Making disciples while in survival mode?

Copy of A quick, educational history on Discipleshipby Jessie Cruickshank (13).png

I work with a lot of churches, church networks, and denominations. The vantage point of this is the opportunity to see trends and the movement of the spirit of God in the body of Christ at large. On the whole, this vantage point is overwhelmingly encouraging, with the occasional point of discouragement.

One point of discouragement has been the lack of discipleship, leadership development, and raising up of a generation (now 2 generations). But the needle is starting to move a little. As the needle begins to move, it allows us to ask the question, “what is changing?”  Out of all the hypothesized reasons for the lack of disciples, leaders, and generational disconnect, what is making a difference now? It might not be what you think.

In the mid 2000s, ministry to the Millennials was all the buzz. How do we plant churches? How do we start businesses? How do we created opportunities for young people to move forward in their passions and ministry inclinations? Support-raising clinics abounded and people fundraised their ministry dreams, took chances, and pioneered new ways of being Jesus in their communities. We cared about Millennials, we cared about our neighbors, and we cared about the 10/40 window.

But then 2008 came and all the loose change we gave to support innovative ideas and ministry passions vaporized. Our hope disappeared with our finances. With the loss of pensions and stock values, dreams of retirement faded. We turned to the lottery of celebrity provided by the internet. And when everyone we looked at on TV had the trappings of being rich and was not visibly struggling, we felt shame in our own personal losses.

In the midst of the struggle, our reaction to the Millennial dissatisfaction with the status quo turned from an innovative spark to a mocking it as a pariah. We let the malcontents leave church telling them that, ‘you can’t love Jesus and hate his church,’ and determining that their commitment to Christ was based on how many times they walked in our church doors. We hunkered down, first to survive and then to dig out. And we forgot the things we loved and prayed for the decade before.

Over the last 10 years, things have been very challenging for most people in the US. But finally this is starting to break open. We have been through the valley of the shadow of death, but I am seeing that change in people’s heart. As we ask pastors why they went into ministry in the first place, they are remembering their passions and visions. As we ask them about their future, we are inviting them to dream again with God.

The difference now is not the power of positive thinking – it is identifying and validating the pain of the last 10 years. It is lamenting about what has been and what was lost. It is grieving the death of our own passions and dreams, so that they may be reborn anew in the light of Heaven. We must acknowledge the pain and the struggle, we must cry out to God for our losses, and we must yield to His vision for our tomorrow. Lamenting, grieving, and remembering has broken open the sky.

Now, in ever increasing numbers, I see pastors who are awakened. I see pastors who have remembered their passions and are dreaming again. And they are bringing others with them. They are looking to create discipleship cultures. They are looking to develop home-grown leaders. And they are caring about their neighbors and the refugees in their midst. The truth is, you can't raise up disciples or leaders while you are in survival mode. You can't pour into someone else when you are focused on yourself. And we have been focused on ourselves for a long time, hoping that positive thinking and celebrity escapism would save us. But the answer, as Jesus demonstrated, is that freedom is on the other side of the valley and that seeds must die in order to bear fruit.

How do we see a church that has a culture of disciple-making and leadership development, which plants churches that plants churches? By lamenting, remembering, coming up again for air, and bringing someone with you.

God in a Doctrinal box

I am busy researching for my next book project (with Mark Nelson) which is about seeing God, people, and mission through a much larger frame. Trying to expose damaging reductionisms in our thinking and practice that have all but obscured who God is in himself, but also have reduced the ways in which we can see what he is doing in lives beyond the narrowed confines of the church. Part of that research has taken me to explore the idea of theophany...the always surprising ways that God reveals himself to people...and how people encounter God in myriad ways without knowing it.

Anyhow, the book starts by addressing the the all-too-religious penchant for locking God down to selective doctrinal formulas. So, in my reading I came across this piece by a scholar called Matthew Skinner, in a book that explores the nature of theophany as expressed in the Acts of the Apostles. He shows great insight into religious pathology here....

