- What is the big need that motivates to make disciples?
As I have reflected on what motivates me in ministry and more specifically in disciple making, I seem to be obsessively concerned with the lack of solid foundations in most self-professed believers in Christ. I have used two images for many years to capture this concern. I picture followers of Jesus building their house of faith on a foundation that has many missing building blocks. My book Discipleship Essentials is one person’s attempt to systematically lay block by block a sure foundation. The strength of our relationship with Christ is only as secure as our foundation.
My second image I have of most Christians is that we have accumulated disconnected puzzle pieces that have not been assembled into a complete picture of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Each puzzle piece represents a truth: a thought from a sermon; a devotional insight; something shared by a fellow believer, etc. Unfortunately, it seems that these puzzle pieces are jumbled together randomly in a box without any relationship to each other. How do you assemble a puzzle? The first step is to empty all the pieces onto a table and turn them right side up. Secondly, you pull out all the straight edges to create the outer frame. Thirdly, you place the box top prominently. Your eyes then dash back and forth between the disconnected pieces and the completed picture. All of these pieces are then assembled together to match the box top. Again, Discipleship Essentials is one person’s attempt to assemble the pieces to create a whole.
My diagnosis for what makes the church weak is the lack of attention to foundations.
This leads to my other core belief that disciples are not made by just going through a curriculum, but made in relationship just as Jesus did. Jesus is our model. He focused on a few. Disciple making is life on life. Transformation into Christlikeness happens when we process the truth of God’s word with others in a highly transparent environment. A curriculum is nothing if not engaged with open hearts in a mutual atmosphere. Only when we want God to have to have his way with us on a journey with others will the foundation as described above be a reality. Over the last 35 years I have touted what I call the micro group of 3-4 people as the ideal setting to build trust and transparency. I call these venues “the hothouses of the Holy Spirit” for the conditions are just right for accelerated growth.
My life is therefore narrowly dedicated to touting the benefits of the combination of Biblical based curriculum with an intimate environment with those whose intent to grow toward Christlikeness and then help others do the same.
- If you only had one opportunity to sit down with a non-Christian, what would you share?
The mystery of all mysteries is solved. The identity of God has been revealed. The unknowable has been made known…in the person of Jesus Christ. If you want to know who God is examine the life of Jesus. The most compelling figure to ever walk this planet is Jesus the Christ. God has stepped into our skin. He has traveled from eternity into our time to walk in our shoes. If that claim is not intriguing to you, I don’t know what could be. I would stop there and see if there is a spark of interest.
3.. If you only had one opportunity to sit down with a Christian, what would you share?
The most important truth one needs to grasp in our gut is that we are the adopted, beloved children of God. This is both an objective truth taught in Scripture but also one that subjectively needs to grip our inner being. “In love [God] has predestined for adoption to himself as sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 1:5). Frankly, this reality is massively important to me because I had a very difficult time getting my heart to believe it. Sometimes clichés are true: The longest journey we take is the one foot from our head to our heart.
At the time of my conversion as a young 7th grader and throughout my middle adult years, I battled with fear and anxiety. The clutch and static in my stomach told me that I didn’t feel safe. I experienced people as a threat to be defended against. I sensed an inner barrier that kept me apart. This finally all came to a head in my early 40s. I had come to serve as an associate pastor with a dear friend, who was the lead pastor. It was a dream come true for both of us. The “Camelot years”, as our fellow church members would describe our era together, ended abruptly, when my dear friend was called to another church. This left my future exposed since I could not become the lead pastor because of denominational restrictions. This kicked me into a period of uncertainty and intense anxiety. Every day for 3 months I faced each new day with a knot in my stomach. Try as I might to convince my emotions that God could be trusted, I could not find peace. I rehearsed all the appropriate Scriptures telling me how valuable I was in God’s eyes, to no avail. As I like to say, “It is a shameful thing that a pastor cannot trust God for his future.” Like an addict, I finally went to some dear friends who had an inner healing ministry and said to them, “I am powerless over fear and anxiety.”
