My family spent many years in a small church. It wasn’t well recognized. The sermons were fine, but not great. The building served its purpose but was far from spectacular. But we knew (almost) everyone who walked in the doors and had many opportunities to grow through service, teaching, and leadership.
Now, we attend a large church with an online ministry that has worldwide reach. It is a godly church, the pastors are qualified and genuinely serve the church, and the teaching is excellent, but we have few strong relationships, and opportunities for teaching and leadership are rare. The small church is no more, and the large church is no doubt considered very successful.
It’s been years since we attended that little church, but the contrast between the discipleship and growth we experienced there as compared with the large church is noteworthy. Perhaps the pandemic has provided some distance between my church and me, which has given me time to consider what the church should be, asking myself what it is, and mentally reconstructing what it realistically could be.
The Early Church
The church should be a community of believers who love the Lord, love and serve others, and make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. The united goal should be to make disciples, as Jesus told us in Matthew 28:19-20 (New International Version),
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Just a few months later, the Christian church was in its infancy, and we see what it should be in its purest form (Acts 2:42-47, NIV).
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This church was powerful, and all we know of it was that these believers were committed to solid teaching, fellowship, sharing meals together, prayer and holding everything they owned in common. The early church had no organizations, denominations, cathedrals, or warehouses serving as churches. They were simply communities meeting together, trusting the power of the Holy Spirit, learning from each other what God was all about, and demonstrating his power.
Every one of them would have been engaged, their gifts would have been recognized and utilized, and they would have grown closer to the Lord through their interactions with each other.
The Church Today
The church today bears little resemblance to the early church. Worship on Sunday morning has become a highly scripted service passively consumed by those in attendance as opposed to a community meeting daily, connecting, and sharing everything they had with each other.
It’s idealistic to imagine that the church 2000 years later could compete with the Holy -Spirit-filled worshippers of the early church, but I like to think about what it would be like. Imagine with me that a small community of your family, friends, acquaintances, and anyone else who is interested meet regularly together in a home, library, or other available space to speak about what God has been doing in your lives, to worship him, to contribute to his work, and to learn from others. Everyone would have a chance to share what they’ve learned, their praises and their concerns. It would put Christianity where it needs to be— in our everyday lives and in Christian community.
Churches often encourage participation in small groups, which is effective if done well. A strong discipleship group can result in real community and give members an opportunity to put the Bible into practice. If not done well, it stunts spiritual growth and can become a largely social gathering. The strength and commitment of the leader and the support and training of the leader by the church will determine its efficacy.
One of the most important attributes of a small group is community. Christians are not meant to learn by themselves, in fact, there is a limit to what we are able to discover on our own. We need relationships, to be vulnerable, to give and to take wisdom. God’s word is alive and active, and although everyone understands passages through their own lens, we can still comprehend and uniquely apply them. I believe God loves it when we share our perceptions of him and his word with each other.
As we consider his word and learn to apply it, we will grow in the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:23). Those traits are difficult to assess, especially by church staff who rarely, if ever, engage in conversation with us.
Today, churches are run like businesses, and businesses aren’t set up for discipleship. They are top-down organizations, set up for measurable impact. In churches run like a business pastors are wildly busy, there are layers of staff, and the spiritual development of the congregation is largely unknown. Qualifications like M-Divs, PhDs, and/or a winning personality are necessary to teach God’s Word. (I don’t think Paul was a terribly dynamic preacher, for someone nodded off and fell out of a window while listening to him speak. Granted, Paul was speaking for a long time.) Interviews with HR professionals and loaded resumés are necessary to get a job with a church. Budgets are important and social media platforms have become useful tools, so churches need finance managers and social media experts.
Denominations strive to protect their members from false teaching and misinformation, which is admirable. As a parent, I wanted to protect my children from physical, emotional, and spiritual danger, which was appropriate when they were very young, but at some point, they needed to learn themselves how to live a healthy life. Could the same be said of the church? If so, there are many overprotected and underdeveloped members in the average church.
How the church can improve
In Acts, Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Silas and others traveled to multiple locations to start churches, but they weren’t around for long to supervise new believers. They had to teach as best they could in the short time they had and leave the rest to God. It wasn’t easy. It isn’t easy. Paul often mentioned how he prayed for the church to which he was writing, and prayer would have been his primary resource for ensuring correct teaching. He couldn’t depend on a denomination to police the church; he could only depend on the Holy Spirit. As I write that, I realize that it sounds ridiculous. The Holy Spirit is far more trustworthy than truth police.
We see Paul’s encouragement, correction, advice, and teaching through his epistles, and a few of the epistles allow us to infer what it was like for the leaders of the churches that Paul began. The Corinthian church had multiple issues that Paul addressed in two letters. Timothy needed confidence to fight the good fight, to teach truth, and to appoint honorable people to lead positions. Titus needed advice to strengthen his leadership. The last few chapters of Paul’s epistle to the Romans give instructions on how to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. It must have been difficult for the churches Peter, Paul and others left behind to remain faithful and to disciple others.
We all live in churches like those that the apostles left behind.
Discipleship is difficult, there’s no doubt. Relationships take time, and time is scarce. Our churches are no different from the churches that received epistles years ago. Spiritually immature people, lack of humility, multiple distractions, false teachings, and personality conflicts make discipleship and leadership complicated.
However, relationships are the way to good discipleship. Churches do their best to make connections, but in a top-down, business-run organization, there are limited opportunities for members to explore and extend their gifts. My husband has a Master of Divinity, and I led a large Bible study for twenty years, and we are not involved with our church. They don’t appear to need our experience, skill or gifts. We still need discipleship, but we’ve outgrown the standard volunteer options like working with children or greeting. We did that years ago and there are many other people who would do a far better job and such service would also disciple them.
How do churches disciple mature believers like my husband and me? We still need discipleship, and frankly, I wonder if our church knows what to do with people like us. Since we are not long-time members of the church and have not taken the typical on-ramps to volunteer positions, we aren’t playing by the rules. We don’t fit the mold.
In a top-down business, one needs to understand and play by the rules to be noticed and given more responsibility. In a church, the only rules are to love God, love and serve others, and make disciples led by the Holy Spirit. We are standing in the middle of that gap. Of course, we bear part of the responsibility for the disconnect. I’m also reconstructing my attitude.
I am not a church leader. I rarely have the ear of church leaders. But I have the ear of God, and there are a few things I can do.
- Pray that church leaders begin to reconstruct their discipleship methods.
- Communicate my observations and concerns, as I am doing in this article.
- Invest in relationships and resist the temptation to remain passive.
- Listen to the Holy Spirit and be ready to humbly do whatever he asks of me.
We are all called to make disciples and I fear many churches have limited their ability to do that well. Discipleship happens best in relationships, putting God’s Word into action, giving and taking feedback, communication, and vulnerability. Small churches lend themselves better to relationship and discipleship, and I believe large churches have the resources to put more emphasis on growing members to become more like Jesus. That should be the goal of every church, no matter its size.