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Giving Mid-Life Saints a Vision for Real-Life Discipleship

They’ve been married and have grown kids. As empty-nesters, they are experiencing newfound freedoms and newfound challenges. Many are still plugged into successful careers, but have extensive personal life histories to draw upon. Some have been saved and serving in the church for dozens of years. Chances are, your church has a number of these men and women. They’re the mid-life saints who often form the backbone of well-rooted churches. They usually give of their time and resources in the offerings and programs of the church. They usually have strong walks with God. But if there’s one wish that their pastors had for them, it would be that they would serve as the disciplers for the younger members of the church.

What if our mid-life saints could catch this vision? Wouldn’t it be incredible if the multi-generational discipleship dynamic of Titus 2 would be deeply rooted in the soil of our churches? But let’s be honest; there are some major hurdles that keep mid-life saints from discipling younger believers. Mid-life saints aren’t frequently discipling the young married couples, college students, and teenagers in the church and need help from their fellow-believers to move them toward these meaningful relationships. In this article I’d like to examine 5 ways we can help our mid-life brothers and sisters follow this Great Commission call.

Leading Mid-Life Saints through Personal Discipleship

“Phil, to be quite frank, I haven’t ever been intentionally discipled,” the saved-since-childhood, middle-aged father of two confided in me. I was a little startled at first. But then I thought about it. Most of my millennial friends could share in the same sentiment. And from what I seen, my parents’ generation seemed pretty “lone-wolf” when it came to their faith. They were probably better at the corporate worship bit of their Christianity, but when it came to connecting deeply with other believers on a one-on-one basis for accountability and discipleship, they seemed to, on the whole, come up lacking.

So, Church, let’s help prepare these believers for discipleship. Pastors, take some time to invest in them. Young up-and-coming leaders, plug into the life of an older believer and allow the experience be one of mutual growth. Instead of seeking out someone your own age to be disciple by or to disciple, build these relationships with middle-aged believers. Mid-life saints will continue to struggle to disciple until they themselves have been discipled. Walk the road of life with a mid-life saint and exponentially multiply the Church’s impact on the younger generations (2 Tim. 2.2).

Preparing Mid-Life Saints for Paradigm-Shift

A huge challenge that keeps intergenerational discipleship from happening in the church is the divide between old and young. To many mid-life saints, the younger generation in their church may be too liberal, tech-driven, or worldly. These notions of the young believers in the church are often mistaken and driven by mere cursory interaction between the generations. Tensions between the generations result in a sort of impasse whereby each generation assumes that the other is out of place and neither generation benefits from the other.

Breaking the impasse requires a Romans 14 kind of experience where both generations loosely hold to what divides them and are willing to do whatever it takes on non-essentials in order to experience unity and growth. In this spirit, both generations are able to see their blind spots more clearly and and love each other better (Phil. 2.3). This paradigm shift of unity in the non-essentials is absolutely essential if mid-life saints are going to be able to do the difficult task of intergenerational discipleship.

One substantial realization that is essential to helping mid-life saints clear this hurdle is awareness that millennials crave the input from the older generations. It’s a big deal to us to have those older and wiser than ourselves invest in us. Despite our uncomfortable social media choices and our unusual clothing choices and our prickly personas, we really do appreciate you. Your paradigm of what a “good Christian” looks like may shift by hanging out with us and loving us. But the Church will be all the better for it; that’s the way it’s always been (Gal. 3.27-28; Col. 3.11).

Moving Mid-Life Saints from Monologue to Dialogue

Another challenge for the seasoned Christians in your church when it comes to interacting with younger believers is that most of our mid-life saints learned best and most frequently via monologue. But this isn’t so with many millennials. Most of us learn best in dialogue. In order to prepare mid-life Christians for discipleship, we need to prepare them for a new method of interacting and teaching. But this takes time and intention.

In order to begin a transition away from monologue in discipleship, it’s essential for the discipler to understand the effect of a misunderstood monologue. To a dialogical learner, monologue can be misunderstood as not caring about my perspective, a superiority complex, or not allowing for helpful questions. Monologue in a discipleship context results in a “speaking at” mode rather than “discussing together” which is essential for true learning. At its worst, monologue in discipleship comes across as what a few of my friends have called “drive-by accountability.” You pop out of nowhere with a baseball bat, smack that newb Christian down, and get out of there. And how do you think that young believer is going to react? He’s going to avoid discipleship relationships like the plague!

Let’s encourage the monologue-trending disciplers to take a cue from Jesus when he asked, “Who do people say that I am?” And when their answers had prompted a surface level of consideration, he brought the question home, not by telling them the answer, but by forcing them to answer. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Prepare middle-aged believers to disciple by pointing to this discipleship technique from Jesus’ playbook.

