Lesson 17 Living “On Mission”

Video 17 Living “On Mission”

In September 2015, my wife and I had the chance to visit the French Quarter of New Orleans for the first time. My friend Tom Bilderback pastors Vieux Carre Baptist Church, smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter. To the locals, it’s just known as “the Vieux” (it’s French, so don’t pronounce the “x”).

Tom and his wife, Sonia, invited me to come down, to give a few talks to his leaders, and to preach on Sunday morning. My wife and I were so excited! A chance to get away and stroll around this historic city, listening to jazz musicians play “When the Saints Go Marching In” as parents drank sweet tea while kids played in the streets.

My expectations were crushed. The Vieux meets one block off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter—basically a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Bourbon Street is what you get when you sear a human conscience, pump it full of alcohol, crank up the music, and take away all law and moral restraint. It’s not uncommon for two drunk people to have sex in the street, puke their guts out, pass out unconscious on the sidewalk, wake up to defecate, and then drift back into an alcoholic slumber—all before noon. Let’s just say that my visions of sipping sweet tea on Colonel Sanders’s front porch didn’t come true.

But I saw Jesus. He lives right off Bourbon Street. He resides in the embodied love and grace of a radical little group of Christian misfits who call themselves The Vieux. I was blown away at the power of Jesus at work in this community. People are getting saved. Drunks are coming to Christ. And homeless people are finding family in a ragtag group of Jesus followers who have left comfort and security to live out a mission in a godless city.

Over the weekend, I met several people who spent most of their lives on the streets sucking on a bottle of liquor. Yet they have found Jesus and now are serving him with reckless abandon. These are genuine converts—real Jesus followers. Like “Mamma Rose,” as she’s known by everyone in the Quarter. Mamma spent a good forty to fifty years of her life on the streets, downing two liters of vodka a day. I did the math: that’s equivalent to forty beers a day. I don’t think Mamma was sober for more than an hour since the early 1980s. Previous pastors of the Vieux reached out to her, and Tom and Sonia picked up where they left off. They befriended her, helped her, and built a relationship with her—something that the angry street preachers who parachute into the Quarter on Saturday nights to yell at the drunks would never do. She’s been clean now for a couple years, and she’s telling everyone about Jesus.

Then there’s Jim, who has been divorced three times and spent most of his life on the streets of the French Quarter nursing an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Pastor Tom reached out to him with the love of Christ. Now Jim’s a leader in the church. Jim’s one of the kindest, most grateful Christians I’ve ever met. And talk about brilliant: Jim studied to be a tour guide in the Quarter, and now knows everything there is to know about its history.

Story after story, convert after convert, I became addicted to hearing about the love of Christ that overflows the walls of The Vieux and spills into the streets of Sodom. The life of these disciples gave me life. Their sacrifice challenged my comfort. And I was reminded once again of the power of mission-centered, grace-filled discipleship when Christ followers take it to the streets.

Discipleship is far more than just mastering morality. It’s even more than thinking critically about tough topics. Biblical discipleship must include mission—embodying and displaying the presence of Christ beyond the four walls of church.
What I love about the ministry at the Vieux is that there was no clear distinction between discipleship and non-discipleship activities. The complaint among pastors that people only spend three hours a week pursuing spiritual growth wouldn’t make sense at The Vieux. If you ask Mamma Rose how many hours she spends pursuing spiritual growth, she’d probably laugh and say, “Every minute that I’m not sucking on a bottle.” Tom, Sonia, and the other leaders at The Vieux are living out their discipleship the second they get within a mile of church. Whether it’s providing a meal and a shower for the homeless on Friday nights, or praying over people as they walk from church to dinner (a daily scene), there’s never a time when the discipleship light turns off and then back on. The city on a hill is always lit.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a classic example of being on mission. The Samaritan wasn’t on a “mission trip.” He wasn’t clocked in to do some ministry. He was just going about his daily business and saw a man in need. He gave of his time and money to extend neighborly love to a man he didn’t know. Maybe the man in the ditch was a good man. Maybe he was not. Maybe he was a tax collector or rabbi, a sex offender or pastor. The Samaritan didn’t know. He didn’t care. Here was a human in need, and his impulse to love his neighbor kicked in.

We don’t know if the man “got saved” through the Samaritan’s actions. That’s not the point of the story. The point is that followers of Jesus must demonstrate love for all people as an extension of Christ’s love for the world.
The early Christians integrated this posture into their daily lives. Peter and John were going about their business when they converted and healed a lame beggar. Stephen was going about his business when he was arrested and gave his final testimony before he was killed. Philip was going about his business when the Spirit of God directed him to an Ethiopian eunuch. Ananias was going about his business when God called on him to convert and baptize Paul, the persecutor of the church.

The first Christians didn’t just send out missionaries. They were missionaries. Our ultimate desire, of course, is that everyone would come to the saving knowledge of Christ (see 2 Peter 3:9). But our love and service is not conditioned upon conversion. We don’t just extend love so that people get saved but because God’s love is boundless and showers down upon all (Matthew 5:44-46). Being on mission means embodying the loving and convicting presence of Christ to the world around us. You don’t need to fly over salt water to engage the mission; embodying Christ’s love is something all disciples should do. This mission is fundamental to who we are as Christians and disciples, and therefore it’s an essential piece of the church’s discipleship.

Lesson 16 A faith for Both the Spirit and the Minds

Video 16 A Faith for Both the Spirit and the Minds

As I am writing this book, I’m also writing a series of blogs wrestling with a Christian theology of “intersex.” Intersex persons are born with ambiguous genitalia, or a combination of both male and female biological characteristics. Some are even born with male XY chromosomes but female genitalia. Are they male? Female? Or some sort of sexual “other”? Are male and female the only two sexual categories, or do intersex persons show that there are other options? Did God make intersex persons this way? If marriage is between a man and woman, then whom should an intersex person marry? What if the doctor who “fixed” the deformity cut off the wrong part, and the female baby shows himself to actually be a boy later on in life?

How would you respond to these questions? Some would respond: “All humans are either male or female—period!” But there’s a better response that appreciates the complexity of these types of questions, while revisiting God’s Word in humble dialogue with others doing the same.

There are many issues in life that require good, hard, honest, intelligent discussion. Should Christians fight against gun control? Is euthanasia always ethically wrong? How do we know that life begins at conception? Why are same-sex relations sin? Are they sin? Should we destroy our enemies or love them? Is ISIS our enemy?

