Moving from Production to Reproduction

BabLast week I wrote that the church needs to quit trying to make disciples and focus instead on reproducing disciples. That is, we need to shift our mindset from production to reproduction. Today I want to address some of the key differences between those two mindsets: process, efficiency, and fertility.

Process. When my wife and I decided to have children (as if it was really up to us!), we didn’t first sit down and plot what those children would look like as adults. We didn’t list the steps by which our babies would be transformed into full-grown, fully-functioning men or women. We knew there would be a variety of phases—infancy, childhood, adolescence, teenager—and we read a variety of resources that we hoped would help along the way. Mostly, though, we just held hands, and held our breath, and dove unprepared into the terrifying world of parenthood.

A plethora of child-rearing books is available to parents, each with its own litany of steps and hints and must-do’s to raise successful kids. Many of those resources agree on basic principles; many have blatantly convicting advice. And as any new parent quickly realizes, the collective tips and counsel from parents, friends, and complete strangers is no more congruous. We realize just as quickly that our child is unlike anyone else’s; in fact, children from the same parents are totally unique—even fraternal twins, for all their biological similarities, have unique personalities. Given these uniquenesses, we cannot squeeze children through a production mold.

Nor are any two disciples the same. Nurturing one spiritual infant through adolescence and into (or at least toward) spiritual maturity will not follow the same path as for any other. There will be similarities; there is a body of knowledge that can be taught, along with a number of skills. Habits can be developed that are indicators of growing maturity. But the paths to maturity diverge quickly, flowing through the unique experiences that each individual faces. Reproducing disciples doesn’t have a set process.

Efficiency. During my undergraduate business studies, I took a fascinating course called Production Operations Management. During the semester, we studied the host of ways businesses streamline their processes to achieve maximum efficiency. We learned about satellite-guided trucking and Just-In-Time (JIT) delivery. We learned how computers are used to map the maximum number of different pieces to cut from a single sheet of plywood. Every hour and every mile saved in shipping, every former scrap that can be used in the final product, every reduction in storage time—every gain in efficiency—contributes to a company’s profits and therefore its success.

Similar thinking has crept into the western church: if we can just get more people into the church to hear the gospel, then more will become followers of Jesus. If we can teach those followers all at once what they all need to know, then more will become disciples sooner. This type of thinking—born out of an honest and righteous desire to expand God’s kingdom—is at the heart of the church growth movement, the multi-site phenomenon, and radio and TV ministries. It’s not necessarily bad, but it needs to be looked at more critically than it probably has been.

Reproduction in the human world is inherently inefficient. Spiders and fish may give birth to thousands of little spiders and fish; but among humans, multiple births are rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the twin birth rate is less than 34 per 1,000 live births (0.337%); the rate for triplets and more is 119.5 per 100,000 (0.12%). Our physical, mental, emotional, and social systems aren’t designed for greater efficiency. Neither are our spiritual systems. The apostle Paul frequently used the language of parenthood when speaking of those whose faith he nurtured. He called both Timothy and Titus his “true sons in the faith.” He wrote to the Thessalonians about having nurtured them “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess 2:7). No mother can nurse more than two children at a time! Reproducing disciples is not efficient.

Fertility. Early in our marriage, my wife and I were part of a Sunday School class for young couples. During the three years we were part of that class, not a month went by that we didn’t have three couples pregnant. Jokes abounded about our collective fertility, usually centering around the donuts that were served each week. But as time passed and different couples moved on to their second and third pregnancies, we also began to realize that among us were couples who weren’t having babies…but who wanted to, and with increasing desperation.

It’s clear from Scripture that not every couple will be able to have children. It’s also clear that children, when they do come, are a gift from the sovereign God. In similar fashion, we don’t make disciples—God does; we are, however, entrusted with the responsibility to nurture disciples: to train, teach, love, and correct, all with the aim of growing those disciples into maturity and releasing them to nurture more disciples. Reproduction, not production.

The challenge of discipleship in the western church is as much cultural as it is spiritual. In the industrialized, individualized west, we want to make everything big, streamlined, and efficient. We create processes and seek endlessly to improve those processes in order to turn out products in ever-increasing numbers. Discipleship, however, is small, bumpy, and terribly inefficient. It looks more like parenting than manufacturing. Reproduction, not production. Next week I will dive more into this parenting analogy and what that might look like in a church.


