Deliberate Discipleship

We thought yesterday about the basics of discipleship we see in the Bible.  How it was expected of all parents, in fact it was their duty.  And of how we see it in the New Testament in Jesus, Paul, Timothy’s mum and grandma and so on.  How it was life lived for God’s glory alongside one another.

Part of our problem with discipleship is that we think we don’t have time to do it.  We’re too busy, too pressured, too harried.  Satan seems to have successfully filled our diaries with so much stuff that we don’t have time to shape the next generation of Christ followers.  Or so we’d like to think.  What we are actually discipling them in is busyness.

It’s not that we either disciple someone or we don’t.  Look back at the Deuteronomy 6 passage, we disciple people through what we do and talk about whilst we do.  Parents disciple children in support of their football team – hence the reason I have 4 small Tractor Boys (though given this season I’m beginning to regret that), through where they take them, conversations, shared experience and passions.  We disciple people in every conversation we have with them as we share what we love, what we aim for, and what we value.  It is not a binary on/off, 1/0.  We are all discipling those around us all the time, the question is what are we discipling them in?

The bigger challenge for us is to be deliberate in our discipling.  To be distinctively Christian in our discipling of others.  We will be discipling them – we will think how can do so better tomorrow – but for now lets think about the what of our discipling.

If you asked those who see you most what you love what would they say?  If you asked what drives you how would they answer?  How about what one thing you couldn’t live without?  Those answers may give us a hint at what we are discipling people in.

I wonder if too often in the past I’ve discipled people in busyness.  When people asked follow me footprintshow I was, too often that was the answer, or that’s what they saw.  Therefore activism is what I was discipling them in.  Do, do, do.  That is in part because I’ve been discipled by our culture – every successful person held up as a role model is busy.  Or maybe I’ve discipled people in reading – after all I read a lot.  Or in sport.

Deliberate discipling begins with self examination.  Paul writes “imitate me” in 1 Corinthians 4v16 that is the essence of discipleship, and Paul can write that because they know of his life in Christ Jesus.  They know he lives for and serves Christ, they know his love for Jesus.  Deliberate discipleship begins with asking these kind of questions; am I growing in love for Jesus?  Am I becoming more like him?  Am I increasingly wanting to glorify him in every area of life?

Only when we have deliberated examined ourselves and built up healthy patterns of feasting on Christ and loving him more will we be in a position to disciple people in Jesus well.

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Discipleship 101

So as we saw last time one of the great problems in our churches is everyday discipleship.  The vacuum that seems to exist in training people in living as followers of Jesus.

Deuteronomy 6v6-7 gives us the model of discipleship Israel were encouraged to follow:

“These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

It was everyday, every opportunity conversations, about what it meant to love the Lord their God and to follow in him all of life.  It was the responsibility of parents and the wider family.  We see a great example of this in the book of Ruth, after the family flee toYorkie events pic Moab and both sons die Ruth has seen enough and heard enough of the LORD that she will not leave Naomi but adopts the LORD as her LORD.  Naomi despite having left the land of promise and the covenant people has shown and talked enough that Ruth can make that choice.  And once back in Bethlehem Naomi’s discipleship of Ruth continues in teaching her how to live according to the law in gleaning and in dealing with Boaz.

Now Naomi isn’t an exemplary Israelite in many ways, but she does disciple Ruth.  Such discipling is in part why the book of Proverbs was written by dad for his son, it is why Song of Solomon is written for a daughter.  The wisdom literature is discipleship written down.  Teaching people to live following the LORD in every area of life.

In the New Testament we see lots of examples of discipleship; Jesus and the 12, Paul and Titus, Timothy and so on.  We see it with Priscilla and Aquila and Apollos.  We hear of it exemplified and praised with Timothy’s mum and grandma’s discipleship of him.

The bible doesn’t leave us short of models of discipleship.  It doesn’t leave us bereft of ideas about how to do this.  It’s sheer frequency ought to cause us to see its importance and commit to doing it.  It should be a disciples default.

To hear God’s word and engage with it with others.  To want to talk of our Saviour and Lord.  To want to spur others on to follow him more closely.  Yet all to often we fail.  We’ll think a bit more about why next time.

The root of our leadership problems?

There is a lack of leaders in evangelical churches in general.  I was at a conference last week which had a healthy focus on training the next generation of leaders.  And absolutely that is part of a pastor’s role, it is essential we are doing that.  But I wonder if the real problem goes deeper than that.

