Church Planting – The latest Good Mission to Replace The Great Commission

25 03 2009

bait-and-switchFor years now I’ve read and enjoyed fellow Kentuckian Michael Spencer’s blog and I appreciate and agree with so much of what he wrote regarding The Coming Evangelical Collapse which rightfully spread like wild fire around the blogosphere.  He’s a prophetic voice in the post-evangelical wilderness.  But, like most prophets, he deconstructs flawed ideas far better than he constructs new ones.  He’s ten parts hammer to one part screwdriver and in his uncharacteristically brief post on his proposed solution to the Coming Evangelical Collapse, Spencer lends his voice the cacophony of innovative evangelicals who believe planting more churches is the way we fulfill the Great Commission.  And on this one point he is wrong.

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is where Jesus commands his disciples to go and make more disciples.  I’m going to say the most simple statement that may sound so obvious even writing it seems absurd.  But I can also say, that in all my life, I have almost never met a Christian leader, pastor, author, speaker, church planter or missionary who actually believes it.  And it is this:  there is only one way to fulfill the Great Commission and it is – to make disciples.

Our enemy will happily promote any idea, strategy, cause or movement that is not entirely focused on the intentional training of disciples.  He will be happy to see our Christian efforts achieve financial, numerical and even reproductive success as long as we’re not counting the completely transformed life of reproducing disciples.

You might be saying to yourself, “wait, isn’t that what we’re doing?  Even our mission statement as a church is ‘to make disciples’.  Doesn’t almost all Christian ministry result in making disciples?”  no, No, NO!  They do not.  Jesus said in Matthew 28:20 “teaching them to obey everything…” in other words – training.  Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:25 that Olympic athletes go in to “strict training” to get a fading crown but we go into strict training to get a crown that will last forever.  I’ve asked several hundred Christians this question or a similar one that quickly exposes if you are making disciples or not.  On a scale of 1-10, “10” being Olympic training and “1” being training as a Barista at Starbucks, where would you plot the intentional discipleship training you regularly give or receive.  Guess what everyone says.  “I don’t give or receive hardly any training” or they simply say, “ah… negative 5”.  And here’s the dirty little secret: it doesn’t matter if they are in a main-line denomination or in the most innovative church plant to emerge from Acts 29, they are not making disciples.

So, no Michael Spencer, planting churches does not fulfill the Great Commission.  Church planting has been the latest in a long line of replacements for the Great Commission.  And all of these replacements have been good things – biblical preaching, church growth, church planting, small groups, missional communities anything please but NOT intentional discipleship training.

There are three simple reasons why church planting, as an activity, does not result in the intentional training of disciples and I’ll put it in a three point alliterative outline for my evangelical friends – church planting 1)divides, 2)demoralizes and 3)distracts.

Divides – The most common result of a church planting effort is the creation of a new worship service ministry.  In a city with 10,000 true Christians guess how many are currently involved in a worship service ministry – maybe 9,000+ and guess how many are involved in a weekly rhythm of discipleship training – maybe 50.  Huh…what if you had two choices when going into a town with 10,000 true Christians and 100 different styles of worship services with the goal of fulfilling the Great Commission.

Option #1 – Plant a new more innovative worship service
Option #2 – Start a discipleship training movement as a ministry to the 100 existing churches and the city as a whole.

Which is more likely to result in more trained disciples (i.e. help fulfill the Great Commission)?

We need 100% of the disciples in a city clearly connected to our mission of training disciples and if they coordinated with each other instead of building a new hipper wall against one another it would make the task far more effective.

Demoralizes – You would never think to build a ministry intended to reproduce disciples around a single person.  But we don’t hesitate to build churches around one man.  Why?  Because it reproduces churches.  Of course the byproduct of this activity is passive consumers, and then more churches and then more passive consumers.  How exactly does this fulfill the Great Commission?  Yah, I’ve read countless books of innovated dudes who are trying to find a new and creative way to take this existing hierarchical structure that hinges on one person and PRESTO morph it into a disciple-making machine but it doesn’t work.  Why make more of what isn’t working?  Why not do what Paul did in Acts 19 which was NOT to plant a new church but to start a city-wide disciple-making movement.  Disciple-making movements make more disciples than churches.  I wonder why?  “But in my church of 3000 I’ve seen several new Christians turn into disciples.”  Yes, and you can build an entire house with a edge of a dime instead of a screw driver and ya, a few boards are bound to hold together, but as your brother and friend I feel that maybe I should hand you a screw driver.  Church planting is like a caffeine high.  It works for short time but its biggest result is a head ache and the need for more caffeine.  When the church plant dust settles and the “new” and “exciting” gives way to the routine you still have a bunch of people sitting in chairs, not reproducing disciples.

