In his letter to the churches in Colossae, Paul declares that Christ “is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church.” Jesus Himself took ownership of “His Church” when he proclaimed to Peter “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” We are Christ’s Church. He is the head, He is our identity, and He is the one we serve.
But there is also a pervasive expectation throughout the scriptures that everyday people would be the ones to carry Christ’s work forward. The church we read about in the Bible was not a movement of an elite class of highly educated people; the church of the Bible was a movement of regular people transformed by the presence of Jesus. In fact, in an exchange between the elite religious class and the disciples in Acts 4, the religious elite comment on the contrast between the disciples’ works and their ordinariness.
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)
It is Christ’s church, fueled by the Holy Spirit, and He has chosen to bestow upon us all the “priesthood of all believers” as declared by Peter:
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
The building of the Church has been entrusted to us by Jesus and we are invited to engage the work for the progress of the Gospel instead of deferring to professionals and institutions. We must exhort and encourage every follower of Jesus to use their gifts and embrace the ministry and mission given to them by God. And, we must identify those among us that show particular skill in leading, and train them up to carry the mission forward. Engaging the mission of God can happen by leading local groups of people or focusing on expansion of the movement of Christ around the world.
Leadership of a distributed church is more about guiding a community to live according to their identity as Jesus followers (I Am = Us For Them There), than it is about executing a "to do" list. As Jesus defined leading as serving. Leaders must demonstrate a consistent effort to establish the group in the faith that unites them, help them become a spiritual family, and exhort them to love and good deeds. Leading also involves connecting the distributed church to the wider network and movement of what God is doing, and raising up leaders to expand the movement through the establishment of new churches.
Distributed Churches are led by a team. Collective leadership lightens the workload for each person, making the church life-giving and sustainable, but it also provides a variety of gifting, making the church more effective in its mission. This posture requires more patience, discussion, and dependence on prayer and Scripture and can at times be slow and frustrating. Not everyone is equal in their knowledge of the Bible, their gifting from God, and even their commitment, so deference to the strengths and perspectives of others is key.
In addition to a plurality of leadership, the churches are designed to encourage every member participation in the life of the church, and the gatherings of the church. As Paul repeatedly reminds the early churches, there are a variety of gifts necessary for the church to function together as an extended family. This valuing of the other and encouraging contribution from all is key to the experience of the smaller church community and is a large part of how the community itself is a proclamation of the Gospel. (Romans 12:3-8)
The primary image the Bible uses to help us understand the role of church leader is that of shepherd. Jesus, Paul, and Peter regularly turned to shepherding metaphors in their instructions to the leaders of churches and in the first-century, agrarian culture this would have invoked imagery of commitment, courage, skill, hard work, along with tenderness, sacrifice, faithfulness, and love. Using the metaphor of shepherd as a backdrop, we can outline the role church leaders play within the church community:
Model the life (1 Timothy 4:1-16; 2 Timothy 2:3-6)
Establish the church (Titus 1:5; 2:15; Timothy 3:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-3:10)
Teach Scripture; Guard the teaching (2 Timothy. 4:1-4; 2:22-26; 1 Timothy 4:1-16)
Identify gifts and abilities of the church; in particular devote time to developing leaders (Romans 12:3-8; Acts 20:17-38; 2 Timothy 2:2; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-25; Titus 1:2-9)
Respond to opportunities to take the Gospel to new areas and establish new churches (Acts 13:1-14:26; 15:36-16:5; Philippians 1:3-7; 2:19-24; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-3:13; 1 Tim. 3:14-16; Titus 1:5)
In summary: Live the life. Shepherd the family. Establish people in the foundational principles of the faith by teaching the Word. Guard that teaching from false teachers. Exhort and admonish the saints in sound doctrine. Call out the God given gifts in the church. Raise up new leaders to establish new churches. Spur the church on to love and good deeds in such a way that the sick are visited, the poor are cared for, the widows and orphans find community, the neighborhood and city are blessed, and the Gospel is proclaimed.
The key philosophy of training is this: All training is IN ministry, not FOR ministry.
The reasoning behind this philosophy brings us back to the commission Jesus gave us in Matthew 28. “As you are going…” Jesus’s methodology was to develop people along the way; His exhortation to us follows this same approach.
The brilliance of this approach is the understanding that community and context are as important to training as content. Paul correctly exhorts us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, but this doesn’t simply equate to knowing a set of intellectual precepts. If that were the case, then a lecture once a week would work (and transformation would be much more prevalent today)! The kind of transformation and renewal Paul is talking about is orienting our minds toward wisdom as we conform our lives around the Truth. The training for this comes in the context of life situations, as we learn from those further along, and develop right responses and habits and ultimately character.
I n fact, most of the qualifications and discussions of leadership in Scripture have to do with character. It is clear that who you are becoming, and the gifts that God has given you, are more important than your ability to wax eloquently on obscure doctrinal issues, or whether or not you can organize a Sunday morning worship service.
The Apostles left us a great deposit of faith that can be transferred from person to person, and community to community. The foundation is the Gospel. What follows is a lifelong pursuit of mastering the Scriptures that the Apostles assumed would be normative for every follower of Jesus. In fact, the writer of Hebrews has some stern words to the churches that had ceased this pursuit (Hebrews 5:12-14). So, we train each other IN ministry, along the way, as we together follow Jesus.
This also brings us back to the parallel between church and discipleship. Because they are so closely linked, the core of what you need to pursue is how to lead people toward a life of serving Jesus and serving others in the name of Jesus. What you don’t need to know is how to run an institution.
By beginning to form your existing relationships into a distributed church, a church outside the walls of a building, you’ll be joining illiterate goat farmers in India that are leading churches. You’ll join factory workers in China that are leading churches. And in the United States you’ll join teachers, landscapers, lawyers, construction workers, and people from all walks of life leading churches. In fact, around the world only a small percentage of the church is led by professional clergy.
So, do you need training before you start? You need the Gospel and you need the Holy Spirit. Do you need training along the way? Yes, and you’ll spend your whole life pursuing it. Will you do any of this alone? No. You’ll be connect through relationship to people in your distributed church and other leaders in the network of churches.
What about your failures and insecurities? Remember that God only uses broken vessels and wounded healers. There has only ever been one sinless person and He is the one inviting you to join Him in this work.
Go to resourcewell.org to find the specific tools and training you can use for basic discipleship, and the advanced training you’ll need if you find God calling you to lead a cluster or a whole network of churches.