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Discipling Viral Disciplers, Discipling Followers of Jesus, ... by Roger Thoman
Note, the most recent article (with my highlights) is at the bottom
Discipling Viral Disciplers
(Richard's note - I really agree with his main point.  What your goal is will determine the outcome.  To better understand his article just replace "simple/house churches" with "small groups" or "community groups") 
I no longer try to start simple/house churches.  I think house churches are great.  They provide a place for people to experience participatory, everyone-matters church life.  They provide a way for people to really connect into authentic, one-another community.  They often provide a place for people to recover from some of the pains caused by institutional church life.  But house churches are no longer the end game for me.

Jesus invited us to join him, organically, in the reproduction of life.  His church is a living, thriving, reproducing organism (Mark 4) that allows life-in-the-Spirit to spread virally from one disciple to the next.  His church is alive as illustrated by a seed (Mark 4) that brings forth 30, 60, or 100-fold reproduction.  That is the life of the kingdom.  His life in me is passed on to the life of another (2-fold) which is passed to the life of another (4-fold) which is passed to the life of another (8-fold), etc.  That is the way of organic/viral life and this is what the kingdom IS.  This is ultimately what Jesus invited us to become part of: discipling viral disciplers.

Kingdom life is viral, organic, and, by nature, a movement.

When I have made house churches the end game, I have discovered that they do not naturally reproduce nor become movements.  In fact, house churches have a shelf life.  They may serve a purpose for a season, but when that season ends (and it will) the “movement” is over.  The influence of a house church is temporary.

This explains why Jesus did not ask us to go and “make gatherings or churches.”  He did not ask us to go and “make house churches.”  He said, “go and make disciples.”  This shift from starting gatherings to making disciples (who go and make disciples) goes to the very heart of the matter.  Discipling viral disciplers is the end game.  This places us squarely in the midst of reproductive life that the kingdom is intrinsically about.  We become movement-starters not church-starters.  We release disciples who will influence the world throughout their lifetime and beyond as those they disciple disciple still others.

Now, not to confuse the issue, but often in the work of discipling viral disciplers I will be gathering people together in a manner that looks an awful lot like a simple/house church.  Absolutely!  But the underlying DNA makes all the difference.  When I reach and disciple a viral discipler, that person is going to gather with other viral disciplers for encouragement, and then, as each of them reaches others, still more gatherings will take place.  So, along the way, house churches are started.  But, but rather than being the end game, they become a means to support the life that is being reproduced from one disciple to the next.  The house church gatherings themselves will shift, change, morph, end, and re-establish themselves in new forms but the movement of disciples who are reproducing disciples will continue.

Sustainable kingdom-life does not take place just because of the way we gather.  But it does take place when we step into the role Jesus called us to: making disciples who know how to make disciples.

As mentioned, starting house churches and discipling viral disciplers (who gather in house churches) might look very similar on the outside.  But the process is very different!  When we start house churches, our focus tends to be on the gathering—what to do, how to do it, what it looks like, etc.  We say to ourselves that we are learning to “be” the church 24/7 (and we may even go do missional things), but often our priority remains on developing the structure/form of simple house church gatherings.  When following Jesus and inviting others to follow him becomes our focus (discipling viral disciples), we will have to shift from the “gathering” mentality to the “lifestyle-going” mentality.  This shift changes the processes we walk out from top to bottom.  And, this shift will propel us from being church-starters to movement starters (where churches spring up along the way).

There is much more to share about the process of discipling viral disciplers, but suffice it to say that it does ask us to examine our own “followership” as a starting point.  Jesus, the adventurous, undomesticated, on-the-move God invites us to join him daily where He is working.  What does that look like for me today?  What does it really mean for me, today, to be the church (Jesus’ follower) in the world?  From that starting point, we can begin to look at and grasp a process that will “infect” others who will then “infect” others to fully follow Jesus.  Ah… a movement!

More to come!

June 4, 2009

Continuing on the discussion of discipleship, I want to talk about what I call the “Jesus and dot dot dot” syndrome.  This means that we have often been discipled (and are thus discipling others) by learning to follow Jesus… and… something in addition.  We follow Jesus… and… the set of doctrines that our church teaches in order to “protect” the Gospel.  We follow Jesus… and… the rules (mostly unspoken) that we must follow to fully belong to the Christian culture we are a part of.  We follow Jesus… and… the teachings of our pastor who works hard to make Jesus relevant and understandable.  We follow Jesus… and… the latest pop-teacher that we are listening to.  We follow Jesus… and… the core teachings of our denomination.  We follow Jesus… and… the instructions of our latest church-leadership guru (even house-church-leadership guru).

The problem is not that we are listening to good teachers, or learning from others.  The problem is that, in our own insecurity or anxiety around being a pure follower of just-Jesus, we take comfort in following others who interpret what it means to be a follower.  This provides us with an easier path and gives us a sense of security in the journey.  The result is that we end up putting this alternative body of information/teaching right up there alongside of Jesus.  We look to Him, yes, but then we look to others to make sure that we are interpreting Him correctly.  We end up seeing Him through the lenses of others.  We end up with human mediators between us and Jesus.  We end up with a watered-down experience of daily following just-Jesus.

