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The Discipleship Spectrum

April 29, 2015 8 comments

There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of discipleship methods. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got the hyper-casual, and on the other the hyper-formal. Those who are hyper-casual tend to advocate for the organic, unplanned moments when God shows up in everyday life. People who are hyper-formal often emphasize the intentional, planned meetings that focus primarily on spiritual development.

I’ve been in ministry for almost ten years now. I’ve seen both of these methods used. Both have their proper place in every discipleship relationship. As with most things, though, people often drift toward one end of the spectrum or the other. This is fine, but we must learn to manage the tension between the two. If we don’t, our discipleship gets one sided and we can fall short of really teaching someone to believe in and follow Jesus.

simple spectrum

Considering the Options

Like most things, both types of discipleship have their benefits and drawbacks. The benefit of casual discipleship is that it’s usually pretty natural, it’s easy to be authentic and you get to help people believe in and experience Jesus in real time as the Holy Spirit is working. The drawbacks of this type of discipleship is that it can be easy to miss opportunities to speak into people’s lives and if you’re not intentional you won’t get anywhere.

The benefit of formal discipleship is that people know exactly what to expect, it can be incredibly focused and you can teach people a lot at one time. The drawbacks are that it can become cold and rigid, faith can become something you talk about rather than something you live and if you’re not careful discipleship becomes a task rather than a lifestyle.

The key is to operate out of your strength, while being intentional in your weakness. If casual discipleship is more natural for you, then do that most of the time. If formal discipleship is more natural to you, then do that most of the time. Be careful, however, not to neglect the area of discipleship that doesn’t come as easily. If you do, your discipleship will become one sided and the people you’re discipling will miss out on some valuable experience.

Find the Right Fit

In my experience, casual discipleship seems to be most effective among non-believers. Formal discipleship seems to be more effective among leaders. Non-believers usually aren’t going to be as eager to talk exclusively about spiritual topics for 90 minutes at a time. They benefit more from the intentional relationships through which your faith rubs off on them because you live differently and answer honestly.

Leaders, on the other hand, are often busy making disciples themselves. They don’t usually have as much time to casually hang out. When they need input they often want as much as they can get in as little time as necessary. Focused meetings allow them to ask a lot of questions, get a lot of answers and discuss a wide range of topics much more efficiently than just waiting for those topics to pop up in everyday life.

Strive for Balance

Personally, I advocate for formal discipleship in the context of casual discipleship. Discipleship is about teaching people to believe in and follow Jesus through intentional relationship over time. A formal meeting isn’t going to do much good if there isn’t any genuine relationship. You need some casual, relaxed time with a person to gain that. At the same time, you can speed up the process of discipleship by including a few focused and formal meetings (such as a weekly Bible study lunch to discuss a specific topic of interest) from time to time.

This spectrum gets even wider when we also consider the individual and group dynamics. On one end of the spectrum we have discipling an individual in or toward Jesus and on the other we have discipleship in groups. Here I advocate for individual discipleship in the context of a group.

The benefit of groups is that each person gets a broad experience and understanding of the person and work of Christ. You simply have more people contributing to each person’s spiritual growth. The drawback, on the other hand, is that it can be shallow and easy for people to hide.

The benefit of individual discipleship is that each person gets a depth that can sometimes be difficult to get in groups. Conversation can also be customized to the specific topics that will be most helpful for the person you’re discipling. The drawback is that the person can end up becoming more like you than Jesus if you’re not careful.

Jesus seemed to disciple people all over the spectrum. At times he was casual with a group of his disciples. At other times he was intentional with an individual. He was also intentional with groups and, at times, casual with individuals. We’d all be more effective leaders if we discipled people using a variety of approaches, rather than just one method.

When Your Well Runs Dry

March 30, 2015 3 comments

We’ve all been there.  Early mornings, long days and late nights trying to fulfill all of our obligations. Work, family, school, bills, entertainment, volunteer work, exercise, hobbies, managing a social life and keeping up on social media, all while trying to pursue our ever elusive dreams.

