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EPISODE 39: Discipleship in the Local Church
At the C. S. Lewis Institute, we’re all about “Discipleship of the Heart and Mind.” But we’d hate for people to think we view this as a purely individual effort. Discipleship must occur in community and, especially, through the community of the local church. That’s the topic of my conversation with CSLI Senior Fellow and local pastor Bill Kynes.
Discipleship is a Team Sport by Bill Kynes.
Insourcing: Bringing Discipleship Back to the Local Church by Randy Pope.
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today for my conversation, we're going back to an older recording from several years ago, when I sat down and had a conversation with Bill Kynes, pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church, about discipleship in and through the local church. So, this is from our archives, but it's still as relevant as ever. I'm really grateful to have had this conversation with Bill and hope to have him back again.
Bill is retiring after 35 years of pastoring the same church. Isn't that amazing? And in a future episode of Questions That Matter, I'd like to reconnect with him and say, “Now that you've retired, moved down to Florida, relaxing, playing shuffle board, whatever it is that you're doing, as you look back at 35 years of ministry through the local church, what did you learn? What was outstanding?” So, look for that in an upcoming episode of Questions That Matter. But for now, here's my conversation from a few years ago about discipleship in and through the local church.
On today's podcast, I have the thrill of having a conversation with my good friend Bill Kynes, who has been the pastor at the same church, Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church, for 33 years. How wonderful! Way to go!
Yeah, it’s been great. It's been great.
And we're going to talk about discipleship. And because of your vantage point as a pastor, we want to zoom in on: What does discipleship look like in the local church? What is it about the local church that helps foster discipleship? You're also a New Testament scholar. You have a PhD, yes? In New Testament?
Mm-hm. Scholar may be overstating it, but yes.
Okay, well, but we'll take it. And so, we also want to ask some questions about just the theology and what the New Testament teaches about the topic, about discipleship. But I want to start here: You've said to me on a number of occasions one of the things you love the best about being a pastor, you've said, is the vantage point or the view. What do you mean by that?
Well, I start with just the interesting view you get at a wedding. I have the best view of the house, as you see the bride and the groom coming to the front, and you see their faces as they exchange vows. And it's just a wonderful experience. But I think it points to the broader view of life that you get as a pastor. You're invited in to some of the most significant events in people's lives. You're there at points of deep sorrow and grief as you're invited in after the death of a loved one. You're invited in to celebrate wonderful things like a wedding, and you see the whole gamut of human experience. And so being a pastor keeps you in touch with, I think, what life is really all about, these deep, intimate experiences that make human living exciting.
Wow, that's really great. I don't think enough church members think about that. We think of, “Okay, he's the leader. He’s the preacher. He preaches a sermon every week, and we like it. That’s good.” But being involved in all areas of people's lives, and I imagine it really varies even within the course of an hour. I mean, you may be dealing with some of the darkest, most difficult stuff and then some of the greatest joys and everything in between.
Yeah, you get the whole gamut of human experience. And so, in a sense, nothing surprises me anymore. There is a depth of depravity in the human soul, which is lamentable, but there is a dignity and a beauty in human life as well. You see all of that as a pastor, so I appreciate that.
Wow. All right, so I want you to put on the hat of the New Testament… I'm going to call you a scholar, because you are. A New Testament scholar. So, this word discipleship, what does it mean? Is there something about the Greek word that will help us? On this podcast, we’re all about discipleship. What does it mean to grow in depth in our walk with the Lord? And for some of that, it's helpful for us to have some good vocabulary, good theology. So what light can you shed on that word or that teaching in the New Testament?
Well, it just so happens that my research was on the Gospel of Matthew, so discipleship was very much a part of what I studied in my PhD research. The word simply refers to a learner. Jesus talks about a student, disciple is not greater than his teacher. So, there's this learner. The Great Commission: “Make disciples, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” So, a disciple is a learner. So, there's an intellectual side, but it's much more of someone who comes alongside, almost like an apprentice. So, there's that relationship. A disciple attaches themselves to a master to learn not just intellectually, but also morally and by example and all of that, so that's sort of what the word disciple meant in its New Testament context. And what I think is important is that the word disciple is simply another way of describing a Christian.
