About 15 years ago the Church of the Nazarene adopted a beautiful mission statement
“To Make Christlike Disciples in the Nations”
Today, most churches use the discipleship meme. How do small beautiful churches disciple? In this overview we will look at why we do what we do in discipleship. Later we will expand the how to’s so that pastors and leaders in small churches have practical concepts and tools to move forward. Discipleship in a small church seems difficult but Small beautiful churches CAN disciple well. This is an important contribution to the whole body of Christ. Jesus made disciples and commands us to make disciples. We can obey that command even with a few people (where two or three are gathered). Paul made disciples and his example has some aspect of all three frameworks. Both Jesus and Paul worked with very limited resources as they started.
Today there are many different definitions for discipleship which mostly fit into three main frameworks.
Education – a disciple is a believer who knows stuff. Sunday School
Structure – a disciple is a person following the right structure or organizational form. G-12
Obedience – a disciple is a person who is obedient to Christ’s commands. Real Life Discipleship.
Each framework above focuses a problem and assumes that the other two aspects will be taken care of when the framework is correct. So that we assume if a person is properly educated they will learn to obey Christ and fix harmful structures. We assume that if a person is in a right (love your neighbor) structure the structure will help them obey Christ and learn what is necessary for that. If a person is obedient to Christ they will learn what is necessary to live as a fully obedient Christian and repair harmful structures.
The framework we adopt to make disciples shows what we think is THE sin of all of humanity. The framework addresses that problem (sin). The other two aspects grow out of the frame.
So the discipleship question today is what is the real essential problem (sin) and what is simply a tool to help or a good result of using the framework?
Let’s look at these three frameworks.
Education assumes the basic problem with people is that they lack understanding or skill. (Ignorance is sin). If they know enough they will do right. So the framework uses curriculum focused on understanding Scripture, or understanding psychology, or sociology, or finance. We hope that education will help people obey Christ. We hope that education will help us deal with bad structures and put in their place structures that love our neighbor as ourself. The problem with an educational framework is that knowledge (by itself) does not transform. Knowledge is NOT righteousness. We are not judged in the end by what we know. This was the Gnostic heresy. James is clear about this when he says that the devils believe there is one God and they tremble. The devils know perfectly but the devils don’t obey. Not only this but Education is not universal. It can be helpful to a Christian but many Christians have never had access to education. If something is not universal it cannot be what Jesus is commanding.
Structure assumes that the basic problem with people is that they are in a bad system. (The system is sin). The relationships we participate in are causing us to sin. Perhaps we are not accountable enough. Perhaps we are not organized enough to make sure we do what is right. It is true that accountability helps us avoid sin. It is true that accountability is helpful for reaching others for Christ. But structure does not deal with the inner motivation of a person. Why does someone conform to a system or structure? Are they always motivated by loving obedience or can pride, acceptance, the fear of others, or a sense of self-righteousness motivate them? If a right structure is what we need – why did the Nation of Israel continue to sin after Yahweh gave them his commands? There is no better structure than the law of God. Also various cultures around the world and through time have used an amazing range of ways to organize themselves. If structure were what made us holy we would see some cultures that are structure d “correctly” becoming saints because of that structure. From scripture and history we see that the Apostle Paul structured churches using a team of Elders and Deacons without a lead pastor. The Apostle John structured churches with a lead pastor. These two inspired Apostles of Christ used different structures to accomplish the mission of Christ. Structures cannot change the heart of a person.
The obedience framework assumes that the problem with people is choosing to disobey God, or choosing to go their own way. (Disobedience to God is sin). Jesus says “if you love me you will keep my commands.” For Jesus, obedience is the evidence of love. It means that our external actions are in line with our internal motivation and that our internal motivation is in line with our external actions. Obedience to Christ’s commands includes all our internal attitudes as well as our external actions.
Obedience requires some knowledge. We need to know what Christ wants from us. We need to know how to apply love to our neighbor. The better our theology the easier it is to obey correctly. Bad (wrong or evil) theology often leads to wrong actions.
Obedience requires some structure – husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. The Church is the body of Christ. Deacons are appointed to a congregation. Pastors are ordained into the ministry by the laying on of hands. There is always structure to the Church.
Obedience to Christ’s commands is possible across all cultures and societies. Obedience is universally possible.
This is why all discipleship should focus obedience. “Teaching them to obey all I have commanded you..” Jesus did NOT say “Teaching them to understand all I have commanded you.” Jesus did not say “Teaching them to organize themselves correctly.” Discipleship in a small church is obedience to Christ. Simple obedience.
Methods discipleship in a small church.
Sunday School curriculum.
There are many of these and they are normally expensive for a small church.
You can find the latest prices for a good curriculum at the Foundry publishing. https://www.thefoundrypublishing.com/curriculum.html
You can also find a good curriculum from the Wesleyan Church at https://www.wesleyan.org/wph/curriculum
The costs for these depend on the number of classes, students, grade level and teachers you have. They can be from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars a year.
It is also possible for the small church to train teachers to use the Bible itself for it’s curriculum. The stories and resources there can be used by a teacher to help saints grow in Christ. This is a low cost way to approach education but requires training teachers how to use the Bible well. I recommend this approach for most small churches.
The internet has vast amounts of materials but many of these are wrong or actually hostile to a Wesleyan Arminian perspective. I will suggest good free educational materials in the coming blogs.
Each of these materials assumes that you have a structure to deliver an educational curriculum. You will need places to put the students, teachers and some type of accountability system. For a very small church these educational structures can be challenging. Many churches of 100 people still struggle to deliver a Sunday School on a regular basis. I will suggest practical solutions in the days to come.
G-12 and similar approaches. I do not recommend this approach but it is good to understand the approach and why, especially in Latin America, it has been popular.
This is a cell church structure that focuses on high accountability through personal development.
It seems to model after Jesus approach of selecting 12 men to disciple.
The basic approach is found at this site https://g12resources.com
The approach builds on John Wesley’s use of class meetings and band meetings with high spiritual accountability and constant leadership development.
It structures everyone into a single accountability structure so that the person at the top of the structure becomes the spiritual leader for ALL those under them. This can be very abusive since everyone is encouraged to confess sin to their leader. Those confessions can be manipulated.
If used carefully with limits and restrictions it can be a useful tool.
The focus here is freedom from sin or obedience to Christ’s commands. The method is personal and group accountability. Discipleship in a small church makes sure that all the members, attenders and contacts are growing in obedience to Christ. All people go through stages from pre-believer to new believer to mature believer. It is possible to finish the discipleship process and move into being a part of the mutual body of believers. It is possible to be a full grown Christian.
Jim Putnam http://jimputman.com is an excellent example of this approach. His book “Real Life Discipleship” explains the concepts well.
The goal for discipleship in a small church is to help a person move from a sinner to a fully sanctified saint. Form small groups that have a life span and that are designed to help everyone see their own sins and faults and overcome them.
The actual situation of each person is dealt with. We use structures that help people obey without becoming manipulative, or abusive – (both are sins). So that structures are flexible. Educational curriculum is used as a point of development for the person and for the body. But this development is understood to be separate from the discipleship process. Entire Sanctification and a mature Christian walk are promised and hopeful for every Christian.
We will explore the types of actions a pastor needs to take in our next posts. How do we institute discipleship as obedience in a small congregation?