Recontextualizing Church

Many churches do a good job of making converts, but if you were to listen to Gen Xers and Millennials you would hear the voice of those crying out for discipleship and authenticity in community.  People want relationship, and disciples are made through long term relationship.

The problem I see in many attractional-event and program-driven churches in the West is their system does a good job of producing converts, but not necessarily of producing disciples who are equipped to make disciples who make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Many churches in our country seem to have drifted from the biblical concept of “church” and have redefined it as the place, a building, where ministry happens. Hence, many evangelicals have built large centralized institutions using what seems like marketing as a formula for success: utilize attractional events to draw a crowd, and then develop programs and depend on professional clergy to keep people coming back. While this may have worked to build large communities of worship in the mid-to-late twentieth century, it has also consumed many of the smaller churches like a Wal-Mart monopoly putting out of business the mom-and-pop shops. And often when the pastor of a program-driven church leaves the ministry, that church tends to lose sight of the vision as it struggles to pull together in unity, and the congregation shrinks as people transfer to the new, next, and better program-driven church that meets their family’s needs. I would argue this doesn’t build biblical community; this fractures community among local churches as the competitive mindset takes over and as church leadership begins to use marketing techniques to promote their brand to attract church shoppers, and thus congregants shuffle from church to church.

This book explores the challenges church leaders and congregants face in shepherding a program-driven church to begin to reach out to the community outside of the four walls of a church building. Take this journey with me as I evaluate Jesus’ and the Apostles’ method of outreach and discipleship and seek to find ways to apply their methodology in today’s context. We will explore various small group models throughout history and in today’s contemporary Western context. We will look at the necessity of corporate worship and small groups to stimulate spiritual growth. I have interviewed Jeff Vanderstelt, Steve Timmis, Joel Comiskey, and Dan Braga to glean wisdom from these leaders in how to successfully shepherded churches through this kind of recontexualization of the local church. In the end I have mapped out a strategy for how church leaders can lead their churches through this transition from attractional events and programs to the missional home community and cell-driven model, which resonates with this generation disenfranchised with church.

I believe there are many methods of ministry that can work to make converts, but in order to make disciples that multiply requires an authentic faith community. This is what an unbelieving world is longing to see, a church that has closed the gap between their rhetoric and reality.

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This book is a result of a Thesis Project for Gordon-Conwell Seminary Doctorate Program in Outreach and Discipleship.


Jesus said, “Follow me”

On multiple occasions Jesus said, “Come follow me.” What did he mean? and why did some respond immediately and some went away sad?

In Bible times there were “disciples” or apprentices of multiple kinds of trades.  A fisherman would take on an apprentice and together they would go into business with the master fisherman who would take on a leadership role; and the apprentice would submit to the leader to learn everything he could to be able to go into business himself one day.

The same was done for craftsmen, sword-makers, carpenters, and religious education.

boat docked in a tiny Mexican <b>fishing</b> village and a city tourist ...

When a rabbi would take a disciple, this was a master-pupil relationship.  Sometimes the pupil would spend a month or so away from family to live with and follow the rabbi.  Great respect was given to rabbis; it was the highest honor to follow a religious leader in a discipleship relationship.

In that culture, “Come follow me” was a command for someone to semi-literally follow behind a rabbi as a disciple.  So when Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, James and John, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” This explains why they dropped their nets immediately (giving up the family business) to follow rabbi Jesus.

Following Jesus, Literally

When Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “One thing you lack, sell all your possessions and come follow me,” Jesus was saying, “Be my disciple and follow me around everywhere I go and I will teach you to be a disciple-maker.”  But the guy didn’t want to give up his wealth, and so he went away sad (Mark 10:21-22).

Notice Jesus didn’t run after him and say, “Dude, I was a little harsh, let me re-think this and negotiate terms with you so it is more comfortable.”

We learn a lot about leadership here.  And we learn a lot about followership.  We learn what it meant back then to be a follower of Jesus.  But does this verse apply to Christians today?

What does “Christian” even mean? It means “Christ-follower.”

So if I am rich, do I need to sell all my possessions before becoming a Christian?

This is where the verse is often misapplied.  “Follow me” was a phrase Jesus used for people to literally follow Jesus in the flesh while he was on earth.  So after He died, was crucified, buried, and raised – how can we “follow” Jesus today?

