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Entries in discipleship (37)

What Every Church Needs

Discipleship is the great calling of the church, and the only soil that grows disciples is a local church culture of spiritual formation. Every other ministry of the church can (and should) grow from this soil.

But here's the challenge: each church already has an existing culture; any attempt to change the mixture of the “soil” will require the deep, patient work of tilling, fertizing, and weeding. Culture change is neither a tactic nor a strategy: it is a transformation. Peter Drucker famously observed, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” He should have said, “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” because the prevailing culture in any organization is the great unspoken factor in ministry. (Note to church planters: start here, because by the time your church is two years old, church culture is beginning to produce fruit, either good or bad.)

Issues of spiritual formation and discipleship are not questions of planning, method, or even teaching—they are hardly even questions at all. Spiritual formation and discipleship are more like horticulture than education. The ground is prepared, seeds are selected and planted, weeds are tended as they arise, and the harvest can seem like a distant dream. But good soil brings great harvests. Success in making disciples is not (at first) measured quantitatively, but qualitatively.

Here are the kinds of questions we should be asking: Are the people of our church becoming more like Jesus? Do we even think it’s possible to be conformed to the image of Christ? Do our leaders think it's possible? Who should do the work of making disciples? How does spiritual growth interact with the metrics of attendance and finances? Is my church's current cultural model sustainable apart from outside instruction or motivation? If our facilities and resources vanished, could our church continue to exist?

Being a disciple—and making disciples—is where personal growth and church life intersect. So (together) we should all ask these questions. Why not bring them up at your church?

The Problem With Jesus

“That’s the problem with Jesus,” said Simon. “He doesn’t see the possibilities of all these people who are gathering around him.”

“What bothers me about Jesus,” said Peter, changing the topic slightly, “is the way he keeps talking about getting himself killed. That’s never gonna happen—not on my watch!”

Just then Jesus returned to the fireside and took his seat. “So,” he said. “What were you guys talking about? . . .”

I’ll leave the rest of the fireside chat to your imagination. But I would like to talk about discipleship from the disciple’s point of view. What do you think it was like learning from a master like Jesus? It couldn’t have been easy. Keep in mind the disciples didn’t know exactly who they were dealing with. Nor did they know the end of the story. They were just a dozen men who had left everything behind to live and learn from this rabbi.

I’m sure those twelve men had more than one “the problem with Jesus” conversation. After all, Jesus gave them plenty of actions to criticize. Jesus told devout Jews they needed to eat his body and drink his blood. Jesus seemed to avoid the big crowds: just when his ministry looked like a success he would say, “Let’s go somewhere else.” Jesus tried to tell his friends (three times!) things are going to end badly in Jerusalem. Jesus insulted Pharisees and lawyers; he welcomed the most unsavory elements of society; he even talked to foreign women!

You can also factor in the stuff Jesus said about himself: “The Father loves the Son, and shows him all things that he himself is doing . . . Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he wishes . . . Not even the Father judges anyone, but he has given all judgment to the Son . . . all will honor the Son just as they honor the Father . . . he who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” What were the disciples to make such talk? Wouldn't these things sound delusional? And by the way, all these statements come from a single conversation! (John 5:19-24)

I think the disciples saw plenty of problems with Jesus. He was unpredictable; he seemed impulsive; he rarely spoke plainly—and when he did it was always disturbing. And yet they followed him. They responded to his call, and remained his disciples even when things were confusing, or even offensive.

But he’s Jesus, you might think. Of course the disciples stuck with him. Yet there are two problems with such thoughts. First, we see the end from the beginning; the disciples had no such advantage. Second, we are tempted to think we would have stuck with Jesus, too. Because Jesus is the perfect Son of God, we think we would’ve soaked up everything he said and did. Beware this line of thought. It doesn’t help us to say, “Today we are dealing with fallible human beings. Jesus was the sinless perfect Son of God.”

Here’s the question behind today’s post: how do we cope with the flaws of leadership? And not just leadership: but those who disciple us. We are more likely to see the flaws of someone who disciples us than of any other person. How are we to judge?

I’ll resist the urge to provide quick answers, because working through the problem is the path to life. But I will offer two final questions: 

  • Who disciples you? I’m not talking about church leadership, which is recognized by titles like pastor, deacon, or elder. Leadership is an organizational concept; discipleship is formational. Who helps shape and form your life?
  • What about the flaws of the disciple-maker? This question cuts two ways because your mentor certainly has flaws. Everyone does. But how are we to tell the difference between “flaws” and those things we simply do not understand? Some actions or statements could look like arrogance or miscalculation—but they just might be correct and necessary. How are we to know?