Healing Mid-Life Saints from Failure Paralysis

I think if I were to guess why more millennials aren’t getting discipled by the empty-nesters or men and women with college-aged kids is that most of our mature saints are paralyzed by past mistakes. They look at their kids and ask themselves if they’re really ready to speak truth into the lives of the next generation. Most of the time, the answer is “no.” They simply can’t get past what they see as their screw-ups and parenting failures.

This is a reality that we would do well to be sensitive to. The deep wounds and irreversible scars of those they love who are far from Christ are no small matters. We shouldn’t be surprised to find many middle-aged saints paralyzed because of the hurt in their lives. But sometimes this paralysis isn’t just due to parenting hindsight; sometimes the paralysis is the result of real personal failure. A divorce, a besetting sin, or an inglorious exit from vocational ministry can make a mid-life Christian question whether or not they would be the optimal candidate for mentoring the next generation.

I want to address this very real concern with two observations. First, the two men who had the greatest impact on my life could have easily allowed their life situations keep them from investing in others. One of these men had never married and had no children. Although he could have excused himself from investing in the youth of the church due to his lack of parenting experience, he instead used every gift that God had given him in the next generation of the church. The other man who plugged into my life is divorced and never remarried. In a church culture that often highlights what a divorced individual can’t do, he chose to focus on what he could do—disciple the next generation. And I think that God enjoys using those whose life experiences seem utterly disproportionate to the task at hand. Moses and Gideon doubted their capabilities too! Encourage the paralyzed to trust God with their weaknesses and failures and see what God might do through them in this Great Commission work.

Second, there’s probably no greater New Testament example of this paralyzed saint than the Apostle Peter. After denying Jesus and letting down the other disciples, Peter struggles to make heads or tails of what to do next. He checks out and returns back to his vocation of fishing the lake. But then Jesus shows up on the beach. After a rather abrupt and pixilated arrival upon shore, Peter finds himself struggling for words as Jesus asks him a tough question over and over. Lots of consideration has been given to what Jesus meant by “love” in this passage, but I think there’s something we miss in the process—the command. “Feed my sheep.” Why did Jesus tell Peter to feed his sheep? Why did Peter need to be told to feed the flock of God? What was it about Peter’s situation that demanded Jesus wake him up and drag him in this direction? Jesus knew that Peter loved him (Peter admits this), but Jesus wanted Peter to do the hard work of discipleship in, through, and for the Church. So many of the hurting and paralyzed saints in our churches, like Peter, think to themselves: “If you only know how messed up I really am you wouldn’t be asking me to disciple others.” But Jesus gently questions them, “Do you love me?” The paralyzed believers inevitably respond, “Yes, of course!” On that basis, our Lord calls out, “Oh hurting Christian, I want you to feed my sheep. I know you better than you know yourself, and I particularly want you to invest in my Church!” The passion that these paralyzed saints have for Jesus is the only thing that will help them victoriously disciple the sheep.

Arming Mid-Life Saints with Confidence

Instilling confidence in the established Christians in your church begins with our first point—disciple them! This process is not only important for their growth, but for establishing their footing for future discipleship. But beyond one-on-one discipleship, we have more options at our disposal for transitioning the mid-life saints from disciples to disciplers. First, strong disciplers can allow a mid-life believer into an established discipleship process with another believer. Pulling them in for a few meetings after which you can discuss the process with the mature believer can help take the edge off. Maybe using a group discipleship process could help here. Second, strong believers can coach mid-life saints in their own efforts at discipling others. This may look like handing off an existing discipleship relationship to them or meeting to debrief and prepare for another discipleship session with a less mature Christian. Finally, keep working them into discipleship relationships with other believers. Their own discipleship process doesn’t end until they’re discipling others. Continue to provide accountability, opportunities, and support as mid-life saints catch the vision for real-life discipleship.

16 Questions the Guest Preacher Should Ask

I hope these questions are helpful for my friends who are called upon to preach in a new church from time-to-time.

