Reforming Discipleship (Part 1)

In Praise of the Pathway

Many thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled in an attempt to understand and apply the concept of “discipleship” in the local church. Additionally, many thousands of conference hours have been applied to discussing what this means and how it works. It isn’t uncommon to hear exhortations from speakers or authors who say something like, “If your church doesn’t have a ‘disciple-making pathway,’ then in all likelihood you’re not really making disciples.” We also commonly hear of research demonstrating that if your church adopts some form of a pathway approach to discipleship, you’ll see more growth. This newer focus on discipleship in general and “disciple-making pathways” in particular has had both positive and negative effects on the way in which we see disciple-making approached in the local church.

Positively, this has rightly motivated many churches toward intentionality as it relates to the sanctification of its people. The idea that Christian growth and maturity will just sort of work itself out in the context of the church apart from actively pursuing it—that it will just sort of happen via osmosis—is wishful thinking, at best, and negligence, at worst. It simply does not reflect the clear instruction of Scripture for the church as it relates to its spiritual life and health. And so, in this regard, there is a lot to be thankful for as it relates to the Disciple-Making Pathway approach (what we’ll call DMP).

The Problems with the Pathway

Negatively, however, this newer focus on discipleship has caused confusion. Read 100 different DMP books on discipleship and you’ll get 100 different definitions of what “discipleship” means (or no definition at all). It has become classic “junk drawer jargon.” In other words, since the word can mean practically everything, it doesn’t end up meaning much of anything.

But we shouldn’t be surprised that these definitions are so varied and confused, as they mostly reflect how DMP material tends to approach the Bible. The primary problem with the pathway approach is that it’s almost entirely rooted in a genre of Scripture that was never primarily intended to be read or taught this way. Of the multiple DMP books on my shelf, all of them mostly appeal to the life of Jesus in the Gospels (without actually mentioning his death much at all) in order to make their case for how local church leaders should go about the business of making disciples. The entire philosophy appears to take a WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) approach to ministry life in the local church, appealing to specific examples in the life of Christ and (awkwardly, at times) attempting to apply them in our context.

Now, please hear me: I’m not at all arguing at all that the Christian shouldn’t seek to emulate Jesus. I take seriously the clear biblical calling to become more like Christ. As John wrote in his first epistle, “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:5b-6, ESV). And so of course the gospels will be a useful tool in identifying the heart of Christ that we should seek to exemplify.

WWJD or WJDTWCND?

I am arguing, however, that these gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not primarily written to show Christians what to do (WWJD). They were primarily written to show Christians what Jesus did that we could never do (WJDTWCND). These narratives reflect the historical reportage of the events surrounding the gospel. They tell the story of what Christ did for us. They make it clear that his disciples were unable to live like him, and indeed, this is why he had to come.

Another way of saying this is that we must be very careful to draw a clear distinction between description (describing what has already been done for us) and prescription (prescribing to the church what we must do) as we read the Gospels. To be clear, some of what we find in the Gospels is prescriptive material (i.e. much of Jesus’s teaching), but I would argue that most disciple-making pathways root themselves in passages in the Gospels that were meant to describe the work of Christ for us rather than prescribe a certain method of disciple-making.

This is perhaps the greatest weakness of the DMP approach to Scripture. How does one take these passages of Scripture and distill from them a disciple-making strategy for the church? Which details should be included? Which ones should be left out? When we call people to discipleship, should we primarily focus on those whom we desire (Mark 3:13)? When we teach, should we regularly speak in parables with the expressed purpose that people may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand (Mark 4:10-12)? If not, why not? Did Jesus really call the disciples in Luke 5 because they were modeling the ability to go to the next level with him? Since Jesus had twelve disciples he taught more generally, three he taught more specifically, and one he taught more regularly, does the author share this because he wants his readers to apply it in their disciple-making relationships? The determination of which details to apply or leave out seems completely unhinged to me.

A Few Specific Examples

A good example of this problem is shown to us in the book of Mark. As New Testament Scholar Grant Osborne has pointed out, Mark’s entire Gospel account centers on the theme of “discipleship failure.” He writes, “In the success-oriented society within which we reside, Christians tend to believe that discipleship failure should not occur. For this the healthy realism of Mark is a valuable antidote.” Indeed, how one forms a successful disciple-making pathway on the basis of Jesus’s strategy in Mark, when a major theme of that account is “failure in discipleship”, is just another example of the confusion that abounds in this approach. What is in view here is not a guide or pathway for us to distill but rather, as Osborne says, “faith and prayer” in order to “counter the problem of self-dependence.”

That we tend to approach the Gospels with the lens of what we should do is a normal tendency, as this is the default mode of the human heart. One of the reasons that Christians must seek to preach the good news of Jesus to their own hearts daily is because we will always be inclined to read these accounts primarily through the lens of what we need to rather than the lens of what has been done for us.

And the teachings of Jesus in these gospel accounts make this clear. Jesus begins one of his largest sections of teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That is to say, the blessing of God through the cross of Christ will be given to those who recognize that they are not capable of walking like Christ apart from the grace of the gospel. As D.A. Carson writes in his commentary of Matthew,

“To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge spiritual bankruptcy. It confesses one’s unworthiness before God and utter dependence on him. Therefore those who interpret the Sermon on the Mount as law and not gospel stumble at the first sentence. The kingdom of heaven is not given on the basis of race, earned merits, the military zeal and prowess of Zealots, or the wealth of a Zacchaeus. It is given to those who are so ‘poor’ that they know that they can offer nothing and do not try. They cry for mercy, and they alone are heard.”

