Discipleship in the Small Church
Ron Johnston is Director, Small Church Connections
One of the last courses that I took as a student at Ontario Bible College was an introduction to the writings of C. Peter Wagner and the church growth movement. As a young student I totally embraced the movement, reading everything that I could get my hands on. I was so excited when I began my first pastorate because it would give me the opportunity to put church growth principles to work. I had a vision of my church becoming one of the mega-churches that Wagner seemed to love.
At the heart of the church growth movement was the belief that God’s purpose for every church was numerical growth. I even had the audacity to announce one Sunday morning that there was no reason why our church of about a hundred people couldn’t become a church of a thousand.
Three years later I was fired. The church not only had not grown. It had actually shrunk. People were leaving for the new large church down the road and our future did not look bright. I was blamed for everything that was happening and the solution in the minds of the leaders was to get rid of me and find someone else who could produce the kind of growth that I had talked about.
That was the beginning of a transformation that took place in my ministry. I began to realize that there had to be more than just numbers that measured the success of a church.
From numerical growth to discipleship
Approximately 2000 years ago in one of his last discussions with his disciples, Jesus gave them a commission that defined the direction of the church. At the heart of what we have come to know as the Great Commission is a call to discipleship. In the Greek text there is only one command. Christ’s followers are called to be disciples who in turn are making disciples of other people.
Over the past few years there has been a transformation in the church in Canada. Whereas a few years ago most conversations about the church centered around the numerical growth that I mentioned above, today more and more are focused around the need for discipleship in our churches if we are going to be faithful to the biblical mandate that we have been given by Jesus himself.
This is an exciting change for small churches in that discipleship is not only possible in a small church but in many ways is more suited to that setting. At the heart of small church life is a focus on relationships. At the heart of effective discipleship is a focus on relationship. Where can discipleship be more effective than in a setting in which trusting relationships are already in place.
A personal example
I currently am serving as the pastor of a small Baptist church. We average about twenty-five people on a Sunday morning. We are typical of small churches in that relationships are strong and much of what we do is determined by the limited resources that we have.
A few months ago a young man approached me and asked if I would act as his mentor over the next year. He has a deep desire to serve Jesus and has displayed leadership gifts that needed to be developed.
For about a year my wife (Gloria) and I have been having the “Ts” (young people in their teens and twenties) in for supper once a month. Gloria cooks up a delicious meal and we spend the time over the meal talking. Then we have a discussion time on a relevant topic and at the end of the evening they share prayer requests and Gloria prays for them.
It has been a wonderful opportunity for us as a pastoral couple to get to know our young people. Out of that relationship came the request to mentor the young man that I mentioned above. We meet for a couple of hours once every three weeks. I think that, with all that is on my agenda, those couple of hours might just be the most important thing that I do.
I have the opportunity to disciple this young man because I pastor in a small church. I have gotten to know him because he is one of seven young people who fit nicely around our dining room table. I get to talk to him quite often on a Sunday morning and to ask about his week. It is the small church setting that has allowed me to do this.
Discipleship is the very heart of church life as mandated by Jesus. Relationships are at the heart of discipleship. The small church provides a setting in which relationships should be naturally built. As leaders we need to make sure that those relationships aren’t wasted.
What We Are Reading
Love Your Enemies
Arthur C. Brooks
Over the last year (what a year!!), along with ongoing bombardments from our COVID-19 responses, personal challenges (and, hopefully, some celebrations), and the massive realizations of an array of systemic short-comings, this has been a year for social media-frenzies, public debates and elections after elections (some taking place near – some far). Just in the last couple of months, in my province (Saskatchewan), we’ve had Provincial and Municipal elections – concurrent with what has felt like the year-long USA election (still apparently ongoing in a technical Electoral College sense). Back in September, I listened into a conversation with Arthur Brooks then ordered his book. He talked of “redeeming a culture of contempt.” This resonated with me as a positive way to move my melancholy, tipping towards cynicism and general fatigue for all the “stuff” into a more positive space and set of dispositions. The book, Love Your Enemies, delivers. Brooks is a good story-teller. “Love lessons for Leaders,” “How Can I Love My Enemies If They are Immoral,” “Please Disagree With Me,” are just three of the chapter titles. Perhaps the three most helpful bits are the threshold concepts that: 1. We do live in a culture of contempt; 2. There is a better human way; 3. The injunction of Jesus to “love our enemies” is the well-grounds and best way forward. Also see Brooks’ informal lecture on same topic: https://youtu.be/j-oSbd75jBo
Brooks, who has just moved back into an academic role at Harvard’s Kennedy School from heading a well-known conservative think tank, is profound in his assessments, helpful in his articulation of principles and storied in his prescriptions. Arthur Brooks is an expert in politics and economics with an explicitly Christian worldview; with intelligences that benefit from other traditions (i.e., academic, political, economic and religious). Some readers may have come across his book from 2006 where he described and analyzed “who really care” and who were the generous people in America in that timeframe.
All this said, I commend this author and, particularly Love Your Enemies to those who might be looking for encouragement in their own working through these polarizations, bifurcations, tribal enmities and desperate divides. What about the prospect of accessing grace that displaces contempt with love. I commend this book as a source for those who wish to equip others in their efforts to be critical, rational actors and authentic ambassadors of reconciliation, in the Name and for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Keith Walker is Professor of Educational Administration and Leadership at the University of Saskatchewan
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