Healthy sheep produce sheep: The importance of empowering people to be disciple-makers
Pastor & writer
Discipleship & spiritual formation
Friends and acquaintances surrounded Clint Highfill in the back of a theater at Warehouse Cinemas in Hagerstown, Maryland, a few weeks ago. The credits for Jesus Revolution, a movie where the gospel stirs a church and saves hippies, rolled up the big screen.
Then, with the lights up and the smell of popcorn lingering, the Converge church planter did what God asks every disciple to do: he shared the gospel. Highfill wants people to be saved, but he’s also eager to see worshipers and watchers become gospel workers.
“They’re on mission every day, everywhere,” he said of Christ-followers at Transformation Church. “It’s their responsibility to share the gospel every day.”
Highfill said the people at the central Maryland church are embracing opportunities to do just that. They have come to him sharing their excitement and ownership of becoming disciple-makers.
Every Sunday, Highfill also declares the hope of Christ during worship at Transformation Church. He believes the first thing today’s churches can do to see more people saved is the same thing that renewed the lives of hippies in the late 1960s: love like Jesus and tell people about the friend of sinners.
“If you’re not sharing the gospel with somebody, you can’t love somebody to the fullest,” he added.
‘Shepherds don’t make sheep’
Converge president John K. Jenkins Sr., speaking in January at the Unleash conference, shared how every member, volunteer and employee at the church he pastors can share the gospel.
“Shepherds don’t make sheep; healthy sheep produce sheep,” Jenkins said to hundreds of ministry leaders in Orlando. “We have to build a culture in our churches of declaring the forgiveness and sins and the justification that Jesus makes possible.”
When Andre Riendeau, the pastor of Wintonbury Church near Hartford, CT, heard Jenkins’ words, he looked over at his executive pastor Dave Blough with a heart that embraced Jenkins’ challenge.
“I think that’s brilliant,” Riendeau said. “That’s something I’d like to make happen at Wintonbury.”
About a month later, the Converge Northeast church’s staff watched Jesus Revolution as a step toward having more of the mind of Christ in the congregation.
“If you’re going to embrace a culture of evangelism, there needs to be a commitment by the leadership that we’re going to do this even if it makes us uncomfortable and causes people to leave,” Riendeau said.
He’s been the pastor or assistant pastor at Wintonbury for 34 years. He recognizes the power of emphasizing evangelism, even when conviction must confront comfort. People start complaining when hippies in the movie stain the new carpet, which Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa had just spent good money on as a building renovation.
We have to build a culture in our churches of declaring the forgiveness and sins and the justification that Jesus makes possible.
Converge president John K. Jenkins Sr.
But the movie also shows how Chuck Smith understood Christ’s mandate to go and make disciples, caring equally for the poor, the outcasts and the seemingly less-desirable people.
Something Riendeau appreciated from Chuck Smith’s story is not celebrating the numerical growth of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa’s congregation or square footage. Instead, he said the believers there expressed gratitude to God for how many churches they planted.
“They didn’t have this really elaborate ordination type thing,” Riendeau said of the church’s approach to teaching people to be disciple-makers. “[Chuck Smith] just empowered the people to be evangelists and taught them how to do it. We’re all ministers. We’re all missionaries and a church’s job is to equip all of us to simply explain the gospel.”
Around Connecticut, Riendeau said he and other pastors see God at work with spiritual fruit that hasn’t been seen in years. Seekers who don’t know anyone at Wintonbury are walking in off the street, choosing Christ as Lord.
“I’ve been here 34 years, and I don’t remember that happening before,” he noted. “It seems like there’s an openness right now to hear what God has to say.”
A contagious awakening — then and now
In the 1960s, when the Jesus Movement in California was gaining momentum, Karen Ames lived in Massachusetts. She said she was a hippie with hair three-quarters of the way down her back.
A few years before, someone told a 13-year-old Karen about Nietzsche’s philosophical statement that God was dead. The idea God had died before she met him stirred Karen on a spiritual level, something happening in many others by the time New Englanders heard about the California revival.
“There was a whole atmosphere of seeking, which became the ripe medium for people to really receive the word of God being planted,” she said.
John Ames, also a New England native, had hair over his ears in those days, but it never grew long enough to reach his shoulders. The church of his youth was a very traditional yet Christ-centered congregation where worship included a choir and organ, even as some churches started using guitars in the early 1970s.
Ames, now the leader of Converge’s Africa Impact Team, said a contagious awakening happened then and seems to be happening now on college campuses and in other communities. He adds that such encounters with a loving Christ and people sharing Christ’s love for sinners affected the church then and now.
“It wasn’t so much the church that was instigating this,” he explained of how new believers changed a church’s posture and practices. “It was a focus on Jesus, a focus on the person of Jesus and the invitations he gave. People began to experience Jesus outside the trappings of religion, clothing and the four walls.”
Ames said God is always moving to correct the church in any country. He said the church of the 1960s needed a shake-up as people were seeking authentic relationships with Jesus — and each other — based on grace, love and truth.
His church planted the church that Karen Ames would later attend, a group of believers who saw many youths coming to Christ and accepted them. As a result, her church trained youth to lead worship on Sunday mornings and communicate the gospel whenever possible.
“Those were big changes that affected the church,” she said.
What are today’s changes?
Clint Highfill said Transformation, unlike the church in Jesus Revolution, hasn’t existed long enough to experience as much transition and tension tied to comfort and conviction. What remains just as common is the existence of many around them who seldom encounter Jesus.
This tri-state community in Maryland is near Pennsylvania and West Virginia, yet has few churches lovingly embracing longtime residents, brand-new transplants and busy commuters to big cities like Washington D.C. and Baltimore. As a result, the area has people desperately thirsty for the truth, more than Highfill thinks there have been for a while.
Therefore, an essential aspect of culture needed at Transformation Church is hospitality, as these people seek something more absolute.
“No matter what somebody looks like, how they dress, what they don’t wear, who they love, what they wear, they’re welcome at Transformation Church,” Highfill said. “They’re not going to experience love if they don’t come in.”
He said that gospel-defined hospitality goes beyond worship gatherings because the people are the church. So they can proclaim the same love of Christ on Mondays that he expresses on Sunday mornings or declared in a movie theater last month.
“It starts with the pulpit, but it doesn’t end there,” he said of evangelism. “Be welcoming and be willing to share the gospel at any expense, even your own comfort.”
Ben Greene, Pastor & writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.