Church for the “Next Christians”? … A request for advice (RJS)

Last week I put up a post, based on my own experiences and the suggestions of Gabe Lyons in his new book The Next Christians, with the premise that the focus of church and the understanding of the role of leadership within the church needs to change. The local church is and will remain at the center of Christian community. It is essential for worship, for sacrament, for fellowship. But the work of the local church, the work of the pastor of the church, is not to lead or cast vision or draw people in, but to equip, disciple, and send Christians out.  Clearly this requires an educated and dedicated clergy with training, leadership skills and vision, but the focus of the effort changes in a subtle yet profound way. When the purpose is not to accumulate followers and bring them into the pastor’s vision as replaceable units in a larger plan for mission in the local church but to equip and disciple them to spread the gospel in their own spheres of influence, value judgments about certain kinds of programs and approaches change dramatically.

How to move forward, though, is a big question. This brings me to a letter I received posing exactly this question. The letter is reproduced below with permission, only slightly edited. As you read it consider the questions raised.

How can the vision of church change?  How can a pastor establish a culture within the church that equips and enables Christians?

The letter:

I read your most recent entry at Jesus Creed and it really struck a nerve with some things I have been thinking about.

I am about to enter seminary. I hope to be one of those well-trained and talented pastors and teachers you said we still need. But I am still very much trying to discern what that role will actually look like. I belong to ___, a conservative ____ denomination doing a lot of church planting these days. My father-in-law has been a minister in this denomination for longer than I have been alive so I asked him about the role of the pastor. His answer was like a quotation of what you called the “old” model of pastoring. He said you need to be a leader, cast a vision, be able to draw people to yourself and form them with good preaching. Hmmmm.

I liked what you said about how pastors are not the only ones doing “real” work for the kingdom. I agree with your big-picture, that pastors should be more focused on their congregation and preparing to send them into the world rather than attracting more people from the outside in. However, isn’t this also a vision that needs to be cast for the people and preached with power? I don’t know many people, let alone whole congregations who see themselves as doing front-line restoration when they walk out the doors. And, especially as I think about a small denomination that is doing lots of church-planting, does that change when you are trying to start things from scratch versus an existing congregation?

I guess my question is What does this look like? I am not a charismatic leader who draws people around his vision. Does that mean I can not plant a church? What is the concrete difference between the pastor of an old culture centered on church and a new one centered on mission? Is it just content or is the praxis and skills needed fundamentally different?

thank you for your time.

I have some ideas on the questions raised in this letter. But my perspective is limited. I am not a pastor, and have never been involved in church leadership. Planting a church is hard, many if not most, fail. So first,

If you are a pastor …

What advice do you have for the letter writer?

What skill set is necessary and what does a church that equips and empowers look like?

From my perspective as a scientist and a professor in a secular university, life-long Christian, the emphasis on a charismatic preacher who draws people in often leaves a chasm between life in the church and the life of the Christians outside the church.  Good preaching is important – but it is not enough. It does not, and perhaps cannot, provide the resources for everyday life in a predominantly unChristian world.  Good preaching is “one size fits all” and inherently impersonal.  And this has consequences. One of the comments on the earlier post put it very well  “I’m limping along on the metaphorical battlefield, not being half as vibrant or effective as I could be …

It seems to me that the two most important characteristics of a good pastor, one able to equip and empower, are (1) a deep love for and appreciation of the whole Gospel, and (2) a deep love and concern for the people in his or her congregation.

One of the most profound stories I have heard was of a pastor of a fairly large church who would, every Saturday evening, go into the sanctuary of the church, stand in various places and pray for the people he knew would (usually) be sitting in that place. The focus was on the people and the power of the gospel for these people as important individuals. Such a focus cannot help but transform the emphasis of the church in subtle and important ways. This, perhaps, is the beginning of the way to cast a vision that equips, disciples, and sends Christians out.

For those of us who are not pastors ..

What do you think is needed to equip, disciple, and send Christians out with the power of the Gospel in your sphere of interaction? What would a church that equips and empowers look like?

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  • Susan N.

    From someone who is not a pastor, but is carefully considering what it means to “be” the church, and a healthy church at that, I discovered some very helpful blog articles by Dan R. Dick at ‘United Methodeviations: Rethinking Church in the 21st Century’.

    This one —

    — describes a range from total disaster to best case scenario, with the caveat that at any given time, all possible x,y expressions can and will co-exist in a church in varying degrees. The goal would be for the positives of “productive” passion and “comfortable” (engaged/engaging) relationships to be the predominate expression of the church.

