The Great Commission in the Old Mainline

This past Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost aka “Trinity Sunday,” we at Old South focused on the lectionary passage from Matthew—The Great Commission, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” and “I’ll be with you until the end of the age,” etc.

In my prep work for Sunday, I stumbled across a Day 1 sermon, in which the preacher offered the following observation regarding the making of disciples and the decline of the Mainline: “As the church has turned inward over the last 30 or 40 years, it has lost sight of its mission to make disciples. This is one of the reasons why the mainline church is struggling to grow. The stats don’t look good. The mainline church overall is not replenishing itself with a new generation of disciples.”

It is certainly true that many Mainline churches, like Old South, have experienced a serious decline in the last decades, with members leaving or dying and not much in the way of newer members coming in. This trend, though, is complicated.

There was something about the observation at the beginning of that preacher’s sermon that stuck in my head, and stayed there for a while. I couldn’t, initially, figure out why. I wondered about it for days.

Finally, some clarity formed and the threads that I knew were there, separate and distinct, came together into a (mostly) coherent series of questions: what does it mean to “make disciples”? Were all, or even most, of those people who swarmed into the Mainline back in the fifties and sixties “disciples”? Is there a difference between “disciple” and “church-goer”?

Over the years, I’ve talked to a lot of people about their church experiences, most of those people still part of the church, but quite a few who are not part of any church any longer. When I look back and consider those conversations, especially as people have reflected on their experiences half a century ago, I am often left with the impression that a lot of church involvement of the mid-20th century might not have been what Christ was getting at when he offered his “great commission.” Church attendance in the Mainline during those middle century years sounds similar to other civic involvement, as the mid-20th century cultural ethos, forged in response to two world wars, encouraged a lot of participation in community. And, church was one of those places. Sure, the church provided good values and even a spiritual dimension to human life, but the Mainline was not especially good at doing more than “making church-goers” who, dare I suggest, were not necessarily “disciples.”

The more I think about it, the more I feel that there is a difference between the two, that there were, and still are, some “church-goers” who aren’t quite “disciples,” nor do they wish to be. Church going is, relatively anyway, easy. It’s a nice routine and habit; it lends itself to something different in the average week—a place to be in community, to sing or just to listen, to feel a sense of purpose, and to reconnect with something beyond oneself. Church-going is not really a hard thing.

Discipleship is different. It is harder road, a more demanding one. Discipleship asks tough questions about who one is, one’s relationship with God, and one’s connection to the world. Discipleship offers an invitation to the “narrow way,” while at the same time, expecting an openness to love, grace, hope and blessing that stretches the outer limits of our own neat sense of order.

When I hear those words, to “make disciples,” I think of my small community of Old South, where we challenge ourselves and encourage each other to be disciples, and to share the love of God with others. It may be that we will get smaller in number, but at the same time, we have the opportunity to grow in Spirit, to learn and accept that our faithfulness to the Gospel is not measured by how many butts sit in the pews of the sanctuary, but in our willingness to follow, even into unfamiliar territory of love, hope and peace—and to do so over and over again.

The wording of the Great Commission, in the original Greek, suggests that “making disciples” is really “teaching disciples.” We serve and plant seeds, and trust that they will take root and grow, perhaps not exactly where we would like, but in accordance with the presence of Christ. Our life in the church, as followers of Christ, ought to be more about quality than quantity.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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