Discipleship: Does Location Matter?

Frank Viola contends organic churches are the most natural place for discipleship to occur.

What do you think? Does location matter? Does context matter?

One of the most striking observations I’ve made over the last 21 years is how disciple-making operates in an organic church compared to a more traditional/institutional church. Those who stress the importance of discipleship today take their cue from Jesus’ exhortation to His disciples to “make disciples of all the nations”
(Matt. 28:19).

Yet a significant followup question to that commission is rarely asked—namely, how did the 12 make disciples? The answer is telling.

The 12 didn’t set up discipleship classes or programs. They didn’t put one Christian above another in a hierarchical chain of command. They didn’t create accountability groups or unmovable regiments for observing spiritual disciplines. Instead, they planted vibrant Christian communities all across Palestine. Likewise, Paul of Tarsus made disciples by planting Christian communities throughout the gentile world.

To the early believers, Christian community was the only discipleship “program” that existed, and it was sufficient.

My point: The way the 12 made disciples was the same way Jesus madedisciples. To wit, Jesus lived with a group of men and women for three and a half years. During that time, they shared their lives together under the headship of Christ. Jesus, the 12 and some women all experienced authentic community with Jesus as the center of their community life.

In the same way, the men whom Jesus commissioned planted authentic Christian communities all across the world, and within such communities, disciples were naturally made. Those communities were organic rather than institutional.

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  • Patrick Hare

    With respect to ecclesiology, the organic movement has a very selective and myopic reading of the New Testament, and a complete lack of engagement with the history of the early church. Although there is an “organic” quality in Paul’s earliest epistles (Corinthians, Thessalonians, written in the 50’s), by the time we get to the pastoral epistles (Timothy, Titus, written in the 60’s) Paul is laying out the requirements for elders and bishops and charging them to appoint them. (See I Tim 3:1-10, Titus 1:5-16).
    Without the ruling of the council at Jerusalem, many “organic” churches might still require circumcision of all converts. Established leadership was required to determine which missionaries were authentic bearers of the gospel. (Acts 15:22-34)
    The super-apostles and gnostics could be considered to be “organic” churches. It was the authority of the apostles and overseers that ruled them unorthodox and heretical. Without the institutional church we would not have the creeds, the Trinity, or even the New Testament canon.
    Eugene Peterson puts it well.
    “Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.
    So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.”

  • What is an organic church, though? Sounds like a catchphrase. Informal churches can be or become quite institutional and habit-bound. Traditional churches can envelop and disciple. My 65-year-old husband and I just moved to the big city and are looking for a church to belong to. We met and married in a small nontraditional evangelical campus church, settled in as Mennonites for the last 25 to 30 years or so, and are now looking at a Mennonite church, several sort of emerging types, and at least one that is majority African American (we are very pale). That last one is remarkably hierarchical considering it is unaffiliated and has only about 50 people in all, but it also gave us the warmest welcome as visitors. The emerging organic types seem, until recently at least, to treat us with benign neglect, like we must have wandered into the wrong place, or be visiting our kids. But what we want is to be at home somewhere, learning, and useful, and not necessarily with a bunch of people our own age It’s a lonesome business, sometimes. And it makes me think about what is the best environment to be Jesus people.

  • I’m going to assume that Viola means things like emerging churches, movements such as Vineyard or House churches when he talks about Organic churches.

    My experience of this (and I do attend and get involved in a Vineyard church at University, so I speak out of some awareness) is that such churches are often built around the personalities of one or two strong leaders and therefore lack the ecclesiology that sustains a church and protects the people in a church.

    Yes, in the short term, discipleship can often be ‘better’ than in some exhausted denominational churches which are inhabiting a survival-mentality. But I think there are far greater risks too – if the strong leaders move on or are found morally culpable, then the church often disintegrates, frequently with negative results on the people in the church.

    Likewise, in such a top-down model, there is a lot of potential for abuse of power and for discipleship to become manipulative (and there are things to this end that concern me in Viola’s discussion – things such as “headship”, which often becomes a shorthand for a type of discipleship that is short on grace or oppressive)

    The type of theology that undergirds ‘organic churches’ is often a romantic “Acts 2” type theology – looking back through rose tinted glasses to a better time when the church was pure. This, I fear, is ultimately unsustainable in the long term.

    And to make the case for discipleship in the institutional church: for me, the centre of discipleship is the Resurrection and death of Jesus Christ and being baptised into a community that gathers around his body and blood in the Sacraments.

  • Scot: Thanks for the shout out, bro.

    Kim and David: The phrase “organic church” has become a clay word of sorts these days. It’s been molded and shaped to mean very different things by different people.

