In the previous article, we thought about how the Lord worked with His disciples, spending time with them to prepare them, so that He might send them out to carry on His work. We noted the importance of preserving a balance between the “internal” and “external” aspects as essential parts of discipleship. Finally, we looked at a checklist of some of the spiritual qualities that disciples must be learning in the assembly as part of their training.
In this article, we’ll think about how elders can lead the way in this important dimension of assembly life, for if the church is to be a place for making disciples, is it not reasonable to ask if those who lead are doing it? There can be no better evidence that discipleship is occurring, than a pool of spiritually healthy and active young believers coming along to carry on the work both at home and out in “the field.”
Lessons on Discipleship
In Luke 14, the Lord gave important teaching about discipleship, including two key illustrations: one about a man planning to build a tower (vss. 28-30) and the other about a king facing an enemy attack (vss. 31-32) There are good lessons to be learned from what He said, that can help us evaluate the strength of disciple-making in our own assembly, and suggest some steps to take if it’s weak.
First we observe that in both illustrations, an active decision was called for. Nothing would just “happen” with the passing of time. In fact, failure to act would inevitably result in the decision: “No.” Additionally we learn that the choice to move ahead would necessarily involve the sacrifice of time, energy and goods. Some element of risk would be involved.
Note also that both stories convey the truth that the decision to act is goal oriented, a worthwhile end being contemplated by the one responsible. Then too, each would have individuals under his charge whose lives would be affected by his decisions. This alone is a serious consideration!
Further, once made, each decision would require a carefully laid out plan which must be followed. The idea of everyone doing “his own thing” would spell disaster. In this connection, it’s not a bad idea for elders to ask “What is our plan; do we have one and do the people know what it is?”
Finally, the two stories illustrate the truth that discipleship is relevant to the Lord’s work in two spheres: at home (the building of the tower), and in the world (going off to war). Home base must be kept strong so that returning warriors can be fortified and sent out again.
Once a decision has been made to move forward, it’s important to keep evaluating the progress. Do those in the fellowship understand that this local church is serious about discipleship, and has a plan of action? Are the elders willing and able to confront obstacles like harsh criticism of young believers (trainees), or relational problems that can set up cliques?
One aspect of discipleship training that is particularly crucial is the matter of making good “transitions,” a most helpful word for elders. This is different from the equally important idea of “passing the baton.” Passing the baton describes the process of handing the work along to the next generation. Transition is the process that the individual disciple passes through during his own training.
Disciples must be taught to expect a change or transition in their thinking as they move from being primarily “takers” to primarily “givers.” This is no different from the child rearing process in the home. In the early years of life, children are great “consumers” of time, goods, and love, but as they mature, they begin to assume some of the responsibilities of maintaining a home and family. With both ideas, it is essential that parents or trainers be willing to pass along the work, and accept the fact that those who formerly could only receive, are now sensing the need to give to others.
To use an illustration from recent personal experience, I had just finished teaching through the book of Philippians in our small group which meets in a home midweek. Everyone seemed to enjoy the study, and the logical question was “What shall we study next?” As a Bible teacher, one has opinions of what would benefit the group, but whatever book was chosen would be profitable.
During the week, I received an email from the young brother who leads our small group. He pointed out that because the elders in our assembly have chosen to emphasize the theme of discipleship this year, he wanted to try an idea in the group that was a little different. It would aim at getting the people more involved. After all, he reasoned, people tend to be lazy. While they enjoy sitting by during the teaching of the Word, are they actively growing as they ought to be?
Now if disciple making has taught me anything, it is that the zeal and vision of youth must be harnessed to work or be lost. New wine will burst old wineskins, as the Lord put it. Who wants to be an old wineskin that rips apart and spill the wine rather than be flexible? “Why don’t you give it a try, and I’ll support you all I can,” I told him.
At the next meeting, 8 people were present. This young brother broke the group up into four smaller groups of two people each, and gave each pair a couple of verses with an assignment. “Take about 15 minutes and study your verses, and then we’ll all come together and report our finding on the subject of what place God’s Word should be having in our private lives.”
The young man with whom I had been paired was a new Christian, relatively new in our assembly who never spoke out in public, and was mostly silent in the small group. I was amazed as he patiently searched each verse, and explained what it seemed to say in his own words. Holding back my own thoughts on these well known passages, I could see a wonderful thing taking place. He was discovering God’s truth for himself and putting it into words meaningful to him. God was speaking to his heart, and in a moment he would have the opportunity to give something back to the others.
When the group came back together and each took turns sharing the things they had discovered, it was clear that similar things had been happening in the other groups. I was pleased at the willingness of my partner to speak on behalf of our “group.” I supported him with several added insights, but my heart was quietly thanking the Lord for the growth I was seeing in a single evening.
All the above finds its ultimate fulfillment when the disciple gets actively involved in contributing to some aspect of the Great Commission out in the world through personal service and outreach. This produces godly families; this is what builds up the assembly.
Thus it is vitally important that the church be a place not only for equipping and training disciples, but a place where the rest of the disciple-making process is supported. Communicating needs and opportunities for involvement through camp work, prison ministry, rescue missions and campus ministries are examples. Those with suitable homes can open them for Bible studies, small groups, prayer gatherings or for extending hospitality to visiting missionaries. Short term mission trips can provide invaluable experience for young disciples.
While these things help the disciple making process along by providing real life practical opportunities for involvement, they are all the more useful if carried out with the knowledge and blessing of the elders of the assembly that supplies the trainees. This in turn will have a healthy “shaping effect” on the church itself. Are there times when prayer needs and special breakthroughs can be shared with the congregation? Are funds available to meet special needs? If growth and blessing are evident, is there openness to a call from God to commend the person to more ex- tended service?
In Luke 14, the Lord ended His message on discipleship by likening disciples to salt. Salt produces no effect sitting in the shaker; it must be applied to the food. Elders need to ask if the believers for whose souls they watch (Heb. 13:17) are really becoming salt in the community and in the world. This is the true goal of discipleship, and the fulfillment of the Commission given to us by the Lord.