Discipleship and The Institution
Frequently Asked Questions
(and more observations)

Justin Bertram
last edited in January of 2006

As people have read Discipleship and the Institution and as I have continued to discuss these topics in my community of fellow disciples, certain questions have been raised. As I have wrestled with these questions I have tried to incorporate my responses into the paper so that it would become increasingly comprehensive. However, this means that such answers are buried into the overall vision of the paper and require careful reading (or re-reading) of the paper to discover. Even in that case, though, the original question remains ambiguous at best. That being the case, I have increasingly felt the need to make such questions and my responses to those questions explicit. This document is the fruit of that aim.

The questions are as follows:

  1. How many attend?
  2. Why would you not be involved with an institutional church and do discipleship “on the side” so to speak?
  3. Why not prioritize on relational discipleship, but still attend institutional worship services somewhere?
  4. What about “corporate worship” experiences?
  5. Isn’t this just another in a long line of novel ideas that really isn’t practical or sustainable in the end?
  6. Wouldn’t it make more sense to lead reform of the institution from within?
  7. Don’t you know that there’s no such thing as a perfect church?
  8. Why are you abandoning the local church at large?
  9. Ok, then why are you abandoning your local church?
  10. Are you against all types of organizations?
  11. Isn’t relational ministry wishy-washy?
  12. Where do you give money?
  13. Isn’t this just individualistic, do-it-yourself Christianity?
  14. Why not just celebrate and not criticize the different ways God has worked in people’s lives?
  15. Of course the institution has problems, but doesn’t every model have its own problems?
  16. Don’t you understand that “church” isn’t all about you?
  17. Aren’t relationships typically too fragile to bear the weight you have in mind? Shouldn’t we strive for more stability?
  18. What about your children?
  19. Isn’t this a bit exclusive?
  20. How can this scale?
the questions
  1. How many attend?

    I think I am asked this question more than any other. It seems to be many people’s initial reaction when I tell them we I am pursing an alternate expression of church.

    I struggle with how to interpret this question. On the cynical side, it might mean the questioner's main church paradigm is focused on numbers - how many people attend, how much money is given, etc. This is of course contrary to what Jesus taught. However, I don’t find this interpretation satisfying because I don’t believe everyone who has asked me that question falls into that unfortunate category. Yet the question of “why?” remains. Why do so many people ask that question before any other? Unfortunately I haven’t been able to answer that question thusfar.

    I usually answer “How many attend?” by saying, “There are about 10 people in the community.” This answer usually evokes something like, “The community?,” as if to say, “You didn’t answer the question. I asked how many people were attending your main worship service.” To which I elaborate that our vision of church doesn’t have a worship service as its practical centerpiece which means that the question of, “How many attend?” doesn’t carry much significance.

  2. Why would you not be involved with an institutional church and do discipleship “on the side” so to speak?

    Scripture has convinced me that making disciples cannot be placed “on the side” of my life’s priorities. Making followers of himself was at the very heart of Jesus’ vocation to bring his Father’s Kingdom to earth. It must therefore be at the heart of mine.

  3. Why not prioritize on relational discipleship, but still attend institutional worship services somewhere?

    The quick answer is that I am convinced that the discipleship I described in Discipleship and the Institution is so thoroughly faithful to the Biblical picture of following Jesus that I do not desire to pursue anything else. It’s not so much that “worship services” are contrary to Scripture, it’s simply that I don’t find as much support for them as I do for following Jesus as I described.

    Aside from “How many attend?” I am asked this question the most, by myself not least. It seems that the underlying assumption of the question often (although definitely not always) is that there are things you can only experience in “worship services.” Even in my own mind I wrestle with this assumption.

    I think when most people ask the question they have in mind that I am missing out on:

    • praise of God through music
    • exhortation through Biblical exegesis
    • construction of a unified vision for the local body

    Yet I am under the conviction that all those things are actually more viable in the context of discipleship as I have described.