Maybe there’s a “right answer” to all of these, but maybe there’s some gray area that will take some time to explore. Maybe we’ll go to the grave not having figured everything out, and that’s okay. The point is to engage the critical questions in life with honesty and Christian care and, above all, to not demonize people for asking hard questions.
As I was blogging about the intersex topic, the most common response I got from people was, “Thank you for taking the time to talk about this. I’ve been wrestling with this question for a while, yet no one in my church is wiling (or able) to talk about it.”

Part of discipleship is helping people think through the critical issues of the day—helping them to be transformed by the renewal of their minds (Romans 12:2) and to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). After all, Jesus commanded us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Loving God with our minds can’t happen if we leave our minds in the foyer as we walk into church.
So how can we train Christians to think well as part of their discipleship? The most effective way I’ve found is to create safe and thoughtful environments for honest dialogue. In other words, we can’t rely on Sunday sermons to cultivate a biblical worldview among the people. There must be more.

Think about it. The fact is, most Sunday services are monological. They involve one person talking to many. Have you ever had questions about a sermon? Miscellaneous thoughts? Disagreements? Did you ever wish you could stop and ask for clarification or go deeper into a particular point?

I believe there’s a place for monological teaching. I don’t think we should do away with Sunday-morning sermons. However, younger people especially are growing up in a world of blogs and online news articles and interactive websites and YouTube videos. They can always ask questions or make comments. Personally, I find most of these comments quite annoying, and you probably do too. (If you don’t think they’re annoying, you might be the one commenting too much . . .) But annoying or not, that’s the world we live in. So, it does feel a bit odd for many people to listen to a sermon and not have any space to dialogue about it.

Pastor and author Dan Kimball asked a bunch of people what they wished church was like. The response he got confirms my suspicion: “Virtually the first thing every single person I talked to said is that they wish church weren’t just a sermon but a discussion. They uniformly expressed that they do not want to only sit and listen to a preacher giving a lecture. And it’s not because they don’t want to learn. They expressed a strong desire to learn the teachings of Jesus and to learn about the Bible. Rather, they feel they can learn better if they can participate and ask questions.”

Some churches create such space by devoting post-sermon time for Q & A. Small churches are more conducive to live Q & A, but larger churches usually take questions via text. Other churches offer a post-service gathering that’s devoted to discussion. Now, this may not catch on. After all, many Christians are preprogrammed to come, listen, try to stay awake, and then rush home. But what would Jesus do? I think he would work hard to deprogram people, to wean them off of their religious routine. He’d challenge their assumptions and awaken their minds so they could learn to love God with heart and head.

Sunday-morning services may not be the best place for dialogue, or at least they shouldn’t be the only place. Genuine dialogue and interaction are best fostered in smaller settings. While one-on-one relations can be great for focused discussion and learning, I still think that a group of three to ten people can cultivate a healthy array of different perspectives and questions. I don’t mean this to be legalistic; there’s no magic number. But over the years I’ve seen more and more people shut down as the group gets larger. In my classes, about 20 percent of the students do 90 percent of the talking. In smaller groups, a much higher percentage of people will be more prone to interact.

You can also create other spaces outside the traditional Sunday service and midweek group. When it comes to learning and dialogue, the possibilities are endless. You could devote a special night (weekly, monthly, or bimonthly) to teaching and discussing hard topics. Or what about quarterly or yearly seminars or mini-conferences that are devoted to engaging with the ideas that everyone is already thinking about (politics, sex, money, terrorism, sex, race, sex, money)?

In Boise, where I live, I recently teamed up with a local pastor and another Christian leader to host what we call “City Forums.” These forums are monthly public dialogues on topics that live at the intersection of faith and culture. We want to talk publicly about stuff that everyone—not just the church—is talking about. An expert in a particular area gives a forty-five-minute talk, followed by another forty-five minutes of dialogue. (It often turns into a two-hour dialogue!)

We just sort of drummed up the idea one day and decided to go for it. I planned to give the first talk on “homosexuality and the church,” since we wanted to start off with a nice, easy, noncontroversial subject. (What was I thinking?) We had no idea how it would go. As it turned out, more than one hundred people showed up. Most were Christians from about twenty different churches in the area. Others were non-Christians who heard about the event through the grapevine or through a Christian friend. Most were straight; some were gay. And everyone, I believe, felt safe to ask really hard questions and even disagree with the speaker—which wasn’t easy but was tremendously rewarding.

Notice that the City Forums aren’t just a free-for-all, where everyone could toss out their opinions and go home feeling good about their views. In order to honor the truth of God’s Word, we have an expert who has a biblical worldview address each topic. But in order to foster education rather than indoctrination, we created a safe space for people to ask questions and dialogue with the speaker and with each other.

Here’s the thing: The City Forums aren’t something separate from discipleship. Rather, the forums are one of many ways in which the church can help its people sharpen their thinking through learning, discussing, questioning, and being able to ask those hard questions that they’ve been so scared to bring up in church.

I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole of method. I’m not saying that every service must take text questions or that you, too, need to start your own City Forums. The point is that we need to think intentionally about how we can create safe places for people to ask hard questions and receive thoughtful answers. This is not icing on the cake of discipleship. It’s not an optional deluxe package to an otherwise fine-running car. It’s part of the engine itself.
And remember, discipleship without learning is not biblical discipleship.

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Lesson 15 Transforming into a Learner and Thinker

Video 15 Transforming into a Learner and Thinker

As the vice president of a Bible college, I often meet up with pastors to tell them about our school. Sometimes I feel like a salesman as I advertise our affordable tuition, relational environment, and commitment to the authority of Scripture. At this point, pastors are only somewhat impressed. After all, they’ve heard all of this before.

But it never fails. It happens every time. Pastors perk up and lean into the conversation whenever I talk about transformation: “At Eternity Bible College, we’re committed to reaching the heart, not just the mind. We have no desire to just fill our students with head knowledge. We teach in order to transform lives. If our students are not growing in love and humility and service toward one another, then they’re not truly learning.”

I usually just stop talking at that point because pastors love to continue the thought. After all, this is why they chose to go into the ministry. They want to see lives changed, not just minds filled. They want to see people transformed, not just informed.

But I fear that in an admirable effort to emphasize transformation, we may have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. We may be neglecting a vital aspect of discipleship—being a learner and thinker. Discipleship is more than just learning and thinking. It’s about transformation. But to experience true transformation, we’ve got to pursue learning and thinking.

