Every church is called by Jesus to make disciples (Mt. 28:18-20). This is the charge. This is the church’s responsibility and privilege. But how does a church, and a small church in particular, carry out this mission?
Before we consider the particulars, let’s think about it on the level of principles.
Because the mission of the church is to make disciples I tend to emphasize three needs: to reach out, dig deep, and raise up.
Unless we give ourselves to these principles we may find ourselves confused or overwhelmed with what we want to do and what we actually can do.
1. Reaching out.
If the church does not have an outward orientation it will suffer spiritual stagnancy and grow cold. There is more than excitement when the church is reaching out into the world in word and deed, there is an energy, a power (Acts 1:8) the entire body experiences as it is faithful to make Christ known among the people to whom they have been sent.
We have all seen, and perhaps been a part of, the “holy huddle” that has lost sight of the people perishing in their sins. They see, without seeing. But this kind of spiritual blindness doesn’t come upon a church suddenly. It is the gradual decay of a heart for outsiders that stems from a lost sense of the greatness of the good news they themselves need.
Churches die when they stop reaching out because apart from that orientation disciples cannot be made. Churches stop reaching out when they are no longer gripped by their own need for grace and its free offer to others.
2. Digging deep.
It is possible to have a strong outward orientation that seeks the salvation of the lost, but neglects to carry on the work of discipleship by “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded.” The goal the church has for people is not only to enter the kingdom of heaven, but to become like the King of the Kingdom. The end is not to have converts, but to have converts who may be brought to the place where they are “mature in Christ.” (Col. 1:28, 29)
Digging deep is pressing on into maturity (Heb 6:1) through the pastoral instruction of God’s word for doctrine and devotion, and the discipling of one another through example, service, and exhortation in community.
There is no conflict between reaching out and digging deep. In fact without both a church of any size is sure to be sickly, and will eventually die.
3. Raising up.
Carrying out the mission Jesus gave the church requires that we not only have, but are continuing to raise up, leaders in the church to shepherd the flock, serve as an example, and set the pace for the rest of the church. If making disciples means bringing brothers and sisters to maturity in Christ, that means helping them to not only discover their gifts, but also their calling. And beyond discovery we are responsible to develop and deploy them to do what God has called them to do.
At the very least this means we must find ways to raise up and equip leaders to serve within our own church and also to be sent out to plant new churches or serve elsewhere outside of our own congregation.
Raising up leaders will never be a burden to a local church unless it feels the need to reach the lost and disciple the found. Until the church knows this work is too much to be carried out by a few developing leaders will not be seen as critical.
All of this: reaching out, digging deep, and raising up, leads me to place high value on four things that even small churches can excel in: 1) corporate worship that is deeply theological, radically Christ-centered, and intensely experiential, 2) community in the church where brothers and sisters know one another well enough to live out the example and the imperatives seen in the New Testament, and 3) leadership development that is willing to send away a church’s best to bless others, and 4) service through the church to the community in works of mercy.