 Another example actually comes to us in one of the passages in which Jesus sends out his disciples (Luke 9-10). As pastor and author Jonathan Dodson explains,

“Certainly, Jesus did model, and instruct, and send disciples, though his criticism when they returned wasn’t that they failed to multiply. In Luke 9, the narrative of the sending of the twelve ends oddly, not on their triumphant return, but on their faithfulness to the gospel (9:6). In Luke 10, however, the seventy-two sent disciples do return triumphantly. Oddly, Jesus does not ask if anyone repented. In fact, he warns them of rejoicing in the power of disciple-making. He essentially says, ‘Don’t rejoice in your power to make disciples and topple demons, but rejoice that you are God’s children. Rejoice in your identity and not in your activity.’”

In other words, the primary purpose of these accounts is not found in us unearthing some ancient strategy for disciple-making by reading beneath the surface of the narrative portions of the text and then applying that to our ministry, but rather in seeing Jesus accomplish for his people what they were unable to accomplish so that now we can be reconciled to him. This is the lens through which these portions of the Gospel accounts must be read.

Two Different Approaches to the Christian Life

DMP material, however, seems to be inclined toward the exact opposite. While each “pathway” approach is slightly different, the vast majority places individuals on some kind of a continuum—perhaps an infant-to-parent continuum, or a new-believer-to-mature-leader continuum—and they’re often pictured with such images as a funnel, a certain number of chairs, or a baseball diamond, in which an individual is essentially called to make progress. And this progress is almost always described in terms of attaining various spiritual disciplines for each level along the way (e.g. prayer, Bible reading, commitment to the local church, ministry in the local church, tithing, etc.). This should immediately tip us off as to why the Epistles are so rarely mentioned in DPM material. This is not how the Apostle Paul, for instance, viewed the spiritual growth of the church, both individually and corporately. It’s not how he wrote about what it looks like to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. For Paul, it was less about focusing on spiritual disciplines themselves and more about living into the reality of the gospel itself.

See, in most cases, one of the first steps of the pathway is to “repent and believe the gospel.” This is good and right. But after this initial mention of repentance and belief in the gospel (usually mentioned as the thing that “gets us in”), our progress is mostly measured in terms of our attainments. In other words, the gospel is often assumed throughout the process. The first step along the way is “repent and believe the gospel,” but the Scriptures make it clear that every step along the way should be under the heading, “repent and believe the gospel.”

 This is not theological hair-splitting. While DMP material often measures progress by the attainment of disciplines, the Scriptures make it clear that these attainments are secondary and flow out of the gospel. The gospel is primary and should be explicitly positioned that way in all of our disciple-making strategies.

 This is also not semantics. It actually reveals two different approaches to the Christian life. It shows us two different beliefs about how Christians grow. One tells us that the source of our justification is the same source as our sanctification—the cross of Christ and the work of the Spirit. The other (intentionally or not) functionally places our spiritual disciplines as the driving force, which is less like putting the cart before the horse and more like believing that the cart can pull the horse dragging and kicking behind it.

Moving Forward

 See, there’s no question that the church has been commanded by Christ himself in the Gospels to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” This is a prescriptive command to the church from Christ himself. This Great Commission for the local church is not optional. The question, therefore, is not whether we are to make disciples. The question is how we are to do it. Where should we primarily look for instruction regarding disciple-making in the local church? I would argue that we should primarily seek out instructions for disciple-making from within the places of Scripture that were written for that purpose.

In sum, this is the primary problem with the pathway approach: it doesn’t appear to be found in the Bible unless we attempt a reading of Scripture that not only fails to account for the author’s intent in writing, but also tends to awkwardly read between the lines of the text (“Jesus did such-and-such a thing first, then second, then third,”) in order to discover what we must do. But what if, instead of a pathway, local churches adopted the biblical approach of intentional gospel application both individually and corporately for the people of God? What if, instead of placing people on a continuum based upon their spiritual disciplines, we equipped them to apply the gospel and see the cross of Christ as the great motivator for the Christian life? What if “Repent and Believe the Gospel” was the heading over every aspect of disciple-making? This will be the subject of my next post.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally written for publication at RememberingGrace.Org.

We're a Movement, Not an Institution

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I was recently catching up with two friends who are part of a church plant far away from Minnesota. Their church was planted for the same reason we planted Gospel Life Church: To make disciples of Jesus Christ in their specific context. They’re struggling to do that though. Let’s look at this story and see two things we can learn from it:

This church planted out of a big church in another town. Shortly after the church had its first service, the pastor’s wife began having problems with a mental illness that previously seemed under control. Because of that, the pastor (rightly) began to focus less on the church and more on his wife and children. The church had a leadership team, but no elders, so the leadership team has been leading the church by committee.

A year into their church, they have about ten programs, almost all of which are focused on the people that are already in the church.