The Greek word for disciple, mathetes, actually means “learner” in its earliest usage. The word first occurs in the work of fifth century BC Greek historian Herodotus, and after him Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and other classical writers use the term mathetes to refer to a student of music, astronomy, writing, hunting, wrestling, or other areas of study. The Sophists (an ancient philosophical school) used the term mathetes simply to mean “student.”

In Jesus’ day, the word mathetes was used much more broadly to refer to anyone devoted to a significant leader or teacher. Jesus adopted this broader meaning as well. But notice that the aspect of learning is never left behind. Jesus didn’t do away with “learning.” He simply added “imitation” to it.

After all, a significant portion of Jesus’ ministry—his discipleship—included teaching (Matthew 5–7; 10; 13; 18; 24–25). “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus said, “and learn from me” (Matthew 11:28-29). In one of the most significant statements he ever made about discipleship, Jesus mandated teaching disciples to do what he said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” Matthew 28:19-20.

You can’t be a disciple who makes disciples without some form of teaching. I love what Paul says to the Ephesian believers. He addresses some sins that they should avoid, sins that unbelievers are engaging in (Ephesians 4:17-19). Then he says, “But that isn’t what you learned about Christ” (4:20). Paul’s challenge to avoid sin and pursue righteousness—transformation—is rooted in learning about Christ. He goes on to say, “Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life” (4:21-22). For Paul, learning should lead to transformation, and transformation can’t be achieved without learning.

As in Ephesians 4, Paul cradles transformation with learning: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” Romans 12:2. It’s not an either/or (thinking or transformation) for Paul. Divine transformation happens through “changing the way you think.”

In 1995, evangelical historian Mark Noll published his provocative and highly acclaimed book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The book won “Christianity Today’s” book-of-the-year award and has been hailed as one of the most important Christian books of its decade. After meticulously examining the evangelical tradition, Noll summed up his findings with his now-famous conclusion: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

Years later, Noll acknowledged that things have improved a bit—but only a bit. Evangelicals are still plagued by an anti-intellectual spirit, and it shows. The American church experiences an embarrassing level of biblical illiteracy despite having instant access to the Bible in several forms. It’s difficult to live out Christian values when you don’t know what those values are.

But the problem runs much deeper than just biblical illiteracy. Knowing the Bible’s content is important, but this doesn’t constitute the entirety of Christian learning. In order to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” we need to learn how to think, not just what to think.

All of the researchers who have studied both the “Dones” and the Millennial flight from church expose the same important truth: The church has done a poor job at thoughtfully engaging the pressing issues of the day. From science to sexuality, Christians are being told what to think, not how to think. Apologist Walter Martin used to say, “When we fail to give people good answers to their questions, we become another reason for them to disbelieve.” The key word there is good. It’s not that Christians don’t give answers. The problem is that the answers are not always good ones, and Millennials in particular can sniff out a thoughtless answer a mile away.

At Eternity Bible College, one of our values is “education not indoctrination.” Indoctrination is when Christians are told to memorize the “right” answer, which means whatever the professor thinks is right. Instead, Eternity Bible College seeks to educate its students, training them how to think so that when they go out into the real world and don’t have a college professor at their side, they’ll be able to think critically and Christianly through all areas of life. It just so happens that a major complaint from the “Dones” is that the church doesn’t educate; it only indoctrinates. One “Done” named Emily said, “I’ve always had questions for the church, but there isn’t much room in Christian churches and denominations to question.” Another “Done” said that Christians in church “were only interested in my questions so they could answer them, and they thought they had all the answers.”

Again, authenticity is a high value for most people, yet many churchgoers and former churchgoers don’t experience intellectual authenticity when it comes to difficult questions raised in church. Drew Dyck discovered the same complaint among people who have left the church. They “felt like Christians don’t have an appreciation for the nuances of reality. Christians offer easy answers to complex questions.” Dyck gives his own honest evaluation to this complaint: “I don’t think Christians are simplistic thinkers. But I think that sometimes we feel the need to project an ironclad certitude when talking about our faith.”

This ironclad certitude that leaves no room for discussion or disagreement is a common theme across David Kinnaman’s survey of Millennials. Of his six descriptions of why Christian Millennials are turned off by church, at least three are relevant here: Christianity is shallow, antiscience, and unwilling to wrestle with someone’s doubts.

While Millennials are often accused of being lazy, selfish, immoral, or not wanting the truth (some of which accusations are certainly accurate), Kinnaman identifies a hunger in their souls that churches should be eager to feed: “This generation wants and needs truth, not spiritual soft-serve. According to our findings, churches too often provide lightweight teaching instead of rich knowledge that leads to wisdom. This is a generation hungry for substantive answers to life’s biggest questions, particularly in a time when there are untold ways to access information about what to do. What’s missing—and where the Christian community must come in—is addressing how and why.”

As a college professor, I wholeheartedly agree with Kinnaman. My students on the whole have deep questions about life, faith, sexuality, ethics, race, politics, immigration, justice, and a myriad of other topics that keep them up at night. And what makes my job so difficult is that they see right through thin answers to thick questions. Millennials are not like Gen-Xers and Boomers in this regard.

When I was a college student back in the 1990s, I believed everything my professor said. After all, he’s the professor! He must know what he’s talking about. Boomers are even more hardwired to believe an older and wiser authority on any given topic. (Perhaps because they are usually the ones who are older and wiser.) But not so with Millennials. They have too much access to information and other “authorities” (including Wikipedia, unfortunately). They aren’t satisfied with memorizing the right answer. They’re wrestling with too many “right answers” floating around on the Internet. They want to know why and how and why not.

You know what’s gained the most credibility with my students over the years? Shockingly, it’s when I say, “I don’t know.” I used to fight against it. I thought that as the professor, I should always have all the answers all the time for all my students. But this became exhausting, especially since I only had some of the right answers to a few questions some of the time. Whenever I tried to cook up a “right answer” on the spot, they could see right through it. And they weren’t impressed. Over the years I built up the courage to say, “You know what? I don’t know the answer to your question. Why don’t we think through it together?” And my professor points went through the roof.

Some of you may think that this is cowardly or unprofessional. Teachers need to give the answers, and students need to listen to them. And just to be clear, sometimes this is true. A professor who spends the majority of the class hour saying, “I don’t know” should probably be fired. There are times when I say, “This is what the Bible says, and if you’re a Christian, you’ll believe it.” But I still try to show them where, why, and how. After all, I don’t want them just to believe me. I want them to see where it says this in the text and to be able to navigate a thoughtful conversation with those who disagree.