Let’s leave the questions hanging. I have some ideas about them, but that’s a post for another day.

Jesus Wanted More Than a Boat

Remember the story when Jesus and Peter go fishing together? It’s one of those gospel accounts we think we know: we’ve heard it before but the details seems to run like watercolor. The images are so vague we come away with equally vague ideas—Jesus is smarter than Peter; we’re called to become fishers of men; don’t run in the aisles or don’t wear a hat in church.

Now it happened that while the crowd was pressing around Him and listening to the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret; and He saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake; but the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the people from the boat. When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered and said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.” When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break; so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him. (Luke 5:1-11)

Let’s take ten minutes with this account and see what we can move from watercolor to the sharp clarity of oil. Here are eight details that stand out in sharp relief:

Jesus, the intruder: when he saw the crowd was too big, Jesus first stepped into Peter’s boat and only then asked for help. Peter had returned from a frustrating night of third shift work and simply wanted to clean up and go home. I wonder what would’ve happened if Peter had said, “Get your own boat.”

Peter thought the mission was fishing, and he was done for the day. Jesus had a new mission, one that incorporated Peter's experience. Jesus spoke the language of commerce but, as we all know, he trades in souls. I wonder how many of us realize that our work experience can be applied in the economy of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus said, “Try again” at a different time and a different place. Peter, somewhere between amused and irritated, humored the clueless Lord of glory. But he did what Jesus said. Perhaps we should all humor the Lord the glory.

Yep: there was a ton of fish. So many, in fact, Peter needed help. Hmmm, let’s see: Doing God’s work requires community? The bounty of God isn’t just for me alone? God’s work draws in more people? Also: Peter and friends are about to “leave everything” and follow Jesus—in the great catch of fish was provision for those left behind.

Just moments before Jesus invites Peter to become a disciple, Peter realizes the depth of his own sin. His sin did not disqualify Peter from being a disciple; his recognition of sin was the starting point.

"Don't be afraid" How many times does Jesus say this? At least seven times. Angels say it, too. So do the prophets. According to some accounts, add them all up and you hit 365 “fear nots.” Fear not, daily.

Leave everything: no, he didn’t really say this. A close study of the original languages reveal that what Jesus said was “develop an attitude of inner detachment from your possessions and cultivate a spirit of sacrifice.” No--of course that's nonsense: those guys left everything.

Finally, Jesus was after more than a boat. This passage starts with a description of Jesus preaching to a crowd, so we think it’s about the preaching or the crowds. Then Jesus asks a random fisherman for the use his boat as a preaching platform. Then we hear nothing of the sermon or the crowd, but we discover the Lord’s true objective: the fisherman. I guess Peter wasn’t the only one who had a good catch that day.

 

 

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Is Jesus an Impossible Mentor?

I knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left my mouth. Sitting in my office was a young man who had been cheated out of $300 by someone else in the church. Both men attended our church, and one guy really did owe the other $300. But the guilty party wasn’t in the office, the other guy was—and he was full of anger and frustration because of his loss. That’s when I made my hasty suggestion:

“You could forgive him his debt,” I suggested. “Jesus told us to do just that.” Big mistake.

“Well I’m not Jesus!” he shouted back at me. End of discussion, end of ministry time, end of opportunity to take the yoke Jesus offers. It was my mistake. Not for suggesting a perfectly Biblical remedy to his anger and frustration, but for expressing the solution in such a way that he would consider it impossible.

It’s impossible to be like Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus was perfect. He led a sinless life. He was God-come-to-earth and his life sets the bar impossibly high for any of us.

I believe that the central problem in nurturing followers of Jesus (at least in North America) is our view of Jesus as the Impossible Mentor. It’s a paradox: nearly everyone is willing to acknowledge Jesus as a worthy role model, but almost no one seriously believes it is possible to live up to his example. Our esteem for Jesus’s life of obedience to the Father and our desire to be “just like Jesus” does battle with the deep-seated notion that it is impossible to be like him. Who would choose a mentor who is impossible to imitate?

Some passages in the Scripture inspire fill us with confidence. Some light the fires of hope in our hearts. Other passages seem too idealistic, too fantastic to find their way into even our dreams, much less our daily lives, like this one: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8: 29) Is this possible? Does God really look at each one of us and see a destiny in which we look like Jesus?