It’s not uncommon for American’s to work 50-60 hours a week, to sleep less than six, to fill our weekends with sporting events and social gatherings, then to spend Sunday evening frantically trying to squeeze every ounce of joy out of life before having to do it all over again on Monday. It doesn’t take long for the American Dream to become the American Nightmare.

Image via blueinkalchemy.com

Image via blueinkalchemy.com

We’re overworked, under-rested, exhausted, frustrated and always one step away from burn out. Our dreams manage to stay elusively out of reach or we obtain them and they fail to deliver. Our days are filled with stress and our nights with worry. What if I can’t cut it? Will everything I’m living for be what I hoped it will? Is it even worth it?  Each day is a treadmill and the life we want is always just out of reach.

Looking for Life in All the Wrong Places

At this point, we want someone to tell us that we can do it, our dreams are within reach and the life we’ve always wanted is just around the corner. The truth is, our dreams demand more than we can give and always promise what they cannot deliver.

In Luke 9:23-25 Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”

The prophet Haggai likewise declares, “You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes” (Haggai 1:6).

The Unexpected Let Down of Getting What We Want

Even if we obtain what we’re pursuing it will eventually fool us and fail us.  It temporarily gratifies, but it does not eternally satisfy. Take New England Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady for example.  The guy has won four Super Bowls, has a supermodel wife, is famous and has more possessions than the average person can dream of.

Yet in an interview with 60 Minutes he said that he “didn’t expect winning to come with so much baggage.” After his third Super Bowl win he asked with desperation, “why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still feel like something is missing?” Maybe the Lord was right, life “does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15) Neither does it consist in the achieving of one’s dreams.

Getting Life from the Source

Proverbs 4:23 says it best when it warns readers to “guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life.” This is a warning to be cautious about what we source our lives in.  This isn’t to say that our dreams are bad, it’s to say that they’re a poor place to put our hope.  If our life is sourced in anything other than Jesus we are going to run dry because nothing can be for us and do for us what only he can be and do.

Life isn’t found in the achieving of one’s dreams it’s found in Jesus, the giver of life.  He is the only well that won’t run dry because he is the only source that is eternal. When our lives are sourced in Jesus we are free to pursue the dreams God has put into our hearts without being enslaved by them.  We are also free to move on to the other things God has in store when life doesn’t go according to plan.

More importantly, we have to understand that our dreams can’t give us what we really want, only Jesus can.  We pursue fame to feel important, money to feel secure and friends to feel accepted.  These aren’t bad things, but they will often fail to deliver that which we desire.

When our lives are sourced in Jesus we have all the significance, security and acceptance we need. We will be free from tirelessly chasing empty promises because we won’t need them to give us what we already have in Christ. The tighter we hold onto the fleeting pleasures of this world, the more we’ll miss out on the eternal satisfaction of God. 

How to Share Your Faith Without Being Weird

March 18, 2015 2 comments

When I, by God’s grace, first became a Christian at age 17 my life had been so radically changed by Jesus that I wanted to tell everyone about him.  I had met the living God and wanted everyone else to meet him to.

The problem was that I didn’t know how to share my faith. I felt unqualified and uninformed.  Did I know enough? Could I explain my conversion clearly? Overwhelmed by the task and lacking someone to show me the ropes, I awkwardly tried to convince all my friends to believe the gospel but failed miserably.

Image via forbes.com

Image via forbes.com

Away With Evangelism Propaganda

When I got to college I joined a campus ministry and was instructed to use a series of gospel illustrations such as “The Bridge,” “Seven Spiritual Laws” and other pre-packaged propaganda.  I was then told that evangelism meant approaching total strangers and asking them if I could talk with them about eternity.

I tried this for about four months.  It was the worst experience I’ve ever had! In a relatively short period of time I became the “weird Christian guy.” This approach only pushed the people I was “witnessing” to further away from the Lord. It was awful and unhelpful.

All-Natural Evangelism

I quickly said good-bye to that ministry and its evangelism techniques after seeing that they made my faith feel plastic and negatively effected non-believers. During that season, I invested hours studying the Word and reading books about effective evangelism.

