The drive from Topeka to Denver on I-70 is efficient but not beautiful. Thankfully, the drive through western Kansas inaccurately portrays the whole state. There are, however, some eye-catching signs along I-70 like, “See the World’s Largest Prairie Dog.” The sign itself isn’t beautiful and the treasure it proclaims . . . well, it’s not a real prairie dog. The world’s largest pup of the plains is there, but not a living, breathing varmint. This rotund rodent is a concrete statue! While the prairie dog village and tumbleweeds are real, the rest is creative advertising. Like the newlywed prank of switching labels on the new couple’s canned goods or a “great” steak restaurant that is never crowded, what’s on the inside does matter. What do guests find on the inside of Jesus’ church? Do the signs, slogans, and mission statements live?
“Come, follow me . . . and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19), Jesus said to his first disciples. From there they followed and fished together, that is, the character of Christ and the mission of Christ were held in a working and interdependent tension—beauty and efficiency together. This principle is seen in many other passages as well, such as the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:36-40, the Great Commission in 28:16-20, and the New Creation in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Character leads into mission; mission comes full circle as more creatures become new creations in Christ. Surely, this is part of the reason Jesus’ disciples quickly followed him. Peter, James, and John realized that the one who called them was unlike anyone they had ever met before. They wanted to fish because they saw Jesus was the Genuine Angler!
Scripture has a lot to say about demonstrating transformation. Jesus described it this way in the Sermon on the Mount: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Flashlights are of no value if the batteries are dead or if the light is in a drawer.
In their letters to churches, Peter and Paul both underlined a similar theme. Paul wrote to men, women, children, husbands, fathers, wives, and slaves emphasizing the value of becoming the “living doctrine.” He cautioned slaves “not to steal from them [their masters], but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10, emphasis added). Transformed lives illustrate the teaching of God’s Word and lead to better families, homes, and communities. Honesty and trustworthiness go a long way in making the Word of God come alive and become attractive. Peter made a similar plea for a world in need of living truth: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). “Living stones,” Peter says, become the vibrant structure of Jesus’ church. Lights that shine, trustworthy servants, and new creatures in a desperate world ensure the gospel is genuine and not exhausting, strategic rhetoric.
How can local churches strengthen and improve efforts to develop beautiful followers of Jesus?
Focus on Jesus. Make sure Jesus is the center of all we are doing. He is the model, method, means, content, priority, and goal of disciple making. Beautiful new creatures must be “in Christ” so Jesus is primary to who we are, what we are doing, and who we are becoming.
See the Big Picture. Creating a culture and a context for growing Jesus’ followers will not succeed through a single effort or too narrow a focus. Holistic aspects of worship, learning in community, the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ mission, and his return should all become and remain priorities in church culture.
Look at the Leadership. Thomas Hawkins stated, “Learning leaders lead learning congregations.” Overall, do church leaders look, act, and speak like growing disciples of Jesus? Do we even know?
Ask and Answer Basic Questions. Local congregations can move forward through asking and answering some basic questions (these are adapted from Ralph W. Tyler’s Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction).
- What are the important characteristics of an adult who is growing to look more like Jesus?
- What experiences across congregational life (worship, community, learning, and mission) will likely lead toward growth in these Christlike characteristics?
- How can these experiences be organized effectively within your local congregation?
- How can we determine if we are making progress?
Mission and Character
Maybe you are like me and you read those questions thinking, Wow, that doesn’t seem beautiful or efficient. It seems like a lot of tiring busywork! Some churches focus more on discipleship or the character of Christ while others emphasize outreach or the mission of Christ. The Bible makes it clear that both elements are critically important and must go together. If we have not given any time or attention to enhancing disciple making, rest assured beauty and efficiency will be scarce!
Here are three starter ideas.
- Detox. For a substantive amount of time (six months to one year minimum), do not add any major programs, strategies, or initiatives. With leadership and the entire congregation, spend time in prayer asking for guidance and understanding regarding the needs of the congregation and growth areas in faith development and Christian maturity. Preach and teach about who Jesus is and what it means and looks like to follow him. Seeing Jesus as the source and goal of faith is essential.
- Determine. What growth areas are the greatest as you’ve prayed and looked at your local church? Out of the season of detox, set a few basic and simple goals through the core congregational environments (worship, community, learning, mission, service, etc.). What are the greatest growth needs for adults in the congregation? What can we do to help our members look more like Jesus?
- Decide. Following your periods of detox and determination, make only one or two initial changes that would seem to lead in the direction of Christ’s character (discipleship.) After sufficient time (six months to a year), observe and evaluate the progress and the results of the initial changes. Then persevere through these steps repeatedly while evaluating, adapting, eliminating, and initiating.
We are surrounded by the quick fix. Watch the new podcast or download the trending app. Norma Everist provides great perspective contending that curriculum is never purchased but is in truth a living, learning experience with the Holy Spirit, the Christian community, and missional service inside and outside the church through which disciples grow to be more like Jesus. Improved discipleship will not essentially be a result of technology but the work of the Living Christ through his church becoming beautiful new creatures emulating Jesus’ character and following Jesus’ mission.
Steve Slack is Chaplain Manager with GraceMed Health Clinics in Wichita, Kansas.