Once Rev Edmund Chan had put it so aptly, he said that many people tend to think that the world is in crisis and the church is in need, but in actual fact, the church is in crisis and the world is in need. But it really takes humility to acknowledge this. Some churches would not admit this for many reasons. One, not all churches are in crisis. Some are thriving and growing very well. Two, we have our regular members attending the churches every Sunday and people are either in Sunday classes or cell groups or even both. Three, no church is perfect. It will be too pessimistic if we fix our eyes on the negative side. We should focus on the positive. How then is it possible that the church is in crisis today?
I would like to share some wrong assumptions. First, a church which is growing in numbers is a healthy church. But this may not always be true. Many church-goers may just be nominal Christians. I have also heard people going to a big church because there is no need for accountability. If a church starts a funding program to help educate the children for example, people with their children will start flocking to the church. There are also people who are paid to respond during altar calls for big rally so that the church can get more foreign funding. You see the same people attending different rallies and accepting Christ again and again.
The second assumption is that if members are regular in church, either Sunday school or cell groups, mean that the people are spiritually healthy. While it is better than them staying at home, we need to know that many people attending church today may be spiritually weak. Today with the advance of technology, some are just doing their own things with their smartphones and not listening to sermons. Sunday schools are also imparting more knowledge than transforming lives. Some cells have also become a place to pour their woes on each other rather than building each other up in the word of God. There are also people who share their own faulty interpretations of the Bible and the leader just keeps mum, out of respect or he does not know the answer himself. The latest faulty interpretation is about the claim that our late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has received salvation saved because of the age, the day and the time he died. They concluded that Mr Lee is saved because he died at the age of 91 which they relate to Ps 91 that he is now in the secret place of the Most High. Mr Lee died on 23 March, so they related it to Ps 23 that the Lord is now his Shepherd. Mr Lee died at 3:18am which they claimed that it is related to Ps 31:8 that the Lord did not hand him over to the enemy. This message that has been passed around is rather worrying.
Third, highlighting the negative side of the church is bad. Just seeing the negative side is obviously bad, but that does not mean that the church need not deal with the negative and just focus on the positive. It is just like burying our heads in the ground. There are obviously weaknesses that the church needs to strengthen and issues we need to address.
If we check the statistics, the state of the church today would be even more worrying. We would know that many people in the church do not fully believe in the Bible. There are also people who do not read the Bible or pray. Right now, the LBGT issues have even changed the constitution in churches and some nations. What causes this crisis? I would humbly suggest two reasons here due to constraint of space.
Neglecting personal discipleship
While I was in Thailand, I realised that the churches are very strong in fellowship. They have a lot of programs to involve people and bond people together, but they tend to lack in personal discipleship. When I came back to Singapore, I found the same problem. We tend to leave discipleship to discipleship class or Sunday school, but the focus of these classes is usually the impartation of knowledge. The teachers hardly have the time to disciple and guide the students personally. This problem has a further implication. Churches with weak personal discipleship usually have leadership succession problem. As a result, the same old leadership are stuck with their roles without enough leadership renewal. Gradually, people who are not ready or equipped are being put up to serve as leaders. Secularism also slowly crept into the church and diluted the Gospel. Holiness becomes distant.
Focus on management and funding
As the church increases in size and structure, more time is needed to manage the church. There are more committees and thus more meetings. More funds are also needed to run the church. This problem is even more pronounced in churches in the third world countries. They tried their ways and means to network with foreign churches so that they could get more support. Sometimes, they resort to unrighteous means just to ensure people put in their money. But what I want to highlight here is that more time is required for the leaders to handle management and financial issues. Pastors hardly have time to disciple and groom the next tier of potential leaders. Besides, they still have to spend time to prepare their sermons. In short, the time they disciple others is reduced even though they should be the best people to disciple their potential leaders. Some leaders even hand over this most important task of discipling leadership to their lay leaders. They gradually detach from the lives of people because they have too much administration work to cope with. While I was a missionary in Thailand, I noticed that most foreign missionaries are not involved in pastoral issues concerning the lives of people. They just preached with the help of their translators and support the local ministries. They did not know what was happening to the lives of the people they are preaching to. Perhaps, they think that their task is just to preach the word. But to me, discipleship is missing. If we see the model of Jesus or Paul, discipleship is never just accomplished on the preaching level. They went down to group level and ultimately, personal level.