Distracts – And of course the biggest problem with all this new fervor for church planting is that it is a distraction to a clear mission with a clear solution.  Yes, we can do both/and.  I’m sure the comments will light up with people telling me not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Can’t we do biblical preaching and discipleship, worship services and discipleship, small groups and discipleship, mega-church and discipleship, social justice and discipleship.  Don’t ask, yes you can, but you won’t.  Why?  Because institutional survival demands you do those other things first and they don’t lead to the training of disciples.  A typical church structure has the following priorities by design –

Priority #1 – The Worship Service – To be involved in that church typically means to regularly attend that worship service (Church member involvement 100%)

Priority #2 – Small Groups – Christian need community and the service doesn’t provide this (Church member involvement 50%)

Priority #3 – Serving in a Ministry (You NEED people to do this to pull of the worship service every week (Church member involvement 20%)

Priority #4, #5, #6, #7….is a list of things churches like to do and discipleship training gets lumped in here so we can get that old guy from the Navigators to shut-up about it. (Church member involvement, less than 5%)

Good discipleship training can and will lead to each of those other things naturally but none of those things will naturally lead to good discipleship training.  God made the chicken before the egg and you need to train disciples BEFORE you experience the fruit of trained disciples – the local church.  But you won’t because you don’t believe me.  As long as their is a glimmer of hope that current programs might some day produce new results without the need to change you’ll keep waiting.  And so on it goes.

Jesus said “go make disciples” and he said “I will build my church” but like Adam in the garden we would rather eat the fruit than work in the dirt.  Disciple-making can be tough, toilsome work but it’s what our Lord commanded us to do and no activity, no matter how seemingly good, should replace it.

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The Great Commission in One New Sentence

17 11 2008

I think the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-21) lays out a very clear mission and method for discipleship but everywhere I go it seems people are ceaselessly asking the question “how do Christian grow and mature”.  Such as the latest post on David Fitch’s blog under that title.

So, since we seem to often miss the practical nature of the Great Commission, I want to boil it down:

Go to all nations = continual, world-wide expansion

Make disciples = initiate a systematic, clear, repeatable discipleship process

Baptizing them = death to self and resurrection into a devoted trinitarian community

Teaching them to obey = training

Everything I have commanded you = comprehensive

So if you want to see Christians “grow and mature” why not try this:

Create a clear, systematic, repeatable, comprehensive discipleship training process for those who have died to themselves and been resurrected with Christ baptizing them into a devoted trinitarian community and repeat until we disciple all the nations on Earth.

Since we’ve tried everything else and it hasn’t worked, lets try Jesus’ idea for a change.





Restoring the Mission as City-Wide Discipleship Podcast (Seattle, August 2008)

9 09 2008
  • What did Paul actually do when he spent a year in a new city?
  • Why is the Christian faith not having a deep impact on most Christians or the culture in general?
  • Do we have a central mission around which everything else is formed?

These are questions I’ve wrestled with for a long time and in this conversation I lay out what I believe to be the biblical mission that must be restored to the church – city-wide discipleship.

In this podcast we discuss –

  • Why restoration is needed without falling into restorationism
  • I share my journey in rediscovering the centrality of discipleship as the mission
  • We midrash 3 passages as a group (Mt. 28, Jn 17, Acts 19-20)
  • We discuss how church structures interact with the need to disciple a city
  • We talk about the need for the re-emergence of the city-church
  • We share how we use the Story-Formed Life to begin a training center

Listen to the podcast by clicking the link below (to download right click and “save target/link as”)

Restoring the Mission as City-Wide Discipleship Podcast
To see the slides click here




Your Discipleship Tools Are Too Weak

30 08 2008

As I’ve discussed the making of disciples with church planters and church leaders and they admit disciples are not being made I find myself saying this line over and over again (Your discipleship tools are too weak).  This is the diagnoses I find most accurate for so many churches and ministries.  Their discipleship is Sunday worship, community groups and a class a year.  I find myself wanting to ask, “are you really TRYING to make disciples or are you trying to check it off the list so you can get on with what you believe is the REAL mission?” (which is usually either “being missional” or balancing the four E’s or the the 4 W’s or some other construction of 4 different missions).

