Are we failing at our primary mission?

The thing that troubles me the most about the condition of the Christian church in 2014 is not our conflicts over gay marriage, or the fact that despite the best efforts of our most knowledgable liturgists we still haven’t managed to produce a liturgy that’s good enough to satisfy their perfectionism. It’s not the fact that most of our members appear to be too busy for anything more than Sunday church attendance once or twice a month, although I confess I find that irritating. It’s not even the fact that we seem to be unable to connect with younger generations in anything more than a superficial way, although I admit that this worries me a great deal.

No, the thing that troubles me most of all is that we appear to be failing across the board at our primary mission of forming disciples for Jesus.

I’m not talking about evangelism here – although I think that for the most part we’re failing at that too. I’m taking about what we do with people after we evangelize them. What happens to a person in our churches after they decide to put their faith in Christ? Or, if we want to put it in terms that most timid mainline churchgoers will find more congenial, after a person decides to become a churchgoer, what’s our plan for forming them as disciples of Jesus?

I take it that we can define a disciple as a person who makes it their primary mission in life to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice. And I also take it that one of the clearest discipleship manuals in the New Testament is the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters five, six, and seven, where Jesus spells out exactly what the daily lives of his followers are meant to look like.

Well, let’s take a hop, skip, and jump through those chapters. The Sermon tells us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, but it appears to me that we North American Christians lay up for ourselves treasures on earth at exactly the same rate as those who do not claim to be followers of Jesus. The Sermon tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, but it seems to me that we North American Christians hate our enemies and act toward them in just the same manner as non-Christians do. The Sermon tells us to avoid divorce, but divorce statistics for North American Christians are practically identical to non-Christians. The Sermon tells us to influence the world around us like salt and light, but I would suggest that most of us are far more likely to let the world around us influence us.

I could go on, but I won’t. Have a look for yourself, and ask yourself how your church is doing.

We Anglicans pride ourselves on our liturgies and we have made corporate worship the centre of our life; that’s why the thing we seem to want more than anything else is to get people to come to church, and why success in our eyes appears to consist of persuading more people to join us for worship. But my question is, if our worship is so wonderful, why isn’t it forming us as disciples of Jesus? It may be inspiring us, giving us a shot in the arm, but is it helping us become people whose lives remind others of the Sermon on the Mount? And if not, what are we doing wrong?

Please note that I am including myself in this criticism. I’ve made preaching the primary task of my ministry, and I like to think I do a conscientious job of it. But the older I get, the less confident I am becoming that listening to a fifteen or twenty minute expository sermon on Sunday is actually transforming people into more consistent Christian disciples. And I’m not convinced that putting on more midweek courses will do it either; my experience in churchland is that the vast majority of churchgoers can’t – or won’t – make the time to attend them.

So is there a way to do this? This is a genuine question. Where are the churches that are doing a decent job of forming their members into growing disciples of Jesus – people who are putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their daily lives? And if you know of such a church, what are they actually doing to make this happen? I’m asking this out of intense personal interest. I turned fifty-six earlier this month, so God willing, I have about ten years of full-time ministry left in me. I would like those years to be fruitful years. I would like to use them as effectively as I can to help form people as disciples of Jesus. But I’m not at all sure that the ways I’m attempting to do that job at the moment are as effective as I’d like. So I would like to hear about places where it’s being done, and being done well.

Can anyone help me?

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Published by

Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

9 thoughts on “Are we failing at our primary mission?”