Everything I read convinced me that the Lord’s primary evangelism method was discipleship. He focused on teaching people to believe in and follow him through intentional relationships over time.  As I put this method to use I quickly realized that people aren’t opposed to the Christian faith, just to Christian propaganda. 

The Power of an Honest Answer

Colossians 4:5-6 is a great example of this. It reads, “be wise in the way you act toward outsiders, making the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person.” Paul is essentially saying that the easiest way to introduce people to Jesus is to live differently and to answer honestly.

The contrast between the lifestyle of an authentic Christ-follower and someone who doesn’t know the Lord is generally drastic enough that it catches the attention of the watching world. When people see that authentic Christ-followers are different they naturally want to know why. An honest answer, as Paul says, is like salt.  It causes people to thirst for God. 

Ongoing Dialogue or One-Time Decision?

Instead of searching for the next evangelism fad, stick to a simple Christ-like approach. Live with such gospel intentionality that the unbelievers in your life take notice of your character, speech, conduct, attitude and worldview. When people begin to comment or question your lifestyle, honestly tell them that the difference is Jesus.

Focus on an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-time decision. As this happens with increased frequency you’ll be begin to see the Lord do work in people’s lives.  They’ll see Jesus in your life, hear Jesus in your words and experience Jesus through your friendship. This is what it means to share your faith.

Why a Mentor is More Helpful than You Think

When Jesus called his first disciples he began his invitation with two words, “follow me.” (Matthew 4:19) Years later, when the Apostle Paul wanted to move his readers further along their discipleship journey he would say, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) Stated another way, Paul is telling his readers to follow his example as he follows Christ’s example.

You would expect such a strong statement from Jesus.  After all, he was the Son of God. But from Paul this, at first glance, sounds very arrogant.  Who is Paul that we should follow him? He’s not Jesus!

When we consider Paul’s words further, however, we see that he’s not being prideful, he’s being practical. You see, non-believers and new believers can’t follow the Lord’s example, because he’s not here to follow.  At least not in a physical sense.

Paul on the other hand is a physical, flesh-and-blood human being.  His readers had seen him, heard him and could even touch and experience his physical presence.  He was tangible to them, while Jesus was not. Paul rightly understood that people learn best from example, the things they can observe and experience first hand.

Image via quotesvalley.com

Image via quotesvalley.com

A Frame of Reference

In the summer of 2013, my father-in-law helped me build a wooden front porch to update our house. When I mentioned that we were thinking about such a project he proceeded to explain to me what type of wood, tools and equipment I needed.  He even described the process to me in detail, but I didn’t get it.

I attempted to purchase some of the items that we needed, but all of the options looked the same. I tried to imagine the framework he had described, but I got confused.  It wasn’t that he did a poor job of describing the materials and process to me, it was that I had no frame of reference for what he was talking about because I had no prior experience. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed and ready to hire a professional.

Before I could, however, my father-in-law offered his help.  He went with my wife and I to purchase the supplies and showed us the difference between the options.  He then demonstrated how to build the framework and had me do exactly as he did, explaining what he was doing (or having me do) and why every step of the way.

I now know how to build a front porch.  Had I tried to do it just based on what my father-in-law described, however, it probably wouldn’t have gone so well.  It was my father-in-law’s example that helped me understand and experience the work for myself. He didn’t just tell me what to do, he showed me.

A Pattern for Life

The same is true of discipleship. People hear about Jesus through our words, but they experience Jesus through our actions. It is our example to people that brings Jesus to life for people. This is why life-on-life relationships are critical to spiritual maturity, because people have a real life example to pattern their lives after.

Books, seminars and conferences are great supplements to discipleship, but they are terrible replacements. If we want to see real results in our discipleship efforts, we must be willing to get out front and lead by example. We must understand that even the best explanations cannot replace hands on experience.

Exponential Leadership: The Difference Between Ministering to People and Ministering Through People

November 17, 2014 1 comment

One of the fundamental differences between a worker and a leader is that a worker knows how to get stuff done, while a leader not only knows how to get stuff done, but also how to train other people to get stuff done. As one leadership proverb summarizes, “a leader is not someone who can do the work of 10, it is someone who can train 10 to do the work.”

