Discipleship Matters Conversation

by | Oct 19, 2016

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Romans 12:9  

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ John 21:5-19.

There are some books that I buy for the title alone, like this one, the one I picked up at a Global Leadership Conference two summers ago: Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul.1

I’ve made it all the way to page 45 in these two years, not because it’s not a good book  but because it’s so good that the first few pages gave me enough food for thought and suggested one practice so convicting that I knew I needed to master it (or at least commit to it with some consistency) before I could go on to the other nine.  

Last week I started reading again, and again was stopped by a sentence that will part of my prayer life for the foreseeable future. Here’s the lead in:

“Simplicity cannot be achieved without clarity about the big-picture target of your life. To create a schedule that reflects your most important life goals, you must begin with the right question.”

And here’s the sentence:

“The question isn’t, ‘What do I want to get done in the next thirty days?’ (Or more often in my case, ‘What do I need to get done?’) but ‘Who do I want to become in this next season of my life?’”

I want to be a leader clear about the big picture of why it matters that the Episcopal Church writ large, and every expression of the Episcopal Church in our congregations and communities, be a strong, vibrant expression of Christian practice and ministry. I want to be clear why it matters that our people grow deeper in faith and love of God, more confident in their identity as disciples, Christ-followers, people of His way. I want to do everything in my power as a leader to build our collective capacity to occupy with grace and joy our place on the wide spectrum of Christian witness and thereby give God more to work with in and through us.

Now I love spending time with fellow Episcopalians. I get excited when I hear and see examples of what great things others are learning and doing in this tremendous sea-change of a world we’re in right now, when so much of what we were created to do as a church, and all we were originally taught as leaders, doesn’t seem to be what’s wanted or needed now by very many people.

But the people I’m learning from are from other branches of the Christian tree who are, frankly, better at large-scale discipleship than we are, those for whom evangelism and discipleship are their top priorities. We may not agree with our more distant brothers and sisters in the faith on many subjects, and indeed, we may have certain insights and ways of following Jesus that would benefit them. That’s always been my conviction. But evangelism and discipleship–Bishop Curry notwithstanding–are not what Episcopalians are known for. Our seminaries do a good job of lighting fires and deepening the faith and wisdom of those who feel called to follow Jesus, but unfortunately, we’ve created a system in which the only compelling path for those who feel the call to follow Jesus is the priesthood. Which means we have a lot of wonderful disciples in the priesthood, but not very many strategic leaders. And we need strategic leadership now.

I’m assuming by your presence here that you are called to strategic leadership, and in particular, strategic leadership in this important work of discipleship.

We are all surrounded by people, even among family and close friends, who are not Christian, and for whom the word discipleship would have little meaning. We know that we are not better people than they are. We’re not necessarily more spiritual. God doesn’t love us more. Christians are not, as a whole, smarter, wiser, or more compassionate than other people. But for whatever reasons you and I can point to from our personal histories, we heard a call. We heard his voice. We made a conscious decision, or maybe at first it wasn’t conscious, and we realized, looking back, that we had, in fact, chosen this life, or as St. Paul would say, this life, this Jesus, had chosen us.

And we’ve been on this path long enough to know that there are days when our faith is strong, and other days when it’s not. And we know that there’s a pretty wide spectrum of faith experience. And we wonder about that: how does faith in God happen? How does a relationship with Jesus deepen or wane? And what do we mean when we talk about the power of the Holy Spirit?

When Andy Stanley, founder and senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta was a young pastor, one of his mentors said to him: “For the rest of your life, make sure that you are intentionally learning from leaders who are wiser than you are, and simultaneously, make sure that you are always investing, pouring what you know into those coming up behind you.” So for several years, he met with a group of young men, college age, who were considering a call to ordained ministry. One of the things he did with them was to chart their spiritual journeys. They weren’t that old and they didn’t have long timelines. Nonetheless, they explored what it was that first brought them to faith and what helped deepen their faith. And after a few years, with different groups of young men, Stanley began to notice a few common themes.

