In my work as a local pastor and translocal network leader, I’ve had a front-row seat to observe the happenings of many churches across the board. When the pandemic hit and the world seemed to unravel, we were only in the first two years of our communal life. What made the difference for our budding church?

In a church landscape where discipleship is at best at the periphery, my local church in Hawaii centered discipleship from the beginning. We started, on purpose, with a small number of people (fifteen) called a “discipleship core” and met together twice a month to be purposefully equipped in the ways of Jesus. We defined discipleship as intentionally equipping people to imitate Jesus in his identity and praxis, and we kept this at the center of our church.

In a year’s time, we journeyed together through five discipleship core essentials.

We utilized a discipleship pathway, a framework for centering discipleship. At the same time we led a missional community, an identified space of mission in our neighborhood, where we could also practice living into the ways of Jesus. We hosted Open Spaces, a weekly community dinner where we “shared a meal and shared a story” regularly with thirty to fifty of our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members. Our aim for those community dinners was that 50 percent of the room would always be non-Jesus-followers. We also regularly became guests in the neighborhood by partnering with local organizations, businesses, and events on a monthly basis where we could share a practical experience to know and love the community we lived in.

For the first year, I never preached a sermon and my church never hosted a worship service.

And although community and mission were happening, I did not lead the Open Spaces dinners nor the practical experiences. As the lead pastor of my church, I spent 90 percent of my time, effort, leadership, and resources on discipling those fifteen people. Ninety percent of my pastoral role was to develop a discipleship pathway and disciple my church through it. Ninety percent of my time was spent equipping disciples in order to multiply disciplemakers. The metric for leadership was not skill-based (teaching, preaching) or influence-based (ability to draw and command a crowd); the metric for leadership was in discipleship and disciple making.

Centering discipleship for my church produced something I was not prepared for. It generated maturity and multiplication.

The following year, after we finished our discipleship pathway together, we multiplied into three different missional communities.

We went from one discipleship core leading one missional community into three discipleship cores each leading their own missional communities. We anticipate multiplying into nine different missional communities, serving over a thousand people, and discipling nearly a hundred imitators of Jesus.

In March of 2020, when the world was faced with a pandemic that shut it down, the disciples in my church were more open and available to imitate Jesus.

They had practiced living into this imitation for over a year now. They imitated him in their personal lives and imitated him in their communal lives. As imitators of Jesus, they were hopeful in the midst of discouragement and despair, actively pursued others, extended the sense of “family” in contrast to the world telling them to “protect their own,” and showed self-giving love over selfishness more than anyone else in our culture and community. These disciples are now at the forefront, with other churches and organizations reaching out to them for expertise in how to meet community needs in Hawaii. They are seen as a pinnacle for how Christian community ought to be in our time.

centering discipleship

authorE. K. Strawser (DO, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine) is the co-vocational lead pastor of Ma Ke Alo o (which means “presence” in Hawaiian), non-denominational missional communities multiplying in Honolulu, Hawaii; a community physician at Ke Ola Pono; and an executive leader at the V3 Movement, the church planting arm of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. Prior to transitioning to Hawaii, she served as adjunct professor of medicine at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and of African Studies at her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania (where she and her husband served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship), after finishing her Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Dar es Salaam. She is the author of Centering Discipleship.

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