So what is the test of an effective discipleship process?  How do you know when your process is intense and complete enough?  Jesus gives us that answer in the Great Commission when he describes discipleship as “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Notice –

  1. “teaching them to obey” means teaching without obedience is not really a part of discipleship (which passes for the vast majority of what we think of as discipleship).  There’s a word in English for teaching with a direct outcome focus and that word is training.  If your discipleship isn’t training (if it’s only teaching) it’s not discipleship.
  2. “obey everything I have commanded you” which means discipleship must be comprehensive.  Most people ignore this line with a “sigh” and saying to themselves “see, its impossible”.  We have an enlightenment definition of comprehensive knowledge but I think both Jesus and the disciples thought this was entirely possible maybe in a 1-2 year process.  Paul says to the Ephesian elders after 2 years “I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” (Acts 20:27)  So we move on to part 27 in our 49 part series through the book of Luke not considering that we are actually responsible to train each disciple in our care to obey “everything”.  This requires an aggressive, comprehensive, systematic plan for discipleship.

So let’s try this approach.  Erase from your mind what is “practical” in your church or context and let yourself dream for just a moment.  Five brand new Christians come to you for training.  You have no tools yet (no worship service, no small groups, no classes etc.).  What would you design that would turn these 5 into fully trainied and obedient disciples?  When you’re done architecting the process ask yourself why we are not willing to sacrfice our sacred cows to weild tools strong enough for the task we are given.  Until we are we’ll never stop being baffled by why our weak tools simply don’t work.





Distinctives of Christian Training – Discipleship Series Part 3

26 01 2008

We’ve defined discipleship and unearthed training methods but what elements must be a part of Christian discipleship? Below is a list of seven that have been important for us as we’ve initiated processes intended for transformation from our old life into the life of Christ.

Strict Training – What little Christian training does exist it seems to have a level of intensity somewhere between Kindermusic and the Brownies. Perhaps this is why we would rather endlessly pontificate abstract general truths from the pulpit rather than get up in each other’s “bidness”. After all, isn’t hurting someone’s feelings a sin? (God save us from this lie).

Here’s a little explored passage these days. 1 Cor. 9:25olympiad.jpgEveryone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

Notice that when Paul says “they go into strict training…but we” But we what? We go into strict training to get a crown that will last forever. We do? Do you remember the date you went into strict training? Further. Paul compares our training to Olympic training. Here is one of those cultural illustrations that actually still works for our culture but to no avail. We all know how Olympic trainers train but we have an Olympians skill at avoiding these kinds of uncomfortable Scriptures. Oh well, it’s only the Bible. And this was a long time ago. Maybe the people of Paul’s day needed strict training but today our transformed lives are so evident that all we have left to do is come together for 1 hour a week to celebrate the achievement of our unsurpassed maturity in Christ. Paul would be so proud (when the Christian activity of almost all mediocre Christians is “weekly celebrations” what exactly are they celebrating anyway?).

Faith-building – One big difference between training someone to master a skill (like playing the piano) and discipling someone in Christ-likeness is a shift from focusing first on behavior to faith. Jesus knew better than anyone that behavior naturally follows faith and the best way to transform behavior is to build the disciple’s faith. Our aim in discipleship is to tear down false beliefs that naturally lead to godless action and to carefully construct a new set of beliefs strong enough for the weight of real life.

Let me illustrate this process. In Genesis 1 we learn that men and women are created in the image of God (The Imago Dei) which is the foundation of our worth and that every human being. It’s a nice idea but I’ve never met a Christian that believes it. On a scale of 1-10 the may, if they are lucky, believe in the Imago Dei at a 1 but they believe in the culture’s definition of human worth (performance, appearance, and self-esteem based) at a 8 or 9. So almost all Christians think of themselves and treat others just like the culture because we believe the same as they do. If you teach them about the Imago Dei they will say to themselves “Come on, I’ve heard this before. I already know this.” And they are right, but they don’t believe it.

You see, the instant their faith in the Imago Dei grows (to say a 6) and surpasses their faith in the culture’s definition of human worth (say it falls to a 5) that person will instantly change. No joke. I’ve seen this over and over again. What is not instant is the process of increasing one’s faith in the truth and the deconstruction of one’s faith in the lies. Jesus didn’t care about what people knew, he cared about what they believed. We’ve replaced an obsession with faith with one of knowledge. A discipled congregation for most leaders is when their church knows all of God’s truth once they spent 20 years preaching through the Bible. Never mind these things they “know” they only believe at a 1. So how do you build faith instead of merely impart knowledge? It requires specific training methods we’ll build on later but for now I’ll say its often the dynamic interaction of two methods 1) intensely, intentionally and personally testing the real beliefs of trainees through invasive questioning followed by 2) aggressively, systematically deconstructing worldly beliefs by a skilled faith-filled Spirit-led trainer the trainee trusts and respects.

