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?