Sunday, August 24, 2008

Life-On-Life Discipleship

This is the last in my series of posts examining our church's strategy, answering the question: "Why do we do what we do?" Specifically, we've been answering the question: "Why do we do things this way?" In addition to service that is love-motivated, outreach that is relational, worship that is accessible, and community that connects, we want discipleship that is life-on-life.

What do I mean by that?

Many churches utilize an approach to discipleship that is primarily informational or educational. They seem to believe that if a person simply has the right information, then they will know how to apply it and live it out in their own lives. They focus on doctrine and data, and figure the rest will follow. I believe this model is outdated.

In a former time in American culture, the structures, values, and institutions of society all worked together to encourage people to live a life consistent with biblical principles. In the worlds of business, politics, academics, and every other area of life, there were pressures and expectations for people to act honestly, to honor their word, to work diligently, to treat others respectfully, and to exercise self-discipline.

In this kind of a world, perhaps information was the great need--people simply needed to know how to place their beliefs and values in the context of living a life that glorifies God. They always knew that working hard was the right thing to do, but with more information they could understand why it was right, and how that related to God.

Today, these values have all but evaporated, and in every area of life, there is an expectation that people will probably lie if they can get away with it, will break their word unless there is a potential for a lawsuit, will do as little work as possible, will treat others as tools to be used, and will exercise self-indulgence.

In this kind of a world, the discipleship process starts with a disadvantage--the world is openly hostile to a life that's devoted to following Jesus. So there are actually three tasks for the disciple, instead of one:

  • A disciple needs to learn the definition of right living. There is no societal pressure that encourages me to abstain from sex before marriage--in fact, there is great societal pressure to dive right in. So, in the 1950s the question would have been, "Why is sex before marriage wrong?" Today the question is, "What? You mean this is an issue?"
  • A disciple need to learn how to demonstrate right living. There are many logistical questions that face a person who wants to change their life choices. How do I explain to my girlfriend I don't think we should be having sex anymore? How do I tell my kids that the cable we've been stealing is going to get cut off? How do I handle my boss who pays me under the table? What about the weekly lottery pool I participate in at work? You see, all of these choices involve relationships, not just the life of the Christ-follower. In a world that doesn't support Christian choices, many of these choices become tricky.
  • A disciple needs to learn how to defend right living. We have to learn how to develop not only the courage to make the right choices, but the ability to explain those choices to others who don't understand, and be ready to become the object of ridicule. Because the truth is that without a defense, people will naturally just "go with the flow."

A world that is hostile to the Christian life makes the process of discipleship much more complicated and difficult. Simply giving people information doesn't cut it anymore. We need help. We need people to come along side us and encourage us, support us, lead us, challenge us, stretch us, and hold us accountable. This is where discipleship often falls apart today--we don't surround people and equip them to make and defend the right choices in their lives. We simply tell them a bunch of information.

At our church, discipleship happens most often in small group Bible studies and in ministry teams. These are the places that we rub shoulders with one another. These are the contexts in which relationships are developed, where it becomes natural to share our lives with one another. We see what other people have done and continue to do. We learn about how they have made decisions in their lives--both good and bad, and what the outcomes of those were. We can ask questions about things we don't yet understand. We can ask for prayer. We can find a place where we feel safe to be who we are, which is essential for growing into somebody else.

Relationships are essental for growth. The Christian life is more caught than taught. We have to see it lived out in the people around us. That's why we have a strategy of Life-On-Life Discipleship.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Connecting Community

These last few posts have been exploring and developing the themes laid out in a post I made on July 13, Why Do We Do What We Do? (Part 2). In that original post, I talked about a "Welcoming Community," but I'm actually changing that terminology to a "Connecting Community."

In fact, this week's subject and next week's were the ones that I really wrestled with finding just the right words. I know what I want to communicate--it's a matter of applying the proper words that will transmit the idea.

On July 13, I wrote: As people come into our church, we want them not only to feel welcome, but to actually be welcomed--with open arms. We want people to know that this is a safe place, where they will be loved and supported in their pursuit of Christ, a place where they can be authentic, sharing their needs, their fears, their struggles, and their questions, along with their joys and hopes. We want people to be connected into a family.

But my fear is that "welcoming" actually conveys not the idea of deep safety and love, but rather a superficial smile and handshake. This is actually the opposite of what we want. A smile and handshake is a nice beginning, but if we stop there, we fail as a community that follows the path of Christ. You can get a nice greeting at McDonald's and Wal-Mart, but the church of Jesus Christ ought to be a place that truly welcomes people to come and join us on this path of becoming fully devoted followers of him.

A Connecting Community is one where we are linked and joined to one another with bonds of love, consideration, authenticity, and care. Moreover, we work hard to connect the unconnected--those who stand off apart from the community, who are fearful of rejection if they should reveal too much of themselves. We actively seek to attach ourselves to each other, knowing that it is God's will for us to hold one another up as we stumble together toward Christlikeness on our journeys of faith.