I Have Loved You…

RejectedThere’s nothing like a job search to make you feel inadequate. You spend hours polishing a resume in order to highlight your strengths and accomplishments and capabilities. You scour the internet for job openings that might be a good match—in the process realizing that 99% of the postings include at least one thing that should disqualify you. You apply anyway, taxing all your creative abilities to write an inviting, compelling cover letter. (Computers, by the way, have not made the search process easier on applicants. But that’s another story.)

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a response; too many employers don’t send anything to applicants they’ve rejected. But if you do get a response, it will likely say little more than “thank you for applying” and “we’ll keep your application on file for six months.” Often, especially if you happen to be applying for a pastoral position, the letter will praise your apparent skills and experiences before saying they’ve ruled you out. Those are nice in their own way, though you soon realize that they point more to your ability to present well on paper than to the church’s diligence in considering something beyond your resume.

Eventually, your skin thickens, your heart hardens, and your cynicism grows. You start applying for jobs you don’t want with companies you don’t know in places you’d never want to live. You’re not really interested, you just want to find out if you’re interesting, if anyone is willing to talk with you. Unfortunately, some of those places are willing—and then, after a couple emails and maybe a phone call or two, your integrity gets the better of you and you have to tell them no.

And all the while, you keep getting turned down by the places you really would like to work, where you think you would fit well and bring some good. And the mindset of failure settles in. “If I’m really as good as all these reject letters say,” you start to think, “then why won’t anyone talk to me?” You begin to think they’re lying: you’re really not all that good.

Then one day, in a conversation with a friend or a coach or a mentor—as you’re trying to be detached from the emotions of the search, yet vulnerable with them at the same time—he does something that spins you around. “I want you to be silent,” he says, “and listen for what God may want to say to you.” And though you’ve tried to be quiet and listen before, something is different this time. You actually hear something—or at least something comes into your mind that might be from God. And though you don’t want to too quickly break this brief and holy silence, you do.

I have loved you with an everlasting love.

“Very interesting,” he says. “I heard those same words.” Together you search your Bibles to find the context of those words, landing in Jeremiah 31:3. It’s a picture of God appearing in the wilderness to a quarrel-weary and anxious Israel (formerly known as Jacob), and reassuring him of His presence, love, and faithfulness: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” No matter what you do, Israel, I love you; I will always be faithful. Not because of anything you do; not in spite of any of your failures; but simply because my love is everlasting…because I am love.

And so, in the midst of a wearying, discouraging, fruitless job search, you hear the voice of God saying to you, too, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” When it feels like you’re not good enough, you hear God saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” And when yet another reject letter shows up in your email, you know, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” It’s something to hang onto.


VW assembly line

Don’t Make Disciples

I’ve noticed a trend in American churches over the past fifteen years or so: an increased focus on discipleship as the core of our mission[1]. I haven’t studied enough church history, either early or recent, to know if this is a new or a renewed focus; in either case, it is a good thing. After all, didn’t Jesus commission the apostles, and therefore the church, to “go and make disciples”?

Well, yes… and no. As the late missiologist David Mays states, “Make disciples is NOT the core of the Great Commission.” Mays suggests that “make disciples” is at best a poor translation, and explains the grammar of the Greek text to provide a more accurate rendering of the heart of Matthew 28:19: “disciple all nations.”[2] That doesn’t change the church’s mission, however. Mays acknowledges, as do I, that the church is certainly in the business of making disciples, and that one of her biggest failings is her failure to do that well. His concern, though, was that the church has focused her disciple-making efforts locally and neglected the global—the “all nations”—emphasis of Jesus’ command.

I agree with Mays’ global concern; it is one of my passions as a disciple and as a pastor. But for the present I want to focus attention on a different result of the poor translation of Jesus’ words. When we focus on the two words, “make disciples”, we put ourselves in a production mindset. We identify a product, disciples, and the characteristics the product should have; then we build a production cycle to turn out that product. An unfathomable array of books and manuals and programs is offered to churches and individuals to guide, streamline, and improve the efficiency of the production.

