Every now and then there is a part of me that gets rubbed raw and I have to articulate what’s going on. There were two moments today that brought that inner disturbance to light again, so let me fire off some thoughts and you can tell me what resonates and what is just dumb
I was listening to the Rebuilders podcast today, where Mark Sayers was interviewing Terry Walling mostly in regards to what we have learnt from the ‘Mars Hill’ podcasts (google it if you are out of that loop). During the conversation they got talking about the priority of making disciples and how this has been supplanted by the challenge of growing an outwardly successful church (think BIG – funky, cool, busy etc. To be fair discipleship is not purely correlated to church size. You can have a small church with no discipleship going on and a large church with a culture that forms people into Christ. But by and large we must concede that no one sets out to maintain a steady 60 or 70… We all want to ‘grow’ and in that aspiration there is also a subtle seduction – to give top priority to Sunday gatherings – to the shop front.
Ok so Sunday gatherings aren’t ‘bad’ and they do some good, but Wallings observation was that because the sacred cow of the Sunday morning gathering is the epicenter of church life, actual discipleship will always be a challenge. While the focus is on attracting people to Sunday events – either as congregants or as participants, our most significant energy is spent here. Hence there will be less time and energy for the kinds of relationships and conversations that are confronting, transformational and purposeful. In fact simply put, when we focus primarily on Sunday we take the focus away from everywhere else.
So – let’s ditch Sunday gatherings and just focus on ‘discipleship’?… Let’s get up close and personal – the kind of interactions that stretch us and challenge us… yeah?…
If only it were so simple. The problem we have is not one simply of structure – it is one where both pastors and congregation perpetuate the problem. Many people like a large Sunday gathering where they can come and be inspired, uplifted and then go home while remaining largely anonymous. ‘Church box’ ticked and now I feel better. All good right?…
Many pastors also like a larger gathering where their oratory capacities are praised and they get to feel good about themselves. (Not me – other pastors…) But when we play this game we end up in a co-dependent cycle where people are educated, inspired and maybe even formed into Christ, but the focus is on growing the crowd and discipleship comes second if at all.
Sometimes I think to myself ‘let’s re-organise Sundays into smaller groups so that we can facilitate the kinds of interactions that enable more gritty conversations – that evoke honesty, vulnerability and transparency… but I know exactly what would happen if we took that approach.
People would either stay home that week or (if it continued) they would simply go to another church. We have en-culturated people into a particular liturgy (whether you are high or low church) and they have come to see this as the primary expression of church. This is church to them.
But this is not church. It is but one expression of it – and one I feel we have given way too much weight too. Sunday looms large every week for churches and the need to do it with polish and pizazz often contributes to a culture that is reflective of this. Typically churches with more flair and polish attract the beautiful people, the hipsters and the cool, while churches that are just ‘passable’ on Sunday are populated by aging congregations or people who don’t care about ‘cool’.
That said, I honestly can’t see a way out of this maze. If we choose a path away from the Sunday centred church – the church that is all about the gathering – then (unless there is very skilled leadership) people will simply leave. They will stop coming, find a ‘real’ church and any pastors dependent on them for their income will soon be tested as to whether they really want to pursue this path… I remember when we led Upstream, many years ago now, people wouldn’t join us because we were unfamiliar, we didn’t look like church as they knew it. They just wanted an ordinary church to attend and we didn’t tick any of the boxes on their wish list. It was really difficult leading a community that struggled to grow. Even those who weren’t Christians still were curious about when we did ‘real church’. This perception of church as a gathered community on Sundays where songs are sung and sermons are preached is present in non-Christians because they have seen it in the movies.
Having led in both Upstream (smaller home based) and in more conventional church I can’t say that the discipleship processes of one clearly out-did the other. In each group there was a ‘normal curve’ of how people followed Christ. Some went hard, others ambled. I sense this is just how people are.
But I am concerned that we are trapped in a co-dependent cycle that keeps us nibbling at the edges of discipleship rather than opening the floodgates to the real deal. What do I mean by that? Simply people who show up wanting to follow Jesus more – who want to know him better – live their faith with more integrity – encounter God more genuinely – where these conversations pervade the life of a community, not in a weird way, but simply because it is who we are.
I sense the ‘success’ of discipleship in any church will have more to do with the culture set by leaders than any structure or process. If leaders clearly communicate that Sunday is the big deal and you don’t want to miss it then that will be heard loud and clear, but if leaders communicate that Jesus is the big deal and your priority is always moving closer to him then perhaps this will be seen as core.
But can you communicate that Jesus is the big deal – and so is Sunday?… Honestly – I am not convinced it is possible. The Sunday box is easy to tick – especially if it’s a rockin funky place, but ‘Jesus’ box requires much more than a tick. It is long hard work to form disciples.
I sense we have become so reliant on the Sunday form that we always struggle to re-imagine church without it. Perhaps the test of discipleship is in the kinds of relationships we participate in outside of Sundays. Do we meet with people who both inspire and challenge us? Do we have those in our lives who sharpen us and who call us on to follow Jesus more closely? Or do we just have people who will discuss football, interest rates and cars?
I get the sense that so long as Sunday is growing and feels energetic we are content, but I think Pete Scazzero’s statement (pic above) is on the money. We have to change the scorecard and I feel like I have been banging on about this for so long now… but perhaps that’s because we are still stuck in the Sunday loop.
I wish I had an answer, but I sense we have created a monster and now, because we don’t know how to tame it, instead we feed it.