    I like this one also —

    — for what is essential to be a healthy church, “inhale” AND “exhale” or you will grow faint!

  • Here’s my advice for the letter writer:
    1) Take the tools they give you but forget the form of the past – unless you want job security. If you’re committed to building the Kingdom rather than job security (ie. big attendance, good & regular salary, retirement, etc.) you need to meet the approaching culture with the Good News that’s not based on a government, education or business model. Anyone who is willing to invest in relationship with God and people can do this, extrovert or introvert, great speaker or just o.k. speaker. Believe in God, believe in people and show them that anything is possible with God. Most of all, be sure this is what you HAVE to do because there will be a thousand reasons (Xs infinity) that will come along to talk you out of it.

    2) Skill set. 1) Ability to resist the temptation to give people what they want (a king, a priest, a guru, a father, anything or anyone that they can turn their own responsibility to live, love, think and follow over to.) 2) Communication: the ability to listen twice as much as you talk and to put into words and pictures the heart of God and the Kingdom for which we’re living. 3) Patience: this won’t happen overnight. Somethings can and will but the big picture of a new system will take a long time to become ‘natural’. 4)Faith: that what you can’t see will become visible one day. 5) Most of all – Love.

  • Richard

    I think the biggest thing is modeling discipleship in your everyday encounters and bringing your people along to watch, then having them do it while you watch, and then having them do it on their own. That’s the sort of multiplication that anyone can do.

    People need to see you sincerely living under Christ’s lordship and inviting others to do the same.

    And the sermon can be a big piece of the puzzle by upping the ante and allowing the Biblical witness to challenge and shape the congregation and the pastor.

  • Tom

    I agree with Brian M in what he says. As I am learning first hand right now, it is extremely difficult to lead in this way at a 100+ year old church that is used to the pastor doing everything, and that mostly still thinks in the paradigm that says we need to bring people into the church. Slowly some people start to get it, but some people will not be able to make the shift and will leave.

    I am convinced though that calling people to know, love, and follow Jesus is the only way for a church to survive. And like Brian said, believe that God can do the impossible, and ask him to do it. After all, it’s his church, not mine!

  • I just spent two days last week at a church transformation event hosted by our church for our presbytery. One of the key things they emphasized was the 3 dimensional nature of the church:

    Doxological – Glorifying God
    Koinonial – Grow disciples
    Missional – Meet human need.

    We do all of these when together and all of them when dispersed. Drawing on the nature of the Trinity, they are separately identifiable but inextricably connected.

    What I hear you saying in this post is that the Church has ignored the missional aspect in favor of the first two. (And we might even wonder if personality cults have been substituted for really doing the first two.) I’m in agreement with that.

    However, I think it is an overreaction to lift up the doxological and the missional to the near exclusion of the koinonial. That is what I hear from many who are saying they want to be missional. There is also on overreaction against structure. By analogy, I have a backbone. It is structure. Without it, I would not function. But I am not essentially a backbone. My backbone is what makes the ongoing functioning of my body possible. The answer to those obsessed with structure is not to runaround pretending we can live without structure.

    You wrote:

    “It seems to me that the two most important characteristics of a good pastor, one able to equip and empower, are (1) a deep love for and appreciation of the whole Gospel, and (2) a deep love and concern for the people in his or her congregation.”

    I would say a deep love for God, a deep love and concern for the people, and a deep love for the whole gospel. But I would add that “pastor” literally means “shepherd.” The pastor is to be doing the vision thing. There is no such thing as generic people in generic contexts generically doing mission. The congregation is always a particular community, made up of particular people, in a particular context. That requires discernment and the pastor is to be offering leadership in that discernment of call and vision, both for the gathered community and for individuals. That is not to say that the pastor does this alone but that the pastor plays a unique role.

    Where I really resonate with your post is in the recovery of seeing our daily lives are integral to God’s mission in the world. Balancing debits and credits, running chemistry experiments, assembly appliances in a factory, and rearing children in the home, are just a few of the particular ministries to which we have been called through human vocation in Genesis 1. The Kingdom of God involves a king, subjects, and a domain. The notion of “saving souls” truncates the Kingdom to king and subjects. Salvation includes souls, but it is also about redeeming the domain, and all that happens within that domain, as well.

  • Michael – It seems like an extraordinary leap from “shepherd” to vision. Could you expand on how one man/woman having a ‘vision’ for everyone else to conform to is being a shepherd in the biblical sense?

