Discipling Over Programming
by Rob Haynes
Christ Wesleyan Church
I’m Sorry I Didn’t Make Disciples Sooner
I come to you today with a confession:
I failed to take seriously the command of Jesus to make Disciples. For too long, in my three decades of ministry, I ignored the simple and direct command of Scripture to make disciples who will make disciples. It wasn’t on purpose. I thought I was doing a great job, but I now know that I was woefully deficient.
Alongside this confession, I am hopeful, more so than ever. I am convinced, more than ever, that our denominational heritage of discipleship in Classes and Bands, the original Wesleyan/Methodist Small Groups, is the answer for the current and future church. However, for nearly thirty years I missed that message. As I said, it was not a sin of commission, rather of omission. Allow me to illustrate.
I began serving in ministry in the mid-1990’s. The prevailing model of ministry at the time was to build great programs. If we built a great program, then many people would come. Some of them might return. They would get involved in another program that might keep them connected to the church. A few of those would go a little deeper and might lead another program. You get the idea: we were taught to program so that we could build a program that would build programs.
Allow me to brag just a moment: I became good at building programs. I could build something that could get people to come out and even some of them would return. As a youth pastor, I created events for students after football games that attracted hundreds of teenagers. I put together some great mission trips to some cool places. As an associate and lead pastor, I replicated these practices with adults. The names changed, but the methods were the same.
However, I am not sure I made many disciples. When I look at the mandate of the gospel, I see several things pointing me to make disciples, but nothing about occupying people’s time with programs.
This may seem a little harsh. It may even seem foolhardy to some people. You may be reading this and thinking that I am crazy for not wanting to attract people. However, I have found that if we spend all our time in ministry merely trying to attract people according to the current whims of the culture, then they will merely move along to the next thing that catches their attention.
I was confronted with this reality in a couple of conversations when I was a youth minister.
One day, I ran into Anthony walking into church on a Sunday morning, guitar in hand. Anthony was an influential teenager in our church. He was a talented musician, a leader in his school, and was friendly and outgoing. I asked him if he was coming to the really cool thing that I had planned for next Saturday. I can’t even remember what I had programmed, but it was another way of keeping people busy at the church. His reply cut me to the quick: “I’ll come if I can’t find anything better to do.” Ouch! This was one of the key people I expected to see there! If he wasn’t going to come, I was in trouble.
The second was with some parents of the students in my ministry. On a Sunday morning we were talking in the Sunday School hallway in between the worship hour and the Sunday School hour. They were lamenting that their teenage children were not coming to church. Their conclusion was this: With absolute resolution parents should get their teens out of bed and bring them to church! Then it hit me: of the three or four families standing before me, none of their teens were in church that morning. When I asked why this was, they each sheepishly offered half-hearted excuses of tired children or over-programmed schedules.
The church, and me as their minister, was not offering anything different than what they were getting anywhere else. I was just putting Jesus’ name on it. Much like retailers competing for market share, I was competing for the attention of teens with forces that grab their attention much better than I could.
I wish I could tell you that I learned my lesson immediately. Oh, if only. However, I succumbed to the pressures of these forces for several more years in ministry. If you serve in ministry, maybe you have seen it too. It takes on different shapes depending on the place and target age groups. It can look like “Caring Ministry”, “Pastoral Care”, “Age-Level Programming”, “Men’s Breakfast”, or even “Sunday School” and “Small Groups.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the church being a center of community activity or with providing fellowship for those who are facing loneliness, isolation, or disenfranchisement. However, we must be cautious not to confuse programmed entertainment with discipleship. And the Church’s primary role is to make DISCIPLES, not to merely entertain those who show up.
I did not learn this soon enough. I continued to make the mistake of following the whims of my church members. They wanted to be entertained, and to put the church’s name on it. Sure, we talked about the Bible. We talked about Jesus. We enjoyed one another’s company. However, I seldom saw life-changing ministry happening. I blamed many things, but rarely the right thing: My failure to make more and maturing disciples.
So, at this stage in my ministry, I have decided to put all my energies into disciple-making over programming. In the church we planted a few years ago we have made this the key focus of everything we do. This, by no means, reduces the role of mission or evangelism. Rather, just the opposite. Because I do not treat them like a programming audience, it means that I am not solely responsible for mission or evangelism. It means I am learning to walk with people as they discover the Holy Spirit’s desire as to how they should serve in faith sharing with others. The best way I have seen to do this is right in the middle of our heritage as Wesleyans as demonstrated in the Class and Band Meetings.
Let’s face it: the Church is facing several challenges today, challenges from which the Wesleyan/Methodist movement is not immune. I do not fear for the future of the church. Rather, the global and historical witness of people committed to discipleship gives me hope.
The GPS/SatNav in my car gives me an important reminder about this hope. When I lose my way, it tells me that it is time to “recalculate” and get back on the road heading the correct direction. It is time to get back on the path to which God has called us: to make disciples, not merely comfortable and entertained church-attenders.
This is my confession. May You, O Lord, have mercy upon us, spare those who confess their faults, restore those who are repentant, and grant that we may hereafter live a godly and righteous life. Amen.