By David Putman
More than 10 years ago, I offered some advice to a group of ministry leaders that I believe still rings true today. In some ways, I was at the height of my professional ministry career, but I was about to make a move that would radically change my ministry trajectory. Ten years and one pandemic later, I don’t regret that decision.
I was standing on the stage of our brand-new worship center for the very last time. I was speaking to hundreds of young church planters who were aspiring to accomplish what our team had accomplished. There were four things I told those church planters that I would go back and do differently if I could.
1. I would focus on His church over my church.
“All you want to do is build a platform.”
I will never forget an experience I had following my second church plant. My mentor was coming to see me. I couldn’t wait to connect with Dan and show him our progress and a potential meeting space for the church, and I knew Dan could help fund this space.
As we drove up to the building, I shared the vision for how we would use this space to reach the many unchurched people in our community. As we entered the building, I pointed out all the key locations where our “First Impression” team would be strategically placed to calm the fears of the unchurched. I explained how a space down the hall was perfect for quality children’s programming that would make Sundays the best day of your child’s week. As we walked into the largest space, I laid out the worship center—perfectly designed to accommodate a large band that would play contemporary music. Finally, we stood together where I envisioned there would one day be a podium from which I would preach relevant and practical messages. I was intoxicated with my vision of a great church.The gospel is about people. It’s not about religion, technology, stuff, or building my platform. It’s about the least, the lost, and the lonely. — David Putman Click To Tweet
I couldn’t wait to hear Dan’s response, but he was mostly silent on our drive back. When he stopped in front of my house, he took a deep breath, looked at me, and said, “David, all you want to do is build a platform.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I walked into my house venting to my wife and vowing I was done with Dan. How dare he say or even imply that I was more focused on building my church or platform over people?
But Dan was right. It took me about 20 years to realize it, but the gospel is about people. It’s not about religion, technology, stuff, or building my platform. It’s about the least, the lost, and the lonely. There is a sense where we, or at least I, have made it all about the weekend gathering and all the stuff that goes into making the weekend happen. Sure, the weekend is important, but it’s not about the weekend. In many ways, COVID has reminded us that it can’t be about the weekend. The church and the gospel are about so much more than a weekend service.A church is a family of disciples, on mission together advancing Jesus’s kingdom by making disciples who make disciples. — David Putman Click To Tweet
A church is a family of disciples, on mission together advancing Jesus’ kingdom by making disciples who make disciples. This simple definition has radically changed the way I see the church. I no longer see it as a simple gathering, even though it may gather, but rather as a movement of disciples. I’ve come a long way since my encounter with Dan, and if I had a do-over, I would focus on His church over my church, but I wouldn’t stop there.
2. I would focus on Christ’s mission over my mission.
I spent a year reading through the Gospels as a one-year focus. Once I got through all four Gospels, I would reread them. At the end of that year, I felt compelled to read them one more time, this time paying close attention to anything Jesus said explicitly about the church. I was shocked; I only found two passages where He spoke of the church — Matthew 16 and 18. Matthew 16:13-18 was most relevant to my journey.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But you,” he asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matthew 16:13-18, CSB).In Matthew 16:13-18, Jesus makes a promise; He will build His church. It is not my responsibility to build Jesus’s church, but it is my responsibility to make disciples. — David Putman Click To Tweet
In this passage, Jesus makes a promise; He will build His church. It is not my responsibility to build Jesus’ church, but it is my responsibility to make disciples. Jesus is clear about this in the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (CSB).
It is as if Jesus is saying, “You go make disciples, and I will build my church.” Mike Breen put it this way in Building a Discipling Culture, “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.” Our goal in church planting should be to plant the gospel, make disciples, and then form churches around those disciples.
3. I would focus on ‘the least of these’ over more of those.
A few years back, I had the opportunity to go to Uganda with a large mission organization committed to caring more about the most vulnerable people on our planet—children in developing nations. One day, we took a road trip to a remote village. We were the first western visitors this village had experienced. We took a small basket of food as a gift for each home we visited. We arrived at one mud hut just in time to save a nursing baby’s life. Due to the lack of food, the mother’s milk was drying up, and the baby was literally starving to death. But we were too late for another. When we arrived, a baby had just died. When we asked what the cause was, they said natural causes. The baby starved to death. When is starvation a natural cause?
At the time of our visit, I was working on a project to fund our third building in 10 years. We were spending millions of dollars on a building to offer religious services for middle-class families in America while babies in Uganda were dying from “natural causes”—starving to death. This is not to say we should never construct buildings, but we should never construct buildings at the expense of the most vulnerable in the world. Are we focusing on the least of these?This is not to say we should never construct buildings, but we should never construct buildings at the expense of the most vulnerable in the world. — David Putman Click To Tweet
On a later trip, I took a close friend with me, a businessman named Paul. It was obvious God was working in his life. When Paul returned home, he sold his business and went to work for the organization that sponsored our trip. When we departed on our trip, we had a vision for sponsoring 2,000 of the most vulnerable. Ten years later, people like you and me have sponsored approximately 100,000 of the most vulnerable because Paul did something radical and decided to focus on the least of these over more of those.
4. I would focus on being the church, not simply doing church.
During the pandemic, I met with a pastor who reached out seeking some ministry advice. He was 63 years old and pastored a church of 60 people. “I know what you say about disciple-making is right,” he told me, “but all I know how to do is run programs. Can you help me? Can you teach me how to make disciples?”
I quickly scrolled through my toolbox and realized my tools were way too complicated to provide the help he was seeking. I asked him for a week, with the promise that I would help him. I spent that week asking God to give me the simplest disciple-making tool possible. At the end of the week, I had a tool we call The Gospel Disciple Life. It’s a simple disciple-making process built around three rhythms: daily Gospel readings, weekly triad meetings, and frequent multiplication. I trained the pastor on how to use this tool, and more importantly, I started using it in my own home with my family.What would it look like for God to catalyze a disciple-making movement in and through your church in your own community? Click To Tweet
God began to transform our lives through this simple disciple-making process. We started making disciples who make disciples. What started in my home began to spread like yeast in the dough through our relational network. We began to pour into others in our community. Before we knew it, we started becoming a church without doing the things we usually associate with starting a church.
We didn’t have a place to meet, nor did we want one. We didn’t have any paid staff, nor did we need any. Yet we were more church than anything I had experienced in my life. As we continue to shepherd this disciple-making movement, we are committed to four simple structures we call no-group, micro-groups, small groups, and large groups.
- No-group: Daily time of surrender to God as we read through the Gospels asking two questions: 1) What is God saying to me? And 2) what am I going to do about it?
- Micro-groups: Weekly accountability to our triad (group of three) as we build relationships, model the life of a Jesus-follower, and hold each other accountable.
- Small Groups: Monthly gathering with two to four micro-groups as a family of disciples. I also refer to this as a micro-church.
- Large Group: For us, this means meeting three to four times a year when we come together as a network of small groups or micro-churches. We come together to cast vision, equip disciple-makers, celebrate, and worship God.
The good news is we aren’t only seeing disciples made right where we live, work, and play. We are seeing a growing movement of churches in the U.S. and around the world beginning to shift from primarily focusing on weekend services to becoming a disciple-making movement.
What would it look like for God to catalyze a disciple-making movement in and through your church in your own community?
If I could do it again, would I do it differently … you bet I would, and I am.