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An end to ‘Cosy Church’ and ‘Duvet Discipleship’?

ALAN PALMER27th February 2018

Revd Dr Alan Palmer
Lead Chaplain James Paget University Hospitals


A Vision for this Generation

While living and working in Canada for nearly twenty years, I fell in love with the fast, exciting and combative sport of ice hockey. So you can imagine that a hockey analogy would particularly resonate with me. It was said of the late Steve Jobs of Apple that he “could see a pass even before the puck left the stick”. In other words, he had the gift of seeing the direction of future marketing trends before anybody else. That is what made him the phenomenon he was!

What a lesson we have here for those of us who claim to follow Christ in the 21st century. It reminds us, that like Steve Jobs, we have to see the direction of future spiritual trends; to know which way the ‘wind of the Spirit is blowing’ (John 2:8 and 3:8). It is incumbent upon each new generation of believers to learn afresh what God is saying and where God is leading His church. As the 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards, rightly observed “it is the task of every generation to discover in which direction the Sovereign Redeemer is moving, then move in that direction”. Taking our lead from King David we are to glorify God by serving him according to his will in our generation (Psalm 45:17 and Acts 13:36), and like the wise leaders of the tribe of Issachar, we have to understand the signs of the times and the best courses for God’s people to take (1 Chronicles 12:32)

So what is God’s contemporary message to us? What direction does he want us to head in? Perhaps surprisingly for some, I think that God is urging us to go back to basics, back to the core focus of Jesus’ ministry, back to making disciples. I think that Neil Hudson is singing from the same hymn sheet. In his recent book, Imagine Church, he writes that we need a vision (direction) “to see the whole of the people of God live out the whole of their lives under the Lordship of Christ for the sake of the wholeness of God’s mission for the whole world”.  Perhaps the way forward is to go back!

Defining Terms

We have to begin by defining what we mean here. The term ‘disciple’ (mathetes), in Classical and Koine Greek, has the meaning of ‘learner’, ‘follower’, and ‘apprentice’ to a Rabbi or Master Teacher. It involved more than intellectual learning – it demanded that the disciple place himself under his Rabbi’s ‘yoke’ (his teaching and tutelage – see Matthew 11:29), and this included learning both the Rabbi’s words and his way of living. It required closely following the teacher and learning how he lived and operated. In the New Testament there are a variety of words to do with teaching and learning. The Greek word paideia is a lesser-known term, but the concept it represents is pervasive. It means, ‘instruction through action’
In the Ancient World there were two different approaches to education taken by the Greeks and Hebrews. Simply put, the Greek approach was to give the student lots of information to equip them for the task ahead. It was a case of ‘you know the facts now do the job’. Alternatively, there was the Hebrew approach which was, ‘you will be taught the facts as you do the job’. It was action based education! The Hebrew approach to teaching and learning was Jesus’ modus operandi
It should not be surprising then that the New Testament makes discipleship one of its major themes. In his excellent book, Radical Discipleship, the late John Stott noted that, the designation ‘Christian’ is only used three times in the New Testament (Acts 1:26; Acts 26:27-28 and 1 Peter 4:16), while the term ‘disciple’ dominates the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, parts of the New Testament were used as didactic material for discipleship training purposes

Discipleship Manual

My homiletic hero, the late Dr Donald English, even suggested that Mark’s Gospel may have been an early form of ‘Discipleship Manual’. He noted that it is concise, quick and easy to read. It’s pacey – ‘a real page turner’, an ‘airport book’ (my phrase, not his!). It was just the thing to help train new Christians who maybe didn’t have a long life expectancy! Also, Bible teacher David Pawson believes that the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel indicates that it too was intended to be a ‘Discipleship Manual’ to help “make disciples by....teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded“ (Matthew 28:20). In my opinion, The Sermon on the Mount could also be seen as a distillation of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be a ‘kingdom person’ – a true disciple

