This is the last post in our Building a Discipleship Culture series. I hope this series has been helpful for you, because I think discipleship is the most important thing we can do to build the Kingdom of God. It’s also the main thing God asked the church to do, so that should matter too. In this series, we’ve talked about how to define discipleship and build a process that leads to that definition. We’ve talked about building a process that allows people to begin where they are but constantly invites them to take their next step.
In this final installment, I want to get super practical so that you can put this stuff into practice as quickly and easily as possible. Last week’s blog talked about how everything we do should be discipleship. This is one of those ideas that a speaker says at a conference and everyone says amen and nods their heads in agreement. But what does that actually look like? That’s what we’ll explore today.
Let’s start with an easy one. Preaching towards discipleship shouldn’t be a new concept for any of you. If discipleship is, at its core, drawing people nearer to Jesus, your preaching should be doing this every single week. Jesus should be the hero of every sermon, not your congregation and certainly not you. More than that, you should ask yourself after every sermon, if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, would this sermon still be true? If the answer is yes, it probably wasn’t a Christian sermon.
Let’s not stop there though. Not only should every sermon be explicitly born from scripture and have Jesus as the hero at the center, you should also take the opportunity to cast a compelling vision for discipleship. Draw clear lines from the text you are preaching to the discipleship truth embedded in it. Connect the dots for people because they won’t do it themselves.
For instance, this last Sunday I preached from Matthew 23 where Jesus dresses down the Pharisees with a series of woes. I preached the text, gave the context, made Jesus the hero and cast a vision for godly leadership. I talked about how leadership in our homes and workplaces should reflect the self-giving nature of Jesus’s own leadership, rather than the self-protecting leadership of the Pharisees. This connects the dots from an obscure (and fairly intense) rebuke from Jesus into a practical, gospel-centered vision for leadership.
This too might be obvious, but we have to utilize our groups and classes (or whatever structure you have) for the specific end of discipleship. These environments shouldn’t simply be Bible study as if it were a seminary class, nor just a good hang like a Friday night party. Everything should drive towards discipleship. I don’t care if you are teaching Hebrew or celebrating a birthday, find ways to draw people to Jesus.
There are lots of ways to build your discipleship structure and I don’t want to use this space to go through all of the options. What I will say is that you should have ways that you talk about discipleship that are uniquely reflective of your values and culture and then repeat them over and over and over in your groups and classes.
For instance, in our first church plant we used the phrase, “Following Jesus, in Community and on Mission.” This was our tagline as a church but we used it as the foundation of our discipleship and we used the phrase a lot. So if we were in a class and addressing some theological topic, we’d end by asking, “OK, so how does our theology of spiritual gifts inform how we follow Jesus, in community and on mission?” And we’d use those three categories to spark practical conversation about how we might do that.
At another church, our phrase was “following Jesus together in real life.” Again, no matter the topic at hand, we can relate it to how we might follow Jesus, do it together, and do it in real life, not just church. Whenever we had a new idea for a class or a group, we’d run it through that lens. We’d ask, “How does this help our people follow Jesus together in real life?”
I’ll warn you now, if you do this, you’ll get really tired of your phrases. That’s good. When you are tired of it, your people are just starting to remember it.
This category is less obvious to most of us. In last week’s blog, I encouraged you to think about how your parking lot and property signage reflect your desire for people to know Jesus. I think this is one of the most overlooked but high impact opportunities that our churches have to embody the values of Jesus.
Hospitality is a key Christian virtue. When people visit your church, you are the host and they are your guests. When I go to someone’s home for the first time, I will find out in the first 2 minutes whether or not they are a good host or not. If they are a good host, they will have told me where to park and addressed anything potentially confusing. They will welcome me at the door, invite me in, direct me to take off my shoes (or not) without me asking and tell me exactly where to go. They will take charge, anticipate my needs and desires, and be proactive about addressing them.
I love going to those places because I feel cared for. I feel valued and at rest. I trust those hosts to take care of me and I will do whatever they ask me to do. They have a plan and take charge, they have thought about me and the night ahead of time. It makes me feel loved.
Conversely, a bad host neglects all of these things. I enter their home uncertain what to do or where to go. They stare at me blankly as if I’m supposed to entertain them. I have to ask for things like water or directions to the bathroom. They are unprepared, late or thoughtless about how the night is going to go, so there are awkward silences and embarrassing missteps. I hate those homes and I rarely go back.
Your church is no different. If you want people to come to your church and stay, you have to be a good host. In the process, you are teaching them about Christian hospitality. You are teaching them about Jesus. Either way, you are showing them what it's like to be a part of your community. What will they think? Will they leave assuming that you are full up and aren’t looking for new friends? Or will they walk away believing that you really do love them and want the best for them?
I’m lumping all of these together because the mindset is the same. No matter what your ancillary ministries might be, discipleship should be their aim. None of these ministries should exist unto themselves, with goals that are unique to them. They are all means to the same end of discipleship.
Pastoral care and counseling are often guilty of this accidentally because of the confidential nature of the ministry. It’s easy for a pastor who does a lot of counseling to forget that he is a part of a larger team with larger goals. He needs to be constantly reminded that discipleship is everyone’s goal and that his part - while valuable - is not unique.
If preaching is the fire hose of discipleship, ministries driven by demographics should be viewed as scalpels. They are not an opportunity to build a church within a church or for young pastors to cut their teeth in ministry. Their goal is still discipleship. They just get to do it in a really specific context with methods tailored to their particular clientele. Remind your leaders that discipleship is their goal and make it clear by also defining their jobs as such. Just like we talked about in the blog about measuring discipleship, when you measure the success of their ministry, measure their effectiveness around discipleship, not participation.
Lastly, any leadership development initiatives you have should have discipleship as their primary goal. This may seem counterintuitive since it’s a leadership development process, but if you aim at discipleship, you will not only get leaders but even those who don’t rise to leadership positions will still be closer to Jesus when you are done.
This is why I always encourage pastors to aim their leadership development at real life and not church structures. Never call your elder or group leader training by those names because no matter how many times you warn them that not everyone will make it to the end, whoever doesn’t will be bitterly disappointed.
Instead, just do leadership development that is discipleship for leaders. This will do discipleship, cast a vision for Christian leadership, equip people for leadership in every aspect of life and give you a clear sense of their fit and capacity for church leadership. You can always do some sort of finishing school for potential elders or group leaders but don’t invite people into that until you are 90% sure you want them there.
As pastors, there is nothing more important for us to be doing than discipleship. It is our core calling and it is what we will be held responsible for. In the end, I don’t think we can be judged for the results of our efforts. Results are God’s purview. But if we stand before the throne and say that we never even made a plan for discipleship, it’s hard to see that going well.
Take time, if you haven’t already, to make or evaluate your discipleship plan. Are there areas of your ministry that don’t see discipleship as their primary goal? Change that, and you will see your church transform into a disciple-making movement.