By Eric Bingaman
Suppose a visitor asked a volunteer at your welcome table, “If I continue to worship with you, how do I grow in your church family?” Would your volunteer know how to respond? As a church, we are called to help one another look more like Jesus Christ daily. Rather than a simple answer that can easily be understood, we may have no answer at all. If we attempt to offer one, it may be so complex the guest would need a personal guide to help understand how to live it out.
Truth is, most of us struggle to answer this question about discipleship. Recently, we have begun to take an honest look at how individuals grow spiritually within our own congregation. Along the way we’ve gleaned a few principles which have guided the ministry model we are building.
A Simple Process
As our church has grown, the numbers of programs and events we offer have grown at the same pace. More is better, isn’t it? In theory, more programs means more opportunities and more opportunities should translate to more people growing in Christ at a quicker rate. What we discovered surprised us.
More programs often equals more confusion, fewer resources, stressed staff and volunteers pulled in multiple directions, and a lack of clarity on how we intend individuals in our congregation to grow. The church has begun to imitate our American university structure. We create a catalog full of programs, ministries, and mission statements, develop a separate brochure with upcoming events, and leave our members to navigate through the growing list of opportunities. The idea of a course catalog has worked in universities because each student is assigned a personal guidance counselor to help along the way. We began to seek a simpler, more efficient way of looking at discipleship.
We are learning that we need to move from being programmers to becoming designers. Rather than offering a catalog of programs and sending members on their way, our goal is to design a simple discipleship process. The process must be clear, easy to live out, and naturally move individuals to increasing maturity. Programs are aligned to fit the process or are eliminated. Less is more. Less events means more time and resources can be focused on programs that are essential to moving individuals toward maturity. Less means more focus, more energy, more volunteers, and less stress on families struggling to balance work, school, home, and church.
In his book Simple Church (B & H Publishing, 2011), Thom Rainer illustrates how one church has implemented the idea of a simple discipleship process. With Deuteronomy 6 as a backdrop, “Love God, love others, and serve the world” became both their mission statement and discipleship process. They focused on one ministry for each aspect of the statement. They loved God by worshipping. They loved one another through involvement in small groups. They served the world through several missions supported by the church. All other ministries were either incorporated into one of these three areas or eliminated. By aligning one ministry to accomplish each part of the mission, the church became focused and everyone understood how one grew in his congregation.
The Center of Faith Formation
According to Dr. Kara Powell in her book Sticky Faith (Zondervan, 2011), 40-50 percent of the young people who are actively involved in our congregations will turn away from their faith in college. The response from the church has been to throw more money at the issue. As our youth budgets continue to swell, the results have not improved. Something has to change.
While the answer is complex, one key principle can be gleaned from Deuteronomy 6. After teaching God’s commands, Deuteronomy 6:7 says to parents, “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (NIV, 1984).
Scripture is clear. The responsibility of growing our youth in Christ rests not in the hands of professional ministry staff, but rather upon us as parents. The home needs to be the center of faith formation for our youth.
As we have begun to align our ministries to support this principle, several changes have been made. The church now provides families with family devotions and ideas for prayer time. Sunday school classes teach on the same subjects each week. The idea is to equip parents to continue the lesson beyond Sunday morning. The adult class takes time to discuss how certain ideas can be implemented in the home. Each student is given a personal devotional for the week to reinforce what is taught on Sunday. The parent’s devotional includes additional parenting tips and ideas on how to incorporate each week’s lesson at home.
Families are encouraged to engage in caring conversations. Every Sunday, parents are given a list of questions that can be asked around the dinner table or on a long car drive. The questions are designed to encourage families to talk about life and reinforce the previous Sunday’s message.
The church encourages families to create spiritual rituals and traditions. One important tradition is Communion. A couple of times a year, we break from our normal Communion tradition and place stations around the auditorium. We encourage families to take their emblems and find an area in the room to gather as a family. The leader of the home is encouraged to pray over the family while reflecting on Christ’s sacrifice. The key is to build family traditions that teach spiritual truths. Sticky Faith by Kara Powell, Revolutionary Parenting (David C. Cook, 2009) by George Barna, and Visionary Parenting (Randall House, 2009) by Dr. Rob Rienow are all great resources to help think through making the home the center of faith formation.
Best Done in Community
A recent car commercial focuses on a daughter who is concerned her parents are becoming socially isolated. She understands they need community. She discusses encouraging her parents to find community by signing up for Facebook, while images are shown of the parents with friends in nature, enjoying life. The commercial cuts to the daughter behind a computer disgusted that her parents only have 19 Facebook friends. The next line captures the essence of the entire commercial. The daughter, who sits alone at home, says, “I have 687 [Facebook] friends. This is living.” We know that’s not true.
God created us for one another. Christians understand this, yet we insist on living separate from one another. As the world becomes more high tech, we have become low touch. We are becoming increasingly isolated. We were created for community.
Acts 2:42-47 provides a description of the first church. The church was an active family that lived out life with one another daily. They served one another, encouraged one another, prayed for one another, shared meals with one another, studied with one another, and sold their possessions to help one another. They formed such a close bond that they had “all things in common.” Community, for them, was not a passive experience lived out in a pew once a week on Sunday morning. It was an active experience lived out with one another daily.
We must move the church out of the pew and into the living room. We were created for one another. Our congregation began a small group ministry as a smaller church. As we have grown, the need has grown. It is in the context of the small group where we find encouragement, are held accountable, find care and support, and live out our faith.
Eric Bingaman is a minister and freelance writer in Batesville, Indiana.
Discipleship at Home