  • Susan N @1

    Interesting article. Back in June of 2005, I wrote and article in the Presbyterian Outlook called Respiratory Failure in PC(USA). The question “Which is more important to you … inhaling or exhaling?” is one I use constantly here, at my blog, and elsewhere.

    Glad to see this imagery is emerging elsewhere. It is very powerful for me as I think about not only the church but a whole range of things we too often process in binary terms.

  • Travis Greene

    “Clearly this requires an educated and dedicated clergy with training, leadership skills and vision”

    Can we back up to that premise? Because it’s not clear to me. Oh, all those things are important. Essential even. I’m just not sure why it needs to be “the clergy” who does those things. (Okay, maybe the education part. It’s good to have someone who can be a resource to the community and a bridge between the academy and the local church.)

    I hope the next pastors, one of whom I hope to be, will learn to give away power rather than accumulate it.

  • I have been a church planter and pastor for several decades. Fads and trends come and go. The corporate leadership model and its talk of casting a vision is one of these. But the unchanging heart of leading is knowing who we are, what we really believe, what our guiding principles are that we have worked out for ourselves. Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve is the book that has helped the most.

  • And I should have added: Knowing what we really value.

  • #6 Brian

    Just to be clear, I explicitly said that discerning vision is NOT something the pastor does alone.

    No metaphor is every completely the same as thing it illuminates. Pastors are both shepherds and sheep.

    Pastors should be those who are devoted to study of the Word, to prayer, and to the welfare of the whole community in ways that others are not. Actual shepherds call sheep to themselves. They guide them to places of food, safety, or rest, based on particular needs for particular contexts. They offer vision and direction about what comes next.

    Pastors are also sheep. They are not super-sheep. They are errant mortals like everyone else. Furthermore, human sheep think, discern, and pray as well. God gives discernment and direction to the community. I’m saying the pastor plays a unique role in leading the discernment of vision and in keeping the vision before the people.

  • Alan K

    Advice I’d give: Sooner rather than later look into the mirror with all seriousness and ask “Do I believe this?” Continue to do this every day. Then, when learning to prepare and give sermons, look into the mirror with all seriousness and ask “Do I believe what I proclaim? Do I believe that proclaiming the gospel actually has power to win the world? Or do I pray as if everything depends upon God but actually minister as if everything depends upon me?” Then, read other pastors who asked themselves these questions in one way or another: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, etc. And then read enough Eugene Peterson so that you are convinced he is your best friend.

  • #11 Michael Thanks for that. I find conversations about “vision” often have us all talking about two different things. Sadly, many have experienced THE pastor who has THE vision for the church and the church exists mainly to fulfill that vision. Interesting CEO approach, crappy church leadership approach.

  • Phillip

    For what it’s worth:
    1. Preach and teach the whole counsel of Scripture. Don’t revolve around select texts that support a pre-determined or narrow vision. Seek God’s vision (or mission) and join that. The discernment of that vision should arise from the congregation and not from a pastor alone.

    2. Help church members see that we are all part of the body and the mission of God.

    3. Break the spiritual/secular divide for Christians. Help them see that we are doing the work of God whether we are doing “church” activities or going about our jobs or caring for our families or loving our neighbors. As long as we see certain activities as the “spiritual” ones (ministry, mission work, Bible studies, etc), we will be probably be content to let the “spiritual” ones among us do that work. Darrell Cosden’s “The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work” is helpful in this respect.

    4. Having said that, I do think providing opportunities for service to others, esp. those in need, is helpful in forming us into Christ-likeness. Such service is not more spiritual than other aspects of our lives, but it is a way of mediating the blessings of Christ in our communities. Of course, such service does not have to be a formal church activity.

    5. Take the focus off quantifiable results. The goal is faithfulness not numbers.

    6. Pray, pray, pray.

  • rjs

    Travis (#8),

    It seems to me that the leaders in the church need to have a vision for what can be accomplished through the gospel, to equip and disciple with this in mind.

    A pastor without vision, or leadership, or wisdom will not be able to put the package together to disciple and equip.

    This doesn’t mean accumulating power; in fact it means the opposite, it means a focus which at the core gives away power … this I think is servant leadership. The focus is on what can be accomplished by others, through the power of the spirit; it is not on what the pastor can accomplish.

    I am not sure I am making my point clearly, but there is a change in focus here that I think we need and will need even more in the future.

