Tag Archives: Discipleship

How to use What does it Mean to be a Christian? in Discipleship

I remember teaching the story of Joseph at a church-based after school program for Junior and Senior High students. When I told them that his brothers sold him into slavery, many of them were genuinely surprised. For them, the story was new and exciting. For me, it was a wake-up call that I could not assume these student would have a basic understand of Christianity I so often took for granted.

What the students thought they knew of Christianity was often skewed, or so incomplete to be unhelpful. They didn’t know how to connect the dots between the gospel and the Christian life, and many had no connection to a local church, or any understanding of why it would be at all important.

In this, and other ministry contexts, I began to see the need to have a ready outline of the Christian faith, something that would present the gospel and the call of salvation clearly, without a lot of religious jargon, that would connect salvation to the life of the Christian and the life of the church. I wrote What Does it Mean to be a Christian? as an attempt to draw out such an outline. It’s an outline, not exhaustive, but complete enough for new and deeper information to be incorporated into the unified cloth of the faith.

In my church context, I have used the content of this book in two specific ways:

  • Introduce teenagers with limited knowledge of Christianity to the basics of the faith
  • Prepare adults to take the step of believer’s baptism

What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? is split into three parts, and outlines the following topics:

Part 1: Salvation

  • The unified story of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Rescue, Completion
  • The character of God: His Divine and Moral attributes
  • Mankind: Made in the image of God, yet slaves to sin, and in need of God’s rescue
  • Salvation: The gift of God and the call to repentance

Part 2: The Christian Life

  • New life in Jesus through the Spirit: Freedom from sin, freedom to serve
  • The greatest commandment: Love God and love neighbor
  • The Spiritual disciplines: Bible reading, Prayer, Church attendance
  • Embracing the “weirdness” of Christianity, being salt and light

Part 3: The church

  • The nature of the Church: An outline of the theology of the church
  • Baptism and Communion: Essential symbols for a distinctive community
  • The relationship between the Church and the World
  • A call to participate in a local, Bible believing, church

How a ministry leader could use What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

  • Form an outline for further curriculum development
  • Supplemental reading material for classes giving the basics of the Christian faith
  • A resource to provide to those curious about Christianity
  • A resource for new believers to grow in their faith
  • Preparatory reading for teenagers and adults preparing for baptism

Two more essential notes for ministry leaders:

  • What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? addresses sexuality when discussing the Christian life. It is in no way explicit, but it is probably not appropriate for younger kids.
  • If you’re a ministry leader interested in using this book and have questions, or want to know about a group rate, email me at steve@wpbiblefellowship.org. I would be happy to provide copies of this book at cost ($2.15/book + shipping) to anyone using it in a ministry context.

Available on Amazon

(Paperback) (Kindle)

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3 behaviors that have the biggest impact on spiritual growth (according to data)

I’m currently reading No Silver Bullets by Daniel Im. This is a book written primarily for pastors and church leaders, to help their ministries become more effective in making disciples.

No Silver Bullets relies heavily on research conducted by LifeWay. LifeWay’s research examined two types of data. First, they identified eight characteristics of a spiritually mature disciple. The eight characteristics were: biblical engagement, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, building relationships, and living transparently. Second, they looked at around forty behaviors which they thought could contribute to those eight characteristics. Then, they measured which behaviors had an effect.

Not surprisingly, some behaviors had strong correlations to some outcomes. For instance, regularly praying for friends or family who aren’t believers was a strong predictor of whether or not someone shared their faith. Some of the correlations were surprising. For instance, there was a strong correlation between confessing your sins and sharing your faith.

But, there were three behaviors which had the biggest impact on the eight indicators of spiritual maturity, and they had an impact on all of the indicators. In other words, these three behaviors don’t just help you grow in one area, but in all areas.

As a pastor, they’re not all the surprising to me. But they are often neglected. Here they are.

Reading the Bible: We’re not talking about in depth Bible study here, we’re just talking about regularly opening up your Bible and reading it. This behavior helps people grow not only in Bible engagement, but in serving God, denying self, building relationships, and all the other indicators of mature discipleship.

Attending church worship services: The more people attended worship services, the more they grew spiritually. It’s pretty simple, really. It makes sense. And yet, regular attendance is waning, even among the committed. Don’t neglect it.

