With his death looming, Jesus told his disciples he would build his church. The disciples trusted Christ, even as religious leaders tested him.
But how is Christ building his church now? What is he doing two thousand years later, thousands of miles away from those disciples?
One way he is building his church today is through new Converge churches and their discipleship.
“We have a blank piece of paper,” said Ken Lippold, who pastors Christ Church Los Angeles. “We’re a church plant.”
Christ Church started in a tent in early 2021, worshiping in another church’s parking lot. The core team worshiped on Sundays and learned LA’s way of life. Weeknight activities were out since “traffic’s horrendous,” Lippold said.
Even so, the team starting the Converge congregation wanted to move toward Christ in community. So, they were looking for relationships before programs and events.
“Who’s helping you grow, and who are you helping grow?” Lippold asked of the church’s understanding of Jesus’ work in a church.
A year ago, he didn’t know how the church would make disciples. He just knew what they wouldn’t do: mindlessly adopt another ministry’s model and use it like a conveyor belt. So instead, Lippold and the team discussed some fundamental questions.
“What would it take for you to invite your non-Christian friends to church?” he asked. “What should discipleship look like?”
Christ Church’s team found answers in a simple pattern. Disciples, Lippold explained, move up, down, up and out. To use more familiar spiritual terms, they worship, confess, find forgiveness and live anew.
“What we’re presenting to you on a Sunday morning is what you could do on a Monday morning with your coffee or a Tuesday evening with your friend,” he said. “We just always want people moving through the pattern’s four steps.”
Because faith in life is more messy than methodical, Christ Church is light on organized programs and routines.
“Discipleship is much messier than that because there’s so many dynamics in people’s lives,” he said. “Is there space in the discipleship we’re doing to slow down and walk with people?”
Turning that reflection into action ― in other words, filling up the blank paper that is church planting ― requires confident creativity and deliberate care.
“Seeing the stirrings of something”
As Paul told the Ephesians, the chief cornerstone was laid within the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. But, new churches always have to discover and determine how people grow into a holy temple of the Lord.
Near Denver, Mitch Lynn and the believers who are Center Church see God building them into a dwelling place for him. So, they gather in missional communities in Lakewood. During study times, they reflect together on the coming Sunday’s passage that will be the preaching text.
“From the jump, we want people to be able to study the word for themselves because that’s a key to being a disciple,” he said. “I want whatever we do to be focused on the development of the individual as a disciple.”
Scriptural reflection in community puts discipleship in the church’s DNA. So does a particular love for immediate neighbors near the missional communities.
“How can they bring along somebody they can disciple?” Lynn asked. Helping disciples be outward-focused is Lynn’s desire.
Since the church is only a few months old, there are no programs or traditions for people seeking Christ.Lynn said as options develop or possibilities present themselves, the core team considers what would help make disciples. They evaluate how the resource or activity aligns with Scripture. Plus, they reflect on the option’s likely effectiveness in helping people trust Christ completely. If it does, they give it a try.
“What established churches have is the long game,” Lynn said. “They can see, over the years, this discipleship class produces or doesn’t produce. We’re at the opposite end. We’re looking at three months of history.”
That means Lynn sees “the stirrings of something,” but he doesn’t yet know what.
Letting the mission drive the community
Rev. Cleveland Morrison has experienced what Lynn described. Morrison discipled people at both ends of the church landscape, plus some in the middle. He has planted churches, served existing churches and assisted congregations that started churches.
Morrison and his wife, Min. Loretta, helped start New Beginnings Community Church in Maryland under Rev. Dr. Michael Henderson’s leadership. They served there from 1995-2009.
Then, they went out to start a new church, which launched in 2011. Six years later, the Morrisons moved to North Carolina to join Henderson again. Henderson had started a New Beginnings Church in Matthews, North Carolina.
Now Rev. Morrison oversees all adult life groups, pastors one campus and directs the Anywhere Online campus. With his experience, Morrison grasps several discipleship dynamics across the spectrum of church methodology and development.