Discipleship Down the Centuries

From the First Century onwards, the Didache (early teaching document), Bishops, Reformers, and Revivalists and in particular the founder of Methodism John Wesley, have all seen discipleship to be at the core of Christianity. The German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, even went so far as to say that “Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ”.  I find the words of the late David Watson still extremely provocative and challenging “Christians in the West have vastly neglected what it means to be a disciple of Christ. The vast majority of Western Christians are church members, pew fillers, hymn singers, sermon tasters, Bible readers, even born again believers, or spirit filled charismatics – but not true disciples of Jesus”
In the light of this, I believe that God is calling us again to take the words of Jesus seriously. Listen again to Jesus’ commission and command “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations (people groups)” (Matthew 28). Pretty unequivocal isn’t it?  According to Jesus’ original statement then, the true litmus test in terms of modern church life isn’t about the usual ecclesiastical ABCs (Attendance, Buildings, and Cash); it is about D (discipleship)! We can only count ourselves to be successful as churches if we are making lots of ‘whole – life’ disciples, ‘fully devoted followers’ of Christ or what Floyd McClung likes to call ‘FAT Christians’ (Faithful, Available, and Teachable)

The 3 Rs of Disciple-Making

We need to start thinking about the way ahead here. It will mean engaging in the 3 Rs: Recalibrating, Refocusing, and Removing:

       Recalibrating: putting the church back to its ‘factory setting’. That means purposefully and practically focusing on Jesus’ teaching on ‘followership’ and his command to ‘make disciples’;

       Refocusing: on the credal assertion that ‘Jesus is Lord’ of all of life: the Regent College academic, James Houston, states that “Discipleship means a radical reorientation of our existence”. This means that all our lives need to be adjusted to focus on the fact that Christ, the Lord of the Cosmos, is Lord of every particle of existence. Wherever Jesus is, He is Lord, whether we realise or recognise this or not!;

       Removing: the sacred/secular divide: there is no sacred/secular divide; all of life belongs to God. This liberating concept gives our view of church a new perspective. We can now see the church gathered as God’s equipping agency, readying His people to be whole life disciples in the church scattered. It is about preparing them for the frontline role of service and evangelism where God has placed them

Clashing Cultures

Any move away from one model of church to another is always going to create tension among the saints! Gerald Coates, speaking about Baptist churches and change, once quipped “Resist the devil and he will flee from you; resist the deacons and they will fly at you!” Things begin to fly around when you try to change church culture! There will be conflict with any ecclesiastical Culture-Shift. We should not be afraid of this. A church with no conflict is a church where nothing is happening! As Saul Alinsky writes “Change means movement, and movement means friction, and friction means heat, and heat means conflict.  You just can’t get the rocket off the ground discreetly and quietly”
In the context of change, church culture definitely has to be taken very seriously indeed! As Dallas Willard has noted, “there is a power in culture”. Willard continues, “Culture is seen in what people do unthinkingly, what is ‘natural’ to them and therefore requires no explanation or justification. Every (church) has a culture, or really, multidimensional cultures a various levels. These cultures structure their lives” (The Divine Conspiracy, parenthesis added). Church culture is what we do and the way we do it; it is what we say and the way we say it, or perhaps sing it!  How we behave as individual churches is part of our inherited ecclesiastical DNA. It is our ecclesiastical genetic encoding which, if left unchallenged, will determine everything we do. Be warned, we are often unaware of a church’s culture until we try to change it. Then we quickly become all too aware of how powerful it is!


Running smack into the Church-Culture Wall!

I did some of my graduate studies at Regent College in Vancouver Canada in the 1980s. The ethos of the college was one of ‘equipping leaders to equip the people of God’. We saw ourselves as those who would prepare Christians for their work of mission and evangelism in the world. Church for us was about ‘gathering’ in order to be prepared to ‘scatter’ – great in theory!  However, when we left college and tried this concept out in the churches, it was met by resistance in spades. ‘Pastors do the ministry’, we were told – ‘that is what we pay you for’. Pastors, we quickly discovered, were expected to be preachers, counsellors and parish visitors, not new-fangled equippers! Church culture maybe an invisible wall, but you sure know when you run smack into it!

Leaders as Followers and Equippers

However, just because there is resistance to an idea, it doesn’t mean that idea is necessarily wrong. So, if we want to be disciple-making leaders, we have to start seeing ourselves in terms of being disciples – seeing ourselves primarily as followers. As Joe Stowell has written, “Leaders have to be followers of Christ first”. The American author Leonard Sweet states that pastors are to see ‘leadership’ as their role (what they do), but being a ‘disciple’ as their identity (who they are in Christ). Leaders then, are to find their ontological identity in being followers. And to use another sporting analogy here, this time one used by former football manager and TV pundit Iain Dowie, they are to keep ‘touch tight’ to Christ. In his book, The Good Shepherd, Leslie Newbigin notes that “A true Christian pastor will be one who can dare say to his people: ‘Follow me as I am following Jesus’. That is a terrible test for any pastor. A true pastor must have such a relation with Jesus and with his people, that he follows Jesus and they follow him”

