Missional Discipleship w/ Jon Ritner, Part 1
Welcome to the GC Podcast, a podcast to help you develop into the healthiest ministry leader you can be by sharing practical ministry experience. Here is your host, Cara Garrity.
Cara: Hello friends and welcome to today’s episode of GC Podcast. This podcast is devoted to exploring best ministry practices in the context of Grace Communion International churches. I’m your host Cara Garrity, and I am pleased today to have guest Jon Ritner with us.
Jon Ritner has been a pastor for 20 years across different contexts. He is the author of Positively Irritating, Embracing a Post-Christian World to Form a More Faithful and Innovative Church. And today, he works with pastors and denominations all over to help them imagine and discern their innovation journey as they adapt to a post-Christian world in their own context.
So, Jon, thank you so much for joining us here today on the GC Podcast. We’re happy to have you.
Jon: Thank you so much, Cara. It’s a joy to be here, and I think when I titled my book Positively Irritating, it was your energy and voice that I imagined saying it out loud. That was really fun to hear you read that title.
Cara: Oh good. You can take it. I won’t copyright it. I won’t copyright it.
Jon, Positively Irritating, I’ve read your book. And it offers a lot of great insights for our leaders and ministry leaders and pastors in GCI as we grow in our vision towards healthy church that we have across the denomination. And so, I’d love for us to explore a little bit in this episode.
But first, could you share with us a little bit about what were your experiences that led you to write this book in the first place?
Jon: Yeah. My journey over the last 20 years has brought me in many different diverse contexts.
I spent 10 years working in the American South as a pastor to megachurch that was in the process of growing from kind of 5- 600, up to 3000. Building the big $16 million building and hiring the staff of 60 and everything, kind of living the American megachurch dream where you just felt like every year we were increasing and up to the right and total success story in a smaller town of Williamsburg, Virginia.
And yet at the same time beginning to have a little bit of a fracture in my own soul. Maybe we weren’t actually being as effective at making disciples as I thought we were. Maybe we were just collecting existing disciples from within the community and maybe even like just sheep shifting around from people who were at other churches into our church because we offered better programs.
And also realizing that there was something, a temptation in me to want to be in that spotlight. I wanted to be on that platform more and more to receive the praise and adulation of 3000 people, that I realized was unhealthy.
And I began to see more and more leaders around the country who were actually failing and being disqualified for sin in their life that was a result of, I think, a lot of that temptation. And so, I began to just ask Jesus again: God, this is not necessarily what I wanted and I’m not even sure this is what you really wanted. Is there a better way?
And as a gift to me, in the midst of all that, we received a call to go join some friends in Brussels, Belgium in the capital of Europe to help them work with as a nonprofit, an organization called Serve the City, working with homeless and refugee and asylum seekers. But then also helping plant small micro churches around the capital city there, localized expressions of mission and community in worship that were about 25 – 30 and really led by everyday, ordinary people not by trained professional pastors.
And the part of the education of that was really learning about the secular post-Christian landscape of Europe. And beginning to identify that this is actually what’s coming in America. I could see all the seeds of that being planted and thinking we may not have all the fruits of it yet, but it’s taken root and it won’t be long before this culture washes across most of America.
And the church in Europe is radically different because of the way they’ve had to adapt and to innovate to this new culture. So, for me, it was an experimental time of learning what other European leaders were doing, of trying some things and then really ultimately repenting of some existing church paradigms that I thought were biblical, that I realized were really just cultural and contextual to America in the last 50 years.
So, we spent three years there unpacking and unraveling all of that and building some new practices, and then eventually felt a call to come back to the States and help other churches on this journey. And so, I just recently finished a seven-year call at a church out here in Hollywood, helping them kind of re-mission and reshape their existing forms of church that’ll be more robust for this post-Christian climate that we’re finding out here in Hollywood.
Cara: Thank you so much for sharing that. That’s excellent. And sounds like quite a journey that God has set you on.
And so, you mentioned that part of this has been learning and growing in post-Christian context. So, can you explain for our audience a little bit what you mean by a post-Christian context?
Jon: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Culture is the proverbial fish and water, right? A fish doesn’t know that they’re wet. So, if you’ve been in the culture of Christendom your entire life, you don’t think of it as being a unique culture.
But the best way to think about the post-Christian culture that’s coming, is to actually try to connect it to the pre-Christian culture that we see in the book of Acts. So, if you look back in the scripture and you see the way the church is being formed, it’s a culture where Christianity, the modern movement – I’m sorry – the initial movement of Christianity had no power. They had no privilege, no property or finances. They were very much on the margins. They were a persecuted people group. It’s a lot of kind of underground house churches being expressed in small spaces.
By the time you get to Nero in the second and third centuries, you’ve got massive persecution underway where Christians are basically fearing for their own lives and yet continuing to grow and thrive. And the church is continuing to be healthy and adapt to that culture.
And so, there’s no professionalization of ministry, right? Paul’s taking up offerings as he moves around as an itinerant apostle, but Paul hasn’t gone to a formal seminary to train Christian pastors. He’s called together things from Jewish leaders, Gamaliel, and others. But it’s really a picture of the church on the fringes of society.
Then we come to Constantine who has this vision and ends up formalizing Christianity as the state religion of Rome. And ever since then, the center of the Western worldview has really the values, the ethics, the narrative of Christianity. And so, we may still think in terms of the world being in America, maybe challenged by Christian ethics and being against that, but so much of who we are – love, grace, kindness, truth – it’s all rooted in the Christian story.
And so, post Christianity is the culture that has emerged in Europe as the existing expressions of church got marginalized. They were seen as no longer being valid, no longer being sources of truth. They were seen as no longer being good news for culture. And they’ve been pushed back to the margin.
And so, if you connect with Christians in Europe, they are a massive minority. The culture around them often feels like when it comes to Christianity, we’ve been there and we’ve done that, and we have the cathedrals to prove it. We’re not going back. We’ve upgraded. Sometimes I say post Christianity is almost like a culture that has upgraded its worldview from its old model, right?
Every, 18 months or so, most of us go into a store and we think about upgrading our phone. It’s a phone that worked for us for a while and had features that fit us for a while, but now that there’s something better, the old has become passe and we want to get rid of it and upgrade. And so, in many ways, Europe views themselves as having upgraded to a better worldview, one that is not reliant on God at the center.
And they’ve created a worldview where you can actually find human significance – meaning you can answer the questions of identity and belonging and purpose, the deep existential issues – you can answer all of that without having to have God at the center of it. So, you can have significance without transcendence.
And that is a radical shift from the last 2000 years where Western culture, and honestly every culture around the world, has always rooted the answer to those deep questions, either in God or gods somewhere in the heaven. That we received meaning; we didn’t make meaning. But in post Christianity, you’re on your own to make your own meaning to make a life that has value. And to flourish as a human on your own.
And so, it sounds a little ethereal and what would that actually feel like? But when you’re in a culture like that for three years, the expression of it and the way it impacts the church is very significant.
There are churches over there that struggle to have any sort of finances. They don’t really have any property. They exist on the margins, and they’re trying to reimagine what does it look like when the flow of culture is not into a church space on a Sunday morning, but it’s away from churches.
I’ll give you just one last example there to concretize this. I remember the traditional liturgies of marriage and death in an American culture both take place in churches predominantly. When you want to get married, even if you’re not necessarily a follower of Jesus, you traditionally think about doing it in a sacred space like a church. When someone dies and you want to honor and celebrate that life and maybe even think about a connection to the afterlife, those services are often held in the sacred space of a church. In Europe, it, I saw over and over again that those two liturgies were never held in churches. In fact, in the city of Brussels, you can’t get married in a church. It’s a state institution. You have to go down to the town hall and have the local magistrate perform your wedding.
Now you can have any sort of ceremony after that. They don’t care about that, but you have to do it in a civil space. And then most funerals are held in gardens, parks, town halls.
I had a friend who went to a funeral one time, and I said tell me more about this. It was held in like the local civic center, the local town hall. And I said, was there a priest who moderated it? And he just laughed at me. He said, Oh no, they had an MC. And I was like, like a MC for a wedding, like a DJ? He says, yeah, just a guy with a microphone and a speaker who MCed it. And I thought, oh my gosh. They took this liturgy that we think of as being a sacred, spiritual, religious liturgy and they just extracted anything spiritual from it and turned it into a total secular experience.
And that really is what over and over again in post Christianity. And it’s more and more what I think you’re seeing come into American culture as well.
Cara: Yeah. Thank you for that explanation and even that tangible example. And you mentioned this this practice of adapting to a post-Christian context.
So what would you – before we get into what that’s looked like for you, what you’ve learned and maybe even how you’ve been coaching folks based on what you’ve learned – what would you say to somebody who might push back and say, the church isn’t meant to respond based on what the culture of the world around us is doing; the church is just supposed to be the church and respond to Christ.
What would you say to someone who might have that initial knee-jerk reaction?
Jon: Yeah, I would say that that doesn’t necessarily take into account the home field advantage that the church has had in Christendom. That currently in the last, let’s say 150 years, 200 years in the American story, the church has actually been much more centered than maybe we think about it.
Founding fathers. Constitutional documents. Pledge of Allegiance. There are all sorts of elements that are part of America that are very much connected to a divine worldview, a worldview where there is one God. And often in many ways, a Judeo-Christian worldview where the ethics of the Bible, the ethics of Jesus, the morality of justice and love and grace and truth, where all of that is implied.
And so, in many ways, the church got to exist with the benefit of a culture that was flowing in the same direction. And so, because of that, we didn’t really have to think much about the environment around us. And if anything, what we observed were the ways in which culture didn’t add to the church. And so, we looked at the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s and said, Oh look, the ethics of the culture are against biblical ethics, and so in a way the world is now against us.
Or we looked at any sort of number of found sociopolitical issues where we felt like they weren’t reflecting the truth of God’s word, and we said, culture is against us. And we actually tried to be a prophetic critique against that.
And so, I think churches have been aware of a cultural shift for many years and have wrestled with how do you engage it? Is it a culture war approach where we fight against it? Or is it more of an incarnation approach where we enter into that culture and try to offer something different to it? That was the kind, I think, the attempt of Jesus, to enter into a sinful world and model the way of God, the way of holiness, right in the midst of that sinful world and to show a better way to be human.
