Imagine that you are going on a tour of an automobile manufacturing plant. On this particular day, employees from all levels of the company are there, and you have a chance to visit with several of them. Some of them work on the manufacturing lines, others are managers, some are in marketing, and you even have a chance to visit with a board member and the CEO.
In making conversation with the first couple of workers, both of whom work on the manufacturing lines, you happen to ask the same question to each of them. It catches your attention that their answers were very different from one another. If the question had been something like, "What is your name?" you might expect different answers, but not for the question that you asked them: "So, what is it you that you make here?"
The first person described something like this:
But, strangely, the second person described something more like this:
You were sure that both of those things couldn't be manufactured in this one plant, so, being intrigued, you decide to ask the question of every worker you could talk with. To your amazement, you received a huge variety of answers from people at every level of the company. You asked nine more people the same question, and each one described something still different:
On another tour of a similar plant, you had similar conversations and asked the same question. This time, everyone gave the same answer, describing the same product. What was incredible to you, though, was that the product everyone claimed to be making was this:
while the product that you actually saw coming off the assembly line was this:
On yet another similar tour, again with similar conversations and the same question, you noticed that everyone gave the same answer, and this time the product they claimed to be making was the same as was coming off the assembly lines:
What puzzled you this time, though, was that you were at a plant whose building and signs said that it made fire engines, so they should have been making this:
Most churches today have some kind of mission statement, which is a good thing. And many of those mission statements, including that of my entire denomination, will have something like this in them: "To make disciples of Jesus Christ." This is also a very good thing.
Situation One: Problems arise, however, when we don't know what a disciple is, and are very unclear on what it would actually be like to live as one. Regardless of what the mission statements say, if leaders themselves aren't even clear on this, teaching others the meaning of and way into discipleship is certainly impossible. The result is that no unified idea of what we're doing here exists, so everyone has their own ideas. If anything identifiable actually ends up being produced, it's mostly by accident.
Situation Two: Thankfully, increasing numbers of church leaders are too learned and capable in organizational leadership to let such confusion exist, and are very effective at communicating the church's purpose to everyone involved. Many times, though, in the desire for Jesus' gospel to be mass-produced it is first reduced, resulting in a product that is far below what was promised. Instead of "life to the full" that Jesus described, we end up with "things will be really good after you die."
Situation Three: Because of the difficulty of Situation Two, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the original mission handed down to us wasn't realistic; therefore it isn't what Jesus really wants us to be doing, and we should redefine the project altogether. Because of how we misconceive what a life of discipleship is like when we aren't living it, other strategies can seem very appealing in the name of realism, since we'll have serious doubts about how many people would ever actually sign up for how awful we think a life of full-throttle discipleship would be.
If you, like me, would like for your community to steer clear of any of these three options, Dallas Willard offers a simple alternative in part of his masterful final chapter of Renovation of the Heart:
"A simple goal for the leaders of a particular group would be to bring all those in attendance to understand clearly what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and be solidly committed to discipleship in their whole life. That is, when asked who they are, the first words out of their mouth would be, 'I am an apprentice of Jesus Christ.' This goal would have to be approached very gently and lovingly and patiently with existing groups, where the people involved have not understood this to be a part of their membership commitment" (p. 244).
Caution: Before you think I'm encouraging you to start blaming your church or its leaders for being off-track, does the above paragraph describe you? I've recently become convinced that, although we are quick to place the blame on others, the biggest hurdle in the way of our churches being more effective is much closer than we'd like to think.