The problem with deeper discipleship

In our last post we were looking at making disciples in the church who are growing more and more like Jesus.   But here’s the objection that we find pops into our heads or which we may hear from others in church.   But what about evangelism, if we invest too much in discipling believers what about the lost who face eternity separated from God?

Initially it sounds like a good objection, except that it creates a false dichotomy, and one that actually does lots of damage to the church, because it divides discipleship and evangelism.  Evangelism is for non-believers and discipleship is taking disciples deeper it argues.  But actually that’s not true.  And thinking like that leaves us with stunted pygmy disciples who have prayed the prayer but never grown as disciples because deeper discipleship is optional – and there is so much more we could say on that but don’t have time for now. So how should we think of discipleship and evangelism? Discipleship is gospel-ing believers, evangelism is gospel-ing unbelievers.  They are more of a spectrum that two separate boxes and speaking and teaching about Jesus is key in each, not just in a way that learns but in a way that deeply transforms.

That wrong way of thinking about evangelism makes it something scary.  Evangelism becomes something I just don’t know how to do and so we search books and podcasts and attend conferences looking for THE way to do evangelism.  But what if evangelism is supposed to be the natural overflow of our growing, thriving discipleship.   In Acts 1v8 Jesus tells the disciples they are to be his witnesses, when Peter leads the church to choose a replacement for Judas they must be witnesses of Jesus life.  Why?  So that they can speak about what they know of Jesus, so they can testify to what they saw.  He doesn’t say let’s look for the person who can best explain the gospel in 2 minutes, or who can invent a diagram, or scribble something good on a beer mat, or brilliantly answer apologetic questions.  No.  They need someone who can testify to what they know of Jesus, who has been formed by time spent with Jesus.  If we use that definition of evangelism doesn’t that take the pressure off.

Discipleship that is helping people love Jesus more and to become like what they love and behold will naturally lead to more sharing of Jesus.  In Luke 6v45 Jesus says “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”  We often view that negatively, in that what comes out reveals the sin there, and yes that’s true.  But think about it positively for a minute because Jesus has just said a good man bring good things out of the good stored in his heart.  What does that mean for discipleship and evangelism?  If Jesus is in our hearts, if our hearts are full of and overflowing with him what will come out when we speak will be the good news about Jesus.

The way we grow as evangelists, the way we help our church family to share the good news of Jesus with those they love, is not to learn more techniques or read more books or put on courses it is to be disciple into a deeper, richer, fuller love for Jesus and understanding of his love for us.   And then out of the overflow of our hearts we will naturally talk about Jesus.  

What if we have fallen back on techniques and books and strategies and courses simply because our hearts aren’t full and overflowing with Jesus?   What if the reason we’re tongue-tied when we’re asked about Jesus by a friend is because we just don’t know him very well.

We are brilliant evangelists for all sorts of others things aren’t we, our football team, our families, our kids or grandkids achievements.  Why are we so able to talk passionately and with love about those things?  Because our hearts are full to overflowing with them.

Discipleship is the key to unlocking evangelism in our churches, to reaching not just the hard places but every place with the good news of Jesus.  As we help people see Jesus, love Jesus and become like what they behold they will not be able to stop themselves speaking about him, because they will be speaking about what they’ve witnessed first hand Discipleship matters..

Let me just throw one more grenade while I’m here.   I wonder if our anaemic discipleship explains why we end up doing event evangelism. Why do we do mission weeks?  Why do we hold special services or have evangelistic courses that take people from A-Z?  Because as a church we’ve bought into that same fallacy but know we should be doing evangelism.  So we do evangelism corporately because we’re not convinced the church are doing it privately and we know we should do it.   What if instead of doing that we disciple deeply, and commissioned the congregation to go into all the world and make disciples as they speak of him whom their heart is full and overflowing with?

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Dealing with the Discipleship Deficit

“You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings – what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.” That’s what discipleship looks like. Paul’s words to Timothy are staggering. Timothy you know what I teach inside out and you know how I’m living it out and how it is both a joy and a struggle in every area of life. Just stop for a minute and think about what that involves, what has happened for Paul to be able to say those words..

How often is that happening in our churches? Do those relationships exist? How deep is the discipleship that is going on? Where do you experience that?

It’s worth destroying some of the wrong ideas about what we may assume discipling is. Discipling does not automatically happen in the church service, though it may begin there and be facilitated by it. It doesn’t automatically happen in our small groups, our friendships, 1-2-1 study groups or small prayer groups. All of those things can be places where discipleship happens but they can also be replacement activities for real discipleship

Real discipleship is about formation of a person to look and think and love and react more and more like Jesus. It involves a growing knowledge and grasp of the bible but it is also so much more than that. It involves friendship and community but is so much deeper than what anaemically can pass as friendship or community all to often in our lives.