With my head in my hands, I shared with my friends and confidants my struggle, unable to look them in the eye. Then they guided me through some images in prayer asking Jesus to show up. All of a sudden, a vision appeared that is as clear to me today as it was 30 plus years ago. What made this all the more vivid was that I am not an image person. Ideas, yes; pictures, no. I saw Jesus as we might imagine him on the mount of transfiguration in glistening white. He had his arm outstretched and draped across them was a young boy. I knew that 5-year-old was me. Then suddenly Jesus threw his head back in joyous laughter and spun around 3 times taking delight in me whom he loved. I will say, I did not have a rush of emotion as it I was suddenly cleansed of fear and anxiety. But I knew that from then on, that the Lord was doing a deep healing of whatever was blocking the connection between head and heart. I was able to start hearing for myself the words that the Father spoke to His Son at the inauguration of his ministry, “You are my son, marked and chosen by my love, the delight of my life”. (Mark 1:11, The Message). From this truth all that is healthy in us flows. Without it, as I know too well, we are constantly trying to make up for this deficit.
- What is the biggest surprise you have had in your years of making disciples?
It never gets old investing and walking alongside others. Over the last 35 years I can’t recall a time when I did not have weekly discipling relationships primarily in the micro group setting mentioned above. I have essentially used the same tool in each of these groups. I am often asked, doesn’t that just become routine? No, emphatically, no! Why? Because every group has its own personality and personalities; each is made up of people on their own journey with their own story. I guess if people get tiring, then disciple making would, but, of course, the unique way God’s story unfolds in each life is a continuous wonder.
Let me give you a window into one recent group. My favorite groups tend to be intergenerational, covering a huge span of ages. In this particular group there were an 18, 26, 57 and a 70+ year old. The 18-year-old had just graduated from high school when we started and come to Christ on our church’s “house boats” high school outreach at age 16. When Jesus crashed into his life, Luke was all-in. His family, to put it mildly, was oppositional. They were convinced that this was a period of temporary insanity would pass and would get over it. He still has not gotten over it. Admittedly, Luke was unlike his peers with a veracious appetite for the Lord and His word. He brought a freshness of insight to enliven those of us who had been on this path for some time. Ben was 26-year-old involved in the entertainment industry booking gigs and managing a local theater. He had been serving in our youth ministry as a volunteer mentor/discipler and had become deeply embedded in Luke’s life. I have had the privilege of watching the Lord lead Ben step by step initially toward seminary and now vocational ministry. What a privilege be speak into the formation of life direction! Scott, the 57-year-old, has his own successful financial investment business and serves as a virtual CFO. When I approached Scott, he was “a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Ps. 63:1) Almost from the beginning Scott started to drop veiled hints that all was not so well at home. Initially he was hesitant to reveal too much. How could a couple of young single guys understand the challenges of married life? But Scott would later say that it was the transparency of our group that helped him to face head-on the troubles of home life. Scott and his wife were separated for 155 days during our micro group. We got a front row seat as we watched the Lord mend and reknit a marriage. To know that we helped carry him through this time and to see the outcome, doesn’t get more gratifying. Fortunately, my life had reached a state of perfect sanctification so I was not much of a burden to the group. No, in fact, Scott credited my model of transparent honesty with what helped him face up to what he needed to deal with.
One story; one picture of life in a micro group; multiplied by 30 at least and you might see why this will never get old. May I finish well, simply walking alongside those who will allow it.
- What is the healthiest sign you see in churches that are ready to make disciples but haven’t started yet?
This is an easy one. The healthiest sign is that the lead pastor is a passionately committed disciple maker, the principal champion and spokesperson, and is annoyingly focused over the long haul that disciple making will define the culture of the church.
- If you could do it all over again in your approach to making disciples, what is one thing you would do differently?
