Are You Ready For The Shift?

Late in February this year, my second eldest son Matthew got married to his beloved Brianna here at the Chapel on the grounds of ‘Gilbulla’. Brianna just happens to be a graduate from our two-year (YDT) Diploma Course here at Ellel Sydney – a program that focuses seriously on discipleship and restoration. My Matt knows he’s landed a very good young lady who loves Jesus passionately and carries a deep desire to see others restored and discipled.

Matthew himself is no stranger to discipleship. He has completed all our Ellel Ministries training schools here in Sydney (known formerly as the Modular Schools), as well as a Cert IV at Hillsong College gleaning from all the excellent tools they impart to the body of Christ. After his year at Hillsong, Matthew embarked on yet another discipleship course with Southern Lights Church in Victoria, which taught him further key aspects of growing and maturing in Christ. Today, Matt finds himself at the backend of a two-year internship under Brian Medway, who heads up the Crosslink Christian Network, and is also senior pastor of Grace Church in Canberra.  Matt would say the privilege to be at Brian’s side over this period has deepened his walk even further, learning much from Brian’s passion for the scriptures.

There is something to be said about making it a priority to find the best discipleship programs and mentors possible. As the saying goes “Choose your friends carefully, you become what they are”. I doubt either Matthew or Brianna will regret pursuing Christ via intentional discipleship and mentoring, and it is my hope they continue on this path of a life-long pattern of learning from the more mature saints God brings alongside them.  

Such quality investment in Matthew and Brianna from a variety of Christian discipleship streams did not go unnoticed at their local church in Canberra. 

They have recently been commissioned as the Young Adults Pastors in that congregation, with the responsibility of bringing spiritual formation to the next generation of saints.

Yet, there was a journey of preparation required for them to be deemed worthy of that role. They didn’t just show up to church and say “Hey, we want to lead a small group!” They both underwent a season of mentoring and a healing journey, before they were released to disciple anyone else!

However, it has been my experience that as Christians we generally expect the ‘discipleship’ pathway to look a bit like this: - First, we get ‘saved’ and then we choose a church where we like the people, the worship is energetic and the preaching is strong. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, except it tends to create a ‘pew sitting’ culture. Some folks may take up an invite to do a spiritual gifting test and attend a weekly bible study, and maybe eventually lead a bible study group of their own. They might even be offered a role as an elder/deacon/leader in the years ahead at their church.

On the surface, there appears to be no overt problem with that process. However, it is my experience that without effective long-term deeper discipleship that includes a deliberate journey of restoration and healing, we may only be raising Christians who are restricted in how much kingdom influence they can offer – and then placing them into key roles within the church!

Once churchgoers have moved along the traditional pathways I have described above into leadership positions - without having dealt with any of their wounds – depression, anxiety, fears, addictions, grief, traumas and anger - they tend not to represent Christ as well as they could if they were healed and restored. When they don’t deal with their own wounding, they may inadvertently inflict their unhealed pain onto those under their influence, negatively impacting them.

When we elevate a good person too early, before their underlying character issues are dealt with, it is unlikely they will be ready to cope with the demanding pressures of leadership. This may unearth major character flaws that bring about moral failure and discredit the name of Christ and His Church.

It’s a repeating pattern. Think of names like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard who suffered major character failures in years gone by. Consider the more recent news of Ravi Zacharias, who pastored a major church in New York. Since his death, it has emerged that he failed his congregation, guilty of ongoing infidelity. Then of course there is the moral failure of Carl Lentz who carried a high profile within the Hillsong movement.

All these men were well trained Christian leaders. The good seminaries and bible colleges they attended equipped them with excellent ministry tools and skills, but seemed unable to unearth their deeper unresolved issues, nor help them overcome the character flaws which eventually surfaced.

Why?

No amount of bible knowledge alone will ever transform the human heart. Make no mistake, studying and knowing the bible is paramount, but the Scriptures alone cannot ‘save’ you – they can only point to the One who is able to save and transform – that is Jesus Christ!

At my son Matthew’s wedding, I chatted with one of his friends from Hillsong. He shared with me the deep personal impact upon him of Carl Lentz’s fall from grace. He had respected Carl greatly, and to say he was shaken about these revelations was an understatement.

It appears to me that the Lord is cleaning up His own house first. But apart from that, I think what Abba really wants to do next is introduce the whole of His Church to new and deeper discipleship.