    By it, I’m not speaking of an emerging church or a charismatic church or even a “house church” (as typically understood). I’m speaking of something quite different.

    I use the term to refer to a shared-life, face-to-face community that lives by, expresses, and is under the Headship of Jesus Christ together. Out of that communal living by Christ, a certain expression will naturally emerge with certain features. (In short, I believe the church we find in the NT was organic.) If the church is a spiritual organism rather than a human organization, then it has an organic expression. However, we can smother that expression by imposing foreign elements to it whereby it’s not recognized or easily seen. So it seems to me anyway.

    I’ve expounded on what an organic church is and looks like here: http://frankviola.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/what-is-an-organic-church-a-plea-for-clarity/

    btw/ David, I only use the word “headship” to refer to the Headship of Jesus Christ over/against the headship of fallen humans. I’m a fierce advocate of the former.

    Hope that helps.

  • Pamela

    For me, discipleship is not done at the congregational level, it is always one on one or very small groups 2-3 people. My best intentional discipleships happen almost casual like. A good example is the man I am intentionally discipling now–I brought him to the group of people who were painting and putting together our church float for the Christmas parade-Here a project painitng, hammering became the community in which he observed us working and playing together. Later he commented to me on things that were said, some good, others not so good. I held my breath when one member got injured and I hoped a slew of profanities would not come out, but instead he yelled, “someone pray this pain goes away”. lol.. whew… Discipleship organically seems to happen in these moments and most definetly over cups of tea at Tim Hortens (Yes, I am Canadian). I aslo do not have a romantic view of Acts 2 as David has suggested some do. I don’t see the early Church as pure back then. I see it as messy, scary even and although they “had no needs”, they of course did, hence, prayer and community continuing. As a pastor of a church I often get pulled down the “program” road and I fight it. I try to serve them as one of them, as there sister. Recently, in sermons I have briefly mentioned my struggles like the fact I work too much and a few have begun to say. “You are very real to me, I like how you are not so righteouss”. Not sure if that will be good in the long term, but organic starts with me being transparent and them knowing discipleship nevers ends for me or them when Jesus is at the centre of all we do including flipping pancakes for Shrove Tuesday!

  • MD

    Discipleship can happen in any setting. It is a matter of the heart,not the head. I believe it happens through relationship, not programming.
    Is the setting one where discipleship (to Jesus) through relationship is recognized as important? Then, in my opinion, it can and probably will happen.

    (It’s interesting to me that Patrick [#1] values the authority in the institutional church setting, and David [#3] objects to the authority in the organic church setting, while Kim [#2] mentions authority with a more neutral comment. I believe one of the core issues which must ultimately be resolved is the question of appropriate organizational authority [as well as the question of individual responsibility = discipleship] in any local church setting.)

  • Location does not matter, but it can happen in a location. Programs do not produce disciples, but a program may be used in the Making of Disciples. A disciple can be made in the presence of community or in the lack thereof. There is nothing wrong with a class setting as long as there are many field trips as well. The disciples may not have had accountability groups, but for certain they were accountable to one another.

    So many neglected the School of Tyrannus and its implication in Disciple Making.

    It is entirely to easy for us to polarize on how Jesus made disciples without clarifying how Jesus told us to make disciples.

    The participles of means in Matthew 28:19,20 Going, Baptizing, and Teaching, are the means by which disciples are made.

    Great Blog post! I will repost this on Making Disciples on facebook.

  • Glenn

    Ed Stetzer – “Why do most churches stay small?”

    Darrin Patrick: Largely because most pastors don’t know how to build systems, structures, and processes that are not contingent upon them. Most pastors can care for people, but don’t build systems of care. Most pastors can develop leaders individually, but lack the skill to implement a process of leadership development. When a pastor can’t build systems and structures that support ministry, the only people who are cared for or empowered to lead are those who are “near” the pastor or those very close to the pastor. This limits the size of the church to the size of the pastor.”

  • Kaye

    “What is meant by organic church?”
    I believe Viola’s answer would be something like “an organic church is a group of Jesus followers who are discovering how to live by Divine life together and who are expressing that life in a corporate way.”

    Regarding the idea of organic church being built around the personalities of one or two strong leaders, I think that Viola would say pretty much the opposite.

    But as to the question at hand about disciple-making…
    Ideally disciples CAN be made in either setting – organic or institutional. However, a common mistake can also be made in both settings – the assumption that discipleship is “automatically” happening without having any mechanisms in place to measure whether that is true – or measuring by the wrong criteria. For example, many pastors tally the number of disciples by class attendance records or participation in a certain program – which can reinforce the notion that discipleship is simply a matter of information learned. Instead, disciples are made through living life together, a sense of intentionality, and a deliberate commitment to be authentic and to follow Jesus and to obey His mandate to make disciples. That commitment may require a willingness to make sacrifices of time, energy, privacy, etc.