But what’s fascinating is that even Jesus didn’t usually take a heavy-handed, monological approach. Sometimes he gave a lecture, where he didn’t take questions. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) and his scathing rebuke of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23) come to mind. But most of his interactions with people were just that: interactions.

For instance, Jesus interacted on a conversational level with the woman at the well and led her in the ways of truth through dialogue (John 4:1-26). He did the same with the disciples when they returned from the city and wondered why he was talking with a Samaritan woman (John 4:27-38). When the crowds met Jesus on the shores of the sea, he invited them to explore the nature of the kingdom by giving them a series of parables (Matthew 13:1-35). When an educated teacher of the law wanted to know how to have eternal life, Jesus told him a story about a good Samaritan and then asked a question: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36).

Paul’s famous encounter with the philosophers on Mars Hill looked the same. Although he ended with a monologue and a plea to repent (Acts 17:22-31), he got this opportunity because he spent several days engaging with them in dialogical conversations: He reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.

Many of today’s discipleship methods are more monological than dialogical, and they don’t provoke good critical thinking. As Greg Ogden says, “Too much of the material that is produced under the heading of discipleship curriculum is spoon-fed pabulum. Jesus intentionally troubled the disciples by challenging their cherished assumptions.”

Lesson 14 The Gospel of the Kingdom

Video 14 The Gospel of the Kingdom

Jesus didn’t come preaching a gospel of individual salvation, nor did he come to take us to church. He came preaching “the kingdom of God”—the reign of God over all things. When Jesus announced the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23), he wasn’t just talking about the forgiveness of sins and going to heaven when we die. These things are included, of course. But his message of the kingdom can’t be limited to these things. Jesus’ kingdom message announced a new way of life, where the sick are healed, poor are fed, outcasts are included, and enemies and neighbors are loved. Jesus’ kingdom is a whole new reality, a different way of living, a countercultural existence that can’t be contained inside the four walls of a church building.

If you’re a Christian, you’re part of God’s kingdom. And you don’t leave this kingdom behind when you go to work. So how do we do this? How can churches cultivate a broader, more holistic, view of discipleship? It starts by actually believing that the sacred/secular divide is not what God intended. When pastors and leaders become passionate about connecting the gospel to all areas of life, this mindset will trickle down.

Some will resist this message. There are Christians who are always scared when they hear something about Christianity that they hadn’t considered before. They equate “new” or “different” with liberal, sinful, and ungodly. I remember hearing a retired Bible professor tell a younger professor, “I’m getting nervous with all of this kingdom talk.” The younger professor had been teaching about Jesus’ holistic gospel, and he kept emphasizing the concept of kingdom more than (not instead of) the salvation of individuals. The younger professor was humble enough not to smugly remind the older professor that such “kingdom talk” is rooted in Jesus, who talked an awful lot about the kingdom. The older professor was so committed to winning individuals to Christ that he didn’t have the mental space to broaden (not change) his perspective, even if this “new” perspective came from Christ’s own preaching.

Some people will get nervous when you apply the gospel (and therefore discipleship) to all of life. But most Christians, especially Millennials, will appreciate it. As we saw from Kinnaman’s study, Millennials desire to understand the significance of their vocation. “Despite years of church-based experiences and countless hours of Bible-centered teaching, millions of next-generation Christians have no idea that their faith connects to their life’s work.” In the absence of good, holistic discipling, the significance of their vocation has remained a mystery, an untested assumption. A holistic gospel gives them eyes to see the kingdom at work in the work they do.

And this, of course, includes the outliers. Every church has outliers—people who don’t quite fit the mold. I’m not talking about unbelievers who try out church for a while but then leave because they don’t actually love Jesus. I’m talking about zealous Christians, passionate believers, people who would much rather feed the poor than listen to yet another sermon.

My cousin Paul is one of these outliers. From the time he was nineteen years old, he was a rebel, but he was also a Christian. He tried to attend a conservative Christian college, but they kept telling him to cut his hair so it wouldn’t touch his collar. (After three haircuts, he finally got it right.) He dropped out after a year, not because he didn’t love Jesus but because he didn’t fit into this Christian subculture. “I just couldn’t play that game. I wanted to spend my energy engaging in meaningful work.” He thought about becoming a pastor, but the thought of preparing and preaching sermons to Christians every Sunday seemed like a nightmare. He wasn’t really into “church” as it’s traditionally understood.

Paul ended up finding one of the most unreached countries in the world. I’d tell you the name of the country, but it could get him killed. He bought a plane ticket, and that’s where he’s spent the bulk of his life—pursuing a mission that 99 percent of Christians would never think of doing. He was run out of the country by terrorists a couple of years ago, but he’s now returned with his wife and two small children. He’s spreading the gospel in a gospel-less land by creating small businesses that provide jobs in an impoverished country. Jesus’ kingdom is breaking into this unreached country through the radical missional ventures of a wild-eyed outlier.

My friend Josh Stump is another outlier. He’s a pastor and church planter who has planted several churches in the Nashville area. Nashville is an interesting place. There are more churches in Nashville than delis in New York. It’s the Vatican of the Bible Belt. But the churches there are largely focused on reaching middle-class suburb dwellers. Josh’s heart is for the outcast, the marginalized, and the ones who would never set foot inside a megachurch, even if it has a great sound system. And Josh is the right guy to do it. Although he’s a pastor, he owns a cigar shop in east Nashville (the part of Nashville that you probably didn’t visit when you were touring the city). Selling (and smoking) cigars is his full-time job. If you entered his shop, you’d never know that he’s a pastor. He’s got more tattoos than Elvis had shoes, and his hipster beard puts David Crowder to shame.

“You know, Preston,” Josh told me, “I talk about Jesus and do more pastoring here in this cigar shop than I do at my church.”

“Your church sounds pretty Christless,” I gibed back.

Josh laughed with a lingering grin and kept going. “My customers don’t just come to smoke cigars. They come for relationships, community, and to talk about religion. Yet they would never go to a traditional church. And I fear that if they did go to a traditional church, they wouldn’t engage in the same depth of spiritual conversations that they do here in my shop.”

He’s right. As I sat there in his shop, coughing on a cigar, I kept seeing customer (friend) after customer (friend) wanting to engage in meaningful conversation with Josh. Religion, politics, sports, cigars, barbecue—they were all fair game. But it wasn’t long before Jesus came up in conversation. Josh’s Monday-through-Friday vocation is saturated with the presence of Jesus, whose glory shines through a smoke-filled room filled with misfits.