So, if you say that, hey, we shouldn’t be impacted by culture, I’d say, it’s impossible not to. It’s just impossible not to. Culture is your language. It’s the artifacts around you, right? It’s everything that is part of who you are.
And Jesus embraced culture. When John says that Jesus took on flesh and dwelt among us, part of humanity’s culture is flesh, it’s body, it’s permanence of one place at one time. That’s not how Jesus had existed before then, but he was willing to embrace the culture of humanity. He ate, he slept, he went to the bathroom, all these sorts of things. He was a baby who matured.
He took on the culture of humanity. And I think for us, it’s important to be aware of the cultural realities around us, in part so that we can offer something better and different.
Cara: Yeah. No, absolutely. Thank you for sharing that.
And let’s dive into that then. How would you suggest the church thinks about adapting in a post-Christian context? What does that look like and what has it looked like maybe in your own experience?
Jon: Yeah, I think one of the phrases that I think about as an anchor point is that the church needs to look less like Christianity and more like Jesus. Meaning that Christianity as a worldview, as a culture has taken on an expression in America that is honestly very influenced by a lot of Western values and influenced by a lot of secular cultural values and not necessarily connected to Jesus.
So how do we take our modern expressions of faith and kind of renew them or realign them around Jesus?
One of my friends, Alan Hirsch uses the word he made up, re-Jesus. It’s kind of like a thing of, if repentance is rethinking, re-Jesus-ing is just taking anything in our life and going, how do we make it look more like Jesus?
I think that one of the first calls on a disciple is to recognize that there’s going to be a need for a more robust form of discipleship – a re-Jesus-ing of everything in our life, of really bringing everything back to the centrality of who Jesus is and how he expressed himself in the world.
And so, some of that may involve a diving back into Scripture to study Jesus. You and I were talking earlier about this notion of the character of Christ and the competencies of Christ. A lot of times when we think about Jesus, we think about his character. He was loving and kind and forgiving and compassionate and almost as if those are – we think of those as like fruits of the Spirit that come as an expression of the Spirit within us.
But there were also competencies of Jesus, meaning there were like functions and roles that he played in society, that I think are important for us to reclaim as modern-day disciples. And I think one of the best ways to think of those competencies is around the Ephesians 4 list of APEST gifts: the role or the gift of the apostle, the profit, the evangelist, the shepherd, and the teacher. If you look at the ministry of Jesus, you can see that he’s often performing one of these five functions. The teaching function where he’s pointing people to the truth of Scripture where he’s anchoring his life and their life in God’s word. The shepherding function where he is healing or restoring or reconciling, where he’s caring for the soul and the spirit of the person.
The evangelist gift where he’s telling the story of God as a storyteller, and then he’s making the circle wider, inviting people in on the fringes, the Samaritan, the leper, the tax collector. He’s saying as an evangelist, there’s room for you in God’s story.
The prophet, right? He’s flipping over tables at one moment. He’s saying, you have heard it said, but I say to you. That’s the voice of a prophet who’s offering a critique of culture and trying to call us to a higher standard. He’s saying the way you treat the poor and the marginalized, the widow, the orphan, it’s not right, Pharisees. You’re more concerned with your own status than you are those on the margins; that’s not God’s heart. That’s the call of the prophet.
And then finally, this apostolic-ness, which is the pioneering part, the entrepreneurial side of Jesus that goes into Samaria, that enters into spaces that others would not have gone, that crosses a boundary into a tax collector’s house even.
So, these kind of five functions are part of the day-to-day life of Jesus that are needed in the modern-day church, if we’re going to be a healthy church in post-Christian culture. Most churches in Christendom, really, we’re just shepherd-teacher churches. We did a lot of care, small groups, community groups, fellowship, lunch, potlucks. We potluck the heck out of everybody, every weekend. Let’s sit around, get to know each other, and shepherd each other.
And then teaching. So, a pastor on a Sunday morning, a Beth Moore Bible study on Wednesday, another Bible study on Tuesday, a men’s breakfast on Friday. There was a lot of teaching and a lot of shepherding.
But I think those other gifts, the APEST gifts, are the gifts that we really need to reclaim in order to become a more fruitful and faithful church in this post-Christian culture.
Cara: Yeah, and I love that you mentioned that, and it makes me think about in GCI (I don’t know how much you’re familiar with this) but we use a tool called the 5 Voices [GiANT] that I think actually maps really well, or not maybe maps, but connects really well to the APEST giftings too. They’re pioneer, creative, connector, nurturer, and guardian.
And so just thinking about, what are the roles, what are the functions. And are we, number one, leaning into how we’ve been gifted? And are we being thoughtful about – in GCI we’re really big on team based ministry – and so are we really thoughtful about, like you said, are we having well-rounded teams?
Are we making space at the table for everyone to fully reflect these Christ competencies? And not only maybe the characteristics that we’ve thought about, but is there space at the table for all of these different kinds of voices and gifting so that we can be the best expression, the healthiest expression of who Christ in our context?
So, I love that.
Jon: Yeah, someone once said, that God made man in his image and that man returned the favor. And I think that’s true with Jesus, where Jesus created us in his image, but then we often create Jesus back into our image and really our personal image.