My experience of most churches – I was a senior pastor once myself - is that there exists an unsaid, but nonetheless daunting pressure to succeed. In the kingdom of God here on earth, the measure of that success lays in becoming a big church! Once again, there is nothing inherently wrong with megachurches - larger churches have resources to achieve things that smaller churches just cannot make happen. But it is also my observation that megachurches can be a mile wide; but only an inch deep! In other words, sometimes larger churches struggle to offer to so many people a more intimate discipling connection, with the power to positively change them, simply because they are so big!

Lee Grady from Charisma magazine wrote an article highlighting one such thriving megachurch that breaks the mould I describe above.  It’s called Crossroads Church and it is based in Newnan, Georgia, near Atlanta.

This particular large church is described by Lee Grady as providing a deeper commitment to discipleship via its small-group ministry, which purposely raises leaders who have walked through a transformative process. These small group leaders are apparently selected on the basis that they have first taken part in a healing process for their own hearts. Each must initially demonstrate they have walked out a restoration journey – whether that be from divorce, significant loss, trauma, addictions or abuse. They must be able to demonstrate how they have allowed Christ to heal them from whatever bound them. 

Only once a person has walked through such a healing process, are they deemed ready to offer others the comfort and healing the Lord has given them. These leaders are reported to be winning many new believers into their small groups. Such new believers are then quickly introduced to a God that not only saves, but also restores. Such a model of discipleship training is rather radical, but necessary more than ever today!

I sense what is happening at Crossroads Church is not an isolated phenomenon. I hope it is evidence of Holy Spirit beginning to reshape the church worldwide in the coming generation. Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate our core priorities as the Church. It has forced us into an uncomfortable realisation that ‘business as usual’ will never work again.

God is pruning away dead branches, so we can bear more fruit.

Are you ready for the shift?

Lee Grady in his article also raised four key points of how he sees Holy Spirit renewing our wineskins, so we can hold what He is sending. I have reproduced Lee’s four powerful points below, and then also added my own thoughts: -

  • We are shifting from quantity to quality. In the days before COVID, pastors measured success by what Lee Grady would call ‘the ABC's of ministry’— Attendance, Buildings and Cash. In other words, a church assumed it was successful if they had big crowds, a nice building and lots of cash in the bank. But the apostle Paul said ministry made with wood, hay and stubble will burn up when tested by God's holiness (see 1 Cor. 3:12-13).  

  • Just because a sanctuary is full of people doesn't mean we are making strong, well-discipled followers of Jesus. We can no longer evaluate our success by attendance, buildings and cash!

  • We are shifting from spectators to disciples. Churches that already had strong small group ministry before the pandemic have thrived during this last year. But churches that put all their resources into big congregational events have been shut down or have lost huge numbers of their attendees. Sadly, I wonder how many of the more marginal churchgoers who were not connected to any small group will never return after COVID?

Jesus didn't call us to make churchgoers, He instructed us to make disciples. He never intended His followers to just sit in pews year after year listening to good sermons. He told them, "Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations" (Matt. 28:19). He certainly did not want His followers to remain spiritual infants (‘Nepios’). He invites us all to grow up into mature saints (‘Uihos’) that can carry on the works He did.

  • Shifting from big events to small groups. There's nothing wrong with big gatherings. In fact, I love worshipping with a big crowd. But when we made the church about the crowd, we created a model that no longer resembles the original church in the book of Acts.
    People don't effectively grow if their only input comes from a weekly or monthly 30-minute sermon. They need deeper more consistent discipleship in a close-knit environment with supportive relationships.

We live in a world full of fear, loneliness and abuse. And that's a big  reason many people would never set foot in a big church full of strangers. Their social anxiety prevents them from walking into a concert-style arena to hear a sermon, but they may consider visiting your home for a meal, or a small group gathering. Why would we make it any harder than that for people?

  • We are shifting from unapproachable celebrities to accessible servants. We have lived through the era of the ‘rock star preacher’. Moving forward, true ministers of the gospel must not allow people to worship them. When we embrace the idea that all Christians can make disciples—not just the most eloquent or the highest paid—we will impact the multitudes like the early church did.

Church leaders who lead like Jesus aren't afraid to empower others, and they aren't afraid of their followers touching more lives than they did. In fact, they want their disciples to surpass the fruit they have borne. The faster we shift away from the celebrity model, and embrace Christ-like humility, the sooner we will reach the world with the gospel. And the sooner He will return!

So, let’s get serious about our own discipleship and ask Father God what further restoration He may want to bring to our hearts. Let’s become the kind of saints that Christ can use in the days that lay ahead.

Until next time,