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Archives for August, 2020

By Micah Cobb

I first learned about discipling and discipleship from a conversation with Gailyn Van Rheenan, Mission Alive’s former Executive Director. In my first conversation with him, he told me about Mike Breen and 3DM’s approach to ministry.

I studied Breen’s Building a Discipling Cultureover the following weekend. The framework and insights contained in Breen’s writings excited me. Discipling was a way to further invigorate my ministry, providing a channel for spiritual formation, leadership development, and evangelism. 

Of course, any ministry would be blessed by a strong discipling culture. But anyone who tries to create and nurture one – something that multiplies beyond your own individual discipling-making efforts – knows that a discipling culture is more elusive than it appears in the books. 

For nearly eight years, I’ve been discipling college students as a part of my college ministry efforts. Alongside teaching the Word of God at our weekly gatherings, it’s my favorite part of my job. And I have seen tremendous fruit from it. Most of the students in our ministry are involved in discipling groups. And many would say that their discipling group is the most formative part of our college ministry. 

But creating and sustaining a discipling culture is difficult, and I imagine that each ministry will have its own unique difficulties. When I initially tried to implement Mike Breen’s ideas into my ministry, I ran into many difficulties. 

First, the timelines are different. Breen’s material, and a lot of material from other sources, is built around a full year. In college ministry, though, the timeframes are compressed. Each semester is about fifteen weeks long, most students are enrolled for two semesters a year, and most students spend four years in college. So, a discipleship curriculum that lasts a whole year won’t work well in college ministry; it’d take two academic years to get through the material. 

Second, student leaders are still immature. In college ministry, what passes for a wise and mature leader is a twenty-two year old. Of course, I love working with college students, but even the best student leaders have little experience and are still developing wisdom. Immature leaders slow down discipling group multiplication. 

Third, students come from diverse church backgrounds. In many cases, the student body of a campus ministry attends different congregations around town. The campus minister cannot assume a shared theological vision or even shared ministry practices, other than what the ministry can teach and practice itself. Discipling within campus ministries often has to worth in the midst of great theological diversity. 

Finally, working with emerging adults is challenging. Maybe it is not harder than working with other demographics, but it is still hard. Social media use distorts real flesh-and-blood relationships. Social anxiety is on the rise. Financial pressures are increasing faster than student debt load. And let’s not even talk about the polarization and confusion on political and social topics! So fostering discipleship among emerging adults often feels like an uphill battle. 

For all these reasons and more, creating and sustaining a discipling culture has been difficult. My ministry has switched approaches, structure, meeting frequency, and curriculum many times. But the college environment is so different from that assumed in many books on discipling that it is hard to find an effective approach. 

And so, I am grateful for the leadership and vision of people at Mission Alive like Tod Vogt and Steve Shaeffer. A few months ago, they gathered several campus ministers together and facilitated a discussion about our discipling efforts and the challenges we are facing. Since then, several of us have partnered with Mission Alive to do qualitative research on discipling in the context of a campus ministry. Each of us is coming up with a hypothesis to test, and Mission Alive is helping us construct an experiment this year to see how that hypothesis goes. 

My hypothesis is simple: I have noticed that the social networks of the girls in our ministry seem to be narrower but deeper than the social network of the guys. My hypothesis is that the discipling groups amongst the women would be improved if the size of the groups were smaller. Right now, our discipling groups tend to be four to six people. That has worked well for our guys. This fall we will experiment with our discipling groups for our women to be two to four people. We’ll see if our discipling groups work better when they are smaller. 

I am excited about this opportunity to be guided by Mission Alive in testing out new approaches to discipling. In my opinion, every ministry and ministry context is different enough that any structure or system that works somewhere else has to be adapted to the current context. And I suspect that other campus ministers will have different challenges with building and sustaining a discipleship culture than I currently face. But the goal is to foster relationships like Paul encouraged in Philippians 3:17: “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.” And if those of us in leadership continue to contextualize our approaches to discipleship within our own unique situations, we will do a better job of building such relationships. 