Fast forward 15 years when he and others were starting a new church, he went back to those conversations and drew from them guiding principles, ways that God uses to reach people and things that we can do to open ourselves more fully to the transforming love and guiding presence of God. North Point leaders wanted to build their Christian discipleship and formation initiatives consistent with the ways that God consistently uses to reach us, in order to more consciously participate with God in that faith building, discipleship forming process.2

As I tell you what he learned, think about your own faith journey and see if anything rings true for you. And then think about your discipleship efforts in light of these principles, which I think will be both affirming in what you’re already doing, and perhaps shed some light on what you could do more effectively and with greater fruitfulness. At any rate, that’s my hope. The good news is that you don’t need a lot money to do these things–they scale up and they scale down according to your resources and need.

I first shared these five insights, by the way, at a Confirmation Service, and I said to those gathered that if any rang true for them, they would leave church that day with specific things they could do, and in fact, need to do if they wanted to grow in their relationship with Jesus in ways that will change their lives for the better and help them help God change the world.

Andy Stanley makes a clear distinction between those things on the journey of faith that are beyond our control–the things that happen to us from God’s side of the relationship–and those things that are up to us. That clarity is important, especially getting our minds around what is our responsibility.

But let’s start with those things that we can’t control, the things that seem to happen to us as gifts or signs of God coming to us from God’s side of the relationship. Andy Stanley names two:

Number one: Other People, namely the specific people whose examples of faith inspire us, or just as important, who seem to show up at the right moment and say exactly what we need to hear when we need to hear it. It could be anyone-a parent or teacher, a friend or stranger, a mentor or adversary. The faith part of the experience is what happens when, through the example or presence of another person, we feel the presence of God. In or through those people, we experience Jesus’ love in action. We hear a word that for us is charged with meaning. It’s not just a human exchange; it’s an encounter with God.

That’s how God works. Just like those who gathered at the first Pentecost heard other people speaking their language, we hear someone speaking our language, and through them we hear God speaking. For me, it’s often been the person who believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself; who carried hope for me when my hope was weak; who loved me, and through their love, I felt God’s love. I wonder who those people are for you. And when have you been or will be such a person for another, whether you realize it or not? The implications for a strategic discipleship plan are simple: pay attention to key relationships. How can we help our people share wisdom and love with one another?  

The second way that we experience God coming to us from God’s side is through certain pivotal moments or events in our life. Something happens, and it feels like a gift. It could be something wonderful–like falling in love, discovering that you’re really good at something, being in nature and having an experience that takes you out of yourself. It could be a hard thing: having your heart broken, surviving an accident, or being deeply hurt or disappointed, but somehow through that experience, God shows up with strength to get you through. These experiences are entirely subjective, which means that it isn’t so much what happens, but the meaning that you make of it. It’s in the meaning making process where faith grows or falters, which is a mystery. But if you think back on your life, I’m sure you can identify a time when through something that happened to you, your faith in God and your relationship with Jesus grew stronger.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about Chris Yaw’s question to us yesterday: “How is Jesus saving you right now?” It’s not an easy question to answer, because doing so is an acknowledgement that a part of us needs saving. But I was grateful for it, because it allowed me to name for myself where I am personally in need of saving grace.

There are certain things in my life beyond my control, that I would give anything to fix or change, but I can’t. And I know that I can’t, because I’ve tried and failed, more than once. Not only have I failed; in some instances, by my efforts to make things better, I have made them worse.

And how is Jesus saving me? Much in the same way he saved St. Paul, who at a crucial time in his life, as recorded in 2 Corinthians, was afflicted by what he called “a thorn in his side.” Three times he appealed to the Lord to remove it, and three times the Lord said, no. And then the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient, for my strength will be revealed in your weakness.”  When I hold in prayer my thorn that will not be removed, I don’t have to pretend that it doesn’t hurt, because it does. When the pain washes me over, I let it be, and I pray for grace to be sufficient. And I rise, accepting, for one more day, what I cannot change. And Jesus gives me the grace to live with joy in other realms of my life, because I know that I’m not alone in the hardest place.

So–to review: there are two ways that we grow in our relationship beyond our control: through the people who show up at just the right moment and through the pivotal experiences that change us. Some people call these “God moments,” and that’s exactly what they are. People show up. Things happen. And through them we experience Jesus’ presence and love.  

