Building a Discipling Community
by Dan Juster, Director, Tikkun Ministries International
The Quest for Congregational Community and its Abandonment
Many in our day, especially among the younger generation, have given up the quest to build community in the Messiah. Yet, the Bible is very clear. The Gospel of the Kingdom is to be expressed in congregational communities under the authority of legitimate elders. This community is to be a worshipping, praying and discipling community where members are both mutually accountable to each other and to elder overseers. In addition, the elders are accountable to one another, to the congregation and to appropriate outside oversight. Even a superficial reading of the New Covenant Scriptures shows this to be God's will. Yeshua declares that He will establish His congregation and "the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). The Book of Acts records the founding of the first Messianic Jewish community and the planting of congregations throughout the known world. The letters of the New Covenant were written to congregational communities or to individuals who were given instructions about their part in the communities. So why is there such a problem today?
Forty-two years ago, Patty and I began our quest for the meaning of New Covenant community. We were disillusioned with much of what we saw as the Church (of course, this was before Messianic Judaism had taken root and become known). We could not see how just meeting once a week, standing up to sing one hymn at a time, sitting down, having announcements and hearing a sermon was a reflection of the communal dimension we saw in the Bible. We read Bonhoeffer's Life Together and began to explore alternative Christian communities like Reba Place in Evanston, Illinois. Since that time, as some of our readers will remember, I have coined a couple of phrases to describe the sad state of affairs in many churches: "religious event manufacturing corporations" and practicing "competitive free enterprise ecclesiology". There had to be a better way. Patty and I committed ourselves to seeing people built into life together, living near one another, meeting in small sharing groups and seeing qualified elders in place in our congregations. It has been a wonderful and rich life with lasting friendship relationships of 30 to 40 years.
There are many reasons why young people are abandoning the faith and (if they do not totally abandon the faith) are abandoning long-term commitment in congregational life. Here are some of them:
Life in America, the West and, yes, even in Israel, is a life of individualism. As such, Biblical faith is translated into a distorted individualistic relationship with God that ignores the essential communal dimensions for growth, discipleship and manifesting the Kingdom of God. The congregation is seen as a collection of individuals in a meeting. So it is very easy to forego this form of congregational life.
The Lack of an Enriching Communal Experience
Many young adults have never experienced real community. We tend to give ourselves to what was enriching in our upbringing. If we remember a good marriage and family, we want to reproduce it. If we remember a deep and secure congregational community growing up, we want to reproduce this kind of life in the next generation. Many young adults simply do not have any point of reference for community life in Yeshua. Having grown up in the "religious event manufacturing corporation", many are saying that they have "been there and done that". What's the use of continuing in this pattern of life? Simply entertaining the saints no longer inspires.
The Pain of Community Failures
Many young adults have grown up experiencing the failure of community. Lasting community is a product of the Spirit working through qualified I Timothy 3 elders. These standards for elders are a key to community building. Well-intentioned leaders who do not have the character qualifications for eldership, are unable to build community that can endure. If young people have grown up seeing a few such failures, they will no longer want to give themselves to the quest. Building quality community seems the impossible dream. It is undeniably true that it is hard to join people together; there is so much selfishness and pride or ego to overcome. Yet it can be done; it is being done. We can overcome; it is the central meaning of the Gospel. We cannot give up the quest.
How Does it Make a Difference in the Lives of People?
A community vision can only inspire the younger generation if they see how it makes a difference. If the community does not have strong discipling patterns, those who grow up in a congregation will see ineffectiveness. Instead of seeing people changing into the likeness of Yeshua, they remain unchanged year after year. The ethical quality of the life of the members does not impress our young people. Professing believers seem hypocritical and certainly do not demonstrate the power of the Gospel. Yet Yeshua said we are to engage in the primary task of discipleship in community. The task is not to entertain, but to teach our people and enable them to obey all of His commandments. Difficult? Yes, but it can be done.
How Does it Make a Difference in the World?
In a Biblical vision of community, the members are trained in the kingdom's principles for their vocations in all spheres of society. A community that instructs its members in this fashion is relevant in the highest degree. Such a community teaches people how give godly testimony to the Kingdom of God. This includes business people, journalists, politicians, teachers, scientists, doctors, artists and so many more. It teaches them the biblical use of money so that God's blessing is established in their lives. I dare say that most congregations in the West have no clue about training their people in these basic principles for their vocations! For young adults, a Gospel that is only about going to heaven after death is not a sufficient vision to capture their passion.
We Allow our Young People to be Acculturated to the World
In addition, we tend to send our young people to public schools that teach them secular relativism (i.e. there is no real truth in religion and ethics). They spend 35 hours a week being indoctrinated in our public schools, if not explicitly, at least in attitudes. The power of the peer group is woefully under-estimated or ignored by many parents. Then they attend secular colleges where such post-modern relativism is taught with a vengeance. Since we did not prepare them by teaching them world-view foundations and assumptions, they are no match for their professors and the socialization power of their student friends. Christian Overman's excellent book Assumptions is a highly recommended read for all young adults.
So What Can We Do?
The answer begins in prayer. Only a mighty move of the Spirit can reverse this. We must pray for revelation that will show the nature of the community to which we are called. We must pray for people who understand this call to build a biblical community that disciples and begin to practice it. We must also pray for real elders to arise or be appointed who can form and lead model communities that will influence the very nature of congregational life today. Our dream is to do this in Israel; a very difficult place to bring this about. In Israel, we face the challenge of the same problematic trends in the West. However, our success could be a model for the world.
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