“If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.” So says pastor and author Mike Breen in his book Building a Discipleship Culture. That thought has stuck with me since I first read this book almost ten years ago. The point he was driving at was that churches – in their panic about what to do about dwindling membership at the global and local levels – found some refuge in becoming marketing machines. Churches found that they could attract some people with programs of all sorts – children’s and youth ministries, parenting classes, financial strategy courses, prayer circles, men’s Bible studies, and the like. To be clear, Breen didn’t say that these things were bad. They all serve a good purpose! His issue with these things is that they were born from the wrong premise. These programs were designed to grow a church, not in order to make disciples. As such, the church became more administrative, focused more on the technical nature of how to sustain these programs. As such, the people who came for these programs tended to stay and affiliate with the church insofar as the program existed. But when the program finished, or when they “aged out” in terms of youth groups, then the people just walked away without any second thought. So, Breen asks, what if, instead, the church focused less on the programs and more on the people? What if the church just distilled its programmatic ministry to the single task of making disciples – equipping them for a life of faith in a challenging, ever-changing world? What if the church spent its time and energy on helping people to listen for God in their everyday lives, and encouraged people to respond to God’s gracious voice? What if the church made disciples that understood the invitation and challenge associated with a life of faith and who strove every day to meet that challenge with the assurance of God’s mercy? This isn’t programmatic ministry. It’s just ministry. Beginning with questions like these brings our focus more to relationships, mentoring, teaching, and role-modeling, and less to checking worship or a church meeting off of our To-Do List. Make disciples, he says, and you will always get the church. It just may not look like what you thought it would.
I bring this up because earlier this week, a report from Gallup was released that showed that religious membership in the United States has dipped below 50% for the first time in its 80-year history of asking these questions. This is significant, but not surprising. Membership in churches along with other religious organizations has been decreasing for decades, and this is a trend that the church needs to pay attention to. Still, my reaction to this report was not so much panic as it was sorrow. Because it seems to indicate that we – the church – have done a poor job of making disciples. And reports like this one will probably trigger another surge of gimmicky programs instead of doing the harder, more necessary work of making disciples.
As Christ the King Lutheran Church and I both prepare for my upcoming Renewal Leave in the summer of 2022 we will be focusing on what discipleship looks like. We will be discovering what our individual spirituality types might mean for our life of faith. We will be revisiting and relearning about some of our religious roots and tending to them so that our faith might flourish. We will focus on building you and others up as disciples, as people who love and want to follow Jesus. I, for one, am excited to see how this kind of intentional focus might bear fruit in the years to come.
If you have any questions about my upcoming Renewal Leave, please feel free to reach out to me. I’d love to chat with you about it.