Twenty-five years ago Perimeter Church, one of the PCA’s larger congregations, was recognized as one of the country’s more innovative churches. But with that recognition, Randy Pope, the church’s senior pastor, realized that the church wasn’t being recognized for hitting a specific target; it was recognized for “shooting arrows farther than most other churches.”
Too often, says Pope, church leaders measure effectiveness by “success metrics” — the size of their staff, number of members, budget, property, etc. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that the church is about impact — impact on people’s lives and on our communities. In Pope’s view, effective discipleship, which requires an effective model, empowers the church to deploy mature and equipped followers of Christ. And their lives, he says, have the potential for impact.
ByFaith spoke with Pope about his new book on discipleship—“Insourcing: Bringing Discipleship Back to the Local Church.”
You open the book talking about a time when Perimeter Church was celebrated and applauded, but for all the wrong reasons. Would you talk a little about that, and how it affected your views on discipleship?
You know, it seems that there are ideas, techniques, and ministry practices that somehow spread throughout the church at different times in the life of Christian ministry. I am not quite sure how that happens — probably some book, some conference, or today maybe a blogger who has a following stimulates some idea that grows legs and spreads. When we were still early in our formation, a book was written about churches that were innovative. Somehow we made the list as one of the more innovative churches in America. As I began to think about this recognition, it dawned on me we were not being hailed because we were hitting our target(s), but rather we were being praised for having shot our arrows farther than most other churches. Don’t get me wrong — there were churches shooting even farther than we were, and they too were being hailed as innovative. At that time in the life of churches, shooting arrows over a long distance was the measure of success. Of course I am using this as an illustration.
This acclaim, being one of the leading innovative churches in America, pushed me down a path of evaluation, and I began to ask hard questions about my leadership and the ministry at Perimeter. Frankly, it would have been easy to just go with the flow. Go on the speakers circuit, hold some conferences to tell everybody about how skillfully we “string our bow” and how we “shoot our arrows.” However, it was during this time that my thinking really focused around the idea that it was not enough just to shoot arrows farther than anyone else. I knew I would never be content with that as the primary outcome. I wanted to hit a predetermined target. As I wrestled with that idea, I began to gain insight into what I believe God wanted Perimeter to be about, and that began to be summarized in a “shorthand” phrase I called “making mature and equipped followers of Christ.” So during this time of recognition and acclaim God really helped me see that our arrows needed to be aimed at a specific target, and our church leaders affirmed this clarity of vision and joined in this exciting journey. We set out on a course and a commitment that we have really not deviated from since that time. At the time we did not know in complete detail how this was going to play out in the life of our church, but we had a clear target and were unified in our pursuit of that target.
You outline the pros and cons of various discipleship models, then settle on what you call the life-on-life model. Why such emphasis on models? And what does this model offer that others don’t?
The reason I began the discussion of discipleship with an overview of models is because I really believe that every church uses a model as it goes about its work of ministry. I believe that the model may be intentional, based upon the pastor’s gifts and talents, or it may simply be because it is the model that has always been. As pastors, we have the challenge of balancing between “dream/vision” and “function.” I am convinced that as church leaders our greatest contribution may very well be that we develop models that marry dream to function. If we do a good job of this, we will see our dreams/visions more likely to be fulfilled. If we fail to do this well, we may go through much of our ministry frustrated and unfulfilled, with our church sharing in that frustration. So with that thought in mind it made sense to me that we review some significant models that have dominated the church during the last 50 years or so.
It would be presumptuous to hold myself out as a church historian. But as I look back over the years I have been in ministry, it is easy to see that the church has really gone through some significant changes. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that prior to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea of innovation in the context of the church was virtually unknown. Prior to that time, there was a dominant model that had existed for many years, probably decades, maybe even centuries. I refer to that model as the “pastoral” model. In fact, it is a model that continues in churches today. It continues because it meets a significant need for many in the church, and for many pastors the pastoral model is well suited to their gift mix.
“The life-on-life model has the potential of taking the broad message of the gospel and the wide message of the mission to our people in a way that God can use them in the story of redemption.”
From there I saw a move to what has become known as the “attractional” model. This model sought to balance the internal focus of the pastoral model with a greater emphasis on being externally focused. Over time the best elements of these two models began to merge. We were early adopters of a blend of the pastoral and attractional model here at Perimeter. We adapted it to our values and our context, but we saw it carrying us in a direction that we wanted to move toward being externally focused.
Next came the “influential” model. Through this model the church was seeking to have a positive impact in the communities where its people lived, worked, and enjoyed their recreational activities. Each of these models had pros and cons and gave the church the opportunity to rethink the way it approached those who were not in or of the church. I think it is safe to say that there are churches today that have incorporated some of the best elements of each model, but even so, it is probable that one of these models is more pronounced in their ministry.
From the days when we as a church began to question what our target was to be, our model really came into sharper focus. We kept returning to the target of making mature and equipped followers, and as we evaluated the models available to us, we knew that there was no one model that really fit us perfectly. That is when a new model began to emerge in our thinking and ultimately in our practice. Long before we had a name for this model, we had begun to see our dreams being married to function. We began to see men and women becoming mature and equipped followers of Christ. I am not saying we were achieving some state of perfection, but I am saying that we had a model that began to work for us, and we began to call that model the “life-on-life” model.
Now, let me quickly say what we are not saying. We are not saying that we have come up with something new in this life-on-life model. In fact, if I might be so bold to say that what we really did was discover a model that was rooted in ancient truth. As I think about this model, it seems to me that in some ways it is like connective tissue that connects the other models together for greater influence and impact. I believe that this model incorporates the very best elements of the other models and ensures that the church continues to be relevant as it gives expression to the dramatic nature of the gospel message, which is so desperately needed today. The life-on-life model really has the potential of taking the broad message of the gospel and the wide message of the mission to our people in a way that God can use them in the exciting story of redemption.
