In today’s church one of the biggest criticisms from outside the church is that Christians don’t act like Christians. Their profession (of faith) doesn’t match their behavior. Indeed, we see it ourselves when members don’t worship, they seldom attend Bible class and the don’t participate in activities or programs. We see unchristian behavior, low Biblical literacy and few, if any, share their faith. The result is the pews get more and more empty. Churches are dying.
Our heart is to make disciples. We know that means getting people in contact with the word of God. We offer worship, Bible classes, catechesis and more. But not many show up. Motivation and enthusiasm are thin. Is there is a problem with our formula for making disciples? How could there be? We know the passages, “…when you received from us the word of God’s message…which also performs its work in you who believer.” And, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” Romans 10:17. Plus many others.
So what’s the problem? It isn’t with the word of God!
Yet maybe we missed something. Yes. We missed something. In the great commission, Jesus’ last words put it this way, “…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to obey…” Matthew 28:19-20.
Teaching them to obey. To obey. Did you catch that? Jesus does not just want an information based approach to discipleship. He wants a behavior based approach as well! It is teaching and obedience. Certainly we know that salvation is a free gift, without the works of the law as Paul says in Ephesians 2. Yet he also says in verse 10, “…we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works…” James himself talks about faith and works. See a pattern here? They go together. We enter into discipleship through the grace of God in Christ Jesus, through the word. For many it happens through the means of Holy Baptism as Jesus speaks in Matthew 28. Then there is maturing in the word through teaching which of necessity involves obedience. Jesus says, “If you love me you will obey…” John 14:15.
Yet so many of us assume there will be the resulting obedience and just emphasize getting the content of the teaching into people’s heads. Then at the same time we lament there are no leaders. Again, no surprise there. Why? Because discipleship often occurs within the framework of a task, an assignment, or responsibility upon the learner. Put another way, people won’t grow unless they put to use what they are learning and they will be more motivated to learn when they see learning is necessary for what they are trying to do.
If you are a ministry leader reading this you know it well. Once you took on some responsibility in the church, whether lay or pastor, and you felt a greater sense of ought to grow in your faith because of it. How did it happen for you? Did you teach Sunday school? Were you a youth leader? I remember when I was in high school starting to help out with a Jr. High youth group, I was told that teachers will be judged more strictly as it says in James 3:1! That got my attention and drove me to the Bible. On the one hand you knew you needed to be more prepared to do the task whether it was teaching or just being an example. Then on the other hand you knew you needed God’s help and so you sought Him more earnestly in His word. Teaching led to obedience and obedience led to the teaching. It all gets intensified when there is a responsibility. In my case, it was leading Jr. High students.
Therein lies the formula for discipleship: Input <-> Output. One leads to the other. It is an ongoing cycle. The task or responsibility, whether formal or informal, personal or interpersonal is the output or behavior and the input is the word of God. Without the explicit context of the output, people become indifferent to the input. The result is that we short-circuit the discipleship growth curve when we cut out or assume the output and think that it is always one direction. Discipleship requires both: input and output where the output serves as the framework for the input.
How often do we assume the output? We think, “I’ll just teach them and they they will work out how this fits into their life, what they say, how they interact with family and co-workers and so on.” Or worse, we think that people can’t get on with the output until they have adequate input. That’s what we are really saying when we express things like, “we’re going to study evangelism for 12 weeks before we start to think about doing it.” Really? No! If people start to try to do it, fledgling or inexperienced as it is, they will be more open and even hungry for the instruction! They will run to the class instead of skipping out on it! It is a truth in every other process of learning or apprenticeship or personal development in life. The math lecture involves homework which leads to figuring out what you missed from the teacher. Then the test comes and the learning continues. The boss gives you an assignment that is new to you. You know it is new to you so you are motivated to learn so you don’t lose your job. You ask for help along the way. You learn, you grow. Then before you know it, you are not only doing it well, you are great.
Crawling comes before walking which comes before running. So what is the bottom line? How do we help people to grow as disciples? We need to be explicit with a framework of output within which people will work on their faithfulness as a disciple. We often assume it is just “life” as the framework. But practically it needs to be more focussed.
That need for focus means that people need to be given some responsibility. They need a job. They need an assignment. They need a task or something to sink their teeth into. Yes, it needs to be more than just learn this and put it to use in your daily life. It needs to be personal. It needs to be something concrete like a role or position or contribution they will make personally. That will be far more practical than just, “Okay, now try to live this way…” Don’t get me wrong, their life will indeed be impacted. But it will happen along the way, as they seek to live into a responsibility and a task. In other words it is because of this framework of responsibility that they will be ever more motivated to engage with God in word and worship! That is how it life change and discipleship happens.
Let’s also not forget the help a “travel guide” is, to walk beside them each step of the way. This person will provide encouragement, help, accountability, pointing them to Jesus with every step. It might be two steps forward and three steps back, but it is progress. It is growth. It is personal faith development. It is input and it is output. It is with the help of a travel guide or “coach.”
Then if you haven’t caught it already, you are also developing leaders. The hidden truth is that as you develop leaders, it is a great framework for developing disciples. Both of which we desperately need in the church. Not only that but these growing leaders will be able to duplicate what has been done for them. They went through it. They can repeat the pattern. It is transferable and scalable. It only requires meeting someone where they are willing to take on some small responsibility. The responsibility will then grow to their personal capacity and they will also be nurtured for the responsibility through word and worship. Yes it will take time. Yes it will be an investment. But it is an investment in love.
That’s the formula: output leads to input and input leads to output: The need is for a framework of responsibility and teaching them to obey. “And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:20. That’s Jesus’ promise.
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Scott Gress is called by Lutheran Counseling Services and partners with the FL-GA District of the Lutheran Church as an independent contractor. He specializes in Leadership Training, Consulting, Coaching and Coach Training. Contact Scott to continue the conversation or experience a free sample coaching session. 561-542-4472, firstname.lastname@example.org or scottgress.com
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2 thoughts on “The Lost Formula for Discipleship”
Heartily agree. I see the results of prior training of leaders at Trinity, even still… Those trained in caring ministries — specifically Stephen’s Ministry — are still at it, even though they are not “organized.” Obviously that ministry attracted (and kept!) caring people. They still go and care and keep learning, always involved in one or more Bible classes to hone their knowledge, still, and attitudes. No doubt about it. Thanks!
Thanks Ken, great people indeed! I think one of the greatest blessings I received in ministry was when you came to Trinity after you retired from full time ministry and said to me, “there’s so many people who do things around here!” Amen!