Paul is able to say to Timothy you know my teaching intimately – in other words Paul has deliberately and carefully taught Timothy the gospel of Jesus Christ, not as a body of doctrine but as a way of joy filled life. Paul can face the end of his life with a sense of things not left undone in terms of what he has taught Timothy. Timothy has been there and heard Paul teach in the big public spaces in various cities across different continents. He has heard him teach the disciples what it means to follow Jesus and the implications for their radically new life in Jesus and how that leads a clash with their culture in their churches. He has spoken with Paul as they have walked and sailed and journeyed. And Paul is not just convinced he has taught Timothy well but he is convinced that sincere faith lives in Timothy (2 Tim 1v5) and he knows how Timothy is living out the gospel and wants him just to continue as he is (2 Tim 3v14).

It’s a great picture of a deep discipleship. Paul knows Timothy and Timothy knows Paul, there is a certainty about what each believes and teaches because of time spent together talking about these things. But there is also a living it out, they have each seen each other live out their faith, wrestle with it, mourn over those who turn away from it, rejoice in those who follow Jesus and grow in knowing Jesus.

That can’t happen in one service a week. It can’t happen in one service + a bible study a week. It can’t even happen in one service + a bible study + a 1-2-1 a week. Our overly diarised lives don’t help with deepening discipleship. Our dashing here there and everywhere doesn’t develop deep discipleship. Our determination to fill up and wring out every last moment of every day with stuff or entertainment or busyness doesn’t help discipleship.

I can’t help but reflect on how Paul seems to have applied Deuteronomy 6 and God’s words to parents: “Listen, Israel: The LORD our God , the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, and when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorpost of your house and on your city gates.”

Love God with a wholehearted devotion and teach it to others in the normal and everyday rhythms of life lived together. That is the pattern of parenthood for God’s people, don’t wait for the ideal opportunity, speak about God and his love and rescue and grace and calling all the time, in every situation. That seems to be what Paul has done with Timothy.

I’m not sure we were great at this in the UK pre-pandemic, I know it’s been incredibly difficult during the pandemic, and I think it’s going to be difficult for the next few months as things open but with various limits, guidances, expectations and so on. Because this relies on presence, it relies on unhurried time spent together, studying the Bible, talking about things, wrestling through honestly the struggles and joys of following Jesus where we are. But if we want to see people grow more and more like Jesus we must tackle the discipleship deficit in our churches. But how?

It begins with us praying as leaders for this dramatic shift in culture. I’m not just saying this because of course prayer should undergird everything we do. I’m saying it because I can’t change hearts – oh and newsflash nor can you – only God can. Only God can make people hungry to grow as disciples and be more like Jesus.

Encourage discipling moments. We’re not light switches, we can’t go from a discipleship deficit to a deep discipleship culture in one fell swoop. We need to introduce incremental change. We’ve re-introduced 3 application questions at the end of our service and have a minute of quiet reflection. But when the restrictions lift I want to give people 5 minutes in the service to discuss those questions – I haven’t done so at the minute because it will reinforce the isolation some of those who come alone and sit alone would feel. Introducing a discipling moment is a good way to begin an incremental shift in the churches culture.

Facilitate engagement. I also want to get people out of the mode of being passive when listening to someone teaching the Bible. Why do we do question and answer and get people involved when talking to children to engage them but not with adults? How do I help people see they can read and understand the bible for themselves? By letting the congregation do it together. That might mean as we go forward having a starter question that families and pairs spend 2 minutes on as we begin the sermon or even before the service as we do refreshments . It might mean asking observation questions of the text and actually expecting people to look at it and answer those questions out loud. It might mean having a Q & A for 5 minutes at some point in the service, maybe after the discussion of the questions.

Create new opportunities. As things restart there are some things that need to not and an opportunity to start some things anew. What would most facilitate and encourage discipleship in your church? When it’s possible we’ll get back to shared meals and table discussions which can help facilitate the community in which discipleship thrives. But we’re starting something new. It’s called ‘Formation’ and it comes from a conviction that we need to be more and more formed into the image of Christ and that takes time, study and community. So we’re starting on a Sunday evening 8 times a term, 3 terms a year meeting together to study God’s word and work on applying God’s word to our lives. The first term will be an 8 week bible overview – exploring the God who calls us to know him and what that looks like, the second will explore some systematic theology, the third will be a deep dive into a book of the bible. It’s not lectures, but it will contain some taught content, some pre and post-session thinking and applying, and lots of discussion in a community of learners. Now that isn’t discipleship, but the aim is to encourage and facilitate deeper relationships where we speak about these things and help each other apply it, and then go and speak about those things and apply them with others.