The first is motivating and mobilizing believers to reach out.
“We’re trying to create a culture of missional mindedness,” he said of New Beginnings. “We’re trying to create a culture of invitation.”
Leaders at New Beginnings, including Morrison, joined together to read You Found Me, a book about having a personal, missional life.
Being intentional in the past two years has been helpful to the church, especially as adult life groups and individual campuses suspended in-person meetings.
The second element of discipleship is helping people gather, not just on Sundays for worship, but in more intimate friendships. New Beginnings organizes life groups for those interactions.
He said life groups continued to be a vital force in the church. For example, when someone died of COVID or if someone wanted to serve in the community, life groups were the front line of ministry.
New Beginnings offers niche programs for discipleship, such as a Bible institute or a class for apologetics. But life groups complement and, in some ways, surpass individual learning because people grow together.
Spiritual growth is organized around worship, ministry, fellowship, discipleship and evangelism, pulled from Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church.
“What we want to do is let the mission drive the church community,” he said. “When it’s more about the mission, it makes the community stronger.”
Rev. Christina Lee, also of New Beginnings, connects the church to discipleship opportunities in the marketplace, especially schools. The church partners with schools and public entities to serve teenagers and the wider community.
Recent ministry initiatives have included an online, inductive Bible study for youth. That ministry motivated parents to ask for training in leading inductive Bible studies with their children. The groups learned together by reading Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Daniel and Mark.
“New Beginnings is here to walk alongside you and love you,” she said. “Discipleship is not about getting people to New Beginnings but getting people to God. At the end of the day, I just want you to know Jesus.”
The same is true for Ken Lippold, informed by Eugene Peterson’s book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
“Take off the table anything that would be considered a quick fix,” Lippold encourages. “It is a long walk in the same direction with the same group of people. Over time, over a lifetime, we’ll see people becoming more and more mature.”
“There’s no one out there who can’t be discipled”
John Jenkins, pastor of Glen Arden Baptist in Landover, Maryland, has seen 30 years of Christ making disciples.
Early in this ministry in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., homeless people connected with pastor Jenkins and his wife, First Lady Trina Jenkins.
At first, Christians shared the gospel and brought blankets and food to these neighbors. Then, as the relationships deepened and the discipleship advanced, Jenkins considered a new direction.
“Why not, instead of going and giving, why don’t we take them in? Why don’t we invest in building community with them so that we can see real transformation take place?” Jenkins asked.
The church did just that, renting apartments and finding mentors and coaches from the church’s discipleship ministries. Then, when the relationships adequately developed, the church invited the men and women to live in those apartments.
“To see those lives transformed was amazing. Most of them did not go back to the street,” Jenkins said. “That showed me how important community is. There’s no one out there who can’t be discipled.”
First Baptist Church’s ministry vitality is primarily rooted in relationships, not in tradition or time-tested experiences. There are programs, such as classes, where they first connect to people’s felt needs. But their ultimate goal remains inviting people into increasingly committed discipleship.
“All you need are people willing to be used by the Holy Spirit,” Jenkins said. “It takes community, accountability, time and investing in relationships.”
The gospel has to be the undercurrent
Marlan Mincks is Converge’s director of Church Development, overseeing assessments and residencies of Converge church planters. He said people spending intentional time together is how disciples are made. Moreover, such a deliberate focus is how any church can see disciples born again and new churches start.
The young man wanted some accountability for sexual purity. Williams asked if he believed in the gospel. The young man said yes, and Williams asked what he would do if he messed up. The man said, ‘I’m going to do better.’
“No,” Williams told him. “That’s not the gospel.”
At Restoration Hope, Williams always brings disciples back to the gospel.
“The gospel has to be the undercurrent, and it is crucial to walk with people to help them see this,” he explained. To develop disciples, “You have to constantly rewire.”
Ben Greene, Pastor & guest writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.