I share this story because as a young church we must learn from both positive and negative examples. The story above makes me sad, and Gospel Life Church could struggle in a similar way if we do not learn their from struggles. There are two warnings I see for our church from this story:

1. Plurality of Pastors

The planting pastor in this story made the right decision to give extra attention to his family in this season of struggle. A man who is willing to neglect his family for the sake of the church is not a man worthy of the pastorate. How sad is it though, that a pastor would have to choose between the health of the church he serves and the health of his family? The church in this story was lead by a single pastor, and that left them vulnerable to attack.

The New Testament norm for church leadership is a plurality of pastors. (Call them elders, bishops, overseers, shepherds; those words all point to the same role.) These pastors have the joyful-obligation of shepherding the church through preaching and prayerful leadership. Some of these pastors will be freed up financially to lovingly serve the church at a full time capacity (i.e. Jeremy), and some of these pastors will lovingly serve the church in a non-vocational capacity. The important thing is that these pastors are spiritually qualified (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Timothy 3:1-7). They must not exercise leadership to serve themselves, but to serve the Lord and the local church.

If the church from the story above had a plurality of spiritually qualified pastors, the church wouldn’t have struggled so much in the absence of one of them. But since there was only one pastor, his absence created a crisis for the church.

Jeremy is currently our only pastor, but he is working to train up more pastors at Gospel Life Church. While we currently do not have formal eldership in place, Chris Haskett, Pete Johnson, and Ben Reis are serving on our Ministry Council, which is serving the church in a very similar way as pastors would serve. This ensures that even while we only have one person who is serving in the role of pastor, we have more than one person leading the church at the early stages of our existence. Let’s pray for those who will join him as pastors, that they would lead us well on the mission of making and shepherding disciples of Jesus Christ

2. Institutional Focus Instead of Movement Focus

New churches tend to make more disciples (per 100 people) than older churches. One big reason for this is a new church is not an institution and therefore does not need to think like an institution. At Gospel Life Church we don’t have a big building with problems to fix, hundreds of Christians to nurture, and several committees to go through before making a decision about the direction of our church.

We are light on our feet with no previous traditions or attachments to the way “we’ve always done things.” We’re not an institution. Heck, we can barely be described as an organization. We’re a group of friends who are on an adventure together to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

It’s very easy though, for church people like me to forget church planting is about a movement and not an institution. I’ve got to constantly remember the purpose of church planting, or else I’ll start thinking in institutional terms. If I do not regularly remind myself that we exists to make disciples of Jesus Christ in our local context, I’ll start thinking in institutional terms.

That is what happened in the church plant from the story. They didn’t have a pastor who was leading them on mission, and so, they forgot they were on a mission to make disciples and began to think like they were on a mission to keep an institution afloat. When they thought of things to do as a church, they thought like church people: “We need a women’s ministry, men’s ministry, a youth group for those two kids who come with their parents, etc.”

What they needed to do was think in terms of, “How can we honor God by making disciples of Jesus Christ in our local context?” They had the ability to be a movement, but they began thinking like an institution. They were like a group of ten-year-old -boys who sat around talking about their taxes. They needed someone to come up to them and say, “Hey kids, you don’t have to do your taxes. Now take your slippers off, put down the dominoes, and go outside and ask the other kids in the neighborhood to play some football!”

Brothers and sisters, our Heavenly Father has allowed us to be on this church planting adventure with Him and for Him. This is unlike anything any of us have ever done. Let’s continue to work together with childlike joy as we make disciples of Jesus Christ in our specific context. And let’s pray for more pastors to lead us while we are on this mission.

A New Season

About a year ago, a small group of adults and children began meeting in the Sandberg Chapel of New Hope Church in order to dream and pray together about what it might look like to plant a new church in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis. We didn’t have a building or meeting space in the neighborhood. We didn't have a detailed strategy for planting a new church. We didn't even have a church name. What we did have were three foundational points of vision that unified us as a team (the desire to be a church for skeptics, a church for the neighborhood, and a church that plants churches). We had a shared sense of calling to this vision. We had a deep conviction that the good news of Jesus brings transformation. And we had new and growing relationships with one another as a church planting family.

Since that point, we’ve chosen a name for our church and crystalized much of our vision and mission. We’ve been graciously given an amazing space in which we’ve been able to meet weekly as a team. We’ve also hosted numerous community gatherings and worship gatherings alongside of many hours of prayer and preparation as a launch team. It hasn't always been easy. In fact, it's been incredibly challenging. Church planting is hard work. But we have seen the Lord at work—many times in unexpected ways.

For the past few months, we have been meeting primarily on Sunday nights in Marcy Holmes, rotating between opportunities to worship together and opportunities to connect friends into our community. This has been a great season for us to continue to learn from people in Marcy Holmes, serve our neighborhood, experiment with the structure of our liturgy, build relationships, and continue to pray/prepare as a team. We are so thankful.

As our journey as a church continues to unfold, and as we continue to meaningfully and relationally engage skeptics in Minneapolis with the good news of Jesus, we also sense that this is the right time to begin a new season. Starting on November 5, Gospel Life Church will launch into public weekly worship gatherings on Sunday mornings from 9-10:15am. This will enable us to worship together more consistently as a church family, continue to have a consistent and faithful presence in our neighborhood, include new friends in the context of our worship, and continue utilizing Sunday nights for mission.