The next significant priority is for church leaders to see their primary role as being disciples who disciple others by equipping them. This will mean a huge leadership and membership paradigm shift. Seeing leaders as equippers is not necessarily something we have considered before. So it might help if we revisit and reflect upon Pauls’ words in Ephesians 4:11-12 ‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up’.   ‘Equip’ is the English translation of the Greek word, katartizo[1], which has at its root the idea of ‘putting something into full working order, so that it can function correctly according to its design’. Katartizo (equipping) is putting things in the place where they fit well and work best.  Leaders then are facilitators, preparing people to be ‘fitted’ for the work of ministry inside and outside the gathered church. This has obvious implications on how we all ‘do’ church

A different way of thinking

It will require different ways of thinking, different paradigms. Steve Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, said that Jobs and his company Apple were able to take the I.T. world by storm because they took “incredible leaps of imagination”. To bring disciple-making right into the centre of church life, we are going to need to use sanctified imagination, lots of faith, prayer, courage, and rigorous strategizing. It will begin with redefining a number of important basic concepts:

  • A  fresh understanding of what we mean by ‘Success’  We have tended to make attendance at meetings the most important indicator and measure of a church’s success. This has been my experience as a pastor, both here and in Canada. The bigger (and sometimes busier) the congregation, the more it is deemed to be a ‘successful church’. However, we need to look for the transformation of people as evidence of success, not just numbers

  • A New Paradigm for Church  For this approach to work, we just have to start seeing church differently. In this model, church is not about us and our needs; it is about God and His purposes (Proverbs 16:4). The church gathered is there to prepare us to be the church scattered, to train us not for church maintenance but for mission. In his stimulating book, The Complete Book of Discipleship, Bill Hull writes that “Churches should focus on gathering together to inspire, encourage, confront, and mobilise their members to penetrate their worlds”. Mark Green summarises the urgency of the situation when he writes that “The UK will never be reached (for Christ) until we create open authentic, learning and praying communities that are focussed on making whole-life disciples who live and share the Gospel wherever they relate to people in their daily lives”

A New Model of Church Leadership  Bill Hull writes that, “the acceptance of non-discipleship Christianity is a leadership problem”. Change has to begin with church leaders, because if church leaders don’t buy into the model of disciple–making as the number one church priority, it will never take off. This will involve:


ü       The way we train Future Leaders

I believe we have to change the way we train our future church leaders. As Leonard Sweet has said, “The future is not something we enter, it is something we create”. So we need to proactively create an approach to ‘leadership training’ (at Bible Colleges, Theological Colleges, and Ministry Training Courses, etc.) that helps pastors to see themselves primarily as equippers of God’s people and not as the sole providers of all things ministerial. A theological and ecclesiastical culture-shift in the approach to training has to be enacted. Otherwise nothing will change at the ‘church face’. Do I sound really intense about this point? I am because colleges and courses are still producing pastors whose primary focus appears to be all about: Attendance, Buildings and Cash, and not about the priority of Disciple –Making!

ü       How Church Leaders use their Time
The former Principal of Spurgeon’s College, Paul Beasley Murray surveyed 350 ministers in the UK via this journal, Ministry Today UK.  He discovered that some of them spent up to nineteen hours per week preparing for Sunday services and only three to six hours on anything related to facilitating discipleship! Surely George Barna is correct when he notes that “we divert our best leaders (and their precious time) to ministries other than discipleship”. Leadership priorities need to be reviewed. In future, pastors have to see making and equipping disciples as the core aspect of their calling. From now on church leaders need to see themselves as ‘player coaches’, not just talking about how to live a fully devoted life for Christ, but showing others how  to live this way. Also, they must be prepared to pass this approach on to future generations of equipping/disciple-making leaders (2 Timothy 2:2)

ü       Keeping Discipleship Diaries
In order to achieve this equipping, mentoring and coaching role, church leaders will need time, space and energy to get the job done! This will involve reshaping their diaries in terms of disciple-making. This is something that Gordon MacDonald and his wife deliberately plan to do on an annual basis as a top priority (see MacDonald’s excellent book, Building Below the Water Line). This task will require not doing some things that are expected of them, like visiting every member, attending every meeting and always being available. This will inevitably draw criticism, but coaching and equipping disciples is the task that Jesus has charged each generation of church leaders to fulfil