  1. Hi there Mr. Chesterton,
    I’m a prime example why a person gets fed up with church – (try harder) and self-improvement programs.
    Until one day I found a book written by Pastor Andrew Farley, called “God Without Religion”. That book freed me from a whole bunch of “religious” thinking. When I learned the truth of who we are in Christ, and that I have been forgiven (once for all) of all my sins, I came alive through the Grace of Jesus. I’m not kidding – it was like being born again (again). I strongly suggest that you read that book and a couple of other ones that I will mention below. Your answers are in there.
    The Sermon on the mount is not a standard that we must try to attain on our own steam. The sermon on the mount was Jesus showing the Jewish people (under the Law of Moses) that it is impossible for them to live up to it. He was telling people to cut off their hands, sell everything, be perfect, pluck your eyes out etc. He was burying them with the demands of the Law in order for them to come to Him for salvation and rest. He raised the standard: you have heard about not committing adultery . . . but I tell you (He raised the bar) whoever looks at a woman with lust . . . and you have heard about do not murder . . . but I tell you (He raised the bar of the Law) who is even angry with his brother is in danger of the fires of hell. Anyway Mr. Chesterton, I could go on and on, but it would take too long.
    Great books:
    God Without Religion by Andrew Farley
    So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore? (fiction) by Wayne Jacobsen
    The Naked Gospel by Andrew Farley
    Classic Christianity by Bob George
    The Rest of The Gospel by Dan Stone especially Chap 6 (I can email you that chapter
    OK, don’t be afraid, because encountering the Grace of God makes us a little nervous at first and we tend to want to keep our little “religious” things as a safe (just in case Grace doesn’t work) card. But Grace (Jesus) works just fine and sets us free. It’s amazing!
    Bye for now
    Jacques “Jerry” Lemieux (Canada)
    I’m on Facebook
    God bless you brother –

  2. Jerry, I see that you are taking Martin Luther’s view of the Sermon on the Mount. I have a problem with that approach, as it does violence to the plain meaning of the words of Jesus. In the Sermon Jesus does not just turn up the volume on the Law of Moses. In fact, in various places he actually contradicts it (‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you’). And at the end of the Sermon he tells his disciples that if they want to build their house on the rock, they need to not only hear the words of the Sermon, but also put them into practice. On Luther’s interpretation, Jesus is being deceitful here; he has no intention for them to actually put his word into practice.

    Please don’t misunderstand me; I believe in the Gospel of Grace as strongly as you do. That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. The Beatitudes indicate that there is no minimum standard you have to attain before you can enter Jesus’ school of discipleship. Whether you are poor in spirit, meek, mourning, or hungering and thirsting for righteousness – all are welcome. Grace is the bedrock on which the whole thing is built. I smiled a bit when you seemed to think you had to convince me of this. I’ve been preaching the Gospel of grace for a quarter of a century.

    But discipleship is not about who gets into the kingdom and who doesn’t. Discipleship is about learning the way of life God designed us for. This is how God’s kingdom transforms the world – when disciples live by the teaching of Jesus. It’s not about perfection (‘Be perfect’ in Matthew 5:48 means ‘be complete’ – it’s about leaving no one out of the circle of your love, even your enemies, which is the theme of 38-48), or anxiety about whether I’ve done enough to make it into God’s good graces. No – it’s the process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ that John talks about in 1 John 2:6, and Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Of course, I will fail over and over again, and then I will come back to the bedrock of God’s grace, for mercy and forgiveness. But I will then get up, call on the Holy Spirit to fill me, and fix my eyes once again on Jesus, who shows me by his life and teaching the way of (not ‘to’) the kingdom of God.

    Thanks for the book recommendations, but I’ve read Martin Luther, who first proposed this way of wiggling out of the Sermon on the Mount, and I found him unsatisfying. I would recommend to you the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Donald B. Kraybill (especially ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom’), Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey (especially ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’), C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald (especially the three volumes of ‘Unspoken Sermons’), Dallas Willard (especially ‘The Divine Conspiracy’), Scot McKnight (especially his new commentary on the Sermon on the Mount in the ‘Story of God Bible Commentary’ series), and Glen Stassen’s ‘Living the Sermon on the Mount’.

    Finally, if you have summarized his teaching correctly, I believe you are incorrect when you say that the answer to my question is in Andrew Farley’s book. My question is not ‘How can I teach people to be free of the burden of learning to live by the Sermon on the Mount’. Apparently my Lord and Saviour does not see it as a burden; he sees it as the narrow way that all Christians are called to walk.

    So I will now return to the subject of this post, which is how churches can be more intentional about forming Christians as disciples of Jesus. If you do not think this is necessary, well, I disagree with you, and my disagreement with you has come after long years of pondering Martin Luther’s interpretation of the Sermon and finding it wanting.

    Blessings to you. Let us pray for one another.

  3. You are certainly right about midweek Bible studies. People tell us repeatedly that they want them, but when we offer them (and we do: there are three different groups that meet weekly in our parish), only a handful of people come. Our groups involve maybe a total of twenty people, in a congregation of about 250 average Sunday attendance.

