A friend of mine has challenged me to be less about deconstruction in ecclesiology. Ok, that's not the way he put it. He said something like, "Why are you always ripping on the church?" The thing is, I feel some conviction about his challenge. In the movie, Primary Colors, the lead character, a Democratic primary candidate for President, makes an observation about negative campaigning: "any damn fool can burn down a barn." I think the same applies to deconstruction in our post-whatever environment. At some point we need to come up with alternatives.
So as I have thought about the challenge of Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20, I think that it's appropriate for me to offer something of an idea of what to do differently. I offer this with a great deal of humility because I am in no position to put this idea to the test. I'm not a pastor and I'm not a church consultant. Although I work in ministry it's in a role where my influence over such matters is almost non-existent.
Yet, apart from that caveat I want to propose that it should be clear that some kind of new model, hopefully a radically new model, should get some play. In the contemporary church we put a lot of time, money and energy into making and maintaining Christians, not disciples. I think that this should be self-evident. Surely no one believes that the average once-a-week church attender is being built up in spiritual maturity in any way that approximates the training Jesus gave to his disciples.
But I don't feel that we should do away with making and maintaining Christians. I think that there seems to be a great need for this level of spiritual training and there is apparently a lot of good that comes of it. I just don't think that it should eat up as much of our resources as it does. Moreover, it's not what Jesus told us to do.
So here's my proposal: I think that we should train disciples in small, intense programs that have a definite starting point but no definite end point. People who commit to become disciples would come into that experience with wide variance of foundation and needs. The training would take longer for some than for others.
When I say intense I mean that it should become the number one thing in the lives of these participants. By number one, I mean by the standards of Jesus. For some (but not all) this would mean giving up a career for this training like Matthew or the fishermen. For some (but not all) this would mean making significant changes in family commitments (like Peter apparently did). I think it would require a big investment of time, not unlike being in college or graduate school full time.
I think that this training would require group work like the experience Jesus put his original disciples through. Perhaps it would even be best if it meant actually living together as a group for the training or at least for part of it.
The training itself would have to vary depending on the disciples and the church to which they are devoted. I think that the example of Jesus shows that the curriculum has to include a substantial amount of training in scripture and in personal spiritual practices. But that cannot be all of the training. There has to be real, get your hands dirty, make a difference in the world experiences too.
I think that the trainer would have to be someone as devoted to the disciples as they are to the training. It could not be someone from a church staff with other responsibilities, training disciples in this manner would have to be their single devotion. And because these trainers would have to be the most emotionally and spiritually mature people available, they would have to be fairly well compensated and supported in this work.
Since I'm the administrative type I can estimate that it would cost a church about $100k per year for each disciple trainer. That's salary, benefits and administrative support. From my noodling with numbers I think that a single trainer could handle between 25 and 50 disciples as a maximum at any given time. Looked at another way, that's $2000 to $4000 per disciple annually.
Where would that money come from? Well I think that part of it can come from the disciples themselves. Maybe that's part of the sacrifice required of them. After all, the discipleship pitch that Jesus gave to the rich, young ruler was a lot bigger sacrifice than that.
But I think that the commitment also has to come from the church. As I see it a shift of resources from making and maintaining Christians to making disciples would mean putting fewer resources into weekend services. I propose this because I think that it is clear that these activities are not meant to train disciples. Furthermore, it is clear that in many, maybe even in most churches, weekend services are the biggest single cost.
If you're not inclined to agree think about the largest physical space in almost any church. What is it used for? How often is it used for that purpose? What does it cost to heat and cool and clean? Think about the amount of time the teaching pastor spends preparing for a single sermon and the amount of time the music people spend in rehearsal and preparation. Think about the support staff who handle the lights and the sound and so on.
But again, I'm not proposing that a church do away with weekend services altogether. I would, however, suggest that every church take a hard look at what weekend services cost and decide whether they are truly advancing the mission that Jesus gave us.
So how about if once a month we have a weekend without church as it is generally defined? What if the pastor had one week when he could skip the sermon preparation and spend some time doing all the other things he never has time to do? We could give the volunteers a break from working and let them spend time meeting their own spiritual needs (or maybe just sleeping in and resting). We could reduce the electric bill and the gas bill substantially and with less wear and tear on the facility we could cut back on maintenance.
But what would the congregation do? Maybe we could encourage them to meet in small groups on that one day a month. They might get more out of the experience if it's not squeezed into an already busy schedule. Maybe we could encourage them to get out and serve in the community or maybe just spend time with their neighbors, friends and families. If anyone really can't get through a week without a church service they might want to visit another church that day. We might even work out an agreement with three other churches to alternate weeks so that everyone has a "discipleship day" once a month.
Now, I'm not naive. I know that it is unlikely that any church would take such risks. I also say again that I offer this in humility as someone without the experience to see the bugs or the power to put it to the test. But I'd be curious to see what others think.