So, Jesus is a lot like me, so if I’m gifted in this way, that’s what Jesus would’ve done. If I’m not gifted this way, I tend not to think of Jesus that way. And so, for the shepherd, the image of Jesus is him holding the sheep over his neck or him holding someone who’s crying and tenderly nurturing them.
We don’t think of Jesus necessarily as the prophet kicking over a table, right? That’s not the painting you put over your kid’s bed. Hey, here’s Jesus with a whip flipping tables. But that’s just as much Jesus as Jesus who’s holding that tender sheep.
But we’ve made him in the image of shepherd and teaching. And part of the reason we’ve done that is because in the culture of Christendom, you didn’t need those pioneering breakout gifts, because the culture was primarily Christian. So really the church became more of a chaplain for society, where people were willing to center the church and to come to the church.
And so, your job was just to shepherd them and teach them. But now that we’re on the margins and the fringes again of society, those breakthrough gifts – the apostolic pioneering gift, the evangelistic make-the-circle-wider gift, the prophetic raise-the-standard gift – those gifts are much more needed.
And so yeah, Dishon Mills and I went through that 5 Voices together, and I remember getting my result and being like, yep, that’s who I am and that’s who Jesus is to me. And I was like, it was a good reminder that there are parts of Jesus that I need to celebrate and find others in my life when I work on teams that can elevate that voice of Jesus in our team so that I don’t just keep representing the one or two gifts that are mine, thinking that they’re actually all of who Jesus is.
Cara: Yes. And I really appreciate that point that you just made too about the context that we may find ourselves in. If we find ourselves in a context where maybe the church is more on the margins of society that may impact which gifts or which voices we may need to look to or create space – maybe even a little bit more space at the table for.
And even to translate that a little bit into the 5 Voices, those APE giftings connect really well to the pioneer, creative, and connector voices. But it makes sense that you say that because if we’re in a very Christendom kind of society, we’re comfortable, right? So, we don’t need to be thinking innovatively. We don’t need to be thinking about what are different ways to do things. How might we need to be thinking about how to get to the future?
But if we’re thinking about existing in a context that’s moving towards post-Christian, or maybe it’s already there, maybe we do have to be a little bit more creative in how we’re responding to what God’s doing in our midst.
Jon: Yeah, just from a business, just from an analogy, a parable point of view, right?
If you think about, the large behemoth business that’s been around for 50 years and has dominated market share forever. There’s a reputation, a notion that they can get fat and happy, right? That everyone came to us, everyone bought our products. We don’t have to worry about innovation. We’re just over here counting our money because we’re essential. And then one day a small scrappy startup comes along and finds a way to break into society.
The church has operated like that big box behemoth organization that had all the power for a long time. And as we lose our place in society, we really need to embrace more of the mentality of a small, scrappy startup that is trying to innovate and adapt and offer products in the marketplace, so to speak, to offer good news, to present value and blessing in the world in new and innovative ways. Maybe even ways that people aren’t looking for, aren’t aware that they need.
And so that’s a whole different skill set, right? In business school, you teach entrepreneurs one set of skills, and you teach upper-level management of existing organizations a very different set of skills. And this is part of the challenge, I think, for most pastors, is that we were trained and hired and brought on to established, successful churches and told to manage well. And all of a sudden, we find ourselves now needing the skillset of the scrappy entrepreneurial. And that’s one thing if you’re 20 and you’re like, oh yeah, I want to be that entrepreneurial, scrappy church planter.
It’s another thing, if you’re 60 and you’re like, man, I actually kind of liked my job. And how come it’s not as fun anymore? How come it’s harder? How come my people are leaving? And so that’s a little bit of a tension that I find when I work with young pastors and old pastors; there’s a very different mentality of willingness to actually embrace how much change is happening.
Cara: Yeah, absolutely. And even you mentioned earlier the idea of the early church in Acts, and I even see that as that scrappy, start-upy kind of church. And so, can you talk with us a little bit about what that looks like?
Because it is a bit of a different skill set, so how do you help pastors, leaders, churches, denominations think about this different kind of skill set that’s a little bit more of the scrappy startup kind of church?
Jon: Yeah. You’re comment about Acts reminded me of another kind of biblical example of the scrappy startup versus the established church, which is in Matthew 3, when John the Baptist is out in the wilderness wearing camels’ fur and eating crazy bugs and honey.
And he’s out there and people are coming to him and he’s basically saying, the kingdom of God is coming, meaning God is about to do a new thing. And the Pharisees and Sadducees come out to him, and of course they represent the establishment, right?
They’re the CEOs of the big box religious company who doesn’t want to change. They have nothing to gain by giving up their status. And the young scrappy startup looks at them and says, man, the ax has already been laid at the root of your tree. And if you don’t repent, if you don’t rethink, if you don’t change and innovate, God’s going to cut your tree down.
And I love what he says to them is, and I know what you’ll say to me, you’ll say, we have Abraham as our father, meaning (John the Baptist anticipates) that your argument for why God can’t cut you down is going to be rooted in history. It’s going to be like, hey, we’re descendants of Abraham. We have a straight line from Abraham.