    Generally speaking, the New Testament gives us a vision of what the ekklesia (the Greek word we translate as “church,” which means “gathering of the called out ones”) should look like in a theological and relational sense, but it gives precious little insight into the specific practical outworking of that vision. We know that early ekklesia’s ate together, devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, gave profusely to one another, etc. We know that, aside from the times he directly addressed a particular person, Paul always uses familial language (“brothers,” “children,” etc.) when speaking to the members of a particular ekklesia. We know that the ekklesia was described as a “household” or family of faith. We know that the human leadership of the ekklesia was to be undertaken by “elders” who were to serve as father figures or shepherds, relating to the body of disciples in love just as the Great Shepherd related to his disciples (i.e. loved and laid his life down for them). We know that Paul’s letters were generally to communities (some of them were to individuals) about how to live together in Jesus-like love, extending grace to one another, bearing each other's burdens, pursuing unity, etc. Yet, in all that there aren’t helpful details like the proper ratio of elders to members of the general body, how often to meet, in what kind of structure to meet, what exactly to do when you meet, etc. There isn’t explicit Scriptural support for the practical details of how American-Western, institutional churches typically organize its “worship services,” yet there isn’t an explicit mandate against it either.

    This dearth of practical detail is as it should be, though, because I believe God intends for people to unite under the banner of Jesus alone and not anything related to religious practice or ritual formality. People from every tongue, tribe, and nation (i.e. people group) will gather and worship Him in a culturally unique but Jesus-like way that builds on the Spirit-wrought traditions of the past.

    What, then, is to be done? As NT Wright is fond of saying, “We must be to our world what Jesus was to his.” We must not take our underlying paradigms of Christianity for granted. We must start living lives and forming communities that are not only fresh and innovative but that ring with the true tones of Scripture. This freshness and innovation need not be influenced by anything secular as if the body of Christ was beholden to worldly fads and needed to piggyback on cultural trends. Rather what is required are fresh ways to tell the story of Jesus and us, of God and Israel.

    One of the reasons I love discipleship so much is because it brings this reality into sharp focus. Discipleship focuses on theological and relational reality in a way that I find more Biblically faithful than institutional “worship services.” Its fluidity helps the disciple understand what it means to live by the Holy Spirit in fresh and innovative ways. When men and women gather with the sole aim of following Jesus in a Biblically faithful way, many of the practical details are up to the Holy Spirit. One is therefore forced to rely on Him to define what their fellowship together might look like and how it might change over time. He is the author and sustainer not only of their individual faith, but of their life of faith together as well.

    The importance of liturgy and tradition is also brought into sharper focus. Those sometimes esoteric elements are no longer taken for granted. The relational nature of discipleship puts a natural governor on the size of a local ekklesia and allows each one to develop unique, meaningful liturgies and traditions as well as reflect on the nature of established ones.

    I believe it is in such a context that praise of God through music can find its true voice (see below), Biblical exegesis can be sharply exhortational, and all involved can have a beautifully unified vision of their collective mission.

    Further, I am under the conviction that for me to attend “worship services” week after week would be to implicitly condone a philosophy with which I disagree.

  4. What about “corporate worship” experiences?

    This question is about the musical aspect of “worship services,” what is generally referred to as “corporate worship,” “praise and worship,” or simply “worship.”

    "Corporate worship” is very important to many disciples, especially to those who are lumped into the postmodern demographic. It is not uncommon for such disciples to “shop” for an institutional church that performs the type of music they enjoy. It is also not uncommon for the music production to be the most resource hungry aspect of the “worship service.”

    Worshipping Jesus in song is a mysteriously powerful and encouraging experience. From what I know, it is a universal Christian practice, and something that separates Christianity from most other religions (although I wouldn’t technically classify Christianity as a religion). It is an awesome thing to stand amidst a few hundred other disciples and sing the praises of Jesus. Despite this power, however, there are relatively few exhortations to sing in the New Testament as compared to exhortations to love, pursue unity, etc. Paul encourages his readers to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” to each other (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) and there are 5 other references to singing (Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Hebrews 2:12, James 5:13, Revelation 15:3), but this is perhaps not enough to warrant the focus that is placed on music in the minds of many disciples. To be clear, I am not saying that music isn’t important; it is a beautiful and powerful part of the Christian life. I am only trying to highlight the importance that is placed on it in the institutional church is often disproportionate to its apparent Biblical importance.