This might sound antithetical, but the truth is that most would be leaders sideline themselves by getting in their own way.  Upcoming leaders are people who know how to get work done well. The only reason they are potential candidates for leadership in the first place is because they know what it takes to get results.

Catalyst or Bottleneck?

The problem is that the more work a person gets done, the more work there is to do. Good results typically yield more opportunities, which in turn leads to more work.  As this pattern continues a potential leader ends up finding himself with more work to accomplish than he can do alone. If he doesn’t train up more leaders he will eventually hinder his own progress.

I learned this first hand as a volunteer chaplain on my college football team. As a freshman I was one of only three Christians on a team of more than one hundred.  Bothered by this, the two other Christians and I decided that we, by God’s grace, were going to change that. We started preaching the gospel to our teammates before games and after practices and we made it a point to spend as much time discipling our teammates as we could.

Within three years God used our efforts to bring thirty teammates into the ministry.  About eight of them became authentic followers of Jesus. We now had a problem.  There were more people to disciple than the three of us had time for. We had a choice.  We could either bottleneck everything by trying to disciple everyone or we could multiply our efforts by training the new converts to disciple their teammates as we discipled them.

We chose the latter and it made all the difference.  Five years after we started God had used the ministry to gather at times sixty of our teammates.  Another half dozen or more were won to faith in Christ and a third generation of leaders were developed.

From Ministering To, To Ministering Through

This kind of impact would simply not have been possible if the three of us had tried to disciple everyone on our own. It was simply the result of equipping the next generation and then empowering them to do the work with us.  In fact, the results we saw came mainly from the second and third generation of leaders.  The original three had little to no direct involvement in the remaining 50.  We simply invested in the first 10 or so.

The apostle Paul says something similar in 2 Timothy 2:1-2.  He tells an upcoming leader named Timothy to be “strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” and to entrust the teaching he received from Paul to reliable men who would be able to teach others also. Here we see four generations of leaders: Paul, Timothy, reliable men and others.  Paul exponentially multiplied his disciple-making efforts by ministering through Timothy to others, rather than ministering to others himself. 

Image via harvestwaterlooregion.ca

Image via harvestwaterlooregion.ca

In order to become more effective leaders, we must intentionally transition from ministering to people to ministering through people. A good leader adds, a great leader multiplies. This means instead of trying to disciple everyone we must intentionally disciple a few that we can equip and empower to disciple others. Ministering to people will add more people to your ministry.  Ministering through people will exponentially multiply your disciple-making efforts. 

Discipleship for the Rest of Us

November 3, 2014 3 comments

When it comes to discipleship, most people I know seem to picture either a membership class or a new convert discussing basic doctrine with a pastor while sipping hot beverages at a local coffee shop. Discipleship is viewed more as an activity than a way of life. In many cases, we commonly assume that discipleship is something that we can graduate from.  We consider it a season we go through when we should consider it a lifestyle.

The result is that we have a lot of Christians who aren’t going anywhere or doing anything.  Many of our churches are filled with people who have been believers for decades, but who also haven’t grown much spiritually in the same amount of time. Sure, we can show up, pay our tithe and recite some basic creeds, but as a whole we’re neither progressing in our faith nor doing much to help others move along in theirs. The pastor is expected to do the heavy lifting, while the members are just along for the ride.

Discipleship is for Everyone

It’s time that we get rid of the silly notion that discipleship is best left to the experts. The Lord’s first disciples were not religious teachers with Bible degrees and seminary certificates, they were fisherman, tax collectors, misfits and trouble-makers.  They were ordinary people, like you and I.  If God can use these uneducated, ordinary people (Acts 4:13) to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6), then why can’t he do the same with us?  He can!

Discipleship doesn’t have to be complicated.  In fact, it’s more effective when it’s simple.  It doesn’t require fancy programs, a formal seminary education or even a five step process.  All it takes is a willingness to follow Jesus in the community of God’s people.

