Investing in Lives, a Few at a Time
So that’s my story and concern for the church. I won’t belabor anything; you get it. We are all disciples, and the myth that there are levels or classes of Christians must be exploded. Discipleship is the umbrella under which everything else resides. Evangelism, apologetics, missions, etc., are essential elements of discipleship. I trust you’ve read Knowing & Doing and don’t need me to reiterate this. You want what Marines call the “so what?” So I’ll get to the point. If you’re like me, you have not attended seminary but are an earnest follower of Christ who strives to be a good disciple. You’re involved in your church and are probably even a leader. You are not a nominal Christian and have not bought into MTD. You’re exasperated because you feel like you’re the only one who seems to get it. But I want to challenge you to take the initiative in your church or parish.
As a Marine, I move often and have attended ten churches in the past nineteen years. I can verify that “A great deal of focus has been put on ‘getting people to the door of the church,’ but not enough done to help them grow to spiritual maturity once they are in.”9 Most churches are busy dealing with the symptoms of this discipleship deficit but fail to treat the malady.10 And many pastors are consumed by programs. But I also have seen discipleship thrive. One example is the Tun Tavern Fellowship where there is no formal structure by which this loose network gathers. It is simply Marines engaging in discipleship through one-on-one mentoring relationships, triads/quads, and small groups.11
I’ve been encouraged to see them fulfill the Great Commission without relying on a brick and mortar institution. It’s a portable (or, as we say in the Corps, expeditionary) ministry that travels with you. They’ve fostered an environment and created a context in which they disciple one another intentionally; I’ve seen Marines disciple one another from different countries. (Personal interaction is preferred, but we do everything possible to maintain relationships.) This happens with great ease and does not require tremendous effort. And if a small group of Marines scattered across the globe can do it, so can the local church. In fact, some do.
Using the CSLI Fellows Program as a model, several churches in northern Virginia have created Fellows Programs of their own. But we don’t need to be that ambitious. That might be too much for some churches. We need to understand that our mission is to make disciples; we don’t need to convene an elders’ meeting or initiate church reform to do so. If we invest in the lives of a few at a time, we’ll start something that will grow. We don’t need to be a part of a program to disciple one another. We simply need a vision.
Another good example is a church in California where the men’s pastor decided to forgo the typical model of flashy events and large venues as the center of gravity for his ministry. Those events still have their place, but he’s focused his energy into discipleship. Seeing the need for men to get real with God and one another, he created “Guerilla Groups” consisting of three to four men committed to gathering regularly, preferably weekly, to disciple one another. This has led to tremendous growth. And by growth I do not mean in quantity; that is not the metric that indicates real success. Any new program can draw a crowd and give the appearance of growth. Growth should be measured in strength, and the strength of the men’s program has noticeably increased.12 In fact, the pastor has worked himself out of a job in several instances.
For example, he organized a missions trip to Central America in which the biggest ministry was in the lives of the men who went. They returned transformed and renewed and have assumed the planning responsibilities for the next trip. In another instance, he started a weekly outdoor gathering at the church where men cook, fellowship, and share testimonies. He now hardly needs to attend, because it is run completely by laymen. A third instance is when he suggested that the church partner with the local municipality to organize a crisis response network. Again, the men are rising up to become helping hands within the community. By articulating his vision to others and focusing on discipleship, he has seen the men in this ministry grow in their faith. At last count, there were more than twelve Guerilla Groups. Any church and any ministry could do the same.
So what’s involved in this vision? Patience, for one thing. Disciples are not mass-produced13 In today’s high-tempo world, we like everything fast, but it’s not enough to hold a discipleship conference. As useful as this is for training and education, it will not bring about transformation. We must recognize what Ogden describes so well in Transforming Discipleship: the most effective way to make disciples is a few at a time over time—life-on-life engagement in which we pour ourselves into the lives of others the way our Lord did with the Twelve.
We do not need all the answers. We do not need to corner the market on spiritual maturity. We simply need a vision to share our lives with others and commit to seeing them grow and to grow with them. This can be done in simple, everyday life. In fact, it’s essential that it be done in everyday life.14 This vision must reject shortcuts and focus on commitments; it must avoid expediency and insist on relationships.15 In short, it must focus on helping others conform to the image of Christ via small, quality, long-term relationships. And it must reproduce. Similar to how I learned to balance knowing with doing, we must encourage those we disciple to do likewise. The vision must not culminate in a “holy huddle.” We must move into new relationships and help others discover what it means to follow Christ, and one of our goals must be to make disciples who will disciple. That’s what disciples do. If we don’t, we’re not.
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