Those made alive in Christ have a desire to grow. In the Great Commission, the Lord spoke of making disciples rather than converts, until “the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20 NKJV) To accomplish this, He provided the church of which He had spoken earlier (Matt. 16:18). Words like “nurture” and “training,” so useful in the home with children, would become just as valuable in the local church as a true spiritual family. How well is this work of training disciples being carried out in the assembly where you fellowship?
Some churches have taken a casual, passive approach to the subject; meetings are provided and the results should “just happen” – at least for those highly motivated. Others prefer a more active approach to discipleship; they would point out that the New Testament assembly is ideally suited for this work, not having the encumbrances and limitations of a professional clergy.
What steps can elders take to supply quality training for young Christians without neglecting those of all ages and stages of spiritual development? How can they guide the assembly in which they serve toward becoming an active center for discipleship? Here are five suggestions that can help. But note that in addition to constructive ideas, a few obstacles will also be mentioned, since getting serious about making disciples will inevitably bring some spiritual warfare.
1) Work Towards Excellence in Teaching and Preaching
Feeding the flock means more than just filling the calendar! Speakers and subjects should be of the best quality available. Young disciples will need a basic grasp of every book in the Bible as well as major Bible doctrines. If the current approach to Bible teaching is not providing this, consider working systematically through a book of Scripture during some part of each year. Books like Timothy and Titus are a goldmine of instructions for training believers, but longer books and the Old Testament writings should not be neglected.
Elders will need wisdom and discernment, however, as not all speakers will sympathize with their goals or methods. Messages or speakers that seem to be geared toward entertainment, or things controversial, or directed toward lost people may be less useful.
As for the hearers, it is very important for assembly leaders (elders, deacons, and people of influence) as well as those being trained, to be relieved from other duties during the ministry of the Word—this will allow them to make every effort to attend faithfully and absorb the material so that they can interact at a later time. This can be difficult given the demands of youth work and various church programs, but the rewards will make the effort worthwhile.
2) Cultivate an “Equipping Mindset” in the Assembly
The elders must make it clear to all the saints that discipleship is not optional. Young believers must be trained, some to carry on the local work, and others sent out as the Lord directs. It is of utmost importance that elders understand Ephesians 4:11–16 – gifted men (the evangelist, pastor and teacher) are given by the Lord to the churches for the stated purpose of training others! Too often these gifts are well used by those who have them, but their primary role in “the equipping of the saints” (vs. 12) is neglected.
One symptom that the younger believers are not being trained for ministry is the need to search outside the assembly for a full time worker, not to help equip the saints, but because there is no one to handle the work load. Fortunately, the importance of this truth is being grasped by many servants of the Lord today.
It will take time and hard work to change the perception of the church from a sometimes irrelevant institution where mostly older folks attend, to an actively growing school for all ages in which the Bible is the curriculum!
3) Value Opportunities for Involvement
Growing disciples must be absorbed into the life and work of the assembly. As in raising of children, the temptation to let those more experienced “just do it all” will need to be resisted. Working alongside of elders and other older servants will provide invaluable practical training. Getting involved in meetings, going along on visitations, serving in projects, both spiritual and temporal, watching how decisions are made and then participating in the decision making process can all yield helpful practical experience.
Wise elders will be constantly alert for creative ways to get young believers more involved in the workings of the assembly. This also applies to outreach into the community. Indeed, many are discovering that the best way to reach lost people for Christ is not by trying to attract them into the church, but by training workers and witnesses to go out and reach them in the world. This was, of course, how the apostles worked.
4) Encourage Feedback
Everyone knows that training involves more than just speaking truthful facts to people. Both at home and at school, training requires interaction and accountability. Smaller fellowships may be able to handle this one-on-one, but larger assemblies may find it helpful to meet more informally in small groups during the week. It is true that Scripture will guide the elders as to what the flock needs, but it is also important to monitor progress, and admittedly, most regular church services don’t provide a workable setting for questions and discussion.
Learning to ask good questions and being good listeners is the first step in follow-up. Are there questions? Is the material being taught being understood? Is it clear how the information can be applied practically? Are there significant obstacles to learning and/or living out the truth? Are there tangible ways the leadership can offer help? These and other questions can help elders “know the state of your [their] flocks” (Proverbs 27:23). Whatever the method, make sure feedback from the people is highly valued.
5) Protect the Process
As with any good thing, blessings do not come by “letting nature take its course.” Good leadership is essential! As mentioned earlier, the adversary will never welcome a decision to become active in training disciples. Some problems will arise in just getting started. Older saints can find change unsettling. Individuals with special interests (sometimes for good causes) may resent having teaching take a different focus.
Be prepared for mistakes when giving a trainee opportunity to ministry; rare is the person who gets things perfect on the first attempt. A positive and thankful outlook will accomplish more than calling attention to short comings. In addition, it will take time to train the people to accept ministry from those within the assembly that may be new to using their gift.
Don’t be afraid to try new ideas that will better serve the needs of the people.
Occasionally we hear the old saying that in most churches, 10% of the people do 90% of the work. Achieving quality involvement by 100% of those in fellowship probably won’t happen in a fallen world. But with good leadership, hard work, much love and prayer, the Lord will be glorified in changing those numbers dramatically for the better.
The apostle John put it this way: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.”(III John 4). His joy was not that they know truth, but that they were walking in it. That’s the heart of discipleship and any church that has a reputation for helping Christians along that road will usually become a place where they will want to be. Imagine a place where the Christian growth in faith of every member really matters to the people who go there. Few things in this life can be more satisfying!