  1. Which service do you want me to preach and when does it start? If there are multiple services, you need to find out which ones you’re expected to cover. When you figure out when the service starts, plan to arrive at least 15-20 minutes early so you have time to greet people, connect your media, get your wireless microphone, and calm your nerves.
  2. Would you like me to attend another service or Sunday School? Some churches would find it helpful if you attended a Sunday School class, but others don’t see it as necessarily helpful. Get a sense of the importance of this meeting, if it exists, and plan accordingly.
  3. Who will be introducing me? This question is especially important if the lead pastor is out of town. You need to know who to especially introduce yourself to and who to be watching for your queue from to go onstage.
  4. What’s the usual order of service? This question not only helps clarify when you’ll be going onstage, but also flags any liturgical anomalies that you may do well to be aware of.
  5. How much time is usually allotted for the sermon? You need to ask about sermon duration so that you can begin shaping your content for the amount of time you’ll have. I often do a practice run to make sure that I’m in the ballpark of the time that I’ve been given. As a guest speaker, I’m pretty sure that it’s a cardinal sin to preach too long. You’ll never get a congregation angry at you for letting them out a few minutes early.
  6. When do you usually finish? This is a slightly different question than the previous one. Sometimes an excited worship leader, other liturgical elements, or an unusual announcement prior to the preaching may eat into your allotted time. You need a method to gauge if this has happened.
  7. Who closes after a guest speaker preaches? How is this done? Some churches always have an altar call. Some churches never do it. Making assumptions here could lead to a major faux pas. The ideal is to be able to hand off the service closing to someone who knows the people and the process.
  8. What Bible version do you typically use? Even if the version is one that you don’t typically use, you’ll gain more rapport with the congregation if you’re quoting the text that most of them have in front of them. This question also needs to be asked early on because it will determine the English version that you’ll “stew” in (read, re-read, memorize, etc.).
  9. Do you typically use projected media? If so, how do I connect to it or where do I need to send material/links? As a guest speaker, you need to be cautious about being reliant on technology. Even if you’ve carefully asked the right questions and prepped your tech, you can still hit an odd hitch as you’re getting set to preach. Remember that you’ve usually got only a limited time to get this right. Have a backup method for deploying your media and, worst case, be capable of delivering your sermon without any technology.
  10. Do you use a portable microphone? If so, where will I get it and will there be someone to show me how it works? This isn’t usually too complicated, but sometimes you may be dealing with some odd mic that doesn’t work normally. Pro tip: even if the sound guy tells you that he’s not going to have your mic hot until you get up to preach, keep it off and remember to turn it on while you’re on your way up to the platform.
  11. How much room is on the podium for a Bible, notes, etc.? Pulpit real estate is at a premium. Some churches have tiny pulpits that are comfortable for the pastor who may preach with different pulpit material than you do. As more and more younger preachers bring iPads and other tech with them onstage, the variety of what a preacher can expect has only broadened.
  12. What do you wear when you preach? And don’t just take a “professional” or “business casual” category answer on this one. People mean different things when they use dress categories. Get a specific answer (i.e., “jeans and a button-up shirt untucked”) and don’t deviate from it.
  13. How would you describe your style of preaching? What have you been preaching on lately? Although you have your own style as a preacher, it is helpful to understand the norm at this church. Maybe if the pastor tends to do exegetical studies of books of the Bible, you could do an exegetical study of a one-off topic? If the pastor has been doing a deep dive in Romans, it may be healthy to do a narrative passage.
  14. What is the congregation like? Young/old, quiet/interactive, new/old Christians, jobs, backgrounds, approximate attendance? Truth preaches anywhere, but it never hurts to understand the audience you’ll be speaking to. Jesus didn’t have to study in order to know the hearts of his listeners, but Paul definitely understood the philosophers on Mars Hill. Every bit of information you get should shape how truth will be presented.
  15. Does your church have a missions statement? You need to know what this church is and isn’t all about. Follow up this question by asking: What are some major red flags of what you don’t want someone to preach about? Are there any practical or theological issues that you think might be important for a guest preacher to know? I try to use questions like this to draw out go/no-go zones. Regardless of how you feel about a church’s hangups or pursuits, it’s not your job to do a drive-by sermon on any of these issues. If there’s an issue that is too big for you to ignore, consider declining the invitation.
  16. Can we meet before I preach in order to get to know each other? Also: How can we follow-up afterward? I think this is the most frequently missed question on the list. Meeting before you speak can help you better understand the heart and philosophy of the pastor. If you’re able to meet on the church property, you can get a feel for the auditorium, platform, pulpit, microphone, etc. Following up gives you a great opportunity for a critique of your preaching and an ongoing relationship with the pastor.

I hope these questions are helpful. I’ve missed a couple of these in some instances and have learned from my mistakes. There are probably a few questions that you shouldn’t ask, the chief of which is anything related to compensation for speaking. Speak out of a desire for ministry and not for money. For some great additional insights on filling pulpits, see Dane Ortlund’s excellent article.

May God bless you as you preach his Word!

Dangerous Contextualization

As we continue our examination of this topic, it’s important to consider the risks as well as the rewards. In my last article, I noted that, on the one hand, there is a danger of unconsciously contextualizing to ourselves and not really communicating the Gospel message to our hearers. On the other hand, there is the risk of syncretism, which I’ll address in this article.

What is Syncretism?

“Syncretism is the mixing of Christian assumptions with those worldview assumptions that are incompatible with Christianity so that the result is not biblical Christianity” (Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 405).

“Syncretism…[is] the loss of critical and basic elements of the gospel in the process of contextualization and their replacement with religious elements from the receiving culture” (Larkin, Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics, 153, summarizing the conclusions of the Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in 1973).