There are various ways that a Christian is described in the Bible. The word Christian first appears in Acts 11, where it says the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. And the word Christian simply means someone identified with Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. There are other ways that a Christian is described. Paul often talks about Christians as the holy ones, the saints. He refers to Christians as saints. He refers to Christians as brothers and sisters, in a kind of family relationship. Christians are often described as followers of Jesus. Christians are described as believers. These are all describing the same group of people from different directions.
And so, disciple is just another way to describe a Christian, with a particular emphasis on learning from the master, growing to become like the master. And I think that's important for people to understand.
Wow. This is really good. When words are used a lot, they can actually start losing some of their meaning. And so, I think we throw around this word disciple, discipleship, and after a while, it almost means nothing. And we need to stop and step back from it and go, “No, wait. What does that word mean?” And I love what you're doing with, “Well, let's look at other words that are used in the scriptures to talk about who the Christians are.” So it becomes like a diamond with many different facets, and you look at it from this way and that way. Now, I don't know if you've heard this: There are a few people who say, “Well, you know, the word discipleship doesn't even appear in the Bible.”
Well, I've heard someone else say that there are a lot of other English words that don't appear in the Bible, too. Well, I think the notion of discipleship is very central in the Bible, particularly in the Gospels. And I would start with the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” And I find that one of the problems with the word is that it has particular connotations, which, as I said, don't refer to Christians in general, but a particular kind of Christian, or a particular stage of the Christian life.
So, a disciple is—because it's associated with learning, it's sometimes associated with a particular training program. You get in a discipleship program, and it's something that's added to your Christian experience. Discipleship is associated with kind of a next stage in your Christian life. You come to believe in Jesus as your Savior. He saved you from your sins. And then at some later stage you decide to become a disciple. Discipleship becomes Christianity 2.0. It becomes a kind of elite view of the Christian life. It's for those who are really serious about being Christians. And that's not the biblical perspective at all. Every Christian is to be a disciple. One who is a learner from Jesus, one who is growing to become like Him.
So, are there ways we can avoid that kind of two-tiered approach? I mean, you're right. In the scriptures, it's, “Okay, there are newborn Christians and young baby Christians, and they grow and they grow and they grow.” So that just makes sense. We want to have discipleship programs to help people grow. But is there a way to avoid that two-tier kind of mentality?
I think part of it is just a truncated understanding of the gospel itself.
What do you mean by that? How do you mean?
People associate the gospel simply with being forgiven. “I turn to Jesus, and I'm forgiven of my sins,” and that's the gospel. The gospel is bigger than that. It certainly includes that. And that's the core of the gospel. But it is also a transformational process. God not only saves us from our sins. He wants to transform us into the very image of Christ. And the gospel work is not complete in us until we're conformed to that image and glory. So, the gospel is not simply our justification by faith, although it is that, and that is central, and that is at the core of the gospel. It includes this process of sanctification and ultimately includes the notion that we're going to be glorified in a resurrection body like that of Jesus, our Lord.
And the gospel has that past dimension, it has a present dimension, it has a future dimension. And I think people don't quite get that. The gospel is bigger than just being forgiven of your sins. It's a whole transformation of life. And I think that's the dimension that discipleship focuses on, in playing out and kind of helping us to see the fullness of the gospel.
Good. All right, so there are a number of different illustrations that I've heard people use. And so, becoming a Christian is like getting married. And sure, you're newlywed, but then over the course of 50 years, you're still married. You're married then, you're married now, but when you become a Christian, you're a Christian, and you grow. Other illustrations are like our physical lives. We're born, and we're newborn babies, but then we grow and we grow and we grow, and we become adults, but we're always a person. Do those work? Are those decent? Every illustration has its weakness. Do you use those in your teaching?