Attending a small group (Bible study, Sunday school class, etc.): Those who engaged with smaller groups of believers didn’t just grow in building relationships, but, again, in each of the key indicators.

Are you serious about growing in your faith? We can’t manufacture growth – it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. But, we can be faithful and wise. The fact that these behaviors correlated to spiritual growth makes sense. They’re biblically mandated behaviors. We’re called to meditate on God’s Word, to not forsake the fellowship of unbelievers, and to practically find ways to love brothers and sisters in Christ. It should be no surprise that in doing those things which Christ commands, we will grow closer to Christ Himself.

Book Recommendation
No Silver Bullets: Five Small Shifts that will Transform Your Ministry

Confession of a Politically Engaged Pastor

Confession: I want to influence your* vote, but not for the reason or with the method you’re probably thinking of.

Here’s my dilemma: On the one hand I want to stay as far away from politics as possible. Politics are divisive. They usually separate instead of unite. That last thing I would want to do is divide the church on political lines, to alienate fellow believers or push away those who are seeking. I want to reach Bernie supporters, Hillary supporters, Trump supports, Kasich supports, Libertarians, #NeverTrumpers, and people of every other political stripe. I never want to unnecessarily offend and that’s often where political speech goes.

Second, so much of political thought is based on human wisdom and does not have the same weight as “thus saith the Lord.” As good or bad as some economic or political theories are, it’s just hard to defend many of them from Scripture. Since I’m a pastor in the business of proclaiming the Word of God above all else, I don’t want my political opinions to get entangled with what is more Scripturally certain.

Third, I don’t want to get distracted from the gospel. It’s Jesus that will transform the world and he does it through his life, death, and resurrection. That’s the message of life and hope. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that message.

On the other hand, while the gospel is not politics, the gospel does have political implications. Those who follow Jesus commit to following him in every area of their lives, and politics are not an exception. Voting, or choosing not to vote, is not morally neutral behavior or one based solely on personal preferences or opinions. Many political issues are based on human wisdom but others are questions in regards to what is good, and right, and just. Political engagement is a way that Christians can honor God and love neighbor, or it can be a way we dishonor God and neglect our neighbor.

I don’t want to influence your vote because I care about political power or political results. Political power can be good when used for justice but it can also seduce and corrupt. Political results are in the hands of the sovereign God. No, I care how you vote** because I am charged with the duty of discipleship (and not only in my role as a pastor, all Christians are called to be disciple-makers.) I care about how you vote because of the Judgment Seat of Christ where we will all be called to make account for our actions, whether good or bad, and how we act or fail to act politically comes under that same judgment.

Here’s my other dilemma: How then do I go about giving instruction on such matters? There are a couple of things I’m not comfortable doing – endorsing a candidate or using a position of influence to speak about matters of purely human wisdom. I’m not comfortable with this course of action for a few reasons, but the main reason is that it only gets at the surface off what is really going on. I see politics as a “lagging indicator.” Politics is always a few years behind culture. And culture comes out of a broad world view. For Christians, our worldview should be shaped by knowledge of Scripture, plus a desire to love God and love neighbor. This is the root. My aim in discipleship is to first discern the root issues and then to address them through Scripture. The benefit of this is that it not only eventually percolates back up to a political symptom (Lord willing) but that, more importantly, it’s essential to disciple-making in the first place, even if it never has any political impact.

This is part of the reason why I’ve written the blog posts that I have. I want you to know that abortion is an injustice against the weak and powerless and is an offense to the image of God. I want you to know that racism is a problem and that the body of Christ has a role to play in national healing. I want you to know that we need to examine our anger and look for constructive solutions. I want you to know that God cares for the aliens and strangers, even while that leads to uncertain political conclusions. I want you to know that political idolatry can lead to fear, hatred, and a compromised conscience. I also want you to know that not voting is an option, if the alternative is a vote between two evils. My aim is to focus on the gospel and the whole counsel of God and simply allow them to have the political consequences they might naturally have.