“[Syncretism is] the replacement of core or important truths of the gospel with non-Christian elements” (Moreau, “Syncretism,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions).

Why the Concern?

Contextualization begins with the burden to communicate the Gospel and to make it understandable and actionable in a particular culture. Those who engage in this process have already parted ways with those who are only concerned to communicate the Gospel to a churched subculture or to win converts to a particular culture rather than to Christ by clearly communicating his Gospel. But as we engage in this process, we could end up in the self-defeating result of failing to communicate the true Gospel again.

But not only does syncretism make us fall prey to the same problem that we set out to avoid, it also puts us in the position of adding to Christ alone. In fact, that’s really the problem with both extremes. The unconscious contextualizer refuses to bend his cultural assumptions in order to humbly minister to others; ultimately, they force people to accept Jesus+a subculture. The syncretist bends the Gospel to a target subculture in a noble effort to minister to others, but they only end up adding Jesus+an incompatible worldview.

Colossians 2 warns us against taking such an approach. By adapting Christianity to the elemental spirits and religious practices of the surrounding culture, the Colossian church was in danger of abandoning Christ. Although their efforts, no doubt, came with the best of intentions, they had surrendered the true value of the Gospel in their syncretism. So what is the difference between Paul’s contextualization at Mars Hill and elsewhere and the syncretism that we see in Colossians? In other words, how does the necessary work of contextualization turn into syncretism?

When does Contextualization Turn into Syncretism?

When, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we cause Christian practices to take on non-Christian meanings. For example, erroneous teachings regarding prayer can easily take hold in particular cultures. Do people end up understanding prayer as a means to good luck or to force God’s hand to give us success? These misunderstandings are the result of syncretism either in the understanding of the recipients or in the explanation of the teachers. Understanding the proclivities of various cultures to misunderstand essential Christian activities like prayer, baptism, worship, or communion will help us avoid syncretism.

When cultural accommodations violate the clear commands of Scripture. In an American context, attempts to muddy the Bible’s teaching on objective morality (e.g., homosexual practices) have resulted in sub-Christian teaching. Although this could be argued as a form of contextualization, it would seem clear that the explicit violation of moral precepts rules this as a case of syncretism. We do need to exercise caution with this critique. There are many legitimate exercises of contextualization (i.e., local dress, emotional expressions, or musical styles) that have been addressed under this head; however, in lieu of an explicit biblical command or form, we need to avoid prescribing cultural confines on Christian practice in the ever-changing cultures around us.

When the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel is traded for closer relationships with other world religions or secularism. One example of this approach is the avoidance of the description of Jesus as “the Son of God” in Muslim contexts. The sensitivity of some missionaries to Muslim misunderstandings of the Trinity have led to avoidance of this construction; however, by avoiding this designation, the resultant teaching is sub-Christian. In the secular culture of America, it is easy for Christians to soft-pedal or discount the supernatural acts in Scripture. Cultural accommodation of modernism in the church led to the splintering of mainline liberal denominations and evangelicals in the early 20th century.

Principles for Avoiding Syncretism:

  •  Remember that the goal of effective contextualization is cross-cultural communication in an understandable and actionable manner, not communication that gains the most results or the greatest popularity. Although good contextualization may result in an honest rapport where the messenger and message are respected in the end, this shouldn’t be our aim. While we  certainly believe that God has called us to present his Gospel to the nations and that we aren’t excused from shoddy attempts to do so, we’re under no delusion that the best efforts will present quantifiable results.
  • Remember the non-negotiable truths. Although Christians in your culture may have piled up a number of cultural and negotiable applications, you need to be able to cut through these and hold a firm grasp on what must remain unmovable. Ultimately, if it comes down to flexing the core of the Gospel message and fighting the culture, the culture must be confronted every time.
  • Root yourself in historical and missional theology. By reminding yourself of the historical vein of orthodox theology and the varying approaches to missions within that paradigm throughout church history, you’ll gain a clearer perspective on how to approach your target culture. I know that it’s a little cliche to say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but I think the lesson is paramount. For an insightful period of history, I’d recommend reading about the German church during the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler.
  • Understand your target culture from two angles. We’ll get into this more in later articles, but you must approach the culture asking: (1) What in this culture is the result of the law of God written on their hearts? And (2) what in this culture is the result of the fall? In asking both of these questions, you’ll begin to see that particular elements in the culture will lend themselves to effective Gospel communication, and other elements must be confronted by a clear and contextualized Gospel message. Missionaries who omit either of these perspectives either end up solely attacking the surrounding culture or solely adopting that culture.
  • Deepen your grasp of the traditions and practices in your culture. Missionaries often tell me that one of the most difficult struggles they have is understanding which practices pose a threat to the Gospel and which don’t. For example, in some eastern cultures, a dead person is positioned facing the door when in a home for a funeral. The ancient purpose for this practice apparently was out of fear that an evil spirit would enter the corpse and that the zombie wouldn’t be able to exit (*gasp*). When people insisted on facing the corpse toward the door in the church, what was the missionary to do? Was it syncretism in order to accommodate the local custom? Although the missionary had done a deep dive into the history of his target culture, he paused to question the people that he ministered to. As he began asking questions, he discovered that the people had no clue about the underlying fears of zombie corpses. They had just always done it that way! Because the missionary wasn’t content to just understand his culture from the European history books but through the lens of his people, instead, he was able to accommodate the local customs without the danger of syncretism. This little vignette is reminiscent of the attempts in American churches to tie modern musical forms to animistic practices in Africa. If the cultural practices do not carry a meaning to the people that violates Scripture, it is not the missionary’s job to try to construct such a meaning. On the other hand, if the practices do carry such a problematic meaning, it is our job to confront the culture.
  • Commit yourself to the centrality and exclusivity of the Gospel in your ministry. With Christ, you and the people you love have everything; without Jesus, you and the people you minister to have nothing. If your practice of contextualization misleads or muddies the clarity or the potency of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you must repent and turn back to the Gospel. Hope doesn’t come through mass conversions to a fuzzy gospel or through poverty relief that just ends at that. Hope comes through Jesus.

