I am deeply grateful to Tim Keller and his teaching on this text. Over the years it has had a major influence on my understanding of Jesus’ teaching/storytelling and my understanding of God’s grace in my own life. Tim has also written a book on this parable called “Prodigal God” that explores this parable in more depth.
In the video below, Dallas Willard talked about how the biggest danger to Christianity is the attitude that it is a statement of belief rather than a life of discipleship. I was particularly struck by his comments about pastors being accused of “bait and switch” when they try to do intentional discipleship. I have heard similar comments from those that are farther along in developing missional communities than we are at Tidelands. Longtime “church” people can struggle with the idea that they are being asked to be part of a group that is focused on following Jesus in all aspects of life. Sometimes our focus on church programs and sunday morning performance results in immature Christians that want to be “fed” rather than disciples capable of leading others in being disciples of Jesus.
Perhaps this is why I often get quizzical reactions from other Christians leaders when I talk about our missional communities. I have even fielded questions asking whether we are a “cult” or a “commune.” Why would a description of people living on mission in their neighborhood result in those kinds of labels? One possibility is that I am simply not being very articulate in describing what we are doing (I’m working on this). The other possibility is that a life of following Jesus as a disciple sounds foreign to them. If the latter is true, it begs the question: what kind of “Christian” doesn’t feel comfortable with discipleship? I believe this is the kind of thing that Dallas is addressing in this video. If discipleship sounds like a “switch” then what is being used as the “bait?” Certainly not the gospel of Jesus!
I can’t tell you how many times over the past 10+ years I’ve had a discussion with other parents and church leaders about the struggle of discipling children through our current church programming models. The following is an excerpt from a Verge Network article by Ben Connelly called “How To Incorporate Kids into Your Missional Community” (full article here) that articulates this challenge well:
Focusing on the right things
The focus of a “kids ministry” shouldn’t actually be kids; it should be parents. Whether preschool or high school, the same principle applies: churches and leaders who put time, effort, money, resources, and intentionality into equipping parents instead of merely entertaining children accomplish two significant things:
- They help develop the whole-life spiritual maturity of the children
- They put parents back in the place the Bible places them.
Churches with Sunday-focused kids ministries spend 50-100 hours per year (of the 8,760 hours in any given year) with your kids. Minus vacations, sickness, and other reasons to miss, trained workers teach kids biblical concepts for an hour or two on Sundays. And even the most intentional churches might host a second age-specific gathering sometime during the week.
In those few hours, trained leaders must cram in entertainment, music, a snack, and often a Bible story that immediately transfers into a life lesson. “Discipleship and spiritual growth” become limited to a few hours a month, and generally limited to one “style”: in a group, with lots of energy, listening to a teacher teach a broad lesson.
What about the rest of the week?
But what happens in the rest of a child’s week when the teacher isn’t there? Who hears about getting made fun of on the playground? Who’s there to encourage the student in the midst of a specific high school struggle? If a child is in school until 4pm and goes to bed at 8pm, parents interact with their kids 1460 hours a year!
Parents see the daily struggles. Parents have conversations in the car. Parents are asked the hard questions. Parents deal with the specifics, the scenarios, the struggles, the sins. Parents meet their child – every single day – where the real-life rubber hits the road.
The author makes the argument that we need to be spending more of our time training parents as the primary disciplers of children. I agree. Yet, look at the job description of just about any church children’s minister or youth minister and you will see just how little of their time is expected to be spent doing this kind of work. In fact, it is entirely possible (and I have seen this many times myself) where we end up with adolescents in this model that “know” more about the Bible than their parents do. Can we see how backwards this is if we really believe that the parents are the primary teachers and disciplers of their kids? I personally believe that when we talk about the issue of so many young people leaving the church after high school that it is related to this issue. Their spiritual training, their so-called discipleship is totally disconnected from their life at school and at home.
So what is the solution? I imagine that for many programmatic, attractional churches they might be tempted simply to hire more staff to teach more classes at the church building for parents. Personally, I don’t think that is the answer. The didactic teaching style has its place, but it is no substitute for discipleship in the everyday life. I don’t want to claim that missional communities are the answer, but I do believe that they are a step in a better direction because the focus is on reorienting our lives to be on mission in our home, work, school, family, neighborhood, life.
“So discipleship starts way before conversion. We’re proclaiming Jesus to make disciples and we’re living amongst them as people submitting to Christ’s rule and reign so they see what a disciple looks like.”
For whatever reason, I find the above statement to be very thought-provoking and profound. Without going into what I think about “conversion” and “election” and all of that, I have to admit that, in practice, I have not thought that I am making disciples even before someone is at a point of being willing to believe and be baptized. And if this is true, then how would it effect church ministry “programs?” Don’t we focus most (or all) of our disciple -making efforts on those that have already professed faith in Christ? And I appreciate the emphasis on the flip-side as well. Once someone does believe, we still have to preach the gospel at every opportunity.
