Discipleship programs can be a helpful tool in the life of the church. Far better, however, is a culture of discipleship that has taken root in a church. Rather than being a spasmodic event that took place one time, a culture of discipleship permeates the whole being of the church, organically growing out of every nook and cranny. A culture of discipleship creates an atmosphere in the church where each member is eagerly looking for opportunities to help others there look more like Jesus. This disciple making imperative must take place, but how do we do it? Below are eight methods that church members can adopt to help cultivate a culture of discipleship, or see discipleship as a way of life, in their local church:
Discipleship As A Way of Life
- Read your Bible and pray.
It is hard to pass out water when the well is dry. We should strive to be diligent in our Bible reading and prayer for our own spiritual well-being. If Jesus needed to take regular time to retreat to pray, so should we (Mark 1:35). However, we should also think about how our commitment to our spiritual disciplines prepares us to “be ready to give an answer to those who ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you,” (1 Pet 3:15) or to “speak the truth in love” to one another (Eph 4:15). Who knows who the Lord might bring across your path at any given moment? E.M. Bounds explains: “He will never talk well and with real success to men for God who has not learned well how to talk to God for men.” In other words, if we are impoverished in our communion with God, our conversations with others about God will be impoverished too.
- Be faithful in attendance and participation on Sunday mornings.
This may seem like an odd way to make disciples, but hear me out! Hebrews 10:24-25 on one hand commands us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” and on the other to “encourage one another.” Nestled right in-between those two commands is this: do not “neglect assembling together” (“not staying away from our worship meetings,” HCSB). The flow of verse 25 actually goes like this: DO NOT avoid gathering regularly for corporate worship, but DO encourage one another. As in, regularly attending the worship gathering of the church is connected with opportunities to encourage and stir up other brothers and sisters to love and good works. In other words, there are lots of discipleship opportunities that come from faithful attendance. Even further, we are told to do this “all the more” as the day of judgment draws near–meaning, Christians should be striving to gather more frequently than just Sunday mornings, but certainly never less. The discipleship opportunities presented to us at corporate worship are legion: from getting to hear God’s Word taught (see point #1), to fellowshipping with the other saints, to singing together, to greeting guests and outsiders, and on and on. A few weeks ago I was speaking with a young man in his 20’s in our church who had taken a weekend trip with friends to drive out of town. However, he woke up early Sunday morning and made the two hour drive back home so he could be present at worship on Sunday morning. That kind of commitment in itself has a salutary, discipleship-making affect on the whole church.
- Practice hospitality
The kind of relationships that are assumed to exist between fellow Christians in the Bible is pretty intense. We confess sin to each other, rebuke each other, encourage each other, weep with each other, rejoice with each other, and give our money, food, time, and energy to each other. We simply cannot do these things if we do not know each other. We need to build relational bridges of love that can bear the heavy loads that Christian discipleship requires, and this takes time. Additionally, simply by inviting people into our lives, our homes, our families they will see what our faith looks like, feels like, smells like. I can read to you from a cookbook about what homemade bread is like or I can set a fresh loaf in front of you. We can disciple others by just letting them see what our own discipleship looks like in action. Discipleship requires more–but not less!–than didactic teaching.
- Be a sinner in front of other people
Martin Luther famously encouraged Christians to, “Let your sins be bold, but let your trust in Christ be bolder still.” Luther wasn’t encouraging people to go out and sin, rather he was addressing the tendency of Christians to hide or dress up their sins to make them sound “not so bad.” We blush at the idea of letting our sins stand stark out in the open because we, as Luther explains, have not let our trust in Christ go deep enough. We are still gaining a sense of security and comfort from what others think of us, so we keep our sins hidden or manicured to a respectable level. While it might be wise to not be transparent with all people in the same way–age and gender differences, for instance–this position makes little sense. We know that all other people are sinners like ourselves and we know that because of the gospel we need not worry about guarding our petty man-made righteousness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in Life Together: “In the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner.” When I don’t try to gussy up my sin to look more presentable to other people I am discipling them by showing: (1) We don’t have to rely on fake self-righteousness, but Jesus’ righteousness alone–we really believe the gospel (2) this is a safe place to confess our sins and admit our weaknesses, and (3) I am showing them concrete ways they can pray for me and hold me accountable while disabusing them of any silly notion that I don’t really struggle with sin.
