Discipleship is Central to the Church

Over the last several months, we’ve been working toward building an understanding of mission: What God is doing and what God is calling us to do. Certain themes have been emerging as we’ve been reading and reflecting on scripture in worship and during committee time. They’ve been showing up in my devotional time and in books I’ve been reading about mission and the Church. I’ve also been hearing some of these themes as I’ve been visiting with people.

As these themes have coalesced, I’ve been toying with a phrase that pulls everything together as descriptor of a path forward for us as a congregation: “A Discipling Community for All Ages.” It is a description of what it means to be the Church.

In it, I hear the call of Jesus in at least three different ways. First, I hear the command of Jesus as he stands on the mountain preparing to leave his disciples. He leans forward and says, “I’ve been given a lot of authority on heaven and on earth. Here, now, is what you are to do: Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always.” As Matthew records them, these are the final words of Jesus to the community of faith. After giving them their marching orders, he ascends to heaven. “Go. Make Disciples.”

The Church is always called to be a discipling group. It is absolutely central to who we are, what we’re called to do and what Christ expects to be our central activity. To be a discipling congregation we need to reclaim the wonderful faith practices that help us grow as disciples: Prayer, Worship, Bible Reading, Service, Relationships, and Generosity. A discipling church focuses on these things all the time. They are traditional faith practices that keep Jesus in the center while challenging us to be God’s people active in the world for the sake of the world.

When these things are not central, the church loses its way, people lose sight of the wonderful gift of faith, we become “spiritually unfit.” Prayer, worship, Bible reading, service, relationships and generosity help us grow as people of faith. When we all focus on these things, our church becomes a better tool in the hands of God, who loves us deeply.

The second part of the phrase focuses on the word community. Nothing feeds faith like the community of God’s people. Discipleship does not happen alone on a mountain. It takes a community. The church has always been a gathering of God’s people. It is a social entity, a public gathering of people who worship with each other, who share the Christian meal with one another, who pray for and support each other in all of life’s ventures. The life of the community must be nurtured as carefully as discipleship.

For people of faith, the community of the church always begins in the community gathered and nurtured in worship. What we do together in the name of Jesus Christ makes a difference. The Sunday morning coming together is absolutely critical to the well being of the community. How we function when we are present in the community makes a difference to the health of the congregation. The more fully we enter into the work of the gathered community, the stronger the community becomes.

As a congregation, we need to grow in our involvement in the worshipping community. We need to be present more often and when present, we need to encourage one another to participate fully in the activities that are central to our Sunday morning gathering. The act of worship is not something that happens in the front of the church, but a work of the people that begins with our coming together. Our work is carried out in song, scripture and prayer. We worship as we eat at the table, and as we are sent on our way at the end of the service. For the sake of the community, we lend our voices and our hearts to the activities of our weekly gathering so that God’s community of faith can flourish and grow. The act of worship is a whole person experience: heart, soul, and strength – mind, spirit, voice and body. Worship is not a spectator sport. There is no audience. It is a full-participation sport: in which we all contribute and involve ourselves in this primary action that forms the basis of our community.

There’s another aspect of community building that we need to lift up. We need to be a congregation that works hard to foster relationships with each other. We need to create both time and space for us to linger with one another. While we work to build community within worship, we must also work to get to know each other before and after services, and at other times as well. Our hospitality committee began laying a foundation for this work a little more than a year ago when they printed and prepared nametags for all of us. I support them in their efforts because they know that it’s good for us to wear them. When we help others know our names, we offer other people the gift of relationship.

But we need to go farther. We need to cultivate an environment where friendships naturally form and flourish. As we come and go, we need to make sure that our facility helps further the ministry of hospitality. We must no longer pretend that it is acceptable to be without bathrooms in our primary area of activity. We must work together to make bathrooms in the narthex area a high priority. If we are to care for the community, we must do this for the sake of our older people. It is also absolutely necessary for families. As your pastor, I repeatedly hear the request for a bathroom. When I tell where the bathrooms are located, I often see the look of horror in the face of people who cannot circumnavigate our building. I see the look of frustration in the young parent who can’t imagine corralling two or three kids through the maze of our building to a location unknown. Without adequate bathroom facilities, we cannot say that we are as hospitable as we should be.

So, we’ve talked about being a discipling community: a community that focuses on teaching people to follow Jesus by practicing the faith while befriending each other and fostering relationships with each other. It’s time, now for us to finish the phrase.

If we are to be a discipling community for all ages, we must reclaim a commitment to reaching out to those in age groups that are currently missing from among us. As we give thanks for the things we do that feed us as we are, we must also find ways to focus some of our attention and energy on the things that will help us reach those who currently find our ministry less engaging.

In particular, we must create a worship environment that engages people of all ages. While we are good at engaging people of certain generations, we have not kept pace with the hopes and dreams of those who are my age and younger. If you’ve been reading my blog or sitting at the council table, you already know that on a given Sunday we are not likely to have many people aged 15 to 44. In fact, on a typical Sunday only 12% of us are likely to be of those ages. That means that if we have 200 people in worship, only about twenty four of us are between the ages of 15 and 44.