My friend Tasha was raised in a Christian home that was anything but Christlike. I’ll save you the details. Let’s just say that she was so spiritually abused that I’m surprised she’s still a Christian. Tasha’s not your typical churchgoer. She’s an outlier. She attends Sunday services, but beyond that she would score pretty low on the discipleship activity meter. She’s tried out various Bible studies and women’s groups, but they just don’t fit her. Maybe she should attend anyway, or maybe she should do something different. She’s always wrestling with her place in the church.

One day my wife was hanging out with Tasha in her neighborhood. As they were walking Tasha’s daughter to school, at least half a dozen women greeted her. “Hey, Tasha, thanks for bringing that meal last night!” “Tasha, thanks for praying with me yesterday.” “Hey Tasha, are we having our knitting group tonight?”

My wife was amazed. She had no idea. She never knew that Tasha had invested so much time and relational energy in the unbelievers in her neighborhood—people who would never set foot in a church. She’s been running that knitting group now for a couple years, and all of her friends who attend are unbelievers. “Some of them are starting to ask questions about religion!” Tasha said with childlike joy.

Tasha doesn’t fit the typical Christian subculture. She’d probably have a great time talking about Jesus at Josh’s cigar shop.

Every church has its outliers. They’re zealous for their faith, but they seek to live it out in unconventional ways. They’re often creative, energetic, and eager to reach the lost. They would rather be with unbelievers than with Christians, especially Christians who would judge them for not going to church more often. Many of these outliers end up leaving the church. They’re hungry to pursue God’s mission, yet they find that the church often stifles their passion.

A church that believes in holistic discipleship will empower its outliers. Rather than seeing them as a threat or a nuisance, holistic churches will value them and the unique call God has placed on them. Discipleship doesn’t come with some prepackaged formula that looks the same for all people. Rather, it meets people where they’re at and honors the diversity of God’s calling.

Some people are called to be pastors. Others are called to run cigar shops. Both are called to ministry. And it’s the church’s job to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12).

This is called asset-based discipleship and is a key to including both the mainstream church and the outliers. One of the biggest complaints among church leaders is that people are not engaged in discipleship. According to The State of Discipleship, pastors give various reasons why: “lack of commitment” (87 percent), “too much busyness in their lives” (85 percent), “sinful habits” (70 percent), and “pride that inhibits teachability” (70 percent) are the most common reasons church leaders give. What’s interesting is that Christian adults don’t give the same reasons for their lack of participation in discipleship activities. For instance, while 85 percent of church leaders say that “busyness” is the main obstacle for discipleship, only 23 percent of Christian adults said the same.

Could it be that church leaders only think that people aren’t participating because they’re too busy? Perhaps there are other reasons that leaders aren’t aware of. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope addressed this very question in their book Church Refugees. Josh recalls talking to a pastor who complained, “People are just too busy to do anything. . . . They say they want things, but they don’t want to have to do any of it.” I love Josh’s response: “The sociologist in me has always bristled at these arguments.” Josh suggests that maybe churches are creating programs, ministries, and discipleship activities from the top down, rather from the ground up. In other words, what the leaders think people need to be engaged in may not actually align with the diversity of callings that God has placed on the hearts of his people.

It’s the church’s job to harness and equip the gifts and passions of the body of Christ. But to do this, you have to begin by actually asking the body, “What do you want to do to make disciples of all nations?” Maybe it’s a neighborhood knitting group. Maybe it’s a laundry ministry to the homeless. Or maybe it’s sharing the love of Christ through art therapy. (One interviewee in Josh’s research helps people encounter the healing power of Christ through art.)

Josh talks about utilizing the principles of asset-based community development (ABCD) and applying it to the church’s discipleship. Asset-based community development “focuses on identifying and leveraging the strengths that currently exist in a community rather than focusing on its deficits and problems.” Instead of creating certain one-size-fits-all discipleship programs, an ABCD approach seeks to empower the unique gifts and passions of the people under your care.

What if God has put in your congregation fifteen people who smoke cigars and have a fiery passion for the whiskey-drinking hipsters in your community? Telling them to join a Christian book club and then complaining that they’re “too busy” when they don’t show up isn’t going to help them become more like Christ.

Remember, Christ was dangerous and unpredictable. He didn’t play by the religious rules. He planted a church with hit men and treasonists at his side. He was so close to drunkards and gluttons that the religious elite thought he was one (Matthew 11:19). He wasn’t afraid to go to a party filled with scoundrels who didn’t have a moral bone in their bodies (Luke 5:29-32).

If we are going to “become like Christ” in the way we disciple and are discipled, we may need to set aside our seminary notes and start from scratch—or start from the Bible. And then start with the passions and callings of the people. “The Dones,” as Josh Packard calls them, “demonstrated to us time and time again that they’re capable, talented, and driven.” He’s talking about their passion for the kingdom of God, their desire to touch a lost and dying world with the love of Christ. “They want the church to draw on their assets, not provide them with services.”

A holistic approach to discipleship will break free from the shackles of “the way we’ve always done things” and explore new avenues to empower diverse people to live out God’s call to rule the world. The typical discipleship activities are important; we shouldn’t do away with church services and Bible studies. But we need to augment these forms of traditional Christianity with creative forms of empowerment, where diverse expressions of the Christian faith are not judged but enlisted into service for establishing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Lesson 13 Connecting the Gospel to All of Life

Video 13 Connecting the Gospel to All of Life

I want you to meet my friend Barry. Barry is a Christian who owns a factory. He desires to have the gospel shape everything he does. Instead of maximizing profits at all costs, Barry believes that people come before profits. Even though he could maximize the company’s profits by paying his employees twelve dollars an hour, he pays them fifteen dollars instead. He doesn’t pay them more so that he can get them to produce more. Rather, he pays them more because, as image bearers of God, they are worth it.

Barry values people and family more than work. This is why he requires people to work seven hours a day instead of eight, and he gives every employee the third Friday off every month so they can spend time with their families or in the community.

Since Barry’s God doesn’t view people through a hierarchical lens, neither does he. So instead of structuring the factory’s pay scale based on hierarchy, he structures it based on need. Barry is the CEO, but he only has two kids. The janitor has six kids, one of whom is special needs and another has an expensive medical condition. Instead of paying the janitor a typical janitor’s wage, Barry pays him more than he pays himself—since the janitor’s needs are much greater than Barry’s.