Sure, sure. And they all have value. They all emphasize different things. I mean, the birth one is an important one. You must be born again. That implies growth and development. And Paul says, I'm not satisfied. I'm not content until Christ is formed in you. This idea of growing into the image of Christ is very significant. Growing up into Christ, putting on Christ as this lifelong process. So, I think that one's helpful. I think the marriage one obviously is helpful, and it points to this commitment of loyalty and exclusiveness and preeminence in our relationship with Christ. But also, a healthy marriage is one in which that relationship develops. And interestingly, often in marriages that are healthy, the husband and wife almost tend to grow like one another. There is this mutuality in that relationship. So, growing into that relationship is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Learning about Him, growing in our love for Him is all part of that process.
Good, good stuff. All right, so while we're still talking about vocabulary, and I know, you and I, we could get stuck in this vocabulary, just talking about words for a very long time. And I realize not everybody's into words as much as you and I are, but they should be. No, sorry.
So, another word some Christians say we should avoid is the word Christian. We shouldn't use the word Christian. We should say follower of Christ or follower of Jesus, because the word Christian has been corrupted, or it doesn't bring to mind, in a non-Christian mind, what we want it to. So how do you respond to that? You've used the word Christian. Do we need to edit that out?
Well, I think this is the way language works that, over time, often words lose their meaning just through overuse. But it's a biblical word, so I want to hold on to biblical words.
Yeah, good, good.
The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.
So, I think it's a biblical word. I want to hold on to it. I think we need to help people understand what it means, and there are lots of ways we do that, but most importantly, through what we do. And how we live is an important part of that process. Again, it's just one word to describe this reality of being joined to Christ. But it's an appropriate one. It's a biblical one. I wouldn't give it up, but I understand the importance of helping people understand what that means.
And as a pastor, as a preacher, that's what I'm doing all the time. I'm helping people understand. What does this word mean? What does it mean to be a Christian or not to be a Christian? What does it mean in our life to be a Christian? So, it's something that you're always working at.
Great. Yeah, good. I have a friend who's a philosopher who says that sometimes the task of a Christian is to rehabilitate words and to help words be thought of the way they once were, or to bring them back to what the meaning was. And so, some of those discussions sometimes with non-believers are, “Listen, I know a lot of people use this word in a lot of different ways. Here's how I'm using that word.”
One of the questions that matter that we hope to pursue throughout all of these different podcasts is: Do you want to experience the power of a transformed life? That's the focus of our C.S. Lewis Institute Fellows Program, a year-long Fellows program, and we're, at this time, accepting applications for the next round of Fellows programs. Please visit our Website, and check out Fellows program and prayerfully consider applying.
So, let's talk now about the local church. That's where we started. This is the world you have been immersed in. So, what does discipleship look like in a local church, as opposed to the way some people might think about it?
Follower of Christ
Well, I think because the word disciple has this notion of learner, I think a local church is a teaching community, so there's a lot of teaching that goes on. We need to understand who Jesus is. We need to understand what he taught. We need to understand the theological background to the whole gospel story, so there's a lot of teaching involved in the local church, and we emphasize that, both through the preaching of the word, we have Sunday schools, we have other venues of teaching. But it's a particular kind of teaching. It's not just an intellectual thing. It shapes our lives. It has a moral dimension, spiritual dimension. It has to touch our hearts.
And that's where I think the local church is so important, because it's life on life. We're seeing it lived out. This is something you see, very important. Not only in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus called his disciples to be with Him, to watch Him, to participate with Him. He sent them out in ministry and then brought them back and taught them. So, it's a life on life. And again, the word apprentice is a helpful one, because there are skills that can't simply be taught from a book. They have to be seen. You have to participate in it. The illustration that's often given is that of a violin maker. You can't just go to school and become a violin maker. You have to apprentice yourself to a master, who can then slowly and meticulously help you understand all that goes into making a precious violin. So, I think that's a helpful illustration, but I think another one is simply a family. Think about a child growing up. A child growing up in a healthy family is learning all kinds of things that aren't taught explicitly. They're taught implicitly. They're taught by observation. They just are absorbed in the context of growing up in a healthy family. And I think that's very important in what happens in a local church. We're looking around. We're creating a culture in which certain values are held up, certain values are lived out, and people begin to understand, “Oh, this is how we live. This is what it looks like.”