The real problem is the deficit of discipleship in our churches, full stop, not just from the pastor.  Too few people are seriously investing in and sowing into the spiritual lives and growth of others in church.  We see it in all sorts of ways.  It’s seen in the parents who outsource their child’s spiritual growth to the youth pastor or Sunday School teacher and then react angrily when their child walks away from the faith.  It’s seen in the fringe believer who attends once or twice a month who really sees church as their for them and their spiritual convenience.  It’s seen in our bridling at any challenge about our sin or actions or motives.  It’s seen in our fear of how others will react if we open up about our struggles, simply because we aren’t use to seeing that done well.

This deficit of discipleship is stunting the growth of believers, leaving children hungry for spiritual truth famished, and new believers at the mercy of whatever they can find online.

I look back on what led me to where I am in terms of faith and ministry and see the hand not of one mentor but of many disciple making disciples.  There was my Sunday School teacher, my youth group leader who first got me to teach the Bible, there were my parents, and an elderly godly saint who I never heard teach the Bible but who simply seemed to breathe it in every breath and took time out to care for and pray for me.  There was the staff worker at university and other students, there have been people since.  But here’s the irony, how many of them were my pastor at the time?  Very few, it was ordinary members of the church who loved Jesus and gave up their spare time around their work and family to invest in others in church.  Who cared deeply for others spiritual wellbeing and growth.  And so many of them didn’t just disciple me, but played their part in a web of interconnected whole church discipleship.

We don’t just need pastors who disciple.  We need churches of disciples who make Yorkie events picdisciples.  The deficit of discipleship in our churches is at the root of our leadership problems, as well as so many others.  Until we solve that issue.  Until we help people catch the vision of every member discipleship we won’t solve the leadership problem, we won’t see new believers grow to maturity in the faith, we won’t stem the tide of children turning away from the faith.

Discipleship is not the magic bullet, it is however the strategy the head of the church, Christ, employed in building his church from the foundations up.  We must follow as the body where our head leads.  So how do we start?  I’ll blog some more thoughts on this later in the week.

Training at every level

I like an easy life.  I like pre-packaged.  I like off the shelf solutions.  The problem is they just don’t tend to work or translate into our context.  In a small church we have people who love learning, who are decidedly bookish.  But we also have people who have a chip on both shoulders about education and for whom courses, books, and the normal way churches do training just doesn’t work.

I spent last week at the Union Conference as I prepared to be lead mentor for our Doncaster learning community, where we’re offering the Graduate Diploma in Theology. It’s been interesting hearing people’s surprise at a church like ours offering such a theological course (I’m deliberately keeping off my soap box about what that says about our expectations and prejudices).  And we offer it knowing that it isn’t for everyone, in fact it isn’t even for the majority.

But I am very aware that if we are going to re-evanglise Doncaster we need people who have been trained to this level.  And as the cavalry aren’t coming from the South or the big City/Town churches in Yorkshire to Doncaster we need to be strategic in preparing to do it ourselves.  If we want to see churches established and planted that means we need training on every level because we need leaders on every level.

As a church that’s our aim.  Or perhaps it would be more honest to say that’s certainly what I’m trying to find time to think through.  I want everything from evangelistic, and pre-evangelistic opportunities, and people across the church trained in how to run a variety of courses and less formal approaches, to Graduate Diploma’s because we need people who are learning Christ and loving Christ.  People who are cascading that love of Jesus, who are overflowing (in a good way – think champagne and fizz, not toilets and sewers) about the love, grace and welcome that they have found, and know how to share that with others and then disciple others.

We need leaders at every level, from those who teach at toddlers and disciple our young people on Sunday to those who are stepping up to practically love and serve the church as deacons and are teaching and shepherding as elders.  And I want them all to be growing in their understanding of scripture, to have a sound grasp on grace, to hold fast to the deep truths of the gospel and to pass them on one-to-one, and when we gather.

The danger is that our current lack of leaders paralyses me, that I think I just can’t do it – my mind is often at its most creative when finding excuses.  But unless the church grows its leaders it can’t expect to have any.  I can’t afford to wait, we as a church can’t afford to wait.  As pastors we need to train, to disciple, to raise up.  That means alongside our GDip, we’re beginning a new leaders training course on Sunday’s once a month exploring what church leadership is, how to pray for your leaders and what leadership at every level looks like.  It also means we want to look at everything above, below and in between.  Not to do it all at once and burn out but to create an atmosphere where growing and loving Jesus more is the norm, where discipleship is the norm, where growth is expected.  Where every part if doing its work and the gospel is seen.

