Discipleship and the Church in America
Two weeks ago I received the newsletter from the Green Lake Conference Center in Green Lake, Wisconsin. The conference center is a part of the American Baptist Church. I have been attending the Christian Writer’s Conference there nearly every summer since 1990 so I am on their mailing list. In the newsletter, Pastor Ken Giacoletto, president of Green lake Conference Center, wrote an article on the direction of the church in America that caught my attention. He began the article with a list of some major trends that have emerged in his conversations with the many pastors and church leaders that come to Green Lake.

1. Pastors of all size churches are experiencing burnout at an ever increasing rate.
2. The pressure to attract people, the seeker-driven church, is moving many churches to a “come and see” marketing strategy as opposed to “go and serve” mission strategy.
3. Mega churches find it difficult to provide the next generation of leadership since so many who attend the mega church do so because of the charisma of the founding leader.
4. Pastors are realizing that while there may be growth in the seeker-driven church, they are concerned that people are not growing as deep disciples of Christ.
5. Finally, a nagging question-What difference is the church making in society?

Studies of the early church, which operated in the middle of a pagan Roman culture, calculate that it grew at a rate of about 16% a year, until it had taken over the Roman culture. The Roman culture at that time was not so different from our own in America today. So how was the early church able to grow so fast? Did they mimic the culture around them in order to attract people to faith? Did they build grand buildings which brought people to “come and see”? No. They did just the opposite. The early church that Peter and Paul established tended to use the one on one relationship to bring people to faith in Christ. They took discipleship very seriously; it was the foundation of a strong church. Jesus said to the Jews who had believed, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31. It is interesting to note that there was no church “building” until the church was nearly 200 years old! Are there lessons to be learned from the early church? I offer here a few.

1) The church in America has concepts and principles ingrained that may work well in business, but do not always apply to building the church. Most businesses operate on a one, two, or five year plan. Goals are set, targets are met, and failure or success is easy to measure. But the church’s vision goes beyond our lifetime. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20. The early church had a God-sized goal; it took them 300 years to change the culture. Maybe we need to have a God-sized goal in the church today, a goal that goes beyond our abilities and beyond our life expectancy. Would we not then rely on God and not on our own wisdom and talents?

2) Perhaps we will also have to abandon our cultural idea that “bigger is better”. Bigger may work in business, but it doesn’t necessarily build disciples who are totally committed to Christ. When you study the Bible over a period of time, you can’t help but realize that raising your hand and saying a prayer may be all you need to be “saved”, but becoming a true Christ follower takes a lot more work. . Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me, will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25. As Pastor Giacoletto writes,
“This is really not a faith for the lazy. Jesus had a good idea when he decided to work with twelve.”
Billy Graham once said,
“I think one of the first things I would do would be to get a small group of eight or ten or twelve men around me that would meet a few hours a week and pay the price. It would cost them something in time and effort. I would share with them everything I have, over a period of years. Then I would actually have twelve ministers among the laymen who in turn could take eight or ten or twelve more and teach them. I know one or two churches that are doing that, and it is revolutionizing the church. Christ, I think, set the pattern. He spent most of his time not with the crowds, but with twelve men.”

The Apostle Paul told Timothy, “Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” I Timothy 6:12
“Study to prove yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” II Timothy 2:15
“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction.” II Timothy 4:2