The “Jesus and dot dot dot” syndrome leads to two significant (as in huge) problems:

  1. We, ourselves, lose sight of what it means to radically follow the untamed Jesus.
  2. We make the issue of discipling others far too complicated, difficult, and inaccessible.

Let’s briefly look at each of these.

When Jesus said that man does not live by bread alone (which meets our daily physical needs) but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, he was pointing to a daily followership.  We digest, grasp, listen to, and walk out what God is speaking to us each and every day.  Yesterday’s digested word will not provide direction for our lives today.  That he meant to lead us in such a consistent, radical way is further seen by his challenges to wannabe-disciples who first want to bury a father or say good-bye to their family before following Jesus in-the-now (Luke 9).

The prospect of actually facing Jesus head-on, in daily followership, leads to a radical, obedience-oriented, undomesticated lifestyle.  If this prospect does not make us tremble somewhat (both fear and excitement), then we may have lost our taste for it.  Instead, we prefer to look at the lifestyles of those who have interpreted Jesus to us and do our best to emulate them or implement their understanding of the Jesus-lifestyle.  This is so much safer (seemingly) though the consequences may leave us far from the mark of a true disciple.

Terry Eagleton says:

“[Jesus] is presented [in the Gospels] as homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade or occupation, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful.” (Quote taken from Frost & Hirsch, ReJesus, p. 20)

My own life-as-a-disciple hinges on this question: Do I really want to listen to, today, and wrestle with, today, that Jesus (as he reveals himself in his own word) and make the decision, today, to fully be his follower.

This issue takes on even greater significance as we turn our attention to discipling others.  Why?  Because it takes a great deal of human effort and energy to “properly” disciple someone to follow Jesus and to understand all that needs to be explained and interpreted so that the new disciple can follow Jesus “properly” (according to whatever comes after the dot dot dot).  We commit ourselves (remarkably) to gargantuan efforts to make sure that new disciples are properly taught a Christian worldview (how to think), a Christian theology (what to believe), and a Christian culture (how to behave).  Yet in this massive knowledge-focused download, we often sidestep the central issue of discipleship: what is Jesus showing you (speaking to you, revealing to you by his word) today and how are you going to walk that out?

When discipleship becomes truly focused on following Jesus today, the new disciple can pick this up almost instantaneously when it is modeled by a practitioner (discipler who is also following daily).

This does not mean that there is no purpose in walking alongside of new disciples.  But it does mean that we shift the heavy lifting from the shoulders of the discipler (imparting all of the necessary knowledge and information about thoughts, beliefs, and behavior) to the shoulders of the Holy Spirit who actually is big enough to transform those who are choosing to listen and follow daily.  Furthermore, the activity of the Holy Spirit in this process is not primarily facilitated by the “gifted” efforts of the discipler, rather the Holy Spirit is engaged as the new disciple picks up the task of discovering God’s communication to her daily and then wrestling with how to apply it in her life.

We have made discipleship far too complicated (the need to impart massive amounts of information in transformative ways—as if we can do that) yet also too comfortable (not requiring the discipler and disciple to follow Jesus radically.  By turning this around, discipleship does become far more challenging in terms of our own followership, yet also far easier, simpler, more transferable and accessible as we simply invite others to learn how to do the same.

We could wrap up by looking at some tools for this, but sometimes we take tools and use them as shortcuts.  Perhaps we just need to focus, for now, on the basic issue of being a follower today.

Keys To Church Planting Movements 

Here are a few of the keys we find are important in seeing disciples and churches reproducing beyond the third and fourth generations:

1.    Disciple making is at the center and must be simple so that it can be easily caught and passed on to others.

2.    Disciple making focuses on hearing the voice of Jesus, through His word, and following (obedience).

3.    Disciple making is not primarily mastering a set of information.  It is responding to what Jesus is speaking today.

4.    Do not disciple people to the voice of Jesus through Scripture and another set of doctrines, teachings, church methods, or Christian culture.  His voice is enough!

5.    Go where you are sent.  Listen and respond to the place/people/group that God calls you to.

6.    Expect that your disciple will do everything that you do very soon after he/she sees you model it.  Everything!

7.    Sow compassionately; pray continually.

8.    Keep gatherings simple, participatory, and open to the leading of Jesus.

9.    Encourage new believers to start gatherings with their new disciples.

10.    Be willing to let go of those who do not desire to become fruitful, reproducing disciples.

11.    Make it your goal that everyone you influence becomes a more influential “leader” than you.

12.    Your own heart-passion and longing to hear and follow every whisper that Jesus speaks is the first and foremost key because we will pass on who we are not what we say.

Here are some additional resources on church planting movements:

A person left this comment.  Do I agree with it??
Your points on discipleship are great but you spoil it by going on about the need to plant churches! There is never a command to start churches, only make disciples...

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