Where as we grow leaders the expectation is that they play their part in growing leaders.  Modelling love and service of the Father, Son and Spirit who loved and served us.

Living in exile

When it comes to understanding where we live 1 Peter is an incredibly helpful letter.  We are exiles(1v1).  Just stop and think about that for a minute.  This world is not our home.  It’s not where we belong.  We don’t share it’s ideals and values.  And so we’ll be treated as such.  We’ll be misunderstood and maligned.  As foreigners and exiles we’ll be accused of doing wrong, o not fitting in, of not following what everyone knows is true and right.

how-to-create-a-distinctive-trademark-in-hong-kongBut Peter doesn’t call on these scattered Christians to withdraw from community, or to compromise with community, or to become chameleons and stand out as little as possible, or to privatise their faith and maintain their professionalism.  He calls them to live such good lives, fighting sin and doing good, that those who accuse you of wrong doing can’t deny the good they do and will, when God returns, glorify him for it.

That’s where and when we live.  But I wonder if part of our problem is that we’ve forgotten that.  It’s been comfortable to be a Christian in the UK for so long that we’ve forgotten we’re exiles.  The law has aligned with our beliefs for so long we’ve been lulled by the lullaby of tolerance into forgetting we’re exiles, into thinking that we belong and therefore our gospel is accepted.

But reality is that we’ve simply been compromised.  We’ve been living as citizens of the wrong kingdom because it’s been comfortable to do so.  But we aren’t, we’re exiles, we’re called to be different.  To stand out and to expect opposition and accusation for it, even when we do good.  But we are to meet such opposition and accusation with even more good because of grace.

Israel were a different nation, standing out among all those around them and facing accusations, pressures and opposition because of it.  Jesus and his disciples stood out even from the religious around them and faced accusations and opposition because of it.  The early church stood out from those around them, living as exiles, and they faced accusation and opposition and persecution because of it.  Have we forgotten where we live, when we live?  That this world isn’t home?  That we’re exiles, citizens of God’s kingdom but living temporarily, sojourning, here.  But only until His kingdom comes.

I was reminded of that this morning.  As Christians as we serve others and do good we will be accused of having hidden agenda’s, of seeking influence, of being out to get something.  The question is how will we respond?  Will we withdraw into a holy huddle? Will we give up doing good to avoid the discomfort of false accusations or will we keep doing good but invite people to come and see?

We need a mindset shift.  We’re exiles.  We’re not at home here.  Our agenda is the kingdom agenda, our actions motivated by kingdom methodology and love.  Our goal is to hear the Father’s well done not the world’s.  And at times as we serve God, as we pursue his kingdom we will be accused, we will be slandered, we will be wronged.  Will we be unbowed and unrepentant and will we still do good?  Still pursue God’s kingdom?  Still love those who accuse us?

Church with a limp

In the Bible people seem to match their names.  It struck me that if we were to name our church for what people would see that ‘Church with a limp’ might be quite apt.  And that would be biblically well founded.

In the Bible it’s not just Jacob who learns about God through suffering and has the permanent reminder of God’s grace through his limp.  It’s Job, who though he is blessed still carries his grief as well as the things he has learnt about God.  It’s Moses who’s learned through suffering as he has led the stubborn, stiff-necked, Israel.  It’s Mary who learns what it means for the sword to pierce her own soul as well as the joy of being chosen by grace to bear the Son of God.  It’s Peter who still bears the scars of his denial, it’s Paul who carries the guilt of the persecution years as well as the physical scars of his ministry for his Saviour.

In the Bible God teaches his people through suffering.  No experience in wasted in the man_legs_walking_cane-1024x576economy of God.  God refines his people through suffering and that means so many of us come to church, we gather together, limping.  Limping because of mental health struggles, long term chronic illness, guilt, abuse, ageing, divorce, grief, loss of work, disappointment, childlessness, fears and anxieties about our families and friends and so many more.  It is a joy to see God at work both through and in the limping.  We come poor in Spirit, we come thirty for righteousness, we come hungry for what only Jesus can provide.

