The Roots-Up Church
by Jason Gayoway
Ages ago when the earth was young, I went to seminary and wrote a paper on the strategies for making churches healthier. There are always things to change in a church and I wanted to know what we should focus on. I wanted to know what the ‘right’ way of doing church was, if there was a right way. My head was so full of ideas from seminary that I needed some kind of tool to sort out what I should be aiming for and how to achieve it with a large group of people so we were not all pulling in different directions.
Even back then there were many books written on the topic. Some said that what the church needed was more personal evangelism and gave guidance on how to do so. Others centred on what was called ‘warfare prayer’ and felt that since the church’s primary battle was spiritual it needed to be handled by special prayer. Still others wrote from the perspective of their large churches and sought to replicate the success they had.
Eventually, a large survey was undertaken to try and find core principles for church health and growth that were true across all cultures and sizes of churches. Just reading that now makes me think that they were aiming for the moon! Nevertheless, this survey was completed by about a thousand churches over six continents. This was compiled into a book called ‘Natural Church Development’. To make a long story short, the NCD survey verified many assumptions about how churches should be run and debunked others.
For example, it taught that one of the key focuses of healthy churches was evangelism or what they described as ‘need-oriented evangelism’. The book describes this as evangelism that is focused on the “questions and needs of non-Christians” rather than bringing them into a program where pressure is placed on them to convert. It was also discovered that there was considerable benefit to finding people in the church who had the gift of evangelism and intentionally directing them to this ministry.
Need-oriented evangelism was only one of eight ‘core characteristics’ that were found in healthy churches. The survey determined how each of these could be measured in a congregation and found that these eight characteristics needed to be at certain levels for a church to be healthy and growing. Some of the others had to do with organization and leadership but a significant determinant of whether your church would grow and be healthy, no matter where you lived, was the spiritual temperature of the individuals in it. Your leader could be a great preacher and your boards could be structured superbly, but unless the average person in your church could answer “yes” to questions like, “Do you find prayer to be an uplifting experience?” your church was probably not healthy
Years ago I was the minister of a church that took the NCD Survey. It said we were low in an area called “Passionate Spirituality” which measured things like how on fire people were in their faith and how enthusiastic they were about the church. You can see how this would be a tough area to ‘fix’ in a whole congregation of people. It is like the pastor would have to get to know each member deeply enough to assuage their doubts, build up their areas of faith, and to show them what a real walk with Jesus looks like. As a young pastor I am not sure any of my efforts did much to build people up in this area but I think if I could talk to my younger self I would advise him to consider steering the church towards discipleship. One minister would never be able to do all of these things himself, but maybe if all the mature believers took up this load it might be accomplished. I think we could call a church that did that ‘discipleship-focused’.
A discipleship-focused church has at its core the idea that the life of the church comes from the depth of spirituality of its members, just as the life of a tree comes from its roots not from the decorations hung on its branches. Emphasis is placed on developing one’s prayer life, holiness level, and intimacy with God. This may mean the church tries to create small groups that are safe enough for people to share their deepest truths in. It may foster even smaller groups of three people where time is given for them to really get to know each other and to help each other focus on God. We see Jesus Himself spending time with three people, twelve people, and sometimes larger sized gatherings so discipleship does not have to be done in only one size of group. However, the larger the group the less willing the participants are to be genuine and to talk about what is really going on inside them. We all have our masks and we tend to put them on when we don’t trust the people around us.
How Discipleship Works in a Church
I think one way of looking at what discipleship is trying to accomplish at a church-wide level is to think of a church from the perspective of whether the life of the church is causing organization and programs to form or if the organization and programs are there to try to breathe life into a dead church. My role model for this is the small, new fellowship of believers meeting in a hall somewhere. Not to say all church plants are healthy but let’s imagine we find one that is. There they are, most of them new Christians or vibrant Christians who have taken a chance and started a new church. The fellowship is real because they feel connected with God and with one another. They are a gathering of fellow believers and find lots of time for worship and fellowship since their church is quite simple and program free. What we call ‘discipleship’ seems to happen naturally.
No doubt some of their life comes from the thrill of starting something new or being around new people, but many churches seem to be able to continue in that vein for a long period of time if they are alive at their root level. “That’s great,” you might reply, “but what about older, larger churches that are losing this spiritual vitality? What would you do with the example of a second, larger church seeing a broad decline?” I am not advocating that we scrap all of the ministries in a large church. Those take a long time to set up, but perhaps a light could be shone on the benefits of the whole body going deeper with God.
Life Comes from the Roots
Discipleship is at its core an attempt to invigorate not the superstructure of the church but the roots of it one cell at a time. It doesn’t care so much about when a youth group meets, but whether the youth are growing in their walk with God. It doesn’t seek as such to change the governance model of the leadership as to bring the leaders to a new level of faith and prayer. Let them decide what to do with the structure after they have that. They still might make poor decisions in leadership or planning but they will be on fire for God and so will be granted more chances. Meet up with one of the deacons from the second church and you might be impressed with their skill or planning, meet up with a deacon from the first and you would come away feeling that God is real.
Relationships and personal growth would come before programs and that any new program proposed for the church would be asked, “How does this grow people in their walk with Christ?” I think one of the problems with older churches that have a number of programs is that the members may feel that all of that activity is enough for God. An excess of meetings and programs can hide the fact that the spiritual temperature of the congregation is slowly cooling. I’m not saying that a church has to get rid of all of its programs to be spiritual, but that it has to be much more intentional about discipleship than a small church plant where the focus is solely on our walk with God.
Discipleship does not solve all of the problems of a church since some problems are indeed structural. Godly people still can make bad decisions, follow a flawed vision or be poorly trained in their ministries. This is where better organization and philosophy become practical and life-giving. Even large churches can be filled with life. Numbers do not restrict God. The Spirit can just as easily move in 3,000 as He can in 30. Yet, all too often the organization, the building, and the tradition hide the fact that the roots are dying.
If you have ever had much contact with PRBI, you know that we are focused on discipleship. We teach classes, run sports teams, and have fun together but at the core of it is the concept of helping students grow in their walk with God through various sizes of small, intimate groups. I think it is fair to say that this has succeeded and this success has left a lasting impression on the students who come through here. Many of them go on to be leaders in local churches and one of the first things they want to do is implement the discipleship model in their congregation. It is our hope that this would bless their churches, especially in the area of spirituality.
Originally published in Fall 2015 issue of Trumpet magazine.
Jason has served as PRBI faculty since 2008 and as Pastoral Ministries Chair since 2013. He is married to Jill and they have two children, Austin and Ethan.