You say that most churches are good at directing and delegating — that is, they do a good job of teaching their people and sending them out to apply that truth — but they do a poor job of coaching and supporting. How can churches coach and support better? And how does that make discipleship more effective?
As I have spoken to pastors through the years, I have come to realize that many of our churches are really “one-story” churches. I do not mean that they have only one story to tell, but rather they are like a building that has only one level, i.e., story, rather than being a two-story structure. It is a visual that seems to make sense to pastors.
Think about it — what do we spend most of our time doing in the life of our churches? We work hard at disseminating information to our people. We do that through our sermons, through our Sunday-morning programs, and through seminars. We provide our people with “directives.” I am confident that we do an excellent job of that in each of these teaching venues. Once we have done this, we send our people out to execute on the information that we have provided them in our teaching times. Perimeter, like so many others, has done this through the years. What we have discovered is that this practice of giving direction (truth) and then delegating (sending out, mission) creates “disillusioned learners.” Certainly there are some among us who need nothing more than the truth, and they are able to go and do. But for the vast majority, there is a second level needed, and that is why we think that many churches today need to add a second story on their church that includes coaching and supporting.
“Through coaching and supporting, coupled with directing and delegating, people are more likely to become mature and equipped followers of Christ.”
We believe that coaching and supporting are most effective in the life-on-life model. In its simplest formulation, it is a qualified leader who has a suitable life product and is being intentional to impart that life product, God’s Word, and the gospel to another person. This has the greatest opportunity to eliminate disillusioned learners. Through coaching and supporting, coupled with directing and delegating, people are more likely to become mature and equipped followers of Christ.
You use the acronym TEAMS to describe Perimeter’s approach to discipleship. What does that mean, and why do you like this approach?
Briefly, TEAMS is simply a handle that allows us to get a grip on the life-on-life model. The acronym stands for Truth, Equipping, Accountability, Mission, and Supplication. I will not go into detail here, but this is a nice overlay with the Situational Leadership model developed by Ken Blanchard. Truth is really directing; equipping is comparable to coaching; accountability is similar to supporting; and mission is delegation. Supplication sits in the center of these four elements for the simple reason that prayer is the unifying element for all of them. We think of TEAMS as an operating system, if you will, for life-on-life. We cannot imagine mature disciples of Christ not having truth; we desire that they be equipped — that is, that the truth be massaged into their hearts so that it is understandable and usable in their lives. Accountability is by invitation and is a guard against those times when we find ourselves lacking faithfulness or commitment. And finally, disciples of Christ should be on mission.
As we have shared this with other churches throughout the U.S., we have found that this is well received. As we have taken it abroad to cities around the world, we find that it transcends our own culture and that churches are using this in their own life-on-life ministries and are seeing people become mature and equipped followers of Christ.
Discipleship Models Through the Years
The Pastoral Model
This model continues in churches today. It meets a need for many in the church and is well suited to the gift mix of many pastors.
The Attractional Model
This model sought to balance the internal focus of the pastoral model with greater emphasis on being externally focused.
The Influential Model
The Influential Model sought to have a positive impact on the church’s community.
The Life-on-Life Model
This model incorporates the best elements of the others and ensures that the church stays relevant as it expresses the dramatic nature of the gospel.
You spend a chapter describing the difference between success and impact. Would you explain the difference? And would you talk about the correlation between discipleship and impact?
Some may challenge me on my answer to this question, but I believe that I stand on reasonably solid ground. I believe that many pastors, their leaders, and peers measure how effective they are in their ministry by “success metrics.” We know the drill: How large is our staff, how many members do we have, what is our budget, and how much property do we have? It is a very common thing to boil our success down to these metrics. It is easy for our leaders and members to have a sense of our success and to feel good about their church when they look at these measures. But I have a sense that this may actually miss the point. As Paul Harvey used to say, “and now for the rest of the story.” Somewhere along the way we lost sight of the fact that the church is on mission, which means that it is about impact — impact in the lives of people and impact in our communities. When we shift our focus to impact, we shift the focus back to our people. Are they being developed in such a way that they can be sent out in kingdom work where they live, work, and play? We know that God uses His Word and His people to effectively impact the world. Discipleship allows us to deploy mature and equipped followers whose lives have the potential for impact where they live, work, and play.
You describe life-on-life discipleship as a healthy virus waiting for the right conditions to cause a pandemic. Tell us what you mean by that.
Well, let me quickly say, generally speaking, I do not advocate spreading viruses that become something that the Centers for Disease Control might place on their watch list. What I mean by “healthy virus” is that if we study the method that Jesus employed, it really is quite elegant in its simplicity. He chose 12 men. They, in turn, turned the then-known world upside down with the gospel, and 2,000 years later here we are still discussing these ideas. This happened because the gospel multiplied across ethnicities, geographies, political systems, and ultimately around the world. It has been pandemic in its characteristics. It is my dream, my vision, that the church would once again be on the leading edge of seeing the gospel extend to every country, to every continent, and that God’s kingdom, in our lifetime, would expand beyond our dreams/vision. I think the greatest opportunity for this to happen is the life-on-life model of God’s people becoming mature and equipped followers of Christ, investing their lives in the lives of others, and all living as ambassadors for the kingdom, taking the good news of the gospel to a lost world.
Randy Pope is the founding and current pastor of Perimeter Church in Atlanta, Ga. Recently, Pope has established Life-on-Life Ministries, an organization committed to establishing life-on-life missional discipleship in churches worldwide. He is also the author of four books.