For more information, you can reach out to me (micah@au4jesus.org) or Steve Shaffer, one of Mission Alive’s Mission Specialists (steve@missionalive.org).

The Sonoran ‘Wilderness’

This post is an exercise in “thinking out loud” as we read the Bible. It is a reflection on Matthew 4.1-11.

The Gospel of Matthew proclaims to today’s Gentile church, “Ya’ll cannot have Jesus without the Hebrew Bible and Israel. Ya’ll cannot have the person of Yeshua without his DNA. In fact Jesus, according to Matthew, is Israel in a very real sense. We see this clearly as Jesus is tested in the wilderness.

In Jesus’s baptism there is a voice that says “this is my Son” (3.17). These are words that had been spoken to the “son of David” for centuries as each son of David was anointed as King (Ps 2.7). But the reader of Matthew already knows that Jesus is the son for just a few short verses away the narrator quoted scripture, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (2.15). This is a quotation from Hosea 11.1 which speaks of Israel coming out of Egypt. But Israel is God’s son, “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go that he may worship me” (Ex 4.22-23).

God’s son went through the water. God led the people with a pillar of fiery Presence into the wilderness. God fed the people the bread of angels. Moses ascended the mountain and fasted forty days and nights before receiving the torah to proclaim to Israel. And God’s son failed. Instead of worshiping “me” (Yahweh), Israel worshiped the Golden Calf.

This story is ingrained in Jews in Jesus’s day. The Torah was read through every three years. It is narrated in Exodus. It is preached in Deuteronomy 6-12. The Feast of Tabernacles takes Jews symbolically back to the wilderness and highlights Psalm readings that speak of listening to Yahweh, avoiding “strange gods,” and proclaims Yahweh will personally feed “us” the finest bread (Ps 81). The story forms a critical part of Psalm 78 which ends with the Davidic king faithfully leading God’s people. And it forms a critical part of the Wisdom of Solomon. Israel failed.

Israelites in Jesus’s day were very conscious of the fact that “we” (our ancestors and ourselves) have failed. When the reader of Matthew comes to chapter 4 and hears (and they would hear it rather than read it) what is happening it is like a deja vu moment: here we go again, will Israel fail? Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for testing. This recalls the Pillar of Fire, God’s visible presence. In Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach the Pillar that guides Israel is the dwelling and throne for God’s personified Wisdom (Wis 10.17; Sir 24.3-4).

Moses taught that Yahweh led Israel into the wilderness to “test” Israel’s hearts (Deut 8.2, 10). But as it turned out, Israel is the one who put God to the test. The test regards mere food.

They tested God in their heart
by demanding food they craved.
They spoke against God saying,
‘Can God spread a TABLE
in the wilderness?
(Ps 78.18; cf. Deut 6.16, my emphasis).

They did not believe God could, or would, feed them. The problem is hit on the head in Ps 78, “they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power” (78.22). It is no accident that the first testing by the devil is after forty days of fasting (like Moses) and focuses upon food. Jesus knew this story, just as every Jew did. He had been in the wilderness during Tabernacles before.

But the story is not really food beloved, not in Matthew not in Deuteronomy nor in the Psalms (78 or 81). The story is about trust, it is about faith and faithfulness. Will Jesus/Israel trust Yahweh. The very text Yeshua quotes to the devil, Deuteronomy 8.3 is about both food and trust. The bread of angels was given to human beings to teach them to trust God. Here are Moses’s words, the caps are the quoted part by Jesus.

He [Yahweh] humbled you by letting you hunger [Jesus is famished], then by feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, in order to make you understand that ONE DOES NOT LIVE BY BREAD ALONE, BUT BY EVERY WORD THAT COMES FROM THE LORD.” (Deut 8.3)

As Psalm 78 puts it, God commanded the heavens to rain down manna and “humans ate the bread of angels” (78.25) or as Psalm 81 (read during the Feast of Tabernacles) “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it” (81.10). Will Jesus test God over whether he can put a table out in the wilderness? Or will he trust Yahweh to command and the angels will deliver food to him. Will he trust in God’s saving power? Will Yeshua be the full of faith Son that Israel never was?