    But that is not your point. How are we forming disciples? Are we forming them at all? I can suggest only a small example: our church choirs. The adult choir is about a dozen people. There is a core group of perhaps eight who have been in the choir for years, decades for some of them; around them are people who are more transient in the community, mostly university students. The ones in the “core group” are not at all the people I would choose for a choir; some of them don’t sing very well (despite all those years of doing it!). Two of them are mentally and emotionally challenged, and require a lot of patience from the rest of us. Some of the others travel a lot (visiting grandchildren, work commitments) and are absent from too many rehearsals. Some Sundays we can’t cover all four parts, and I usually don’t know that until that morning.

    But they care about each other. When a crisis arises in the life of one of them, they are incredible, and humble me for my relative lack of Christian compassion. Over my fourteen years with them, one of the students was raped, several people have lost their jobs, one was homeless for a while (except that one of the other choristers put him up on a couch in his apartment), there have been many bereavements, illnesses, all the rest of the things that happen to people. And they take care of each other. I suppose you could say that they live out the Beatitudes.

    It is not just the long-term members, though they set the example. The university students (most of whom add much more vocally and in musicianship than the older people) find in this place a family, and I have seen many of them grow remarkably as Christians — one of them from about ten years ago is now our Director of Christian Formation and an amazing person.

    I think that the choir has been a little “practice room” where they can over time learn to be patient, and to listen to one another, and to go the extra mile, and those people who are challenging and try our patience are perhaps the most important for this aspect. Part of it also is the discipline of singing the Psalms every Sunday morning (and at Evensongs) and talking about them in rehearsal, and sometimes using the hymn and anthem texts as springboards for spiritual matters. We cannot afford much time for talk; we have to sing! But I think the little bit that we do helps. As the Choristers’ Prayer says, “Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts…” In some choirs, that connection is not made.

    We do good work with our Youth Choir also, and I believe that the group has formed many of its participants into Disciples by the time they have sung in it for ten years and finished high school. I can name several that, as young adults, are most certainly “lights in the world” in their manner of life, their work, their helping of others. Not all, mind you, but more than a few. And the story is not finished for some of the ones that on the face of it “didn’t turn out well” so far. Again, the “little practice room” applies — the teenagers learn to care for the young singers, they learn to be patient with each other, we sing the Psalms and spend more time on hymn texts than we do with the adults. In this respect, it helps that the youngest ones often cannot read at a hymn-text level, so we have to work through all the stanzas and figure out what the hard and interesting words mean and what on earth this text is talking about.

    I have said enough, perhaps too much. Hopefully some of these ideas could apply in other small-groups in a parish, such as Altar Guilds, etc. I will be interested to see if anyone else posts ideas or examples.

  4. Dear Tim,

    After 42 years in pastoral ministry, I’ve reached the same analysis of the Church’s current state. Especially in North America, where the emphasis is on externals—or, to be more accurate, one external: numbers of warm bodies—we tend to miss the fact that “faith” is more than intellectual assent to a given set of propositions, and more than simply trusting Christ as Saviour. “Faith” as Paul uses the word, is an on-going relationship of trust and obedience growing out of an on-going and ever-deepening relationship of love. And love, when it is authentic, is always a two-way street. There is, I think, a great disconnect between “church” and “real life.”

    But then, how could our situation be otherwise, when so many who claim to be presenting “true Christianity,” viz., some of these TV preachers, are actually presenting a completely distorted picture of what that relationship with the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit actually looks like: not other-directed love, but at best utilitarian (“here’s what God can do for you”) and at worst manipulative (“how to use God to get what you want”). We have at least two generations of North Americans who, by and large, have never been confronted with the Lord’s demand in Luke 9:23, that “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him DENY HIMSELF, and take up HIS CROSS daily, and follow Me.” And, not incidentally, the doctrine of eternal security (which I and all Orthodox reject) has given a false notion of what it means to be saved and has inculcated magical thinking (just say the right words and you’re set for eternity, no matter what you do five minutes from now).

    The task before us is, I think, to re-evangelise current church-goers by clearing away the false notions of what salvation means, what faith means, etc., helping them to come to authentic and on-going conversion, and replacing the sand foundation of “cheap grace” with the solid foundation of Jesus Christ and His Gospel. Only then can we begin to build disciples on that foundation.

