We are often concerned about the pastors having too much authority, so we often rotate them around in the various congregations. But how about the lay leadership? Though there may be elections almost every year. It’s interesting to note that the same old people often get elected again and again. This is a worrying phenomenon.
Firstly, this usually means that the laity having greater authority than the clergy. It is therefore hard to get things done in church. The church is often trapped to please everyone more than to fulfill the mission of God. The laity would usually drive their own projects in their own directions rather than being aligned to a common vision.
Secondly, this means new leaders are not coming up fast enough. Since the pastors do not have much authority, they end up doing all the ‘coordination’ work in church, leaving them not much time to raise new leaders. Many a times, the pastors do not have a free hand to disciple the people in church. The lay leaders may also hog onto their positions and do little to raise up new leaders too. As such, year after year, the same people are being elected again and again.
Thirdly, there is likely an imbalance of power in church. It is interesting to note that most of the lay leaders in church are in the upper class. They are not just the richer ones in church, they also hold high positions in their workplace as well. Though this is not necessarily bad, but the pastors usually do not dare to meddle too much regarding the lives of these people. As such, money and status can speak louder than God in this situation. As these people are usually in the management positions, they often bring in a lot of management techniques into the church. We often see how these churches are being measured by individual performance and efficiency rather than character and faithfulness. On the other hand, the middle and lower income groups are hardly in the management level of the church. As such, the formation of church strategy and policy may not be sensitive to the needs of these people.
Perhaps it is time we evaluate our church. Some studies have shown that we are attracting more white-collar workers than blue-collar workers in church. Why is this so? Are we trying to build an upper class faith? It is time to see who are we discipling. We should disciple people from various income groups so that we can better represent the church. Have a system to rotate the lay leadership so that there is new influx of younger leaders. Do not let the same lay leaders hog on the power and authority of the church. Make sure there is a good spread of people in the management of the church. As a body of Christ, we can learn from all walks of life.
The challenge we face in church today is not just a lack of discipleship of the believers in church, but a lack of discipleship in the leadership as well. Though leaders are the most important people forming the core of the church, they are seldom discipled. One of the most obvious reason is that they have no time to be discipled because they are serving in so many areas in the church. They have so many meetings to attend. Some of them are even facing burn out. Where can they find time for discipleship? Most of the time, they have to use the Bible to feed others, but hardly do they have time to let others feed them.
Another issue is regarding who to disciple them? The obvious answer may be the pastor but this does not happen most of all the time. Besides the fact that the pastor has even more meetings and activities to attend, a more tricky problem is that he may not have the authority to do so. For some churches, the pastor is employed by the church, as such the pastor is at the mercy of the congregation. The elders who are usually lay leaders have more say than the pastor. The pastor can hardly comment on the church. They just act upon the directions from the elders or the board. Hopefully they have a godly group of elders who can put aside their own agendas. If not, the church will just keep debating and voting on every issues based on their human minds rather than discernment from the Spirit. It would be tough to have these elders placed under a discipleship program. Most of them would just hang on to their power in church. Sometimes there are even factions and power struggle.
Another common problem is rotational leadership. Pastors are usually given four to six years terms in a local church before they are transferred to another church. Though it meant well not to let the pastor hog on to his power to build up his own “kingdom”, it also means that the pastor is not close to the people as compared to the lay leaders. As such, the power and authority of the church still lies with the lay leaders. The lay leaders often think that they know the church better than the pastor and therefore think that they have more say about the congregation and have lots of expectations on the pastor. Yet the pastor cannot do much besides the usual pastoral duties on Sunday because the members are under the control of the laity. These lay leaders are also the chairman for various committees in church, and this makes it even more difficult for the pastor to direct the committees. In many cases, the pastor is accused for not doing enough in each area of ministry, where in the first place they have not allowed the pastor to direct their committees.
Then what about the pastors themselves? Who are to disciple them? Of course, the senior pastor can disciple the younger generation of pastors provided that he has the time and put emphasis on the work of discipleship. However, there are many pastors who like to hold on to the power rather than delegate their power. While they know they should train up the younger generation, they are fearful that the next generation would destroy what they have built up. As such, they cannot let go of the church and the young pastors cannot rise up to take the helm. While the main pastor may be very successful and popular, the younger generation of pastors are being suppressed in leadership. These churches do run a high risk because they are built on the faith and charisma of the senior pastors. If the next generation of pastors are not given the opportunity to rise up, the future of the church would be at stake.
