Monday, October 31, 2011

Tell Somebody To Tell Somebody

Every once in a while, a conversation happens that reminds you what it’s all about.

That happened recently when a friend I grew to love and appreciate when I served as his pastor sat face-to-face with me for the first time in a long time. He was reminiscing on his growth as a follower of Jesus and particularly on his surprising call to serve as an elder of his fellowship.

His is a winding journey, filled with highs, lows, laughter, and disappointments. I recall seeing something in him that I believed needed to be cultivated, and we had spent a lot of time together. We had shared conversations about politics, church, theology, sexuality, and baseball. He challenged me. I challenged him. Life together was all brought together under the lordship of Jesus.

What was so enlivening and renewing for me in our reunion was the realization that the apostle Paul knew what he was talking about, and that I had been blessed by heeding his direction to Timothy: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1–2).

Three generations of disciples

I am increasingly convinced that the primary test of the fruitfulness of my pastoral ministry is not so much the size of my congregation, but how well the faithful I have been entrusted to lead can teach others to teach others the good news. Paul’s word to Timothy implies a disciple-making leavening that always has in view three generations of disciples beyond the mentor. The disciple-maker (in this case Paul), teaches Timothy, who entrusts to dependable persons, who can then teach others.

Tell somebody to tell somebody to tell somebody!

So, my serendipitous conversation with an old friend reminded me of this once more, but it also spurred me on in new ways. Because of what I and others had invested in his life, he was influencing people in a way I never could. The real test of my disciple-making, however, might very well be what is planted by those he is teaching.

This is telescopic discipleship. It’s the equivalent of measuring your parenting by what your grandchildren will teach to your great-grandchildren. This is Christ-centred mentorship that sees its fruit in what grows out of those with whom we probably have little or no first-hand influence. It is discipleship that essentially gets itself out of the way by getting people on the Way.

Ironically enough, at the same time as this meeting happened, I was reading through Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In his memoirs, he reflects on the contingency plan he developed in the early 1950s to make it possible for the African National Congress to survive should it become an illegal entity under the tightening screws of apartheid.

The “Mandela Plan” was centred on small cells of about 10 households led by a cell steward. Mandela confesses that it was that cell steward, often far removed from the influence of ANC leadership, who was the “linchpin of the plan.” In essence, Mandela – who, perhaps not surprisingly, was baptized a Methodist – developed his scheme to ensure the survival of a group that would in time bring down one of the most heinous political systems of recent memory, using the logic of the apostle Paul. Tell somebody to tell somebody to tell somebody!

I’m afraid much of our disciple-making is too short-sighted and even self-centred. What might change in the health of our churches and in the telescopic influence of our fellowships if we took Paul’s words seriously? What if we looked for the long-term fruit of our ministries in what three generations of disciples hence are doing with the gospel we’ve nurtured them on?

To be sure, this requires a decentralizing of the way we think about church and even a reorganizing around what demands primary attention, but it may make for greater kingdom impact in our cities and side roads. It may inspire another Mandela. It may lead to another lazy afternoon conversation that warms the heart and inspires the soul.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What Are They Looking For?

If you could choose a church from scratch, what would it look like? Much of our angst about being the church seems rooted in our desire to look good. Are we a fellowship providing what people want? Do we roll out the programs and splashy events people will flock to? Are our buildings comfy, our coffee organic, our bulletin font trendy, and our preaching happily short to match our attention spans that can somehow stay dialed in to a two-hour movie, but can’t seem to endure a half-hour soak in the Word of God?

The fearful reality is that the only people who seem concerned about these questions are already church folk. Reginald Bibby, the noted Canadian sociologist who tracks religious and social trends, recently pointed out that, contrary to the very low percentage of the population that attends weekly worship, upwards of 50 percent of Canadians would be ready to engage in the life of a church if they found it worthwhile.

That sounds encouraging. But before we run off to repaint the lobby to look like Starbucks, Bibby points out, “People are not looking for churches. People are looking for ministry.” In short, people are not searching the Yellow Pages looking for something they can spiritually consume; they are yearning to be participants in something greater than themselves, something more grand than a mall shopping spree. Does the church of your liking engage in this?

It should send a tremor through our committee meetings if most of the things we bluster about are focused on answering questions no one is asking. Could it be that much of what we’re worried about is primarily geared at making ourselves happy? Could all our agonizing over what will make people want to join us only result in sheep shuffling from a passé-church to a popular-church?

Seriously, when was the last time your church grew through the conversion of those from the wider culture, rather than the transfer of sheep from another fold? Could it be that we’re gleefully engaging in unholy competition with our Christian brothers and sisters who meet down the road, rather than passionately initiating attractive transformational ministry of kingdom grandeur? Could it be that much of what we do as churches is unconsciously un-Christian, founded almost entirely in our view of the spiritual seeker as a dumb consumer, and not as a parched, searching soul who thirsts for meaning, significance and hope?

Why do we who grumble about the shopaholic reality of our culture still go and shape our churches as if that’s what people really want? What if people still haven’t found what they’re looking for because we’ve hidden the pearl of great price? Perhaps, to our great shame, we have misread the lingering image of God in our neighbours, whose hearts pound to join in the beat of eternity?

I have to confess that these thoughts disturb me. As a pastor, I continually find myself caught between people clamoring for the church life they’ve always wanted and these realities. If I read between the lines, however, I can’t help but think that most church people actually hunger for that same participation in meaningful ministry—in kingdom adventure. So why are we so reluctant to just say it? Why are we so hesitant to simply allow ourselves to go there? And what will it take for us to convert from church people to kingdom people?