By Randy Gariss
I have a friend who often states an obvious and yet surprisingly profound concept. He keeps reminding us “that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, then we’ll keep getting what we’ve got!” Don’t tell us we don’t have deep philosophers in our neck of the woods. But in that vein let’s talk about a serious subject—how your church makes disciples.
We probably agree in general on what a disciple should look like—he or she should look and behave like Jesus! He should love the truth, live courageously, love compassionately, walk in purity, pray passionately, pursue the weak, teach with boldness, model meekness . . . and the sweet montage continues. Perhaps the most precious and radiant picture on earth is that of a mature disciple of Jesus, for that man or woman reflects the glory of God.
But how do we make such disciples? Undoubtedly the Spirit of God is the actual change agent, but that question still matters, for disciple-making is the business of the church. So how does your church do it? From the time a disciple is born until the time he looks most like Jesus, what process do you use? What clear path have you laid out to help get him there?
Let me state the obvious. If disciples could be created by having classes . . . well, your church would be chin deep with people who look just like Jesus, and so would the churches around you. It is probably safe to say the primary method for making disciples in most churches is to teach. The classrooms, sermons, lectures, tapes, videos, books, seminars, and women’s studies . . . the list is extensive. If there is one thing we are good at, it is teaching.
Yet in spite of all the lessons, there is a little voice that still whispers, “The emperor has no clothes on.” Many of us sense intuitively that the process we are familiar with is not working. Oh, there are great and godly individuals within our congregations, but why are there not more? Why are they not the majority? Who can’t sympathize and identify with Paul’s sadness over the Corinthian believers, “You are still weak and sick.” So how does your church make disciples?
Rubel Shelly and others may have caught us in our weakness. Rubel, an educator and preacher within the church of Christ fellowship, says, “Today’s church has more in common with the small, friendly university down the street than it does with the first-century church. They made disciples through community; we attempt to make them through the assembly and the classroom.” And therein probably lies the secret. Disciple-making requires a better process, and it involves aspects we have neglected.
The wordsmiths among us may vary in their descriptions, but there appear to be three essentials in the process of producing disciples. All three have great value . . . but each is inadequate if it stands alone. Like three legs on a stool, three ingredients in a recipe, three braids in a rope . . . the key is in their joint contribution to one another.
Disciples are best made when truth, relationships, and servanthood are clear, unmistakable steps in the process.
To make disciples, everyone needs to hear the truth, and hear it from someone who loves them.
We cannot help anyone (lost people or believers) become like Jesus if we don’t help them know what God thinks. Our process will always include teaching. We cannot overstate the value of clear biblical teaching and preaching. The great church will always be associated with gathering people together for the purpose of helping them hear the Word. Nothing is gained for Christ by its neglect!
It has been a long time since I had tears come to my eyes over a concordance. But that’s exactly what happened while I was studying Jeremiah recently. More than 180 times the phrase “the word of the Lord” or something similar is used. This powerful truth is incredibly moving: we have nothing to offer if we care not for what God has said. The great church will teach and teach well.
A friend of mine has a twinkle in his eye and more than a grain of truth when he says, “If you think education is expensive, just try being stupid for a while!” Let’s keep teaching.
But discipleship requires far more than just teaching. The process of making disciples requires close personal relationships with godly people.
The Elishas of the world need to know an Elijah. Today’s Peter, Andrew, James, and John will grow in faith because of their close personal relationship with a committed disciple who shares life with them and washes their feet. If you would have a Timothy or a Titus, they must become the companions of a Paul. Much of the Christian life is caught simply by sharing life with one another. No classroom or series of sermons can replace these relationships.
Sometimes the church confuses personable for personal; sometimes she confuses friendly for friends. Your church may be extremely friendly, and even kind to one another, but unless the individuals you disciple are in life-sharing relationships with godly people . . . well, you may just be a small friendly university.
As a preacher, I would much rather have a godly man or woman tell me they are devoting their next year to investing in and shepherding a small group of people than to tell me they are willing to teach. I assure you, it is much easier to get teachers than shepherds.
When the church can get her key leaders to simplify their lives, to stop standing at a “dozen intersections” in the church and instead to focus on and share life with one primary group of disciples, then something healthier begins to develop.
The process of making disciples requires suppers around a kitchen table, trips to ball games, sitting together in hospital lobbies, working on decks and reseeding backyards, and talking about the truth of God. For it is in those environments that the disciple begins to connect the lessons to the life he lives.
Most churches need to relocate their leadership resources. We probably need fewer leaders in the classroom and more shepherds in the small groups. If these first points are like two legs on a stool, for too long one has been a tree trunk while the second is a toothpick.
And the third step in the disciple-making process requires servanthood.
There are some things about God a disciple will not and cannot grasp until he begins to do the will of the master. The towel and the basin are essential discipleship tools; when a man or woman’s hands begin to form around them, transformation accelerates.
For example, consider Galatians 5. The fruit of the Spirit is given to those who “live by the Spirit,” and those who “live by the Spirit” are defined as those who “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13-22).
Everybody needs to be serving somebody. The disciple-making church expects everyone to serve, and provides a clear, well-lit path to a place on a team where somebody’s needs are going to get met. As Jesus clearly stated, it is in giving your life away that you get it back. But when you get it back, it looks like Jesus. A church of “underemployed” believers won’t produce many disciples.
So how are the best churches making disciples? Again, the word choice will vary, but they have simplified what they do and have committed to creating an unmistakable discipleship path. Everyone will see and hear the same message: “We teach truth; we create the opportunity for close relationships; and servanthood is how we’ll change the world, including yours.” That church will turn a community upside down.
Let’s look at our programming and realign it. Let’s make clear, wide, unmistakable “bridges” so that individuals can easily move through the process. And let’s do one thing well: let’s make disciples of Jesus Christ.
Randy Gariss is preaching minister with the College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri.