Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
We need to clear up a widely held but incomplete view: baptism is not solely an outward sign of inward change - it is that - but it is also an initiation rite. Baptism existed before Jesus made it the initiation rite for His followers. Baptism is a sacred practice that prepares one for entry into a new way of life with a new group of people.
Therefore it is not random that Jesus links the command to make disciples with baptism and teaching. He understood what we have often forgotten. Arranging our lives around Jesus happens in the context of community. In this Jesus community - a church - we learn how to observe all that Jesus commanded us. What this means is the church actually exists for the purpose of discipleship.
C.S. Lewis articulates this idea well in Mere Christianity when he says, “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.”
The church is Jesus’s vehicle for discipleship. Seeking to make disciples results in churches. They are so linked that “church” and “discipleship” are almost synonyms.
As much as it offends our western sensibilities of individualism, becoming a disciple of Jesus is not something we can do alone. And it is not something we can do anonymously. It is not simply conversion to a belief system that gives one access to a particular eternal destination followed by a commitment to live by a particular ethic. It is a conformation to a way of life. And that way of life necessitates others.
If breaking a simple habit is hard, then conforming our whole lives around the commands of Jesus is going to be extremely difficult. We’ll need more than just will power. Attending worship services will certainly help, but we’ll need a bit more of a robust structure for the other 166-167 hours a week. A distributed church is that structure.
That begs the question, how do you start one?
You might have an existing group of friends that already functions as a distributed church, but don’t realize it as such. Your vision might be to form a church entirely from people currently disconnected from Jesus. Or, you might look around your network of relationships and realize that you are surrounded by followers of Jesus disconnected from one another. Every circumstance and situation is different. So, creating a definitive multi-step process for starting a distributed church is a futile exercise. Use this as a guide and ask God to show you how to adjust it to your specific situation.
Pray. Seek God. Watch and listen for what God is doing in your context. God has providentially placed you where you are, with the people you are with. Why?
Identify potential team leaders, the core group of people that will help you provide key leadership for the distributed church. If you’re building a church with people you are leading to Christ, then the initial converts can become the leadership team.
Study the Scriptures together, particularly Acts and the Epistles, and discuss (as leaders or with the whole initial church) what it means to be a church - to link together to reflect the image of God as I Am = Us for Them, There.
Develop an initial plan for serving people outside your group and engaging ministry opportunities that God brings your way. (Go to resourcewell.org for resources and ideas)
Develop an initial plan for establishing your community in the faith and establishing your identity as a church. (If your distributed church has children involved, then you want to think through a plan for children as well as adults. See Appendix 1 for resources)
Develop an initial plan for meeting together. How often (weekly is the Biblical pattern)? What do you hope to accomplish in the different gatherings? How does your group interact with worship services at Northland?
Develop an initial plan for utilizing the gifting of all.
Develop an initial plan for multiplying churches.
Call forward those who demonstrate the desire to lead, developing in them the character qualifications given to Timothy and Titus.
Set in order what remains by continually studying the Scriptures and working to align your lives around the kingdom of God.
Resources: There is a list of key questions to help you think through the process of establishing a distributed church in your context in Appendix 2.
A Distributed Church is more than getting together once a week, but a catalyst for the shared ministry and mission is the weekly gathering to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and spur one another on toward love and good deeds. With Christ as the focus of the community, here is an example of what a Distributed Church might do when gathered:
Doors to the home open well before the meal time. People are encouraged to come early if they are able. The time is open to help prepare and set up, hang out, bring a friend to play pool, watch football, talk and catch up, and let the kids play. The atmosphere feels like getting good friends and relatives together for a holiday.
