Entry three of a six-part series
What images or phrases come to mind when you hear this word?
As someone who has been deeply involved in church ministry for over two decades, my understanding of discipleship has gone through several rounds of refinement. (I’m pretty sure there are many rounds of refinement still underway as I continue my journey of following Jesus, but that’s another blog…)
In High School, my youth pastor invited a group of us to meet with him and another leader regularly for a discipleship group. We weren’t sure what that meant, but he was a cool guy and there was probably food involved. A handful of us said, ‘yes’ and we began. There was no massive plan or agenda. I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a program he was following. He simply walked with us while we learned to walk with God. In hindsight, the simplicity was brilliant.
Over the years I’ve given a lot of time and study to learning effective ways to help people become followers of Jesus. Along the way I’ve learned a few things that have been helpful, and a massive amount of things that have not been helpful. Since this is a blog and not a book, just a few examples follow:
1) Classes and programs are not enough when it comes to ‘making disciples’
At one church where I served on the pastoral staff, a number of people would come to Christ every weekend. Wanting to give these new believers a pathway to follow, our discipleship model primarily consisted of offering a series of classes to introduce people to the church. Once this series of four classes was complete, multiple classes were offered on various theological topics in a seminary-like format. This appealed to a segment of our congregation, as did the various small groups that existed. However, the church leadership recognized that knowledge alone was not enough to truly disciple people.
Thankfully an excellent leader emerged to help skillfully engage the church in serving our local and global community. A whole new group of people became energized as opportunities to love and serve helped bring to life the teachings of Jesus in practical ways.
Opportunities to serve our lower-income neighbors, who were literally right over the church property fences, became a priority.
In fact, newcomers to our church who oftentimes had not yet made a commitment to Christ would join us in serving locally. Not content to sit as an anonymous person in the crowd at our worship services, they wanted to get involved even before coming to faith. (More on that in the next blog.)
While classes and programs are valuable, they are not sufficient. People learn by doing – by taking action. We need both. Discipleship involves being active in loving and serving others, and if we are to put into practice the teachings of Jesus, we will not want to miss out on serving the poor.
2) Preaching is important, but it cannot be seen as the primary mode of making disciples in a congregation.
This one can be difficult to own for those of us who are gifted as teachers, preachers or pastors. When I read about a study done by LifeWay Research where over 50% of pastors said they believed their preaching and teaching was “the most important discipling ministry in the church,” I cringed.
I cringed because it puts a lot of weight on a sermon. I cringed because – no matter how good the communicator – a 20 to 50 minute teaching once a week could rarely produce the level of heart (and behavior) change that could be actual discipleship. I cringed because of the pride and arrogance that can be bred in pastors by believing such lies.
I cringed because, as a pastor, I used to believe this lie myself.
What I believed – and what many of my fellow pastors believe – sounds something like this: “if people will just listen to my sermons, they will experience spiritual growth.”
As important as preaching and teaching the Word of God is, information alone doesn’t result in transformation. The Holy Spirit works in forming and growing the people of God as we put into practice the teachings of Jesus. We disciple others (and we are discipled ourselves) as we get in the trenches and serve the people Jesus served: including (and perhaps especially) the poor, the destitute, the sinful, the lost.
[*Now, if you are not a pastor or a leader, it might be tempting to judge or criticize your pastor or leaders for focusing too much on the Sunday morning experience and not enough on serving the poor. Don’t do it. Cut them some slack. Pastoring is a tough role. From personal experience, some of the church members who made my life the hardest are the ones who – out of good motivations – constantly complain about what the church isn’t doing. Instead of joining the chorus of critics, find ways to love and serve the poor and invite others in your church or small group to join you. Maybe (just maybe) your pastor or leaders might even join you on one of your adventures someday.]
3) Discipleship is not a program or a department of the church, it is intended to be the lifestyle of every Christian.
A simple definition of discipleship is ‘following Jesus.’ Simple, but not simplistic.
Following Jesus involves both learning what Jesus taught and doing what Jesus did. Programs and classes are certainly valuable ways to learn what Jesus taught, but again, to do what Jesus did involves actionable ways to live as Jesus lived. Simply sitting in classes, forever stuffing our brains with more knowledge is a waste.
Effective discipleship plans know this:
Without ways to take action, we miss the opportunity to both disciple others and to be discipled ourselves.
When I need to refocus on what it means to be a disciple, it’s always helpful for me to look back at Luke 4, where Jesus announced his reason for coming. I like to think of it as ‘the mission statement of Jesus’:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (verses 18-19)
In a phrase, Jesus is saying He came to restore and reconcile.
As a disciple of Jesus, I am invited into this same mission. As someone who gets the privilege of discipling others, I get to invite them to join me as we follow Jesus together. We get to restore and reconcile. Not just on Sundays, or on the occasional Saturday outreach, or even on the annual missions trip, but every day and everywhere we go. As a disciple of Jesus, learning to follow Him as Teacher, I get to bring the Kingdom into every situation and open myself to what He will do through me.
Perhaps the genius in what my youth pastor did with us back in our high school discipleship group was to walk with us as we walked with God. We learned what Jesus taught, then we put it into action. “Hey guys and gals,” he would ask, “Jesus teaches us to love and serve people who are in need. Can you think of any ways we can do this?” This involved loving and serving the poor, the misfits, the elderly and being introduced to having a heart for the world through short-term missions trips.
And it worked. All of my fellow ‘discipleship group members’ that I remain in contact with are still – nearly 30 years later – followers of Jesus. Counter to the statistics we hear today where over 70% of students leave the church after graduating, the simple process of walking alongside people and teaching them to actively live out their faith is startlingly effective.
I realize my scenario is anecdotal, and I can point to examples of people whom I have discipled that are not presently walking with God. But when we offer people an opportunity to actively engage in discipleship – living as Jesus lived and loving the people Jesus loved – real change can occur; the kind of change that results in good news for the poor, freedom for the captives and the oppressed, and in the healing of lives. Our own included.
Both learning and doing.
What does the next step in your journey as a disciple look like? Where is Jesus asking you to follow Him, specifically in loving and serving among the poor?
Doug is the Director of Church Engagement for Reconciled World. From an early age, he had a heart for cultures around the globe and has had opportunities to learn and minister in a wide variety of international settings. He now regularly speaks at churches and retreats on a wide variety of topics, and is an enthusiastic fan of the Minnesota Vikings and Twins.