  • I’m new to Viola’s thoughts, but one of the interesting things I found in defining organic church is that it is lay led. No paid leaders is how I remember reading it, though my memory might be faulty.

    If this is true, then I would be concerned in limiting discipleship to a best situation in that context.

    It seems that people who are open to new ways of practicing faith are more attuned to discipleship as something more than just a program or class. So maybe that is what Viola is pointing to.

  • Well said. I would add that a disciple can be made in a limited communal context as well, such as when a missionary goes where no Christian community exists. God is with the discipler, making the disciple. The more community, the better, maybe, but discipleship happens outside of broader community as well.

  • I realize this is only my experience and anecdotal, but I’ll share it anyway.

    I’ve been part of an organic church network for the past five years and have grown more in that time than I have in any other church or ministry setting.

    My husband and I recently left our existing simple church to start a new one. We gathered a group of people we knew who weren’t churched and have been meeting together for the past 4 months. I am often tempted to believe nothing is happening. I am tempted to impose a structure on the group be it a leadership structure or an order of worship or curriculum or whatever to “make something happen.”

    My growth these days is coming through resisting that temptation and letting Jesus be the leader of our group. It requires more discipline and trust in him than any other ministry I’ve ever been involved in.

    I know I’m growing, and I trust that the others around me are growing, too.

  • MikeK

    Quick thought from a quick read of the Viola article (and thank you for the link!):

    a) While the social structure in the NT of teacher-disciple was common in Israel, what makes disciple-making by Jesus so intriguing is the Kingdom of God. Before any discussion of social location, programmatic concerns, context, or a perceived waning of faith commitments needing a program, let’s attend to Jesus, his lordship, and what follows from who he is.

    b) While the notion of “organic church” has some attractive elements regarding social location and a perceived-lack of local leadership, I’m with some of the others commenting here: relationships will make or break the development of any of us as followers of Jesus.

    c) Context is both a magnetic and mitigating factor, and plenty of “ink” has been spilled about such. I’ll take one slice of this context on here, as it also serves to reflect back on to the discussion.

    This slice I am referring to regards cultural similarity, but I am not referring to ethnic similarity. Neighborhoods, university campuses, and military bases would be examples of people of cultural similarity: possibly, this gathering has some attractive qualities that would contribute to discipleship. The contrast would be the persons from outside the gathering attempting to belong, and experience transformation.

    The point being that such a gathering has both a local calling to “work out their salvation” and a global summons “to make disciples of all nations.” And that is where the challenge lies for discipleship in context.

    I’m guessing that some have already commented on the last question, and would hypothesize that cultural similarity (context) would/could be superceded by the gathering or the content or other suggestions: of which it might be possible, but I would reject the idea that context could be denied.

  • Discipleship is a posture; an attitude to follow Christ and to intentionally engage in service to Him and the Church. It is a life-long journey of learning, growth and development that fosters the fruit of the Spirit within, and manifested without.

    This can happen anywhere. Life is the atmosphere of discipleship making, wherever that may be. We all learn differently, so different contexts, i.e., small groups, larger congregation, etc, and various methods are equally valid and important. The organic church model is but one of many models that serve to aid the church to reflect the One we serve.

  • Authentic Christian community – being the body of Christ – is a wonderful blessing. So in different ways, I can agree with the conversation we are having here and what everyone is sharing.

    In the midst of the discussion of the quality of body life, however, to me it’s useful to note that there have been many examples of authentic Christian community throughout the centuries of church history. In each case what defines “quality” for that community differs.

    What’s interesting to me is that, for many of these definitions of quality community throughout history, there is little or no change in quantity. Christians gather, form into a community, bless each other, and continue for a short time or a long time.

    Some expressions of quality in Christian community, in other words, also increase the quantity of disciples. All communities seem to gather disciples … but some make disciples as well without any diminuation in the quality of the community.

    That’s an interesting difference to me and one I want to learn more about how it happens among God’s people.

  • tscott

    To me, Calvin’s genius was ecclesiological. The Geneva model stood the test of time for Protestantism. And it was salt for this planet. Contrary to popular belief, he asked followers to adapt to the environments in which they found themselves. This speaks most directly to location.

    Wesley, when asked questions “of the church”, led to Ephesians 4. This will put any Christian in context.

    It does seem ecclesiology is being re-examined, when church is considered on the continents as it is today. More than a genius for community, or a biblical basis, organic church seems to me in the Whitehead idea of “organic mechanism”. Discipleship is process oriented.