The meal begins when almost everyone is there. The host welcomes everyone and reminds them of their purpose in gathering. A leader begins the meal with the bread, or something that can be eaten, reads a portion of Scripture reminding everyone of Christ’s provision on our behalf, prays and blesses the meal (the cup may be blessed at this point or taken together at the end of the meal). Then everyone eats! The tone of this is joyful and celebratory and allows everyone to enjoy the meal together. At the conclusion of the meal, if not done in the beginning, the leader draws everyone’s attention toward the cup and, completing the sacrament of communion together, Scripture is read and concluded with prayer or possibly a song. The principle here is that the meal is communion: the body of Christ gathered around the body of Christ symbolic, remembering the body of Christ risen.
After the meal, the group transitions to the more structured time of discussion and contribution, and most likely this involves moving into another room. At this point, younger children can stay with the group or through pre-arrangement, someone might share in the rotation of teaching the younger kids in a different room. We encourage as many of the kids to stay as possible in order to experience the church community together.
Often, what works well is to begin with a time of songs, stories, and inviting people to share what God is doing in their lives (This can include children). After a period of time, a prearranged couple of people take the children into another room for a child specific lesson, while the conversation is focused on a more specific teaching and discussion of scripture, and prayer.
A fter the time of mutual contribution of scripture, song, prayer, and discussion, a leader concludes the structured time in an appropriate way. People are free to leave, but are welcome to stay to continue conversations.
The eucharistic gathering for the week is over, but the gathering is intended to serve as a catalyst for authentic relationship and connection throughout the week as the community seeks to proclaim the gospel through their individual and community life.
A typical distributed church gathering is IN A HOME (or a storefront, or under a tree) AROUND A MEAL (The Lord’s Supper) with a focused time of DISCUSSION OF SCRIPTURE (devotion to the apostles' teaching) and PRAYER where EVERY MEMBER PARTICIPATES through the discussion of Scripture or an artistic contribution (psalms, hymns, spiritual songs). (Acts 2:42-47; Ephesians 5:17-20)
It may also include conversation about opportunities to INCLUDE THE UNINCLUDED, conversation about a PLAN TO SERVE (a specific people, place, organization, or cause), and COMMUNICATION FROM THE NETWORK through relationships, correspondence and/or technology.
Resources: For a further discussion of the different elements of the gathering, see Appendix 3.
God, in his providence, has given us simple and repeatable practices that invite us to lift up our eyes and engage the transcendent in the midst of our everyday lives. Using common elements like water, bread, dirt, metal, air, these rituals point us to the reality of the kingdom beyond the material elements of our lives. Sometimes called sacraments, sometimes referred to as sacerdotal functions, we call them sacred practices. These sacred practices - communion, baptism, weddings, funerals - are vital to a distributed church’s shared life and worship.
Leaders of distributed churches are encouraged to perform any and all of the typical “church” functions within their community. They affirm the identity of the distributed church, and often a group does not feel like a legit church until they engage in the sacred practices together. Baptizing a new believer, or partaking of communion can be a transforming event for a group of people finding their identity as a distributed church.
I n the situations where official ordination or other resources are necessary, the Resource Center can come alongside the Church Leaders to help with the credentials and training they need.
See resourcewell.org for more ideas and ways to use the sacred practices in the context of distributed churches.
Before we move on to a discussion about developing leaders to carry the ministry and mission forward (Entrusting), we should also say a word about the relationships we hope to see formed in the context of distributed churches.
Distributed churches can be the environment for deep and meaningful relationships, but it is important to remember that some targets cannot be hit by aiming directly at them. Character is a good example of this kind of target. While one may aspire to develop character, character itself is developed through a focus on other things. Community functions in much the same way.
There is a certain quality of relationship and commitment to one another that are represented when we use the word “community.” But, simply focusing on this type of relationship, or worse demanding this level of intimacy and commitment from one another without giving it time and the right environment to develop can actually be detrimental to the goal.
Relationships can be formed around affinity, similarity, or common purpose. The goal of a distributed church is to form the relationships around the later. The common purpose of helping one another conform our lives to Christ, serve one another and our neighbor, and carry the mission of Jesus into the world makes for a strong, unifying basis for community. Affinity and similarity can bolster the connection, but it is in the fire of this common purpose that meaningful, sacrificial relationships are formed.