Everyone makes disciples of something or someone. Just think about all the disciples that are made each and every fall as college football and the NFL kicks off with a brand new season full of thrills and excitement. It’s not new. It’s the same game played each and every year. But there’s much to be excited about. Why? Because we love it. We throw on our favorite jersey, eat our favorite nachos, and party while grown men war for a trophy. It’s great.
Disciples love the object that is teaching them something. The very definition of a disciple is "learner," though it is not simply a cognitive thing. It’s a life thing. We invest our emotions, desires, affections, money, time, energy in its mission. We’re all followers; we’re all passionate about something.
It is often the case that local churches build disciples around the organization itself. More often than not, this is accidental. We as church leaders and members typically have good intentions. We want people to know Jesus. We think that our pastors and our music and our worship experience are great gateways to meeting Jesus. That's why we invest in that church community, right?
But being a disciple of Jesus means that we are learning from him, walking in his ways. To be a disciple of Jesus means that we take our cues from him, not an organization. If we're not careful, we can get distracted by the organization or event and forget about the reason it exists - for the glory of God.
What happens when we make disciples of the church instead of disciples of Jesus? What might that look like? Here are five signs that we might be making disciples of our church instead of Jesus.
1. We Get Upset When People Are Gone
A prominent temptation of a local church is to root success in attendance on Sunday mornings. This is only part of what it means to be the church. Yes we gather, but we also scatter. If we put too much emphasis on the Sunday gathering and see this alone as “church,” then we’ll get frustrated when people aren’t there. Many pastors and members build their identity around numbers. This is dangerous and is most certainly a sign that you aren’t focused on making disciples of Jesus, but instead, disciples of the church. Disappointment is understandable; we want to see the lost come to know Jesus. But that must be grounded in gospel-motivation toward seeing more and more people become disciples of Jesus.
Disciples of Jesus build their identity around the gospel. Disciples of the church build their identity around attendance.
2. We Criticize Other Churches
We all tend to think that we’re the pure, true, and most correct church. This may in fact be true, but when we demonize others and divide on secondary matters, we are trying to defend Jesus when he needs no defense. When we criticize others, we are making disciples of our church because we want to keep people near to us and away from "them." We're more concerned about them huddling up with us instead of sending them out on mission. Suddenly your criticism serves as a ploy to justify “your church” and all of its perfection. We must remember that, unless heretical teachings exist elsewhere, all churches built on the gospel of Jesus are on the same team. We are fighting the same fight under the same Master. If a person in the church wants to join mission with another church, they should be sent away with joy and prayer. We should love other Jesus-glorifying churches as we all make disciples of him.
Disciples of Jesus are known for their love (John 13:35). Disciples of the church are known for what they’re against.
3. We Invite People to Come but Don't Tell Them to Go
This is a classic - and often overlooked - example. When success is defined by an individual’s attendance and giving instead of obedience to the gospel, we make disciples of the church instead of Jesus. When we over-emphasize “church” activities (Bible studies, Sunday night services, Wednesday night services, age-appropriate services, missional communities, service projects, etc.), it is no wonder a person views church as merely a thing they attend. They tend to embrace the goods and services, pay their money, and leave. We are so busy seeing church as a come-and-see event that people aren’t sent out on mission into their families, groups of friends, neighborhoods, workplaces, and to the ends of the earth. We must equip people in the power of the gospel to take that gospel out into their everyday lives. A lamp under a basket does not offer light to a dark world (Matt. 5:15-16).
Disciples of Jesus are sent on mission and challenged to do so. Disciples of the church just come and sit.
4, We Make Gatherings a Gimmick
When we ignore the mission of making disciples of Jesus, we tend to fill the time with goods and services. Suddenly, the bulk of our teaching becomes a gimmick to “get people to church" instead of a passionate plea for mission through the power and purpose of the gospel. We set up our Sunday mornings to make it as comfortable as possible. This is related to point #3, because instead of freeing up the church calendar for mission, we fill it with entertainment that ultimately distracts people from the real task at hand. Instead of training people for war, we entertain them with pithy paraphernalia. I get it. It’s often easier, because living our lives on full display for a doubting and watching world is hard. But Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow him. This means that church gatherings are a training ground for gospel battle, not a hip place to drink coffee and feel better about ourselves.
Disciples of Jesus long for the gospel, long to see not-yet believers come to Christ, and situate their lives to accomplish this. Disciples of the church long for the newest and best gimmick at church.
5. We Make the Gospel Dependent Upon Men
It's tempting to default toward trying to get people in the doors so that the gospel invitation can be given by the "professionals." We do this with good intentions, hoping that the lost person will come to faith. However, this sometimes turns into us spending more time getting people to acclimate to our church culture rather than familiarizing them with the good news and the grand mission. The gospel then becomes something only “those” people need to "get saved," and not something that is a daily necessity for all people. We tie their faith to a one-time experience based on the teaching of someone other than Jesus. This stunts their lifelong growth in the gospel. The gospel is the very power of God, not simply a fact to be acknowledged one Sunday morning. We must, with laser-like focus, continually point people to Jesus and the gospel as the only perfect goal. People will let them down; Jesus never will. He must be their prize, their hope, and their motivation toward daily striving.
Disciples of Jesus long for the gospel in every moment. Disciples of the church see the gospel as irrelevant in day-to-day life.
Are we making disciples of Jesus and centering our churches around him and his mission? Or are we too busy making our own survival as an organization the most important thing?
Jason M. Garwood (M.Div., Th.D.) serves as Lead Pastor of Colwood Church in Caro, MI. Jason and his wife Mary have three children, Elijah, Avery and Nathan. He blogs at www.jasongarwood.com. Connect with him on Twitter: @jasongarwood.