But we are not producers, we are reproducers. In the English Standard Version, the word disciple appears 269 times: once in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 8:16; 238 times in the gospels; 30 in the rest of the New Testament. The overwhelming majority of those references are simply identifying a certain group of people—Jesus’ disciples, John’s disciples, the disciples of the Pharisees. Very few provide either description or prescription about what a disciple is or should be; fewer than a dozen, in fact. in other words, Scripture offers no schematics, no blueprints, no engineering plans detailing what the product—a disciple—should look like.

Yet we have systematized the Great Commission. We have laid disciple-making on an assembly line, trying to turn out disciples the way Henry Ford turned out Model T’s. Think about this, though: you’ve never seen an assembly line in a hospital maternity ward. Babies are not produced. Adolescents are not “new and improved” versions of their younger selves. (I can here all the parents of teens shouting “Amen!”) Adults are never finished products. The linear, piece-by-piece-by-piece assembly line that revolutionized manufacturing production is a miserable failure in the reproduction of disciples.

If the church is to recover her discipleship mission, she must shift her mindset from production to reproduction. She must view the Great Commission (Matthew 28) through the lens of the first commission (Genesis 1:28): Be fruitful and multiply. Indeed, some of the most helpful passages to guide our thinking about discipleship use this word “fruit”; it is the language of farming, not the language of manufacturing. Paul calls both Timothy and Titus “my true son” [1 Tim 2:2, Titus 1:4]; he likens himself to a nursing mother and the Thessalonians as his own children [1 Thess 2:7]. These are not images of manufacturing, but of parenting.

When churches emphasize making disciples, we get sidetracked by discussions that never crossed Jesus’ lips. When we strive instead to reproduce disciples, it will change our language, our perspective, and our efforts. Next week I will look at some key differences between making disciples and discipling—between production and reproduction.

[1] This post is an expansion of thoughts originally posted online in response to a blog from Ed Stetzer, “Overcoming the Discipleship Deficit“.
[2] David Mays, “Shooting Sacred Cows,” Keynote address, Harvest Conference, San Jose, CA, May 1, 2010.

© 2015 by Randall J. Ehle. All rights reserved.

Preemptive Forgiveness

As Christians, we have our work cut out for us. If we’re serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ, then we’ll diligently read and study the Bible not only to learn more about God, but to learn how to live. And as we do that, we discover that we have a pretty lofty set of examples to follow. Paul gives the example of perseverance in the face of open hostility, beatings, and prison. James offers instruction about both our words and our attitudes. The shepherd king David demonstrated a spiritual rawness and emotional openness unparalleled in Scripture. And of course Jesus himself gives a lifetime of examples for everything from teaching through stories to loving the most unloveable of people. But the hardest example to follow is the one that came at the worst possible moment in Jesus’ life.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Luke, a doctor and painstaking detailer not only of Jesus’ life but also the lives and ministries of the apostles following the resurrection, gives an account of the crucifixion that is surprisingly devoid of the details you might expect from a doctor. Most of Luke’s story, in fact (see Luke 23), seems to be focused on what was going on with other people: Simon the Cyrene, the crowds, the soldiers, the two criminals. All he really says about Jesus is, “they led him away… they crucified him… he breathed his last” [verses 26, 32, 46].

Maybe this scarcity of detail about the physical suffering Jesus endured allows Luke’s readers to be that much more taken with the words of Christ that he records—especially the words that give us the hardest example we will ever be asked to follow: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

History tells us that crucifixion was a terrifying, torturous ordeal leading to a slow and agonizingly painful death. Some victims were lashed to the cross while others—like Jesus—were nailed through their wrists or palms. Sparing us these details, Luke simply says, “they crucified him.” And immediately he gives us Jesus’ words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As the hammers are coming down on the spikes, Jesus offers forgiveness to those holding the hammers. As the cross is being hoisted into its vertical position, Jesus asks His Father to forgive those lifting the wood. 

While in the very process of being wronged, Jesus offers forgiveness.

That is an impossibly difficult example to follow. We are even tempted to excuse ourselves from following it because Jesus, after all, was God, and we’re not. But Jesus was also a man—the same man who only hours before had begged in blood-stained sweat for his heavenly Father to let him get around this hour. We have no excuse. We also have no power, except through the One who gave us the example.

Preemptive forgiveness. Forgiving before the one who hurt you apologizes. Forgiving when what you want most is for them to know they hurt you. Forgiving when they don’t even acknowledge that they hurt you, or they deny hurting you at all. Or, worse, when they say it’s your fault for being hurt. Forgiving when there is precious little hope for confession, let alone restoration and reconciliation. Forgiving even when you don’t feel forgiving, you don’t want to forgive, you’re not sure you can forgive. It’s impossible. [*See footnote and my first comment below.]