The last test follows this Exodus story as well. Israel bowed and worshiped false gods in the Golden Calf. The devil promises what Psalm 2 promises, the inheritance of the nations. The “Son” is supposed to inherit the nations (Ps 2.7-9). Jesus can be King yet. Just “fall down and worship me” (4.9).

But Jesus, who has been living in the Story listens to Moses. He is the faithful son. Jesus’s retort is “worship the Lord and serve him only” quoting Deuteronomy 6.13.

God called his son, Israel, to worship him. Instead Israel made a calf and bowed before it. They did not trust in Yahweh. Jesus will do what Israel failed … he will worship and serve God only.

Jesus relives the Story of Israel in the wilderness. It is a familiar story for every Jew. Our ancestors failed to be the loyal trusting Son. But Yeshua, the Son of David, will trust, he will be faithful, he will worship. He will lead the people … as Psalm 78 closes with (78.70-72).

It is not without significance that Matthew ends his testing narrative with the strange to Gentiles words, “then the devil left him and suddenly the angels came and waited on him” (4.11). Jesus/Israel did not stumble in the wilderness and God did in fact spread a table in the wilderness and the angels “waited” on Jesus. They brought the bread just like God rained it down on the faithless Israelites to take care of his Son.

We too are invited to live in the Story each day and be faithful sons and daughters. Just some thoughts.

By Sam Garner
Vice President for Spiritual Development, York College

Though York College sits in the middle of the Great Plains, our students regularly arrive here from over twenty states and at least a handful of other countries. They represent a wide array of cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds, which contradicts our otherwise rural Nebraska setting. Because of this diversity, our student body relocates to York each August with an array of stories, representing the intricate contexts that have formed each of them. Our college’s mission is “to transform lives through Christ-centered education.” From the moment I arrived on campus five years ago, my primary task has been to consider what an intentional process of discipleship that leads to transformation entails on our diverse campus.

After I arrived in Nebraska, I quickly realized that most of our transformation occurred in informal experiences, which can be powerful. For example, students’ close relationships with faculty, coaches, and other students can lead to deep, ongoing conversations about faith. Similar to other small schools, York College fosters an environment where people on campus develop tight bonds with each other. These relationships offer the students immense opportunities to grow as disciples. Relying on informal experiences, however, is not enough. We do not possess enough faculty and staff to form deep relationships with each of our students. Also, despite our best efforts, mentoring relationships alone are limited. Our students’ diverse backgrounds create barriers that we as faculty and staff cannot always overcome through informal relationships. 

I joined a Mission Alive cohort because I sought to address the lack of an intentional discipleship process in my own ministry context. What I discovered was that I needed to be discipled myself if I was to cultivate a movement in my own context. Each week last fall and winter I gathered with a group from around the country and sought to discern both the presence of God in my life and how I might adequately respond. This was not a foreign concept to me, but it was the first time that I received continual accountability and encouragement to make necessary changes. In my discipleship cohort I discovered a safe, yet challenging environment to pursue my own growth as a Christian with intentional purpose. 

This past January I led four different cohorts at York College. These groups were intentional opportunities for our students, and some faculty and staff, to discern their response to God’s presence in their own lives. No matter the cultural, racial, and religious background, each participant was able to develop important rhythms of spiritual disciplines. I have sought to establish the same safe, yet challenging environment of my own cohort experience for the diverse group of participants here. A few of the students, and a faculty and staff member, will begin training this fall to lead their own cohorts. We have discovered that when we expect God to be active in our lives and seek him through consistent rhythms, then we can begin to process together how our diverse stories are becoming a part of God’s story.  

If participating in a group like this interests you, all you need to do is go to Mission Alive’s site and read more about their Discipleship Cohorts. They are making a difference!

“You’re unlikely to get everything you want. That’s a good thing, because wants are part of what define us.

