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Unleashing The Church: An Organized Approach

By Craig E. Sweeney

Equipping churches are not accidents. They are the result of deliberate prayer, planning, and practice. When someone wants to build a house, he does not start with the blueprints. He starts with the dream of a certain house. It is only after the dream takes shape that blueprints are designed and developed. The architect draws a picture to use as a guiding image for the designer and the builders throughout the entire process. The blueprints give step-by-step instructions to construct the dream house. Builders use the blueprints and picture many times during every stage of construction so the dream house becomes a reality.

Churches are no different. They were first imagined in the heart of God and then His dream took shape. The apostle Paul helped identify the shape of what God imagined. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul painted a picture of God’s dream for the New Testament church (chapter 4). The verses are brief, but the picture has considerable depth.

Paul painted a picture of the body of Christ that is teeming with life and hope, and one that is equipping people for their callings so they may join God in His plan for humanity. Truly, it is the church unleashed, accomplishing what only God could have imagined.

Many stop to admire this portrait of a church attaining “to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).Often we walk away from this picture inspired by its possibilities, but feel unable to recreate its depth of life, vitality, or ability to equip in our own churches.

We must ask: Is it possible to have an equipping church teeming with such life and hope today? Did Paul paint an unrealistic picture?

The Accident Will Not Just Happen

It is possible to be the dream church of Ephesians 4, but it will not happen by accident. Pastors must keep their eyes on the dream at every stage. The dream will only take shape through an intentional and organized effort to change church culture. In this article, I will describe an organized approach that works.

When the equipping-church blueprint is examined, two crucial measurements determine its success: leadership’s commitment to equip, and ministry’s commitment to equip. Both must be measured. Both cooperate to achieve the overall goal of equipping the saints. Here is the first measurement.

Measuring Leadership’s Commitment To Equip

This measurement must not be a guess. This first measurement will determine if your dream will remain a dream. All churches do some equipping, but not all churches are equipping churches. A true equipping church embodies an equipping culture. Its leadership is committed to developing and maintaining a church-wide equipping culture.

Here are some observations about leadership’s commitment to an equipping culture.

To pursue an equipping culture is to pursue change

This pursuit will test the level of leadership’s commitment. The changes to be made are significant, and changes must start at the highest level. Change is life giving, but one cannot assume that everyone will embrace change. People, even good people, do not like change. Often leaders state: “I am already committed to equipping.” If leadership embodied equipping as a culture, then they would already be living the dream.

An equipping culture begins with the right portrait

When we picture what a successful Christ-honoring church looks like, we must be sure we see the same picture God sees. Consider the following pictures of the church in Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–35.

Ephesians 4 is the pre-eminent picture in the gallery. Much can be learned from the other portraits, but Ephesians 4 is the finished product. The others are not. Here God’s people commit themselves to His plan for humanity. Together they equip “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. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:12–15).

Notice that nothing is mentioned about a talented worship group, church facilities, style of music, drama, the next big event, or even about how many people attended. These are important in the right context, but they are not the result. They are only tools for church use. These are vague images compared to the vibrant portrait of Ephesians 4.

Ephesians 4 is the picture of a church fulfilling the Great Commission. In today’s church culture with its many distractions, we need to fix our eyes on the right portrait.

An equipping culture’s prayers of faith

These continuous prayers are motivated by faith that people will realize their God-given calling and their redemptive potential in Christ. Such prayers demonstrate that people are the church’s greatest resource, and broken people have redemptive potential. These are the values of an equipping culture. An equipping leader’s prayers are guided by the belief that each person has value in God’s plan. These leaders pray to have their eyes opened so they may see God’s gifts in every person. They pray for wisdom and discernment to equip and release those gifts. These prayers do not show reliance on what money can achieve, but on what God can accomplish through people.

An equipping culture’s work

An equipping culture focuses on effective teamwork. It is not primarily concerned about the work output of one staff member. Staff members are not hired to be professional doers of ministry. They should be hired to create and train teams of lay partners who will then accomplish ministry efforts. Staff members in this culture are not praised when they do the work of five people while straining their family relationships. They are praised for making sure five individuals do the work of five.

A person working outside his gifts and passion will burn out and take his place among the cynics of the congregation. We need to avoid processes that create cynics. An equipping culture does not want anyone working anywhere; it wants the right people working in the right places at the right times.

An equipping culture’s strategies

Strategies are not as concerned with numbers as they are with quality. Making disciples is done one person at a time. Large group settings play a role in these strategies, but at some point, one-on-one training is necessary. Big, expensive events usually draw churched people, but a better strategy is to get the message of hope to the lost. Many churches plan events to get more people into their facility so they can speak to them. An equipping church will use its time and resources to equip people so they can minister to people in places the pastor cannot access.

An equipping culture’s goals and priorities

Long-term goals for equipping that extend out 1 to 5 years are needed. Examples of long-term goals are: raising up new lay leaders to do what paid staff have been doing (this goal frees up paid staff to do the things they love); developing mentoring relationships; developing new curriculum to assist in equipping efforts; dealing with lay leaders and their expectations to equip other lay leaders. Goals and priorities must reflect the equipping culture.

An equipping culture’s indicators for measuring success

The indicators often used today to measure success are vague images of Ephesians 4. Good attendance and finances do not tell the whole story. George Barna in Growing True Disciples states, “Presently, less than half of all born-again adults (44 percent) are convinced there is absolute moral truth.” Fifty-six percent are not convinced. Only “55 percent claim that the primary influence on their thinking about moral truth is the Bible or the religious teaching they receive.” These people are attending our churches. The numbers do not tell us what we want to hear. An equipping culture gets personal with its people and engages them in their faith. The days of assuming everyone agrees with our preaching or teaching have long passed.

