Last week’s blog, “Preaching to Unbelievers,” sparked a little discussion between Scot and me. If we are in fact preaching to unbelievers, then what should we do about it? When I told Scot he gave me a maximum word count, he reminded me that I could continue the conversation this week.
So here we are.
First, let’s remember how we got here. Remember the old adage, “What gets measured gets done”? The short version of how we got here is that the evangelical church started measuring the wrong thing. In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded His disciples to go and make disciples.
This is the first problem. How do you determine if someone is a true follower of Christ? This question has dogged the church for generations. How can we confirm that someone is a follower of Christ? Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit, but how do we measure faithfulness? Do you carry kindness in a basket or a bucket? Do you weigh sweetness in pounds or gallons?
This frustration was made more complicated by the “incorporation” of the church. The church was organized and run as if it were a corporation. We had goals and strategies, and in order to achieve our goals, we needed to have certain data to support our success or our need for improvement. So if we couldn’t measure discipleship, we did the next best thing. We measured attendance.
Diligence has become the goal, the standard of success. Are you a good pastor? Well, you are if attendance increases. Are you a good church? Do you add numbers? Pastors were introduced by the number of attendees in their church. Pastors have achieved celebrity status by celebrating the thousands of people who have come to their churches.
Were these participants disciples of Christ? Who knew? How could you say? If they told you they were followers of Christ – even if nothing about their lifestyle or their life choices would give you any indication that they had ever met Jesus – we had to take their word for it. But that was not the point.
The point was attendance.
So the church studied Disney to figure out how to make guests feel welcome. We have changed our worship services to be “seeker friendly”. The less controversial we were, the less difficult we were, the more attendance increased. As many who have studied this phenomenon have pointed out, the theology proclaimed was very comforting, but it was as shallow as a wading pool. Jesus was introduced as our friend. He loved us unconditionally and demanded nothing of us.
All well and good until something goes wrong. Unfortunately, we live in a world where a lot of things go wrong. Cancer shows up in our blood tests. Accidents paralyze and kill. Pandemics shut down the world. What happens to attendees when they can’t attend church?
They stop dating. They stop attending services. They stop attending Bible studies. They stop caring about their faith at all.
Jesus talked a lot about agriculture. Many of his stories were about seeds, soil, weeds and tillage. The reason he did this is that discipleship is very much like farming. The ground must be prepared. Seeds need to be planted and watered. Weeds are a constant nuisance. Finally, after months of work and waiting, we finally harvest the harvest.
Evangelism and discipleship are slow and intensive processes like farming. The soil of the person must be prepared. It is the work of the Holy Spirit and the only thing we can do is pray that wisdom will know when the ground is ready for sowing. When the Spirit prompts us, we plant the seed. But what happens to the seed while it is in the ground is a great mystery and again we can only wait and pray. When the tender shoot breaks through, we can teach and encourage, but again, true growth comes only through the power of the Spirit.
And when is the plant mature? When is the disciple ready to lead? Only the Spirit knows. There is no measure that indicates when the discipleship has finished its work. There is no chemical mixture that changes color when a true disciple is contacted. We simply have to trust a process that we cannot see or control. Trying to quantify discipleship is too difficult.
So we count the participants.
For the evangelical church to weather the coming storm in North America, we must abandon all our business management techniques and return to the basics of discipleship. There is no shortcut. It’s backbreaking, tedious and dirty work, but it’s life on the farm – and it’s life that makes disciples.
A long time ago I pastored First Baptist Church in Edgefield, South Carolina. Edgefield is the heart of fishing country. Several afternoons I walked through the orchards with a friend of mine who owned a huge peach farm. Every day he picked a peach and cut it with his knife. He looked at the peach, tasted it and decided if it was ripe. One day the peach was not ripe. The next day it was. I couldn’t tell the difference. They looked identical to me.
He laughed when I admitted my ignorance. He said, “You can’t tell the difference because you haven’t watched the fishing every day.” He is right. If I had been paying attention, I would have noticed the subtle differences in the growth of this peach.
That’s the difference. Disciples are examined daily. Participants come once a week. That makes all the difference to a preacher. Preparing sermons for disciples and for participants are two very different things.