    This question seems to be accompanied by the underlying idea that the beneficial effect of praise through music is somehow linked to the size of the group offering praise. In other words, the experience of singing in a large group can’t be reproduced in a smaller setting. Singing to loud music with 500 other people in a dimly lit auditorium offers a kind of anonymity that frees the singer to express themselves in ways they might not otherwise. Contrast that with singing to relatively soft music in a living-room with seven or eight close friends. It is easy to see that the living-room would be quite a bit more awkward. Singing heartfelt praises is vulnerable. Very deep emotion is exposed. After all, one person’s joyful noise might easily be exposed as just that - noise.

    Yet in those instances our awkwardness reveals our dysfunction. Just as our relationship with Jesus provides divine comfort and acceptance, our ekklesia should be the earthly mirror of that. It is, after all, the body of Christ. However, rather than feel comfortable among our spiritual family we are often reticent, and rather than face this reality and challenge ourselves we remain relationally immature and in-authentic.

    However, I am convinced that there is a way for a spirit of worship through music to be woven into a community of disciples in such a way that no loss of powerful experience need be endured. I believe the context for such music is discipleship. I believe that when men and women gather for no other reason but to follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit will sensitize them to the music of His heart. The songs that God sings over us, His children, will inspire new and vibrant musical expressions among them. Rather than the unavoidable repetition that comes with the common institutional over-emphasis on music, this music will find its home in the spontaneous overflow of joyful hearts. I wouldn’t be surprised if powerful songs were written for, about, and by each community.

    When people tell me how much they enjoy corporate worship, I don’t downplay their experiences. I simply try to paint a picture of how much better it might be in a discipleship context.

  5. Isn’t this just another in a long line of novel ideas that really isn’t practical or sustainable in the end?

    Despite my efforts to prove otherwise, some may persist in thinking that discipleship is some kind of strategy invoked for dealing with postmodernism. If that was the case, then it would be a fad - here today, gone tomorrow. It wouldn’t be sustainable or ultimately practical.

    However, my aim is Biblically faithful thought and practice, not novelty. Ecclesiastes 1:9 rightly records, “there is nothing new under the sun.” While their social influence has perhaps not been as large as it is today, many postmodern ideals have been around for a long, long time. I do not imagine that I am clever enough to come up with anything that hasn’t already been tried.

    However, as in many areas of theology and methodology, I do think one can look back into the Scriptures and history and rediscover truths that seem to have been forgotten. I believe this is exactly the case with discipleship.

    As I said in Discipleship and the Institution I am not so much concerned with modernism or postmodernism as I am simply with following Jesus in love and representing Him individually as well as corporately through my local family of faith.

  6. Wouldn’t it make more sense to lead reform of the institution from within?

    I can see a few advantages that institutional involvement seems to have:

    • faster
    • easier access to many people

    Working within an institution seems like it would yield results faster. Consider that I could introduce new ideas as a fellow member of the institution. I would have the implicit credibility that is generally given to other members of the institution, especially leaders. However, if I was outside the institution, the only way I could have the ears of the members would be to spend a great deal of time with them building rapport and trust. My institutionally derived credibility would give me a great head start in teaching people what discipleship was all about.

    The phrase “institutionally derived credibility” may be unfamiliar, but I think the description of this idea will ring true. I will explain by way of a few examples. Consider when a professional preacher is hired and brought onto the staff of an existing institution, he generally commences preaching before getting to know most of those to whom he is preaching, especially in the increasingly common institutional mega-churches. This isn’t usually a problem though, because those who receive his preaching rely on his position in the institution to authenticate his authority. Or consider an outsider coming into an institution and “sitting under” the preaching of someone that have never heard before. They are likely to accept what he has to say not because they know him or have been served by him in a personal way, but simply because he is a leader of that institution. The same is true for other contexts within the institution. If the institution deems a person a leader (of a small group, class, etc.) then that position gives that person credibility regardless of if they have exemplified servant leadership for the fellow disciples or not.

    I do not wish to be simplistic or ungracious. I do not, by any means, wish to say that no one in the institution actually serves one another in love. My point is simply that institutional leaders generally “lead” more people than they actually serve in love as Jesus served the twelve disciples. I understand, for example, that the time a teacher spends alone studying the Bible can, and should, be considered an act of service and love. He is preparing himself before God to teach his fellow disciples because he loves them. I also understand that Scripture talks about the 72 disciples that Jesus led. I do not deny that multiple levels of intimacy and distance are proper and right. However, the majority of our admonishment from Jesus and Paul is to love in joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness, to bear one another’s burdens, to lay down our lives for one another, to be friends, etc. The shame of institutional leadership is that authority and credibility are primarily derived from their place in the institution, not by their fulfillment of the aforementioned Scriptures.