  • Dr. G

    Why should we worry about building the church to suit the “next” Christians and instead build it as suited to the “first” Christians by the Holy Spirit? I mean, “pastors” as the Christ community’s elders, qualified per 1 Tim. ch. 3 and Titus ch. 1, leading by example (1 Pet 5:1-5), with the likelihood of several per community (Acts 20:17 ff, Phil 1:1), instead of a single person operating as CEO? If the shepherds will feed the flock true food and defend it against the wolves in sheep’s clothing, both evangelism and church growth will take care of themselves irrespective of the fads of the generations.

  • Albion

    Kruse # 5 said: Where I really resonate with your post is in the recovery of seeing our daily lives are integral to God’s mission in the world. . . . The Kingdom of God involves a king, subjects, and a domain. The notion of “saving souls” truncates the Kingdom to king and subjects. Salvation includes souls, but it is also about redeeming the domain, and all that happens within that domain, as well.

    I like this alot but I don’t think we aren’t redeeming the domain so much as inviting otheres into the domain who now live as if God didn’t exist. Which I think is why we’re taught to pray for the kingdom to come even though it’s already here in a decidedly imperfect form.

  • Albion

    oops. are for aren’t.

  • “What do you think is needed to equip, disciple, and send Christians out with the power of the Gospel in your sphere of interaction?”

    That Christians one another, and I mean, really love one another from the heart. This means that we have love on our faces and in our words just as much as we are known by our love on account of our deeds.

    But in order for us to love one another as Christ loves us, we have to love his truth. Because what we believe always leads to what we love and what we love always leads us to believe more deeply in that thing we love from. If we love a lie, we live a lie. If we love a Jesus that isn’t real (a Jesus that isn’t found in Scripture) then our love isn’t real and won’t be real.

    Love the Word, love Jesus. Love Jesus, love the Word. And if we love Jesus, we will love each other and if we love each other we will authenticate what the Lord Jesus died for before an unbeliving world.

  • I’ve heard things like this before, and realizing the limits of any image, share the following thoughts:

    The task of any shepherd is to increase the size and health of the flock under their care.

    The saying goes: The only way to get more sheep is for the sheep to reproduce. This is something the shepherd can facilitate but cannot do … the sheep have to do that.

    The shepherd manages the environment so that it is possible for the sheep to reproduce.

    The shepherd, as the flock grows, needs to find more shepherds. They can reproduce those … as they invest in raising up other shepherds who will care for the flock. 8)

    The Good Shepherd is Jesus … he raised up 12/120 (depending on how you count) shepherds … who were always on the look-out for those the Spirit was gifting to join them.

    But it is true … we are shepherds who are also sheep. And so Jesus became man and dwelt among us … so that we should see how humans care for each other under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    It is really about cHesed: looking out for the best interest of the other, according to the covenant. The trick is to discern what is in the other’s best interest, eh? This is why this kind of vision-casting, etc., is something that requires more than one set of eyes or ears in order to discern as fully as possible what the Spirit is saying….

  • Dana Ames

    I like what Brian, Michael and Peggy said.

    What I would throw into the mix as a “big picture/background” concept would be:

    Discern and resist dualism.


  • Liz Klassen

    Michael Bird recently posted a video clip on his blog of N.T. Wright giving his advice to new pastors:

  • Matt Edwards

    I think the most important element in training people to be restorers is that they be restored themselves.

    Pastors need to study the Bible and teach it.

    They need to pray and teach people to pray.

    They need to worship God and teach others to worship God.

    They need to love others and teach people to love others.

    That’s also what NT Wright was getting at in the link in #22.

  • DRT

    I am not a pastor, but I have seen some of church and lots of business leadership to have a few comments.

    First –
    I can’t see how the “be a leader, cast a vision, be able to draw people to yourself” model is in any way appropriate for church. Yes, be a leader. But cast Jesus’ vision and draw people to Jesus. I have had the chance to participate in a church that followed the old model and in the end it is the church leader that is the focus of attention and that is a path to destruction. The church pastor I observed confused himself with the mission and in the end (end for me at least) was unwilling to entertain any ideas other than his own. Wrong approach.

    There are many managers out there in the world who look at their employees as people who are there to support them. People who are there to implement the leader’s vision and accomplish the leader’s tasks. Then there are managers and leaders who view their job as subordinate to the employee’s. They are there to empower, improve and help the employees in accomplishing the mission and vision.