The words of discipleship in the gospels do not 100% crossover into our culture today.  We are called to be Christ-followers in that we follow His principles and teachings where we are, and we take this knowledge into everyday life.  And so we are followers in the sense of being  “Christian” (or ones who adhere to His teachings and way of salvation – Acts 11:26) or “an imitator” (ones who imitate the ways of Jesus without being able to literally follow behind Him – 1 Corinthians 11:1).  Jesus commanded His disciples (those who literally followed him around) to be disciple-makers (i.e., to help people become disciples, Christians, imitators of Christ) by teaching people the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And we learn this in Christian community called church.

The word “gospel” means the “good news” about who is Lord of the universe.  Jesus is Lord, He is King.  And He had a victory, He conquered sin and death and was raised.  So King Jesus wants you and me to follow Him.  We learn about Him from pastors and Christians who are trying to help you know Him or from reading the New Testament.

We who claim to be Christian are called to be Jesus’ disciples, which means obediently following the commands of Jesus in the New Testament.  And Pastors have the privilege of teaching people what the Bible says.  And we all are accountable to the Bible.

This is the calling of Paul, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”  What he means is, “Follow me as I follow Jesus and try to preach the word and make disciples while being unstained from the world.”

May this be our goal.



What is biblical membership?

What is membership? In Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 Paul speaks of the concept that the church is a body with many members.

Scant evidence of 'global market' for executives

We are members, one of another” Romans 12:5

In Judaism a child became a member of Israel on the 8th day after birth by going through the circumcision ritual.  The parents were accountable were accountable for their child until age thirteen.  The role of the parents during this time was to teach their children the Laws of God (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).  When the child would reach age thirteen, the child would go through a ceremony to become a “child-of-the-law” (bar-mitzvah).  From age thirteen onward the child was a full fledged member of the community who was responsible for themselves to God, His laws, and to the community.

In the secular culture of the Greco-Roman world, there were many kinds of membership: to the city, to a guild, to a religion.  To become a member the various religions had ceremonies and expectations for their adherents.

Similarly in Christianity the early believers were called “disciples” meaning followers of Christ (or “Christian” meaning “adherents of Jesus and His teachings” – Acts 11:26).  They were together and had all things in common (Acts 2:42-47)through religious fellowship / membership.  They were known as “the people of the Way” (Acts 9:2).  The “way” meant three things:

  1. Jesus is the way to salvation – meaning belief that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, that no one comes to the Father (Yahweh) except through Jesus (John 14:6).
  2. Commitment to preaching Jesus is the way – meaning the commitment to proclaiming to people who do not know that Jesus Christ is Lord.  To say Jesus is Christ means you believe He is King of kings.  To say Jesus is Lord means you believe He is Lord of lords.  to say Jesus Christ is Lord is to say Caesar and all other so called “gods” are not.  In that culture, to profess to believe Jesus Christ is Lord resulted in two things: (A) promise of salvation (Acts 16:31); and (B) persecution because you are not pledging your allegiance to the Emperor.  This is not a pluralism.  This is exclusivism, not because you or I are exclusive but rather because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is exclusive.
  3. Adhering to the ways and teachings and ethics of Jesus – meaning there are expectations by Jesus for how His followers will live and interact with each other.

These three concepts are the essence of membership.  When a person became a member of a church it was signified through baptism (Acts 2:38-41) and they were fully devoted to the Christian community including submission to the Apostles’ teaching as authoritative, and the sharing of communion and prayer, as well as practical needs in everyday living (Acts 2:42-47).  They were committed (or rather “devoted” – Acts 2:42) to one another and they were on mission together as a community to try to make disciples through preaching the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20).

Their membership was seen in what is known as the “church” meaning “to gather.”  Their gathering was “to Jesus, for worship, and for mission.” (Jeff Vanderstelt, Saturate)

We also are called to follow Jesus with other Jesus followers in the community called the church.  But it is kinda hard to do this when people are not “devoted” to one another.  Without making a commitment of devotion it is like saying you are part of a family but you never spend time with them.

I am not advocating for people only joining my church.  But I am advocating for people joining a church as a sold out member to try to make it better and work together with a group of people to go fishing together for men and women who need to hear the gospel and be saved to Jesus and biblical community (Matthew 4:19).

So may you not just “believe” in Jesus and go about your way.  May you also commit to being a biblical Christian, a disciple, a follower of Christ, and become part of the “people of the Way.”