    I believe it is destructive for a body of believers to follow a leader primarily because of his institutional position. A leader of the family of faith must bear the weight of servant-hood. That is the Biblical qualification for leadership. By removing that qualification from the top of the priority list, we compromise the meaning of leadership in the family of faith. Leaders should not have implicit credibility. Leaders should have to build rapport and trust among those they teach. Once they earned trust, they would have an authentic platform to speak into the lives of their family. It is a sad indictment of the maturity of the American-Western institutional church that leadership is exchanged so lightly.

    Among other things, I desire to break my fellow disciples out of the mindset that their leaders should be members of their institutional church. I do not think I could effectively break such institutional barriers by being inside the institution, because I would be shackling myself with the very bonds I wished to break.

    However, the institution seems to hold another advantage - that of access to many people that I might never know otherwise. It might seem that I am sacrificing easy opportunities to meet and impact new people. This seems to be a powerful advantage for the institution because there is no discipleship where there are no people. However, as I explained in my paper, this hasn’t really been an issue since my wife and I left the institution. The Spirit has opened my eyes to the opportunities that I have around me all the time. He has also given me hints of what a community focused on relational community development might look like, each member seizing opportunities to make disciples themselves or introducing people to fellow disciples for them to engage. Not only that, but the generally slow nature of discipleship means that meeting lots of new people all the time simply isn’t very advantageous.

    For me personally, time is another important factor. Simply put, more time spent in services and classrooms is more time spent not doing things I find more profitable (e.g. spending time with my family and friends, personal study, etc.).

    In the end, I am not primarily concerned with reforming the institution itself, the people are my aim. The best way for me to impact people is simply through discipleship, and the institution isn’t particularly relevant in the discipleship process.

  7. Don’t you know that there’s no such thing as a perfect church?

    Some equate my exodus out of the institution with unrealistic expectations of church.

    Unfortunately, serious emotional injury at the hands of “the church” is common. I have heard many stories of such injury, not least in my own community. Such pain, of course, is usually followed by anger and bitterness. It would be easy for this to be the impetus for leaving an institution, but generally speaking I don’t find that motivation legitimate.

    It is manifestly evident that there is no such thing as a perfect church. We are all sinners living in a fallen world. What makes the church special is not its current moral perfection, but its Christ-honoring, love-soaked, grace-filled acceptance of sinners even while humbly admitting our own faults. It is the community in which others are placed before one’s self in the name of Jesus, who is its head.

    When such injury is received, one must look at those responsible through the eyes of Jesus. In some situations that might mean disassociation, but in most situations it will probably mean maintaining relationship and learning to love through the pain.

    One of the reasons I love discipleship so much is because its relational nature highlights this principle profoundly. When a community is predicated on true friendship in the name and for the sake of Jesus, the casual casting aside of relationships that occurs so frequently in the case of emotional injury is much more serious. Whereas the institution will continue to function virtually unaffected in such cases, discipleship community will suffer greatly. That’s a good thing because the relational “structure” will readily reflect the health of the community. It is often easy to become distracted and fooled into thinking something other than authentic love for Christ and each other is the marker of church health. I simply want my practical association with other believers to reflect the true nature of the Kingdom of God - love.

    In the end, I neither harbor hopeless idealism, cynicism, nor pretense about church perfection. I aim to live without distraction, in full view of all the failings of my fellow disciple in loving friendship thereby demonstrating to him the character of my gracious God.

  8. Why are you abandoning the local church at large?

    This question might hurt the most because I feel it represents a gross misunderstanding of what discipleship is about. Discipleship is emphatically not about the abandonment of any local church. Rather, it is about the strengthening of the local church through the strengthening of its individual parts. Whatever system or structure that is adopted for the organization of an ekklesia, institutional or not, the Christ-likeness of the body as a whole is very closely related to the Christ-likeness of the individual disciple, and that is precisely what discipleship aims to effect.

