The phone call between my future church employer and my former college campus director (and character reference) went like this:
"We're looking to hire Jason for a position in our church. Have you ever known him to be interested in working with seniors?"
"Seniors in college?"
"No, senior adults."
"I gotta be honest: I've never known Jason to be interested in working with senior adults."
My campus director spoke the truth. He was a horrible job reference, but he spoke the truth. I still inexplicably landed the job. I had zero experience working with senior adults and even less of a desire to pursue a position that would require me to do so for 40 hours a week. The impetus for me was ignorance; not ignorance of what I was getting myself into—though that was certainly a reality—but an acknowledgement of my ignorance about the Church.
You see, I became a Christian just before college and had no healthy understanding of church for the first 18 years of my life. Then, in college, my college campus ministry was my de facto "church." Post-college, I lived overseas for two years where I, for all intents and purposes, didn't even have a church that I could attend.
Fast forward to the conversation mentioned above. I was entering seminary with a future in pastoral ministry looming on the horizon. I knew that I had to work at a church while walking through my post-graduate years. My ignorance forced my hand. I had no idea how a church operated, I had no clue why it was important, I had no picture of what it looked like to be a healthy church member, and I didn't have an inkling of what it would be like for me to exercise my spiritual gifts in a local gathering of Christians.
So when the only position open at my church was "Associate Pastor to Senior Adults" I, as a 25-year old, applied. And it was one of the best jobs I've ever had. In fact, my one caveat to taking the job was that I would work with the ministry to seniors for two years and then excuse myself to work with a college campus ministry for my final two seminary years. Sure enough, after two years there was an opening in college ministry, but I didn't even think about applying.
Loving & Fighting for the Church
A funny thing happened during seminary: the more I got to know the church, the more I loved her. I had no ecclesiological background except for bashing the church and arguing against those who defended the church. I arrogantly elevated parachurch organizations above local fellowships and couldn't be convinced otherwise, despite loving encouragement from a couple close friends.
But things changed once I committed to the relationship. Influenced by a number of theologians and authors, I stopped dating the church (Harris), committed to being a healthy church member (Anyabwile), came to understand God's plan to display His glory through the church (Dever), saw the importance of the church in the mission of God (Keller), and developed my doctrinal understanding of the ecclesia (Clowney; Horrell). I realized that contra my individualism, Jesus was saying, "I haven't come for only you // But for My people to pursue // And you cannot care for Me with no regard for her // If you love Me you will love the church" (Webb).
A breakthrough moment for me came when a number of my peers and younger men I was discipling started leaving the church where my wife and I were members. Some were leaving for good reasons (e.g., geography) but others for not so good reasons (e.g., music preferences). I found myself not only loving the church but also defending her. I never thought I'd be an apologist for local church membership and commitment.
Through this whole process, I felt the need for how we gather together on Sunday to be a part of the discipleship process. It was really a spur-of-the-moment epiphany for me.
A close friend of mine was sitting in my living room, complaining about various aspects of church. I was getting more and more fed up since I had been in this conversation on an average of 28.6 times a week. He elaborated: "There's no community; you just can't get to know people in a big church."
"You're wrong," I blurted out. I'm not sure why I offered up that unsolicited evaluation for my friend, but I did so nonetheless and figured I'd just roll with it.
"Can I challenge that statement? Let's do this: on Sunday, let's go to church together. You can pick the service [there were three from which to choose], we'll walk in with each other, and between the car and the sanctuary, I promise you that I'll introduce you to 20 people by name."
I just picked the number 20 out of the air. It was never a goal of mine to be able to complete such a feat; I wasn't building towards knowing 20 names between my Jeep and my seat, but I felt confident in my ability to deliver. In reality, I probably could have introduced my friend to closer to 40 people.
He got the point. And the point wasn't to impress him; the point was to instruct him. "Do you know how I came to know all of these people?" I asked. He stared back at me. "It wasn't by coming to church late, leaving early, and refusing to get in a small group."
Invested & Intentional in the Church
I learned a great truth through this church challenge: we desperately need to disciple people through how to go to church. In the vast catalogue of areas of life and truth transference that are needed in discipleship is simply helping someone think through what it looks like to gather together with other believers in a helpful and mature manner. I fear this is too often neglected in our relationships with younger men and younger women.
Thus, when I'm asked about the topic of discipleship in the church, I've found it helpful to speak of (1) Investing in Your Local Church and (2) Intentionality in Your Local Church.
First, we need to be invested in a local church. The local gathering of believers is very important and you can't be involved in discipleship in the church if you don't think the church is an indispensable part of Christian discipleship. I need to be a part of a community where I can know and be known. I need to be a part of a family that will shepherd me back to health if I wander and de-fellowship me if I go off the rails.
There is a sense in which the church is a global entity (e.g., Eph 5:25), but we see it more commonly in the NT as a local gathering (e.g., 1 Cor 1:2)—the church scattered and the church gathered, as some have phrased it.
If we don't have a healthy view of church in this local, gathered sense, how can we obey Hebrews 13:17 where we are told to obey and submit to our leaders? How will our leaders know the people for whom they will one day have to give an account? Who are the elders we are to respect in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13? Who are the specific men considered worthy of double honor in 1 Timothy 5:17?
If we don't have a healthy view of church in this local, gathered sense, how can we live out the model of restoration that we see in Matthew 18:15-17 where we see the church disciplining its members?
If we don't have a healthy view of church in this local, gathered sense, how can we make sense of a passage like 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 where someone is put "out of the church?" How can someone be put out of a nebulous, global, invisible entity? They can't.
If we don't have a healthy view of church in this local, gathered sense, who are "those among us" that we are to go after in James 5:19-20?
Second, we need to be intentional in a local church. Three things that have been a helpful reminder for me are to do what your church does, build relationships, and create an atmosphere.
Do what your church does. I often have conversations with guys who lament, "My church just doesn't get it! I'm the only one who wants to do _______" (fill in the blank with small groups, community groups, cell groups, missional communities, Sunday school, etc). They go to a conference, complete a training program, or read a blog post and now want to clean shop and crack some skulls at their church. Bad idea. Exist within your church's system for spiritual growth. Even if it's not perfect, be the most faithful and transformative person in that system. If structural, systemic changes do need to be made (as they often do), you need to be the change first.
Build relationships at your church. Get to know people above, below, and beside you. Those "above" are older, more mature Christians who can pour into your life. Make sure you find some sages to live out Titus 2 with you and invest in your growth. Those "below" you are folks that are a life-stage or two behind you. You need to be the sage in their life and live out Titus 2 with them. Those "beside" you are peers with whom you also need to be living out the "one anothers" of Scripture. Do each other good spiritually as you walk side-by-side in this mutual season of life.
Create an atmosphere at your church. You might also call this an expectation at your church. The churches I've encountered that seem to "do the best" (whatever that means) at discipleship are the churches for whom discipleship is a culture, atmosphere, or expectation and not the churches where it is merely a program, class, or sermon series. It should be the normal thing for Christians to gather in homes to study the Bible together. It should be normal to inquire how someone came to know Jesus or what God is doing in their life recently or what they're praying about and/or struggling with these days.
You don't have to get permission to start loving other church members this way and you don't need a formalized program to see it take root. Create an atmosphere of healthy discipleship at your church and watch Jesus do some amazing things as He grows, matures, and shapes his Bride.