The hope is that as we do all these things and more, as we engage people with God’s word, as they see more of the wonder and beauty of Jesus and the joy that comes from loving him and obeying his commands that deeper discipleship together spurs growth in relationships and deeper discipleship. You may not be able to do that. But what can you do to challenges the discipleship deficit for yourself and for your church family?

If our church planting model isn’t producing good fruit we need to think again

I’ve been listening to the Christianity Today podcast on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It has been a painful listen because I can see so many of the same tendencies in the UK, and if I’m brutally honest some of them in me. Our love of celebrity and charisma at the expense of character, our desire for bigger and better, our love of the shock jock for entertainment at the expense of faithfulness in teaching, our promotion and elevation of the next young thing without giving them time to grow and develop. Our desire for success and to be seen as successful.

But there were a couple of things that particular struck me as I’ve thought on it. I wonder if our approach to church planting almost makes it inevitable that we will see these types of spectacular rises and falls. I know of friends who’ve planted with 3 years funding and the pressure of 3 years in which to make the church self sustaining. 3 years! Just think about the pressure that places on the planter and any core team they take with them. We expect results and we expect them quickly and yet Jesus constantly uses the image of seeds sown, trees slowly growing to fruitfulness – which takes years of preparation and tending. Are we guilty of creating something unsustainable, of putting planters and teams under an unreasonable pressure that may lead to warped methods because we need results? How can we do this better? How do we provide funding that allows for slow but sustainable growth? That doesn’t put the pressure on for results quickly, but long term growth that leads to flourishing communities of grace not driven individuals and leadership teams that burn out or disperse amidst conflict too quickly?

Secondly we tend to plant young. I means in terms of the person who goes and does the planting and any team they take with them. When you read Acts it’s telling that it’s Paul and Barnabas who are sent out from Antioch. It’s Paul who then collects young men like Timothy and gives them considerable training and when he does leave them to do ministry alone he is constantly mentoring and coaching and exhorting them to humility and to remember Jesus for themselves not just for their ministry! And yet we almost always send the younger, less experienced minister out to plant. Is that because we ape our culture in thinking of the entrepreneur and pioneer as young and brash? Is that because those of us who are older are too risk averse, too comfortable to think about taking that risk – after all the kids are in school, we’re settled and so on…? And what about mentoring, how much do we mentor those we send out? What about partnership between churches – not a quick gift every so often – but real gospel partnership like that found in the New Testament that isn’t just a sop to our consciences or a tick box exercise but that cares and invests and shares and partners? And what would it look like to do this differently?

Maybe the biggest lesson for all of us from everything we have seen over the last few years in the church that has so grieved us is that God is calling us to stop and think. To examine the tree and it’s fruit, the model of church planting we use and it’s outcomes and ask should we keep doing this or is there a better way?

Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

Field of dreams step 1

On Friday we were finally able to complete the purchase of one of the two fields we are buying in the area in which we serve. Land is at a premium around the area especially with the airport’s increasingly fast paced development and Yorkshire Wildlife Parks expansion. It was therefore with great relief that we received a phone call to tell us that the first field we were buying was finally ours late on Friday afternoon. It is in a great location to enable us to serve every part of the area without being located in any one of the estates.

At the moment it is just a field. Due to the sale and the length of time its taken it hasn’t been hired out for farming for the last year and so it’s a little over 5 acres of wild growth at the moment. But our hope and prayer is that we can use this field to build a church that can serve our community for many years to come.

Whilst we are very grateful to God for answering our prayers we know there’s a long way to go. We need to grow our leadership team so that we have a plurality of leaders to oversee the work that needs doing and so that as we engage in this process we don’t take our eyes off pastoral care or evangelism. There are lots of legal necessities we need to fulfil before we can build. We need to apply for change of use and planning permissions and engage architects and fundraise and so on. All of which seems like a huge undertaking when thought about in the cold light of day.

But we’re grateful to God that the first step is complete. And we’d love you to join us in praying that God would raise up leaders, smooth the way with building, and provide the finance we need to build. We know it’s a long term project, that it isn’t going to be quick but we are so thankful for answers to prayer so far and that for now we have the use of the school and a good partnership with them.