When it comes down to it, discipleship is simply learning to believe in and follow Jesus through intentional relationships over time. This can happen in several ways: one-to-one conversations, small group discussions, in a casual way through your hobbies, in a formal way through meals together and training programs and even as you’re on the go. In other words, discipleship is simply leveraging every human connection to move people closer to Jesus before, during and after their conversion, one interaction at a time.

Image via borizs.com

Image via borizs.com

I like what Rick Warren (Pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California) says about this.  Pastor Rick’s church has grown to tens of thousands based on one simple discipleship concept.  He tells his people to find what they enjoy doing, then to do it with non-believers.

The idea is that as Christ-followers enjoy time with non-believers their faith and lifestyle will “rub off” on the non-Christians they interact with.  This then provides opportunities to talk with them about Jesus, invite them into our lives and bring them into the community of believers.  Before long, non-believers are hearing about Jesus, experiencing Jesus and participating in small groups and services that teach them to believe in and submit to Jesus. It’s really that simple.

Becoming Like Jesus With Others

Ultimately, discipleship is learning to pattern your life after Jesus. He stepped out of heaven and spent his time making the Father accessible to humanity by doing life with those who were far from God. He then sacrificed himself on a cross so that we could personally know and live for God through him. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) If we want to make a difference it’s as simple as making Jesus accessible to others by doing life with them. This can be done in everything from formal small group Bible discussions to casual conversations while watching Monday Night football.

This is how Jesus made God known to us.  This is how we can make Jesus known to others. We don’t have to leave discipleship to the experts.  We can each have a tremendous impact if we’ll simply learn to repurpose our daily activities for the glory of God.

Church Building or Disciple Making

October 27, 2014 9 comments

In Matthew 16:18 the disciple Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ.  With this one phrase he proclaims that Jesus was God’s anointed messenger who had come to usher in the kingdom of heaven and to save God’s people from their sins. The Lord responds by declaring he will build his church on the truth of Peter’s confession.

Later, in Matthew 28:19 Jesus appears to his disciples to give them what is now known as the Great Commission. At this point he has been crucified for the sins of the world, buried and resurrected.  His earthly ministry is complete, but he reminds his followers that theirs has just begin.  Then, just before ascending into the heavens, the Lord commands his band of misfit believers to “go and make disciples.”

Image via chrisarmfield.com

Image via chrisarmfield.com

Do Your Job, Not His

Pair these two verses together and you have a powerful one, two combo.  Jesus will build his church, so we must make disciples. The order is crucial. He builds, we disciple.  Sadly, in an age consumed by prominence, fame, an over-emphasize on size and a grow-at-all costs approach to ministry, many Christian leaders are tempted to try and do the Lord’s job for him.

Leaders, myself included, want so badly to see God glorify his name by bringing dozens, hundreds and thousands of people to saving faith in Jesus Christ through our ministries. We know the joy of salvation and we are desperate to share this gift with anyone who will receive it.  This is a good thing, but we must always remember that it is not our job to build the church.  That responsibility belongs to Jesus and to Jesus alone.

The temptation to abandon discipleship in order to pursue the latest church growth strategies is high.  The allure of big events, fancy marketing and high class productions is strong. These aren’t bad things, but they must never replace discipleship. Pastors and ministry leaders must also remember that healthy things grow, but growing things are not always healthy. Cancer grows fast, but it will kill you.  On the other hand, it takes a child upwards of 16 years to reach adulthood.

Be Faithful

Many of todays ministry leaders, myself included, would do well to repent of our hyper-addiction to church growth and return with an unbending focus to the disciple-making mandate the Lord has given us as his followers. Discipleship isn’t sexy, it won’t make you famous and it might take more than a decade to see Jesus build his church larger than a handful, but it’s the only way to ensure that healthy, obedient Christ followers are being raised up.

It’s the Lord’s job to build his church and ours to make disciples.  Let’s let him do his job so we can get back to ours. Let’s refocus our attention on intentional relationships that help people meet Jesus and grow to maturity as his disciples. The Lord will be faithful to do the building.  We must be faithful to do the discipling.

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