“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” —Luke 11:28–30 The Message
These are Jesus’ words, paraphrased by Euguene Peterson in The Message version of the Bible. Don’t they sound inviting, the kind of person you would love to spend time with? That is the kind of person Christians have in fact found in Jesus. Do you feel that way when you think about your local church in America? I don’t want to over generalize or be overly critical, because the churches in America are doing a lot of good things. They are trying to do their best and they have the same problem that any institution, organization or company has; they are led by flawed men and women. I love my church. It’s a great place to worship on Sunday, filled with music that is selected with prayer and thought and sermons taught directly from the Bible each week. The leadership is God honoring and desiring that people come to know Jesus personally and grow in their faith. But, my church is not fully succeeding either in this area.
Sometimes God uses the words of other people to prompt you to think about and act on something He wants you to do. When this happens it usually supports some activities you are already engaged in and may be in a situation to go deeper. For a little over a year I have been in a four person group that you could describe as a discipleship group. We started with an intentional purpose of building strong relationships so that we could be honest and transparent with each other and along the way, build and deepen our relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It has been an exceptional experience for me and very much like what is described in the verses from Luke I opened with. It has also taken a lot of time and commitment on our parts to do that.
Our group is now at a fork in the road and I have to make some decisions about what to do next. This is where God used the words of others to give me some guidance. Here are some passages from a novel called “The Last Christian” by David Gregory that I just finished. It is set in 2088 in an America that has no visible Christian population. They come from a section of the novel where a college class is discussing the causes of Christianity’s demise in America.
“From its outset the Christian religion claimed that the intervention of the deity in people’s lives would change people for the better. They would have a different character. They would have different morals. They would think, speak, and behave differently. They called it Christlikeness – ‘Christ’ of course, being the title given to Jesus of Nazareth.”
“When a large segment of society became openly nonreligious, an amazing thing happened – amazing to the religionists anyway. People discovered that religionists and non-religionists behaved similarly. Sexual behavior, divorce rates, self-reported levels of honesty – none of these varied significantly between religionists and non-religionists.”
These words in a piece of fiction reinforced what I read recently in Francis Chan’s “Forgotten God”: “Church goers all across the nation say the Holy Spirit has entered them. They claim that God has given them a supernatural ability to follow Christ, put their sin to death, and serve the church. Christians talk about being born again and say that they were dead but now have come to life. We have become hardened to these words, but they are powerful words that have significant meaning. Yet when those outside churches see no difference in our lives, they begin to question our integrity, our sanity, or even worse, our God. And can you blame them?”
The church in America in general is not being effective in helping us with this spiritual transformation because it has instead become focused on the Sunday event. Attracting people and keeping them engaged on Sunday morning is the focus, which is working. The church I attend grew from less than 150 when I first came to it in 1995, to over 1,500 today. Sunday services are well done and well attended. Changing lives is happening, but not as often and not to the degree that it could be. The current (July – August 2012) issue of Mission Frontiers magazine is devoted to this topic, “Do We Need to Change the Way We Do Church to Reach the Unreached?” A very challenging article in that issue is the one by Mike Breen, “Obituary for the American Church.”
How do we change the descriptions offered by David Gregory and Francis Chan? How do we enter into the relationship Jesus describes in Luke? First we have to desire that relationship and pursue it, and submit ourselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ, become a follower like I did. Secondly, get involved in a discipleship group of up to four other Christians of the same sex, one of who is already a mature Christian, and live life together, study the scriptures together, share your burdens and challenges, lift each other up and hold each other accountable. This takes time and it takes commitment and it takes intentionality. You have to be patient. This type of relationship can’t be built in a church on a Sunday morning. It can’t even be built in a small group of men and women meeting occasionally like is happening in many churches today. Mike Breen explains this very well in “Building a Discipling Culture.”
This is what I’ve been doing for over the last year. I am fortunate that the person leading our group is deeply involved in this discipleship movement that is moving across America and I will be learning how to do this even better and then along with some others, duplicate ourselves with the intention of multiplication happening. This is how we follow Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20 to “make disciples”. If any of this resonates with you I’d enjoy continuing the conversation, especially if you live in Central Wisconsin.
“Effective discipleship builds the church, not the other way around.” – Mike Breen