Barry also knows that immigrants and refugees have a hard time finding jobs, especially if they don’t know English very well. The patriotic side of Barry believes that “it’s every man for himself” and “if you’re going to come to my country, then you’d better learn the language.” But Barry’s Christian side wins out. Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations, and God is bringing the nations here. So Barry goes out of his way to provide jobs and English training for immigrants and refugees, believing that a multicultural community—even at a factory—best reflects the heart of God. Barry also recognizes that caring for the stranger and alien is a clear biblical theme, so he integrates this biblical theme into this vocation.

Question: How many hours a week does Barry put into his spiritual growth? Some people would need more information. “How many hours does Barry spend in church on Sunday and Bible study on Tuesday? Is he in a Christian book club? Is he doing his devotions? Is he listening to Christian worship music on his way to work?” I would argue that much of Barry’s week is filled with spiritual growth because he’s integrating the gospel into every fiber of his vocation.

According to The State of Discipleship, most Christians view their “spiritual lives” as a private matter. The study reveals that 41 percent of Christians consider their spiritual lives to be “entirely private.” Only 37 percent consider their spiritual lives to have “an impact on relatives”; 36 percent say it has “an impact on friends”; 33 percent say it has “an impact on [their] community”; and 29 percent say it should have “an impact on society.” While the previous readings show that many Christians would rather pursue Jesus by themselves, these stats show that many Christians think that their faith should impact only themselves.

Despite such compartmentalization, there’s a growing hunger to connect the gospel to all of life. While some Millennials still try to pursue Christ on their own, many of them desire to explore a more holistic gospel. Most people are passionate about their vocation, and the same is true for Millennials. The Barna study shows that 37 percent of Millennials expect to make an impact through their work within the first five years, and another 28 percent expect to do so in six or more years. Churches can nurture this passion and help Millennials stay connected to Christ by focusing on vocational calling outside of traditional church-based ministry. According to Barna: “Millennials who have remained active in their faith (45 percent) are three times more likely than church dropouts (17 percent) to say they learned to view their gifts and passions as part of God’s calling.”

David Kinnaman shows that most Christians still think the gospel affects only their moral or spiritual lives; the bulk of their Monday-through-Saturday lives remain untouched by the Good News. Many Christians feel that their vocation (or professional calling) is disconnected from their church experience. Their Christian background has not prepared them to live and work effectively in society. Their faith is “lost” from Monday through Friday. The Christianity they have learned does not meaningfully speak to the fields of fashion, finance, medicine, science, or media to which they are drawn.

That second-to-last one is important: science. According to Kinnaman’s study, 52 percent of Christian teens in youth groups aspire to science-related careers, and yet only 1 percent of youth pastors addressed issues related to faith and science over the course of an entire year. Part of the problem is that many churches tend to demonize the sciences for fear that Christians will lose their faith and become evolutionists. But the church should not be fearful of science; rather, it should learn how to thoughtfully engage the scientific world around it—a world that many of its members will be living in.

While we’re on the subject of faith and science, we might as well name the elephant in the room: The whole question of faith and science has become incredibly volatile and fear driven. This has caused many churches to either ignore the hard questions that people have or fail to create space for constructive dialogue and healthy disagreement. In my own experience as a Christian and theologian, I’ve seen many believers turn nonessential questions about the age of the earth or the interpretation of Genesis 1–2 into gospel truths. “If you disagree with a particular view, then you’re a heretic and can’t be a real Christian,” some say.

One’s interpretation of Genesis 1–2 does not have to be a gospel issue. In fact, I’ve met several people who resisted Christianity largely because they thought they had to hold to a particular view of the age of the earth. When they found out that genuine Christians disagree on this question and that they didn’t need to believe that the earth was only six thousand years old in order to worship Jesus, they got saved.

The point is, churches need to resist being controlled by fear-driven rhetoric and to explore ways in which they can nurture and train people to think critically about matters of faith and science. If the church doesn’t do it, the university will.

More and more people deeply desire to connect the gospel to all of life. They “want to follow Jesus in a way that connects with the world they inhabit, to partner with God outside the walls of the church, and to pursue Christianity without separating themselves form the world.” In other words, they don’t want to maintain the secular/sacred divide, since all of life is sacred. Kinnaman points out that many of these people “are also creative types—artists, musicians, entertainers, and filmmakers—who feel their calling is out of tune with their Christian upbringing. They think the church doesn’t know what to do with creatives like them.”

My friend Sean Michel is one of these creative types. Sean is a killer musician who hasn’t cut his hair or his beard in ten years. (Imagine: ZZ Top meets Phil Robertson without the duck call.) The dude absolutely shreds on the guitar and has a voice that makes Bono sound off-key. And Sean loves Jesus. He lives his life to glorify the name of Christ. But here’s the thing: Sean doesn’t play your typical kind of church music. There’s not much of a market in the Christian music industry for homeless-looking musicians playing ramped-up Southern Rock ten decibels too loud. So Sean plays at bars, clubs, and other venues that are filled with unbelievers. His lyrics are laced with aggressive theological themes that exalt Jesus’ name to the high heavens. Just look up “Sean Michel Hosea Blues” on YouTube, and you’ll find a gritty modern-day rendition of God’s grace written about in the book of Hosea, set to a heart-thumping beat that sounds like stuff you’d hear in a club.

Sean doesn’t believe in the secular/sacred divide. He believes that excellent music played in secular places can usher in the sacred presence of Christ.

Despite this growing desire to connect the gospel to all of life (especially vocation), church leaders still seem to be too narrowly focused on discipleship as church activities. When pastors were asked how many members are involved in discipleship, they said about 40 percent. Discipleship leaders were slightly more optimistic: 50 percent of church members, they say, are involved in a discipleship activity.

But the way discipleship was measured was in terms of certain church activities such as attending Sunday school or fellowship group, meeting with a spiritual mentor, studying the Bible with a group, or reading and discussing a Christian book with a group. When leaders were asked to estimate how much time their members spent “doing something to further their spiritual growth,” they said “about three hours per week.” I fear that they might confront Sean for not taking his faith very seriously, since he’s out at some bar on Saturday night instead of attending a Christian book club.

Lesson 12 Going Public

Video 12  Going Public

Sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope reveal some startling truths in their book Church Refugees. After extensive interviews with dozens of “dechurched” Christians—who left the church but not the faith—Packard and Hope discovered a common theme. These people longed for intimate relationships, but they didn’t experience such relationships in church. According to one interviewee, church “was very corporate just in how it managed people and how it set up programs. To me it was just like a big transaction, and the big thing especially to me, is that it was very impersonal.” Lack of intimate relationships is a common theme throughout their book. The “dechurched value relationships and community above everything” and “see their human relationships as an extension of their relationships with the divine.”