Christ-centered – He is our model our inspiration and the physical embodiment of the truth we are growing to believe. The Gospels that painstakingly describe Christ’s life must paint the target.

Narrative-based – What are we building faith in? Unfortunately we’re still recovering from a devastating period of human thought called “the Enlightenment” which ripped truths out of contexts, which tends to work fine for disembodied abstractions like math, but is devastating for theology (truths about God). We are living in God’s story and the Bible is mostly narrative, so we can experience God through his real life actions, not so we can dissect him in neat pieces for scientific evaluation. People need to become personally identified with who they are through the story of God. This Story-formed Life contains the categories for all the faith elements necessary for life changing discipleship.

Calls to Repentance – As disciples work through the story and identify truths they clearly don’t really believe (given the evidence of their life) we need to call them to repentance in every area. Radicle disciples have chosen to turn their back on lies and reorient their lives toward the truth the first step of which is repentance every time.

Spirit-filled – No doubt some have received teaching about the Spirit that they use as their excuse for avoiding this activity. I’m sorry but Jesus didn’t command the Spirit to make disicples, he told the disciples to make disciples (and us by extension). But with that said, discipleship, like everything in the Christian life, must be done through active dependence on the Spirit. Few things are more amazing to watch than a discipler, filled with the Holy Spirit, unearth the secret faulty foundation of a trainees heart in a way that brings a flood of freedom, life and Christ-likeness.

Lifelong – It doesn’t stop until we reach full maturity (which doesn’t happen in this life) so this process needs to keep going. But it’s precisely this unending nature that makes it so important to separate training into clear, burstable, bite-sized modules. Modular training allows everyone to start where they actually are at, but gives freedom to push well-trained disciples even farther in their pursuit of the Christ-like life.

In part 4 I’ll describe what we do at Koine to give one (imperfect) example of these principles applied.





Restructuring the Church for Explosive Growth

19 01 2008

What if there was a way to restructure the church that would –

1. Consistently train church members into devoted disciples
2. Create deep community and body life
3. Release the priesthood of all believers
4. Free up to 90% of church resources for expansion

What would you say? Let me guess – “Come on Jeremy, you hopeless idealist. We all know that only a fraction of our members will grow into fully-devoted disciples, that community might happen on accident if people find friendship, that people will only be released when given small jobs by full-time clergy and that it takes 95% of our resources to pay for our staff, facilities and ministry expenses.”

Really? Should we settle for these kinds of results? Most have because they don’t see anyone getting different results. But I contend that, no matter how adamant you may be to see these four things happen in traditional church structures, you cannot achieve results that your system is not designed to produce. It’s a systemic problem. People in the business world understand this. They have to be brutally honest about the flaws in their system using the business axiom –

“Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting”

We have to admit that the reason we’re not making disciples, creating community or fully releasing others is because our system is not designed to produce these results. It’s designed to produce something else. Often a passive, sacrificially giving, spectator who consistently attends church meetings and services. A far cry from fulfilling the Great Commission.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. What if we were to build a system from scratch that was simply designed to make disciples, create community and fully release each other’s gifts? What would the church look like? The church would look strangely similar to the first church. There are only three very simple structures you need to build in order get these results but you need them all at the same time. Only building one or two will not give you the desired results.

Structure One – Body Church. This is a group of people (15-25) who live life together (like a body), regular share meals (like a family) and consistently gather in homes to build each other up under the direct headship of Christ.

Structure Two – Discipleship Training Center (the city church) – This is the School of Tyrannus idea where the teachers and trainers of a cluster of body churches (3-5) hold constant trainings designed to “make disciples” “teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded” and would be overseen by a group of city-wide elders.

Structure Three – The Apostolic Team – This is a diverse team of people with apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral and teaching gifts that take responsibility for the health and well-being of many different city and body churches while using most of their resources to expand into new areas without ever neglecting the needs of existing works.

This strategy works, its simple and it leads to explosive growth both in maturity of individual believers as well as Kingdom expansion into new areas. It’s what Paul and hundreds of other apostolic teams did in the first century. Its why Christianity spreads virally (until it becomes institutionalized like in the West today). This strategy is the reason why every believer reading this post is a Christian today.

This strategy also requires no full-time people in the first two structures and, therefore, no permanent church positions that result in the disaster that is building churches around the gifts of one man. It gives all full-time workers deep community and support with others on the apostolic team ensuring no one becomes isolated or burnt out by working outside of their gifting. It is flexible enough to pour resources into areas that are growing fast while allowing almost instant response to threats that emerge to established works (dispatch a person or team).

