Creating Conversation: Discipleship and asking the better question(s)

Vancouver, from downtown.

Creating Conversation is a weekly editorial, curated by the Centre for Missional Leadership (CML), which gives opportunity for people to speak about issues they believe are vital for the church in Vancouver.

One of the goals of this weekly article is to spark dialogue – and action. We invite you to join the dialogue here on the Church for Vancouver website.

We also invite you to use the article as a discussion starter with your small group, church staff, friends and your neighbours. Thanks for participating in the conversation!

The church engaging community in the context of a post-lockdown world

Having spent a good part of my life as a guest in Global South countries, I’ve learned that understanding context and cultural norms are foundational towards building authentic relationships.

It’s no different here at home. In fact, it’s often more challenging. The Great Commission (Matthew 28.16-20) is no easy call. Contextual understanding reveals the line of demarcation between good and poor stewardship. Context not only informs mission, it speaks into our own biases.

Covid has unveiled an emerging context for the Western church that’s been lurking under the waters of complacency and irrelevance for some time now.

Years ago, a friend of mine made the front-page news as he was paddling in the still waters of Sooke harbour when a large pod of Orcas invaded his tranquil time. Frightening, but a breathtaking opportunity to be embraced.

This is a disturbance akin to that – except these ripples are now part of our everyday life. So much has changed. The church has a choice to either respond or react to our new post-Covid realities.

Congregations have adapted (to a degree) through technology. The very technology that helped us run the race during lockdown has now become the Achilles heel of congregational attendance. Attendance. This very word has become normative to our paralyzed paradigm. Participation may be more faithful terminology. Words signify meaning. Subtle word changes can make (or quell) great ripples as well.

Attendance vs participation. Much of what was once taken at face value is now scrutinized – and rightfully so.


Joy and perseverance are the undercurrents of stability in the saying, “With every crisis come opportunity.” Covid has done just that . . . wielding the double-edged sword of crisis and opportunity.

For effective community engagement, we are first called to make disciples. The etymology of the word ‘disciple’ denotes apprentice / pupil. Discipline (penitential, to correct or chastise) finds its roots in disciple. Again, words have meaning. Discipline for the most part, is not looked on favourably in Western culture.

I tore the meniscus in my knee just over four months ago. The healing process can take up to six months for a full recovery. It takes an incredible amount of discipline (physiotherapy, impulse therapy, acupuncture, learning correct exercises that won’t exacerbate the injury, etc). It’s a ton of work that’s rooted in discipline . . . and it’s already paying off exponential dividends.

Discipline is the taskmaster that clears the path to greater ways of being. Harry Emerson Fosdick said it well:

No horse gets anywhere until he is harnessed. No stream or gas drives anything until it is confined. No Niagara is ever turned into light and power until it is tunneled. No life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated, disciplined.

Fresh opportunities

The narrow path poses sacrificial challenges in faithfully responding to the Great Commission. Yet as the Church, we have fresh opportunities to engage both congregants and communities.

An open receptivity is awaiting if an understandable language is spoken. The world is in a state of great hurt. People are asking very deep questions of meaning and purpose. Is the Christian church prepared to meet them? The people that is. The fields are ripe.

Mental assent and theological refutations aren’t providing sufficient answers to the maladies and questions of our culture. Or to put it another way, culture is tuning out the ‘answers.’

Perhaps we need more questions. A better question may be: Are we ready? Our present cultural litmus test favours orthopraxy over orthodoxy. Show me how much you care before showing me how much you know. Whether or not we agree with that is largely irrelevant. This is our Western reality, Daniel’s Babylon . . . and discipleship is the great equipper, the vehicle in reaching our hurting communities with the redemptive love and praxis of Jesus Christ.

The book of Ecclesiastes has long intrigued me. In fact, it was catalytic for me in coming to faith. It permeates with the deeper questions of purpose. Chapter 3 begins with, There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”

We are in a season of abundant opportunity. Here are six opportunities or times you may be called towards:

  1. A time to re-engage our communities with the Gospel in culturally relevant ways

Cultural opinions about the church are never in short supply (either positive, negative or non-existent). Justifiably, many perceptions have relegated the church to three categories:

    • a rules-based club known for what it is against
    • a social do-gooder club similar to other secular social justice-oriented organizations
    • an irrelevant entity, self-obfuscated beyond cultural relevance

The truth is, Christ followers are none of these things at our core and for the most part, we’ve done a terrible job in dispelling these perceptions.

Many churches have done incredible work in their communities. And yet, the preceding perceptions continue to remain at the forefront. We have tremendous opportunity to share a better story. The spiritual questions being asked in our culture, seek formation before information. Yet, theology and doctrine are foundational to formation and cannot be pushed aside. Read on.