In searching for the right word, I considered many options:

  • Phrases like an "Open Community" and an "Embracing Community" not only had the same failings as a "Welcoming Community," but in some circles they signify an endorsement of a homosexual lifestyle, which is certainly not something we want to communicate.
  • An "Approachable Community" puts the responsibility on those who come--that they should approach us--when in fact we should be the ones seeking to incorporate others into the body.
  • I thought about an "Attaching Community," but it reminded me of a vacuum cleaner or some other machine with attachments. I thought of a Frankenstein-like monster, composed of various assembled parts, when we want to communicate something natural and attractive. The same goes with "Sticky Community"--Eeeewwww! Yuck!
  • I really liked an "Adopting Community"; it carries the idea of incorporating people into a family. But I felt it was unclear what we were adopting--people? ideas? babies?

It is important for a church to be a Connecting Community. If we are not connected in this deep-life way, we have no place to go with our questions, our doubts, our fears, and our struggles, and that void leaves us open to Satan's attacks. If we are not connected with others in our church, it becomes hard to grow spiritually because growth most often comes only when we are challenged to grow, and we are best challenged by those who really know us. Finally, when we are unconnected, it becomes very easy to simply drop out. After all, if no one really cares about me, why should I keep going?

So what makes us connected? How do we connect with one another?

  • We feel connected when we can identify friends in the church.
  • We feel connected when we have an important role or ministry in the church.
  • We feel connected when we grow closer to God through the church.
  • We feel connected when we believe in the mission and vision of the church.

How can we become a Connecting Church. Particularly, how do we connect the unconnected?

  • Identify those who lack friendships, who seem isolated, and befriend them. Or introduce them to others they might have something in common with.
  • Identify those who lack a place to serve, and encourage them to get involved in a ministry that fits how God has shaped them.
  • Identify those who are not in a small group, and help them find a group that fits their needs and schedule.
  • Continually communicate the mission and vision of the church in an attractive way.

When we remove the barriers to connection, we become a place where people feel they belong, where they feel comfortable to be themselves, where they know that there is a radical acceptance based on the unity that comes from the blood of Jesus Christ that gives us equal standing before him. We become a community that people cling to and will not relinquish because they find their deepest needs for purpose, acceptance, and encouragement met right here through the people of God.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Accessible Worship

This is the third in a series of five posts, examining our strategy more fully, understanding how we seek to meet people where they are on their spiritual journeys and lead them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. We've already tackled Love-Motivated Service and Relational Outreach. This week, we explore Accessible Worship.

In our church, we offer worship services that utilize a variety of elements: skits, music, video, communion, the spoken word, giving, and other types of congregational response. We don't necessarily include every one of these elements in any given service, but these are the ingredients that we use in preparing each Sunday's worship gathering.

One of the things that we do that is somewhat unusual is to include both Christian and non-Christian elements in our decidedly Christian worship services. We have both Christian and non-Christian music, Christian and non-Christian videos, Christian and non-Christian skits. So what is the thinking behind this? Why do we design our services this way?

One of the assumptions I've often heard expressed (even by those who are involved in serving in the worship services) is that our worship services are designed to "attract" unchurched people or to "bring people in." But that's actually not the case. The only people who even know what our worship services are like are the ones who come to them. The people outside our church don't have any clue what our services are like, so how would they be attracted?

Rather, the services are designed to be intelligible and understandable to anyone who does come, whether they've never set foot inside a church in their lives, or if they've been a follower of Christ for 20 years. Our worship services are intended to be accessible. We want to do church in such a way that a person who's never been to church can "get it."

This means more than simply dropping the "Christian-ese" that dominates a lot of church-talk ("I felt so blessed to be justified by the blood and be filled with the Holy Ghost when God moved me to reach the lost. Hallelujah!"). It means communicating in a way that makes sense to the people we're trying to communicate with, giving them something they can reflect on and consider as they leave the service.

The ingredients we use that make up our worship services are effective for this in several ways:

  • Using music, movies, and TV shows from pop culture helps people make connections between their everyday lives and the Bible or God. It helps them see the spiritual dimensions of their everyday activities.
  • When they hear a song on the radio, or watch a TV show that was used in church that Sunday, it reminds them of the worship experience, reinforcing the message they heard.
  • Pop culture is often helpful for providing negative examples of how to handle life, which can then be contrasted with God's way, as expressed in the Bible. (In today's service, we had an example of that with the Hank Williams song, "There's A Tear In My Beer" and the Katy Perry song "Lost")
  • By using things that people are already familiar with (pop culture), it helps them relate to something new (the message of Jesus).

It would be right to point out that there are a few assumptions behind our approach, which the whole thing is built on:

  • All truth is God's truth, whether we find it in the pages of scripture or in a Jack Nicholson movie.
  • God is concerned with all of life--even addictions, crime, abuse, sexuality, or whatever else might make us uncomfortable--so all of life is up for discussion in a frank and honest way.
  • God is in the redeeming business; therefore, what someone in Hollywood intended for glorification of sin can be used for the glorification of God, when put in proper context.
  • Communication that is convincing is not just informational, but emotional as well. Since the arts have a tremendous power to persuade, it is wise to use them in our attempts to convince people.
  • Christians ought to be more considerate than non-Christians. We expect Christians to make the effort to accommodate the ones we're trying to reach, rather than the other way around.

In the end, we want everyone who comes to Pathway each Sunday leaving with a better understanding of what God wants them to do, and with a motivation to do it. But that requires a worship service that is accessible to everyone who comes.