And this is very important. In Paul, Philippians, chapter 4, he says to the Philippians, he says, “What you have heard and learned, what you've been taught, you've learned from me, what also you've heard about me and seen in me, put this into practice.” And Paul is often talking about his example. People need to see what it looks like to live as a Christian. These Christian truths can be abstract, without the real life of a community, and that's why the local church is so important in this process.
All right, so let me put you on the spot: Can you think of an example or a story you've seen in your church where this has been lived out?
I think partly it's just… generally, it's the kind of values in the way people live, the way they spend their money, the way they can be generous to others. I try to highlight some of those things, to sort of hold people up as examples. Paul talks about, in Philippians, he's talking about this man Epaphroditus, who was an emissary from the church in Philippi to Paul when he was in prison. And he risked his life in order to bring to Paul their help, material help and encouragement, and Paul says, “Honor men such as these. Hold up these kinds of values.” So, when I see these kinds of things happening, I try to hold them up as examples, as models for others. I've seen amazing examples of forgiveness and grace.
There was one example, years ago, of a man who defrauded some others in the church of money, and actually he ended up going to prison for it. And on the night before he was going to prison, we gathered and prayed for him, and the people he defrauded were there to pray for him. And it was just a beautiful experience of the gospel being worked out. And a good ending. I mean, he went off to prison, came back, and became reunited into the body of the church and was accepted as a fellow believer, as a brother. So those kinds of things. They speak of the beauty of the gospel lived out.
I love what you said about how you want to lift these stories up. People need to hear those stories over and over and over again in a million different ways. One of the things we try to emphasize on this podcast is we don't want to see evangelism and discipleship as these separate watertight compartments. They really flow together, and so that same kind of corporate living out of the gospel, I have seen, it bears fruit in evangelism. And for me, interviewing a number of new believers, several of them told about how, okay, so there was this one-on-one conversation they were having with a particular Christian, and they met with them over coffee over many times, and one-on-one question, answer, debate, or whatever.
But then, for the non-Christian, it was seeing the same beliefs lived out in a whole wide range of different people in the local church. So, I remember this one young woman who talked about she went to an event sponsored by a local church about marriage. Three different couples up front, talking about their marriages. And they were of different ages, different length of time being married, different races, ethnicity. And she sat there thinking, “I'm not married. I'm not even seriously dating anybody. But when I do get married, I want a marriage like that. And these men really love their wives, and they're very honest about struggles that they've had and difficulties. It's not all romance and flowers.” But hearing it and seeing it lived out in a variety of settings.
So again, this is what you see discipleship occurs when people see, “Okay, I'm in a church where these two people who should hate each other are praying for each other. And these two people who are going through a really difficult time of health struggles or dealing with a disease that's going to take their life, they still sing and praise Jesus. And here's this other person sitting right next to them who doesn't have any of those problems but has other problems.” And so those are some of the things I think about when I think of discipleship lived out in the local church.
Yeah. And I think the church ought to be one of the most wonderful tools for evangelism. A healthy church is just a wonderful thing to behold, and I've seen it. I think of one woman who started attending our church, and it was simply the greeting as we greet one another at the beginning of worship that just impressed her. She said, “These people are amazing!” I thought, you know, it was just the warmth of their greeting and their genuine interest in her. She didn't know any of these people, but they were interested in her, and she was struck by that. And I think often Christians who are fully engaged in church life don't appreciate that. They don't appreciate the riches of the relationship that exists in a local church. I think about the area in which we live, a suburban area, very busy. It can be a relational desert for many people. They just don't have friends, they don't have close associations, and we have that in the church.
I remember someone coming to me. He was talking about he didn't have any friends. And he said, “Do you have that problem?” And I said, “Well, no. I'm involved in a church.” I've got lots of relationships, more than I have time to develop. And I think that's a richness that is a wonderful testimony to the work of the gospel.
My challenge is how do I get people who are outside the church, how do I get them to sample that? How do I get them to see it? And that's a challenge we have.
Right. It's a very big challenge. I've heard people talk about modern society has a great deal of crowded loneliness.