- Be a Christian in front of other people
It is an odd reality that many Christians find speaking about their faith with other Christians an uncomfortable thing. While our faith is a personal matter it is never, by any stretch of the imagination, a private matter. We should aim to make spiritual conversations with other Christians a normal part of life. “What did you think of the sermon?…How can I pray for you?…How’s your soul doing?…What have you been reading in your devotions lately?” Has God answered a prayer of yours? Tell other people about it. Is there something in the Bible that has just gripped you, excited you, or left you feeling perplexed? Tell other people about it. Work hard to push against the world’s influences on the nature of our relationships with one another.
- Meet intentionally with other people of the same gender who are eager to grow
Paul encouraged Timothy to take the teaching he had given Timothy and to pass it on “to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also,” 2 Tim 2:2. As Paul pulled Timothy aside to specially invest in him, so Timothy now should be on the lookout for other men in the church that he can do likewise with. This is often what comes to mind when we think of “discipleship” in the church: an older Christian meeting with a younger Christian, maybe weekly, probably in a coffee shop, reading books or praying together. The aim of this article is to show that this is only one of many ways the discipleship process can occur–but it should by no means be ignored! There is a kind of laser-like focus one can achieve in blocking out time each week with the explicit purpose of encouraging one another in the Lord. This doesn’t have to look like anything fancy. I try to include reading of a good Christian book and/or reading/memorizing Scripture together, and praying for one another. Have you found someone in your life who is particularly eager to grow? Or, is there someone in your life who has a faith you would like to emulate? See if they might want to devote the next six months–maybe longer–to memorizing Scripture, reading a book, and praying together.
- Spur one another one to love and good works
One aspect of Christian gatherings is that we are to, “consider how to stir one another up to love and good works” (Heb 10:24). The Greek word for “stir up” is the same word as “provoke” or “agitate.” It is used in the book of Acts to describe a “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39) and the outrage that Paul experiences when seeing all the false gods in Athens: “his spirit was provoked within him” (Acts 17:16). At first glance, it is an odd word choice for the author of Hebrews to use. We should agitate each other into holiness…? What does that mean? It doesn’t mean we are to annoy each other into pursuing good works, but it certainly does mean that we are not to be passive in helping each other follow Jesus. Even the command to “consider” how to stir one another up implies intentionality, forethought. Practically, this means that we should hold one another accountable and even be willing to speak hard truths to each other. This takes some pastoral sensitivity and wisdom to navigate, but it means we should be on the edge of our seat, looking for opportunities to lovingly spur each other on.
- I’d really like to become more evangelistic. “Great!” says I, “who is a non-Christian in your life we could be praying for? …Okay, I will be praying for that person and for God to give you an opportunity to share the gospel with them soon. Would it help you if I asked you about this next week to see if you had followed through?”
- I’m struggling with a temptation to internet pornography. “Thank you for being honest with me, brother. How are you accessing it? …Are there any circumstances that tend to make you more prone to this kind of temptation? …Can I set up some restrictions on your device for you? If it would help, I could give you a call or shoot you a text right around the times you are most typically tempted.”
- I have been absent from church. “Brother, I’ve noticed that you’ve been kind of MIA on Sunday mornings for some time now. I miss seeing you! Is everything okay? I know isolating from other believers is detrimental to our soul and I don’t want that for you. Is there anything I can help you with?”
- Do evangelism together
“Evangelism is scary and hard and awkward and I don’t like it and there is probably someone else out there who can do it a lot better than me and I’ll probably mess it all up anyways and golly I don’t want to ruin this relationship and…” And on and on it could go till the Lord Jesus Himself returns. Evangelism is intimidating, but you know what makes it a lot less intimidating? Having some back up! Plus, one of the best discipleship methods a more mature Christian can employ is by bringing a younger Christian along into evangelistic conversations. Demonstrating how to share the gospel, answer objections, admit ignorance, and display courage can be profoundly helpful for a younger Christian to see happen before their eyes. Plus, it also shows them that sharing our faith with others is just a normal part of being a disciple of Jesus. How do you do this? If you have a non-Christian you are meeting with for the exclusive purpose of talking about Christianity, then ask them if they would be okay with a friend of yours joining you. Or, if the Lord provides an opportunity where you are around a younger Christian and non-Christians take advantage of it by roping all of them into a spiritual conversation. This is a great two-for-one deal: evangelism and discipleship; two birds, one stone!
The aim in all of this is to show that “discipleship” isn’t something that only happens every third Wednesday morning at the men’s Bible study. It is a way of life that we all are called to. And, even more sobering, there is no “off-switch” to our discipling. We are always discipling those around us. The question is what we are discipling them towards. Let’s labor to so saturate our life and the life of our church with Jesus that we lead more people closer towards–not away from–our Lord.