    To be clear, this doesn’t mean that discipleship is individualistic as some might conclude from my previous statement. Discipleship isn’t about one-on-one relationships between “lone-ranger” followers of Jesus. Rather, it is about learning how to follow Jesus - loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength - which results in the practice of all the “one another” commandments we have received from Him in Scripture - commands that can only be fully obeyed in faith community (i.e. church).

  9. Ok, then why are you abandoning your local church?

    This question, much like the previous one, hurts, and I feel misses much of my point in Discipleship and the Institution. The bottom line is that my wife and I left our institutional church, not our community of faith (i.e. our actual church). The goal was never to leave the church, just the institution, and we were able to accomplish this goal fairly readily because of the relationships that we already had established.

  10. Are you against all types of organizations?

    No, not at all. As I tried to make clear in my paper, I am mainly against the subtly subversive distortion of the church in which it is perceived mainly as an organization or institution rather than as a people. Of course, the church can still be organized and not be an organization. As I explained in the “towards and answer” section, I believe Scripture’s family analogy (among others) provides a rich context for such organization.

  11. Isn’t relational ministry wishy-washy?

    I believe that some people equate relational ministry with a kind of spongy, wishy-washy regard for objective truth and doctrine. I can understand that equation to a certain degree. There are plenty of individuals who reduce the importance of objective truth (e.g. Jesus’ actual, historical existence; the inspiration of Scripture; etc.) in favor of an “all you need is love” approach where love is simply a synonym for being nice. However, such an equation is a logical fallacy.

    Rather, objective truth is what pushes me into relational ministry. It is because I wish to convey doctrine fully and accurately that I focus on discipleship as I have defined.

  12. Where do you give money?

    From the use of “where” in this question it would seem that the necessity of a place to give such as an institutional church is presupposed. I disagree with this presupposition.

    To me, the question is not “where” I give money but to “whom” I give money. A location is not part of the equation. Very simply, I (my wife and I, really) give money to those in our immediate family of faith, our extended family of faith (our friends proclaiming Christ in other cities across the nation), and other needs at large. Our giving is prompted by the Holy Spirit as needs are perceived both explicitly and implicitly. We consider not only our money but all of our assets as subject to Kingdom purposes.

  13. Isn’t this just individualistic, do-it-yourself Christianity?

    Much has been written about how American consumer culture has negatively impacted Christian spirituality, transforming the intimately connected, Jesus-focused family of faith into a grab bag of brands and products that tend to fuel the narcissistic and individualistic tendencies of one’s flesh rather than gracefully and lovingly challenge sinful people to live like Christ in sacrificial community with one another in order to bring God’s Kingdom onto this earth. There are so many “equipping ministries” and parachurch organizations that it would be easy to take a few doctrinal nuggets from several different entities, listen to some sermons, get some Christian friends and consider one’s self fulfilling all the necessary obligations for mature discipleship. Yet this type of grab-bag, do-it-yourself discipleship is not what I am advocating.

    I am very thankful for the disciples who found organizations bent on academically educating other believers (especially by distributing resources over the Internet). I have benefited greatly from them, and I think many of them are aiding the advancement of the Kingdom by enabling individuals such as myself to become academically educated on many subjects without the cost or time of a seminary degree. But I digress.

    As I have labored to make clear, discipleship is about exalting Jesus and bringing His Kingdom onto this earth primarily through loving, sacrificial relationships. It is about learning to observe all that Jesus commanded, explicitly including the “one another” commands (only explicitly included because they are often implicitly ignored). The local gathering of the body of Christ is a necessary precursor to such things.

    Terms like “individualistic” and “do-it-yourself” utterly fail to describe it.

  14. Why not just celebrate (and not criticize) the different ways God has worked in people’s lives?

    I think this question has two important presuppositions:

    1. Criticism is a bad thing.
    2. A lot of latitude exists in the practical out-working of faith in community (i.e. church)

    From an emotional perspective, I understand the first presupposition. For many people the term “criticism” is associated with unloving, unnecessary, or unsolicited slander. Of course such slander is painful and, therefore, judged as a bad thing.

    However, from a logical perspective I must disagree. Criticism can be either constructive or destructive, helpful or hurtful, but it isn’t necessarily either one.

    I hope the criticism I have offered has been layered with love and grace. I do not mean to slander or be unhelpful. I have tried very much to offer constructive solutions to all the problems I have pointed out. Of all the definitions of “criticism” that Merriam Webster offers the one I have tried to embody above all others is, “exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation.”