The Lord continues to provide for us and move us forward. We are so thankful for Andrew Riverside Presbyterian Church and the friendship that we have formed with them, enabling us to move into this new and exciting season. They have been extremely gracious with us, and we are thankful for their friendship.

Would you continue to pray for us as we launch into weekly worship services on November 5? Pray for our continued relationship with Andrew Riverside as we begin this new season, for wisdom as we continue the journey, and for non-believing people to put their faith in Jesus. And consider coming out on November 5 and joining us for worship! Check out our events page for more opportunities to connect.

"Theory" vs. "Reality" in Evangelism

One of the things that we have been learning together as a church plant over the past few months is the gap that we often see between “theory” and “reality.” In other words, often times in our preparation and training, we would read or hear about a theory on a particular area of church planting that sounded like it would probably be what we would experience—especially given the context in which we were planting—only to then discover that it was not even close to the reality on the ground. Nowhere, from my perspective, has this been more evident than in the area of evangelism. Here are some of the theoretical myths that have been busted in our neighborhood as we’ve been engaging people in spiritual conversations.

Theory: “Don’t focus on the eternal—focus on life right now.”

This theory is widely believed to be true, and it sounds something like this: “People today (especially ‘millennials’) don’t want to hear about eternal life—they mostly want to know how they can access life right now, because they often times feel hopeless right now.”

Before going any further, let me just clarify: Of course the good news of Jesus brings life right now. It brings life to individuals and life to the surrounding community. Of course that’s true. That being the case, however, here’s the reality we’re experiencing on the ground:

Reality: People are hungry for conversations about eternity.

While it’s true that the eternal life that Jesus offers begins right now, the idea that people are more interested in the “life right now” discussions about the gospel than they are about eternity is simply not the case. I’ll say this: both in my own gospel conversations that I’ve had in the past several months with skeptical, non-believing people and in what I’m hearing from members of our Launch Team regarding their interactions, I have yet to unearth an interaction with a non-believing, post-graduate, young professional, long-term resident, or U of M student in our neighborhood for whom the above theory would completely apply.

A few weeks ago at one of our community gatherings in which we looked to serve the neighborhood by getting the neighbors together for food and conversation, a young man named Joshua (upper 20s, lives in the neighborhood) walked straight up to me and another team member and said, “I need you to tell me what’s going to happen to me when I die.” I told him that we should grab some food together and talk about it at a table. He said to me, “I don’t care about the food that you’re offering me or the music or the tables—I want to know about life after death. I want to know about Jesus.” He wasn’t going to move from the place where he was standing until I told him what the Bible says about life after death. Here’s what we’re seeing, though: Joshua isn’t the exception—he actually represents, in many ways, the hunger for these conversations that we’re seeing in Southeast Minneapolis among those who are truly unchurched.

But in addition to that, the idea that the gospel as it’s presented in Scripture is described primarily in terms of “life right now” is also not the case. In fact, the opposite is surely true. I’ve quoted this in a previous post, but this exhortation from D.A. Carson is so good and timely.

“There’s a great deal in the Bible that just doesn’t make sense anymore unless you have an expectation of life to come. The whole call of suffering in this life, unless there’s vindication in the end, is basically a call to masochism… It may be true that in America 50 years ago, we were fighting too much over eschatological details. But nowadays we’ve got a brand of Christianity rife in the land which doesn’t deny that there is life to come, but it’s not very significant. What is significant is how Christianity affects your life now. That’s a vast distortion from the emphases of Scripture. Of course Christ affects your life now. Of course you have eternal life now. But the great anticipation in Scripture constantly is the life to come. Laying up treasure in heaven. And there’s very little in Scripture that makes sense without seeing that. Very little. Very little of Christian ethics. Very little of Christian doctrine. Very little of Christian value systems. Very little of Christian worldview. ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’”

So the fact that people are hungering for eternal things shouldn’t surprise us at all. It’s not that people are disinterested in eternal things—it’s actually that they are looking for permission, often times, to talk about it with people they trust. Life and death is a deeply personal and intimate topic for conversation. But it’s one that many people desperately want to have.

Theory: “Don’t communicate the gospel too quickly—grow the relationship first.”

This theory sounds something like this: “If we communicate the gospel too quickly, we will risk ruining the relationship and we will lose the platform for evangelism. We need to take a long time patiently building credibility first and then we should engage with the gospel later on.”

And so again, I want to clarify: Of course we should work to build genuine credibility both in neighborhoods and with individuals. Relationships are extremely important. We need to develop genuine and authentic friendships with people from a posture of love and service regardless of whether or not they ever receive Jesus. We’re loved enough by him in the gospel to offer the same thing to others. Of course that’s true. That’s why, at Gospel Life Church, we often say that we want to meaningfully and relationally engage non-believing people with the good news of Jesus. It has to be done in the context of relationships. Having said all of that, here’s the reality:

Reality: When it comes to a gospel conversation with a friend—the sooner, the better.

One of my close friends, who pastors in the Czech Republic (one of the most skeptical/atheistic countries in the world), has helped us quite a bit as we’ve wrestled through this one. They discovered what we’re discovering—that the longer you take to introduce a friend to Jesus, the harder that conversation will become. In part it becomes harder because there’s this huge aspect of your life that you’ve concealed from someone with whom you were building a friendship (and so it can feel like a bait and switch—“why were you keeping that from me?”), and it part it becomes harder because the longer the relationship exists apart from conversation, the more the fear grows that you’ll lose the relationship if you start the conversation.

And so the reality is that we need to be okay potentially being the “weird Christian friend” right out of the gate—that as we begin these relationships, we’re learning that, more often than not, we need to share about who we are as a result of who God is and what he has done.

Theory: “Don’t give many answers—just sit with people in their questions.”

Another theory is that we should stop trying to answer questions/doubts that non-believing people have and just be with them in their doubts—that we need to teach them to “embrace the tension” more than stating what we believe to be true.

And for part of this, I want to say, “amen.” Of course we need to listen well to others, and so often our inclination to give answers keeps us from listening well. People need to know that they are being heard—not just talked at. Of course that's true. And yet…

Reality: People are looking for answers.

This overlaps to a great degree with my response to the first theory, so I won’t belabor the point (too much). But both as a student ministry pastor for ten years and now as a church planter for the past year, nearly every time when what I should be seeing is a non-believing millennial (high school, college, post-grad, etc.) who is answer-averse, what I actually experience ends up being almost exactly the opposite. This is just another example of something that I keep being told about what millennials must be like that is out of line from reality. Additionally, the evidence here is not just anecdotal. The research demonstrates that the churches/movements that embrace a more answer-averse approach to culture are also shrinking the fastest

The reality is that the Spirit of God, working through the Word of God, gives us answers. These answers will seem counter-intuitive to the world around us. For “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor 2:12).

Theory: “Don’t waste time preaching. People want to contribute—not hear a lecture.”

We’re pretty new to the more regular worship gathering thing. And so I don’t bring this up because we’re seeing a large number of non-believers either drawn or challenged directly by the preached Word at one of our gatherings. We haven’t seen that up to this point. Having said all of that, here’s the reality:

Reality: Preaching is another reminder that the gospel isn’t just for non-believing skeptics—believers need the gospel just as much.

The gospel isn’t synonymous with outreach or evangelism. At the end of the day, all of us need to, in a sense, be evangelizing one another—moving one another from unbelief in the gospel to belief in the gospel in every sphere of life. Rooting all of life in the good news of Jesus together. And so we need to get beyond this idea that preaching is the same thing as any other kind of dispersing of information. We need to come to understand that while we will always, because of our default mode, want to contribute to God’s grace, preaching is another picture of what it looks like for God’s people to receive the Word without adding anything, which points us by his Spirit to the cross—to grace. And so preaching is central in the life of the church—the gospel proclaimed so that believers can hear it, repent, and believe, and the gospel proclaimed so that non-believing friends can hear it, repent, and believe.

None of this is to say that there is no truth at all in these theories, as I’ve stated above. I just wonder if it’s possible that, once again, what we are actually doing is importing some of our own struggles and agendas onto the hearts of non-believers when, in actual fact, non-believers are wrestling with the questions that we find at the heart of the gospel.

While we definitely don’t have this figured out, we’re grateful that we serve a God who speaks through his Word to our friends so that we don’t have to carry the burden of convincing our friends into the kingdom. Please pray for us as we continue on this journey of meaningfully and relationally engaging skeptics in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Gospel Expectation—From the Czech Republic to Minneapolis

In the summer of 2007, I had the privilege of leading a group of high school students to co-host an English Camp with Josiah Venture in the Czech Republic. Our desire was to share the good news of Jesus with students in Czech. God had gone before us and blessed us immensely by partnering us with extraordinary servants and missionaries in Czech, Trevor and Cassie Long. Our hope was to create more opportunities for them and their church in Sumperk to connect with high school students throughout the year.

When the first day of English Camp arrived and the students pulled into the parking lot, one of the first people who stepped off of the bus was a 17-year-old by the name of Vašek Andrš. Like most students in Czech, Vasek was an atheist. Up to this point in his life, he had never met a Christian let alone talked about the gospel with one. It quickly became clear to me that he was not open to the idea that what the Bible has to say about Jesus was true. He would argue with us often and made sure we knew that he believed the gospel to be foolishness.

Vašek continued in relationship with Trevor and Cassie over the year and not only came back to English Camp the following summer but also visited our church in Minnesota. We had many more gospel conversations. He still appeared to be unmoved and maybe even seemed more grounded in his atheism than before.

As Vašek tells the story, though, later on that year, in an effort primarily to find inconsistencies and prove Christians wrong, he started reading a Bible that someone had given him. And one night, all of a sudden, as Vasek was reading about the good news of Jesus directly from the pages of Scripture, he felt a peace come over him and found himself believing strongly that what he was reading was true. He read the Scriptures and was convinced that he desperately needed this good news of Jesus. His life was forever changed.

There’s a lot more to this story, involving many more people, obviously, but let’s just quickly fast-forward ten years. Since that point in Vašek’s life, he has not only been given a strong desire to share the gospel with his friends (and has seen some of his friends come to believe), but he has planted a church in his home town in the Czech Republic with a desire to reach non-believing people. He has become an important voice in my life as we seek to do the same thing here in Minneapolis. This past Sunday I had the joy of watching him preach in all three services at our parent church. I learn so much from him. And he has become another reminder to me of whose work we really depend upon in planting churches and sharing the gospel.

If someone had told me right after that first English Camp that one of those students would dedicate his life to church planting, preach at our church, and become someone to whom I would turn with questions about preaching, evangelism, and mission, I would have probably thought that Vašek was too grounded in unbelief to be that person. But that was actually my unbelief in what the Spirit of God does through the Word of God. And it’s a constant reminder to me that we need to hold strongly to this faith commitment that the Spirit of God does indeed work through the Word of God to proclaim the gospel for both salvation and sanctification.

As we proclaim the gospel in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood, Vašek’s story (and the story of many others) reminds me that we can and should have a gospel expectation when we share the good news of Jesus. It reminds me of this quote from the English Missionary Roland Allen:

“St. Paul expected his hearers to be moved. He so believed in his preaching that he knew it was ‘the power of God unto salvation.’ This expectation is a very real part of the presentation of the Gospel. It is a form of faith.”

Let’s continue to be reminded together that evangelism in Southeast Minneapolis, the Czech Republic, or anywhere else in the world is not rooted in our abilities to figure out what people want to hear but rather in a faith commitment that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). This is his work, ultimately. As a good friend of mine said recently, we’re just holding the sandpaper.

Three Convictions Behind Our Mission

As Gospel Life Church has been gathering with our launch team and friends for prayer, worship, and community over the course of these last few months, one of the primary areas for discussion and teaching has been our mission statement:

Rooting all of life in the good news of Jesus for his glory and the city’s good.

This is what we want to be doing together at Gospel Life Church because this is how we believe the Bible describes what it looks like for the church to make disciples. In other words, we believe that this is just another way of summarizing how the Scriptures talk when it comes to what we should primarily be about as a church in Southeast Minneapolis. We also believe that this mission is timely for the church and for the city. Here are three reasons why (and three convictions that serve as the foundation for our mission):

1.     The Transformative Power of the Gospel

“Rooting all of life in the good news of Jesus…”

Behind this first part of our mission is the conviction that the gospel is what everyone in our church needs. In other words, regardless of someone’s background—whether they have never set foot in a church or grew up attending church—whether they are skeptical of the claims of Christianity or have believed as long as they can remember—what we all need to hear, believe, understand, and apply is the good news of Jesus.

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to Titus, written from one church planter to another, he writes,

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age." (Titus 2:11-12). 

This is the normative way that the work of the gospel is described in the New Testament. Paul writes that the work that the grace of God in Jesus accomplishes in the life of a believer is absolutely to save us (“bringing salvation”) but also to sanctify us (“training us”). When the gospel is believed, it of course brings salvation for people, but it also brings transformation. It changes us.

So when a non-believer comes into the context of our community, whether it’s in the form of a worship gathering, community group, or some kind of an event for the surrounding community, what they need to hear is more of the gospel so that they can come to believe in what Christ has accomplished for salvation. And when a believer comes into the context of our community in those same places, what they need to hear is more of the gospel so that they can come to believe in what Christ has accomplished in the areas of life where it seems to be doubted and isn’t being applied. This is the simplest form of a “disciple-making pathway,” because the greatest need for every person at every stage is more of the gospel of Jesus.

2.     The Glory of God

“…for his glory…”

I think some people might wonder whether talking about “God’s glory” is somehow mandatory for all church mission statements. But this is not throwaway language that we put in the statement just to make sure we have it in there. This is, truly, essential for us.

As James K.A. Smith makes clear in his important book, You Are What You Love, we ought to think of ourselves as being shaped primarily by what we love, as our behaviors flow out of our desire. He unpacks the work of Augustine, in part, to make his argument. Augustine begins with a claim about how human beings were designed: Namely, that we were made by and for the Creator who is known in Jesus Christ. Smith writes,

“To be human is to be on the move, pursuing something, after something. We are like existential sharks: we have to move to live. We are not just static containers for ideas; we are dynamic creatures directed toward some end.

But as Augustine describes for us, what drives us along is the pursuit of our loves. The problem is that sin in the human life (dethroning God and seeking our own glory and the glory of other things) has disordered our loves, and now our disordered loves wreak all kinds of havoc in the human life. The Apostle Paul speaks to the far-reaching implications of this in Romans 3. As a result of our disordered loves, which he describes in detail in the first chapter, now “no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:11-12).

In other words, the question for Augustine is not whether you will worship, but rather what you worship. It’s never whether you will live for the glory of something, but rather what you are seeking to glorify. And because “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick” as a result of sin (Jeremiah 17:9), and because that is true of everyone, our loves are leading us into destruction rather than peace. The good news, though, is that the work of Jesus has now made a way for our loves to be properly “re-ordered.” Jesus loved us too much to watch our sinful hearts deceive and destroy us. He lovingly stepped into our place, taking what we deserve (wrath and judgment) so that we can get what he deserved (life, joy, and peace with the Father). His resurrection not only points us forward to our future hope, but raises us up from our former lives, as we now have new desires. Now, because of our love for Jesus Christ and our all-consuming desire that he is glorified as our precious and satisfying savior, we want to repent and believe the gospel in all of life. Our hearts are turned toward him. We have communion with him. And we want to glorify him.

3.     The Good of People

“…and the city’s good.”

