The Refocused Church

If our focus is to attract people – we will entertain them, but if it’s to raise up disciples – we will train them. There is actually nothing wrong with being attractive – Jesus was extremely successful at attracting others and large crowds would often walk long distances just to get a glimpse of Him. But Jesus wasn’t focussed on ‘bigger audiences’ – He was focussed on raising up effective disciples – and we the church need to check if our vision is blurry.

A number of years ago I trained up youth pastors and helped match them with churches who were looking to employ one. On hearing that a particular church was saying farewell to their long standing youth worker I phoned the church leader and asked if he was looking for a replacement – his answer surprised me….

‘We’re not taking on another youth worker! We have invested so much through our youth workers but when the young people get older they just leave us. There is just no point.’

I understood his frustrations. Despite years of running brilliant youth programmes they had no young adults and concluded that youth ministry just wasn’t bearing sufficient fruit – but I needed to point out an awkward truth to him. I said that in all my years of working in schools, I had never met a head teacher who was dispondent because their pupils kept leaving them – instead they celebrated such moments and considered them to be graduations not failures.

In the conversation we explored the reasons why their older young people were leaving the church – the main one being that they were moving away to study at a range of universities. The church wasn’t failing at all and I’m sure many of their former young people went on to follow Jesus in their new localities. But if I go back to the school analogy, can you imagine what would happen if schools or colleges made it their aim to keep hold of every pupil and prioritise becoming the biggest school in the area rather than being the best training centre. I think they would:

Lose their urgency

Currently schools have a set period of time in which to install a basic set of competencies – but take away the expected graduation date and it is likely that some teaching is going to end up being deferred

Lose their purpose

Each stage of their education is designed to build a foundation for the next stage – eventually leading towards them making their mark in the world through a career. Take away this process of progression and they will meander. Instead of working progressively towards a career, school will be a place they simply try to survive.

Lose their effectiveness

There are some very large and effective schools but they all know their size limits. I’m not aware of any school that has an infinite number of available places because if they did they would likely spend much of their focus and energy on continually facilitating growth rather than on effective teaching. I have come across brilliant and not so brilliant large schools. I have come across brilliant and not so brilliant small schools – the issue is not the size – the issue is whether they have the infrastructure to facilitate a brilliant learning environment.

Lose their place in society

If schools indefinitely keep hold of the pupils then the world loses its workers. They are meant to be sent out to shape and reimagine the world rather than staying in overcrowded classrooms to simply imagine it

What about the church?

Have we lost our urgency?

Yes! I remember speaking with a UK church leader who had seen a number of people join them from a country that has few churches. They welcomed and invested in them over a number of years and their numbers continued to grow – but suddenly many of these people announced they were returning to their home nation. The church were saddened but lovingly sent them out before deciding to start rebuilding all over again. A similar pattern emerged in the following years as new people from the same nation joined them and they rejoiced at this gathering flourishing once again. But dejavous struck and it felt like the majority announced they were returning to their home nation. The leaders felt defeated and were close to giving up – but then it dawned on them – they had the privilege of working with people coming from this gospel needing nation for around three years. They decided to refocus and planned a three year discipleship and training programme that would make the most of investing in their lives in this limited window. As a result of this new mindset they discipled those who later joined them and as a result numerous new churches have been started in that gospel needing nation. Lord wake us up with a sense of urgency that we may train and equip the saints as disciple makers!

Have we lost our purpose?

Yes – we may have clever vision statements but so many people in our church communities don’t know their purpose. I remember hearing of a highly trained psychiatrist who had a burden for his church to develop some innovative responses to their communities mental health crisis. He had the skills, the vision and the heart to serve God – what do you think his pastor suggested in response to his offer of help? He asked him to join the Sunday coffee rota. Now thank God for the Sunday coffee rota and all who serve others this way – but this story illustrates just how insular and focused we can be on our inward activities at the expense of releasing people to fulfil their bigger purpose. Lord wake us up and sharpen the understanding of our purpose.

Have we lost our effectiveness?

Yes – it is all too easy to join a church and be unchanged by the experience. If we were pupils in a school it is likely that many of our parents would have been called in to discuss our lack of progress and application – but a lack of discipleship growth is acceptable in churches. Lord wake us up from our slumber and stir our hearts to grow as disciples who make disciples.

And what about our place in society – have we lost that as well?

Yes – and I don’t necessarily mean in regards to seats of power or influence – I mean we are largely removed, disengaged and preoccupied. We’ve become so comfortable in the ‘classroom’ that we have little desire to apply ourselves outside of the bubble. Lord wake us up and shake us out of our comfortable inward focussing lives and communities.

A refocus will birth a reformation

Churches are of course more than training places – they are also communities, places of healing and places of worship. But there are way too many people sitting in both small and large churches who are not progressing in their discipleship journey and church leaders have been all too comfortable with this as long as people keep attending activities. Surely a refocus is needed. This will involve a prioritised commitment to discipling and commissioning people to engage with new gospel adventures – and inevitably some of these adventures will involve some farewells as people venture to start new communities of mission in villages, towns, housing estates and cities. We need to refocus on discipleship – which can be boiled down to two words – ‘hear’ and ‘obey’ (see short video below for explanation of this).

By all means let’s enjoy gathering, let’s have fun together, let’s serve one another. Let’s have large churches and small churches and every size in-between – BUT let’s equip one another to fulfil the purposes of God. Let us train and not just entertain.

Here is an uncomplicated video that introduces the simplicity of discipleship – I recommend you take a few minutes to watch it.

My previous blog ‘Humble Yourself Western Church’ seemed to strike a chord with many. I believe its provocative and challenging tone has a prophetic message and some have asked how I can reconcile this in my particular context of leading a large contemporary city church. It’s a great question and the honest answer is that we have and are actively processing this prophetic challenge – working hard behind the scenes to posture our lives and ministries in light of this challenge. We are on a journey and I hope that capturing this through these blogs will be a help to others at this significant time in the world.

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