Conclusion:

As we continue our overview of this topic, I’ll be discussing contextualization with the assumption that syncretism, as we’ve defined it, isn’t present. I think this is essential for the purposes of implementation and discussion. I’ll leave you with this thought-provoking statement:

“Though the risk of syncretism is always present when Christians attempt to inculturate Christianity, it is a risk that needs to be taken in order that people experience New Testament Christianity” (Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 405).

[To see the previous three articles on contextualization, click here.]

Meaningful Discipleship in the Local Church: 6 Correctives

Discipleship is the call of the Church (Matt. 28.19), but is the Church really doing this job well? Can we honestly say that at least the majority of those who claim the name of Christ and darken the doors of our churches are intentionally in discipleship relationships that are moving them toward greater and greater Christlikeness? Yesterday I read Building a Discipling Culture by Mike Breen, and I was impacted by a number of insights on how churches could be doing a better at this all-important task.

  1. We must commit to relationships of challenge and invitation. Relationships that are all about challenge and lack invitation will spiral towards legalism and burnout. Relationships that are all about invitation without any challenge will lead to warm and fuzzy friendships without any meaningful accountability. Many churches today lack both challenge and invitation; they’ve become little more than a social event. Meaningful discipleship requires direct confrontation over sin, and loving invitation into real-life Gospel living.
  2. We must vary our approach to discipleship. Churches I’ve served in are usually very strong in their lecture-oriented, fact-based instruction, but usually offer little in terms of apprenticeship or immersion learning structures (e.g., Matt. 5.1). But these methods of discipleship are proven and effective tools! If we’re going to up our game in this area, we’re going to have to be willing to dust off some of these tools that have been sitting in the back of our garage. Discipleship includes distribution of facts (what we’re good at), but it also includes connecting truth to life in apprenticeship and immersion scenarios (what we’re not good at). Several additional thoughts:
    • A Caveat: Assuming that showing up at church or in a small group will count as “immersion” is assuming that the majority of the people in the church or small group have been discipled themselves. I think this assumption is unwarranted. I know a number of adult believers who have never been engaged in a discipleship relationship.
    • An Expectation: Apprenticeship is a substantial investment for both parties. But in this process, the rewards are always greater than the buy-in.
    • A Warning: Apprenticeship and immersion aren’t synonymous with cloning. We’re not trying to make a bunch of people like ourselves, we’re trying to make disciples of Jesus Christ!
  3. We must admit that the current structures that we’re relying on for discipleship are fundamentally broken. Most churches I’ve served in have relied on a Sunday School or small group structure for engaging people in the discipleship process. But there are a number of reasons why this structure (as typically implemented) may not be the best method for discipling believers.
    • Small groups are (and should be) open to visitors. This limits the intimacy and openness of dialogue amongst the members. Baring our souls is often a very difficult task. This only becomes more difficult with a number of strangers in the room.
    • Small groups grow in a linear fashion. As months go by, people come and go based on their church attendance. They lack a stability in membership and can grow too large. They also lack a natural step for members to go and make disciples on their own. This inhibition is due to their linear nature.
    • Small groups require facilitators or teachers. This kind of relationship lacks the authoritative and intimate “follow me as I follow Christ” kind of call of discipleship.
    • Small groups are primarily easy to join and easy to leave. They aren’t effective accountability structures. Attendance isn’t often an expectation to which people are held.
    • Small groups often rely on administrated content. In other words, they’re going to cover what someone on the church staff thinks the groups need to be studying. This sometimes misses the challenges and hurdles that the members of the group may be experiencing.
  4. We have to adopt a sound structure for doing discipleship. One such structure is what Breen calls “The Huddle” (oddly, the same name of the odd band of misfits being discipled that I was a part of in junior high). This group is made up of 4-10 people who have committed to a mentoring relationship under one individual. This group commits for roughly a year, at which point they should be prepared to start “Huddles” of their own. More people aren’t discipled by making the groups bigger, but by individuals preparing to replicate the groups in turn.  First-time leaders can start with groups of 4 in order to make the challenge less daunting. This vehicle for discipleship is powerful because it combines a two critical components of biblical discipleship.