New indicators of success are needed. Success can be determined by who is engaged in the discipleship process; how many people tithe; how many people are involved in ongoing ministry; how many people are involved in relationships through small groups or Sunday School classes; how many broken homes have been saved from divorce; and how many people are being released into new ministries. These indicators are not perfect, but they give a good evaluation of whether or not a person is being made into a disciple of Jesus Christ.

An equipping culture promotes with forethought

Leaders in equipping churches are given more responsibility if their gifts qualify them for it. Promotion requires forethought. Many churches have too many players on their coaching staffs. Coaches and players use different skills, similar but different. Typically, positions of high responsibility require greater equipping skills. But those who can do the task well are not automatically good coaches. Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time; but, if he cannot coach or equip a player to play as he did, he would be of little help to the team as a coach. To make him a coach would not be fair to him or the team. Promote people according to their gifts.

An equipping culture creates a legacy

A pastor’s legacy is left when he moves from one place to another or when he is promoted to be with Christ. We need to ask, Will others continue what I started and carry it on after I have left? Or, Is this activity one that should be carried on after I have left?

If an equipping culture is established, then the pastor’s vision and passion will become the vision and passion of others as well. Equipping others to join our efforts ensures that the dream we have does not die. The greatest legacy we leave as equipping leaders is not written on plaques fixed to the inside walls of buildings. The greatest legacy we leave behind is written on the hearts of the people we helped. Each time a new person joins God in His plan for the redemption of mankind, our legacy lives on and our fruit remains.

Imagine if every one of your staff and lay leaders committed to an equipping culture. This is the first step in becoming an equipping church. The next step is taking an honest look at the ministries of your church.

Measuring Ministry’s Commitment To Equip

With leadership’s commitment secured, the next step in the equipping-church blueprint is for church ministries to reflect the equipping culture. Each ministry or department needs to be examined to determine if it is effective at equipping.Effective departments intentionally equip people as ministry is done.

Not all ministries are effective equipping ministries. Most ministries were not started, nor have they been maintained, as equipping ministries. Most ministries were birthed out of a desire to meet a need. For example, the men of the church need help to be the men God called them to be, so a men’s ministry is started. Equipping may happen in small doses, but more could be done.

Each ministry needs the permission of senior leadership to measure its present commitment to equip. Sunday School is an equipping ministry. In truth, ministry equips only when its goal is making disciples. Many Sunday Schools do not equip effectively. They are on autopilot. They use the current book or tape series and teach with little or no thought for results. When one series is finished, excitement builds for the next series even though the lessons just learned have not been incorporated into people’s lives. Individuals have the unique ability to hear teaching for weeks and yet remain unchanged.

The Sunday School’s commitment to equip can be measured. It can be measured by its resolve to be intentional with its teaching. Classes need to start with a growth goal in mind. For example, growth in financial stewardship, understanding the role of husband, wife, and children in the family, or understanding ways one’s retirement years can be used to benefit the kingdom of God. Once a growth goal has been agreed on by the majority or by the Sunday School teacher, materials are used that will stretch people in that direction. Then they can break into small groups to pray for God’s strength to respond correctly to that week’s teaching. In time, relationships are formed that offer accountability and spur one another on. Equipping motivates people to apply and internalize what they are taught. Equipping may occur in small doses in Sunday School, but Sunday School could be more intentional in making disciples.

Every ministry in the church should be measured. Once measured, leadership can redesign it to equip people. For example, the purpose of hospital visitation ministry is visiting sick and needy people in the hospital, but this ministry can equip as well. If the current leaders will take others with them and show them how to do hospital visitation, then two people are now trained to visit. Unless senior leadership creates this expectation, many ministries will not automatically equip others to minister. This is one reason leadership has to commit to equip first. John Maxwell says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

The last point to consider is a discipleship plan. What is the minimum amount of information needed by people to be affective followers of Jesus Christ? What are the basic doctrines, practices, or disciplines that everyone needs? Answering these questions is the first step in developing a discipleship plan. The church should offer a series of classes and one-on-one mentoring opportunities where people can obtain that information. Hopefully new people are visiting the church regularly. New opportunities for discipleship need to be available throughout the year for these individuals.

Our plan starts with the altar workers. They are trained to encourage people to further their commitment by joining a class or a mentoring relationship. Classes and mentors teach foundational doctrines and disciplines. After completion, people are encouraged to join a small group and the next class on our new believer’s track.

We have at least six classes that make up the discipleship process. This is an effective way to get newcomers familiar with the church community. Discipleship processes will be different for each church. The goal is to release people into ministry who are well equipped and qualified to serve. Conclude the discipleship process with a short class to assess participant’s spiritual gifts. Follow the class with an opportunity for people to look at ministry options available in the church.

Equipping churches are not accidents. They are the result of deliberate prayer, planning, and practice. The dream can only take shape when an intentional and organized approach to change church culture is enacted. Equipping does not just happen in a church. Churches must go through a planning process, where ultimately leadership is given permission to work as equipping leaders. It takes committed leadership and ministry departments. Time and resources must be committed to training parishioners and to retraining leadership. The church’s use of time and the expectations of pastors and lay leaders are different when equipping is intentional.

Many leaders may think this culture shift sounds overwhelming and even frightening. I believe it is filled with possibilities and opportunities. What would be accomplished if just half of the people in the church knew their place in God’s plan, were equipped, and then released to participate in that plan? This kind of church is exhilarating, stirring, relational, and is blessed with the approval of God. I love being a leader in this kind of church. This is certainly not church as usual, but that is a good thing.

CRAIG E. SWEENEY is associate pastor at Peoples Church (Assemblies of God), Fresno, California.

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