Building the church or making disciples?

Jesus said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it’.  He also said, ‘You, go and make disciples, baptising them and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded’.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two statements lately.  Mostly because I have a tendency to think that he asked me to build the church.

But he didn’t.

He said he would build his church.  My part is to make disciples.

The distinction is a subtle one, and certainly not one which I’d choose to argue at an academic level.  But it is a distinction which the Spirit seems to be making me focus on right now.

You see, I too easily assume responsibility for building the church.  I feel the weight of trying to integrate a community of disciples, of trying to encourage them to be outward-reaching, of trying to lead them with a wisdom beyond my years.  The burden of organisational leadership, at times, threatens to destroy me as I get lost in the endless administration of a community of people who are utterly unlike one another, who don’t always understand the responsibilities of community, who are sometimes part-disciple and part-consumer.  I worry about the lack of finance, the lack of workers for the field, the lack of capacity from the leadership team of which I am a part.  I agonise over the effect on the church of those whose brokenness prevents them from relating well with others, the ones who manage to go almost systematically through a community alienating others, and I often find myself on ‘playground duty’, making sure that everyone is playing nicely.  I carry heavy upon me the burden of building the church.

And so sometimes I dread Sundays and I dread meetings set aside to discuss ‘church business’.  I feel strange to confess that because I know I love this people and I love this church.  I cannot imagine doing church with anyone else.  In fact, I fear that, if I wasn’t with these people doing church, perhaps I wouldn’t be anywhere.  So I know I love them and I believe wholeheartedly in what we stand for.

But I am tired.

The last four years since full leadership landed in our laps – by virtue of the ‘last man standing’ principle, as we leaders like to joke! – have been unrelenting.  There has been emotional pain as some have chosen to leave us and others have been moved onwards by God.  There have been the gutwrenching experiences of being misunderstood by those who, in the end, seem not to have carried the same vision.  There has been an increasing financial stretch for the church, the loss of many valued harvest workers and a change in relationship with those who had been like parents in ministry.  There have been occasions where the Hebrews 12 ‘root of bitterness’ sprung up and spread and it was not without considerable work that we were able to repair the damage caused by the one or two.  When it seemed like it could not get worse, it often got worse and, many times, we have been hanging on with nothing more than the sheer stubbornness of those who have paid enough that we feel like there has to be a return on investment coming someday.

So, yes, I am tired.  And there are days when I don’t want this call anymore.

But lately God has been reminding me what that call actually was.

The call was to make disciples.  It says it there, clear as day, in Matthew 28.  Organising a church is not what I was made for.  I do it because a City training made me into a pretty efficient administrator and operational manager.  But.

But Jesus did not give me this call.  He said he would build his church.  And, by my reckoning, that makes things like attendance numbers, cash inflow and budgets, rota management, buildings issues and community integration largely his problem.  OK, I know we are his stewards and therefore he works that stuff out through us.  But I think the dynamic of that is different: if I understand him to be the boss on the church side of things, then he carries the ultimate responsibility for the oversight of the whole church, both pastoral leadership and organisational management of it, and my only task is to do as I’m told instead of carrying all the responsibility.

My side of the deal, then, is to do what he tells me in relation to building the church (and ONLY that!) and to make disciples, baptising them and teaching them.

And that suddenly seems so much more manageable.  Because, whilst I sometimes get to hating Sundays and organisational management meetings, I love making disciples.

I love it when I am with a small group as I have been over the last four weeks, helping them to explore what Mark has to say about discipleship and getting them to design a month of Sunday meetings along this theme.

I love it when I spend an hour or two with someone who wants to work through what God is doing in their life right now, who wants to respond in obedience.

I love it when I am sitting at coffee with one of the students from college, putting the church and the world to rights, knowing that these conversations will be formative for her whole outlook on church in years to come, just as they are for me.

I love it when people e-mail me privately about posts on this blog, telling me how they have heard God speaking to them even as I have poured out my heart careless as to who may have heard.

I love it when I’ve lectured and students have told me that something I said made them see him or his Word in a new way.

I love it when a preach has hit the spot for someone and they know the Spirit has spoken to them.

In short, I love making disciples.  I love to see people being conformed to Christ, the very image of God, and I love to experience the Spirit shaping my life too through these interactions with those same people.  I just don’t love building the church, carrying a responsibility which is more than I can bear.

And, now, I’m thinking that maybe the burden of building the church was never mine to bear.  After all, so what if the entity that we call LifeGiving Church fails one day?  Don’t get me wrong: I’d be devastated and would have fought with everything in me to ensure that it never happens!  But what if God did allow that?  Isn’t it important that I can say that it was always his to do with as he chose, that what matters in the end is whether I made disciples, not whether a church – even one I carried as if it were my own child – existed for decades beyond me?

This is hard stuff for me.  Taking responsibility is in my DNA.  And it does feel like I’ve been pregnant with LifeGiving, like I’ve nurtured it and warred for it, wept and rejoiced over it.  But if we are to move into our next stage of growth, I have to learn to take my hands off, to remember that the one who builds his church is the Lord himself.  And, even now, as I type, I remember that he spoke this same word to me last January: that until I learned to release this precious church to him, it could not grow beyond my capacity.  Indeed, I sense that this releasing of responsibility to him is important not only for the church but also for me, in order that I might first learn that the Saviour really doesn’t need a Superwoman-sidekick(!) and, secondly, that I might be freer to follow the paths he has been beginning increasingly to open up before me, all the while remaining rooted in local church leadership.

So I tread lightly right now, trying to discern what all of this might look like, waiting to know what kind of leader at LifeGiving he wants me to be in this season and to discover what other opportunities for disciple-making through writing and speaking might begin to be interwoven with my leadership role at  LifeGiving.

And, most of all, I pray.  I pray that I will learn how to let go, to see how I can release responsibility for this church back to the One to whom it really belongs, to make space for him to build his church.  May it be so.

Photo credit

7 thoughts on “Building the church or making disciples?

  1. OK, I’ve read it. Good article. Like the bit ‘until I learned to release this precious church to him, it could not grow beyond my capacity’. Well written. I like it. Take care and keep on making disciples..
    Love xxx

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