Discipleship and the Local Church

Discipleship. What comes to your mind when you think of this word? The need for a discipleship program in your church or hometown? A picture of Jesus wowing the first disciples with miracles, or mesmerizing them with His words? Hopeless confusion as to what Jesus really meant by the Great Commission? Bitter cynicism as result of good intentions gone south?

Everybody knows discipleship is important, but how do we effectively accomplish it in our churches? The answer is simple to understand yet difficult to do. I am not presenting this as a silver bullet, but I am trying to get to the heart of what Jesus had in mind when He commanded us to be disciples who make disciples. What am I getting at? Read the following story. It is not a true story, but it could be an example of what’s going on in every church, even every Bible-believing church, across the country.

Pastor Dave has been serving at his church of 150 for several years now. While he is the only paid staff member, he does have several elders and deacons helping him lead the church and serve its members. He leads his family with integrity, has visited almost every member’s home, has helped with many weddings and funerals, and has faithfully preached the Word almost every Sunday. This man knows His Bible well and can navigate through any controversial doctrine he encounters. We should be thankful for all the Pastor Dave’s God has raised up! But something is missing…

One day, John, a faithful member and servant in the church, asks to meet with Pastor Dave. They agree to meet for coffee downtown. As they begin talking, Dave recognizes that John can remember his main point and several application steps from last week’s sermon. However, as their conversation continues, something becomes apparent: John is indicating that he views doing his daily personal devotions as if they would guarantee spiritual, and most likely physical and financial, success that day. He thinks that as long as He checks all the boxes of things that “good Christians” should do each day or week, God will bless Him and keep trials at bay. John knows the right doctrine, but functionally, Jesus isn’t his God; He’s his good luck charm. How did this happen? John had always been in church, had faithfully read His Bible, and had loved His family. He checked all the boxes! After the meeting, Pastor Dave went back to his office troubled and a little worried. “How could John, one of my most godly members, make such a crucial error in his Christian life?!” he thought. “How could I have missed this for all these years?” “Are there others?” he wondered.

What did Pastor Dave miss? In short, he did not leverage his platform preaching ministry to check what his people were really understanding, believing, and obeying in their everyday lives. Again, it is obviously good that he put a lot of priority on studying and preaching the Word well! But, friends, if that’s all we do, then how will we ever know that our people are really applying it to their lives and doing so for the right reasons?! We must learn to use our preaching from the platform to foster hard but necessary conversations with our people. This will help us to communicate more effectively from the platform because we will have a better understanding of what our people are actually hearing and doing as a result of our preaching! Jesus always intended that platform preaching should lead to the personal pursuit of people, and He modeled that for us in the Gospels.[1] Let’s look at one example of this.

In Matthew 19, we see Jesus healing and teaching crowds of people (verses 1-2).[2] Then, as they often did, some Pharisees come to Jesus to test Him with questions, this time about the lawfulness of divorce. Jesus draws their attention back to the Word of God to show them that it is not God’s intention for marriages to dissolve (verses 3-6). Thinking they had Jesus caught, the Pharisees ask another question relating to a finer point of the Law. Wisely, Jesus goes straight to the heart of the issue and clarifies why Moses permitted divorce, not because God thought it was lawful, but because of the hardness of their hearts (verses 7-9).

In these verses, we see the following elements of Jesus’ sermon:

–  a small picture of an ideal “sermon” from Jesus
–  a fine exposition of the Word, including drawing out the foundation of the issue in Genesis.
–  a clarification of fine points of the argument and a disposal of potential objections
–  a short summary of the main point

But thankfully, Jesus’ instruction about this matter doesn’t stop here, because in verses 10-12 we see how badly the disciples still misunderstood! The first thing they say is, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this [you can’t just divorce her for any reason you feel like], it is better not to marry.” How tragic! These were His closest followers, and they had already been with Jesus for a few years, but they still had such a shallow and worldly understanding of such a fundamental relationship!

Jesus answers their confusion, interestingly enough, not by telling them to get over their selfishness and just get married because that’s what godly people do; rather, he answers by highlighting how you can effectively serve and worship God as a single person.

What can we learn from this? We have to get to the point where we make time for people in church so that we can check to see what they are really understanding and believing about God’s Word, and how those beliefs are leading to the actions they take. We cannot settle for getting our people to just “do the right thing” and assume that their righteous actions are coming from a heart that is submitted to God. We have to not only exegete the text; we have to exegete our people.

As we seek to disciple, we need to learn the discipline of asking our people questions that expose their current beliefs. For example, here is a short list of questions one could and should ask related to the beliefs and motives behind why people have personal devotions. They are really more than questions; they are conversation starters, because they will inevitably reveal false beliefs about other areas of life.

1.How does spiritual growth happen?
2.Why do you think you should have personal devotions?
3.What do personal devotions do for you?
4.What happens if you miss a day? A week?!
5.What does God think of you if you don’t feel like doing it or when you miss it?

When you think you have discerned any wrong beliefs, then you will get to the point of explaining the problem with those beliefs, sharing what beliefs they need to adopt in order to walk by faith, and then, connecting those beliefs with the right action steps. Why? God isn’t in the business of simply cutting off bad fruit in people’s lives and stapling on fake fruit that only looks the part but won’t last. No, God is in the business of transforming people’s worldviews through the process of what Paul calls “renewing your mind” in Romans 12:2. When we disciple our people, we are really God’s co-laborers in bringing about the renewal of someone’s mind, that is, their beliefs, about any area of life, and then helping them to do the things that flow from a mindset, a belief system, that pleases God.

Can you think of one person in your church that you could start discipling like this? Someone who is teachable? Someone who you want to make sure is really seeing what they should be seeing when the Word is opened? Someone who could take what you are doing with them and reproduce it in the life of at least one other person (2 Timothy 2:2)?

If you are like Pastor Dave, please be encouraged! You are already doing so many things right! But the next step is prayerfully to aim your attention toward at least one person with whom you can begin to share your life, so they can begin to see, believe, and obey the Scriptures the way you have always prayed.

 

[1] To clarify, Jesus obviously did not have formal pulpits or platforms the way many of our churches have today to speak from, but a lot of His preaching was indeed out in a public gathering place, like a hillside, and oftentimes it included a back and forth dialogue. In either case, we can learn a lot about how to use public ministry for the sake of personal ministry.

[2] For other similar examples, check out Matthew 13:1-51; Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 9:30-37; and John 3:1-21.

 

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