On a more anecdotal level, most Christians I talk to feel disconnected at church. Some feel completely isolated and alone. Just yesterday I talked to a pastor of a large and vibrant church who said that almost everyone he’s talked to at church feels disconnected from other believers in church. They’re not truly known. I’ve been startled by the increasing number of people I meet who feel this way. You wouldn’t guess it if you saw them on Sunday mornings. Smiles are exchanged. Conversations are tossed around. You may even overhear someone mutter the token “I’ll pray for you.” But if they were depressed, lonely, struggling with an addiction, or contemplating suicide, or if they had just had a major fight with their spouse, no one would know it.

Churches will always fall short of the ideal. But it’s possible, even this side of heaven, to create a community that no one wants to leave.

External pressures like technology and mobility aren’t the only things that hinder community. Some of the problems are internal, such as how we talk about church and how we describe our relationship with God. Our Christian language reveals and perpetuates the individualistic theology we say we’re trying to overcome. Just think about some of our common phrases:

  • “Accept Jesus into your heart.” This is an individualistic idea. Jesus is the King of kings and sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. We don’t accept him into our heart; we acknowledge his lordship over all things. Using this phrase reinforces our individualism.
  • “Having a personal relationship with Jesus.” This phrase has some truth to it as long as we don’t understand “personal” to mean “private.” Our relationship with Jesus is personal, but it’s never just personal. It’s also communal and missional.
  • “Going to church.” This phrase might not strike you as individualistic, but the way we often use it sounds like a bunch of individuals attending an event. This galvanizes the idea that church is more like a baseball game or a concert than a family gathering. “How was the Dodgers game?” “Good!” “How was church?” “Good!”

Even the widespread notion of having “private devotions,” where believers read the Bible and pray by themselves, nurtures an individualistic approach to spiritual growth. It’s striking that before the printing press (circa AD 1450), most Christians were illiterate, and even the literate ones rarely owned their own personal Bible. Most people couldn’t afford one. This means that Christianity has grown and flourished for hundreds of years without most of its followers ever reading the Bible on their own. How did they know God’s Word? Through community. Literate Christians would spend hours reading and studying the Bible in community with other believers. Communal gatherings weren’t icing on the cake. They were essential to one’s faith. You couldn’t get very far in the faith without depending on fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

The same goes for prayer. While in some cases we see Jesus and other people in the Bible praying individually, most of the prayers of the Bible are corporate. Even certain psalms that contain individual prayers were compiled into a Psalter (the “book of Psalms”) and used as corporate prayer and worship. Though the Bible contains individual expressions of the faith, these are the exceptions, not the norm.

I’m not saying we should do away with individual Bible reading and prayer. God forbid! These are a healthy part of our discipleship. But they are only a part. One cannot grow as a disciple by individual Bible reading and prayer alone. Remember how Paul defined growth in Ephesians 4: Spiritual growth is intrinsically communal. We must study the Bible in community, pray “we” prayers more often than “I” prayers, and view ourselves as small parts of a larger body—the body of Christ. Using biblical language, which is often corporate, instead of modern individualistic Christian clichés will help reinforce our communal identity.

Jonathan Dodson helpfully describes the individualism in the church as a “one-third gospel.” This one-third gospel is hardly the gospel at all. It focuses on Jesus’s death and resurrection as a doctrine to be believed, not on Jesus as a Person to be trusted and obeyed. The gospel has been reduced to a personal ticket to heaven. But the biblical gospel is much more than personal conversion to gain a reservation in heaven. It is conversion to Jesus Christ as Lord. Moreover, the gospel has two more “thirds.” The gospel calls us into community and on to mission.

One way we can turn the tide of individualism is by making much of the other two-thirds of the gospel. Talk about it, preach about it, teach it to your children. When we only preach a one-third gospel and people get saved, it becomes way more difficult to try to slip in the other two-thirds down the road. Jesus told his seekers to “count the cost” before they made a decision to follow him. The other two-thirds are part of that cost that people need to count. We need to be clear that part of making a decision to follow Christ is making a commitment to join the community of God’s people and venture into the mission that God calls us to. In other words, we need to preach, live, teach, embrace, and celebrate a more holistic gospel. Next we’ll unpack what the holistic gospel looks like.

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Lesson 11 Lonely Together

Video 11 Lonely Together

According to the Barna study, “Among the nine out of ten Christians who say spiritual growth is important (90 percent), more than one-third say they prefer to pursue spiritual growth on their own (37 percent). Similarly, two in five of all Christian adults consider their spiritual life ‘entirely private’ (41 percent).”

Despite their general desire for relationships, Millennials are even more individualistic when it comes to discipleship. “Forty percent of Millennials who consider spiritual growth very or somewhat important prefer on-their-own discipleship, compared with 36 percent among Gen-Xers and 32 percent of Elders (and 39 percent of Boomers, who are more like Millennials in this respect).”

All in all, Christians who desire to grow spiritually have somehow missed the basic biblical theme that spiritual growth happens in community. Discipleship leaders agree with these statistics. Christians are way too individualistic. Jonathan Dodson writes, “Churches today have more in common with shopping malls. They have become consumerist, doctrinaire, lifeless institutions, not Jesus-centered missional communities. … We have devolved from being Jesus-centered communities into loose collections of spiritually minded individuals.”

Discipleship guru Bill Hull identifies the same problem. “People who claim to be followers of Jesus pack our churches. But they’re not connected in community; they try to fly solo.” And Greg Ogden observes,

“The church is not immune to the diseases of individualism and consumerism dominant in American society. … To the extent that the church is reduced to an aggregate of individuals who shop like consumers to meet their needs, we do not have the basis for community in any biblical sense.

Why do people who need and desire community not see their faith as essentially communal? There are several probable reasons for this. These aren’t the only reasons, but they are at least some of the major ones. We’ll look at each problem and offer some possible ways to overcome them in order to create the rich communities necessary to live out our faith.

The State of Discipleship reveals that the omnipresence of technology has hindered our relational engagement—especially among Millennials. For instance, “49 percent of adults 18 to 30 years old acknowledge that their personal electronics separate them from other people.” The percentage is lower among other adults but is still strikingly high: 35 percent of all adults agree that social media and other electronics are hindering their social engagement.