It’s the same thing as a modern-day guy saying, if I came in and said, you got to do things differently, and he said, we’ve always done it this way, it always works. And John the Baptist is saying, listen, when it comes to God’s kingdom, what got you here won’t get you there.
God’s going to do something totally different, and your choice is to either repent and get on board, or to realize that God is going to cut down your tree. It’s the same thing he says in Revelation to all the different churches. Ultimately, you need to repent and rethink or else God’s going to snuff out your lamp. And for all those churches, there’s a promise that if you do repent, if you do rethink, if you do embrace this innovative challenge, there is a blessing to come on the other side.
To get to your question, I think the main paradigm that I try to encourage leaders to think through is that in Christendom the primary way we made disciples was through three gears in the engine, so to speak. We used professionals, property and programs. So, we built a building. We hired a staff person, and we organized a program, and we believed that the community would come to us and if we could just get ’em into our door and get ’em in a seat to listen to our pastor and then sign ’em up for a program, they would become a fully-formed follower of Jesus. They’d become a disciple.
The problem is in post Christianity, people don’t go to church. They don’t see the church as good news, right? There’s a generation growing up that thinks the church is judgmental and bigoted and hateful and narrow-minded and whatever. And they’re never going to walk through the door of a church because it’s not their culture.
And so, if they’re not walking into the doors of your church, they’re never going to meet your professionals. They’re never going to join your programs. So how do you make a disciple? In post Christianity, you have to think about every existing disciple becoming a disciple-maker themselves.
And so rather than property, professionals, and programs, you put all of your stock, all of your energy into making disciple-making people, to forming someone who can make a disciple on their own, out in the ordinary spaces of life.
Everyday people in the ordinary spaces of life. That’s a phrase that I keep coming back to. So, what are you doing this week within your church to equip and train that ordinary person to be able to go out as a mom or a mechanic, as a carpenter or CEO, whatever their profession is, and to be able to make disciples in the places where they live, work and play or create?
If you’re not doing that, then you’re structured for obsolescence and it’s just a matter of time before someone has to close the doors on your property. And I say to people, hear me now, believe me later. But I’m just telling you, I’ve been to the future. I’ve seen it. We invited people to church for 18 months in Brussels, and not a single post-Christian, European person ever said yes.
And that’s when I realized, man, I need a new strategy. Because if they’re not coming to church, I don’t know how to introduce them to Jesus in a strategic way. I’m going to have to change how I go about this. I’m going to actually have to figure out a way to be the church where they are, rather than trying to get them to come to where we do church, so to speak.
Cara: Yeah, and I think, there’s two thoughts that comes to mind with what you said. The first is this idea of God is doing a new thing and are we going to repent and participate in that? Are we about what God is doing or are we about what’s comfortable for us and what we like to be doing?
And I think that’s a question for us to contend with because if God is doing a new thing, if he is working in a new way, are we going to say yes and amen? Or are we going to say, God, we’ve always done it this way, so sorry. That’s how we end up wandering in the desert for 40 years.
So, there’s that, that came to mind. And my prayer is always that we would be the yes and amen people that would follow God into the new thing. 33:48
34:19 The second thing that that brings to mind is this idea of not just having folks come to us in our space as the gathering church but bringing the church out into the world is incarnation. That’s being incarnational and really, that’s participating in how Christ was for us and with us and continues to be with us.
And to me, I think, I see that as something that’s important in adapting to a post-Christian world. And there’s also a way of faithfulness in maybe contexts that aren’t quite post-Christian yet, or maybe won’t be post-Christian for a while because this idea of incarnation, of living with the people, amongst the people, living real lives and not just holing up in the four walls of the church is just so compelling because it’s so Christlike. So even theologically, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, there’s something so compelling about what you’re describing in terms of how to think about being the church.
Jon: Yeah. I grew up my parents were Methodist pastors in Northeast, and I grew up a good Sunday school kid and VBS. [Vacation Bible School] Anytime there was a program for kids, I was at it.
And probably like you, I remember the little nursery rhyme we learned. “This is the church; this is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” And the reveal of the people was so fun. Everyone did this.
And it wasn’t until I was probably in my like thirties where I realized, this is horrible ecclesiology. This is the church? No. This is the church.
But we had literally created a nursery rhyme that was indoctrinating kids into thinking that the church was a building. That it was a structure, that the form of church as a box building with a steeple on it, that this was essential to be the church.
And that’s not out of the book of Acts. That’s not New Testament. That’s just cultural.
So, if you go back to the Church being the reveal of the people and say, how do we equip the church to then go into the world and incarnate the way of Jesus outside of the walls? It’s a totally different kind of skill set and mentality.
But you can see even like in a simple, ridiculous illustration like that, how our brains need to change. And even the way we raise the next generation needs to change. I get real frustrated with my kids, I say we don’t ever go to church. We are the church.
I say the church is gathering on Sunday morning, so you could say we’re going to the gathering. But it used to drive me crazy if the kids would say, are we going to church on Sunday? I’d be like, the church is not a destination. Of course, they’re PK’s [Preacher’s Kids.] They’d roll their eyes, like whatever, Dad.
