​A Conversation about Discipling with Murray Moerman

Murray and Carol Moerman
Murray and Carol Moerman

Several people have suggested that churches and mission agencies are in crisis as they struggle to add to their numbers and mobilize people. Some believe that the challenge is about engaging the younger generations beyond a cause. Others blame out-of-date structures or the declining participation of the Boomers. Even when structures are revised, is that the fix?

Mike Breen, a well-known leader in the missional church movement, says “a missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.” The engine of the church to which he is referring is discipleship.

The subject of discipling is important for Missions Fest because of our commitment to the Great Commission, a key missional verse where Jesus says that believers are to “go and make disciples”, teaching them to obey everything that he commands us to do. In our day, urgency is added to this command when we look at the spiritual confusion in our society and the relative lack of positive influence made by the church and her parachurch ministries in society at large.

Our theme for Missions Fest 2019 is ‘Mission: Discipling’. Over the course of this year we will be hearing from people in the thick of the ministry of making disciples. This month I had the privilege of talking with Murray Moerman. Moerman was the founding pastor of New Life Community Church in Burnaby. He founded and led Church Planting Canada before moving to England to serve as OC International’s European Director. In 2014 he moved back to Canada as facilitator for the Global Church Planting Network under Outreach Canada.

Q: What are the things you think about first when you’re asked about discipleship?

Murray Moerman: Many people use the terms “discipleship,” “discipling,” and “disciple-making” interchangeably. I think, however, there are helpful distinctions. I most often hear the term “discipleship” used in the church to refer to that which helps Christians become more serious about their faith. Evangelicals often focus more on deeper spiritual connection with Christ and on moral purity; mainline traditions may speak more of social service. “Discipling” tends to be used of the process helping deepen Christians in one or more of these vital areas. “Disciple-making,” as many are now using the term, moves us beyond this to making disciples of those who are not yet Christians, in a way which enables them in turn to make disciples and equip them to make disciples into a third spiritual generation.

Q: What are some of the challenges that churches face as they try to disciple?

MM: Several come to mind. First, the Gospel must not be over-contextualized. History may show that the seeker-sensitive movement has missed the mark in this way. We must not reduce the Gospel to simply helping people become better people in some way. Another way to say this is that we don’t have the right to lower the bar in any way, but let Jesus set it where Jesus sets it. Many of Jesus’ statements made people in and out of the religious community uncomfortable. A full rich picture of Christ’s absolute claims and teachings, and His call to “die to self, suffer if need be, and rise with Him to newness of life” make up the Gospel of the Kingdom. The church must not attempt an “end run” around anything Jesus is or calls us to.

A second challenge is the way we as church leaders often envision our goal. Most frequently, the church focuses its training on preparing Christians for leadership roles in the church. These programmatic roles are necessary but too small. More Kingdom impact is made by training disciples in the full way Jesus did. Interestingly, Jesus focused more on growing obedience than on growing knowledge.

Q: It was great to have Trevor Larsen join us at Missions Fest this year. He shared about a “come and see” model of disciple making which blurs the lines between evangelism and discipleship. What are your thoughts?

MM: I think this is a helpful recovery of Jesus’ emphasis. The church has largely come to see evangelism and discipleship as a sequence: evangelism first, then the deepening (or discipleship) of those who respond. The highly effective model shared at Missions Fest earlier this year sees the process of disciple-making as beginning before evangelism, with a “come and see” discovery process. Viewing evangelism as part of disciple-making is helpful. The pitfall of viewing evangelism as an event and discipleship as a later process is that many in the church feel they have “tried” evangelism; then, if they’re unsuccessful, they give up. As a result, evangelism gets a bad name. But when evangelism is seen as part of disciple-making, we side-step the pass/fail evaluation.

Q: What is the key to revitalizing a disciple-making culture in the Canadian church?

MM: My observation is that the vision and mission statements of many churches are biblical, but too general. One key to revitalizing a disciple-making culture is to sharpen disciple-making as our primary aim, and set goals with very specific action steps, in line with sharply focused mission statements. Second, is to stop seeking growth by choosing activities we think may produce it. Instead, replace that approach with starting small, getting the disciple-making DNA right, being patient while learning and refining a process we’ve not historically had much experience with, and looking to effective models from other parts of the world to supplement, or challenge, our western traditions.

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