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?

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