What can we do about this crisis? Firstly, clarify our faith. This is crucial today because many of the church-goers today may not be clear about their faith. They might be following their parents or friends to church or they may be attending church because of some welfare benefits they are receiving. I believe that there is even a need to re-evangelize some churches so that the people know what they believe and follow. Only a person who truly understands the love of God can commit to live his or her life to God.
Secondly, return to the basics. We need to bring back the emphasis of holiness in the church. This holiness must be built upon the Word of God and prayer. But more than just reading the word of God and praying, we need to handle the word of God correctly and pray according to His will. Sad to say, many people who twisted the word of God can preach more passionately and lively. Thus they persuaded more people and drew a larger crowd. What’s worse is that the audience is not able to discern what is false among the truth. They are intrigued by the preacher’s eloquence and entertainment offered. We really need to return to the basics so that we can differentiate between what is true and false. We need to keep secularism and nominalism out of the church. We also need to get rid of the power play and politicking in church so that there is true unity in church. Rather than vying for power, we need to be good team players to accomplish the common vision of the church.
Thirdly, bring back personal discipleship in church. What we need is not more classes or groups but more personal discipleship and mentoring. I also believe that pastors should disciple as many key leaders as possible because they should be the best disciple makers in church. I believe that this is one of the most important tasks that they need to do. They must not think that they are just the planner. The cost of the lack of personal discipleship is just too high for the church. We will have weaker leadership in church. I myself witnessed this in the mission field. Once a bible student graduated from seminary, he is often left on his own to become a ‘pastor’ and is no longer accountable to anyone. No one guides or mentors him. He still fights for power in church, get drunk and even fight. Basically, he still needs a lot of guidance though he had finished his seminary studies. When we wanted to help the churches, their interest is how much we would support them financially rather than how we could help them spiritually. This is sad but it happens. We need personal discipleship so that we can guide a disciple to live transformed life for God.
Fourthly, keep the church structure lean to reduce bureaucracy. When the church structure gets too bulky, you will have more committees and administration. Time to get things done becomes longer. You get less personal and duplication in ministry increases. We need to keep things simple in church; there is no need to always to have more. As we add things, remember to take some things away as well so that the people are not over-taxed. If there are duplicated ministries, trim them down so that people would not be too busy or tired for discipleship. Make it conducive for people to meet up one on one starting from the within the cell groups. Remember that our ministry is about relationships and building relationships take time. For the first two years of mission work, I could hardly disciple anyone because they still did not trust me enough with their lives. It was only on the third year that they started to open up. But we often forget that trust has to be earned! People do not trust you with their lives just because you are the pastor. It is easier to get an event done than to disciple a person effectively! So we need to be more people-oriented. We need less theory and techniques but more relationships.
Fifthly, focus on learning than getting things done. I know we get worried when things are not done properly. We tend to focus more on results. But only when we focus on learning can a person improve the next time round. Do we show them how to improve and what they can learn from their serving? Or are we more interested to know where have we gone wrong and whose fault is it? Jesus never jumped on the faults of His disciples; instead He showed them the right way. The process is more important than the progress. When we have the proper process; we will surely achieve good progress.
