We are living in a new day for church in the U.S. Covid19 is a call to change. It’s a “gray rhino” event, “a highly probable, high impact yet neglected threat…” (Michele Wucker) It challenges us to think differently about our Sunday morning traditions.

For now, we resort to video or live feed, hoping to return to business as usual. Certainly, the crisis will pass, and we will get back to normal, but it may not be exactly what we had prior to covid19. Should it be? 

The corona virus has motivated us to “be the church” and deploy into the world as never before, and that’s wonderful. It has provided us the opportunity to be even more effective and intentional. 

Yet, it caught us entirely by surprise. How many of us foresaw a day when we would cancel our largest Easter gatherings? I did not. That change impacts not only our church family but also the not yet saved! How can we prepare for what is already here and what may be coming?

I want to approach this new day with bite-sized ideas that the church can explore and implement simply. This conversation can end in effective change and, Lord willing, produce a massive spreading of the gospel in the U.S.

1. Our definition of church must change. Most church definitions I hear (and I hear a lot of them) do not work for smaller groups. Today our definition of church must work for ten people or fewer. If we create a definition of church as one or two people–since church is always a choice we make, when more than two or three come together the possibility exists for them to choose to be the church, representing the larger church family and representing Jesus Christ. 

Why is this important? Discipleship is always most effective in the context of the local church; our discipleship must center on traits of church. To make that work, we use our definition of church to build our discipling plan. 

To illustrate: Traditional small groups do not individually fulfill our definition of church because the small group is connected to a larger congregation which we define as the church. But we need our discipleship to encompass all that church is and we need that discipleship to be available, effective, and biblically accurate for ten or fewer people. How much more powerful could our discipleship be if we defined church this way?

2. Our practice of discipleship must be simple. Now more than ever, simplicity is key.

We must use pathways that demonstrate measurable results. These pathways would include our current “mothering” discipleship but would also adopt a more “fathering” discipleship, which Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 2. 

Mothering discipleship is normally built around a classroom and content. It is usually a gentler and very necessary time. Mothers use their hearts to build great empathy and touch the hearts and lives of all around them, particularly their own children and grandchildren. 

But is that all Jesus did in His discipleship? I would say no. Fathers complement mothers to teach harder truths. 

One of my jobs as a father is to be sure my kids can live in the reality and harshness of today’s world. That includes some very hard lessons. While my wife desires to bring our family together, my focus is to see that the young men, in particular, are modeling Jesus Christ, treating their wives as Jesus treats the church; treating their kids well; being Jesus’ church etc. That is what I mean by “fathering” and I believe we are missing it in local church discipleship contexts. Our discipleship process cannot center on a pastor. Our discipling work needs to be relational, in the field, and not merely content based. Our expectations for relational and field-based outcomes are critical.

3. Our mindset of outreach must be pervasive. Local church leaders need more than ever to adopt a missionary mindset. We are the ones sent; we need to figure out how to penetrate our own geographic regions. For the apostles this was Jerusalem and Judea; for me it’s Ohio. We must begin to emulate the church in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8) which was able to spread the gospel into Macedonia and Achaia, a geographic area larger than Ohio. One church did this!

We must also adopt a regional eldership perspective, what we in our GSE network call regional eldering. Our elders should provide leadership over not just one local church but over a geographic region, as Paul shows in Acts 16:6ff.

4. The church must be released to harvest. To accomplish this, decentralization is critical. Practical discipleship involves releasing groups of 1 or 2 or 5 or 10 into the harvest. Explore ways to implement releasing procedures. Help people process next steps in smaller engagements. Use small beginnings as your initial guide. Think beyond your small group(s) and find ways to release Jesus’ people into other venues. See 1 Thessalonians 1:6-8. 

5. Gifted people must live their gifts simply and effortlessly. This is the true fruit of discipleship. We cannot base our discipleship on principles or programs solely but base them upon birthright gifting, spiritual gifting and calling expressions. These three avenues work with much more passion and power than principles or programs!

6. This new mindset needs rails on which to run – like our GSE process.  Rails are a simple, easily understood, and reproducible pathway we can use to communicate to our people so we remain clearly focused as we move ahead. New ideas are much easier to grasp when we have the rails upon which to run, and GSE works well this way. We can describe it as a system, but I prefer to call it a process. GSE as a process provides remarkable focus and stability. Whether starting a new ministry, discipleship endeavor, or church plant, the GSE process provides a path for discipleship and communication. 

GSE provides easy startup and great regional impact regardless of implementation. Running without rails is too labor intensive and eventually unfruitful. Jesus Himself used a process–a set of rails–in His earthly ministry to accomplish His discipleship, and so must we. I enjoy using Thomas and Gundry’s Harmony of the Gospels to help me see the three major sections of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the three-fold rails upon which He operated His earthy ministry:

  1. In His first phase (His first year), Jesus simply met people and made friends. Crazy approach. This was Jesus’ time in the Judea area.
  1. In the Great Galilean Ministry, Jesus taught people: 
    1. How to share Who He is 
    2. How to take care of people
  1. In phase three, the Judean/Perean ministry, Jesus introduced the insurance policy to keep all this going. 

The G of GSE is Gather. How can gatherers gather in a shelter-in-home world and beyond? 

The GSE process challenged Ryder to gather. He wanted to begin a conversation with his sister about God, so he gathered her to a recent online church service. After the service, she called Ryder to talk further. Ryder is so glad he was challenged to gather, and now he sees a clear God direction under way in his sister’s life, drawing her to the gospel.

Cathy has been gathering the ladies of her neighborhood for several months. They met together regularly around an evening meal, but then the shelter-in-home order disrupted their plans. Nevertheless, gathering continues. The women continue to meet through phone calls and texts. They check up on each other. One neighbor needed some band aids, another an onion, yet another some conversation – all these connections were made and needs were met because Cathy gathered. Would these simple acts of love have happened without gathering? Probably not.

If this resonates with you so that you would like to talk further on these topics or would like to know how our GSE process and VUSA can aid you on this journey, contact me. These matters are regular points of discipleship in our VUSA Network. These thoughts are designed for you whether you are a new church plant or an established church doing Jesus’ work.

Tony Webb

twebb@visionusa.org