Across the spectrum of Christian worship, our churches are filled with individuals who do not believe Christlikeness is possible. Individual believers have camped beside the river of God’s grace and drink daily of his forgiveness, unaware that this same grace can can provide spiritual transformation into Christlikeness. Discipleship, they suppose, is for those few super-saints called into the ministry, and so we are trapped in the fellowship of low expectations.
Perhaps even more striking is the number of church leaders who have largely abandoned the task of making disciples. In the first years of my work as a pastor I attended a weekly breakfast “prayer meeting” of local pastors. I was looking for practical help in fulfilling my vision of equipping every believer to do the work of the ministry. Assembled were church leaders from a variety of faith traditions, both liturgical and Evangelical, representing a variety of the American denominational spectrum. In two years of regular meetings with these shepherds of the flock, the only subject that drew complete agreement was their low opinion of the people they were called to lead. Each pastor shared story after story of petty arguments and disagreements, all to the same point: The people were impossible to lead! Clearly, I had fallen in with the wrong crowd. It will come as no surprise that by the time I celebrated my fifth year in the pastorate, every single pastor who attended the prayer breakfast had moved on to other churches or left the ministry.
Our difficulties embracing discipleship occur not only at the individual level, but also at the level of Christian leadership. Pastors rarely describe their task in terms of reproducing the character and power of Jesus in the people of their congregations. Nor do the people of the church expect their pastors to be spiritual mentors. Sadly, many pastors do not think the image of Christ is reproducible in their charges. As a result, leadership in Christian churches looks less and less like the biblical model and more and more like models drawn from the secular world.
Individual Christians struggle in their relationship with Jesus, and his call to become like him. Pastors struggle with the same thing: the idea that Jesus calls each one of us to become like him. When pastors do not have a realistic expectation that every Christian can live up to the example of Jesus, pastoral ministry becomes about something other than making disciples. If pastors are not convinced of the Christlike destiny of each person in their charge, the role of Christian leadership drifts away from the biblical example toward any number of earth-bound substitutes. These earth-bound substitutes may each be a moral good in their own right, but they will miss the high calling of developing a royal priesthood capable of demonstrating the glory of God to a watching world.
How many pastors carry the vision Peter expressed for the people in his charge?
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (I Peter 2: 9 – 12)
These four verses express high expectations for the assembled people of God. Consider this partial list drawn exclusively from these four verses:
- The people are chosen by God to do ministry;
- God has a regal view of his people;
- The people are ordained to represent God;
- The people are the light-bearers for the world;
- The people have a new identity with one another;
- The people have a reason to embrace life-change.
Peter presents a vision that the everyday conduct of “average” Christians will elicit praise for God from those who are not yet believers.
In my personal experience pastors rarely present such a high view of those they are called to shepherd. Many pastors lack the vision of a church filled with mature disciples. Is it any wonder the church at large is powerless?