Christian Consumers or Disciples of Jesus Christ?

On October 14, 1983, Barb and I were married at the church of my youth, Calvary Lutheran Church of Golden Valley, MN.  On our return home from our honeymoon I suggested to Barb that we attend Sunday services there the following weekend, which we did.  It was an act that would end my 14 years as one of God’s prodigal sons and led to Barb’s conversion as a believer in Jesus Christ.   Since that time we have been active church members, sometimes leaders, in Christ’s church seeking to understand, and live out, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ living in the Kingdom of God.  Over those 33 years I think we have experienced some of the best and the worst the church has to offer, along with the exhilaration and disappointment that goes with each.  It has been an amazing journey and God has been faithful each step of the way!

I have served in several traditional churches (Lutheran and Evangelical), planted cell and house churches and been the Director of two different parachurch organizations that were focused on serving the church.  They all, of course, were unique in their own way, with their own stories and history but there were also commonalities that each shared with the other.  One that stands out for me is the struggle all had keeping the main thing the main thing.  Namely making disciples of Jesus Christ. 

One example of what I am talking about comes from a ministry trip I took some years ago when I was the director of the Lutheran Evangelistic Movement.  I had spoken at several churches, conducted a 2 hour workshop on “Seeking First the Kingdom of God,” and held a pastor’s retreat for 13 pastors, all within a 5 day window.  It was all very rewarding, and people were encouraged in their faith but I was reminded once again that very few churches have an intentional plan for making disciples.  The primary purpose of any Christian church, regardless of denomination, ethnicity or location, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Yet only rarely is it happening with consistency and effectiveness. All churches conduct Sunday morning worship services, most have Sunday school for children (and maybe adults), some have weekly Bible studies, fewer have regular times of congregational prayer and fewer yet plan any kind of outreach activities to connect with their communities.  Lots of activity and fair amounts of money, yet few disciples are produced.

Soon after that ministry trip I came to understand the same struggle existed even within churches most considered to be “successful.”  The leaders of a couple of nationally recognized churches made themselves vulnerable and shared publicly their own church’s struggle to make disciples.  It is also interesting that these two forms of public sharing came in two remarkably different ways; one as quantifiable documented research and the other as a “word from the Lord” that became a call to repentance.  In the paragraphs that follow I have summarized each one.  And while the information is a little bit dated it is still informative because the situation in the church has only grown worse in recent years.

Several years ago I was made aware of a study that Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois had done examining their own effectiveness in making disciples.  Now the Willow Creek study is significant because of the influence they have had on the American church over the last thirty years.

Willow, through its association, has promoted a vision of church that is big, programmatic, and comprehensive… Directly or indirectly, this philosophy of ministry—church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage—has impacted every evangelical church in the country… Not long ago Willow released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry. Basically, they wanted to know what programs and activities of the church were actually helping people mature spiritually and which were not… Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when the research revealed that “increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.” (Christianity Today, October 18, 2007)

While Willow Creek is an evangelical church the same issue is reflected within Lutheran circles.  The following excerpt is taken from the Prayer Transformation Ministries website.  It comes from a teaching dated October 10, 2007.

Walt (Kallestad) has been pastor to the Community Church of Joy (in Glendale Arizona) for nearly 30 years.  He is a nationally recognized leader in the church growth and mega church movement.  Under his leadership, his church expanded to a campus of more than 100 acres that includes a school.  People from all over the Phoenix area were drawn to the church and its professionally produced programs and worships services.

Yet after being benched by God and spending several weeks rehabilitating after his heart attack, Walt returned to his church-only to sit and weep through the services.  His tears flowed because his heart was broken at what the church had become.  Like many churches, he realized they had become “conveyors of Christian consumerism”…What started out as a sincere vision to reach the lost and make disciples had turned into a demanding call to be a “dispenser of Christian goods and services.”

My point in all this is not to throw stones at Willow Creek or Community Church of Joy, for each has been used of God to bring thousands of people to personal faith in Jesus Christ.  It is rather to point out that church growth, activity and increased levels of participation does not guarantee the making of disciples of Jesus Christ.

The essence of what God has laid on my heart is that we all can do better, and frankly we all need to do better for what God wants to do in and through the church over these next years.  Yet it won’t happen without a willingness to change by returning to the basics of Christian discipleship that never can be replaced.  Some of the practices I am thinking of are a regular study of God’s Word, hearing and obeying His voice, being filled with the Holy Spirit, seeking first the Kingdom of God, living a life of surrender, understanding our true identity in Christ, prayer, acts of love for God and our neighbor, spiritual fellowship, prayer, encouragement and the relational accountability that comes the body of Christ.  In addition, people need to discover their unique calling within the body of Christ and how that calling relates to their personal involvement in the task of making disciples. 

I believe there is a deep desire in the heart of every believer in Jesus Christ to live a life of significance, to have their life count beyond the daily grind of paying the bills and living for retirement.  This life of significance is not found in the pursuit, or even the attainment, of the American dream.  It can only be experienced as we enter the life of discipleship and embrace our life purposes and individual calling. As we begin a new year would you be willing to ask the Lord where He would have you grow as one of His followers?  Also, God is calling each of us to personal involvement in the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Do you understand your role and have you embraced it?  God is counting on us to do what He created us to do in order that He might redeem the world He died to save.  God’s best to you in the New Year!