I had to share some artwork with you (click on an image to see it full-size). During our December worship gathering the kids took some time to make a play-doh nativity after hearing the Christmas story. They also did some drawing.
I couldn’t be more proud of the drawing above! I don’t know if we adults are getting it yet, but the church is NOT a place, it’s a people! So cool!
The next one will require a bit of explanation. Be sure to look at it full-size so you can see Jesus’ face.
I had just finished telling the Christmas story, and during the story I let the kids know that Jesus cried as a baby just like all babies cry. Now, it doesn’t say that in the Bible, but it also does not say that Jesus didn’t cry! We know Jesus cried as an adult (John 11:35), and we know that Jesus was fully human and fully God. The fully human baby Jesus surely cried! Is this important? It is important in the sense that Jesus’ full humanity is important theologically. Beyond that, there is the implication that a “perfect” baby wouldn’t cry – bad in so many ways!
You probably noticed the pig as well with the tail that stretches to the sky. I’m not sure where it came from, and my first thought was: “Of all the animals he could’ve picked, he had to pick the one that would be most repulsive to a good Jew!” After a good chuckle I put it away. Later it hit me: Of all the people God could’ve picked to visit baby Jesus he chose the unclean Gentile astrologers (magi) and the physically dirty shepherds! So perhaps a pig isn’t as out of place as I thought at first.
One more picture. This is a picture of the play-doh nativity made by all the kids. Not much I want to say about this other than I love letting kids respond creatively to the Word in our worship gatherings.
I’m excited to finally be able to share this statement! We have worked hard on it, grown together in the process, and feel like we now have a good grounding for moving onto the task of “who” and “where” we are being called (the vision). Before you read the statement, take a look at the following description for the Starting New Churches guidebook so you know what we are after. We intentionally tried to avoid theological terminology (or “churchy” language). We also knew that we were not trying to say everything (If you come from outside the Presbyterian tradition and want to see a fuller theological statement take a look at our Book of Confessions). We would love to hear feedback. We want this to be a “living” document that will grow with our new community.
The first task of the team is to develop a one-page statement that answers the question, “Who is Jesus?” and then defines “church,” “salvation,” “evangelism” and “service.” We realize that when it comes to answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” the writer of the Gospel of John is right by saying, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) The key to this first task is that when a team discusses, debates, and writes down their absolutes about Jesus, church, salvation, evangelism and service, they find out if they can move forward together to start a new church. This also determines what the team will start.
Jesus was in the beginning, is now, and always will be. He is the visible image of the invisible God who came to walk among us fully human, passionately pursuing us with unconditional love and the ultimate expression of sacrifice. He chose to die for us and, conquering death, gave us life overflowing with abundance: a life of joy, peace, freedom, and purpose; an eternal life in relationship with God.
The church is God’s beloved. It is a community of people committed to following Jesus: gathering to worship and learn, and showing love and mercy through service and relationship. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church is called and sent to demonstrate God’s all-consuming and irresistible love to others.
Salvation begins and ends with the grace of God. In our brokenness we are separated from our Creator. Through the sacrifice of God’s son, Jesus, we are redeemed and forgiven. When we accept this free gift, we experience true freedom and we begin a journey of growing in a relationship with God and being reconciled to others. When we receive the love Jesus longs to give us, we experience life as a child of God.
Salvation cannot be earned. We are, nevertheless, called to live sacrificially in humility and love. Service is the natural response to God’s love for us and an essential act of worship. Working as the hands and feet of Jesus, we are called to bring love, healing, mercy, and justice to the world.
Evangelism is good news! It is sharing the way Jesus has and continues to love us. It is sharing the way Jesus longs to have an intimate relationship with us. It is not a program or an agenda, but the living out of God’s heart for a lost world. Evangelism is the Spirit-led engagement of others – showing God’s love through actions and words to guide others in choosing a life in Christ.
As part of the “homework” for our discernment team last week we asked people the question: “What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Jesus?'” We asked the same question about the word “church.” We talked about the various responses in our second “gathering” with the team this past Sunday and also about how we respond to those same questions. We spent some time in Matthew 16:13-25. Now we are digging even deeper and this week we all have to come up with our own short answers for the following:
Who is Jesus?
What is the church?
What is salvation?
What is service?
What is evangelism?
Our goal is that in the next two meetings (or perhaps three) that we will be able to bring all of our answers together and create a “foundational statement” that will answer all of these questions in brief, everyday terms. We are not trying to create another creed for the Book of Confessions, but rather to find our heart and common ground around these questions so that we can work from there as we seek God’s vision for our new community. Once we complete this task I will be sure to post it here for all to read and comment. In the meantime, feel free to leave your “gut response” to the question: “Who is Jesus?”