  • Discipleship happens best on the street, not in a church of any type.

  • Alan K

    Organic vs. institutional is a false antithesis. Any community that gathers on a Sunday and then gathers the next Sunday is an institution. Human existence is mediated institutionally.

    That said, institutions are fallen in that they move toward governance and operation that ensures survival. Older, mainline (or, as said above, “traditional”) churches suffer from years of this movement towards decision making for the sake of preservation.

    Indeed there are pluses to the so-called “organic” models of church community. How the community participates in one another’s lives tends to have a greater attentiveness to Christian formation via discipleship (also called mentoring or Spiritual direction, or perhaps most appropriately, friendship). But there are also drawbacks. A professor of mine in school who had ministered in an “organic” community would refer to its worship as “the world’s greatest amateur hour.” The freeing from tradition can also be a poverty from lack of tradition.

    I do not think location and context are as important as theology and praxis. If we believe our message (and in believing actually living it), discipleship will inevitably happen. Our affections will become the affections of our Lord. Our habits and choices will reflect God’s victory.

  • Alan K. This gets back to defintions. The article that Scot exerpted wasn’t written in a vaccum. It’s an extension of a larger body of work, namely “Reimagining Church” which is a theology of church as organism vs. church as business/hierachical organization.

    In that book, I point out that a handshake is an “institution.” (This is how you’re using the word.)

    However, by institutional church I’m referring to “one that operates primarily as an organization that exists above, beyond, and independent of the members who populate it. It is constructed more on programs and rituals than on relationships. It is led by set-apart professionals (“ministers” or “clergy”) who are aided by volunteers (“laity”).” -taken from “Reimagining Church.”

    The point of the article (http://ptmin.org/ministrytoday.pdf) isn’t about location (as in place), but about habitat (as in spiritual context).

    An organic church, as I use the term, is a living, breathing, dynamic, mutually participatory, every-member functioning, Christ-centered, communal expression of the body of Christ that gathers under the Lordship and Headship of Jesus Christ.

    This is what I argue to be the proper habitat for the believer in which to live, move, and have our being. It’s also the reason (I believe) that 1 million Christians leave the institutional form of church per year. And 1700 pastors leave the clergy system per month in the U.S. Many of them aren’t leaving Jesus Christ or the body, they are seeking what their spiritual instincts are crying out for.

    As Reggie McNeal put it, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.”

    An organic church has an expression, just as one’s physical body has an expression. It passes through seasons. And it’s identifiable and visit-able. But the source of its expression is from the Life within it (its DNA, as it were), rather than from foreign elements imposed upon it from without.

    Interestingly, the kind organic church life experience I’m talking about is not at all what your professor described. Quite the opposite actually. Though I’ve seen many “house churches” fit that description over the years.

    This gets back to the term “organic church” being a clay word that’s used to describe many different things. Sometimes *very* different things.

    I hope that clarifies more than it confuses.

    Have a blessed weekend.

  • Alan K

    Frank. Thanks for your reply. It does clarify several things. I’ve gone back and read the pdf and now have a better sense of the nomenclature you utilize.

  • @david #3, vineyard churches are less about any form of practice than they are about the core principles, available through vineyardusa.org. Form theoretically follows function in the Vineyard movement, and a top down institutional church is practiced at many Vineyard churches, supposing it follows the function needed for that community.

  • jon

    Although what Viola proposes is commendable and in some ways biblical, my only question is, “what authenticity are we seeking really? Is it simply being confined to the way things were back in the biblical days or are we to simply fill in the blanks where the bible seems silent, by that I mean in how we do discipleship?” I think we cannot restrict ourselves to the age old model but seek ways to enhance our understanding of changing times or context and seek biblical wisdom to ground how we do things. To me we have to be open. Although Viola proposes we conform just to the “biblical” pattern, how would we really know how they actually did discipleship? All we have are patterns not constriction. The bible is more open than the vision of the organic Church. In a way, the organic church is advocating their own brand of “institution.”

  • Jon, great question. The authenticity that all of my work points to with respect to the church and church practice is Jesus Christ known, experienced, and expressed in reality and the fellowship of the Godhead.

    Organic church life is all about knowing, expressing, and living by Christ (His indwelling life), making Him visible via the every-member functioning of His body and in shared-life community.

    Christ is the pattern. Not a template lifted from the Bible. (I call the latter “biblical blueprintism,” and I critique it in “Reimagining Church.”)

    Here’s one place where I develop the idea that organic church life is all about Jesus Christ. He is the “authenticity,” the reality, the center, the occupation, the motivation, and the driving force and life: http://frankviola.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/deep-ecclesiology/

    I hope that helps.

    Have a great weekend.