But those two things–people and circumstances–are not enough for us to grow in faith. Growing in faith is just as important as growing in any other part of life. For us to grow in faith we need to show up. As strategic discipleship leaders, this is where we have real work to do:

The first of these three ways we show up is through wise, inspired teaching. Think back to a time when you read or heard something and a lightbulb went off in your head. Or when you heard someone who just rocked your world. To grow in faith, we need to avail ourselves of that kind of learning, and as leaders helping others to grow, to create as many of those moments for people as we can, in as creative ways as we can. If we’re preachers, we need to preach our hearts out. We need to do more than scold people for not reading their Bibles, but to show them how to read it intelligently, with consistency, in ways that can help them, and change their lives for the better. All the preachers I make of point of listening to via podcast and the internet make an explicit invitation each week to read the Bible, with suggested places or ways to go about it so that they might go deeper in faith.

The second way we can show up for God is in quiet, daily prayer. This is something I’ve had to recommit myself to over and over again in my life. In some seasons it seemed possible, during all those years I was raising two boys while in full time ministry. Or last year, when I had two really big jobs. In those times, God meets me more than half way and I am grateful. But there are other times–and now is one of them–when the call to spend time in quiet prayer is real, but easily drowned out by other things. And I need to be encouraged to come back, not to let the habit of busyness overtake the practices that feed my soul.  

In discipleship ministry, it’s important to give people permission to find their own way. Remind them that they can be creative with their quiet time. Some people like to read; others like to write; some practice yoga. It doesn’t matter. It’s also good from time to time to say “I know that you’re all really busy people, but you if you have time to check your Facebook page, you have time to pray.”

This is how I do it: in the early morning, I sit in my favorite chair, light a candle, and set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes. Sometimes I read a bit of Scripture. Mostly I just sit. Sometimes, if I have to leave early, I drive in silence, or better yet, I ride my bike. I’m telling you that it makes a difference–not every day, not with flashes of brilliant insights. Sometimes, I confess, it’s a little boring. But like brushing your teeth or practicing scales if you’re a musician, little things in faith matter.

The last of the three practices of faith is simply doing something good for someone else, or for a good cause. This is called ministry, and it’s not just for those of us with the title ministers. We’re all on this planet to do good. We are called, by God, in the name of Jesus, to be a blessing to other people. So do something, and if you can, do something that stretches you. That’s when you really learn to pray, and when you can experience what St. Paul described as the Holy Spirit working in you doing far more than you could ask for or even imagine.

When I was 26 years old, my brand new husband and I went to work in Honduras for a year. We were both idealistic and wanted to do something brave and good. So we served in a home for abandoned boys in one of the poorest countries of the world. In the beginning, I had the misguided notion that the boys of this home would be grateful for the sacrifice we were making on their behalf. But they weren’t the least bit impressed, and in fact, they resented us for a long time. Some held me in contempt, or at least that’s how it felt. In the early months of that very long year, I would come back to our tiny apartment in tears and walk laps around our neighborhood reliving every harsh thing that the boys had said. One day, I prayed as I walked. The question I asked God, although I didn’t realize that God was listening, was “Is it always going to be this hard?”

The answer I heard was immediate. “Yes.” That got my attention. Then I heard the same words that Jesus said to his disciples as he was leaving them, “But I will always be with you.” I have never forgotten that moment. When I’m in situations now that seem really hard, I remember his words to me: I will always be with you.

I’ve learned that you can go a long way in this life, and do really hard things, when you know you’re not alone. Jesus wants you to know that you’re never alone. Sometimes we learn that best when we’re stretching ourselves to love another.

Strategic discipleship is an intentional, persistent effort to help people growth in faith. It starts with a conscious alignment of our energies with that of God’s, participating in what God is already doing in a person’s life.   

Let me close by stating the obvious: If you and I are called to this path, and called to help others walk it, we have a responsibility to be robust and spirit-filled leaders, the kind of person through whom others can see the love of Jesus, to be a blessing to the world.

Which brings me to the matter of joy. There is a serious deficiency of joy in many of our churches. Never underestimate the power of your joy, and the joy you bring to this task. Be sure to tend to your heart, and allow love and joy of Jesus to flow through you.

But remember, as important as joy is, joy is not a strategy. Hope is not a strategy. Hope and joy fuel the strategy, as we dedicate our best efforts to this work. And we need them both, because those of us called not simply to discipleship but to strategic leadership in the realm of discipleship, have important, even urgent work to do.