But it is most necessary, for only in preemptive forgiveness is there hope of something better even than restoration. Only in preemptive forgiveness is there hope for resurrection. New life. Re-creation.

Jesus’ agonized prayer—“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”—made possible not only his own resurrection, but also the resurrection of every believer. We can’t stop people from hurting us; we can’t make them confess or apologize or repent when they have hurt us. But we have the power to bring new life through forgiveness.

Father, forgive them.

*11/27/15—I made some small but important changes to this post after first publishing it, changing “forgive” to “offer forgiveness” in a couple places, and changing the statement from “Jesus forgives” to “Jesus asks His Father to forgive.” See my comment below for more on this.

First Dates: Getting Churches and Pastors Together

the-best-baby-name-bookIt was one of our first dates and we were at a bookstore and coffeehouse called Upstart Crow. I would ask her to marry me in this very place, but that question was still eighteen months off. Tonight, we were just having fun and starting to get to know each other. She was young and fun and romantic; I was a little older, more serious, and in love with love. And the only thing I remember about that evening was one book we looked at together: baby names.

Searching for a new lead pastor can bring about some of the same jitters as dating—for both the search team and the candidates. In both cases, two individuals want to get to know each other. What do they like? What are they like? What moves them? What scares them? How do they carry themselves in public and in private? Of course, these aren’t the questions we ask, they are the observations we try to make as we spend time together. But we need to ask questions, and the questions themselves can tell as much about us as the answers tell about the other person. Even the timing of certain questions can be revealing, just as looking at baby names on our first date revealed something about both my wife and me long before we were married.

One church I applied to asked every applicant to complete a ten-page questionnaire as the first step in the process. They asked for four separate philosophy statements, covering everything from leadership and administration to missions and evangelism. That felt like talking about not just baby names but parenting philosophies on a first date.

Another church I interviewed with handed me a list of thirty questions, from which they had selected six or eight to ask. Every one dealt with moral issues or specific scenarios—from “is gambling a sin?” to “what would you do if a homosexual couple walked into the church?” The questions on those pages told me everything I needed to know about my fit with that church.

There’s nothing wrong with a leadership team wanting to know about a candidate’s philosophy of leadership or how he would handle a moral issue, but I would suggest that they’re not the best first-date topics. So what questions, and types of questions, should we be asking, and when? I’ll suggest some specifics in a future post, but here are four areas to be considered:

  • Vision and Values. Some churches are clear about their vision and values, and expect a new pastor to lead toward those. Others want the pastor to come with a vision and help the church implement that. I don’t think one is better than the other, but this should be fairly clear early in the process, and discussed throughout.
  • Theology. Many churches ask applicants to indicate agreement with a doctrinal statement. Instead of looking for a yes or no, ask if there is anything in the statement that raises questions or concerns. The search committee, working with the church’s leadership team, should have an idea of what theological matters are critical—the die-for or divide-over issues—and where there is room for variation. The critical issues should be raised early on; the less-critical ones can be saved for later in the process, or maybe not even addressed at all.
  • Leadership. This comes down to two basic issues: Who leads? and How do you lead? The first is partly a question of structure and governance: is the church led by staff (i.e., the pastor), elders, deacons, a board of trustees, or the congregation? The second goes to the leadership style of the pastor; is he hands-on or hands-off? A micromanager? The first question may need to be addressed early in the process, while the second may be able to wait.
  • Personality. This can be at the same time both the easiest and the most difficult area to grasp…and is one of the most important. The easy ways to gain insight into a candidate’s personality involve a variety of assessments: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Clifton StrengthsFinder, and other profiling tools can give us common language. Yet there is so much variation within each personality type or strengths mix that only time and relationship can reveal whether a church and a candidate are a good fit.

My wife and I dated for a year and a half before I proposed. We were engaged another eighteen months before saying “I do.” What sustained us over those three years—and for the twenty-three that we’ve been married—was not our shared interest in children or what they would be named, but a mutual commitment to working through the daily challenges of merging two lives into one, and working together to toward a common goal, each growing and learning from each other. The relationship between a church and pastor is not altogether different.