It’s entirely possible that you’ll get most of what you need, though.

The trick is in being clear about what you put into each category.” – Seth Godin

Isn’t that the truth. Our wants are an outgrowth of our identity and the things we are likely to take action on.

If we want to see the lost saved, that displays part of our identity and will move us to reach out, plant churches and make disciples. We would be asking what sort of things are we doing that are barriers to reaching the lost? Then we would remove them because we want to reach them so badly.

If we want to keep everything exactly as it is (wanting security and stability) we will make every effort to make that happen and that displays something about the inner quality of our life.

Take a good look at your wants and consider what kind of person has desires like yours. Consider if you are ok with, not just the desire itself, but the identity beneath it all.

By Diane Reynolds

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”  

2 Corinthians 3:18 

Are you being transformed? I want to be transformed. I long to be transformed. I pray and plead to be transformed. Looking back on my life, I certainly see the work the Spirit has done in me, so why do I doubt that more change awaits me? Yet, I do doubt and am always looking for new ways to put myself in a place where the transforming power of God can work in me.   

My invitation to join a Mission Alive Discipleship Cohort came with some pressure. Of course, I had a choice, but it would be awkward to refuse the invitation, so I willingly enrolled. 

I began the Discipleship Cohort like I do most things that are meant to help or change us, with a great deal of skepticism. I was going to meet on Zoom with five other people, none of whom I knew, and talk about personal and spiritual things. This did not seem like a recipe for deep, meaningful change, but I was in for a surprise.  

Despite my skeptical personality, I committed myself to the process from the beginning. I would do the homework, test the ideas, and lean into the personalities. I was surprised to enjoy the first session. I admit to holding back a bit; my story was not nearly as transparent as others. Honored by the honesty and trust, I was immediately committed to protect and support them. I was no longer just in this for me.   

Very quickly, the group seemed familiar and safe. A place where personal things could be safely shared. A place of encouragement and thoughtful input, but also a place of hard questions that required soul searching and brutal self-honestly. A place of accountability where each person shares their spiritual goals for the week with the expectation that someone would inquire as to their results. 

For most of my life, there has been a deep longing to know God, to hear God, to experience God with all my being. But my fellowship, dedicated to scholarship and trusting only in tangible things, had discouraged my quest for emotional and spiritual experiences as part of my faith journey. When the leader of my cohort began to speak of mystical things, mysteries unsolvable by human knowledge and experiences beyond understanding or explanation, I was intrigued.   

Working through the weekly assignments with a renewed confidence that God had much to teach me and reveal to me, I began to find new peace and joy in my prayer and scripture reading. The suggestions for new ways to pray, interact with scripture, and listen for the voice of God were welcome, and I was eager to try them all. 

It is not easy; the questions posed are challenging. If taken seriously, they require soul searching. But herein lies the path to spiritual transformation. 

Mentoring, or discipling, others does not come easily to many of us. While we may have the love and commitment required, we might lack the skills. The Mission Alive Discipleship Cohort is a tried and true process that is easily learned and replicated. If a person commits to work the process, they will experience change. But, more importantly, each participant will be exposed to a process that is easily replicated. 

If you long for continued spiritual growth, I encourage you to try a Mission Alive Discipleship Cohort.

Diane Reynolds 

V.P. of Finance 

Halftime

Mission Alive is one of our sponsors this month. We appreciate their support. We have an ad on the right side of this site to point you to the good work with discipleship and church planting Mission Alive is doing. I hope you will click that link or the one in this article to check out what they are doing!

By Craig Cottongim

The direction this article is taking: Address why church planting is more relevant now than ever in recent history, why many plants fail, clarify what a church plant is, and discuss the nitty-gritty of church plants.

Why planting matters now

With the Covid-19 crisis, many churches will run low on funds, fold their tents and shut down, but there will still be many believers and ministers with a fire in their bones who want to see the kingdom of God continue to expand.  The traditional format of a church owning property and having a fulltime, fully loaded staff is waning and has been at risk for decades.  

