We’ve Confused Leadership with Discipleship

Five years into North Coast Church, Founding and Senior Pastor Larry Osborne realized the programmed discipleship classes his Vista, Calif., church was teaching weren’t making disciples. In 1985, he implemented the church’s small group system, now one of the largest small group ministries in the nation, with 91 percent of the 8,000-plus attendees involved in a weekly Growth Group. In this Q&A, Osborne shares about the church’s shift from information to relationships and the “bur in his saddle” these days.

Last year you tweeted: “Discipleship is a rather simple concept: Obedience. Why do we make it so esoteric and complex?” How have we made discipleship complex?

The Greek word for disciple, mathetes, simply means follower. That includes people at the front of the line, in the middle, and at the back of the line. And there are good followers and not so good followers. But we have tended to confuse leadership with discipleship. I hear people over and over say, “Well, I define a disciple as … ,” and I have this sense that we probably ought to let Jesus define a disciple. He used the word mathetes. And in His definition of a disciple, He included some people who weren’t exactly stellar in all the things we think a disciple should do and be.

Jesus talked about obedience: If you love me, you’ll obey me. John talked about Here’s how to know that you know me—we will obey Him. And obedience isn’t perfection; it’s obeying the light we have. According to Prov. 4:18, the light gets brighter the more we follow the light we have. But we tend to look at maturity. We love the lost, we love the baby Christian and the on-fire, charge-the-hill Christian. But anybody struggling, the smoldering wick or bruised reed, we want to snuff it out or break it off.

So that has been a bur in my saddle as I’m watching the pendulum swing from an easy “believism” to raising the bar and thinning the herd. Essentially, we’re going back to the 1930s and ‘40s when my mom became a Christian. She grew up afraid of full commitment because she was always told, “If you do that, you’ll end up in Africa. The Christians take the hard path.”

What impact does/will this have on church leaders and their people?

It ends up in a lot of gift projection—trying to make people into us instead of what God’s called them to be. It leads to absolute lack of patience and bearing with one another. Basically, we become what I call an accidental Pharisee. That’s pretty much what the Pharisees did—you were either this or you weren’t. It was a very clear black and white line. We tend to take Jesus’ commands to an individual and make them into a command everybody must follow.

North Coast’s mission statement is Making Disciples in a Healthy Environment. How have you simplified this concept?

We’ve always avoided classes and a set of hoops to jump through or even disciplines to practice. For 27 years, we’ve tried to get people into weekly community groups because we believe that all the “one anothers” of Scripture and the things we’re supposed to obey are going to show up in community, whereas in a class all you’re doing is taking notes. There’s not a lab to live it out.

We’ve always had more than 80 percent of attendees involved. I think this year, we’re at 91 percent of weekend attendance. We believe everyone should be in a weekly community gathering of some sort. In our internal meetings, everything is about creating community. We’re very clear on what our core is—worship, teaching, community and mission. Everything else is just an ancillary offering.

Take us back 27 years. What was North Coast doing before small groups?

We did the typical classes. I led these things called Timothy Teams that I walked a bunch of men through, and they had notebooks full of information. But they weren’t necessarily treating their wives and children with any more biblical obedience and godliness. It was that way across the board. I looked around at our people, and they were becoming more rigid and prideful, and they weren’t really becoming more obedient. I just didn’t see a lessening of sin corresponding to an increase in information.

In 1985, I realized that people didn’t need more information and class time; they needed more lab work. The people who had a lot of information weren’t living it out. That’s when we decided to stop the classes and get people into small groups, which we consider the hub of our ministry.

What steps did you take to make the shift from information to relationships and secure buy-in from both church leadership and the congregation?

I got the approval of the elder board and informed the congregation we were going to cancel some of our “come and fill your notebook” classes and that we were going to get into small groups where we could live out our faith and talk about the application of what we heard on the weekend. I said we were no longer going to do classes; we were going to do life.

How did you know if this shift was effective at making disciples?

When the church was small, you could measure effectiveness anecdotally. Now we measure hard numbers. But in the early days, we started watching for community to take place. Were people expecting the organized church to minister to them in a crisis, or was the small group picking up the ball? Were people expecting the church as an organization to do things out in the community? Or were they getting out and serving with each other.

The other thing we tried to measure, again anecdotally, was sin because I can’t measure righteousness. You can fulfill all the spiritual disciplines and be in the middle of an affair. Three of my six mentors were Type a, jump-through-every-discipleship-hoop personalities, and three of them had affairs. That’s when I began to say all this little checklist stuff isn’t creating godly people. So I came to the conclusion that I can’t measure righteousness; I can measure sin. A doctor can’t tell me I’m healthy. He can say there’s no discernible illness. So what I look for is sin. That’s the sign there’s something wrong. But I don’t want artificial measurements of righteousness—did you read your Bible every day, did you talk to a non-Christian about your faith, did you journal, did you go out and do community service? I’ve seen too many people in the middle of abusive relationships, affairs, addicted to porn, etc., that were dong all these things. They were jumping through the hoops. But the Gospel wasn’t taking root.

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Larry Osborne

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What say you? Leave a comment!

Josh — 05/02/17 4:17 am

Always great to learn from the journey of others. Thanks

Renee Haupt — 11/28/12 1:51 pm

Spot on!

Tony — 11/02/12 1:25 pm

I really appreciate this concept of discipleship as an active, obedient living concept, not just a learning/absorbing posture. I would be curious about the specific distinction that you make between a leader and a disciple. Is leader a subset of disciple, as in all leaders are disciples, but not all disciples are leaders? Or simply defining as leader as someone with more motivational, forward movement-oriented gifts? Or is it something completely different?

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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