So next time you go to church don’t try to hide the limp, don’t wallow in it and adopt a victim mentality either.  But be honest with others about what God is teaching you as you limp on in following him.  It’s not a badge of shame or of honour.  But it is something God will use to teach us, to refine us, to drive us to him as our rock and redeemer, and if we allow him to encourage others as we limp to glory together.

Daily warfare

Spiritual warfare is something we ignore at our peril.  The Bible shows us every one of our forefathers in the faith fighting spiritual battles against Satan and his kingdom.  And yet we often seem to live life as if it is an occasional thing distant from our everyday experience.  But as I prepared and preached through Matthew 6 on Sunday I was struck again by the every day nature of our need to pray for God’s protection from the evil one.

Jesus knew what it was to be tempted, he was tempted in every way we were, which means he didn’t just experience temptation in the wilderness and then in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He knew the daily ongoing battle for spiritual warfare, and he gives us a model prayer that alerts us to the same thing too.

And yet, we find it hard to live as if today we will be on the frontline of another skirmish in that cosmic war until Christ returns and his victory is finally realised.  We will fight it in a hundred little decisions, that like a series of paper cuts are often unfelt at the time.  Read my bible or catch up on my twitter feed?  Lovingly help the person who needs it or put my head down and plough on so it looks like I haven’t seen.  Speak the gospel or stay silent.  Challenge my colleagues false words about all religions being the same or not?  Find my worth in Christ or in my career, family, [fill in your blank].  Have ‘me’ time or serve others.  And on and on it goes.  Every decision a battle and yet so many of them pass unfought because I don’t recognise their true significance.

Yes there are the big battles, the huge life changing moments when we see something new, repent and resolve to change.  But they are not the only battles in the war.  Most of our spiritual course in plotted in the thousands of everyday decisions we make.  How would seeing your day as spiritual warfare change the way you prepared for it?

Don’t starve yourself to feed others

Ministry is busy.  There’s preparation to do, visits to make, evangelism to prepare, dusty-bibleleaders to lead, potential leaders to mentor, strategy to strategise, new books to read, oh yeah and squeeze preaching in somewhere, and I nearly forgot prayer (Wow!  Remembered just in time, to pray for my ministry.  Saved myself some guilt there).  That’s the way many pastors operate.  But what’s missing?

Too many pastors starve themselves to feed others.  We can’t share with others what we don’t have ourselves.  Too often the temptation is to minister to others at the expense of ourselves.  So we study the Bible to prepare for others, rarely do we get alone with God and his word and ask what are you saying to me?  Who are you?  What should I learn and love about you today that I didn’t know or had forgotten in the press of yesterday?

Too often we pray for others and spend little time praying for ourselves, weighing our hearts, motives, treasures, loves, passions and priorities.  Too little time simply enjoying God and responding to him in praise – yes sometimes joyfully, nosily and exuberantly (that’s why I hate the term quiet time!!!! – wrestles to put soap box away without standing on it).

And where does that lead?  That leads to burn out, eventually.  But first and perhaps more insidiously it leads to a loveless ministry.  Ministry becomes what I do rather than the overflow of the privilege of serving the God I love and am getting to love more.  And I think that shows in the way we minister, in the subtle shift to manipulation instead of worship, guilt as motivation instead of grace, ministry as to do rather than grateful overflow.

Pastor a simple plea: don’t starve yourself to feed others.  Fight yourself and others for time with God when you are his child wanting to know him not his minister wanting to fulfil your calling.

Churches a simple question to ask your pastor: how can we help you thrive in your relationship with and enjoyment of God?  He’ll probably try to avoid the issue, maybe he hasn’t even thought about it.  So, here’s what you do.  Ask the question then ask him to pray about it and think about it and take him for coffee, or ask the elders to ask him and take him for a meal to discuss the answer.

Lessons learned from doing all age services

FamilyI’ve never been a fan of all age services.  Too often it has felt as if I have to make too many compromises in preaching, listening, and so on.  However, due in part to losing 2/3rds of our Sunday School teachers because of relocation in the summer we have started a monthly all-age service.  It’s not perfect, I’m not sure it’s easy for parents of pre-school children, but we do have somewhere they can take them to play if it all gets too much or too long.  It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but here are a few things I’ve learned.

