Fourteen years ago in Post Falls, Idaho, Jim Putman launched Real Life Ministries out of a small group that has grown into a church of 8,000 people (in a community of 110,000) and has 75 percent of its attendees participating in a small group. To date, the church has raised up seven now autonomous thriving churches from its small groups, and the majority of its leadership is homegrown. As Real Life’s senior pastor, Putman has learned the importance of a razor-sharp focus on discipleship and keeping it at the center of his leadership and everything the church does. In his upcoming book (with Robert Coleman and Bob Harrington), DiscipleShift (and theme for Exponential 2013), Putman points to five shifts the church needs to lead to make biblical disciples who disciple others and reproduce leaders.
In this conversation, he discusses the need for leaders to shift from primarily thinking of discipleship as teaching to intentionally modeling what it looks like to follow Jesus and lead others to do the same.
Jim, you say that how we’re currently doing church isn’t making disciples. I doubt many would argue with you. Why isn’t that happening?
Because it’s not Jesus’ methodology. We’ve been handed a box historically, and we’re just trying to live within that box rather than ask if it was the right box to begin with. But the box doesn’t make disciples. So we have to look for what’s different about the way we’re doing things and how Christ did things. A lot of church planters know the old model doesn’t work but they think, “If I were in charge, then it would.” And they’re coming up with these new cool words and new fads, and it sounds good. But if it isn’t producing what Jesus says the church should produce, it doesn’t work in the end.
Chasing the newest fads is like going to Vegas. As you drive into the city, you see all the great-looking buildings and flashy lights; it’s so inviting. But when you really go down that road so to speak, you find just glitz and empty activity, and you end up leaving with empty pockets. It starts out like a dream but doesn’t end that way. In the same way, planters want to preach amazing sermons, wow people with amazing music and have great ministries to kids resulting in large crowds. It is true that if they have the best in the area, they will have the crowds they want. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but just gathering crowds isn’t the goal. Even talking people into making a decision for Christ isn’t the right goal. Our mission is to make disciples not converts—another shift I talk about in the book.
What matters most isn’t the weekend service but what happens every day of the week. We were never called to go to church. We were called to be the church, and that doesn’t end after the worship experience is over. Sooner or later, if these new leaders are lucky enough to get what they think they want, they will discover what many of us have already learned: More people isn’t necessarily better. If these planters don’t seek out Jesus’ methodology for making disciples, then the people they attract remain immature. And there is nothing worse then hanging out with immature people who are all about themselves.
I believe that God is the great designer of people and of the church. He knows that His church done His way will produce what people really need. The church done Jesus’ way will not only meet the needs of the people within the church but will be attractive to those outside watching. When people are truly given new life, the world notices the difference and wants what we have. So for me, it’s about looking at the biblical design and model of the church of Acts. Live out that model, and you will see it actually works for all people in all cultures for all time.
The early church modeled discipleship. Why is it so important for leaders to model what they’re asking their churches to do?
If you were to ask today’s church leaders what their primary function is (particularly the role of the senior pastor), many would say that it’s to impart knowledge—to inspire people mentally and emotionally. There’s nothing wrong with the biblical gifts of teaching and preaching, but pastors must first be an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ and model a life He calls others to emulate. A pastor/planter must first model discipleship and then be able to coach others to be disciples as well. The pastoral staff and leadership cultivate the DNA of the church.
So many pastors have never won anyone to the Lord. They say they have when they’ve called people forward for a prayer at the end of an invitation time. But when it comes to lifestyle evangelism, many don’t know how to do it themselves, which means they don’t know how to teach their own people to do it. And if the people are the ones who are supposed to be storming the gates of hell by sharing Christ wherever they work and live but are not expected, or being shown how, to do it, then there is a huge disconnect
We don’t want to just transfer information; we want to show people how to follow Jesus. We want to equip them to care for each other and how to win the world one person at a time. How did the disciples know how to deal with the Pharisees or with the sick? Or with the honest searcher? They watched Jesus do it all of the time.
Tell us a story of how you’ve modeled discipleship.
We’ve got about 90-some staff, and 86 of them came from within our church. Many got saved and were discipled in a small group. Eventually, they became staff members. There are so many different stories I could tell about how these people became leaders in our church. One of the guys we had on staff is now the small groups leader in another church. He used to be an atheist. I first met him when his wife’s little brother was getting baptized, and he came and sat in the back.
I walked back there and said, “How ya doin’? “Fine,” he said. He looked bored and irritated that he had to be there. I asked him, “You don’t believe any of this, do ya?” He said, “Nope.” And I said, “You don’t believe in God?” And he said, “Nope.” And I said, “What if I could prove there was a God?” He said, “You can’t.” I said, “Are you too chicken to find out?” To his credit, he agreed to meet me at a restaurant. And so I started meeting with him regularly, and eventually he gave his life to the Lord. Over time, he became a small group leader and eventually ended up on our staff. Now he’s a full-time staffer at one of our sister churches. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up leading a church some day.
In a church of 8,000, how do you model discipleship in visible ways that people can see and learn from?
That’s part of vision casting. You’re not only living it out there in the foyer or wherever you are, you’re telling stories about it in your message. So if you start at the beginning with your core team modeling what discipleship means, then they model it for their leaders and so on. You begin to reproduce that DNA in relational environments.
And a leader modeling relationship is integral to the church as disciple makers.
Exactly. You wouldn’t believe how many pastors are not in deep relationship with anyone. Pastors are the loneliest people I know. They are friendly and polite, but they are so lonely. They have no real relationships and feel like they have to put up a front because if someone knew who they really were, they’d lose their credibility. They actually think their credibility to speak to their people rests on appearing as if they have it all together. They know they don’t, so they have to keep every one at arms-length to keep from being “discovered.” What message does that send? What does that do for the church? As the head goes, the body falls. People become pretenders on weekends and distant in their relationships.
It actually works just the opposite: Be real, and people are drawn to that. They can relate to someone who is seeking to live for Jesus but struggling to do so. If we’re honest, isn’t that all of us?
If a leader realizes they haven’t been modeling relationship, how do they start to make changes with the goal of seeing their church become a “relationship”-oriented group of people?
For me, it’s about repentance first. They have to say something like, “I’ve been teaching this, but I have not modeled what real love for Jesus and love for others look like.” I would never tell a pastor to stand up in front of the congregation and say that, but rather to go to their leadership team and say, “We’re going to change on the leadership front. Before I go out there, we’re going to try to pull this off in here.”
But it starts with the leader, and then you go out there as a team, saying, “Hey, we’ve been trying to make some changes. And we’re working on it as a leadership team. We’re committed to each other.” Churches don’t split from the bottom up; they split from the top down. So first and foremost, modeling discipleship starts with your family, then your leadership. Before we seek to get others to do anything, we need to be sincerely asking ourselves important questions first:
Am I a growing disciple of Jesus?
Am I living in right relationship with God and others?
As we live out the vision, we gain credibility to speak the vision. Again, I am not saying the vision is perfection. The vision is relationship with Jesus that leads to relationship with others (1 John 1:5-7). In relationship, we are helping each other grow up. The result is that disciples who can make disciples are developed. Yes, we gather crowds and preach great sermons, but we then move people to relationship where we do life together and intentionally help people become mature disciples of Jesus.
Jim Putman is the author of Church is a Team Sport: A Championship Strategy for Doing Ministry Together (2009) and Real-Life Discipleship: Building Churches That Make Disciples (2010). DiscipleShift (Exponential Signature Series with Zondervan) will release at Exponential 2013, April 22-25, in Orlando.