There are no easy solutions for the issues above. It would be easier if we all are humble enough to admit that we need to be discipled. However, this is usually not the case. Not all pastors, elders or deacons like to be discipled. They have so many things on their hands. I must say that these leaders are usually very capable. They are very good at getting things done and organising activities. But the downside is that they often neglect the building of their spirituality and character. What they need is to build in time for peer discipleship. Rather than spending so much time in meetings, allocate time to share about what God is doing in their lives and what they are learning from God. It may also help if each has a buddy where there can be more sharing and accountability. It is a time we put aside our titles and designations just to be our brothers’ keepers. It will be good if we are able to do this for different levels of leadership. Remember, the higher we go, the greater is the need for discipleship. Jesus did not get caught up in meetings, but He spent His time discipling people, especially the leaders-to-be. Spiritual leaders are not there just to get things done, they are the ones leading the way in spiritual formation too. If we are serious in growing the kingdom of God and building successions of leaders, we should start discipling the leaders soon.
We often share that Jesus would die for us even if we were the only person on earth. No doubt, Jesus would surely die for us. But we must be careful not to emphasize too much on ‘ME’. When sharing the Gospel, we often stress how much God love the person. We tell the person that God would bless him and help him. We portray the meaning that Jesus would solve every problem and our lives would get easier. But do these form an accurate picture of the Gospel? Sometimes we leave out mentioning the need for repentance and the Lordship of Jesus so that it is easier for the person to accept the Gospel. We try to paint a nice picture so that people can accept Jesus more easily. However, we run the risk of not preaching the Gospel correctly.
While Jesus is prepared to die for any person, we must bear in mind that Jesus died for the whole world. God’s love is universal and directed towards every person on this earth, including those who have yet know Him. Therefore, we must be careful not to make the person think that the whole world revolve around him. If not, the person would still be self-centred and would demand people to love him and give him whatever he demands. We see many of these cases happening in churches today. Though they claim to be Christians, they still live for themselves rather than God. They expect others to pamper them according to their demands. When these demands are not met, they criticize the church and its leaders.
Jesus never said that He would solve all our problems. He never said that our lives would be easier. In fact, we have to deny ourselves, carry our cross and follow Him. But have we share the Gospel correctly? Or we try to cover up some facts?
The problem here may probably be rectified by proper follow-up. It would be good if we are able to explain the Gospel to the believers again so that they grasp the true essence of the Gospel. But this is not enough. As suggested earlier, this problem can probably be traced back to the way we share the Gospel. Perhaps, with the emphasis on individual rights and the urgency for church growth, we have not only watered down the Gospel, we have also emphasised too much on the individual. As such, the person become more important than God.
While bringing people to Christ, let us make sure that they have a correct understanding of the Gospel. Let us not rush to make people say the sinner’s prayer too easily. It is always worthwhile to invest more time to make sure a person knows what he is believing. Well, church growth may be slower, but we would have a more committed group of believers who live their lives to glorify God.
Many discipleship structures in churches today are often left to the Sunday schools or cell groups. As such, they are often run as programs based on certain curriculum. While these programmatic discipleship and curriculum-based discipleship has its strength, especially when they can provide a clear overview of what the key areas to be addressed are, however they are not sufficient to build a strong disciple. Of course, it would help us much if the disciple is self-motivated and self-disciplined. But we usually have to build a person up from scratch. There two important aspects that I want to highlight.
The first aspect is that discipleship has to be personal. We can see this example clearly in the lives of Jesus. Though the disciples often move in groups, Jesus made the effort to interact with disciples personally. He dealt with the preassumptions and preoccupations of each disciple personally even though teachings were taught to the disciples together. Perhaps this is a good model to follow. While it is important for the disciples to undergo some form of training in groups or in classes, most of the things are being internalised when they are discipled personally. This is a time where the discipler can clarify and instill the teachings of Christ with greater intensity. But sad to say, most leaders today are not able to carry out personal discipleship. They have so many meetings, planning, vistations, sermons, administration and coordination to do that they have no more time for the most important ministry for church leaders. Discipling and developing people are often left out, if not, pass down to some other people. Since this is the main task that Jesus did, I believe that it is the same for us too. Many of the things that church leaders do today should be delegated to others so as to allow the leaders to do the more important job of discipling and developing disciples. As leaders of the church, this job is best done by us and not others. This is perhaps the key to building a strong church with good successions.
The second aspect is that discipleship has to take place naturally. Jesus never told His disciples when they were having class. In fact, everywhere was His classroom. He did not have a program or a curriculum to follow. Everything just flow out of Jesus naturally. He taught them along the way and He used whatever the disciples were discussing to form His lessons. He just followed their topics and discussions accordingly. As such, He was able to seize their most teachable moments. We too need this kind of informal settings to disciple others. This is a time when they are off guard and open to us. Sometimes we may be too deliberate. But too much planning can make us functional. Our disciples can get so serious that we cannot see their true needs. If we have been walking with Christ closely, why not let Jesus overflow out of us naturally. Rely more on the Holy Spirit, and less on our knowledge, skills and experiences.