The future of how churches are structured and operate is fluid, and it will look different in 10 years than it does today.  Many churches, even those with 200 members or more will see an increase in having a bivocational staff.  Giving is down,  based along generational lines, and many churches face shrinking budgets.  Therefore church plants which can streamline, simplify, and operate with a minimalist structured format will become, more and more, a better option over time.  Church plants can operate on a smaller scale, with less financial resources, and they can generate more enthusiasm than an established congregation.  

Also, many people in and out of church are disillusioned with how established churches have handled their resources and people.  They long for something that feels more authentic and real.  They aren’t looking to their churches for where to have funerals and weddings, or where their kids can find alternatives to sports.  People want to make a difference and be a part of something that gives them a sense of belonging and purpose, and they aren’t finding that in declining churches who argue “over the color of the carpet.”  

We are entering, or have entered, a day and age when planting churches is necessary to replace congregations whose doors have closed, and to open doors to people who wouldn’t necessarily visit an established church.  I see this transition in how the church will look sort of like when we moved from horse & buggy to the automobile, but now somewhat in reverse.  Imagine a world where we no longer had paved roads, and cars pretty much became obsolete, you would return to horseback rather quickly.  That is what our landscape reflects in the realm of church and ministry, we have plenty of automobiles, but the roads are washed out and unnavigable.   

Nothing compares with starting off with a clean slate and pursuing a God-given dream to reach lost people.  But, after the dust settles and the new wears off, nothing can prepare you the cycle of the highs & lows either…. 

Why plants fail (and the overwhelming majority do in the first few years)

There has been a lot of ink split over how to launch a church plant, but the reality is there is no “one-size” fits all church planting formula.  There are many books & seminars on church planting, but don’t depend on those resources too much, if you do you won’t last long.  Many plants fail because having consulted their resources and 3-ring binders, they only see the need to raise money, find a location, aim for the attractive bells and whistles, and generate the initial excitement of a launch… without a vision for the future or comprehending what church plants should eventually become.  

Your church isn’t a carnival, it isn’t a slip & slide park, it’s not an outdoor concert venue or an inflatable castle in the park.  The old axion, “What you win people with is what you win them to” is extremely applicable in planting a church.  Fads, gimmicks & tricks are not synonymous with evangelism and they will not sustain your church plant for long.  You are doomed from the start if you think your plant will grow when you base it on anything less than a Christcentered community.  

Find your niche and reason for planting a church that goes beyond what you are against or what you don’t like about other churches in your region.  Plants fail because their vision of ministry was limited only to how everyone else was doing it all wrong…

Also, planting a church is a lot of hard work and seemingly unrewarding work.  It gets lonely for the leadership team and there are plenty of feelings of being unappreciated to go around for everyone.  For example, talk about boring, think about filling out the paperwork for your 501 c3 exemptions/status, drafting your articles of incorporation, and building your website…

Church plants also fail when conflict goes unresolved, just like in an established church.  The difference is, in a church plant you experience magical-thinking that deceives you into thinking you’ll never disagree with your “dream-team.”  Sometimes, core members work overtime and never rest, and they experience compassion-fatigue which wears thin on patience, which is a tinderbox for conflict.  Share the load and keep an open line of communication.  Your leadership team needs to spend time relaxing together, playing games, going out to eat, and talking about other things in life other than just the plant.  

The independence of a church plant comes at a cost, and people forget to count the cost until it’s too late.  For example, your relationships with former churches and members will be strained, especially when members or extended families are separated by “loyalties” to one congregation or the other.  Your reputation will be on the line too, people will question your motives and methods.  None of the planting process is ever easy.  

What usually kills a church plant though, is contentment.  When the dust settles and the hard work seems over, people slow down, they invite less friends, they back off in participating.  Planting a church is hard work, the hardest perhaps.  

What is a church plant?