The good news is that we have a group of very devoted people for whom our ministry works well. What we do connects really well with people of older generations. For the sake of those who are older, we should continue to do what we do well. At the same time, though, we need to begin changing ourselves and creating worship space and styles that will engage people of younger ages, too. We can no longer pretend as if it is OK for us to ignore the needs of younger folk for the sake of keeping things the same. We need to work together to bring change to our congregation.

The last part of the phrase calls us to attend to the things that need to be done differently for the sake of being a discipling community for all ages. It calls us to continue worshipping and doing other discipling activites that meet the needs of our older members, while challenging us to think outside of the proverbial box that we’ve built for ourselves, so that we can tend to the spiritual needs of our younger members.

Jesus calls us to make disciples of all nations. He does not call us to make disciples of all nations, as long as they are of a particular age set. Instead, this call challenges us to create space in our current practices to find new ways of being the church for the sake of younger and middle aged people we are not currently retaining.

A Discipling Community for All Ages: It’s a wonderful phrase that points us toward new life.

Imagine, this congregation feeding a multitude of people in various ways. Imagine the freedom we could have as a congregation if we began blessing attempts to reach out at a younger audience not already present, while at the same time retaining a worship style and service that is near and dear to the hearts of those of already regularly present. Imagine the excitement we could have among us if there were more young people among us.

You see, I dream of a day when this church is deeply dedicated to being a discipling community for all ages that is bursting with enthusiasm. I can see a time when we no longer look at other churches with despair and wring our hands at how easy it is for them to attract young families. It is possible for us to be so engaged with younger people that we are renewed as a congregation. But it does mean that we will have to stand as a congregation and be united in our determination to be a discipling community for all ages. We may even have to give up some things so that there is room for others to emerge.

We will not give up our liturgical tradition. I cannot imagine a time without a liturgical service as a part of Sunday morning. I can, however, imagined a time when, in addition to the liturgical service, we have a second service geared toward young adults and youth: an innovative service with new instrumentation, new music, a service with surprises. I can imagine this.

I’ve been pastor here for almost three years. From the very beginning of my time here, I’ve had people asking for us to develop a band. About a year ago, I even had a member of our congregation offer to provide technology to help us add a visual dimension to our worship. There are voices among us calling for global music. There are people asking to use their talents in ways that we do not currently practice. There are voices from among us calling for new ways to do worship. I welcome those voices. We need to hear these requests and to encourage those voices to be heard, because these are some of the voices from among us that are challenging us to step out and to try new things because they love Jesus and want this church to be renewed in ministry.

So, what is God trying to do among us? I hear God calling us to be a discipling community for all ages. God calls us to be people who are deepening our faith life through prayer, worship, reading of scripture, service, relationships and generosity. God calls us to do these things in the context of the community while building the community to be a place for people of all ages.

I hope that in the weeks and months ahead we’ll have the courage to grow in our understanding of what God calls us to be. I hope we’ll allow ourselves the freedom needed to discover a passion for what God calls us to be. I hope that we’ll grow in our determination to enter into new ways of ministry to be who God calls us to be.

One thought on “Discipleship is Central to the Church”

  1. I appreciate this attention to age-diversity. I’m of an age group that is under-represented in this congregation. I’m 45, but I feel younger. (Don’t we all, really?). At the very-well-attended benefit last night, and in Acts discussion this AM, I was struck by my connections with so many that are not actively attending church. It’s interesting, and perhaps a bit disturbing. I want the good this church brings me to be experienced by others. So, how do I build relationships within my own absent demographic? I’m called to build relationships? Well sure, of course. I will build relationships willingly, to the best of my (sometimes limited) ability. I’ve got loads of empathy, an open heart, a foot in many doorways… (and, well, a hint of introversion). But that said, “relationships that foster faith” is a more difficult extension. Opening the faith questions and putting my beliefs on the table can set up more of that challenging “us and them” stuff, even among peers where we’re usually part of the same “us”. And whenever I’m an “us”, labeled by a “them” I can see that some of the labels and stereotypes are true, for better or worse. Are there Christian stereotypes? Well, of course. Do they fit? Well, often, in my experience, no. I’ve experienced how calling attention to labels can give power to divisions, can build walls. For example, I can consider myself a environmentalist, with pride. But if someone lumps me in to a “treehugger” label, maybe Í don’t fit all that they’ve got in their concept. Labels divide. I try very hard to resist labeling others, to be open to the varying shades of “them” that are out there. I’m at peace with being a Christian, but wary that it’s a label that makes me a “them” to some others, with assorted baggage. I’m all about knocking down walls, getting around stereotypes, building bridges, finding common ground. “We” works much better than “us” and “them”. I wish to witness without labels, and to be given courage to reach out.

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