    • First, it is an admission that discipleship happens best in a group scenario. Many churches do discipleship whenever a new believer comes along or one-on-one with people in a counseling environment. But this avoids the power of group learning that is evident in the ministry of Jesus with his disciples.
    • Second, it is admission that the plausible scope of discipleship is limited. While Jesus ministered to crowds, significant portions of his ministry were invested in his band of 12.
  5. We must call our people to allow greater access for their brothers and sisters into their lives. Only by allowing people into our lives in a more intimate way will we be able to achieve the kind of discipleship that God has called us to. Leaders tend to sit back and complain that church members aren’t rising to meet the challenge, but this kind of critique is unhealthy for the body. Rather, servant-leaders must begin by modeling the kind of discipleship that they want to instill in others. Leaders who get out of the air-conditioned office and into the dirtiness of a handful of peoples’ lives and then call on them them to do the same.
  6. We need to develop a language of discipleship that lends purpose and clarity to what we do. Breen offers a suggested series of terms with associated images and applications that serve as a quasi-curriculum for their discipleship “Huddles.” While I don’t see the writer’s structure here as incredibly helpful, it did give me some ideas for engaging others in the process of discipleship. My takeaways:
    • First, discipleship language needs to be memorable. Using word pictures (or pictures in general) can communicate biblical truth in a discipleship context far better than a massive and detailed curriculum.
    • Second, discipleship language needs to be fully-orbed. In other words, many churches are really good at teaching doctrines or Bible study, but few do a great job at discipling others in a holistic Christian life (which includes doctrine and Bible study, but so much more as well).
    • Third, discipleship language needs to promote discussion and engagement. However you do discipleship, it needs to be more than you just sitting back and talking. It needs to be something that others can relate to and engage with applications and questions.

The Sawdust and the 2×4

Many people have heard the analogy that Jesus made (Matt. 7.3-5) about people who try to pick a piece of sawdust out of another person’s eye while they have a 2×4 in their own. The analogy is hilarious, but the implications are serious. I had a few thoughts today on this topic, so I thought I’d share them.

Relation: Sawdust and 2×4’s are similar, yet different

This should go without saying, but both items are byproducts of trees. They’re related by type. But they are drastically different in terms of their size, significance, and effect. The implication here is fascinating. It isn’t that people tend to see *any* kind of fault in the life of another, but that they see *genetically related faults* in the life of another person. The issues that they see in the other person are a categorical reflection of their own sins. When you’re going through a time of life where all you can see is other peoples’ issues, it is time for you to seek out godly counsel for your own heart. Perhaps the things you’re seeing in others is a reflection of a bigger and similar problem of your own.

Prioritization: Sawdust is still a problem

I think some people get the implication that these verses give them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card when it comes to outside critiques. Oddly enough, Jesus uses this analogy only to point out the challenge that the guy with a 2×4 in his head will have in *extricating* the sawdust, but not in his recognition that the sawdust *really is there.* So when some flawed individual comes to you with an issue, still do your best to consider that claim as valid. You may do well to bounce the claim off some accountability partners whose ability to be honest and see your issues clearly is unquestioned, but ignoring the issue entirely isn’t really fair to the analogy.

Categorization: 2×4’s as a new category of problems.

What Jesus is doing with this analogy is incredible. Jesus is pointing out that there is a whole category of sinners that we’re prone to forget about. We often think about sexual sinners or people who commit sins of speech, and so on. But Jesus reminds us that there are a bunch of people out there who walk around with lumber in their faces and haven’t taken the time to remove the problem. The funny thing about this is that we tend to look at the world in right/left perspective. We see conservatives and liberals, religious and irreligious. We see the guy with the 2×4 in his eye socket as someone in one camp or another camp. But Jesus gives us a category that transcends our own. For example, we’ve seen recent examples of hard right fundamentalists and left-leaning liberal Christians attacking notable evangelical leaders. In instances such as this, we’re reminded that 2×4-types transcend our categories. In God’s eyes, these two dissimilar groups in this instance share more in common than we originally would have thought.