We believe that when we root all of life in the good news of Jesus together for the glory of God, it will be for the good of people. We believe that while the visions of the good life that the surrounding culture holds out to us seem to make sense to the human heart, they end up producing the opposite of what they promise—and it seems counter-intuitive to us. (How could this device that promises to connect me with people leave me feeling more isolated? Why does all of this busyness at work leave me more empty?) Similarly, the gospel is also counter-intuitive to the human heart. In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes,

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, but Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

In the same way that the visions of the good life held out by the world tend to lead to the opposite in a counter-intuitive way, the gospel of Jesus Christ, though seen as foolishness in our world, is truly for its good. And it doesn’t just offer something for the world right now, but holds out an eternal hope. The gospel is for the good of people and will be for the good of the Marcy Holmes neighborhood.

We are so thankful to be in community with other believers who desire to be about this mission together: Rooting all of life in the good news of Jesus for his glory and the city’s good. Learning to speak the gospel well to others and one another, learn to apply that gospel even in the hard places, driven on together by a shared passion for the name of Jesus, and invested in our neighborhood together. Would you pray for us as we seek to share the gospel in Southeast Minneapolis?

Church Planting in Southeast Minneapolis

One consistent realization that I’ve had these past few months as I’ve prepared for church planting in Minneapolis is that if you talk to ten different people about church planting, you get nearly ten different ideas of what church planting is and why we should engage in it. So I thought it would be appropriate and timely to kick off the Gospel Life Church blog by describing in a bit more detail why we desire to plant a church in Southeast Minneapolis.

Eleven years ago this month, my wife Amy and I moved from Chicago (Crystal Lake, IL) to Minneapolis (New Hope, MN). I had just finished seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois and had accepted my first ministry position, which I also strongly believed would be my last. I had received a call to New Hope Church as the Pastor of Student Ministries. This is why I went to school to receive training—I strongly sensed a calling into youth ministry. I had received an undergraduate degree in youth ministry before my time at Trinity, and the only reason I decided to pursue seminary after graduating (other than my rather odd fondness for studying) was because I genuinely believed that I needed to do that in order to minister well to students. I thought that if I was going to be able to bring the depths of the gospel into a world of junior high and high school students, I should have more theological training—not less. After ten years of ministering to students, I can say without hesitation that I still believe that to be the case.

In addition, I should say that throughout my time in my undergraduate program/seminary, as I sought to prepare for student ministry, I increasingly believed that church planting was more than just unnecessary—I thought it was a bizarre ministry during a time in which (at least in the Midwest) I was seeing established churches on most street corners, or so it seemed. Church planting, I reasoned, is for the birds. I understood the need for it “somewhere over there,” across the ocean in places where there were no churches. But in the US, where there are so many churches already, shouldn’t we focus our efforts on filling those communities with people instead of planting new ones?

I remember sitting across from Pastor Steve Goold and the Elder Leadership Team at New Hope Church in the summer of 2006 and telling them, “listen, you’re offering me my dream ministry position at the age of 25. This is what I’ve felt called toward since I was in high school, and I’m planning on being here until you all decide that I’m just too old to handle it. But I’ll never make that decision, because this is my calling.” And I meant every word of it. And I still believe strongly that as it related to my calling, it was absolutely true. I was called to pastor students, and the Lord gave me such a gracious and joy-filled ministry season with a church that has truly been our family these last eleven years.

Yet as is so often the case, our perceived plans are not his plans, and our perceived ways are not his ways. About three years into my ministry to students, I became restless, not with youth ministry itself, but with the types of books/resources that primarily looked to equip student pastors. By and large, these resources seemed to be far more interested in a student’s behavior than her heart. Moralism was rampant in the large majority of resources that had come across my desk, and very few mainstream resources reflected the gospel-centered focus of my training.

Frustrated and looking for better tools, I stumbled upon the writings of a guy by the name of Ed Stetzer. I devoured his book, Breaking the Missional Code in 2008. I read everything from him that I could get my hands on, as I found so much of what he was saying to be extremely applicable to the world of student ministry. As I read Stetzer, I came across the writings of a pastor in New York City named Timothy Keller, and after reading a short article that he had written on “The Centrality of the Gospel,” I came to grasp and understand the gospel and its implications in new and fresh ways for ministry to students. I also became increasingly aware of a network of gospel-centered churches known as The Gospel Coalition, and I left their 2009 conference feeling encouraged and recharged in my calling to reach students.

But there was a problem. All of these voices seemed to believe that church planting was not only healthy, but extremely significant. Ed Stetzer’s book on Planting Missional Churches hit me like a ton of bricks as I began to open myself to the idea that maybe our youth ministry should do more to support church planting efforts. I actually remember running on the treadmill at Lifetime Fitness while listening to the sermon by Tim Keller entitled, “Why Plant Churches?”. I was convicted. If even half of what Keller was saying here was accurate, along with what I had already read from Stetzer, the local church needed to give far more resources to church planting--especially in urban settings. And I should be open to doing what I once thought was incredibly strange (and still kind of do, but in a much different way)—planting a new church.