The identity wars

We are losing the identity wars because we are afraid to speak into them directly. Just as Daniel and his friends were bombarded and faced a programme designed to reshape and reform their worldview and sense of self and identity so do we. It’s in everything we read, hear, watch, as well as in the things we are taught. This isn’t new. It has always been the war that we are on the frontlines of. But perhaps we have never been so fearful of speaking in to this war because of the dangers of getting cancelled or no platformed. But we need to, so let me enter the fray with some thoughts.

We need to teach our congregations and our children a robust biblical understanding of identity and equip and train them in how to explain that lovingly to those around them.  But we also need to explain how that contradicts and conflicts with what society teaches.  We want to show them how God’s word; God’s wise loving compassionate view of our identity is so much better than what the world’s wisdom is offering.

I want to build a biblical framework of identity in this longer than normal post and help us see how the gospel is good news both for us and for those in our churches and communities.  However, even as I do so we need to be realistic; as Christians we are counter cultural.  We won’t fit in.  Our message won’t be viewed as good, it goes against the grain, we will be the bad guys.  This very issue may cost people their jobs, it may cost churches their rented spaces in certain venues like school or community centres.   As Daniel and his friends stood out in Babylon, as Peter calls on the scattered churches to stand up and stand out in his letters we will stand out and face slander for it but count Christ as worth it.

Identity is complex.  How would you answer the question ‘Who am I?’  Our identity matters.  Society tells us certain ways to identify ourselves; by our successes, our education, our relationship status, our looks, our abilities.  It invites us to find our identity in it’s story – a story of progress, freedom, and individuality.  A story that is always shifting; influenced by social trends and ideas.  Yet it’s always a story that’s searching and grasping for identity and love.We long to know who we are, what we were made for, where we fit. And the stress of trying to find your place and identity in an ever-shifting story is enormous.  One of the biggest shifts in the last decade is the way culture is reshaping the story of identity.

The story we believe matters because it affects everything in life.  Our society tells one story, seeking to shape our identity through it, it’s a story of rugged individualism, of self-determined right and wrong.  But the Bible tells us an unchanging story and invites us to find our true identity in knowing God and who he reveals us to be and finding our place within his community of hope. 

Identity is Given

If you want to see what something is, what it was made to be, to do, you need to go back to its origin.  In Genesis 1 we see God create the world. And God in Genesis 1v26-27 makes man in his image – God gives us our identity. That doesn’t mean we look like God (no matter what some of you think!).  It does mean we are made for community, to communicate, to make decisions, to love, to be moral, to know truth, and so on. God makes gender – men and women are equal, both reflect the image of God. God gives us a purpose, to mediate his rule to his good creation. And God says it’s very good, everything he has made, including the identity and purpose he has given to his creation that he loves.

Genesis 2  zooms in on day 6 and especially humanity. And we see that sexuality is a God given gift, it’s good, to be enjoyed, but there’s a right context in which we enjoy sex – marriage between a man and woman. We also see that we’re made to know God and enjoy him.  We show our love by obedience to who he has made us to be and for his purpose and we do so joyfully because we know he is good. And yet that is not where we find ourselves, because the Bible also tells us another part of the story of our identity.

Identity stolen

As Satan slithers into the garden and hisses into Eve’s ear – whilst Adam stands mute at her side like a spectator – he’s stealing identities.  Detaching our identity from worship of, and relationship with a good, loving, all-powerful God.  He strikes at who God is and who we were made to be.

First he gets Eve to doubt God, then he lies, and thirdly he suggests they make their own identity – as equal to God.  Instead of being loved and created children of God he tempts them with false promises of godlikeness.  They want to decide everything for themselves. And their God given identity is stolen.  They’re no longer who they were.  Now they’re ashamed and hide their nakedness – they lose their intimacy now they blames each other and feel shame.  They lose the joy filled relationship with God that provided security. Their very identity and purpose is shattered and the world along with it.

Humanities God given identity lost affects everything: our bodies, our psychology, our desires, the story we live out of.  We now rebel against God’s good by nature – that’s seen in the rest of Gen.  In chapter 4 – Cain kills Abel and Lamech breathes out death threats against everyone. In chapter 6 – wickedness spreads – man’s heart is corrupt. In chapter 11 there is another attempt to overthrow God as man tries to create their own identity and glory.  

