Our God is a sending God. He sent his best into the world to save us. Jesus is referred to as “sent” forty-four times in the New Testament. And after his resurrection, Jesus passed his identity on to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21 ESV).
To follow Jesus is to be sent.
Jesus’s command to every disciple is to “go” (Matt. 28:19). We may not all go overseas, but we’re all to go. This means that if you’re not going, you’re not a disciple. And, church leader, if the people in our churches aren’t “going,” we aren’t doing our jobs. A church leader can have a large church with thousands of people attending, but if people aren’t going from it “outside the camp” (Heb. 13:13) to pursue the mission and call of Christ, those leaders are delinquent in their duty.
Everyone Is Sent
Everyone who has received the gospel of reconciliation is sent to carry that gospel to others. Every believer is sent. You’re either on the mission field or a missionary.
Planting, investing, sending, and sacrificing are costly. It hurts. But the trajectory of discipleship is toward giving away, not taking in. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ bids a man to follow, he bids him come and die.” Jesus didn’t say come and grow, but come and die. And he showed us what that means by his own example.
Why would it surprise us that God wants to use the same process in our ministries? It is not through our success that God saves the world, but through our sacrifice. He calls us pastors first to an altar, not a platform.
“To follow Jesus is to be sent.”
His way of bringing life to the world is not by giving us numerical growth and gain that enriches our lives and exalts our name. His way is by bringing resurrection out of death. As Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 ESV).
We live by losing. We gain by giving away. What we achieve by building our personal platform will never be as great as what God achieves through what we give away in faith.
The need for this kind of an approach is greater than ever. The “nones” in Western society (those who check “none” for religious affiliation) grow each year at an astounding rate. Nones don’t casually make their way back into a church because the pastor is engaging, the music is cool, or the guest services are Disney-esque. They have to be reached outside the church.
In the future, we will likely see fewer and fewer megachurches competing for larger pieces of a rapidly shrinking pie. Those who want to “grow the pie” will have to reach people outside the weekend services. This means empowering believers to carry the gospel outside of the church.
Furthermore, we are now seeing a flood of immigrants moving into our backyards, and we hear the voice of a culture crying out for a racial diversity they are unable to achieve. Many people find these trends frightening, but I believe that they present tremendous opportunities for the church. However, they will not be seized through going about church as normal.
Are we sufficient for the task? Like Ezekiel, standing before the valley of dry bones, we confess our inability, but we know that the Spirit of God can do through us all that he has determined.
Seating vs. Sending Capacity
The church isn’t composed of “those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith” (Heb. 10:39 ESV). Instead of adopting a defensive posture toward the culture, trying only to hold on to what we have and protect it from the enemy, we must go on the offensive, sending out believers into the culture to besiege the gates of hell.
We must cease measuring success by “seating capacity,” and view ministry success as “sending capacity.” Seating capacity is comfortable. It’s safe. But sending capacity is risky and frightening. Seating capacity makes the churches’ leaders look important. But sending capacity makes the mission—and Jesus—look important.
“Seating capacity makes the churches’ leaders look important. But sending capacity makes the mission—and Jesus—look important.”
Shifting from seating capacity to sending capacity will entail a fundamental shift in how we think about the mission of the church. Jesus’s vision of the church—the kind of church that would besiege the gates of hell—didn’t consist of a group of people gathered around one anointed leader, but multiple leaders going out in the power of the Spirit. It’s a claim that few of us take seriously: Jesus said that a multiplicity of Spirit-filled leaders would be greater than his earthly, bodily presence (John 14:12).
Can you imagine the power of a church in which ordinary members know what it means to be filled with the Spirit of God and led by the Spirit of God? God’s plan to glorify himself in the church never consisted of platformed megapastors, cutting-edge art, or expensive buildings. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things in themselves, but the real power in the church is found the Holy Spirit moving through ordinary people as they carry his presence into the streets.
In Acts, the biggest advances of the gospel in the New Testament happened through ordinary people. Of all the miracles in Acts, thirty-nine of forty were done outside of the church. We need to expect that kind of ratio today too.
As a church, we’ve got to focus on empowering and equipping those in our church for ministry. Everyone loves seeing attendance numbers grow, but I know that incremental growth won’t make a difference for 99 percent of the people in my city. We need to empower our people to multiply God’s power where they already are. As Paul wrote, God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:11–12 ESV, emphasis added). What that means is that when I became a pastor, I left the ministry. I simply can’t reach everyone where they are. But the people in our churches can.
God is calling all of the members of our churches to understand their role in his mission, to get off the sidelines and join him where he is already at work. It won’t be easy. It won’t be safe. But remember that the kingdom of God works on the principle of the harvest: we reap only as we risk, living comes by dying, and gaining comes by losing.
J. D. Greear is the pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of Gospel, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, Jesus, Continued and Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems. Follow him @JDGreear.