But even on Sunday in our welcome, when I would welcome our community, Ecclesia, I’d say, “Good morning, church. It’s so great to be gathered today. I know we’ve been scattered all over Los Angeles and the places that we live, work, and play. We’ve been participating in God’s work out in the world. But there’s something beautiful and special about gathering together to celebrate God’s work when we all are together, and God shows up in a special way when his community gathers.”
So, we honor the gathering. We’re not getting rid of it, but we also balance that with the value of the scattering, representing that the church are the people who breathe in and breathe out the life of God as we come together and then head out into the world.
Cara: Yes. Yes. That’s excellent. What are some of the other things that you’ve found in this shifting of the way that we think about church and discipleship that you found is helpful to unlearn?
Jon: Yeah, one of the things I love about GCI, as I’ve gotten to know you guys and some of your key leaders and had great discussions about your dreams and the prize that you’re seeking after, is your willingness to embrace this idea of the journey with Jesus being a journey of belonging, believing, and then becoming. In most of Christendom, the way churches were structured was actually the opposite way. That you would come to a church and if you behaved the way the church behaved, and if you believed the way the church believed, then you could belong to the church body.
One simple way we did that was through membership classes, right? And so, I used to teach membership classes at a church. I’m not opposed to church membership. I wouldn’t die on the mountain of having to have it either.
But the premise was we taught a six-week class where we explained to them what were the behaviors associated with the life of Jesus and the behaviors of a member of our community that we wanted them to ascribe to, and then what were the nine-point statement of belief that we ascribe to. And if they were willing to sign off on our statement of faith, our statement of belief, and adhere to a certain set of behaviors that we saw were core as members, then they could belong to us as members.
Now the challenge with that is it’s the exact opposite way that Jesus made disciples. Jesus would encounter someone like Zacchaeus is in a tree, or Matthew in his tax collector shed or the fishermen by the water. And he would never come up and say, hey guys, can I offer you a nine-point statement of faith, and can I give you a list of the core 10 competencies of the life of God and will you guys agree to this? And if you will, you can come be my disciples.
No. What he did was he led with belonging. He literally came to them and found a way to create a human connection to say, we belong to each other. Hey, come follow me. You’re like me. You have value. As a rabbi, I would like to have you in my presence, so to speak. To Matthew, it was like, Matthew, nobody likes you, but I like you and I would like to be in a relationship with you.
And so, when you lead with belonging, when you lead with hospitality, with love, with kindness and grace then you have the opportunity to begin to talk more about beliefs and behaviors down the road.
But I think most churches haven’t really thought about having to lead with belonging because the culture wanted to belong to a church. There was a gravitational pull into the churches. And so, if anything, we could build walls and say, now wait a minute, if you want to belong, you have to believe and behave like us. And people would jump over the hurdle and say, yes, I want to do that.
Nobody wants to belong to church anymore. Post-Christian people don’t want to be church members, right? So, if you try to create a wall, a fence that says, hey, you got to behave and believe what we believe in order to come in, they go, I don’t care. I don’t want to be in there.
So, it’s a radical reorientation to say what if we got outside the fence and created belonging with people? The analogy that I use in my book that is well worn, but it might be helpful, is to think about disciple-making in what’s called a centered set versus a bounded set reality.
A bounded set reality is one in which community is determined by shared practices, shared beliefs, by a high standard. It’s a fraternity, right? You got to pledge it to be a part of it. It’s a country club. You got to pay the price to be a part of it. You have to agree to the standards, or they kick you out.
In a bounded set, imagine a shepherd building a fence out in the middle of the field and putting all his sheep inside of it. Anything inside the fence belongs to him. Anything outside the fence doesn’t belong to him. The fence is a way of marking insiders and outsiders. In some ways, marking like the good people and the bad people.
Now centered set disciple-making is very different. Centered set is more like a shepherd saying, the best way to keep these sheep and to help them grow is not to try to fence them in, but it’s to dig a well in the middle of the field. And to orient them to the well as a source of water. Hey sheep, come here. This is where the water is. Now you’re free to roam and graze, but anytime you get thirsty, you can come back here.
And so imagine us as people of the well, people who know the source of water, rather than trying to fence in people or try to get them in the fence, why don’t we wander off and join them where they are and create shared belonging and then say to that person, by the way, if you’re ever looking for the source of eternal life, if you’re ever looking for the deep answers to the questions, I actually know where a well is that I could orient you there.
And so, it breaks down the idea of insiders and outsiders and it really encourages us to go and think about being sent people who create mutual belonging and acceptance of people wherever they are.
Cara: Yes. And I love that idea of sent-ness and even that image of the well to illustrate that centered set kind of community. I think helps us to visualize, what does that practically look like? Because I think that we have lived, in a general sense, in this bounded set kind of community where we are like us versus them.
Are you Christian? Are you not? Which church do you belong to? Versus, are we as sent people, as the people of God? And where are we being sent to? How are we being sent and what does that sent-ness look like? Yeah. I think that that is excellent.
We’re coming up almost to the end of our time, so I have one more question for you in this episode for today. In that sent-ness and that idea of what does that sentence look like, you have this idea that you present in your book called Disruptive Disciple Making. And so, can you talk a little bit about what that means? What does that look like to be disruptive disciple makers?