“For another reason, the religious leaders who kill Stephen have, we might assume, allowed their responsibility to protect their understanding of God to become so pressing to them that it eclipses their ability to be curious about that understanding. That is, they cannot engage Stephen in authentic conversation about God because they (perhaps like him) have religious commitments that they will not permit to budge, commitments they will protect to the hilt before they consider other ways of understanding God. Their commitments might extend to presuming they know exactly how God works, and therefore they refuse to make room for anything a professed visionary like Stephen might say. They lash out in violence because they have fallen victim to the oldest sin in the book. idolatry,

Idolatry worships a creation instead of the Creator. Idolatry loves symbols more than the thing to which a symbol points. Idolatry satisfies itself with knockoffs and shadows. Idolatry imagines God an be contained and therefore controlled and owned. Because idolaters think they know where the treasure resides, they allow no alterations to their maps and they punish explorers—with violence, if neccesary.

Stephen's speech to the high priest warns about idolatry when it re-proclaims (following Isaiah 66:1-21) God's dwelling as encompassing all of heaven and earth, not limited to a temple on a hill. He does not say the temple in Jerusalem is inherently idolatrous but that some--including a core group in his audience--have come treat it in an idolatrous manner, giving it outsized importance and becoming unable to glimpse other places and ways where promised to be present.

The idolatry perverting Stephen's foes hardly afflicts them alone. It connects to more than a high regard for temples and rightly interpreting the Law of Moses. It involves temptations that beset probably all religious people (including Stephen?): to turn a quest for God into an enterprise of self-assured arrogance instead of a search requiring humble reliance on fellow seekers and openness to new and old ways of finding God. Steven's story is not about the bad guys. It's about coming to terms with the reality that all of us are prone to reject God's messengers and cling ferociously to what we already know, or think we know, very well.

The antidote to idolatry is not to avoid being religious. Violence and self-assurance are hardly limited to religious people. It is not to withhold passion and conviction from our beliefs, not to distrust all we think we know who can know about God. The answer involves keeping in view the object of our convictions–the possibility of encountering God. It likewise involves vigilantly noticing how our pursuing and safeguarding of these convictions leads us to deal with differences and dissent. If our convictions leave broken bodies in the wake, or if our pursuits of our religious values and prerogatives snuff out people's vitality in other ways, then we are almost certainly doing something wrong.

Fortunately, Acts, given its many connections to the Gospel of Luke, keeps our attention on Jesus's example. Not a high-octane Messiah but one willing to risk vulnerability, this Savior knows these dynamics of aggression and coercion up close, having suffered from them himself. Because of this, or perhaps despite it, he nevertheless remains committed to delivering us from our worst proclivities – even from our very violent selves.” ~ Matthew Skinner, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel, P.48-9

Sound familiar?

Church for the Rest of Us

One thing I always find interesting about church as we know it are the narratives and archetypes we have so unquestioningly accepted.  I believe that for us to become a people of faith that can reach the whole word, these narratives should be teased out so that we can examine them and make choices on how to change them.

One way to identify a narrative is by looking at who is missing from our church bodies, or who is uncomfortable in them...and then find out why. The last few years has introduced me to a group often ignored or even shamed in our churches: introverts.

The typical evangelical church is not a friendly place for introverts, and the larger the congregation, the more uncomfortable the experience. If we walk through a new church experience with the eyes of an introvert, it might surprise us (better yet, ask an introvert how they experience your church).

Imagine being an introverted new believer who has never been to church and walking onto an unfamiliar church campus. How do you know where to go? How do you know what building or door to walk into? Most churches, due to their lack of signage or maps, create uncomfortable experiences for people.

Think about Disneyland.

You don’t have to ask where something is, there are signs everywhere. Street signs pointing the way to attractions and bathrooms. Campus maps everywhere to help you know how to find things. Whether Disney or your local mall, the designers want you to feel comfortable and like you belong. Churches, however, don’t think about that and often created a very unwelcoming experience for people. This causes new people, who don’t know where to go or where things are, to be reminded consistently that they are an ‘outsider’. This is not a welcoming feeling.