Perception: You’d think we could see a 2×4, right?

Related to the previous point, it’s important to remember that if all we do is chat with, read, or befriend are people who share our dendrite problem, we’ll never see it for what it is. We’ll always see the sawdust of others as 2×4’s and receive critiques of our own 2×4 as if people were seeing sawdust. By surrounding ourselves by less than objective voices only from our own carpenter shop, we will consistently fail to recognize the gravity of our situation. And maybe this is part of the value of the church — it provides us with a variegated spectrum of saints who are able to see our problems better than we can ourselves. Seek out accountability not only from those who are most like you, but from those with whom you find little in common.

Concluding Thought: The value of outside accountability

Accountability is important in order to (a) evaluate whether the critiques we make are reflective of our own faults and (b) evaluate whether the critiques we receive are valid. Outside accountability is essential because (a) it shows us when we’ve fallen prey to our own categories, and (b) it shows us when we’ve fallen prey to our lack of context.

From Boys to Men: Discipleship for Maturity

For some reason, the pre-teen and early teen years are some of the most important years of a person’s life. These are the years when critical decisions are made that will affect the trajectory of one’s life. And it was in these years that this quirky rail of a homeschooled teenager learned some important lessons about discipleship from two of my Sunday School teachers. I’d like to share these lessons as a tribute to these two childhood heroes of mine.

Discipleship doesn’t mean having all the answers.

I think a lot of us fear engaging others in discipleship relationships because we see that we’re still a work in progress. We see our flaws and our lack of knowledge as a hinderance to effective discipleship. But the two men that had an amazing formative impact in my life would be the first to admit that they didn’t have all the answers either. In fact, it was when we discussed tough theology or wrestled through difficult applications and they admitted the complexity that I was driven back to the Word and to deeper study on my own. Sometimes knowing the right questions to ask is better than knowing the right answers to those questions.

Discipleship doesn’t require someone amazing.

The funny thing about my childhood mentors is that they came from the two segments of the church population that are often the most marginalized and under-utilized: the singles and the divorced. Rather than seeing themselves as exceptions to God’s plan and placing themselves on the bench, these men stepped up and used their gifts anyways. As I’m writing this, I can’t help but think of the army of men and women who are sitting by watching the next generation of the church be mentored by the world, making excuses because they aren’t that hip. But making disciples isn’t a task reserved for the cool and the popular — making disciples is the mandate for *every* believer. And maybe that’s why the sidelined Christians do such a good job at it. Your impact as a discipler will always be disproportionate to who you think you are.
It is quite possible that you feel like you’re one of those sidelined groups in the church. Maybe you’re an older saint who doesn’t feel wanted in the lives of the young and progressive in the congregation. It’s easy to make the assumption that they don’t want you to disciple them and then just check-out. But, guess what, they *really do* desire your investment in their lives! No, they don’t want you to try to make them into little clones, and they aren’t looking for a list of preferences; they want someone to adopt them and grow with them.

Discipleship isn’t about following a program.

Here’s what discipleship looked like for me: cutting the church lawn in the dead of summer, watching thousands of Southwest Airlines 737’s landing at BWI airport, going on homeschooler field trips to historical sites, and gathering before church on Sundays to pray and talk about the Bible. None of this involved a book with pictures and blanks to fill in. None of this happened because someone at the top told them to do this. It happened because a couple guys had a vision and compassion for the next generation of the church. Sometimes our desire for programs and paperwork simply crowd out the real work of discipleship. I want to encourage you to put down the curriculum and pick up someone on your way to church. Stop waiting for administrative guidance and take some guys on a journey that will lead them to Jesus.

Discipleship doesn’t involve accepting the status quo.

Discipleship will break up your routines. If you’re just a Sunday-show-up-and-leave kind of Christian, discipleship is going to make you bend and break. It will demand that you arrange a morning coffee, invest your Saturdays, or turn Sundays into days of all-out ministry. The status quo is all about staying in your comfort zone and catering to your own needs; discipleship is all about breaking out of your comfort zone and ministering to the needs of others. Start small and build from there. Target a opening in your schedule and use it to make the maximum difference.

Discipleship isn’t neat and clean.

If there’s one thing I learned from being discipled by these two men is that discipleship will always cost you something. Maybe it’s the cost of a plane ticket or just a meal. Maybe it’s the time to visit a teen and his family at home. Maybe it’s the physical exertion that it takes to mow the church lawn or get rid of the leaves at a widow’s home alongside your disciple. I don’t know exactly what discipleship will look like for you, but here’s an idea: when you think of discipleship, think of Jesus. Think of guys trudging across the countryside, rowing across a sea in the middle of a storm, or starving hungry trying to figure out where to eat their next meal. This is where the real work of discipleship happens. Discipleship won’t happen as long as we remain in the pristine corridors of our churches or in the comforts of our homes. Discipleship will cost you something.
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Dedicated to Mr. Dave and Mr. Walt — selfless men with an incalculable eternal impact.