I really have no idea how I’m doing in this. It’s quite possible that I’m being too vague, that I lack courage, or that I am too concerned that I might offend. If so, I apologize. Or it’s possible I’m being too vocal, lifting issues higher than they should be and causing a distraction for some. If so, again, I apologize. I’ve swung wildly throughout my life. When I was a teenager I was convinced that pastors should be vocal political activists and that those who didn’t, failed to because of a lack of conviction. Later, I took the opposite position, coming to the conclusion that pastors should avoid political discussions at all costs. This election cycle has pulled me back to somewhere in the middle. Please pray with me as I try to navigate this rocky terrain.

* Note 1: “You/your” is specifically directed towards followers of Jesus. If you’re reading this and you are not a believer in, or follower of Jesus, this post probably doesn’t apply to you. It is pastoral in nature, not really generally political.

** Note 2: I don’t mean to say that there is a one-to-one relationship between proper discipleship and the “right” candidate. Followers of Jesus will disagree on some things politically, but that doesn’t mean they’re somehow “less than” if they happen to disagree with me. I expect a certain amount of healthy political diversity within the body. But, I do believe that biblical ethics and values do put certain limits on who we could vote for and maintain a clear conscience. There are certain candidates or laws which I would counsel Christians not to vote for and feel pretty certain about my conclusions.

Questions for preachers to ask themselves (via Dallas Willard)

Dallas Willard expresses concern in The Divine Conspiracy that the idea of discipleship is lost on both the “left” and “right” sides of the theological spectrum. He believes that discipleship has been replaced by doctrines of “sin management” (or what Bonhoeffer might call “cheap grace”) that is disconnected from the person of Jesus Christ. This leads Willard to exhort Christian teachers:

“Must not all who speak for Christ constantly ask themselves these crucial questions: Does the gospel I preach and teach have the natural tendency to cause people to hear it to become full-time students of Jesus? Would those who believe it become his apprentices as a natural “next step”? What can we reasonably expect would result from people actually believing the substance of my message?”

In contrast to doctrines of “sin management” and teaching a gospel that is disconnected from our “real” lives Willard offers this solution:

“To counteract this we must develop a straightforward presentation, in word and life, of the reality of life now under God’s rule, through reliance upon the word and person of Jesus. In this way we can naturally become his students or apprentices. We can learn from him how to live our lives as he would live them if he were we.

Book Review: The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Cost of Discipleship

The Cost of Discipleship

My copy of The Cost of Discipleship is filled with underlined passages and notes in the margins, all indications of time where Boenhoffer led me on a mini inner-dialog. I would love to bring those notes and reflections to bear on this review. However time constrains me to deal too much with the content. I have done so a little bit here, in regards to Bonhoeffer’s view of discipleship.

As much as I was struck by the message of this book, I was perhaps more impressed by Bonhoeffer’s tone. Bonhoeffer wrote to a church in the crisis of Nazi Germany. Many in the Church capitulated. For others who resisted and chose instead to follow Jesus, the cost was high. Bonhoeffer speaks often of suffering and martyrdom and the Christian life being a life shaped by the cross. He not only wrote about this – he bore this out in his life and death.

Whether it is because of the crisis in which Bonhoeffer wrote or not the style of The Cost of Discipleship is bold. His language is stark. He loves to draw sharp distinctions between ideas, his most famous being his distinction between cheap grace and costly grace. This draws the reader to a point of internal conflict. Is this distinction really so great? Is there really so much on the line? Is the way really so narrow? Is this cost really so high? He does not often call the reader to decision, he just points out that there is one, and that decision is of utmost importance.

The Cost of Discipleship is devoid of the fluff so common in most modern popular books. Bonhoeffer simply says it as he sees it and grounds it all in a rich understanding of Scripture. In fact, most of the book is simply exposition on Scripture. Part 2 is an exposition on the Sermon on the Mount.

I hope that a bit of Bonhoeffer’s boldness and style can find its way into my preaching and writing (and even personal conversation.) I so often couch everything I am saying, and sometimes that is necessary. But sometimes I am being soft and cowardly.

There are many “talking-heads” today who are “bold,” but they are the bold for their own sake, for their own brand. Their “boldness” is really only added for shock value. It is ultimately empty. Bonhoeffer was not bold in that way. He speaks often of the “hiddenness” of the righteousness of the disciples. A disciple’s good works are hidden from himself. A disciple looks only to his Master, never at his own works. That is the sense I get from Bonhoeffer’s style. He was simply focused on obeying Jesus and the boldness followed naturally. It did not need to be manufactured on its own. In fact, it could not be and still be worthy of praise.