Instead of signs, churches often use people to help you know where to go or how to find things. This is great, unless you are new AND an introvert. The last thing you want to experience as an introvert is people coming up to you wearing a colored t-shirt and giving you a download of information and relational energy. If you are not already exhausted in trying to find out where to park, how to find the front door, or the bathroom, you will be by the time you past 7 well-meaning extroverted greeters.

Then let’s think about worship. Let’s say I’m a creative introvert. What does your worship look like for me? If I sit and contemplate Christ, will people be looking at me or will an usher ask me if I am okay? If I want to paint or draw, do I have a place to worship in your church? Most worship in the evangelical church is designed for extroverts. This is even more so in pentecostal churches (which I say as a proud Pentecostal). Liturgical churches have worship more amenable to introverts, with their chants, meditations, and hymns of lament. I know more than a few introverts who have changed denominations because the worship style was more conducive to their personality and life-giving to them.

The next terrifying encounter is the inevitable meet and great time. A standing ritual of evangelical churches, the forced socialization serves as a pop-quiz for occasional attendees. It is another reminder of outsider status and failing memories. And given our national struggle with church attendance, could it ever become a place ‘where everybody knows your name.” While I know the heart of this ritual is to help people feel welcome, it often has the opposite effect. Moreover, if we think that a sense of community is created merely by greeters and ritualized handshakes, we have missed the heart of Christ entirely.

This brings us to discipleship. Many of our process and methods are designed for a narrow bandwidth of people-types. To illustrate this, consider my husband – the most introverted man I know who has opened my eyes to these issues. He, like many introverts, is social but being around more than 4 people is exhausting to him. This means that he is not going to share his heart in a group larger than 4. If your discipleship process is all about small groups, it is not going to work for him. He is also not a verbal processor and needs time to be introspective and have a conversation with God. Most small groups discussion situations are highly emotionally draining and he gets little out of them besides a tired soul. In light of that, what could life-giving discipleship look like for introverts?

My husband also does not learn much from reading; it is not a strength of his. So if your discipleship process involves a lot of scripture reading, how does that work for different learners? The truth is, most of our ideas about discipleship come from either those who are more academic and thus discipleship is study, or from those who are extroverted and external processors and thus discipleship looks like small group discussions. That means that a whole lot of people (3/5s if we are looking at APEST corollaries[1]) would not find life in our current discipleship processes.

For my husband, he finds like in discipling another person. He spends time in scripture and prayer seeking God on how to come along-side them. He is discipled in the process of discipling someone else. But if he were to walk into a new church body, it would take time and vetting to be formally given this opportunity. His participation in church life would be evaluated. His engagement in ‘serving’ ministries and worship would be considered as a litmus for his ability to lead. But in many environments, those thresholds require extrovertedness or large personality types. This means that the gate is narrower than we intend it to be.

Our church cultures are unintentionally designed to identify, groom, and celebrate a specific personality type which leaves most introverts unseen, undeveloped, and left with a stigma of guilt and shame. Our ministry and discipleship opportunities implicitly communicate what a ‘disciple’ looks like, what ‘ministry’ looks like, or what ‘leadership’ looks like. And most of those narratives are very, very narrow.

When discussing these cultural norms with one pastor, he confided in me that he did not understand introverts. He thought it demonstrated weakness of character or spiritual desire. He actually thought the expressions of introvertedness were things people should be exhorted and coached out of.  I wonder how many other pastors don’t see, can’t relate to, or misunderstand the introverts in their congregation.

The truth is, church as we know it is designed to make a small number of people feel welcomed and a small number of people feel successful in their spiritual life. It is designed by ESTs (Evangelist, Shepherds, Teachers) for ESTs. It is designed by extroverts for extroverts. I have worked to experience church through the eyes of an introvert and all of the examples I’ve mentioned are things that introverts feel but will never tell you, because they are introverts!

If we can create spaces, social experiences, even celebrate those with a different way of engaging in worship, discipleship, or leadership, we will have a church that can be a place for the rest of us. And that, in turn, will cause it to look more like the Jesus it seeks to reflect.

[1] Those with a high teacher capacity will get a lot from scripture study, while those with a high evangelistic capacity will find life in the small group discussions.