Simplify & Refocus
by Kenton Beshore
After years of capital building campaigns and exponential growth, I stopped, looked around, and wasn’t sure I liked what I saw. Is this all we were? A church with amazing buildings and a long list of ministries? Where was the evidence of life change I was so passionate about?
While our campus and menu of ministries was impressive to some, it all seemed out of step with the transformative and revolutionary gospel of Jesus. As senior pastor, I wanted Mariners Church to be salt and light in our community. While thousands of people in our church were meeting the needs of the poor and marginalized locally and globally through our Outreach Ministries, we hadn’t quite figured out how this heart of service could infiltrate every aspect of who we were becoming as a church. I believe the church is the hope of the world. I realized our church campus had become so attractive that many people were confused about the meaning and purpose of church. Worse yet, they might never fully understand what it means to follow Jesus.
Developing community and fostering true spiritual growth can be especially challenging in a large church. As a result, over time our discipleship strategy became menu-driven. We promised places for people to grow in their walk with God while also being known, loved and cared for. Ultimately. though, people participated in what was interesting and comfortable for them and our menu grew in an attempt to capture their attention and, hopefully, their hearts.
I began to notice another problem: small groups often became comfortable, feel-good cul-de-sacs for our people. What they were learning didn’t always translate into becoming true Christ followers with a mission and a calling. Like-minded people joining together once a week isn’t bad or wrong, but paled in comparison to the fullness of the gospel on display. We couldn’t figure out how to help them step into the greater story God was writing and to care passionately about their community and the world as a natural outcome of their identities as Christ followers. At the end of the day, I was not okay with where we were as a church and the impact we were having in our people’s lives and community. Outreach Ministries couldn’t be an equal option on a long list of ways to engage. True transformation wasn’t going to happen in the lives of our people if we stayed huddled together. We needed to get out and be the love of Jesus to everyone around us. To see the world changed, we needed to be changed first.
And so we began the humbling journey of simplifying and refocusing our mission. We put aside the “how” so we could create space again for the “why.” We stripped away most every program and began rethinking everything we were doing. The changes we were making were excruciating at times, especially the slap we were about to get from our friends across the globe.
In 2008, a group of Mariners pastors traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to meet pastors Oscar Muriu of Nairobi Chapel and Muriithi Wanjau of Mavuno Church. While sitting together at breakfast one morning, we had a conversation that completely changed the way we viewed Mariner’s role in God’s mission for the global church. Little did I know at the time, the conversation was also the beginning of a journey that would lead us to become the church I envisioned.
Pastors Oscar and Muriithi challenged our outreach approach. They pointed out our American fix-it tendencies—strategies that tend to hurt more often than they help. Too often we look for the quick solution, answers to problems we didn’t fully understand; and this technique was hardly viable in the long term and certainly wasn’t relational. Also, just because we had the resources to share our solutions didn’t mean they were the best of what God was doing. During this conversation we realized we had a dangerous blind spot as Americans. We began to see we were getting many things wrong and could benefit from the rest of the world.
It was through our global relationships that we were brought back to true discipleship and Jesus’ call to join God’s work of restoration in the world. God really had a global party going on, and our choice to get involved has drastically changed the way we disciple our people and love our neighbors, both next door and across the globe. This has always been the heart behind our mission, but we didn’t realize how ineffective we had become. These lessons had a drastic impact on our discipleship strategy, changed our organizational structure and integrated outreach ministries into the DNA of our church.
While visiting Mavuno Church in Nairobi, the leadership shared an experience their church was working through. Developed by Pastor Muriithi Mizizi (Swahili for “roots”), it wasn’t a Bible study or class or program in the traditional sense and wasn’t “taught” as is common in the West. It was a 10-week journey of reading Scripture and discovering God’s purpose as a church family and for the world. Mizizi’s impact was staggering. Thousands of people experienced God’s personal love through prayer, serving and giving together.
There was a tangible difference in their lives after ten weeks, and even more, coworkers and friends noticed and wanted to know why God was doing something amazing at Mavuno, and we began to wonder what He could do through Mizizi in Orange County.
Working with Pastor Muriithi, we retained the experiential values of Mizizi, but adapted it to our church culture. We were not sure the commitment required would work in our notorious “crazy busy” OC culture (10 weeks of daily homework, weekly group meetings and three multi-hour experiences) but, with lots of prayer and expectancy, we launched Rooted at Mariners in 2010. God totally blew us away!
Groups comprised of people from all walks of life bonded like we had never seen. It was a safe place for them to ask tough questions, wrestle with their faith (or lack thereof), foster relationships on a deeper level, learn to hear God’s voice, and practice the call of Jesus to love and serve.
This kind of transformational discipleship resulted in vulnerability and life change that left me amazed at what God does when in community we leave room for messiness and doubt and invite Him into every aspect of our lives. I’ve been a part of many small groups in my years of ministry, but never have I seen people experience God’s Spirit at work like this. Rather than learning from a leader or lecture each week, Rooted is based on experiential learning. We learned that life transformation comes through experiences more than through knowledge.
Teaching alone usually goes in one ear and out the other, with very little that actually sticks. But if you can share an experience together and actually do something, it changes people. Isaiah 58 speaks of loosening the chains of injustice, setting the oppressed free, sharing food with the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless—all of which you can’t do from a group discussion around teaching notes. Rooted pushed our church not just to learn about serving, but to actually do it. They go out into their communities together and build relationships with people very different from them.
Similarly, they don’t just read about prayer. They have a three-hour prayer experience where they come back amazed at hearing God’s voice, a first-time experience for many. And they practice confession and accountability together as they confess strongholds in their lives and pray over each individual for those strongholds to be broken. After such a powerful journey together, most people continue as Life Groups living on mission and doing life together.
None of this would have happened if we weren’t willing to admit we had a problem we couldn’t solve on our own. Global pastors willing to speak the truth and a posture of learning has made all the difference in our church. The path of transformational discipleship is one of humility, patience and an open heart to the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.
I am reminded of all the years we spent focusing on more ministries and programs instead of His still small voice and what we would have missed if we hadn’t humbled ourselves to listen to God’s direction for our church. While it is still a struggle, I have found it far better to remain completely dependent on Him than to try to pave the way ourselves. After 30 years as a senior pastor, I have seen so much – the good, the bad, and the even worse. And each day I am grateful God is faithful and constant in all seasons, even when I am not. Especially when I am not.
[Kenton Beshore is Senior Pastor of Mariners Church, a multi-site, non-denominational church in Irvine, CA, where he has served since 1984. Mariners has grown from 200 to over 13,000 people who courageously follow Jesus, serve the community and change culture.. His education includes a MA from Talbot Seminary and the Institute of London, where he studied with Dr. John Stott.]