When a church of 500-1000 peels off 100-150 members and relocates their “team” to the other side of town, that’s not a plant.  That’s a transplant.  By the way, some of the largest and most successful multi-campus churches are paring down their multiple locations and restructuring to accommodate members at their central campus.  When you get angry and leave your “home” church with the rest of the correct members to start a church, that’s not a plant, that’s a spant (split-plant).  

“It’s easier to birth a new body than revive a dead corpse” – Anonymous

A church plant is when a group of believers establish a new congregation.  They might own a building, rent a school gym, or meet in someone’s basement.  They might have paid-preachers, they might have a crew of volunteers.  It’s doubtful your community “needs” another church, but they probably do need a better/contextual church that can reach your community more effectively.  

The nitty gritty, down and dirty…

Most of church planting isn’t glamorous and it doesn’t reflect what you’ve read in a seminary textbook.  It doesn’t take long to discover there’s nothing beneath you, from setting up chairs in a rented space to picking up donuts for worship.  Soon, you’ll be delivering groceries to people who hear about you, you’’ll be serving in your local foodbank, running errands for people who can’t afford a car, and you’ll help out in a soup kitchen run by people with polar opposite theological views.  

You’ll be a cheerleader to the troopers who helped you launch, a promoter of your church in your town, a vocal recruiter, and chaplain to any local group who needs you, what you won’t be for long is super excited.  Planting churches is exhausting and it’s mostly uphill work, one step forward and two back.  Yes there’s forward movement, but it’s not all peaches and cream.  And eventually, your church needs a new identity beyond being a “plant.”  When the dust settles and you pass a certain threshold of so many years, you’re no longer a plant, you’re just a plain old simple church.

Also, you’ll find more ministry will take place in your small groups and informal settings than in your temporary space where you gather.   One of the biggest drains on your energy and time will be “Sunday morning,” which is fine, but the return on your efforts will more than likely be from what happens during the rest of the week.  

Even though in a church plant you can do whatever you want, there are no traditions you have to worry about violating or established ways of “how we’ve always done it”, you don’t do whatever you want.  Church planting teaches you to respect people in ways established church ministry can’t.  Suddenly (picture in your mind those Forest Gump memes “just like that…) contemporary and traditional struggles evaporate.  You see the need to blend music genres and topics, for the benefit of the whole body, not just those you “want to” reach.

A church plant doesn’t need anyone’s approval or acceptance to be authentic, quit looking for permission to begin a very biblical practice.  A lot of church members think planting a church is exciting, but it’s not for them.  Hogwash.  I think everyone should participate at least once in a plant.  It will stretch your faith and hone your skills.  It requires a deep trust in God, an ability to hear the whispers of the Holy Spirit, and a desire to see people experience Jesus in new and fresh ways.  

PS: One piece of advice I want to pass on as far as preaching is concerned to a church plant.  I know most of us feel Exegetical/Expository preaching is the only authorized style of preaching, i.e., Book by book, chapter by chapter — that’s fine and has its place, but not in a plant.  Topical preaching becomes the best form of preaching in a church plant because your audience is shuffled from week to week.  Even your team will be in and out of the worship service, and expository preaching will increase the difficulty of people following your trajectory.   Topical preaching is more flexible, adaptable, interesting,  and it can be relevant to whatever the current situation is with an audience that is shifting from week to week.  

Craig Cottongim, Minister at New Song Church, Kingsport TN

craigcottongim@gmail.com 

Teach sound doctrine?

Worship correctly?

How about plant more churches? That’s what I am talking about. If we don’t plant more churches, we are effectively gone in 30 years.

99.9% of churches don’t last 100 years. Most of our churches are 60-80 years old. That means, if we don’t plant new churches we are gone in 30 years.

We aren’t planting enough new churches. We are averaging less than 20 per year, which pales in comparison with how many churches are dying each year.

We need a “Walk This Way” moment where church planters and established churches work together and pool resources to start new churches.

If we don’t, we die. Simple as that. I don’t mean to start August on a downer. I do want to get your attention.

This month we will have articles from church planters, church planting trainers, church leaders, etc on the blog, podcast and YouTube. Buckle up and start praying for revival!