3 Things the Next Generation of Church Leaders Must Know
- Erica Wiggenhorn Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 23 Dec
A massive shift is happening in our church history. In the last five years, we have seen something new in the American church: more churches are closing than opening.
We are also seeing radical numbers of Christians forsaking regular church attendance. How should church leaders respond to these startling statistics and what do they mean for followers of Christ in the near future? Dallas Willard, a modern theologian and psychologist, is attributed with the following statement: “Every church needs to be able to answer two questions. First, what is our plan for making disciples? And second, does our plan work?” If the church increasingly loses regular access to people who no longer attend, these questions become more important than ever. And more difficult to discern. Here are four things the next generation of church leaders must know to effectively make disciples in the coming generations.
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The Next Generation Seeks Transformation Not Information
Beyond merely personal transformation, they are screaming for massive societal change. This generation holds world events in the palm of their hands on a continual basis. Technology commands them to process immense amounts of information with immeasurably swift speed. The invitation to learn is insulting. They spend every waking moment learning something. What they crave is an invitation to community. To change how they live in order to change the world. In the gospel accounts Jesus did not merely invite His disciples to learn from Him, He invited them to live with Him. He offered them an entirely new way of life. And in the process, they learned about God and about themselves.
Traditionally the church has focused on dispensing packages of denominational doctrine or scriptural knowledge so members could adequately define what it means to be a Christian. Catechism curriculum and doctrinal foundations are systematically taught at certain ages and stages. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The truth that needs to be taught is the way of Christ. If we teach anything, our plan for making disciples ought to start with a systematic approach to understanding the words and works of Jesus as presented in the gospels. We don’t offer knowledge about Him, we create a culture in which members are invited to live like Him.
As we gather as a church in community, here are some fundamental questions church leaders ought to answer for us. Why did Jesus choose to perform the particular miracles that He did? What do His euphemisms mean? What cultural expectations did Jesus revolutionize as a rabbi? What did His first-century Jewish audience hear in His parables and what sort of emotional reactions did He elicit? So often we teach doctrine about Jesus, yet never sit in the gospels long enough to follow His way of life.
Jesus openly acknowledged everything that was wrong in the world of ancient Israel. Yet He never for a moment focused on societal change. He pointed people to the eternal truth that they had a Father in heaven who cared for their every need, maintained control of the universe at all times, allowed suffering on the earth for an amount of time He alone knew, and had a plan to right it all in the end. We cannot follow Jesus when we don’t fully understand Him. Church leaders must equip disciples to be able to read the gospel accounts and process Jesus’ words through the cultural and religious context of His day. To hear what the original audience heard in all of its ancient nuance. And to place those words within the societal norms and expectations into which they were originally spoken. Then and only then are we following Jesus, and undoubtedly, learning much doctrinal truth in the process.
Offer Women a Seat at the Table
Historically, church leaders have been predominantly male, with women holding administrative roles on staff or teaching the children. This led to men casting vision for the church, spearheading church initiatives, organizing programs, and deciding on how dollars ought to be spent with very little female input. Sadly, the discipleship needs of women remained unheeded, mostly because they were not heard. In the last thirty years, we have seen a meteoric rise in women teaching the Word of God to other women through classes and Bible studies. Women desire to be discipled. We read in Luke 8:1 that women followed Jesus, living and learning from Him, just as Jesus’ male disciples did.
In fact, in Luke 10, we read the familiar story of Mary and Martha. The common interpretation is that Mary chose to be a good Christian and spend time with Jesus before she went into the kitchen to cook. But culturally Mary did something much more revolutionary than that. To sit at the feet of Jesus, meant that Mary took her place as a student under a rabbi. A role reserved solely for men in Jesus’ day. None of the disciples demeaned her for her determination. And Jesus commended her for it. In John 11, we see that at some occasion, Martha also must have sat at Jesus’ feet, because Jesus asks her deep theological questions to which Martha readily knows the answer.
The point is not whether a woman plants her feet in a pulpit, it is whether she has a seat at the table discussing the discipleship needs of the church. In most modern churches today, women comprise more than half of the congregation. Will their discipleship needs be heard and heeded?
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The Four Disciplines of Discipleship
Beyond studying the life of Christ in the gospels, careful examination of the lives of the early believers also provides discipleship directives. In Acts 2:42-43, we see four disciplines the early disciples devoted themselves to daily. A careful examination of these practices provides a foundation for every discipleship plan.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
No Bibles existed during the birth of the church. The apostles taught the early believers the way of Christ. These apostles were the original twelve disciples, minus Judas, who became replaced by Matthias (See Acts 1). The qualification to become an apostle included someone who had followed Jesus from the moment He had been baptized by John until His resurrection. It needed to be someone who had lived with Jesus during His earthly ministry. These men were firsthand witnesses of not only what Jesus taught, but also how He lived. What He said and did when the crowds dispersed, His legs ached and His body hungered. These apostles had lived among Him as His disciples and now taught those who had never met Jesus what it meant to be His disciple now. To devote ourselves to the apostles teaching today, means to devote ourselves to immersion in the Word.
1. A Devotion to the Fellowship
They gathered together as believers daily. They did not congregate on Sunday mornings only, they shared life together. This comprised a whole new way of life because culturally at this time you would live, work and eat with your family. The early believers shifted their community to center around other Christians. In our modern society of individualism and isolation, this call to community invites Christian disciples to live for a cause greater than themselves.
2. The Breaking of Bread
This discipline implies both eating together and celebrating communion. In modern-day practice, it involves sharing lives over a meal as well as a commitment to the sacraments of the church. Communion reminds us of who we were before Christ, His sacrificial death and resurrection, and our commitment to live our lives for Him in humble obedience. It also implies a commitment to His people, identifying their needs as our own, and a willingness to care for other followers of Christ.
They prayed together. They learned prayers and they prayed them. A church lacking in prayer will never produce disciples. Period. Church leaders must practice these four disciplines themselves and implore church members to practice them as well.
4. Preach Christ and Him Crucified
Church leaders need to find a way to answer the questions the world is asking. Currently, they want to know where to find hope. They look for it in political candidates, scientific promises, and societal agendas. But as believers we know that hope is not found in a sermon, a program or even a purpose– hope is found in a person: The LORD Jesus Christ. As Paul said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).
Historically the church has been on the hunt for something new to bring to the process of discipleship. We have gotten further away from Christ and closer to our culture. If the tide of church decline and defection of members shifts, it will come from the choice to anchor ourselves to the tenets we have known from the beginning: Following Jesus, embracing women as Jesus did, emulating the early believers, and putting our hope in Christ to keep His church.
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