If doing things differently means facing regrets, oh yes, I have one major regret. As one who teaches and coaches other churches, I would boldly insist that if you want to see a church transformed into a disciple making community, the lead pastor must be the principal practitioner and champion of disciple making. (see above) From there, all professional staff must be disciple makers and eventually the prerequisite for serving as a lay leader, one must at the very least be a “graduate” of a disciple making group. This is the only way to instill a lifestyle of disciple making.
What I have observed particularly in the American church is half-hearted efforts. This half-heartedness takes many forms: 1. A senior pastor who says that they think intentional, relational disciple making is important but does not personally invest in the lives of others. They would not be able to name their disciples. 2. Disciple making is delegated to a “pastor of discipleship”. Thus, it becomes a department in the church not what the church’s mission is. 3. Disciple making is equated with the aggregate of programs such as bible studies, small groups, classes, and even preaching. 4. Instead of landing on a way to make disciples, such as the micro group concept, multiple options are allowed. Thus, a muted trumpet is sounded.
As my partner in ministry often says, Jesus did not delegate disciple making. Jesus didn’t turn to John and say, “You handle disciple making, I have messages to prepare.” People’s lives are formed through personal, relational investment. There are no shortcuts to forming people as Jesus demonstrated. I like Gordon MacDonald’s admonition: the number one priority of the senior leader is to grow “deep” people.
- How has making disciples blessed your life and ministry?
The first thing that comes to mind is the privilege of walking with people through difficult times. When I teach on this I say if you are together with three other people over an 18- month period, the approximate length of a discipleship group, one or more persons is going to go through a quality of life-threatening experience.. We met around Grant’s law office conference table every Thursday morning at 6:30am. During the entirety of our time, Grant’s mom and pop personal injury attorney practice, was threatened by extinction. He would say “his old friend fear” was back. We knew what he meant. We were with him when closure almost became a reality because he couldn’t pay his employees. One Thursday morning he told us that the next day would be his last. There was no reserve. We prayed for God’s intervention. On Friday he would have to announce to his employees that they were out of a job. Then the noon mail arrived with a check from a client he has long since written off. Grant is still serving people today.
I have been in the trenches with men who were…out of work the entire time we were together; threatened foreclosure on their home; coming to terms with sexual addiction; unaware of the whereabouts of the children; on the verge of divorce; etc. It is a privilege to walk alongside the teetering. At the same time, I have had men carry me through the threatening news of prostate cancer and surgery; facing fears such as being engaged in prison ministry or the fear of being over my head in teaching in Doctor of Ministry courses with students a lot older than me.
Of course, the greatest privilege is being with men in whom God was birthing new life and service. For Dave, it was the mid-life time from success to significance. In his early 50s he had a successful insurance business. And yet, he was sensing a call to something entirely different. We listened to Dave week in and week out as God put before him the draw of working with Christians CEOs through an organization called C12. To make this move would mean he would lose his financial safety net. We watched Dave take a leap of faith. We were honored to some part watching the birth of a new call. Billy sensed he was called to be a Chaplain in the US Navy, and now is living this out in a ministry among special forces; I previously mentioned Ben who moved from the entertainment industry into his first call as a pastor [I should quickly add that Ben could have just as readily stayed in the entertain world to serve Jesus].
But for me what is the most gratifying is to see men who then adopt a lifestyle of discipling others. The idea behind the micro group is that people not only grow in Christlikeness but then are equipped to replicate this experience by taking the lead to form their own disciple making groups. In my most recently completed group, Luke started a group with college peers, and then formed a high school freshmen group using what I call my little 8-lesson book, Essential Guide to Becoming a Disciple; Ben has been discipling high school juniors and seniors; Scott created a group with two other men. Whenever I have run into Chris and Alan from Scott’s group, there is joy and bounce in their step as they relate how deep the relationships are and how much they are growing in their faith.
Throughout this blog I have mixed in stories because they are much more interesting than generalized principles. It is the stories of peoples’ transformation and the pleasure of having some small part in it, that makes it all worthwhile.