action, to rely on His power.
Much of Jesus’ ministry happened “along the way,” and in community. In fact, as Jesus traveled through life with those He was discipling, many of his “ministry opportunities” might have been what we would consider distractions. I’m becoming convinced that we need to marinate people in the Gospel, get them outside of the church walls in community and on mission (yes, this is an argument for missional communities).
If the goal of the way we do things is not just to make the Gospel clear but real, then I believe Sunday morning can no longer be the organizing principle of our local churches. Before you jump to condemnation, I’m not saying we shouldn’t value Gathering, and preaching and singing and prayer and fellowship or even church structure, just that it doesn’t seem to be the best way to make the Gospel real in people’s lives.
We need to intentionally place people where they are living in community and on mission while becoming fluent in the Gospel. This happens best in smaller groups outside the church walls and helps people come to grips with what it means for the Gospel to be real. We desperately need the Gospel to live in community, where “that person” pushes our buttons and my coffee table was just broken and people didn’t clean up after themselves and where people can speak the truth in love to me and we can bear one another’s burdens. We desperately need the Gospel to live on mission, living everyday life with Gospel intentionality, learning to live through the lens of missionary eyes.
I don’t have time or space to fully unpack the idea of missional communities (or GCM’s as some call them) here, but I do want to urge church planters, pastors and Christians in general to ask: is the Gospel simply “clear” in my life or has it become “real.” In order for this to happen, I believe we need to move beyond Sunday-driven church as we’ve known it and redeem the everyday, where God seems to do most of His work already.