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?
Once I was trying to peel an onion but when I picked it up, I was surprised to find that it was hollow. The onion was rotten to its core though it still looked very nice on the outside. Is our spiritual life like this? Nice on the outside but rotten inside? I hope not. As our life gets busier, we are in a greater danger of neglecting our spiritual life. We may not even pay attention to it, thinking that it is alright.
Generally speaking, there are three groups of people. The first group are those who are growing and maturing in the Lord. The second group are the nominal Christians. They are only Christians in name, not concerned about obeying the Lord but still living their own carnal life. The third group is the most worrying group. They are those who seem spiritual but may not really be. They may be very hyped up with their Christian life but may not have depth. Of course, only the Lord and ourselves know which group we belong to.
There are many things in the Christian life that we can get hyped up with. We can get hyped up with serving God. Some people are so busy serving God that they neglect their spiritual life. There are also those who get hyped up by ‘new’ teachings. They especially like to hear about things like numerology and symbolism; certain things we are not sure what the Bible really meant or intended. We can also get hyped up by prayers. We can pray in tongues and pray aloud and passionately but we do not pay attention to the proper interpretation of God’s word, as such we can end up distorting the meaning of God’s word. One example is the way people are praying for prosperity. Another example was about a prayer group deducing from the date and time of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing to claim that he was saved. Some others are hyped up about their leaders. This usually happens in Charismatic churches where the charisma of the founding pastors command unreserved obedience. They are often treated as though they are gods. Members seldom question whether their leaders are doing the right thing. Many others are hyped up by prophecies, signs and wonders. They pay more attention to prophecies by the present day ‘prophets’ than Word of God in the Bible and seek after the manifestations of God more than obeying the word of God. A recent example would be seeking after gold dust and gems. Finally, there are those who are hyped up by spiritual experiences. These are not the usual testimonies about how we all can experience God or receive answers from God, instead their focus are on experiences such as going to heaven and hell, or certain near-death experiences which are not normative. I had heard about a church preaching and conducting Bible study solely based on all these strange encounters. Certainly, these can make us feel excited, but these should not be the anchor point of our faith.
Though many of these practices may not be totally wrong (some certainly good if practiced correctly), but we cannot say that they are surely right too. Some of these experiences are extra-biblical and subjective. We must be careful lest we drift away from God when we seek after these more than after God Himself. Though I myself come from a charismatic background, I caution all of us against various kinds of spiritual hypes but instead aim to build depth in our relationship with God through the word of God. My advice is to focus more on objective truth that is derived from the proper interpretation of God’s word rather than subjective truth that usually come from experiences and manifestations though I know that they can be so real.
The bottom line is that our understanding of God must always be based on the Word of God and not on experience alone. We should always seek God Himself rather than manifestations of God. We need to grow to be more like Him and be rooted in Him and His word. Remember that hyped-up spirituality will not make us more spiritual; it only make us look spiritual.
An active faith starts with small beginnings
The Gospels tell us that our faith is like a mustard seed, though small, it can grow to become a big tree. Our faith can start small. It is alright to start small. We should not despise small beginnings. Never think that something is too small for us to do for God. If we miss these small beginnings, then we may not start doing anything at all, not to say grow something big. Rev Edmund Chan once said, “Dream big, start small and build deep.” If our faith is active, we would have a lot of small beginnings—small little things that we do to transform our own lives for the sake of God, self and others. One day, these little things would make great impact in the kingdom of God.
An active faith makes effort to grow in transitions
Sometimes we are discouraged to see how slow our faith grows. As Rome is not built in a day, our faith will not grow substantially overnight too. For a mustard seed to grow into a big tree, that would take years. There is no need to get discouraged if we are moving slowly. The important thing is that we are moving! As it is written in 2 Peter 1:5-7, “For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.” The verse before this tells us that the motivation to grow in faith is Christ. We can grow in faith because of His divine power and great promises. Peter went on to tell us that we need to make every effort to add to our faith. This faith is being added on incrementally when we walk in tandem with God. We are not transformed over night, but bit by bit and step by step. Verse 8 made it clear, “For if you possess these qualities in increasing (italics mine) measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If the world has been telling us to be effective and productive, it is time to be effective and productive in Christ first! Let God sail us through those transitions in faith, He does not want us to stay stagnant.