Lots of people around. We’re around people all the time, and yet-
And busy doing lots of things!
Yes, very busy. Maybe you remember there were a couple of cover stories on the Atlantic Monthly years ago. One was, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” And they spelled stupid, S-T-O-O-P-I-D in the same font and color of Google. And the answer in the article was yes, but it took a lot of pages to say it. And then there was a follow up or related article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” So, there's all of this social network connectedness, and yet people feel isolated and lonely.
And you're right. In a church, you come into this building, and there's time beforehand of talking and greeting people. Many churches have a time of greeting in the middle of it. Turn to your neighbor now and greet them. And I just think that seems so ordinary to us in the church, and yet it may be one of the most powerful things we do, both for outreach, evangelism, and discipleship.
Right. And don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the greeting is deep relational involvement. It's just a kind of taste of that sort of thing. You have to work hard at creating environments in which people can really engage in each other's lives and share life together. But I really think, in a world of virtual relationships, more and more, the embodied relationships that you get in a local church, they're just essential. They're just essential. And there, I think, extremely meaningful.
And the essence of a local church is that there are all sorts of people there who are different than me. For a lot of people, they go to work, and in a lot of work environments, people are all kind of the same age or same background. Sometimes it's in neighborhoods. Certainly, in university life, “Well, we're all 18 to 22 years old or about, and we tend to cluster together by being alike.” You come into the church and, oh, there are older people here and there are younger people here. There are kids who are making too much noise and all sorts of… and just that's the reality of entering in.
And I think that there's been a lot written recently just about that and the degree to which we can have a church that is diverse in all sorts of ways that in our culture divide us but are united by nothing more than our common allegiance to Christ and the gospel, the more that speaks of the beauty of the Gospel and its power.
Right. All right. So, when we use the word discipleship, I think a lot of people envision one on one. “I'm meeting with my discipler,” or, “I'm meeting with my disciple,” and we go over content, and I think that's good. Does that happen in your local church?
We try to make it happen in different ways. We're always working at it. We're always working at it. I think one-to-one relationships are very valuable. We try different ways. We hope that they happen spontaneously, but often they don't, and we have ways to try to make a program out of it or intentionally create relationships like that. We try to get together.
I think change in human life takes place over time, in relationships of acceptance and grace, when there is helpful content. And you combine those, and a one-to-one relationship is a wonderful thing. I talked to somebody recently in another city, and he was struggling with where he could fit into his church's ministry. And I said, “Well, you don't need to be in a formal ministry. You're a mature Christian. Just find some other people in the church that would like to get together with you and share life and maybe read a book of the Bible together, read a Christian book, just pray together and commit to maybe let's do this for a quarter, twelve weeks, 13 weeks.”
And he wrote me back just yesterday and said, “Yeah, I found two young men that I'm doing this with. And I said, what a wonderful thing. So, I think these kinds of relationships are great, and I think they're very helpful. And I'm in a one-to-one relationship with another pastor. We share life. We hold each other accountable. We encourage one another. But I want to say again, discipleship is bigger than that. And I think everything that happens in our church is an aspect of discipleship. Everything that happens. The whole environment that we create is related to discipleship, because discipleship is that big.
It is shaping people into the image of Christ. It is drawing people into a commitment to Him, helping people to see the truth, the goodness, the beauty of who He is and what a wonderful thing it is to follow Him and to live out His life in this life with the hope not only in this age, but in the age to come. So, everything we do is part of that process.
Okay. I love it. And so, I think what you're helping us is just thinking about this topic of discipleship on a much bigger canvas, a bigger framework. All right, so let me turn things a little bit. Again, very often people think of discipleship as this one on one, a program. Very often, these are the strong suits of so-called parachurch ministries, campus ministries. We, the C.S. Lewis Institute, we have our yearlong Fellows program, which we think is a great discipleship program. And so, are there some potential weaknesses of discipleship in the local church? We've talked about the strengths. Are there some challenges there in the local church that aren't as big as challenges in the parachurch organizations, so to speak? I know I didn't give you that question ahead of time to prepare. I'm now getting to my surprise questions. The rest of this interview is going to be very uncomfortable for you. You're on the hot seat. Go!