Whatever our theological foundations regarding this passage we should all recognize that it is about God’s intention for each of one us: to become “conformed to the likeness of his 
Son.” Simply put God desires to have more children like Jesus. Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, but we become his sons and daughters by adoption. The destiny of those adopted into the family of God is that we, too, should bear the family likeness. That is: we will look just like Jesus.

In a conversation with a dozen young Christians this week, I asked them if they felt it was possible to live a life without sin for even one day. No takers. So I rephrased the question and asked if it is possible to go for an hour without sinning. Only one of them thought it was possible to stay within the will of God for a single hour. How can we be like Jesus (even in a small way) if these opinions hold us back? These questions are not academic. They go to the heart of our life “in Christ.” If our intuition tells us that following His example is impossible, for one day or even an hour, how can we have the confidence to pursue his vision for us?

The bottom line is that God has a greater vision for what is possible in our lives than we do. Perhaps the reason the Apostle Paul instructs us later in Romans to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is so we can see the possibilities of a life lived in harmony with Jesus. A practical, day-to-day, moment-by- moment harmony capable of generating the rest and peace he promises.

Let me encourage you this week to ponder the foundations of your commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. Here are a few suggestions for meditation and prayer:

• Is it possible to learn from him?

• If Jesus is my mentor, have I committed myself to failure with no possibility of success?

• What kind of Master would invite me to be his apprentice if he thought there was no possibility to follow in his footsteps?

The answers spoken from our heart will determine whether discipleship is possible.

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The very first post that appeared at this blog, back in January 2009. It's also the opening pages of my book The Impossible Mentor: Finding Courage to Follow Jesus, available from Amazon.

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Four Years of Passion, a Good Start

When I told one of my best friends that for my (third) career I wanted to be a writer, he gave me life-changing advice: "Try to imagine talking about your subject every single day for two years. If the idea still thrills you, you've found your topic."
 
After four years of writing Students of Jesus, and I can report my passion has grown! Becoming a disciple of Jesus--and making disciples of others--takes me deeper and deeper into life with God. When I encounter familiar old Bible passages on discipleship, they seem constantly-fresh, filled with life: always revealing the new possibilities of following the Lord.
 
Here are three foundational passages for anyone who longs for something more than a fire-insurance relationship with Jesus:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • If heaven is the ultimate goal of the gospel, then discipleship is merely an option, like a choice in the cafeteria. But discipleship is not a choice, it's the mission.  There is something lacking in each one of us until we become disciples and until we make disciples of others.
  • Discipleship is open to anyone willing to worship Jesus. Intellectual curiosity is not the ticket in, nor are good works. And here is the really good news: doubt does not disqualify you from worship.
  • At the place of worship we discover that Jesus considers us partners in his mission. He never intended the original twelve disciples to be the only ones: he intended they would reproduce themselves. Amazingly, he intends the same for us as well.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29) 
  • The good news is better than we think: the Father intends that each of us can become conformed to the image of his son. This is staggering: if we are disciples of Jesus, the Father has set a destination for each of us--Christlikeness!
  • Jesus is unique: the only begotten of the Father. Yet that same Father is determined to have a large family. He sends a spirit of adoption into our hearts. We see him as our true Father and we discover our older brother is none other than the Lord of glory.
  • When we first heard the gospel--presented as Jesus‘ sacrificial death on our behalf--how many of us imagined the Father had a destination in mind better than Heaven itself?
At that time Jesus declared, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)
  • If the destination of Christlikeness seems too far-fetched, Jesus comes to our rescue. He himself offers to be our guide and instruct us in the kind of life that flows from being with our Creator moment-by-moment.
  • We can simultaneously learn from him and find rest in him. For example, anyone who has tried to learn a new language, skill, or life-habit understands the hard work involved. Yet Jesus tells us that when we are hooked-up in right relationship with him we will experience new life and refreshing at the same time. No university in the world can offer that combination.
  • Human models of training and leadership depend on intelligence and worldly wisdom for their effectiveness. In this passage the King himself looks heavenward and gives thanks that the kids at the head of the class have no advantage over the rest of the us. In fact, they are in the dark--God rejoices that human intelligence is inadequate while offering the benefits of relationship to all who will simply come to him. Who wouldn’t take a deal like that?

So in the same year I’ve qualified for the Senior's discount at Denny’s I’ve discovered that four years isn’t near enough to explore that possibilities of life with God. I’m delighted you’re along for the ride.