But God is loving and gracious, he punishes – yes – as a loving God must – an unloving God would let sin and harm run unchecked.  A loving God disciplines and judges.  But he’s also gracious – he doesn’t give humanity what it deserves, he doesn’t wipe us out and start again, he still provides, and he promises a future hope.That’s the story of the rest of the Old Testament; sin and rebellion.  A restless search for identity and a refusal to find it in God.  Which is meet by God’s love in judgement and grace, and always the promise of hope; of one day, one man, one king who would change everything.

Identity Rescued

Amazingly God isn’t finished with humanity.  Amazingly given the state of the human race and the way it has rejected God again and again and again in a staggering act of love and grace God the Son becomes man and enters the world. Showing us the identity we were made to enjoy. God becomes man and just as since the beginning man tries to kill God.  Man refuses rescue, rebellion and self determination in his very blood stream. But where Adam failed when tempted to remake his identity in his own image Jesus stands as the perfect Son of God.  

In the gospels we see what life lived loving God and secure in his love looks like. Jesus faces every temptation we face but stands faithful. And Jesus invites people to enjoy and share in his identity, to know and love God just as he does, to have a right relationship with God, to be what they were made to be. He comes to rescue and redeem our identity.

He meets Zacchaeus – a man seeking his identity in money and wealth, but isolated and lonely – Jesus shows him real love and welcome and Zacchaeus gives his money away and becomes who he was made to be by faith in Jesus.  His identity is transformed.  Jesus says Zacc is now a Son of Abraham – that is his new identity.

To a Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) who has been seeking her identity, her sense of self, of welcome and love, in relationships, she’s had 5 husbands and is living with another man.  But Jesus invites her by faith in him and she finds her true identity in God’s love and forgiveness and rushes to town to tell everyone “Come, see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done.”

Jesus meets religious Nicodemus whose identity is in religious learning and doing, his position and reputation, but who has been intrigued by Jesus actions and signs.  Jesus challenges his sense of identity and calls him to be born again by the Spirit.  To really know God and enjoy him.  Nicodemus later comes with Joseph to claim Jesus body.

Jesus life lived loving God and revelling in his goodness shows us how far short we fall of being who we were made to be.  As we read the gospels we hunger to be like Jesus, as generous as he was, as joyful as he was, as welcoming of others as he was, as forgiving as he was, as content in his own skin as he was. But our problem is that our God given identity is stolen.  We still seek a sense of identity, to be loved, of value, but we slavishly seek it in all the wrong places.  But Jesus comes to free us. Jesus also shows us what God is like, as he lives and finally in love goes to the cross to rescue us.  To pay the price for our rejection of God and bring us back to him. To forge a new identity for us.  To reconcile us to the God we rejected but who loves and so provides a way for us to be reconciled and have our identity remade by faith in Jesus.God who invites us to enjoy once again what we were made to enjoy, to be who we were made to be.

But that’s not where the story ends. Jesus dies and rises again and he ascends to heaven and from their he pours out his Spirit and there is more…

Identity Restored

Jesus promised his disciples that one day he will restore all of creation.  Everything will be remade, including us, finally we’ll be who God made us to be, who Jesus rescued and redeemed us to be by grace through faith.  And we’ll enjoy him forever in a world at rest with its true identity.

But in the meantime, while we await Jesu return, we live as rescued people under restoration, our identity is in Christ, we are united with him, and he is remakes us, restoring us bit by bit by the Spirit as we explore and understand and apply this new identity he has rescued and redeemed us for. We are made new when we trust him, and so much of the Epistles is given over to helping believers understand their new identity and live out that identity. Paul writes to the Corinthians “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” He helps them see their old identity and contrasts them with their new identity, they are not what they were they are now a new people with a new identity.

Peter does that same as he writes in his first letter “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” See who you are, live it out, revel in the rescue and the purpose you have been rescued for.

As those who trust in Jesus we have a new identity. But we’re a work in progress, we’re not their yet. In the life, all of us, when we follow Jesu face a daily battle as we commit afresh day by day to root our identity in Jesus. Repenting when we slip back to placing our identity in what we were not what we are. And we do so in community, redeemed and restored and reconnected to God’s forgiven people the church. A band of brothers and sisters who accept our failures not fatalistically but who point us to grace and to Jesus and encourage and call us to live out our new identity in Jesus by the Spirit. Whilst we wait for and long for the day our new identity will finally and joyously be redeemed and we will be fully restored to what God has made us to be in Jesus.

How do you answer that question, ‘Who am I?’ Praise God for our identity given, and that he has rescued our identity stolen and that one day he will full restore it, and in the meantime he is at work using all things in that restoration process.