It is this kind of discipleship the Bonhoeffer draws our attention to – a single-minded focus on obedience to the call of Jesus – and it is this kind of discipleship that Bonhoeffer lived.

Book Recommendations

The Cost of Discipleship

Ethics

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community

Bonhoeffer on Grace and Discipleship

The Cost of Discipleship is perhaps most well known for its distinction between cheap and costly grace. “Cheap grace,” for Bonhoeffer, is accepting the principle of grace as free forgiveness of sins without also following the person of Jesus.

“Cheap grace is a grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Click to Tweet

Costly grace, on the other hand, is centered on the person of Jesus Christ and it calls us to follow him in the way of the cross:

“ Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Bonhoeffer was worried that the Luther Church of his day had taught so thoroughly a doctrine of cheap grace – only concerning itself with hold a particular doctrine of atonement – that all calls to costly grace had been lost. He saw this as a problem not with Luther’s teachings, but with the perversion of them:

“Everywhere Luther’s formula has been repeated, but its truth perverted into self-deception… We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship.”

It is this idea of “true discipleship” and “costly grace” that Luther tries to recover in The Cost of Discipleship. Specifically, he aims to “recover a true understanding of the mutual relationship between grace and discipleship.”

So how can grace and discipleship be reconciled? Bonhoeffer seems to be arguing against a doctrine that pitted the two against each other. Discipleship, following Christ, was seen as legalism, as antithetical to grace. Bonhoeffer argues, on the other hand, that the two can and must be reconciled.

“Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship.”

In fact, the call to discipleship destroys legalism:

“When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. It transcends the difference between law and gospel. Christ calls, and the disciple follows: the grace and the commandment [to follow] are one.”

Later, Bonhoeffer connects all this to Sermon on the Mount. Much like Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God), he takes his cue for the life of discipleship from this famous passage. Disciples are those that attach themselves completely to the person of Christ. The call is costly, but it is also gracious.

“The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the toke is easy and the burden is light.”

I see the same challenges in our culture as Bonhoeffer did in his, though thankfully without the Nazi threat. We live in a country that is ready to accept grace in principle but not in the person of Christ. We are ready to accept the “justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.” We want forgiveness, but aren’t so ready for discipleship. I am learning from Bonhoeffer that these two are not exclusive ideas. Discipleship springs from grace.

Book Recommendations:

The Cost of Discipleship

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God

Romania Travel Journal – Principles from Ostraveni

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday was split into three acts. Act 1: Mini-conference in Ostraveni. Act 2: Visit to an Orthodox Monastery.  Act 3: Trip to Gaujani.

Act 1: Mini-conference in Ostraveni

The team – Jeremy, Jessica, Donna, and myself – were finally all reunited at the Pentecostal church in Ostraveni, a “suburb” of R.V. (we had been divided on Sunday). Ostraveni is not a village like the other places we visited but is still in a very urban setting. This was also the church that I preached at Sunday night.

We were there for a mini-conference of sorts, which really served as an opportunity for us to give a brief presentation of Attic After School. We had each brought along a jump drive with pictures of Attic After School for the occasion. The morning started with refreshments but moved quickly to the presentation.

The presentation itself was rather brief. I started with a brief devotional on the Great Commission, moved to a brief history of the program, shared what we do, and then showed some pictures to give everyone a good idea of what an average day looked at. I didn’t really think to share some of the underlying principles of ministry but as the discussion time progressed, and as I reflected further upon those conversations, I realized that our ministry is based on some core principles, even one that I hadn’t articulated until forced to explain it.

Explaining Attic After School in Ostraveni.

Explaining Attic After School in Ostraveni.

Ministry is chosen based on the intersection of call, need, and opportunity

The question naturally arises, Why do an After School program? The answer, for our church, was that the After School program met at the intersection of call, need, and opportunity.

Call: We are called to obey the great commission and our church was actively seeking ways to do this. Without this sense of call we wouldn’t have even started the process.

Need: Members of the broader community, including the mayor at the time, recognized the need for an After School program to provide a safe and positive place for teenagers between 3 and 5 pm, a time when crime and gang recruitment are at their highest. In developing the program we met a need in the community, which was not only a good in itself but has also ensured us the support of other community institutions such as the police department and the schools.

