Why do you think more and more people in the United States no longer identify themselves as Christians (see this ARIS Study)? What is turning people off to the church, or at least some forms of the church? And why is the digital generation the least involved in the church? While there are no simple answers to these questions, I want to suggest that at the heart of the matter is the lack of mature missional disciples, not just as individuals, but also as communities of God’s people. We need to be more like Jesus as a body. More and more people are beginning to recognize that the most significant measurement of success needs to move beyond how many people come to a church service to how many mature missional disciples are living in the world for the sake of the world.
So how can the church become a faithful sign, a rich foretaste and powerful instrument bringing more of heaven to earth?
A passage that I have been reflecting on for the last 12 years has much to offer us. The Apostle Paul when writing to the church at Ephesus says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13).
For Paul, the maturity of the body is directly linked to the five different equippers living out their ministry in the body. Under the inspiration of the Spirit, Paul is letting us know that if we hope to have mature disciples we must be willing to recognize, receive and nourish each of the five equippers that Christ has given the church. For as the equippers incarnate their lives and ministries within the body, the whole body will be aroused and awakened to live out their sacred potential, and the body will grow in faith, hope and love.
Part of what this means is that our approach to discipleship must involve a communal dimension. We must include, but also go beyond the individualistic one-on-one approach to discipleship if we hope to develop mature missional disciples and communities. We need to let Paul’s wisdom guide us as we think about how to approach discipleship in such a way that the community become mature disciples.
This means we need to understand how each of the equippers uniquely disciple the congregation, so that we can identify and cultivate equippers in both our missional communities and congregation as a whole.
So what are the distinct ways that each of the equippers disciple missional communities and the church? What kinds of practices might they encourage the congregation to engage in, so that the community will reflect the full character and ministry of Christ?
Apostles as Dream Awakeners The apostles, who I have nicknamed dream awakeners, equip people to discover and live out their calling, in the world for the sake of the world. They help to cultivate a discipleship ethos and call people to participate in advancing God’s kingdom. They help individuals and communities live out the answer to Jesus’ prayer, “May your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). Dream awakeners disciple people by helping them discover their primal passions, skills and gifts, and match them to needs in the church and the neighborhood. Apostles encourage people to engage in the thick practices of disciple-making and Sabbath. Sabbath is key because as we take time to be still, we are more likely to hear the call of God on our lives, amidst the many other voices that compete for our attention.
Prophets as Heart Revealers Prophets, who I have nicknamed heart revealers, seek to help people walk with God. Through their actions and words they reveal the heart of God and the heart of the congregation. They help the community live out God’s new social order and stand with the poor and oppressed. They train disciples to grow in sensitivity to the Spirit as well as develop hearts for those that the society and/or the church have branded as outcasts. Heart revealers help people become conscious of God through silence, solitude, prayer and fasting, and they help people to be devoted to the breaking of bread where the community remembers Christ’s death, celebrates his resurrection and lives as a resurrected community.
Evangelists as Story Tellers Evangelists, or whom I call story tellers, equip the congregation to incarnate the good news in the neighborhood. They equip the congregation to proclaim the good news by being witnesses and being redemptive agents, redeeming the various spheres of society. Evangelists disciple people by helping them turn their “secular” jobs into sacred callings. They encourage and equip people to practice hospitality in all its depth. They also help people engage in sharing the good news of God’s grace in such a way that the focus is more on transformation than decision; to share the good news in a way that not only talks about the after-life, but the missional life; and in a way that people see the individual, communal and cosmic implications of the gospel.
Pastors as Soul Healers Pastors, or whom I call soul healers, equip the congregation to pursue wholeness in the context of community. They help the congregation embody reconciliation and live emotionally healthy lives. Soul healers create a healing environment where people can take off their masks and be real. They help to create a family environment where people not only pray together, but play together. They disciple people by helping them engage in habits that refresh them physically, recharge them emotionally and renew them spiritually. They encourage people to engage in the thick practices of confession and peacemaking. They help people practice confessing both their failures and victories.
Teachers as Light Givers Teachers, or whom I call light givers, equip the congregation to inhabit the sacred text. They encourage people to immerse themselves in Scripture as well as live faithfully to the story of God and the God of the story. They disciple people by helping them approach the word of God as a voice to be heard and not just a book to be read. They equip people to approach the scripture for transformation, not just information. They encourage people to regularly participate in sacred assemblies, including weekly gatherings, regional gatherings, national conferences and international assemblies. They help people engage in future-oriented living, where they partner with God to bring his future into the present.
As we examine some of the ways that the equippers uniquely equip and disciple the body, we better understand why Paul strongly links the five equippers to the maturity of the church.
Until we understand, identify and nourish the various equippers that Christ has given the church, we are likely to have immature churches that are tossed back and forth by the latest spiritual craze.
But when we release the equippers to incarnate their lives and ministries in the church together, then the entire church will awaken to use their gifts in such a way that the whole body builds itself up in love and the church rises to her sacred potential, living as if Christ were living in them.
JR Woodward is a dream awakener and co-founder of Kairos Los Angeles, a network of neighborhood churches in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board for the Ecclesia Network and GCM. He has a Master of Arts in Global Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary and will be pursuing a PhD in Europe. JR enjoys coaching and consulting with a number of churches and church planters. He blogs @jrwoodward.net and tweets @dreamawakener. He recently finished writing Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, with InterVarsity Press, which is due to be released this summer (2012).