3 Legs of the Christian Faith

Recently I’ve given some thought to several facets of the Christian faith that not only serve to make it unique, but are important for adherents to understand and claim as their own. I see these three aspects as legs of a stool: without any one of them, the stool becomes useless.

I would suggest that the Christian faith must be historically-rooted, doctrinally-grounded, and practically-oriented.

Historically-Rooted

The historical roots of Christianity are twofold. First, Christianity is rooted in the authenticity of the historical claims of the Bible. The Scriptures record a series of events which are the roots of our faith. Our faith is rooted in the reality of Creation, the Fall of Man, and God’s redemptive work in the patriarchs, for Israel, and among the nations. The historical fact of the resurrection is the cornerstone of Christian belief (1 Cor. 15.17). Pull up the historic roots of Christianity, and you have no Christianity at all.

Second, Christianity is rooted in the history of the church. In other words, the struggles of the church to clarify doctrine and to combat heresy are our own. The martyrs, the pastors, the translators, the reformers, we stand on their shoulders every day that we crack the Bible or consider our beliefs. Pull up the roots of our church history, and, at best, you’re simply reinventing the wheel, at worst, you’re headed away from the broad outline of true Christianity provided by our history.

In an era where the past is seen as irrelevant as the technology and innovation of the present grows by leaps and bounds, we must not forget our history. Don’t bemoan the cumbersome details of Biblical background or reject the study of church history for fear of those that you don’t agree with. Embrace the historical roots of your Christian faith!

Doctrinally-Grounded

There’s something essential about the belief-statements of Christianity. The early church confessed their “credo” (“I believe”) time and again when they met, but many believers today express their concerns about creeds and confessions. We often see statements of faith as too liturgical, too formal, and a little restrictive. But there are dangers when we divorce our Christianity from propositional belief-statements.

I recently read a story about a Christian musician who claimed that because his life reflected Christ, there was little consequence in the doctrines that he believed. In other words, to some, practical expression outweighs doctrinal confession. But I think the biblical model is that neither one outweighs the other. Both are important. Here are a few reasons why the doctrinal leg of Christianity is essential:

  1. Doctrinal grounding keeps us from error (Gal. 1.6-9; Eph. 4.13-15; Tit. 1.9).
  2. Doctrinal grounding is a precious treasure (1 Tim. 6.20; 2 Tim. 1.14).
  3. Doctrinal grounding shapes our practice (Rom. 12.1-2).
  4. Doctrinal grounding is the mark of a Christian (2 John 9-10).

Beware of fuzzy movements that can’t offer a definitive “credo.” Those who say “no creed but Christ” have offered you a creed — a woefully deficient creed, but a creed nonetheless. The stricture and formality of archaic statements of faith shouldn’t scare you away from articulating your own faith similarly. Embrace a doctrinally-grounded Christian faith!

Practically-Oriented

This third leg of the stool is equally essential. True faith is demonstrated in conjunction with works. Take a look at James 2.18:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works.

In this verse, James gives us a glimpse into the mindset of someone who would bifurcate faith and works. James warns of those who claim to follow Christ, but merely hold to a set of unpracticed beliefs. Instead, James argues that practiced faith is the only kind of faith that matters. His assumption, though, is that works proceed from faith (“faith by…works”) and not that faith exists in a hermetically-sealed confessional vacuum (“faith apart from..works”). It would be erroneous to suppose that James’ argument says that beliefs don’t matter (I suggested otherwise in the prior point), but rather we should see that James wants his readers to equally emphasize their beliefs and their practices that flow from those beliefs.

Let me also take a minute to say that the practical orientation of the Christian faith is the practice of scriptural truth. Propping up Christianity on moralism (I’ve got a more comprehensive list of rules!), comparative success (at least I’m not like that guy!), and favorable subculture (we all do these things in order to make us different) won’t do. It’s like improvising the third leg of the stool out of chopsticks. The result is a certain failure! Sometimes by attempting to create a more substantial practical outworking of our faith, we actually make a more deficient product. Manmade tradition will never replace biblical practice. Christian practice is a serious emotional, intellectual, and volitional engagement with the commands (both positive and negative) of Scripture. It can only come as the result of the fruit of a Spirit-filled, Gospel-changed life.

Don’t buy into the religion of the head, which exclusively focuses on content of belief. Don’t buy into the religion of the hand, which only examines what people do. Don’t accept the religion of history, which dwells only in the past. True Christianity is a faith that equally rests on a rich and accurate history, fixed propositional truth-claims, and the ethical and practical outflow in the lives of those who claim it.