Lastly, create a culture and structure of personal discipleship. We need to talk about it and long for it so that it is a norm to share lives with one another. We also need to re-structure the church so that personal discipleship can take place. Nowadays, people usually keep things to themselves; they do not see the need to consult other spiritual leaders over their decisions. Last time, while I was in the youth ministry, the youths could talk almost about anything under the sun except their spiritual lives and the decisions they are making. We need more accountability build upon the word of God so that discipleship can take place naturally. Encourage people to share about their spiritual experiences and lessons. Get them to talk about their choices in life and how they derive their decisions. Create an open spiritual culture.
This is the heartbeat of CTD. We hope to restore authentic Christianity in the church by highlighting the importance of it to others. We hope that everyone would stay close to Jesus and live a life to glorify Him. Will you join us in this movement?
A lot of people know the importance of discipleship, but not everyone who knows would put in effort to build a discipleship church. Simply because discipleship is tough and it takes up a lit of our time. As such, as long as the church is growing and there are cell groups or Sunday schools, we are happy enough.
Like it or not, churches seem to be more interested in their growth rather than maturity today. They pay more attention to results than relationships. They are more interested in conversion rather than transformation. As a result, we are seeing more Christians that are building their faith on some charismatic leaders, or some programs that hyped up their churches. Today, we see churches are more anthropocentric, performance-based and programs-driven. This is worrying because our faith has been reduced yet covered up with aesthetics. It deceives people believing that they have great faith, and indeed, we can also be deceived because these churches are usually so vibrant and lively. Some are entertaining as well. Mind you, these are growing churches. But just not sure whether they are maturing churches.
They are two crises of discipleship that I want to highlight here. First is converting people too fast. This sounds absurd. Is it not good for people to come and know Christ as soon as possible? Yes, but not at the expense of not understanding the full Gospel. Since we are becoming more result-oriented and performance-driven, we want to quickly get the people to say the sinner’s prayer. We usually emphasize on the love and grace of God while neglecting the part on Lordship and repentance. People quickly ‘confess and believe’ because of the blessings or healing they can get. Some do not mind believing one more God even. So we are happy that we have successfully converted another person into the kingdom of God. We met our first target of winning one soul for God. But we didn’t know the person might not have really repented and let Jesus be his Lord. Even if he did really believed, we might just have made a self-centred, individualistic Christian. This kind of believer tend to make the church live for him rather than him living for God. This makes discipling a tough job and the church becomes weaker. We might argue that Jesus Himself never explained the full Gospel when He called His disciples, but yet the Gospel always show how ready the disciples are willing to repent and honour Jesus as Lord. Jesus was never quick to convert. He preached hard messages to filter out those who didn’t really believe. Never rash to convert a person. This is not a salrs target or a business goal. It is more important to make a disciple. Let people listen to the full Gospel. Let them know what it means to believe and let Jesus be the Lord. Don’t just show the blessings, grace and love or even being healed of their sickness. All these prove what a great God we have, but we also need the proper human response.
The second crisis of discipleship is leaving the people too fast. What happen when we reached our first target? We go for the second one! We usually neglect the first. We probably put the person in Sunday school or follow-up class or put him in a cell group. We think that’s it. The person is being discipled. I’m not sure about that. The person may be knowing more about his faith, but proper discipling needs relationship and time. It takes the effort of the discipler to guide and grow the faith of the new believer. And before we know it, the new believer is ask to serve. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s good to get people to serve. It can cultivate a sense of stewardship and ownership too. However, there are many levels of service. There are those which are not so critical with regard to its impact and those which needs good examples. For example, a worship team members and cell leaders and facilitators would have more exposure and influence than notice board or kitchen ministry. I must say that all ministries are important and require spiritual persons to do the jobs. But due to a shortage of manpower and a lack of discipleship and development, we end up putting up people too fast. While we need not wait for a person to be totally prepared or ready, there need to be some guidance and more importantly, on-going discipleship where the people are serving. We should not just leave them by themselves or just leave them to the job of Sunday school or cell group. We need to constantly disciple them, whether intentional or natural.
Before these two crises overtake the church, let us attend to them urgently.