The embers of Lake Osborne Presbyterian Church (LOPC) were just beginning to spark again when Omar Ortiz became the pastor. A 55-year-old church with an average member age of 60, LOPC needed a rebirth and Ortiz — who was half the age of most of his congregants — felt like he was up to the challenge.
“In order for revitalization to happen, the church needed to become more missional,” Ortiz told himself. “Preaching was important, but that wasn’t gonna cut it.” At least it wasn’t going to cut it alone.
Not long after taking his post at LOPC, Ortiz attended a conference where he heard about something called “Life on Life Missional Discipleship.” Instantly, he knew it was what he’d been looking for.
Reviving a 2,000-Year-Old Strategy
When Randy Pope began Perimeter Church (Johns Creek, Ga.) in 1977, he came with one goal in mind: making and training mature and equipped followers of Christ. Over the past 34 years, the church has grown to almost 5,000 members, but its commitment to build seasoned believers hasn’t been watered down by its size. In order to “do” discipleship, Perimeter has developed “The Journey,” a curriculum to help not only its congregation, but others across the country, in churches that long to grow their members into mature followers of Christ.
“There are a lot of programs the church does that don’t help people to become mature and equipped,” explains Charles Hooper Jr., director of Church Resourcing at Perimeter. “A lot of money is spent in the church that isn’t producing these kind of people. The farther we get away from what Christ did, the weaker the church becomes.”
Over the past 40 years, Hooper points out, many churches in America have focused on small-group ministry and other teaching programs; they scratch their heads when they don’t see their members growing into leaders. Hooper says he talked to at least 250 pastors in the last year who have told him the same thing: they know they need to make more mature followers of Christ, but they don’t know how.
Hooper answers simply: Do what Jesus did. “We love the message of Jesus, but we also must love and follow His method of ministry. We see that Christ made disciples. He commanded us as the church to make disciples, and He had no Plan B to carry out the mission,” Hooper said.
So Perimeter’s strategy has been just that: applying Jesus’ approach to a 21st century context, in this case through a philosophy of ministry that tries hard not to be a program, but rather to facilitate discipleship between older and younger Christians over an intentional three-year journey.
Journey Groups are same-gender groups of between four to six adults of all ages who commit to meet together for at least a year — potentially three years — to encourage and challenge each other, and to press harder into a life after Christ’s footsteps. In the same way that Jesus spent a year with His followers before He challenged a few men, Journey Group leaders will spend several weeks or months praying about who they should invite into their group, after which time a leader will initiate several individual meetings to discern if someone would be a good fit for the group. After the groups are formed, members meet weekly to explore key areas of Christian doctrine and living through five key areas: teaching in biblical truth, equipping, accountability, mission, and supplication.
When Fewer is Greater
After learning about The Journey, Ortiz purchased a copy of the curriculum. As a trial run he asked a woman in the church to disciple another woman who had recently become a Christian. Over the next months, Ortiz watched as the new believer seemed to exude a new joy and hunger for the Word of God. Meanwhile, Ortiz started a group with a few men, both old and young believers. He was equally encouraged by the growth he witnessed there and decided to start several more groups.
Since starting The Journey at LOPC, 22 people have participated. “It’s really grabbing hold,” Ortiz said. “In five years, we’re going to have a good chunk of our congregation who are really thinking through what it means to be missional.”
Perhaps part of its success lies in the delicate treatment of accountability. Group members are called to transparency and vulnerability with each other, through weekly questions such as, Have you been involved in any activity or relationship that could be morally compromising? or How has your personal worship been? At the same time, leaders are encouraged to stress that discipleship is not about behavior modification or legalism, but about gospel transformation. For instance, an accountability question might be, Are you being tempted toward performance instead of grace?
“Ortiz watched as the new believer exuded a new joy and hunger for the Word of God.”
“It’s easy to fall into a performance trap,” Hooper explained. “We’re saved by grace. We’re sanctified by grace. Accountability is an encouragement to run to Christ.”
Hooper has found that most churches struggle to implement the missional aspect of discipleship, not because it’s complicated, but because it’s hard. But by de-emphasizing mission as “event serving” (volunteering once in a while at a soup kitchen) and emphasizing it as “lifestyle serving,” The Journey challenges people to “be on mission where they live, work, and play.”
Ortiz has watched his own faith grow as he’s led and participated in his group. “The number of times I’ve shared the gospel with people has grown exponentially since I started The Journey,” Ortiz admitted. In fact, one man he was praying for is now a believer and a member of his group.
Over the past two years, Perimeter has shared its philosophy with so many churches — both in and outside the PCA — that they’ve lost count. In fact, when they do look at the numbers, they focus on the small ones.
“Jesus loved the world. He helped many, and He discipled a few,” Hooper concluded. “The church is going to reach more people by focusing on a few.”
To learn more about Life on Life Missional Discipleship and The Journey, visit perimeter.org/lifeonlife.
Zoe S. Erler is a freelance writer and editor based out of Indianapolis, Ind. Zoe has written for Prison Fellowship Ministries, BreakPoint Radio, The Indianapolis Star, The Washington Times, and World Magazine. Zoe and her husband Michael are involved in New City Church and Outreach, Inc., a ministry to homeless teens in Indianapolis.