An active faith acts from within
I am sure most of us are familiar with James argument regarding faith and deeds in Chapter 2. But we need to take note that this is not only an external behaviour, but something that stems from within. In fact, an active faith begins with the right attitude. James argued that if we were biased against the poor, it is as though our faith is dead. Our faith, then is one that is “for show only”. We can easily fall into this trap of performance these days. We can serve because of our need to perform (and sometimes for others to see) rather than worshipful acts from within. Inside us, we may be hollow. Someday, we may just breakdown. Take down that mask and be genuine. Let acts of faith grow from within us. It is never too late and too slow because we have a God that is greater than what we think, behave and act.
Most people know the importance of discipleship. So we are out there to look for a quick solution and antidote to the issues we are facing in church. We hope to setup certain programs, follow some patterns and start some classes. But why they work for some churches but not for some others? Day in day out, for weeks and months, or even years, things still remain the same.
What we didn’t realize usually are the things that happen behind the scenes. We may mimic the hardware but we didn’t have the software. The truth is that there’s no shortcut to discipleship. It is not just something achieve by programs, courses or classes. Besides these programs, courses and classes, the people spend time discipling one another. The leaders have to be particularly active in this. They spend their time to mentor, coach and disciple the next few generations of leadership. It is in the interacting that iron sharpens iron.
There are three important types of discipleship to exercise. Firstly, directive discipleship. The discipler must lead the way and give the disciple a direction or a path to take. He must help the disciple to make sound and wise decision when the disciple make the wrong choices. However, this does not mean we can lord it over our disciples. It just mean exercising leadership in discipleship.
Secondly, there is supportive discipleship. Here our role is to encourage the disciples. Our role is to help them see beyond the impossibilities. They can live out a greater potential God has bless them with.
Thirdly, there are times where we need corrective discipleship as well. We need to correct certain wrong attitudes or mindsets, bad habits or addictions and other outward behaviours.
These three types of discipleship are exercised to disciple different aspects of a disciple. There are a few that I would like to highlight here. Firstly, attitudes. Here we are dealing with the right worldviews and mindset. A disciple must learn to think correctly. Secondly, attributes. Here we are talking about discipling for the attributes of God. A disciple must have the characteristics of God. Thirdly, aptitude. Here we need to help the disciple to acquire different ministry skills to serve God. A disciple must be able to serve God well.
To achieve all these, we will need a clear purpose in our church. When the purpose is clear, we can then work out a plan suitable for us. Next, you need people. Know who can be disciplers and who should be discipled. After this, what they need is the process of discipling. This is best achieve in a personal discipling process. However, it is also the most time consuming. We take time to sharpen iron. Only gradually, we can see the products.
Are we ready to invest in discipleship? It is certainly worthwhile though sometimes can be heartbreaking. Remember, don’t just work on the hardware like programs, we need the software like you and me to spend time together.
Many churches today are under the pressure to grow their churches. It may be a good thing because we can see more people being saved. The Lord is opening up many doors for us in recent years. There are many kinds of social outreach activities churches can be involved in, not just to the locals but also to the migrants as well. We need to seize these opportunities to help these people know the Lord. We need to rise up and develop relevant ministry to help these people.
But we need to be careful not to chase after the numbers blindly. We cannot love the results more than we love the people. There are times we put results over relationships. Sometimes we just want people to convert more than treasure their repentance. As such, we try to make converts first before they know what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ. While I understand that a person may take time to grow in the Lord and be committed fully, care need to be taken so that believers understand what repentance means. They cannot just be people who just want the love, grace and blessings of the Lord without repenting and living new lives for God. As a new convert, he is also a new disciple. We should not try to create a stage where people can first become converts then disciples. In the end, we may have greater problems in church because these people have never really believed in the first place. Then we have to get them to convert again in church.
Disciples need to repent and believe in the Lord. I don’t think there is a easier path. Of course, we can get people into the church first, but let us not rush to make them say the sinner’s prayer until they understand the whole Gospel. Perhaps this is also the reason why Christians are less committed these days compared to the first century. We have unknowingly created a easier path on the way to Calvary. But it may not reach the cross.
Some of us may try to remedy this problem by building better discipleship programs. Yes, it will work well for those who have genuinely believed, but it is fire-fighting to those who have a vague or blind faith. Discipleship must come with a clear decision. It’s not something to sort out after we have made them say the sinner’s prayer. Let us make disciples with integrity. Make true disciples and not just converts.