As I’ve been blogging about discipleship, I began to wonder what other church leaders and staff had to say about it. What are common experiences, frustrations, and hopes? Here’s my interview with Tom Fuerst, the senior pastor at Bluff City Church in Memphis, Tennessee.

Is the Church doing a good job of discipling congregations?

There are indicators that can be measured over generations which suggest we’re not doing a good job. If we’re just asking about programs, we are probably the most programmed people in the history of the world. But as each generation grows up, they don’t come back to church until they have children, and each generation comes back at a smaller percentage. This indicates that they don’t think the church has much to offer for their lives.”

What’s the biggest obstacle church leaders face?

On the staff end: We’re over-programmed. Additionally, leaders don’t want to do anything about discipleship even if they acknowledge that it’s weak. Our primary measurement is “butts in seats” because it looks like success.

On the congregation end: Things in church don’t matter. We have the greatest topic in the world to talk about, and we make it boring and undemanding. We try to keep people in church by entertaining them. But when people graduate and all they’ve been done is catered to, they discover that college groups can fulfill that better – the world entertains better. We’re not showing them how important this really is. We even have adults who have that assumption about the church.

Another major challenge is busyness. We don’t have healthy work/life balance to begin with. Then people have children, and they want their children involved in all the programs, to be busy. God would tell us not to do that with our lives. We don’t surrender our plans to Him, because He’d probably tell us to cut out half our activities.

You can see the problem reflected in the church attendance. Inconsistent attendance is the new norm because people are so busy.

If you look back in history, Ancient Israel understood worship service as a reordering of the world. The world is in chaos, and we reorder it by worshipping the Creator of order.

The final problem is laziness. If we’re honest, we don’t really think God matters, and we would rather watch football.

What do church leaders need?

The pull of American individualism and consumerism is so strong that I don’t know if we know what we need. And if we did, we wouldn’t want it. At the end of the day, our success needs to be measured by faithfulness to God – but the model held up by evangelicalism and conferences is that if you’re successful, you have lots of people. We’ve mixed capitalism into the way we measure church success by assuming that if you have a good church, you’ll have a big congregation. If the product you provide is meeting a genuine felt need, regardless of of the numbers, you will be successful. But what if, at the end of the day, God is not interested in being our product? I’m all for improving things and doing things with excellence – but what’s the motivation? I need the reminder that my identity is not the number of people listening to me. It’s hard.

To have genuine discipleship, we’ll have to dismantle capitalist, consumer, and celebrity Christianity. Just watch in a few years as a new celebrity pulls out a few verses and says this is how church is supposed to be!

We need greater appreciation for the story of the Bible. We don’t tell the story well; we either break it down into hyper-analyzed academic particles without the whole picture, or we think that people will be more drawn to our programs and entertainment than to the greatest story in the world.

Please feel free to comment and share constructive thoughts on these posts. I always love to hear more perspectives, so if you have your own thoughts on discipleship or topics you’d like to see covered in this blog, email me at natalie@ascendingleaders.org.

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