    Criticism (and its better accepted father, critical thought) have always been necessary for progress in every aspect of life except perhaps in the case of sheer coincidence. The Reformational creed “semper reformanda” (“always reforming”) would likely go unfulfilled if no one exercised critical thought. But I digress.

    The second presupposition is like the first in that it has two sides.

    On one side, there is a great deal of latitude in what a church looks like when it gathers. I mentioned a few of the gray areas in my response to question 3. As I also said before, I think these gray areas are intentional - intentional and wonderful. They provide amazing, mysterious, and I think necessary opportunities to learn humility and reliance on Jesus. I think we do ourselves a great disservice when we take canned answers or models and apply them to our churches without serious discretion. Unfortunately that is exactly what I think happens oftentimes in the institutional church.

    On the other side, there isn’t any latitude whatsoever. We have many non-negotiables not only in our individual lives, but in the lives of our churches as well. For example, salvation is in Jesus alone by grace alone through faith alone to the glory of God alone. Also consider that while we are free to apply the Gospel in a myriad of ways, we are absolutely not free to innovate its basic truths. I could go on and on, but my main point here is that, as Matthew 7:14 says, “The way is narrow.”

    Of course the difficulty (and need for critical thought) comes in when trying to identify where there is latitude.

    Among others, the main area where I have discovered a distinct lack of latitude is love. In other words, I am not free not to love - and that means changing the practical out-working of my faith, especially in community. The reason I highlight love here (and highlighted it so much in Discipleship and the Institution) is because Jesus and the Scriptures are so keen on highlighting it and because the nature of the institutional church does not fundamentally contribute to a mature understanding of it. To me, that is enough of a reason to voice criticism and, I hope, to demonstrate that it is quite possible to celebrate God’s graceful movement through history in all its various ways and yet still have the critical judgement not only to see where our forefathers were in error but also to dialog with my community about those errors and work to correct them. After all, our ultimate goal is to imitate Jesus, not them.

  15. Of course the institution has problems, but doesn’t every model have its own problems?

    I think the presupposition of this question is that I am espousing a practical “model” in the vein of the institution. However, that isn’t the case. The only model I am espousing, the only archetype, the only prototype, is simply Jesus.

    Advancing the Kingdom will always involve difficult decisions, weighing pros and cons, etc. However, using anything but Jesus as the model introduces unnecessary complications. When we add other models on top of Jesus (which is usually done in a noble attempt to make things simpler), we are forced to make decisions about the model which don’t necessarily have anything to do with what Jesus actually desires. We begin to take for granted that our model is what Jesus desires and we fail to wrestle with the basics of what it means to follow Him.

    To be sure, I am not pitting Jesus against the rest of the New Testament writers who expound upon and flesh out his ideas. Rather, I wish to highlight that they did (and provided a God-breathed example of) what I am endeavoring to do - follow Jesus.

  16. Don’t you understand that “church” isn’t all about you?

    I am, in fact, gloriously and painfully aware that “church” isn’t all about me. I did not step away from the institutional church simply because it didn’t suite my personal preferences. I stepped away out of a deep conviction which was wrought over several years of searching the Scriptures, over a year of missionary experience in Brazil, relationships with older, Godlier men than me, and involvement within a community that was not institutionally facilitated. As I stated elsewhere, I left the institution, not my church.

    I say “gloriously” aware because it is a wonderful thing that church isn’t all about me. As Jesus promised, it is more blessed to give than receive, and that is a truth that hits home quite frequently as I strive to lay down my life for my friends in the name of Jesus.

    I say “painfully” aware because it is hard to lay down your life for your friends, not to mention your enemies (whom we are also commanded to love - Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27, 35). To be sure, I have not had an easier time since leaving the institution, but this is easy to explain. Simply put, I am a sinner and my friends are sinners – my community is full of (forgiven!) sinners. The difference from when I was in the institution is that now we are much more deeply involved in each other’s lives, and we are therefore much more keenly aware of each other’s problems. Things are messy, sometimes ugly. We fail. We hurt each other. All that pain, however, is overshadowed by the incredible beauty and healing we experience when by God’s grace we get it gloriously right.

