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The Emperor Has No Clothes

As the world continues to move through the ups and downs of pandemic and economic turmoil, I continue to watch the Church, especially in America (obviously, since that’s where we live) try to navigate the upheaval. I basically see two basic strategies:

  • Work hard to try and get back to normal Sunday services and programs
  • Adapt to thrive in an environment of turbulence

Much of the Church seems to be throwing their energy behind the first strategy. As of this writing, the world has endured a reported 20 million+ cases of COVID-19 and a reported 744,000+ deaths and caused massive upheaval around the world. But the pause of the pandemic has given us the opportunity to examine our effectiveness as the Body of Christ in America. How effective are we as ambassadors of Christ? How well do we actually make disciples? How intimate and passionate is our relationship with the LORD both as individuals and corporately? How well are we positioned to endure crisis, tragedy and persecution on a national or global scale? Let me just give my opinion that – generally speaking – the American Church was struggling before COVID and now, after a “wake-up-and-smell-the-roses” experience like a global pandemic, the American Church is at a crisis of crossroads.

Let’s take a look at a few things:

  • While almost never overtly stated, the expectation is that intimacy between Church goers can be created through a combination of Sunday morning services, weekly small groups and once-a-month gender specific gatherings.
  • The discipleship process in most churches (if it exists at all) centers around guiding people through a study or program over a number of weeks and hoping they “catch it”
  • The measure of a successful church (usually prefaced by the statement, “we don’t really care about numbers”) is how many people we can gather together in one building on Sunday morning
  • Outreach programs are deemed a triumph if numbers (which, again, we don’t care about) are high and we can walk as many people as possible (there’s those numbers again) through the Sinners’ Prayer
  • Effectiveness of church or missionary staff largely centers around how packed-out their calendar can be

Again, these statements are not true for every church or faith community and if they offend you, perhaps that’s an invitation to take a look at your own spiritual surroundings. However, what I see in the gospels, the Book of Acts and the early Church fathers is a dramatically different picture than what I see in the American Church as a whole. Jesus only purposefully gathered a “meager” twelve people around him. He walked none of them through a study or program to become disciples – he only said, “Follow me.” Paul’s discipleship “process” involved inviting people with him on his journey to plant churches and having the boldness to say, “follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The writings of Tertullian (one of the early Church fathers from the 2nd century AD), are packed with references to the soldiers of Christ as contrasted with the undisciplined “paganus” (civilians). Honestly, most soldiers of Christ I see today appear to be enjoying the amenities at the barracks.

In the early Church a disciple was recognized by two primary things:

  • The fruit of the Spirit
  • Their ability to reproduce

The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) was the chief marker of being a follower of Christ because those characteristics stood in such stark opposition to the culture of the day. How much do we stand out from the culture around us? Beyond that, a disciple was someone who could produce disciples who would then go and make more disciples. This inherently involved going out and engaging with those people who were not yet disciples (notice I did not say believers). It is debatable whether or not we have issues making believers in the American Church, but I think it’s pretty clear how effective we are at making disciples.

Walking someone down the Roman Road and getting them to pray the Sinner’s Prayer might make a believer out of someone, but it will never make a disciple out of them because discipleship requires relationship. In Acts 8, Philip leads the Ethiopian eunuch into belief, but he did not disciple him (at least not that we read in Acts). Paul’s letters are filled with personal stories and connections because he was in relationship with the people he discipled (read Philemon or 1 & 2 Timothy for fantastic examples of Paul’s relationship with his disciples).

Now, back to the American Church. We have been given a gracious and fantastic opportunity to re-evaluate ourselves in this season. When I hear church leaders talking about getting back to “normal” or restarting the juggernaut of programs and processes that have largely been ineffective in actually accomplishing our mandate, I am moved to feelings of disappointment and disgust. I do not in any way, shape or form believe that God has allowed the entire world to be put on pause and life as we know it to be turned upside down just so that we can clamor back to our comfy chairs, sway a little bit during the singing part and suck up another sermon given by the only person evidently qualified to deliver one.

When Paul gives us a litmus test for our corporate gathers, he says, “Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation. All things must be done for edification” (1 Corinthians 14:26). That kind of participation is difficult in a crowd of even one or two hundred, which should give us another clue as to what our corporate gatherings should look like. If the format for our corporate gatherings is fundamentally not based on the Bible, how can we validate the programs and processes built on that same format?

The Church in American (again, generally speaking) is broken and the sooner we acknowledge it, the sooner we can let go of the things that don’t work and embrace what does, namely, discipleship based on personal, raw relationship. Let’s embrace a model where seeds of faith can be sown, where growth leads to replication and where disciples transform culture. That is the Jesus model of discipleship. That is the model that produces a small group of people who will turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6) rather than a large group of people who celebrate seeing each other once or twice a week. Let us grab hold of this opportunity to remake our faith communities into launchpads for world-changing disciples of Christ who can thrive in the turbulence of our times.

For more info on how we are part of that, click here. To join us in this mission, click here.

For insight into the title of this blog, click here or here.

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