Jon: Yeah. It’s based on an idea from Oz Guinness who wrote in one of his books that the challenge for the pre-Christian world, the challenge in the Book of Acts is to explain a concept about the Christ, the Messiah, who was offering salvation through faith, through grace. That was so novel, so new, so radical that people could barely understand it.
And so, you had to present it in a way that was simple and clear and made sense. And then eventually people began to wrap their mind around it. It was a novel truth. He said the challenge in post Christianity is actually the opposite, is you’re presenting something to people that is so hyper-familiar that they think they already know it.
In some ways, maybe they even already believe it and they’re not interested in hearing anymore about it. And so, the education challenge is when you’re teaching something that’s complex and brand new, you try to make it simple. But when you’re teaching something that is hyper-familiar but not really understood, you have to make it strange.
And so, the idea of disruptive disciple making is this concept of strange making. For a people who have rejected Christendom, who think they know the story of Jesus, but really have not actually understood it or embraced it. Maybe they’re nominal Christians who have never really experienced the power of Christ and the filling of the Holy Spirit and the incredible calling on our life to be part of the kingdom.
Or maybe they’re just people who have experienced church friends but have never themselves taken the thought of Jesus seriously. How do you make that real to them in a fresh way? How do you make it novel? How do you disrupt their expectations?
And the analogy that I always like using is from an old retirement community in Williamsburg, when I used to lead a Vesper service at 4:00 PM for a bunch of retired officers in their wives at this – well, men and women at this Patriots colony, it was called. (Anyway, not important.)
But the bottom line was every time you drove in past the gate, and you’re in a small neighborhood, there was a speed limit sign on the right-hand side, and I remember it said 17 ½ miles per hour. And it was the first time I’d ever seen a sign like that. And I remember doing like a double take, like what 17 ½?
And then the next thing I actually went from that sign immediately to my speedometer to see what I was doing. Now here’s the thing. We see speed limit signs all the time. They’re hyper-familiar to us, and most of the times we tend to ignore them. We tend to drive at a speed that we think is appropriate and makes us feel safe and comfortable, and then we hope there’s no cops in case we’re going too fast.
So, what they did was genius. They took a sign that was hyper-familiar. They took something that they knew we would have the potential to ignore, to think, yeah, I know that. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I don’t need a street sign to tell me the speed. And they made it strange.
By putting half at the end of 17, they made us focus on it. And our natural reaction to something strange then was to actually assess our preconceived notions and check our speed. So, I say all that to say, what we need to do as modern-day Christians is take the expression of Christ in the culture and make it a little more strange. Not in a weird way, like weird Christian t-shirts or, but to make it remarkable, to make it something that people actually remark on.
Wow, I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never experienced that before. And how do you express the life of Jesus in a way that is different from just cultural Christianity? How do you show remarkable acts of grace, remarkable acts of love, remarkable acts of kindness and blessing to people. Michael Frost uses the phrase, How do you surprise the world with the life of Jesus?
And I think the only way that you’re going to get people to analyze the truths of Christianity is to get them to think maybe there’s more to Christ than I thought. This person is living the life, a life that they say is inspired by Jesus, and it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before.
I know what a Christian is, but this person’s different. I think of Christians as judgmental and off to their own and moralistic, but this person embraces and loves me regardless of my behavior. This person wants to be with me even though they know I have things in my life that they don’t approve of. There’s something remarkable about that.
And if you’re willing to take Christ seriously, I think ultimately that’s the way that Christianity as a worldview becomes opened up to them again in a fresh way.
I think there’s a lot of stories of how Jesus disrupts people’s expectations of what does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to be in the kingdom? What does it mean to have power or wealth? And he makes through parables and through his own modeling, he makes all that strange for them. And they walk away kind of scratching their head, going, I thought I understood it, maybe I never really did. Yeah, maybe there’s something new for me to consider here.
So that’s one of the skills I think of a modern missionary is understanding how to disrupt the expectation around Christianity and represent something that’s more Christlike than modern Christianity.
Cara: Yes. I love that. And one of the things that I think, a challenge that’s presented in that, almost to those of us who want to live disruptive disciple lives is that we have to be willing to be discipled by Christ to the point where our lives can be disruptive.
We have to maybe be willing to be a person that someone will double take at. We have to be willing to be someone who might break expectations of what it may be even mean to be a Christian whether to somebody who has no idea, thinks they had an idea, or someone who’s like, this is definitely what it means to be a follower.
And so, I think what’s beautiful about that is, it means also not just taking the idea of an effective evangelism strategy seriously but taking Christ and our own transformation and discipleship at his feet seriously because you can’t fake that.
Jon: That’s a great point, Cara.
It really begins with a prayer of like, Jesus, disrupt me, disrupt my life. Turn my world upside and form something in me that becomes disruptive in the world.
But you’re right, it’s not something you can fake. It’s not a silver bullet strategy to make new disciples, so to speak. It’s an invitation for the Spirit to work deeper in your life so that he can ultimately work through you deeper in the world around you.
Cara: Yes. And the faking it is when you get the weird weird, like you were talking about. And we don’t want the weird weird.
So actually, on that note, we’re going to wrap up for today’s episode for our listeners.
