“We were well pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very lives.” 1 Thes. 2:8
In my years of ministry, I have seen people grow into true disciples and I have seen others fall off. If the call of the church is to go into all the world and make disciples, it begs the uncomfortable question as to whether we are doing a good job or not. In this sermon, I’d like to take a look at the reasons for failure, what the Bible has to say and how we can make and become true disciples.
Why People Get Stuck
Are there common elements for growth? Are there dangers to this call to true discipleship in our modern day society? The answer to both is yes. When I began preaching the gospel at UC Berkeley in 2013, I met a young man at the local Peet’s named Zack. When I first saw him, I saw a flash of light go before his face and then heard the Holy Spirit say to me: “This man is going to be saved.” I then proceeded to order my coffee, make some small talk and read the Word as was my usual custom. I began praying for this man and every time I’d see him, I’d have a brief chat. One day as I was reading the Scriptures, he came up to me and said, “It’s good to see someone reading something of substance for a change.” I knew that the door was beginning to open in his heart. Not long after, I invited him to do a Bible study and thus our relationship began. I walked this young man through the gospels, water baptized him, taught him about the baptism of the Holy Spirit and so on. We eventually moved in together and he joined my ministry. I spent two years discipling him and eventually took him with on an overseas mission to Nicaragua. He grew rapidly in the faith and became very zealous for God. It was anything but easy, but it was all worth it.
If he was a success story, then why do so many stay stuck? The first reason is a failure of the church system to properly engage people and make it their duty to disciple them. One of the great barriers to growth is to stay in hiding. What I mean by this is that we live lives where others are kept at arm’s length. We may show up to church services every Sunday, go to work, and appear healthy. But God knows our hearts. He knows our priorities, our hidden sins and everything done in the dark. Many people in the Western world live a mediocre Christianity. There is very little fruit coming from their lives. Like the parable of the seed among thorns, they appear like a living plant but when the Master comes to inspect their lives, is there really any fruit or has isolation and distraction choked it out? It is possible for people to go through the motions with no real accountability or discipleship taking place in the church. Thus, they stay stuck, struggling with the same sins as five years ago. No one is being led to Christ. Prayer lives are dismal at best. Their hearts are crowded with too many idols and distractions to truly be able to say, “Jesus is Lord.”
Perhaps you think I’m being too harsh. Or am I speaking the truth?
The second reason for stagnation is an unwillingness to be under authority. We like people to give us suggestions, to preach tickling sermons that make us feel better, but don’t put your finger on my idols or sins. Staying in hiddenness is the first step towards rejection of authority. The Word tells us to, “Walk in the light as he is in the light and we will have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7
The best analogy for healthy authority is a shepherd. They are there to guide the sheep, provide for them, and protect them. Sure there have been bad examples in life but this does not negate the fact that God has created all of us to need others in our lives. The mentality that “I’m just going to figure it all out on my own or read the Bible on my own” is a subtle cover up for rebellion. It’s an unwillingness to allow someone else into our lives and be used as God’s instrument for growth and discipleship.
The last reason people get stuck is an unwillingness to repent and submit to Christ. There’s a progression here. First starts the hiddenness which blocks others from really knowing us or speaking into our lives, then there is the resistance to authority, and finally there is a barrier to repentance. Repentance is at the heart of the Christian faith. Without it, there is no forgiveness of sin, there is no change, there is no fruit. Repentance means humbling ourselves, giving up idols and sin habits that war against our soul and committing ourselves fully to God. This includes our time, our money, our relationships, our habits, our speech, and our bodies. It all belongs to Jesus.
It’s worth mentioning that repentance keeps us free from some key snares: offense, bitterness and idolatry. I have gone through phases of being offended at the church or others. I have seen others get offended at a leader and leave a ministry or a relationship unwilling to be reconciled. Offense is usually rooted in pride. It blocks us from seeing good in a person or situation. Its twin sister is bitterness. The Word calls us to forgive one another and be tenderhearted. Occasionally, an offense may be because someone has legitimately sinned against you. In such cases, we must do our best to take it before the Lord, have a conversation with the person, and move on. If they repent, the relationship is restored. If not, the relationship is severed. Either way, we as the Body of Christ cannot afford to hold onto bitterness or offense. We must repent. The last issue is idolatry. These are sin patterns that stunt us and may even keep us out of the kingdom of God altogether if we persist in them. We must take this incredibly seriously. Jesus is coming back for a pure and spotless bride. Those who practice lawlessness will not inherit the kingdom of God. Thus, we need authority, accountability and repentance to help us in our journey of becoming like Christ.