ü       Communicating for a Change
The American pastor Andy Stanley has written a stimulating book on contemporary preaching entitled Communicating for a Change. The drive behind this book is his passionate belief that effective preaching focuses on just one major point. In order to change a church’s culture toward a focus on equipping and disciple–making, the preaching and teaching programmes have to focus on this one issue, at least until is embedded in the church’s culture. The preaching needs to be clear and directional, for, as someone has said, “if there is fog in the pulpit, it will be mist in the pews”


A New Vision of Church Membership

We will also need to encourage church members to view themselves and their roles differently. This will include:


ü       Emphasising High Demand Discipleship

Rick Warren has said that the higher the expectations we place on what it means to be a church member, the more people want to buy into it. We have to take the same view regarding discipleship. Members need to know that becoming a disciple is a ‘high-demand’ lifestyle and that it means they are under ‘a divine new management’

In his insightful book, Power for God’s Sake, Paul Beasley-Murray writes that “because we live in a consumer-oriented society, preachers are tempted to pander to the wants of their listeners and thus to major on John 3:16 rather than Mark 8.34. It is easier to speak of the need to believe than of Jesus’ call to repent, to take up our cross and follow him. So preachers proclaim Jesus as Saviour, but not always as Lord”. Jesus has to be Lord of every aspect of their lives. James Houston states that discipleship is “becoming radically reconstituted as a person in Christ. It means no longer focusing on self-fulfilment and narcissism, but looking outward; focusing on God and others”. It is all about Him and them!  Again, Beasley-Murray hits the spot when he comments that “there is no room for compromise in the Christian life: radical discipleship is the demand. We cannot find God on our own terms – we must come to him on his terms. Church leaders and others misuse their position if they water down the radical nature of the demands of Christ”

ü       Resisting the acceptance of ‘non-discipleship’ Christianity
We are not free to opt out and retreat into non-discipleship Christianity. The preacher and author John Piper makes this point clearly in his book, Don’t Waste Your Life. Piper believes that it is incumbent on all Christians to reinvest what they have learned about Christ into the lives of future generations. He also notes that there is a wasted resource in many of our churches, older people who could be mentoring, coaching, and discipling the next generation. In fact, members of all ages should see themselves as both disciples and disciplers!

ü       Members becoming: ‘Moving Mirrors’ and ‘Little Jesuses’
This will also involve members seeing church differently. Now it is to be viewed as a place where they are equipped to go back to their homes and the work places as whole-life disciples. As equipped ambassadors of Christ, they can be ‘moving mirrors’, reflecting all the beauty of Jesus to their family, friends and work colleagues. As Hirsch and Frost put it in their book ReJesus, they will now act as ‘little Jesuses’ wherever they go

ü       Getting rid of the Laity
Church members will need to recognise their leader’s role has to change in terms of being equippers and not the overall ‘ministry providers’. This will mean that members will pick up more of the ministry responsibilities, thus freeing up leadership time to focus on disciple-making. Elton Trueblood makes this point dramatically when he wrote that Quakers have “gotten rid of the laity”. In other words everybody is a ‘minister’.  Bill Hull recognises the need for change here when he writes that “by accepting non-discipleship Christianity, many church members don’t have a mission; so they sit in the pew and wait. Instead of having transformational discipleship, what we have in many churches is a ‘malformation of passivity’”.  There is no room for passive parishioners in this model of church, ministry and intentional whole –life discipleship!



Doing things His Way

This recalibration of Church leaders and reconfiguration of membership is not going to be an easy ride. Refocusing on equipping every member for whole –life missional discipleship won’t be a stroll in the park! We Christians don’t like change – to be honest we often hate it!  But Jesus never offered us the option of ‘Cosy Church’ or ‘Duvet Discipleship’. What he wants is obedience to His command: to go preach the gospel - and to intentionally make disciples! There is no Plan B! As Floyd McClung says of Jesus’ commands, “We are all called to live by His script, not ours”
v       [1] It’s a surgical term = for setting bones which were either broken or dislocate

v       It’s a psychological term = for restoring a person to his right mind

v       It’s a military term = for the equipping of an army or a fleet with men and provisions

v       It’s an educational term = for the full training of a pupil by his teacher

v       It’s a commercial term = for preparing/repairing nets for future nets (what the some of disciples were doing when Jesus called them)



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