There are an abundance of discipleship systems that are entirely separate from participation in a local church. My own spiritual history, while a bit extreme, can serve as an example. I grew up in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and was well grounded in systematic theology by two years of confirmation classes; after that, I drifted and was not very active in church.
In 1972, while a high school junior, the Jesus People swept through town and I had a powerful religious experience on Tuesday, February 29, 1972, in the YMCA on the campus of the University of Illinois. The following day I stood up in each of my classes at high school and gave my testimony, shocking some of my teachers and (I think) secretly pleasing a few others. Ten days later, after baptizing me in the Howard Johnson=s swimming pool, they left town. My Lutheran church suddenly was not exciting enough for my new spirituality and I began to work on my discipleship elsewhere. I attended one church on Sunday morning and a different one on Sunday evening. I often walked seven miles to worship Sunday evening, hoping to catch a ride home after the service; I did not join either of these churches or become involved other than attending.
I had a different small group to attend every night of the week except Saturday. On Mondays, it was a youth gathering at the Sunday morning church that drew people from a 30 miles radius. On Tuesdays, it was the Catholic Charismatic Prayer Group at the Newman Center at the University of Illinois; one of the leaders there was Lenny Bartlotti, who wrote the song ATell the People I Love Them,@ later spent 13 years as a missionary to Pakistan and is now a college professor at Biola University. On Friday night, the meeting was a Joe=s, a classmate, and led by his father. I don=t= remember the other places. I took my bible with me to school and soon was involved in many a discussion with others. In the summer, a group would gather every morning in a pavilion in a city park where we would occasionally be rousted by juvenile delinquents; when they left, like birds we would return to roost and continue reading the bible and praying. In college I participated in a dozen different small groups for college students, including Intervarsity, Campus Crusade, Navigators and various denominationally sponsored campus ministries. I played guitar in all sorts of Christian settings. The words AJesus Christ Is Lord@ in 11 inch high letters decorated my dorm room window. When I went to seminary I had virtually no experience in a traditional church as an adult, and the seminary rightly viewed my application with suspicion.
I had extensive experience in
spiritual communities that formed and dissolved rapidly. I had intense, vital
dramatic spiritual experiences where God acted, often miraculously intervening
in the lives of people that a year later disappeared from my life forever. I
learned a great deal, but in a constantly shifting spiritual context with
little long term continuity. Discipleship systems are powerful but they are
ephemeral. Without restrictions, they can move into bizarre and aberrant
behavior and be susceptible to one spiritual fad after another. They do not
endure the test of time; they are fruitful, but the fruit remains within the
people whose lives they touch. I have had no contact for decades with people
who were once my most intimate companions on a spiritual journey. That=s the weakness of a discipleship system
without the structure of an institutional church to sustain it. As people come
and go, the spiritual network continuously reinvents and reforms itself.
Nothing stays the same.
NOTE (my response)
The quote is from Major League Disciple Making: An Overview of the Best Research on the Cell Church, an online course developed for the Institute for Discipleship at www.BeADisciple.com in 2009. Course materials, including these lectures, can be downloaded here: http://www.disciplewalk.com/IFD_MLD_Class_Links.html
All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.