Whole-Life Discipling: What Is It?
Last month I spent a week in Manila taking part in the Lausanne Global Workplace Forum. As mentioned in the previous blog, we heard from a variety of speakers and—around tables of six—discussed what they had said. One of the presenters, Mark Greene, unable to join us in person, addressed us in a video. Greene serves as Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity established by John Stott.
As he spoke, Greene called for churches that are “gripped by the whole-life vision of the missio Dei [mission of God].” Again and again, he spoke of our need to “make whole-life disciples.” What did he mean by those words, “whole life”?
Visualize Your Church as If in a Video
What did you just see in your imagined video? A building with crosses? A group of people sitting in chairs or pews looking toward an elevated stage where a band performs and a pastor speaks?
If you saw the first, you weren’t looking at the church at all. If you saw the second, you were seeing the church in its gathered form. Let’s say the meeting in your mental video went on for an hour and a quarter. For each one in the gathering, that represents how big a slice of his or her week? I’ll spare you the math. Those 75 minutes make up less than one percent of the 10,080 minutes in a week. Picture it like this:
So if your mental video showed you God’s people in gathered mode, you were seeing only a tiny fraction of the church’s life. Goid’s people spend far more time scattered. Members of the body of Christ allocate that dispersed time in various ways. But the percentages may typically look like this:
Whole Life Leaves Nothing Out
“Whole life,” then, includes everything people do in the 168 hours of their week. “Making whole-life disciples” means helping prepare them for all they engage in during those scattered-church hours—working, playing, resting, parenting, neighboring, and so on. Here comes the hard question: On what do churches typically focus most equipping efforts? On getting believers ready to serve Christ and his Kingdom in their scattered-church roles—with families, co-workers, neighbors and others? Or on training them to carry out gathered-church duties—serving in or leading programs, ushering, maintaining the building and grounds, pledging, running the sound system, decorating, practicing for praise bands, and other in-house chores?
Work—paid and unpaid—is one of main things Christians do in the scattered church. Many will devote 36 percent or more of their waking hours to their work (red blocks). You might think we would spend a significant portion of our gathered-church time gearing them up to serve Jesus in that world into which he has sent them. But how often does the work we do on weekdays come up in the gathered church on Sundays?
The Church’s Silence on Work
Greene quoted Dorothy Sayers, a British Christian writing in the mid-20th century. In her essay, “Why Work?” she said: “In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious or at least uninterested in religion…. But is it astonishing? How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of their life?”
Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf open Chapter One in Every Good Endeavor by saying, “The Bible begins talking about work as soon as it begins talking about anything—that’s how important and basic it is.” The Bible does more than just begin that way. The word “work” appears hundreds of times. And Scripture shows us all kinds of working believers who lived out their faith in the whole-life context. Here are some samples:
Whole Life in Shared Church
A shared-church meeting offers those from the scattered church opportunities to encourage the gathered church with whole-life reports on what God is doing out there. Does a shared-church meeting include hearing from those gifted and qualified to teach? Absolutely. The gathered church needs to hear from shepherds and teachers who can correctly explain what the Bible is saying.
But most pastors spend little if any time “out there” in the world’s workplaces. As one speaker in Manila put it, pastors literally “have no business there.” Their “business” mainly involves working with the gathered church.
So pastors need to make room in congregational meetings for those whose business is in the work world to tell what God is doing in and through them there. If such contemporary stories are not heard, it may appear that God has little if any concern for everyday work. The responsibility for making whole-life disciples, then, belongs not only to pastors but also to the entire church body. “The whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).
Think of the typical Sunday-morning agenda of your church. Then ask:
Would a Daniel have any opportunity to tell what his toxic coworkers did and how God rescued him from their scheme?
Would a Joseph be able to share how God was at work for good, even through the sexual harassment he suffered in his first job in Egypt?
Would an Esther find an opening to encourage fellow believers by describing how God protected her and her people?