They stood and applauded him as he entered the room.
And being the confident young man that he is, he sprang into measured steps filled with an ironic swagger, and grinned jokingly at his new supposed ‘family’ who aimed to make him feel as welcome as they once did.
And as much as he didn’t want to, he felt it. Welcomed, that is. Valuable — as though he truly mattered to these people who were previously nothing more than strangers.
My friend sipped his coffee — as long as I’ve known him he drinks it black — and told me all about how this community was eager to make disciples. They are people on a mission to make people on a mission.
Gathering under this common cause, they spend days with new members in the hopes of instilling a dangerous belief: the belief that the world can be a different sort of place and that we each have a role to play.
They gave each person a copy of a special book, a credo, the basis for their way of seeing and engaging with the world. “When I’m having a rough day”, a more experienced member said to him, “I turn to this book and I’m reminded why we do what we do. It never lets me down.”
My friend told me all about his new experience, this new club to which he ‘belonged’… and then he told me that it gives him the heebie-jeebies.
He almost quit.
You see, this guy loves Jesus, and this isn’t some new church — instead he got a new job at Apple.
“It’s like a church I’ve never been to”, he said, sadly, as though both have got something figured out but don’t see the missing pieces.
Even still, it seems as though Apple has learned something the church may have forgotten:
If you want to grow sustainably don’t chase conversions, make disciples.
When I worked in the marketing world I learned rather quickly that the most effective branding happened on the inside of an organization, starting with employees and expanding to existing customers, and from there the ‘public’. In some ways the best marketing is the death of the salesman, or at least a dramatic rethinking of the gig.
In the Evangelical church we’ve turned that circle inside-out, becoming so focussed on conversion that we easily lose the plot. As a result people have often accused the Western Church of being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” We’ve acted like spiritual encyclopedia salesmen. Sure, we’ve never read the book but heck, it’s a steal of a deal.
But there’s an obvious problem with this: The Great Commission.
The great commission doesn’t encourage us to sell our book, or even our system of faith. It challenges us to actually become like our namesake, and encourage others to do the same.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
- Matthew 28:19–20 (ESV)
It’s the difference between selling a product and actually believing it works — between believing in Christianity and being a Christian. Between being a customer/salesman and a disciple.
In the West we tend to think of discipleship only in terms of the teacher-student relationship, as though information alone changes us, even though we know it doesn’t work that way. But around the time of Jesus, in Galilee, they had a different approach. It was a formal role, a thing you became. A disciple’s aim was to become the rabbi, their teacher. They spent time with their teacher, following them from place to place. The goal was not to simply spout the same answers but to live in the same sort of way. And the criteria for becoming a disciple were pretty stringent, too. Discipleship was like the ‘ivy league’ of Jewish live.
Where some rabbis rejected the uneducated or uninformed, Jesus invited the ‘ivy league’ failures in. Turning young, simple, fishermen into fishers of men. Making them disciples on a mission to change the world. Jesus actually believes you can live like this, and, thank God that by grace, you can.
This mission is called the great commission, meaning “a group of people officially charged with a particular function”.
This mission requires community.
This is one of the driving functions of the Church, and like the Church, this mission is a joint enterprise. But in a culture as individualistic as ours, the kind of community needed seems an impossible thing to hold onto. The absence of true community, life on life, creates a discipleship vacuum. “But”, you say, “Church-goers and even popular christian authors are just so consumeristic!”
Yes, yes they are. And since we’re talking about it, so are churches.
People often point to the fact that we live in a consumeristic culture in an accusatory fashion, and it’s true. But we can’t fight this consumerism without addressing the disease of which it is a mere symptom: individualism.
We’re made by design to seek worth outside ourselves — we’re worshippers. And if every person believes that they are the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong (individualism), they will always seek worth in outside objects or experiences of choice (consumerism). We can treat the symptom, but we can’t ignore the disease. If we do, we’re accomplishing nothing more than putting a band-aid on a newly missing limb.
Individualism consumes ‘community’, placing value only on a ‘sense of community’. The experience trumps the thing itself.
We often hear people talk about their sense of community, this notion that if they have friends, they must be a part of something like a church — claiming to belong to the universal Church in some way. But this doesn’t work.
If the Church is the gathering of people from all walks of life into this great joint enterprise — the redemption of all things by the saving work of Jesus — than it’s more like a neighbourhood than an episode of How I Met Your Mother. Let me explain:
When you move into a neighbourhood you have neighbours you didn’t choose. It’s pretty simple. You know, neighbours like…
- the grouchy old man who sweeps the sidewalk in front of his house daily and chases kids off of his lawn
- the house full of college students who never seem to be at school
- the professional whose BMW all too rarely occupies his driveway
Some you may befriend, others you may not, but the ‘community’ exists, just as the neighbourhood exists, as the sum of its parts — even if the parts themselves engage passively. The ‘community’ as an ‘outsider’ would see it is separate from the ‘sense of community’ experienced by those inside even though their actions contribute to its making.
But we church-goers, acting in light of our culture, learn to treat our ‘church of choice’ as a product or service in which we engage, rather than a visible community, and act as though our needs outweigh the needs of our neighbour. This approach is obviously a far cry from the self/neighbour love of Jesus. What about the grouchy sidewalk-sweeper? The workaholic businessman?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”
- Luke 10:27 (ESV)
But we don’t just learn these habits by osmosis, but also by the influence of churches themselves. With our growth-and-metrics obsessions we all-too-often design our systems after successful corporations, using the “leadership model du jour” to justify impersonal systems in the name of numerical growth.
If the churches want to operate like businesses we shouldn’t act surprised when congregants act like customers.
So, how do we each address the symptom of ‘consumerism’? How do we fight the disease of ‘individualism’?
Ironically, like Apple, we make disciples. But unlike Apple, Christian discipleship starts with… love.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
- John 13:34–35 (ESV)
This is why the Christian church can accomplish something Apple never could. The gospel good news isn’t only that Jesus saves us from sin – thank God he does! – but also that He is calling us, and enabling us, to become like Him.
“If you don’t love the church you have, it will become the enemy of the one you want.”- Dr. David Barker
If you want to grow your church in a real and Biblical way don’t stress out about your youth programs or the style of your worship team. Don’t stress about your preaching style. It’s not that these things don’t matter — they do (that’s for another blog post) — but by playing that game all we do is exacerbate an already-too-prevalent problem. If we want our churches to grow it seems we must stop treating church-goers like customers and our worship services like a service/product..
Instead we need to get on with making and being disciples of Jesus. This begins by being personal and loving. To be people on a mission to make people on a mission.
Gathering under this common cause we may just instill a dangerous belief: the belief that the world can be a different sort of place and that we each have a role to play.
Why would we want to play by the same rules if it’s a different sort of world we want?
After all, unlike the world of big business, the great commission isn’t simply to fill pews with the faceless many and church coffers with the many faces of presidents, it’s to personally and lovingly make disciples of Jesus.
You know, Christians.