Ben's been writing a lot about his story and experience of The Vine over at godlovesthiscity.wordpress.com. I'm sure many of you that read this blog also read his, but if you haven't found your way there yet, I encourage you to take a look. The process (and especially some of the feedback he’s gotten) has helped me think a bit about my own journey and about the purpose of church and community.
One of the (many!) lessons this journey has taught me is that church is a place where people were being discipled so that they could go out and in turn make disciples of Jesus.
I don't care how that disciple-making happens - if you make one or if you make 200, if you talk about your faith non-stop or if you just to live it...a disciple of Jesus makes other disciples of Jesus. Faith is not a consumer product, something to be plucked off the shelf at the WalMart of Life along with your other feel-good items for Good Living. Faith is a daily, lived out process of learning to follow Jesus and teaching others to do the same.
However, we often treat the church as a provider of religious goods and services and not as a place for disciple making. (Incidentally, it makes me laugh everytime I see the line “other than intangible religious benefits, no goods or services were provided in exchange for this donation” on giving statements from churches).
I think this is the most challenging concept for us in our culture to understand, and certainly one I think few in our churches understand. We’re used to evaluating our lives based on what gives us the most benefit - spending time on the things we value, spending money on what is important to us, connecting with the people who can give us the most in return. This kind of consumer thinking certainly played into my leadership (whether I was always aware of it or not). It feels good when people come to worship and get something out of what you have to offer. It’s great when you plan an event and everybody has a great time. It’s wonderful when people start financially supporting your ministry. But - that doesn’t necessarily mean you are making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Jesus doesn’t want your time or your money or your relationships or your programs or events. Jesus wants your life. All of it. Not in piecemeal chunks (as if we could make a monthly….or weekly...payment), but everything - in one down payment of 100%. For me, that means I have to carry myself in the world as Jesus did. When I look at the way Jesus lived and how Jesus taught, I see this kenotic, self-emptying life that looks nothing like the consumeristic lifestyle our culture eats, sleeps, and breathes.
If we’re really trying to follow Jesus as a disciple, I don’t think we can place value on Jesus or church on what benefit it is to us as individuals, but how it benefits our community and our world. When those who participate in the church are primarily in it for how it benefits them, you get a community of people looking inward to their own needs and wants. It forms a community that is dependent upon its leader for all its spiritual needs. Discipleship is viewed as spiritual self-help, something that helps me and my own.
However, if we think about following Jesus in terms of the impact on the world around us, discipleship is less about us and our needs and more about others. Discipleship becomes about learning and growing in the ways of Jesus so that we can be the hands and feet of Jesus to a world that needs to be reminded of the hope and redemption that waits for us all. Discipleship becomes about how we are the body of Christ, called to go out and disciple others. Following Jesus in community with others means that at some point, the discipler steps to the background and lets the disciples step up, trusting them with the vision and mission of being the church out in the world.
I've always felt like my role as a pastor was to put myself out of a job (not, incidentally, in the way that happened with The Vine.) As a leader, my role was to disciple and empower people to take ownership for living out their own discipleship (including how they were discipling others) as well as ownership to live out their own sense of vocation in ministering to others. I've seen some wonderful examples of this in church settings from faithful commitment to volunteering at a local thrift store to working for agencies that help the homeless to investment in personal relationships to people encouraging one another using The Artist's Way.
I celebrated when there was something going on in the church that I, as a pastor, did not plan. I gave thanks when the seed of an idea took root and I knew there were capable leaders in place. It was wonderful when there was something I started that I could hand over to someone waiting in the wings because it would be an opportunity for them to grow and learn in their leadership and discipleship.
To be sure, I didn’t do this perfectly - in my own discipleship or in my own leadership. Our community wasn’t perfect either; you will always have a mix of people with a variety of motivations for being there - and that’s OK. The church is imperfect because we are all imperfect people.
But I believe that as the church adapts to the changing culture, it needs to rediscover this principle of discipling others to make disciples. No longer can we stand out in the market square, offering our religious goods at a discount price, because there will always be something better out there. Instead, we need to be living like Jesus, engaging others like Jesus did, trusting that as we do so, our world will be transformed.