Now that we’ve looked at the barriers to true growth and discipleship, what does the Word of God teach us about how to disciple? How did Jesus do it?
Our Model: the Word
When Jesus walked by the sea of Galilee he saw some fisher men. What did he say? “Come follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” Mark 1:17 Paul says to the Thessalonian church that he shared not only the gospel with them but also his very life! Any student of the Word will see a pattern. Joshua had Moses, the disciples had Jesus, Timothy had Paul, Elisha had Elijah and so on.
True discipleship is life on life.
Imagine the disciples with Jesus. They ate with him, slept in the same quarters as him, saw him minister, and saw his habits. They saw his hidden life that few others saw, heard his teaching, and received his love on a regular basis. Is it any wonder that they grew? Implicit in true discipleship is a willingness to let go of the former in order to “follow me.” This is costly and painful. It is why the rich man went away sad. He was unwilling to let go of his wealth. The disciples left everything to follow Jesus.
Contrast this form of discipleship with most churches, and you will see why very few mature Christians are produced. Some churches do have a small group program which is a great start, but it takes much more. There is a need for the people of God to live life on life with the younger and new believers until Christ is formed in them. This takes hard work, prayer, perseverance, suffering, and vigilance. It is like raising a child. This model is what the Scriptures teach us. There is no other.
Life on Life
How do we reclaim true biblical discipleship that births and raises champions for Christ? Here is where to begin in your own life, your church or your ministry.
Only those who are mature should be teaching others. I generally recommend men on men and women on women although there are some exceptions. How the relationship plays out is subject to time, personality, willingness and the like. But if you meet once a week or more, you will see growth.
In my own life, I want to be humble enough to listen to the opinions of others regardless of their age. God may be speaking to me through them. But that doesn’t mean everyone has the right to speak into my life or has that role of authority. Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master.” Matt. 10:24-25 It’s critical to understand that you will become like the one teaching you! So choose wisely. I am very picky about who I respect and allow to influence me in my spiritual walk. If he is not a man of God that I want to be like, then why would I allow him to teach or influence me? Ultimately, the goal is to become like Christ. Look for men and women who emanate the character, love and power of Jesus Christ in their lives.
If you are among the mature in the faith, then please make it a point to pour into a few people on a one on one basis. The church desperately needs this. If the younger will take initiative to seek a teacher and the mature will have the willingness to impart their lives, wisdom and grace, then discipleship will flourish.
Lastly, the Word says that the Holy Spirit will teach us all things and that we have received an anointing and know all things. So remember that the Holy Spirit is to be our primary teacher. But this does not mean that we don’t also need people who can serve in this role. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in the prayer closet, through the Word, and through people! Trust him to lead you to the right person(s) who can help you mature in the faith. Many times the immature in the faith think they heard God but didn’t. This is where mature spiritual covering is invaluable.
The degree of your maturity depends on the degree of your transparency. God knows the secrets of our hearts, our strengths and our weaknesses. Accountability means opening up the books and making plain what’s there. Do this with your mentor. He/she is there to guide you, love you, pray for you, correct you and see that you become more like Christ. If there’s one lack I’ve seen over and over, it’s a lack of accountability. Most people like suggestions, but not authority or accountability.
Transparency means trusting God that by opening up, your best outcome will follow. It takes courage and humility to be honest about struggles and sin, but it’s the only way to find healing, repentance and breakthrough. We all have a desire to be known and loved for who we are. If we can’t practice this in the Body of Christ, where can we practice it? You will notice that as you get real and raw, there’s a freedom and lightness that will flood your soul. You will be surprised to find that your mentor and others have gone through similar struggles and are able to empathize. The end result is integrity and growth.
Just as a seed does not become a tree overnight nor a child a man, you and I must go through the glorious and painful process of growth. This is an ongoing journey. Even the apostle Paul remarks, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected, but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended, but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead. I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Phil 3:12-14
In the process of discipleship, there will be moments where you want to quit. There will be moments you don’t agree with your leadership. There will be moments where you wonder if it’s all worth it. Believe me, it is. Many people start the race but few finish it. If you and I are going to stand before Christ on the Day of Judgment, we must have endurance. As the writer of Hebrews tells us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us cast off every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us and run with endurance the race marked out for us. Fixing our eyes upon Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross scorning the shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Heb. 12:1-2
How do we find strength when the battle rages and we feel weary? We fix our gaze upon Jesus. Intimacy with him through abiding in his presence will give you fresh strength for the journey.
And now, let us go on to fulfill that which has been given to us as the church. Let us make disciples of all nations. It’s our responsibility. It’s life on life.