If you want to check out our next episode with Jon, we’re going to be diving a little bit more deeply into the process of how do we as ministry leaders, ministry participants dive more deeply into developing as community members in this way of participating in mission, in ministry and being the church with one another.
But for now, we are going to be a little bit weird, but not weird weird. And we’re going to end our episode in our traditional way with a little bit of fun questions. Jon, whatever comes up, whatever pops right into your mind, with these next few questions just go for it. It’s okay to be a little bit weird.
If you’re up for it and you’re ready. Here we go. What is a useless piece of knowledge that you really love?
Jon: Oh, my goodness. A useless piece of knowledge? The first woman to ever dunk in a college basketball game went to West Virginia University.
Cara: All right. Go her.
Jon: I don’t know why I know it, but I know it. Some things you can’t get out of your head that is absolutely useless.
Cara: But it’s great. It’s great. All right, here’s the next one. If you could only listen to one genre of music for the rest of your life, what would it?
Jon: Oh, Bob Dylan, just as a solo artist genre. Even last night I was driving home, there’s nothing greater than nighttime driving with the windows down and Bob Dylan playing because he is the only artist that you know you can probably sing better than. So, you just go at the top of your lungs.
Cara: that was too easy for you. Okay. What is a major bucket list item for you that you’ve yet to check off?
Jon: I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights. I’ve always wanted to go up to Scandinavia. It’s probably the only part of Europe that we didn’t get to explore.
And take one of those kind of winter trips where it’s dark almost year-round and experience 24 hours of darkness. But then the Northern Lights, the big green. I just think it’s one of the God’s coolest kind of artistic paintings that he created in creation that I’d love to go.
Cara: Yes. Oh, I hope that happens for you.
What is your favorite book of all time, if you had to choose just one? You can’t say the Bible. You can’t say the Bible.
Jon: That’s right. No. My favorite book, I think is by Lauren Hillenbrand. It’s called Unbroken. And it’s the story of Ernie (I think his name’s Ernie Zamperini) who is this – they turned into a film. The film wasn’t great, but it’s just an incredible story of a World War II pilot who gets shot down, becomes a prisoner of war. And then and before that, he was an Olympic sprinter, and then he comes back to the States, and he ended up becoming a follower of Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade.
It’s one of these stories that is like almost too good to be true. But it’s true. It’s the biography of his life and he has five different lives that each on their own would be remarkable. Wow. And I just, yeah, she wrote Seabiscuit as well, and she’s one of my favorite writers to just tell these compelling stories from real life.
Cara: Wow. That’s excellent. All right, last one. You got to give it all you’ve got. What is your best joke?
Jon: Oh gosh. I should get my 14-year-old son out here. He’s the joker. All right. My favorite joke was partly my favorite because my kids could never tell it right.
Knock, knock. Who’s there? Banana
Knock, knock. Who’s there? Banana
Knock, knock. Who’s there? Banana
Knock, knock. Who’s there? Orange.
Orange who? Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?
And so, it took my kids probably six months after learning why that joke was funny to be able to tell it right and kept screwing it up and so it became great. And so, I remember there was a T-shirt website one time we saw, and it was a picture of a door with three bananas lined up and orange in the back, and they were all lined up by the door. And we bought that, and our kids wore that thing into the ground. It was fantastic.
Cara: Oh, I love that.
Jon, thank you so much for your time and joining us today on GC Podcast. Listeners go on ahead and check out his book, Positively Irritating, to dive in a little bit deeper with some of the stuff that we talked about today.
And it is our practice to end each episode with the word of prayer. Jon, would you mind going ahead and praying for our churches, pastors, ministry leaders, and church gathering participants today?
Jon: Yeah, absolutely.
Heavenly Father, thank you for this tribe of GCI and the incredibly rich history, the prophetic history of these people, the way that they have broken free from slavery and of idolatry.
The way that they have renewed, repented, re-Jesus’ed themselves. It’s a remarkable encouragement for those around the world who are thinking themselves about ways to become more faithful and more fruitful as a church. I thank you for the story that you’ve written through this denomination and through these people of the last 25 years.
I pray for the individual pastors, for the local teams, for the denominational heads, for even those pastoring around the globe, Father, that you would be equipping them with the courage and the discernment, the insight, Lord, to follow you in this new way of being in the world. We pray, Lord, that you would give us all the courage as your leaders to be willing to do a new thing to join you in the new work you’re doing.
We, thank you that you have not left us out on the outside and you’re always inviting us to be part of the new work, Father. You don’t scrap the old in order to do something new. You invite the existing to repent and renew and join your fresh work in the world. And so, I pray, Father, for that sort of lens that we might embrace your work.
And I pray that your Spirit would fill us afresh. And I pray for all these leaders, God, listening today, even that you would encourage them to fight the good fight and to press on in the midst of the incredible adversity of being a leader in a local context. We pray all this in Jesus’ strong name. Amen.
Cara: Amen. Amen. Friends, until next time, keep on living and sharing the gospel.
We want to thank you for listening to this episode of the GC Podcast. We hope you have found value in it to become a healthier leader. We would love to hear from you. If you have a suggestion on a topic, or if there is someone who you think we should interview, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, healthy churches start with healthy leaders; invest in yourself and your leaders.