I’ve only scratched the surface of the benefits but even with this slight amount of detail can someone please tell me why Paul’s strategy is not preferable to ours?

Why wouldn’t we do this?





The Pastor-ization of Christianity – An Alternative

17 01 2008

internetmap.jpgThe story has been repeated endless times. Whether you were at a Christian camp, on a missions trip, at a youth group meeting, or spending alone time with the Master you suddenly began to believe there was nothing you would rather do than minister to others. There are a million different ways you can experience this call on your life but its what happens the moment afterward that is rather uniform and that must be questioned.

Within seconds most of us have built in our minds the narrative for how this decision will play out in our lives. Unless you decide to become a missionary overseas you will decide attend a Bible College or Seminary and be trained to fill a full-time pastoral position in an institutional church for an indefinite period of time (maybe for the rest of your life). A few will choose to plant a church with the intention of quickly taking off the church planters hat and donning the pastor’s hat, and this is even more commonly a life-long commitment to pastoral ministry.

But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if, instead of 99% of ministers taking permanent pastoral positions, no one is supposed to take that path? What if this kind of call is apostolic and not pastoral? First lets consider how men interpreted this call in the first century and then explore an alternative path.

Where are the Pastor’s of the first century church? Where do we get our biblical foundation for the way virtually all church ministry is directed today? Of course the answer is, we know of no Pastor who held a permanent position in an institutional church in the first century. The closest example people use is Timothy at Ephesus but was he their permanent Sr. Pastor? This would be an enormous stretch and reading our context into the Scriptures. When you turn to the book of Acts. where first century church practice is actually described, you never see this pastoral position in action. Church after church the apostles travel to and not one mention of these church’s having pastors. Letter after letter Paul sent to direct these churches how to mature and not one mention of the existence of a Pastor nor the admonition to seek calling a Pastor to help. Even churches in desperate straights like Corinth were not encouraged to lean on a single leader. In fact, Paul makes reference to the visits of many other apostles (there were literally thousands of little “a” apostles at that time) who had temporary ministries in Corinth but none settled down there. Why?

Because neither Paul, nor any of the first century apostles, would stifle a church, nor damage Kingdom expansion by holding a position in a single church. They believed they were to work their way out of job and quickly. Two years was the maximum time Paul spent anywhere and that was in a huge city where much training was required. Are we happy with the net effect of replacing thousands of scrappy, entrepreneur, independently funded apostles (and no paid Pastors) with millions of institutionally trained stay-at-home Pastors (and nearly no apostles)?  I’m not suggesting that every Pastor has apostolic gifts (that they can begin a new work) but that every gift (including the pastoral gift) should find its place within an apostolic team (be dispatched to temporary assignments as a part of the larger apostolic ministry).

So let’s imagine…

What would happen if EVERY pastor in the U.S. decided to leave their church in under 2 years and that their position would be dissolved after they left (no one could come and fill in the vacuum). Here’s a short list of what would happen –

  • Kingdom expansion would EXPLODE in growth with millions of trained ministers being released on apostolic missions to start new works or assist with struggling ones.
  • Lay ministry (non-paid disciples) would be released and, for the first time in our country, we would see the royal priesthood emerge.
  • Churches would be totally restructured from large complicated institutions into home-based bodies with almost no overhead, living in community.
  • Billions of additional dollars would be available for even further releasing of apostles
  • Cities would create a city-church structure over the house church complete with a School of Tyrannus to organize constant discipleship training, host visiting apostles, city elders to shepherd the smaller bodies and organize city-wide ministry efforts to bless their communities.
  • Apostolic networks would be formed where gifted ministers would be dispatched to equip churches exactly in the area of the minister’s strengths and that church’s (temporary) need.

So let’s do it! Let’s ask every Pastor to make a pledge to dissolve their position in 2 years or less and to be released on an apostolic mission. Let’s stop talking about seeking the Kingdom first and let’s actually do it. Don’t let petty excuses stop you. Yah, it would be an act of trust. You would actually have to be led by the Spirit to find your next assignment. You would actually have to trust God for provision instead of a comfortable compensation package. You would actually have to earn the right to be heard everywhere you went instead of listing academic credentials on a resume. But if you’re called by God you can do it. And if you’re not called to this type of ministry you should stop anyway.

If we had the faith to try I believe this approach would see the nations discipled in 2-3 generations. Jesus said “Go” not stay, and every apostle of that century obeyed and kept going (their obedience is why we are here today). Why should we be any different?