    Along the same line, we must retrain our eagerness to get people to “sign on the dotted line.” In the early Church, the catechumenate lasted three years, and included not only doctrinal instruction but moral instruction, educating the catechumen in how the teaching translates into daily life. Only after this kind of instruction was the candidate baptized. So maybe it’s long past time for us (and more especially those in “head office”) to forget about the bloody statistical reports and concentrate on shaping and nurturing Christians.

    Frustratedly yours,
    Fr. Philip

  5. Andrew, I found your piece about choirs fascinating. I was in choirs myself as a teenager so have some idea of what it’s like to work together on a joint project that’s as demanding as singing well. I find what you say about talking through the meaning of the psalms and hymns especially compelling – that never happened in my choirs.

    I wonder, though, about the intentionality of it. What I’m trying to get at is having a clear picture of what discipleship is (which I suspect is provided for us by the Great Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Great Commission), and then teaching people the skills they need to grow in that life. How to pray (individually and with others), how to read the Bible devotionally, what it means to be part of the Body of Christ, how to share your faith with others, how to turn from anger and work for reconciliation, how to be a truth-teller, how to love your enemies and pray for those who hate you, how to handle money and possessions in a way that honours Christ, how to be faithful as a marriage partner and so on.

    I’m sure that a lot of these skills are best taught in an informal, one-on-one setting, and maybe choirs can help make that happen. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who says ‘I was discipled mainly by participating in my choir’; if they did, I’d like to know how that worked, so that I would know how to help make it happen.

  6. Fr. Tim, thank you for replying to me. Your points are well taken; one thing that does not (and probably cannot) happen in the choral setting is the nuts-and-bolts teaching that you describe, the skills we all need such as prayer, Bible reading, sharing the faith. The best we can do in that area as a choir is to sing and ponder Scripture to a limited extent in our anthem texts, and especially the Psalms, and hope that this awakens a desire for more. It has, in some cases. And of course it puts us in church every Sunday; one can hope and pray that some of what is said and done there connects.

    But the choir is most certainly not sufficient in itself; it is more like a doorway.

    I would say one more word about teenagers. Choir is one of the things that can help keep them connected to the church during the years when they can so easily fall away. In my experience, the most important part of this has been whether I can get them as children to attend one of the summer RSCM courses. The ones who do almost all stay with the parish choir right through high school; the ones who don’t very often quit in their mid-teens when they are faced with the choice between choir and Other Things (sports, dance, etc.) as the time demands in these things grow more intense. An example: we have a thirteen-year-old newly-voice-changed baritone who is all of a sudden six feet tall. He was already athletic, and his size has the basketball coaches drooling. But, having been to a couple of RSCM courses and through them grown committed to choir and the church, he told his middle school coach this fall “I will be on the team, but I will have to miss the Wednesday afternoon practice; I am in church choir.” The coach lets him do that. Part of it is that I am willing to be flexible; when he has games on Wednesdays, that takes precedence. And there are a few others who are with the choir seasonally — one little hockey player, for example. He does hockey during the season (which at his age is about two months, and all of their matches are on Wednesday nights) and he sings in the choir the rest of the year.

    But we have lost others when they turn thirteen or fourteen. With them, I hope that what they experienced while they were with us planted seeds that may bear fruit elsewhere.

  7. I hasten to add that with the teens as well as the adults, choir alone is not sufficient. Our young basketball player is going to need more discipleship training that what I can give him. And that is a big question. Our parish is very good with children, but at present not so good with teenagers. They are big on good times (e.g., diocesan ski trips), not so much on content. Some of that may change with our new D.C.E., who has that on her radar.

  8. Hi Tim;
    i share much of your anxiety about the Church and her primary mission. My own attempt to figure this out, at least my part in it, is that one cannot disciple a church. At best I think one can disciple a small group with the intention that those discipled in this way will ‘do likewise’. Such a philosophy of ministry then calls for a radical review of our practices.
    For me this means intentionally concentrating on discipling relationships. Rather than trying to find times we can get together for meetings I try and find times I can spend with my friends. As the relationship grows and deepens times for coffee and meals together happen organically. We wind up sharing life together. Robert Coleman’s simple book “The Master Plan of Evangelism” has been very helpful to my thinking.
    I realize this methodology is easier in my context than it may be in a more structured setting. That is probably your creative challenge.

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