I wasn’t too worried about that possibility, though, because I knew that for this to become a reality in my life, the Lord would have to prepare the hearts of my wife and my senior pastor, as I had no intention to move our family into this season if we weren’t unified on this calling and wholeheartedly sent by our local church family. And since Amy had just recently given birth to our first child, and since I had just started this ministry job three years earlier, I didn’t think I needed to worry. But the Lord had other plans. Both my wife and my pastor affirmed this calling. And while it was a process of waiting for the Lord’s timing (which ended up being seven years later), we are now getting ready to launch this fall in the Marcy Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis.

So what was it about Stetzer and Keller’s arguments for church planting that resonated so deeply in my heart? Well, first of all, let me just say that I genuinely believe that it wasn’t really Stetzer or Keller who did that—it was the Holy Spirit—and it wasn’t through their arguments, but rather through the Scriptures that I became centrally convinced of the significance of church planting. But as the Scriptures convinced me, there were two basic points that became the great motivators for church planting in my life. Those two points continue to surface as we cast vision for planting in SE Minneapolis.

1.     Love for People

Now, on the face of it, this might sound pretty cliché. But the more we read on the pages of Scripture, the more we see the good news of Jesus. And the more we see the good news of Jesus, the more we see God’s love for people to the extent that he stepped into their place and took on their punishment at the cross so that they can be reconciled with him (see “What Is The Gospel” in our FAQ section). This is the love of God for people like me, who even when I had set myself against God as his enemy and was deserving of judgment, he took my judgment so that I could receive life with him forever. And now we as the people of God are loved by Jesus to the point that we desire to love others—to put them first—to welcome them as Christ has welcomes us—even the most skeptical people in our neighborhood—so that they can know God and be reconciled to him.

Do we want to meet tangible needs in the community? Yes. Do we want to come alongside of the poor and the outcast? Yes, without equivocation. Should we be giving our money, time, and resources to those hurting in our neighborhood? Absolutely. Is being rescued from his/her sin and being reconciled to God through Christ the most tangible and real need that a person in this world has? Yes, we believe it is. And so because we care for people, we desire to plant a church that proclaims the good news of Jesus in the city.

In a sermon on John 6, New Testament scholar D.A. Carson says the following:

“There’s a great deal in the Bible that just doesn’t make sense anymore unless you have an expectation of life to come. The whole call of suffering in this life, unless there’s vindication in the end, is basically a call to masochism… It may be true that in America 50 years ago, we were fighting too much over eschatological details. But nowadays we’ve got a brand of Christianity rife in the land which doesn’t deny that there is life to come but it’s not very significant. What is significant is how Christianity affects your life now. That’s a vast distortion from the emphases of Scripture. Of course Christ affects your life now. Of course you have eternal life now. But the great anticipation in Scripture constantly is the life to come. Laying up treasure in heaven. And there’s very little in Scripture that makes sense without seeing that. Very little. Very little of Christian ethics. Very little of Christian doctrine. Very little of Christian value systems. Very little of Christian worldview. ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’”

We wholeheartedly agree that while the gospel brings life to the world right now, the great news of the gospel is that now, because of Jesus, we receive eternal life with him forever—the life that is to come.

What does church planting have to do with proclaiming that message? Church planting is the most effective way to reach non-believing, unchurched people with the good news of Jesus. Study after study shows us (as outlined in arguments made by both Stetzer and Keller) that new churches reach vastly larger percentages of unchurched people than established churches—and not because established churches are doing anything wrong—please don’t hear that. This isn’t heaping any kind of criticism on established churches. Rather, just by nature of what an established church is, and just by nature of what a new church brings into a neighborhood, new churches will always reach unchurched people with this good news most effectively.

So we plant churches out of love for people. And we want to meaningfully and relationally engage even the most skeptical people in Minneapolis with the good news of Jesus because we love people. Additionally, if we are planting churches out of love for people, we should be willing to plant churches where lots of people live. In Minneapolis right now, the population in the downtown and surround neighborhoods is growing at an historic pace. The Marcy Holmes neighborhood has grown 50% in the last five years (from 10,000 to 15,000). This is a crucial time to be engaged in church planting. Motivated by the gospel, this is one of the primary reasons for church planting in Minneapolis.

2.     Passion for God’s Glory

Okay, so again, this might sound pretty cliché or even like the kind of Christian jargon that gets repeated constantly but lacks meaning. However, it is far from empty language. This is ultimately what drives everything we do as a church. In the introduction to the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul begins sharing about this gospel of Jesus Christ, “through whom,” he writes, “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations…” Why does Paul engage in a ministry that seeks to transform lives with the gospel of grace? “For the sake of his name.” That’s why. And that stands behind our motivation at Gospel Life Church to “root all of life in the good news of Jesus for his glory and the city’s good.”

Commenting on Romans 1, the late, great, John Stott writes this:

"The highest of missionary motives is neither obedience to the Great Commission (important as that is), nor love for sinners who are alienated and perishing (strong as that incentive is, especially when we contemplate the wrath of God…), but rather zeal—burning and passionate zeal—for the glory of Jesus Christ.”

We desire to see people (both believers and non-believers) move from their unbelief to belief in the gospel of Jesus in every sphere of life for the fame of the name of Jesus—that he might receive all glory and that his name might be proclaimed here.

So thankful for this community of believers at Gospel Life Church and how the Lord continues to shape us with the gospel of grace to point people to the cross of Christ here in Minneapolis, for his glory.

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