Children need to see adults engage with the Bible taught

One of the big pluses of having the children in is that they get to see what the church normally does when they are out being taught by their Sunday School teachers.  They sit with their parents and other adults and teens and see what they normally do.  Both the good and the bad.  I think children seeing adults wrestling with the word of God is good.

It is good as a church to serve the Sunday School teachers by flexing in this way

How do we love and honour those who teach the Bible most weeks to our young people? One of the ways we show love to them is by finding ways to enable them to hear the word of God taught.  If a way to do that is by having an all age service with the occasional noise from one of the children that is a small part to play.

Churches underestimate the ability of children to engage with the Bible

Whilst I’m a little more careful what passages the children are in for I preach a normal sermon.  I don’t compromise, increasingly because the children can engage with it.  Go and sit in a lesson with a class of 7 year olds and see them spotting trigraphs and digraphs, and talking about verbs, adverbs and adjectives in a text.  Our children are capable of looking at the word of God, examining it, searching it, hearing it taught.  We mustn’t baby our children when it comes to the Bible or they will never engage with it seriously.  We have worksheets to help them focus, but they are used to doing and listening and then engaging.

It’s left me wondering if we had a sudden influx of Sunday school teachers would we scrap our all age service?  I’m not sure.

Enduring commitment

We are naturally impatient people.  We sigh and get annoyed if we have to queue for too long, if it takes too long at the drive through, if staff are stocking shelves whilst we’re stood in a queue at a checkout.  If someone is running late.  If the person we’ve told to do something doesn’t do it when we said.  If ministry is hard or fruitless.

We are impatient. Even, maybe especially, in ministry. But real ministry takes time, it is

green tractor pulling red bin on field at daytime
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like the long slow work of the farmer, ploughing, tilling, planting, weeding, feeding, watering, hours and hours invested before any harvesting.

All around us God orders the natural world to teach us patience, yet all the time we chaff against it with our technologically fuelled desire for quicker, faster, better.  In an era of fast it is hard for us to have the patience and the commitment to persevere in the slow change that is growing in godliness.

But change is slow and we find that frustrating.  We read the accounts of Acts and forget that all the action and growth doesn’t just take place in the 3 or 4 hours it takes us to read it but over decades.  We read of Paul and think of him as a hit and run evangelist/church planter.  He goes somewhere for a few months, or maybe at most a couple of years shares the gospel, gets opposed, sees converts, plants a church and moves on.  Too often that’s our model of ministry, though ideally without the opposition.

But biblically we’re missing something vital.  Firstly Paul’s ministry is unique in terms of his planting and secondly that way of thinking about it is just biblically inaccurate.  Paul gives considerable time to establishing and strengthening the disciples he led to Christ, and the churches he helped plant.  His whole ministry was about long term committed relational ministry. In Acts 14v21-28 at the end of the mission journey, rather than rush back to Antioch the quick way, they go out of their way to travel back through the places where they have planted churches, why?  To strengthen the disciples and strengthen the churches.  Then they establish elders for those churches so that this ministry is carried on by local men committed to the gospel and the church.

Again at the end of their second missionary journey, what do they do?  They go back to all the churches strengthening the disciples.  Paul wasn’t a hit and run evangelist.  He wasn’t short term.  He made disciples and was committed to seeing those disciples to the finish line. He goes out of his way and expends considerable energy to physically be with these disciples.  If we misread Paul and Acts we will never commit to the long term or be patient in ministry.

Evangelising and discipling are long term projects.  They require great patience.  They require a relational resilience and commitment.  They require a pouring out of ourselves not for 3 months, or 2 years, or 5 years but over the long term.  This is especially true in communities that don’t change quickly.  In communities like those across Yorkshire and the North East that because of their working class culture don’t see much change at all, but rather generations staying in the same area or even the same house.

And yet these communities, especially in Yorkshire and especially the working class are not used to sustained committed patient presence.  They have been burned by initiative after initiative that pumps money and resources in amidst promises and visions and long term plans but which then pull out and up sticks after 3 or 4 years when the funding runs dry because of a change of policy, or a new initiative that becomes sexy.  Our churches must be different, our evangelical culture must be different, we must be different.  We must commit, we must resolve to patiently endure, proving to people that we love them over the long term, even as they push us away to test that.  Earning trust.  Proving the doubters wrong.  Patiently plugging away with the gospel even when there is seemingly no fruit for years.