    As I mentioned in my paper, I have heard many stories of people who have left the institution because they were hurt or something similar. Because church is so often seen in an institutional light these people often simply start “going to” another institution or in some cases stop “going to” any institution whatsoever. Many institutions “split” because of this.

    While this attitude wreaks havoc on many an institution, my main concern is the damage done to the people themselves. As I mentioned earlier, rather than reconcile hurts and redeem relationships many people just move on to the next best institution. Unfortunately, behaving in such a manner is a highly effective way to miss what it actually means to follow Jesus.

    This type of attitude (and others like it) is something I aim to amend in my community. To do this, of course, means that I have to know and behave like “church” isn’t all about me.

  17. Aren’t relationships typically too fragile to bear the weight you have in mind? Shouldn’t we strive for more stability?

    It may surprise the reader that I answer, “yes,” to both of these questions.

    The weight I have in mind for relationships to bear is simply this: to be the explicit, primary means through which the love and instruction of Jesus flow between the members of his body so as to be the foundational “structure” which gives shape to that body. Unfortunately, relationships are typically too fragile to bear that weight - “typically” being the operative word.

    It is not good that relationships between believers often can’t bear this weight. It is not good that believers are typically more committed to their particular institution than they are to one another. One of my aims in pursuing discipleship relationships is to reverse this.

    As far as “stability” goes, we should strive for more. However, to say that our desire for stability necessitates institutional structure (which is usually implied in the question) is a non sequitur. We don’t necessarily need more or better institutional structure to achieve greater stability in our churches. Rather, we need more and better relationships with one another. We need relationships characterized by wisdom, respect, and forgiveness, relationships where the Spirit-wrought power of Jesus flows forth to empower love, faith, and hope. I believe that people who experience those types of relationships are more stable individually and that groups of such individuals are much more inclined to be deeply united to one another the way a church family ought.

    The main reason we create “structures” is simply to facilitate our goals. The stability of our “structures” is usually important because it makes our goals easier to reach. The more stable the “structure” the better - or so the conventional wisdom goes. To be sure, there is nothing necessarily wrong with making things easier, with removing barriers between us and our goals. However, this desire to make things easier must be tempered with wisdom. I believe such wisdom must consider that the “cost of discipleship” (a phrase famously coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer) is high and that we are always dangerously close to making our pursuit of Jesus artificially easy. Likewise, we are always dangerously close to making it too hard (e.g. through the bonds of legalism).

    As I have said elsewhere, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that our number one goal as the church is to love. Our “structures,” therefore, should facilitate this goal. However, I have not found that the institution facilitates love. The scope of the institution is too narrow for the types of significant and consistent expressions of love that the body of Christ requires for genuine health. Further, the institution is perfectly capable of functioning in the absence of love. The programs keep going, the music keeps playing, classes keep meeting, people keep smiling, etc. Love simply isn’t part of the institution’s fundamental equation, and it therefore doesn’t reflect a fundamental reality of the Christian’s life. Granted, the institution is relatively stable, but I believe this stability comes at far too great a cost.

    On the other hand discipleship, with its relational structure, fundamentally derives its stability from Jesus-centered and Jesus-empowered love. If followers of Jesus are gathering in discipleship community and they aren’t responding maturely to Scripture and the Spirit then the lack of love will strain the relationships. Of course we can ignore the strain and fail to lay down our lives for one another. However, we persist such ignorance at great risk because as the failure to love cascades throughout the individual relationships the unity of the church will bend and ultimately splinter. While clearly not ideal, such a collapse of community is a reasonable and predictable result from an immature lack of love.

    If our goal is to follow Jesus by laying down our lives for one another (i.e. loving one another), then our “structures” must facilitate that love. Conversely, those “structures” must reflect reality when we fail to love. They must not make it easy to ignore such failure. We need to be warned early and often of the reality of our sin and the toll it takes on our community.

    Relationships are typically too fragile to bear the weight I have in mind because of our immature lack of love. That is a tragic problem we must work to correct. Indeed we should strive for more stability. In other words, we should strive for more love. If we as followers of Jesus do not have our finger on the pulse of His love we are in grave peril. As 1 John 4 states, “The one who does not love does not know God...”

  18. What about your children?


  19. Isn’t this a bit exclusive?


  20. How can this scale?