Opportunity: Finally, we had the opportunity – the resources (a newly updated “attic”/youth room), the leadership, and the volunteers – to make it happen.  I suppose with a different set of gifts and resources we may have done a different ministry.

I’m not expecting churches in Romania to suddenly start after school programs but I did challenge them to look at the needs of the community and their own set of resources. We do, however, all share the same call.

Ministry doesn’t require a lot of resources

One major concern in Romania is that the church doesn’t have many resources, or at least, consistent resources. One of our goals was to show that ministry doesn’t require it. Attic After School, especially in its beginnings, but even now, doesn’t require it. When we started we were all volunteers – even our director at the time. We had a set of volunteers bring snacks. Games and game tables were donated. Ministry doesn’t have to be big to be successful or effective.

Ministry requires broad church participation

What we lacked in resources we made up for in participation, which flowed naturally out of a sense of call. As a church we “own” Attic After School and this is true at the individual level as well. There are many ways to participate – volunteering as a counselor, bringing snacks (especially early on), ”
“adopting a student” (prayer ministry), buying a “warm fingers and warm toes” bag, or participating in a related ministry. Even those who do not participate directly in Attic After School support the ministry and, I believe, take some level of ownership for its success.

It simply would not have worked if only a select group of leaders thought it was a good idea. We needed, and we continue to need, the whole church.

If I were to go back and offer advice to the Romanian pastors we spoke to that day I would recommend they focus their attention on energizing their congregation to look for ways to fulfill the great commission. An energized congregation will participate freely and enthusiastically if they see they are meeting a need and you give them the opportunity to serve.

In Discipleship, think relationships and steps

OK, this one requires a diagram!

One of the comments we had when we showed pictures of Attic After School was this: “You put a lot of focus on games and fun, where do you put in the gospel?” There are three answers to this question. (1) We have a Talk Time which is 10 minutes of sharing the gospel directly. (2) We make an effort to share the gospel in intentional personal conversations. (3) We use Attic After School to invite kids to other programs, especially Youth Group and Sunday morning worship.

Use relationships to move unbelievers and new believers through deeper steps of discipleship.

Use relationships to move unbelievers and new believers through deeper steps of discipleship.

This final answer is perhaps the most important and effective in making disciples. Attic After School is a “wide open door”. We want to make it as open and accessible as we can without pretending to be something we’re not or removing the offense of the gospel. We could, for instance, make Attic After School more inviting by removing our “talk time” but to do so would be to take out an essential aspect of our ministry.

Youth group goes a little deeper. We include worship, prayer, and a longer “talk time.” We still have games but there is an intentional different between the after school program and the Wednesday night program.

Sunday worship is deeper still, though we still make sure that the gospel is front and center and that unbelievers or seekers feel welcome and can understand the program and the message. We move kids through the process through relationships built between our workers and the students. These relationships are key and it is through these relationships more than anything else that we have seen young men and women become believers and grow as disciples.

All three steps are needed in our context, though they may not be needed in every context. If we took out Attic After School we would miss out on building a lot of new relationships. If we took out Youth Group the leap to Sunday morning would simply be too high for most of the kids to make and the kids would never get beyond the more “surface” aspect of the after school program. If we never invited the kids to Sunday morning they would never see what adult discipleship looks like and would be ultimately stunted in their spiritual walk.

Some ministries we encountered in Romania missed some steps. Day camps offered wide open doors but never/rarely directed the kids to a local church. Others missed the wide open door and missed out on reaching many unbelievers. Some ministries were trying to find that middle step to move unbelievers or new believers from initial faith to sustained discipleship.

Ministry requires flexibility

One of the participants in the conference offered a great analogy. She said that her grandfather was a fisherman who knew that when fishing you sometimes needed to use different bate or different pole to catch different kinds of fish. You may have a favorite pole or favorite method but in order to get the desired result you may need to move outside of your comfort zone.

Ministry requires this kind of flexibility. We need to be more committed to the mission and the call than we are to our particular methodology. Different tasks require different tools and methods. The Romanian churches are in the right position to know their particular needs and opportunities and I am confident they understand and are committed to the call of discipleship. It was fun to participate with them as they brainstormed different ways to get the job done.