  1. A time to repent from creating idols (knowingly or unknowingly)

Are we building the church with people – or, investing in people? The two are vastly different. Isaiah 30.15 speaks of repentance, salvation, strength . . . coupled with a warning at the end:

15 This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:

In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it.

  1. A time to reevaluate and reform

When I first came to faith, the teaching pastor repeatedly challenged congregants with this, “What’s the better question?” It’s one thing to assess where we are in this current epoch of time but are we asking the right questions? Questions on discipling, depth and transformed lives all fall into the category of the better question.

  1. A time to release burdens we were never meant to carry

As humans we find ways to take on burdens we were never meant to carry. We conflate our drive and efforts as ‘ministry,’ then work towards an eventual rest – rather than working from a place of rest led by the Lord. A saviour mentality can be justified on so many levels . . . but it never is. There is only one Saviour.

  1. A time for listening and humble posture

Most generations below Gen X (Geriatric Millennials, Garden-Variety Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha) generally prefer the language of experience – orthopraxy eclipsing orthodoxy as the marker of authority. It’s now the predominant language of Western culture. How is the church engaging missionally, speaking the language of the culture?

In Acts 17, Paul approached the Athenians with respectful listening and a humble posture, engaging in their philosophically saturated vernacular. Philippians 2:5 reads, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

Not political party, ideology, fellow ministry leader, etc – just Jesus. Covid has primed us for a posture of listening and humility.

  1. A time for faithful discipleship. 

This is the greatest opportunity of the six (with the other five playing parts towards this). Jeremiah 18.6 reads, “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”

This is a time for malleability (malleable being different from adaptable). Adaptability has a connotation of resistance and acquiescence. Being malleable embraces a willingness for change and transformation.

The reality?

  • Numbers on Sunday mornings are generally down.
  • Technology has opened the pathways of least resistance to a consumeristic Christianity
  • Operating costs are higher than ever.
  • Inclusivity / exclusivity / blurred lines / redefined meanings.
  • Some churches have placed tradition before discipleship, power before humility and institution before mission.

Incredible opportunity! A pruning is taking place. The law of nature dictates that abundant harvest follows intense pruning and that fruit comes as the result of discipleship (John 15:8). Fruit is the result of discipleship.

Better question

In closing, in 2014 I spent some time in the favelas of Fortaleza, Brazil. It was there I met a man named Pastor Manuel. He was very small in stature (as tradition holds the apostle Paul to be) and pastored a smallish congregation of about 60 people. As we spoke through an interpreter, I felt warmth, humility and wisdom permeating from his words.

In this region of Fortaleza, there were 6,000 children born without documentation (no birth certificates or evidence of their citizenship). This area is also highly susceptible to predators, recruiting early adolescent boys into gang life and early adolescent girls into prostitution. Because of the lack of documentation, there is no accountability for them to be in schools or find their rightful places in society.

This is where Pastor Manuel stepped in. He lobbied some sister churches to make changes in advocating for these kids. A valiant attempt but little traction was made. He then approached a Christian NGO that had made some inroads with the government. It was here he found the traction needed to affect systemic change. With tears in his eyes, he described how children were now finding new life and hope through programs, education and holistic advocacy.

As we were both now sharing tears of joy, I asked him why he didn’t give up and what drove him to take on this enormous challenge. He proceeded to tell me that when he first started his journey in pastoral ministry, he asked God for wisdom to be a faithful pastor. He looked at me and said that God clearly directed him to take care of the deep and God would take care of the wide.

His church remained around 60 congregants, but the breadth of their reach was far beyond what he could ever have imagined. Manuel’s better question was one of faithfulness, leading to a focus on discipleship – which in turn, led to many lives being radically transformed.

UGM supports

At UGM we are ardent supporters of the local church! We come alongside churches to leverage and support congregations in their efforts of walking alongside those experiencing marginalization in the areas of poverty, homelessness, and addiction. This helps free up pastors and leaders to focus on the call of discipleship.

We seek to support, equip, and empower volunteers in their community efforts; providing resources, educational tools, and even financial support.

We offer:

  • an annual grant program to local churches (TCG);
  • numerous online workshops (such as Poverty & Community Development, Radical Hospitality & Compassionate Pastoral Care, Mental Health Awareness & Trauma Informed Care, Boundaries & De-Escalating Hostility and many more);
  • resources such as devotionals, as well as food security and housing reports.

Rob McKinley

For more information on the ways we partner with churches, please visit the UGM Church Relations website or reach out to us at [email protected].

Rob McKinley is Manager of Church Relations at UGM. Prior to UGM, he spent many years working for an international NGO advocating for people facing marginalization in some of the world’s most impoverished Global South countries.

He holds a Masters of Pastoral Ministry from Carey Theological College and is founder and host of The 68 Culture Podcast.

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