3) The strategy of mimicking the culture around us in our worship is controversial. Should we set our worship apart from the culture or put Christian words to the current secular style? Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you. That is why the world hates you.” John 15:18-19
I know I am treading on toes, but, for example, I attended a mega church last summer where we were directed to sit in the overflow room where our only tie to the worship service was a giant TV monitor in the room. I did not feel I was a part of the body of Christ that day. TV monitors in church so the masses can see the pastor - they serve a useful purpose, I suppose, or they wouldn’t be there, but after looking at a screen all week long at home and work, what about if we were to look at each other instead or gather in smaller groups where the preacher is able to speak more intimately with the congregation? I guess this goes back to the “bigger is better” question. Maybe someone has been able to gather the statistics to show how many people come to Christ and become disciples from hearing a Christian rock band in a huge stadium. Maybe it’s a lot. After all, large numbers have been coming to Christ in huge stadiums during the Billy Graham crusades. Still, of those, the majority who stay with the faith and bear fruit down the road are those who are discipled in a local church or home group. The point is that we should be constantly asking the question: What is true worship? Shouldn’t we be leaving church on Sunday knowing that we have encountered a Holy God, worshipped Him in truth and left with a charge to Go and Serve?

4) Here’s something else to think about. Are we measuring success in the church the way they did in the early church? Jesus said, “I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit-fruit that will last.” John 15: 16
Pastor Giacoletto writes,
When I am talking with a pastor who is frustrated with his or her ministry, I always ask the question, “How many people in your congregation are totally sold out to Christ?” The answer is generally 3-5%, which is, coincidentally, the percentage of tithers in the average church. As the discussion goes further, it usually gets to why the number is so small and the answer is that if the pastor pushed the congregation to serious discipleship, he/she would probably lose people. Really? Do you think that you really have them then? I always end by asking the pastor, “Would you rather have the 400 people in your church with 3-5% committed or would you prefer to have 50 who are totally committed?”
They always choose the 50.”
I would like to be one of the totally committed, the hardcore “we will follow, we’ll do anything, we’re all about going out to make disciples”, wouldn’t you?

Finally, I think we all want the church to make a difference in our society. Often it seems that going to church is no different in the world’s eyes than going to Kiwanis or any other social club (actually, organizations like Kiwanis are making a difference). Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples.” John 13:34-35 . Jesus told his disciple Peter, “I tell you that you are now Peter (meaning `the Rock’) and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18.
I know my own congregation is always striving to make a difference in our community (and in the world through missions), but it can be frustrating. Many Christians in America are saying, “We have this beautiful facility, we have all these people that come on weekends, and we raise thousands of dollars to keep it all operating. But on Monday morning we look around our community and not much has changed. We’re not making a difference in schools, hunger, crime, government, etc.” Just tweaking what is not working isn’t going to do it. Only when Christians are radically and fully committed to Christ will we see change and even then, it is God’s doing, not ours.

Sadly, I find myself in a sort of spiritual stupor these days. I admit to being way too inward- focused. I feel lazy, as if I’ve lost my passion. My spiritual fire needs to be stirred, and kindling added, if I am ever to become the deep disciple that God desires. Have you been there? Jesus’ words to the church of Laodicea speak to me right now. “I know your deeds, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish you were one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:15-16. That shakes me up! I guess that is why Pastor Giacoletto’s article spoke to me. Perhaps you are one of those totally sold out disciples that God is using mightily, but you feel pretty alone out there. I thank God for you; I’m ashamed that I haven’t joined you. Perhaps others of you are in the same place I am right now and need to hear this message. I thank God for you too, because you are one more person that God can use if you will put yourself out there and let Him. I pray that by this time next year, we can look back at ourselves from a totally different position as world-changers through the power of the Holy Spirit.

*Parts of this D-mail were taken from the article , 7/24: Living in the Holiness of God by Ken Giacoletto, published in the Green lake Conference Center 2011 Special Edition vol43

Prayer: Lord, I pray for the church in America. I pray that we wake up and reach out to our nation so they know that You are alive, that You are the only God who can save them. Lord, I don’t like to think about being persecuted for preaching your word, but I hate that the church is ignored in this nation. I hate that the few who do speak out have to endure ridicule all alone while most of us in the church pew go about our pitiful business. Lord, help us change. Help us to be sold out so that our voices and deeds will make a true difference. I pray for those whom you have called to disciple other believers. Lead them and guide them as they raise up another generation of godly laborers. In Jesus’ name, Amen