Making Disciples, and Disciples in the Making: Interview with Jack Roeda and Janice McWhertor
Published by Calvin Seminary
Soon after deciding on the theme of discipleship for this issue, Forum learned that Church of the Servant (COS), a large Christian Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids, had adopted the following mission statement: “Making Disciples—Disciples in the Making.” Forum discussed the process leading to this mission statement with Pastor Jack Roeda and Janice McWhertor, Minister of Congregational Life.
Forum: Tell us the story of how you came to “Making Disciples—Disciples in the Making” as COS’s mission statement.
Jack: Three years ago we appointed a strategic planning committee which came up with a document with over one hundred action proposals. Everyone was overwhelmed. At some point, I suggested that we needed a simple concept that everybody could remember and that would help us both evaluate and prioritize among all of these things that were being suggested. I said, “You know, Scripture has this incredible mission statement in the gospel of Matthew about making disciples.”
Janice: In some ways “Making Disciples” is nothing new, but it helped us name what is important, and why we exist as a church. So we decided to look carefully at everything we’re doing through that lens.
Forum: We’re interested in the relationship between these two—“making disciples” and “disciples in the making.” Many churches try to choose between inward- and outward-focused ministries. Of course you can’t divide these two aspects of ministry and certainly can’t choose between them. So what’s the relationship between them?
Jack: When we say “Making Disciples” we’re not just talking about an evangelism program, but about a church where everyone is a disciple in the making. We talk about developing a culture of discipleship rather than a culture of membership. One book we read distinguished between the church as a country club where you have membership and certain services are available to you, and a garden where you are tilling the soil. We are all gardeners working to raise a really good crop, and if you’re going to come on to that plot, you’re not there just to benefit from the food. You’re also expected to do some of the work. So this idea of a culture of discipleship, that too comes out of “Disciples in the Making.”
Forum: What do you actually mean by the term “discipleship”?
Jack: We see worship as central to the church, and we think worship provides a kind of template of the life of a disciple. Our worship has four facets: the coming, the listening, the abiding, and the sending. Think of the worship service as discipleship in concentrated form. Those four facets are continually present in the life of a disciple.
There’s always this coming. If our default position is to be self-absorbed, then coming means constantly putting Christ at the center, turning your face away from self to Christ. In worship we confess that we’re obsessed about ourselves. You’re reminded that it’s not about you, it’s about Christ. You come back to Christ.
Then next is listening to the word. How important it is for a disciple to sit at the Master’s feet to learn, to enter into that word. And again, the tendency is to take the word as something that can benefit me or that can inspire me. But we need to really enter into it to become part of that narrative, to be molded by it.
And then there’s the abiding, the vine and the branches, the communion, the table. There is such an intimacy in discipleship that isn’t necessarily captured in simply saying you’re a follower of Jesus. There ought to be in the disciple’s life and in the community’s life an abiding, a being present in Christ and around the table. And then there is the sending. We are sent into the world. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Forum: So how does this emphasis on discipleship connect to the church’s ministries? Does it make a difference in what you’re doing?
Janice: We just started a Basic English worship service as a way to build better bridges into the church for people who come here for ESL (English as Second Language) classes and would like to be invited into learning about Christ.
Jack: We have one group of people from Nepal who are really becoming active. One of them was a Christian and now three of them want to be baptized. It was nothing that we did—we just happened to be here and God gave us a gift. As we discipled them, they brought two more folks—from Sri Lanka. I don’t know if the mission statement had anything to do with it. But it is wonderful that for the first time we are going to have four or five adult baptisms from outside our own little congregation.
Forum: Most churches struggle with how to take people from their initial commitment to Christ to a stage of greater spiritual maturity—the first lap of the journey. Is that something you are thinking about in any specific, intentional way?
Jack: Yes. In the past we’ve been really happy when someone comes forward after a service and says, “I’d like to be baptized.” We say, “Hallelujah! When can we do it?” So we baptize them, assign an elder to them, and then they sort of drop away. This whole emphasis on discipleship at COS came at the same time Willow Creek made their confession that too many people there were not maturing as disciples. We said, “You know, that isn’t just Willow Creek!” And so now we assign new members a host or hosts to give them an anchor in the church and to help nurture them in their new faith. And now I am teaching a junior high class and going through the Catechism for two years. These junior high kids are just about at that point where they are starting to ask questions. So it’s a very good place for me to be in their lives.
Janice: And having the table at the center of the church reminds us that our goal isn’t just to teach people English, or give them a lot of church information, but to have them sit at the table with us. As a church we’re always resisting the culture’s desire for individuality by inviting people into a community where we can encourage them, nurture them, and help them grow in their relationship with Christ.
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