When we make discipleship personal and natural, we would realise that we ourselves would have also grown tremendously. Discipleship is no longer about programs or structures alone, but an adventure with Jesus and His people. We would learn to rely more on Him as He makes us a better discipler.
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.
Will we be satisfied if we are only given the sign of Jonah today? The people of Jesus’ time were asking for miracles and signs to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. But Jesus was not willing to do so. He was not afraid that He would lose His popularity if He didn’t. He was even prepared that some of His disciples would leave Him. Why is this so?
Jesus was looking for disciples who would build their faith on Him and Him alone! This faith must be hinged on the death and the resurrection of Jesus. This is the only sign of Jonah that Jesus revealed. We may be going in and out of the church every week, but what is our faith hinged on?
Some build their faith on miracles and signs. While God still performs miracles today, it is not the basis of our faith. Will we still be zealous for God if we do not see signs and wonders? God need not choose to work through miracles and signs every time. He can be silently working in other inconspicuous ways.
Some build their faith on biblical numerology and symbology. There are people who get so excited when the preacher talks about numerology and symbology in the Bible. Sometimes I doubt if there are elements of superstition in this. While numbers and symbols play an important part in the Bible, their interpretations must never be over-emphasized. There is always a chance of subjectivity in them. These interpretations can encourage us about the reliability of the Bible and the character of God, but they should not become the tenets of our faith.
Some build their faith on answered prayers. Do we always expect God to say yes to our prayers? What if God answers our prayers in another way? Will we be disappointed? There’s a saying that prayers change things. But I tend to think that prayers change us even more. Through prayers, God is aligning our thoughts to His, before He grants us the desires of our hearts. Just imagine what would happen if God answers all our prayers according to our wilful wishes. Therefore, never build our faith on answered prayers according to our wishes, God is faithful no matter how He answers our prayers.
Some build their faith on prophecies. People get very excited when the so-called prophets prophesied about the revival of their lands. Churches organise lots of revival meetings to hype-up their churches. People get so busy and so excited but yet the irony is that many end up not spending personal quiet time with God. They can end up building a shallow spiritual life based on excitement and activities generated by prophecies. The strange thing about some of these prophecies is that they were not even coupled with repentance. In God’s message of revival, there is always a message of repentance before revival comes. But we often only hear the good news without the bad news in these prophecies. This is worrying, especially when a huge number of people flock to respond and proclaim Jesus as their Saviour. While I am glad to see people coming to know Jesus, I wonder if we are building some kind of pseudo-Christianity. Acceptance of Jesus must always come with repentance. It is not just about receiving Jesus as Saviour but also as Lord.
Some build their faith on prosperity. Some people receive Jesus because of the good things they can receive from God, particularly wealth. This group of people believe that if we believe in God, God would also bless us with the riches of the world. They believe that they are poor because they have too little faith. But the truth is that both poor and rich can become Christians and not every Christian would become rich. I do not think we can say that Jesus or His disciples were rich. In fact, they were poor. Their riches were not of this world but of the world to come! They are blessed because they would inherit the kingdom of God. If we are poor, it is all right. It does not mean that we are more sinful or lacking in faith, it is the boundary the Lord portions for us.
Some build their faith on their leaders. Leaders can become the objects of our faith if we are not careful, especially prominent or charismatic leaders. While many of these may be great leaders, they can become the idols of the church. Some leaders are very charismatic and have the tendency to draw people through their inspirational talks. Believers can end up following blindly what the leaders say and do. They end up taking the leaders’ words as gospel truths, usually without checking and examining them with the teachings of God. Perhaps the leaders are just so good convincing the people using the words of God. No one can detect how they have misused the words of God. May God grant us the discernment. While leaders are appointed by God, they are not God!
Some build their faith on friends. Most of us come to know Jesus through our friends. We also tend to stay in our church because of our friends. But what if our friends are all gone? Will we still believe in God and worship Him every Sunday? While friends are very important to help us build a sense of belonging, our faith cannot be built on them. Each of us has to build our own faith on God while living in a community as a family of God. There can be no substitute.
Jesus is the Rock. All believers are called to build our faith on Him. While we may be worshipping God, we need to examine ourselves if we are just going after the emotional hype. We may become self-centred and self-serving individuals as a result. Idols within us are often more scary than those without because they are unseen enemies hidden in us. They might be left undiscovered if we do not spend time to examine ourselves. We might end up deceiving ourselves thinking that we are holy and growing in the Lord. Never just look at the external, look deep within and build that inner being God has called us to be. Be satisfied if we have no other signs but just the sign of Jonah alone. That is enough to save us.