by J.L. Rivera.

build-inteligent-housePicture yourself in the process of having your first dream house built. You hire an architect, what you consider to be a competent contractor, and commence with the building.

During the laying of the foundation, the cement workers stop about halfway through. The bricklayers get to work on the opposite side of the house, where no foundation has been laid. They build a half-wall and then leave the job site. A plumber shows up and starts installing plumbing where she thinks it should go, never consulting the blueprints. While the house may eventually be built, what will it look like if this approach is used? Is it any wonder that you would want to fire the contractor?

And yet, this is often how the church of God is built. The Architect has drawn up a great plan, but the contractor and subcontractors are not necessarily following the plan. They start laying the foundation and are distracted by their perceived need for a wall, or plumbing, or electrical work. Pastors and church leaders feel justified in building this way because they are being sensitive to the needs and are “being led” by the Spirit to address those needs as they come up. It’s a poor way to build a house and just as poor a way to build the church.

Rick’s Way? Bill’s Way?
Many pastors attend Rick Warren’s conferences at Saddleback Church on the Purpose-Driven Church. They come back pumped because of the success they see. Rick is so down-to-earth. He wears khaki pants and a Hawaiian shirt in Sunday services. He speaks in a warm conversational manner, and droves of people respond.

So what do we do? We chuck the suit and tie, buy khaki pants, flowered shirts, preach in a conversational manner-and get little if any response. What happened?

All this means is that it must be time to go to Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Community Church. You know, that little Bible study of approximately 15,000 attendees in one of Chicago’s northwest suburbs. We attend the conference and experience the techno-gadgetry of state-of-the-art plasma screens, a worship band that can tour professionally, Bill preaching in his blue dress shirt, without a tie and the sleeves half rolled up, speaking in a warm conversational tone, and people respond in droves.

So what do we do? We recruit the best musicians in our church and pound excellence into their vocabulary and practice, we buy a couple more video projectors, and upgrade our wardrobe from flowered shirts to blue dress shirts. We roll up the sleeves and speak in a warm conversational tone. The result? A few conversions, better music but our ministry stalls. What happened?

The answer in one word: INFRASTRUCTURE.

It has been estimated that 80% of American churches have less than 100 attendees on a typical Sunday morning. It is also estimated that 80% of our churches do not have a concurrent or ongoing discipleship or leadership training program. Is this a coincidence? I think not.

If you were to look beyond the obvious at the ministries of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and others, you would notice that their success does not hinge on what happens on Sunday morning. Rather, Sunday morning is a direct reflection of what is happening in other venues throughout the week.

A good house developer buys the land, grades it, subdivides it into lots, puts in sewer and water lines, hooks up electrical service, lays out the streets, and installs curbs, long before he digs the foundation for the first house. This is called infrastructure. It is absolutely necessary to sustain the development. Churches can learn from this approach. Churches that are successful have mastered this component of building.

In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter if you are liturgical or free, denominational or independent, urban or suburban, preach Pentecostal fire or have a quiet conversational tone, practice contemporary worship or blended or traditional, focus on Generation X or multi-generational, or project a black, white or Hispanic flavor. The common denominator of the successful, growing church is the quality of the infrastructure.

What Did Jesus Ask Us to Do?
The root of this infrastructure building is found in the biblical commands we are most familiar with. The Gospel of Matthew records the words of Jesus, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20 NIV, emphasis mine).

Jesus made it clear that our business is not just to get decisions but to make disciples. Our task will not be completed until the disciples we make are going, making disciples, baptizing and teaching their converts to do the same. In order to get this kind of quality, we must have a training regimen to plug our converts into.

The apostle Paul recognized the role church leaders were to play in this enterprise. In Ephesians 4:11-13 we read that “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (NIV, emphasis mine).

Preparing God’s people for the works of service is the main responsibility of our calling. The job will only be completed when the converts “reach unity in the faith.”

A Long Way to Go
One does not have to look too far to see that our society is struggling in many areas. One of the reasons is that our churches are failing in equipping people for life and practice. Christians and non-Christians are nearly impossible to tell apart when it comes to values and worldviews. Recent surveys by Barna, Gallup and others reveal that 2/3 of the adults polled “said truth is always relative to the person and their situation.”

This spiritual vacuum is reflected by other startling statistics and observations made by Barna such as:

  • One third of born-again adults (33%) say abortion is a morally acceptable behavior, compared with 45% of all adults, 4% of evangelicals, and 71% of atheists and agnostics. (2004)
  • 14% of Elders, 32% of Boomers, 41% of Busters and 40% of Mosaics consider having a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex a morally acceptable behavior. (2004)
  • About half of all adults (49%) contend that homosexuality is due to non-genetic factors such as upbringing and environment, one-third say people are born gay (34%), and the remaining 17% are not sure. (2001)
  • 30% of adults approve of clergy marrying gay couples or blessing their marriage unions. (2001)
  • It is compelling and frightening to think that so many within our ranks think in a way that is diametrically opposed to what the Bible teaches. In a land where the Bible outsells all other books, the knowledge and understanding of its contents is alarming.

    So how do we upgrade our discipleship? Hybels and Warren understand the concept well. They have built an infrastructure that supports their vision and understanding of the Great Commission.

    In a previous church where I served, we began a School of Discipleship that had as its foundation a simple premise. As I was in prayer asking the Lord for direction, I sensed he was leading me to a simple question. If you were to get saved tomorrow, what would you need to know to live a successful, fruitful life for the Lord?

    That question led me to draw up a list of topics that I thought were essential for living the Christian life. It included studies on:

    What It Means to be Saved

    How to Be a Disciple and How to Disciple Others

    Understanding Worship

    How to Share Your Faith

    A Survey of the Old and New Testaments

    Principles of Interpreting the Scriptures

    How to Study the Bible

    These studies formed the infrastructure of our community of faith for 20 years. The results were more than encouraging. Not only did we have people who were secure in their understanding of God and their relationship to him, but they were also able lead others to Christ and disciple them in the fundamentals of the faith. The greatest impact was a steady stream of qualified leaders for all facets of the ministry.

    The church I am currently serving has not had this kind of infrastructure. It is a wonderful church that needs depth. Integrating this approach has been slow, but promising. It all starts with understanding the goal of equipping.

    Churches have one thing to offer that no other organization can deliver: intimacy with God. The purpose of the church is to reach unbelievers and assist them in becoming mature believers. This may (or may not) result in increased attendance or a freer flow of finances. Christian maturity needs to be evaluated by how a person reflects the character and personality of Jesus.

    Creating infrastructure is slow, grinding work that is often dirty. Once the subdivision is complete, the infrastructure is hidden underground, behind the walls, and virtually unknown. But infrastructure is essential. The success of Hybels, Warren and others will continue long after they are gone if their successors remember to keep the foundation strong and build new levels of infrastructure to handle the ever-expanding work of their ministries.

    This article was adapted from a presentation made at Christian Life College’s Fall Festival “A Passion for His Purpose” November 2005.

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