Let me turn it around.
And first of all, … I will address your question, but I'll say first of all, the value of parachurch ministry is that they can often bring in expertise and a quality that can't necessarily be duplicated in every local church.
This is, in a sense, kind of what a seminary does. A seminary is a kind of parachurch organization where you get together theologians and biblical scholars and others who can help shape those who are preparing for ministry in a particular way, in a way that's better than what a local church can do. Okay. And so, I think there are things that a parachurch ministry can do that are helpful to a local church. We love our association with the C.S. Lewis Institute. We love the resources that the institute brings that help us in helping to shape people into the image of Christ as disciples. So that's the positive side.
The other question is, what's the negative side? Well, in some ways, parachurch organizations have an advantage over the local church, because they can be specialized, right? And they sometimes make local churches look bad because of that. A local church is more like a family. You’ve got to take what you get.
Yeah. And dysfunctional families are very often a parallel.
Well, exactly. And I think a healthy local church is going to have a lot of dysfunctional people. Because we're one of the few places that will receive those people, welcome them, embrace them, and put up with them. And we try to do that.
A parachurch organization can be more selective. They can say, “This is what we do. If you don't fit in, that's too bad.” But a local church can't do that. Yeah. We're not all about one narrow function. And if you don't fit in, sorry. No. We're a family. We accept everybody who comes in, and we try to minister and nurture everyone. So, I think that's a challenge that a local church has, which a parachurch doesn't have to deal with.
Yeah. Good. Well said. You did that well. Thank you.
We'll return to my conversation with Bill Kynes in just a moment. This topic of discipleship makes me think: We want you to know of the many small group resources we have for discipleship on our Website. Please visit that website, see the many resources we have for your individual discipleship and growth, spiritual growth, but also small group resources for use within the church. And while you are at that website, please consider prayerfully donating to our ministry to help us continue producing these resources and serving people in their walks with the Lord.
All right, books. Got any favorite books on discipleship that you return to or that you recommend?
Well, I was thinking about that question. I don't think books about discipleship are necessarily the best books to help grow disciples.
As soon as you say that, that seems so obvious. There goes my plan about writing my bestselling book on discipleship. But okay.
I mean, books that help me grow as a disciple are books that help me grow in my love for God, that show me the beauty of Christ, that help me battle with sin in my own life. So that’s what comes to my mind.
So, I would think about a book like Jonathan Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruits, which is just a collection of his sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, and he holds up the beauty of Christian love. That helps me grow as a disciple, also grow in love. So, I think of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. If I know God better and I’m drawn to know Him, then I grow as a disciple. So that's the way I would answer that question. What are books that draw me to want to give my heart to God more and more?
Good stuff. Well, I think you've given us a lot to think about, and again, you've helped us think about discipleship on a bigger canvas. Any final thoughts about this topic, this very, very important central topic of discipleship?
Well, I want to make this point that I think is pretty important, and that is discipleship is not simply, “Oh, I got to work hard to be better.” It's not just this human effort to improve yourself. It's not just about me and a kind of self-improvement exercise. It begins with this faith commitment to Jesus. Jesus says He reaches out to us, He calls us to himself, and He says, “Come, follow Me.” And that's where Discipleship begins, with that response of faith to Jesus. And in the Gospels, you see it is that union with Jesus out of which everything else flows. And that's why I think, in the Great Commission, Jesus speaks of it as He does. He says, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and then teaching them to obey all that I’ve commanded you.” This baptism is about union. You come. As a disciple, you're in union with Him, you're in union with his people. That's what baptism speaks of in a visible way.
And out of that, you come to learn and grow and mature and change and be transformed. So, I think discipleship, we're talking about the big picture. You have to include that, this gospel of grace, which is always the beginning point, which you never get away from, when you think about Discipleship.
Good, good word. Well, thank you again for helping us think deeply. And you have really helped us with our whole purpose of this podcast. So, we hope that those who are listening, we hope that this and all of our resources at the C.S. Lewis Institute will help you love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.