Is technology really making us more isolated and alone? MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle says yes. The opening words of her eye-opening book capture her startling conclusions: “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”

Turkle argues that even social media connections through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram engender superficial relationships, which perpetuates loneliness. Social critic and writer Giles Slade says the same thing about social media in her book The Big Disconnect: The Story of Technology and Loneliness. The State of Discipleship agrees: “In 2001, about one in eight Americans self-identified as lonely (12 percent). By 2012, that number had doubled—a paradoxical reality in the social-media age.”

While technology has the potential to foster relationships, it can’t replace real, embodied, face-to-face interaction. Still, we’re slavishly relying on technology to satisfy our human longing for intimacy. And it’s not working. We’re lonelier than ever, and we’re becoming more socially stupid. My friend who owns a large company in southern California told me that he rarely hires Millennials for positions in customer service. “It’s rare that I interview a twentysomething who knows how to engage with real people.”

Suffice it to say that the omnipresence of technology and our addictions to it are stifling communal discipleship. So, how can we overcome technological addiction? We begin by simply addressing it. Exposing it. Modeling that we can live better when we’re not enslaved to our gadgets. I think most people deep down know it’s a problem, but as long as no one really addresses it, they stay shackled to their devices.

What if churches considered an addiction to technology the same as addiction to alcohol or porn? (There’s some overlap there.) What if we preached about it and talked about it in our small groups and other gatherings? What if we created environments where stopping a face-to-face conversation to look at a text would be just as weird as smoking a joint in church?

When Paul says, “Even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12), he was talking specifically about sexual immorality. However, not being “a slave to anything” includes anything. Today, people are enslaved to technology, and it’s been proven to hinder us from flourishing in our relationships.

The industrial age and the technological revolution have propelled our individualistic spirit. As a result, since World War II America has become a commuter culture. For the first time in history, people rarely live, shop, work, play, and go to church in the same neighborhood. Sociologist Robert Putnam discussed this at length in his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone. Our lives don’t naturally intersect with people in our communities, since our communities are all over the place. It’s not uncommon for people to live in one city, work in another, shop in another, and go to church in yet another. (And Putnam wrote his book in 2001—long before social media became the primary mode of human interaction.)

Another thing some churches are doing is developing geography-based community groups (or Bible studies, life groups, or whatever we call them). When I was a leader at Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, they canceled all of their programs and replaced them with community groups that were geographically based. Every square mile of the city had its own midweek community gathering, and the gathering consisted of people who lived within walking distance of each other.

The idea sounded great. And for some groups it was. For others, though, it wasn’t too great. The leaders of the church later realized that they changed things around way too quickly—almost overnight! People weren’t ready or prepared for the shift. Also, the leaders of the groups weren’t adequately prepared. Some groups had gifted leaders, and they generally did pretty well. But other groups didn’t have qualified leaders. After all, geography doesn’t guarantee that every square mile has a qualified leader who can shepherd the group.

As I reflect back on Cornerstone’s radical shift, I actually appreciate it much more now than I did then. I think the pros far outweigh the cons, and, looking back, some of the problems could have been overcome. For one, the geographical boundaries don’t need to be so strict. If one neighborhood has three gifted leaders and the next neighborhood has none, then certainly it would be more beneficial for at least one of those leaders to cross the tracks. Likewise, certain people may thrive in a different group. I remember some friends of ours were contemplating leaving their neighborhood group to join ours. We plotted and planned how we could pull this off. We kept it quiet, kept it stealthy. You would have thought we were refugees seeking to hop the border!

The point is not to be legalistic about geography. Churches can promote and encourage proximity-based gatherings while allowing some fluidity amongst the groups. Too much fluidity could lead to consumerism, where people pick and choose groups based on whom they like rather than whom God wants them to be with. But strict proximity with no fluidity could feel legalistic and stifling, especially when the Spirit may want to connect people who don’t live by each other.

These details will need to be worked through, but we should all recognize that mobility can hinder community. There’s no pat answer to the problem. But we’d be naïve not to recognize that there is a problem.

Lesson 10 The Communal Nature of Christianity

Video 10 The Communal Nature of Christianity

The New Testament unashamedly and unmistakably celebrates the communal nature of Christianity. There are 59 “one another” commands in the New Testament—eight in the Gospels, 32 in Paul’s writings, and 19 in the rest of the New Testament. That’s a lot of commands that can’t be obeyed in isolation. To live out the Christian faith—to be faithful disciples and be transformed into Christlikeness—we need other people. People to love, people to serve, people to relate to, argue with, forgive, enjoy, rebuke, and share our bread and wine with. We can’t do it by ourselves.

If someone moved to a desert island and lived a perfect moral life, he or she would still be unable to obey many of Jesus’s commandments. In some ways, though morally upright, he or she would be a terrible Christian.

It was only a few years ago when I recognized just how biblical the communal nature of Christianity is. For most of my Christian life, I was always taught that to fully experience God, I need to get alone. Steal away a quiet hour by myself. Perhaps I should climb a mountain and get hours away from other people to experience God.

All of this makes perfect sense to a loner like me. But then I read the Bible, and I found out that my individualistic desires are contrary to Christianity.

Look at what Paul says in Ephesians: God “put all things under [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Think about that. The church—the body of Christ—is “the fullness of God” on earth. Do you want to encounter the fullness of God? Then don’t run from God’s people to some mountaintop by yourself. The fullness of God resides in the corporate body of Christians. You experience God more fully by engaging Christians, not running from them.

The Christian faith is a communal faith. When God saves you, he saves you into community. Jonathan Dodson says it well: “When we are converted, we are not converted to Christ alone . . . we are converted to Christ, to church, and to mission.” Disciples of Christ need other disciples of Christ in order to grow closer to Christ and know him in all of his fullness. Paul says this clearly in Ephesians 4, a passage worth quoting at length. Don’t just skip it or skim it; read it slowly and follow Paul’s logic:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:11-16

The two parts that I’ve emphasized capture the point. If we are to “attain to the unity of the faith” and become “mature” and grow into the “fullness of Christ,” we need to be in relationships with other believers. If we seek to “grow up in every way into him”—the stated goal of discipleship—then we need to engage the body of Christ. It’s only when “each part”—each individual Christian—“is working properly” that the communal body will “build itself up on love.”

Again, the Christian faith is communal. You can’t go it alone. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen in isolation. Christians don’t—according to the Bible—experience the fullness of God by themselves. Disciples can only be discipled into Christlikeness insofar as they are engaging in authentic relationships with a community of God’s people.