By Eddie Pipkin and Phil Maynard

It’s been a great year at Excellence in Ministry Coaching.  Phil has traveled the country working with leadership and congregations to revitalize and grow their ministries, hearing your stories, the blessings of your work and the challenges you face.  A couple of days before Christmas, he and I met for breakfast at a famed local culinary establishment – the Waffle House! – to review the past year and plan ahead, and I asked what his wish for you all would be for 2020.  His response is this week’s blog, and it’s a thoughtful meditation on two topics: the need for larger vision and the critical way we in which we misunderstand discipleship.

I asked the question like this: “Thinking about all the leaders and all the churches you worked with in the past year, what’s the one New Year’s Wish you would wish for them in 2020.”

“That’s a good question,” he said, then  took a big sip of coffee, and thought about it for a good long think.  After a few moments, I saw his eyes light up with the answer.

“A bigger vision,” he said.

“What does that mean,” I asked (never content to let a simple answer lie unprobed).

“We spend a lot of time focused on institutional stuff,” he said.  “We work on a lot of church-oriented questions.  I wish we could help more people move from institutional motives to Kingdom motives.”

This seems, perhaps, on the surface, to be counter-intuitive.  Aren’t institutional motives and Kingdom motives the same thing?  They should be if our focus is God’s focus, but whenever people gather together and build any kind of organization, they bring along their own expectations, idiosyncrasies, and hang-ups.  Without accountability and open communication, it is the most natural kind of institutional decay that we become invested in maintaining our institutional priorities – preserving programs at the expense of people, obsessing over budgets to maintain personnel and facilities, making decisions based on popularity and appearances.

The bigger vision Phil describes means churches that are focused on the transformative power of the Gospel.  This means the transformation of individual lives and ultimately the transformation of entire communities, powered by the local church as a catalyst.  When the God-centered vision is clear, the nuts-and-bolts decisions of ministry are geared towards making that vision a reality, and fidelity to the bigger vision provides a powerful check against petty priorities that defer to maintenance of the status quo or outdated ideas about what constitutes church “success.”  (This concept dovetails with our recent blog series on new metrics.)

It also parallels Phil’s epiphany that local churches, trying desperately to stay relevant in a changing cultural landscape, often have a fundamental misunderstanding about what discipleship even is.  Many churches, in a quest to connect to the disconnected (younger people, people who have abandoned mainline denominations, etc.) have adopted popular cultural elements while simultaneously watering down authentic discipleship.  They are working from the premise that the “discipline” part of discipleship is a turn-off to people who are interested in spirituality but not in the tired structures of the organizational church.  The popular course is to integrate more modern self-help gospel (its language and methods) into worship and church offerings, sometimes at the expense of the authentic Gospel of the Scriptures.

Here’s what we sometimes miss.

First, if we focus on growing authentically as disciples, we find the true path to balance, joy, and meaning in life for which so many people are desperately seeking.

Secondly, as a local church, if we focus on the development of authentic discipleship, we naturally solve the institutional problems which are keeping us up at night.

Looking at the first statement, many people in our communities are desperately trying to solve the following problems, and they are looking wherever they can for help:

  • They struggle to establish and maintain healthy relationships.
  • They struggle to establish and maintain financial stability.
  • They struggle to feel that their day-to-day lives have purpose and meaning.
  • They see problems in their community and world but feel powerless in contributing to solutions that make a difference.
  • They live with anxiety, tension, and uncertainty, and they don’t know how to find lasting peace.
  • They feel isolated and want to be a part of a greater community that shares their burdens and empowers them to be better people.

When we at Excellence in Ministry Coaching talk about the elements of discipleship, we break them down into six components: A Life of Hospitality, A Life of Worship, A Life of Generosity, A Life of Obedience, A Life of Service, and A Life of Openness to Jesus.

Dedication to discipleship – to following Jesus by living like Jesus – turns out to be more than an academic exercise.  It is a path to transformative change within our own lives.

  • If we practice an authentic Life of Worship, we have a clearer sense of the meaning and purpose of our lives.
  • If we practice an authentic Life of Hospitality, we have a deeper understanding (and the practical skills) to develop and maintain healthy relationships.
  • If we practice an authentic Life of Generosity, we make better decisions about our personal finances, and we enjoy a higher level of financial stability.
  • If we practice a Life of Obedience (deepening our understanding of Scripture and our practice of prayer), we enjoy a peace that gets us through daily chaos and comforts us during life’s greatest challenges.
  • If we are living a Life of Openness to Jesus, we embrace the adventures of faith-guided decision making and the unexpected delights of following the Holy Spirit’s leading. We are freed from the humdrum.
  • If we are living a Life of Service, we find the joy of working with like-minded others to fight for social justice and bring mercy and compassion to seemingly intractable problems.

The work of discipleship is not an obligation, an “or else” commitment to drudgery.  It is an opportunity to live life to its Instagrammable fullest!

It also, it turns out, is the pathway to solutions for the challenges being faced by most struggling churches.  We have let too many other things get in the way of our commitment to the work of “making disciples that transform the world,” and in so doing, we have sabotaged ourselves.  We gather and wring our hands because of falling attendance, lack of passion and commitment, unrealized budgets, and declining interest.  But it turns out that all of these “problems” would begin solving themselves if we focused more on the work we were originally tasked to do: helping people become mature disciples.

  • Mature disciples are faithful in worship attendance.
  • Mature disciples long to serve.
  • Mature disciples naturally invite others to be a part of the excitement.
  • Mature disciples give generously because it’s part of their identity.
  • Mature disciples are curious about the Bible, growing their faith, and sharing it with others.
  • Mature disciples are led by the Spirit to embrace bold, new challenges.

So, understanding discipleship as our goal solves both the relevancy and church vitality problems.  And having embraced that goal, we are far more intentional about how discipleship development is faithfully undertaken in our current cultural context – which is exactly the work we here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching have been focused on,

The very things that Jesus taught to his followers – and the very things we should track if we are maturing in our discipleship, individually and church-wide, are the things that make life fuller, richer, and more meaningful for us as individuals, and they are the very things that are the hallmarks of healthy, growing churches.

Over the coming weeks, we plan to explore this topic more fully, one element of discipleship by one element of discipleship, examining how each area prepares people for transformative change.  Stay tuned!

How about you?  Do you have some bold congregational resolutions for the coming year?  How are you ramping up your discipleship game?  How are you helping the people in your greater community to understand how a life of following Jesus can change the practical dimensions of their daily struggles?  Share your comments and questions below.