    It seems the old model falls into the people are there to support the leader camp. But the opposite is the truth in church and in should be the truth in most businesses, the leader is there to support the people in their pursuits.

    So I agree with rjs’ equip and empower concept.

    Second –
    Rjs said “It seems to me that the two most important characteristics of a good pastor, one able to equip and empower, are (1) a deep love for and appreciation of the whole Gospel, and (2) a deep love and concern for the people in his or her congregation.”

    I think the key in this is to define the (2) more precisely. Some will say a deep love for the congregation is doing everything for them, being codependent. I anticipate that there are a fair number of codependent pastors out there and that is not the way to love them. Or loving them is having low expectations of them.

    My experience is that people have a tendency to live up to level of expectation placed on them. Expect them to be leaders, independent disciples, transformers and mission focused and they will. Don’t do it for them, watch them do it.

  • As a former pastor and church consultant, I have seen this debate between “gatherers and equippers” for about 40 years now. Any church worth its’ Matthew 5 salt (and light) is trying to do both. I’m in a group right now with a bunch of young people and seminarians and here is my advise:
    1 – Don’t invest your life reinventing the form of the Church or the worship service. We are wasting literally millions of man hours (not to mention the dollars) spiffing up the worship service to media perfection. Invest your life in people who will invest their lives in people…. The first question I ask any pastor is “Who are you meeting with weekly and why?” You would be surprised at how many say “No one.” The only want multiply disciples is to do it yourself as a lifestyle and model it.

    2 – Using the massive ammounts of time saved from polishing programs for church members, develop effective service ministries for the community to mobilize your people outward. They don’t share their faith, because they don’t see people like God does. Our church not only has a food pantry, we build actual relationships with the unemployed, homeless and under employeed. We run, Job’s for Life, which requires a staff of 10 to 15 people to help 7 to 70 “students” graduate and find actual jobs. Things like this provide real world experience in both serving and sharing faith.

    Hope this adds to the discussion….

  • J. Pat

    I’d recommend reading Reimagining Church by Frank Viola and answering the guide questions he provides regarding such an office as pastor, as we see it today in the institutional church.

  • Susan N.

    Tom @ #25 – I like these thoughts. The Venn diagrams used to illustrate the various blog post topics at your site are awesome too! Deep concepts illustrated in simple, clear words and images. Sometimes we do need someone to draw us a picture! Thank you — I’m going to read and ponder these more later 🙂

  • #17 Albion

    Jesus is King. All the earth is his domain/territory. Some have chosen to become his subjects. He is at work bringing into his Kingdom all who will come. In that sense, I agree.

    But I tend to include the mores, laws, relationships, and social structures that make life in the domain work as part of “domain.” I think that is in need of redemption as well. I didn’t make that explicit.

    I suspect we are saying nearly the same thing.

  • rjs

    Tom McGee (#25)

    I agree with you on #1. The investment needs to be in people as individuals.

    I am not in so much agreement with #2 though, and this is part of the point I was trying to make in these last two posts. Church programmed service does not mobilize the people outward. In fact too much church programmed service can stifle and inhibit the outreach of the body of believers in the church. It is too “top-down” in approach.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do think that churches should be involved with things like homeless shelters and food pantries and such. And I think every Christian should be involved in some kind of service to people. But the people of a church are a heterogeneous mix of individuals with different occupations and different callings and different opportunities. We need to take advantage of this broad range of gifts and opportunities.

    One of the examples that Gabe Lyons uses in his book is Rick McKinley’s church Imago Dei in Portland OR. According to Gabe the church intentionally doesn’t pull people out of their natural environments, but empowers people to get involved in their local environments. It seems to me that this needs to be the focus.

  • rjs,

    I agree completely. Your approach to service – being with God, with people, for their benefit – needs to fit your community. By community, I mean both the people in the Body and the people in the physical area, as well as your joint relationship with God. God often gets left out The key is getting people to see their world the way God does. Imago Dei is a good example of this attitude from what I have heard!

  • AJ

    It seems to me that people need to be equipped in the area of conversation and friendship. A LOT of people do not know how or are afraid to take a surface or intellectual (not the same thing) conversation to a deeper or heart level. I would like to see (and help!) the church equip laity in what I like to call intentional friendship- that includes a foundation in biblical/theological understanding of relationships and the gospel as it applies to living a grace-filled, love over fear kind of life…in conversation and deed. This is one way we need to equip people so they can be authentic and consistent whether at a church service or in the world.