May 6, 2014

How Do You Do Discipleship in the Schemes?

Almost everywhere I travel I get asked pretty much the same set of questions. By far the most popular is, “How do you ‘do’ discipleship in the schemes?” This is usually followed up by, “What material do you use?” I understand the motivation because it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that much of the work being done in deprived areas lacks any cohesive plan when it comes to follow up discipleship work, let alone the concept of leadership training.

I think we need to take a few steps back and ask ourselves some other, more basic, questions as church leaders or those trying to establish gospel ministry in areas of deprivation. “What is the purpose of the church?” Obviously, this is a big question and can be answered from a number of angles. Ephesians 3:10 springs directly to mind: “. . . through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”

But for the purposes of this article I want to suggest that one of the key purposes of the church is to advance the kingdom of God here on earth. That advancement is tied intrinsically to gospel proclamation. So, for example, Paul can rejoice in his suffering with the Philippians because what has happened to him (being imprisoned) has only really served to advance the gospel (1:12). Secondly, again directly linked, is the concept of biblical discipleship. So, Matthew 28:19–20 reminds us that as we go we make disciples. As a pastor, Paul was also concerned that his young disciples would make progress and be joyful in their faith (1:25). In effect, we ‘do’ discipleship by preaching the gospel (and so advancing the kingdom) coupled with intentional (and intense) discipleship. The ultimate aim, of course, is the glory of God (Ephesians 1).

In light of this, surely we ‘do’ discipleship in the schemes by ensuring that we do the work of evangelism faithfully from the off. Then, and this is where my Calvinism is of immense help, we watch as the Spirit draws God’s elect and we immediately draw alongside this baby believer. “Yes. But how do you do discipleship once they are saved?” That's the frustration many feel. “How do you get them to study the Bible and build spiritual discipline into their lives?” The short answer is that we don’t. We watch as the Holy Spirit gives them new appetites and new desires. The difference between a genuine convert and one who is fishing for goodies or who likes the lifestyle and community but not the discipline, becomes quickly apparent. Without fail, the genuine convert will be desperate for more Bible study, more time with Christians and be seeking more and more to be conformed to the image of Christ in his/her/their lives. People can fake all the outward signs of Christian conversion, but what they can’t sustain, over the long haul and within an intense discipling community, is the fruit of the Spirit. Therefore, we must get the gospel message right at the very beginning. If we soft soap the message, we will end up with false converts more often than not. We cannot separate discipleship from the gospel in which it is embedded.

So, assuming the building block of the gospel is in place, we then move on to the goal of spiritual growth. Again, we can only point and lead and teach because the real heart work is done by the Holy Spirit of God. Of course, we want to be equipping God’s people for works of service here on earth (Eph. 4:12) and at the same time we want to be “admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” (Col. 1:28) Again, the purpose is important. We do these things because we want to see all Christians ultimately conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). “Great. But do you have a programme that you follow?”

We don’t have a specific programme, per se, but we are constantly trying to think about how we walk with people once the Spirit has led them through the door of justification, help them along the path of sanctification, and rejoice in their ultimate glorification. We can’t generate growth in our discipleship, but I think we can create an environment which helps to stimulate and promote both kingdom advancement (through gospel proclamation) and faithful discipleship (through internal sanctification).

At the moment, we have a three-pronged attack when it comes to teaching/discipling and developing Christians as we help them progress in their walk with God. Currently, at Niddrie, we focus on knowledge, practice, and character. However, for the purposes of this series of posts, I would like to change the categories slightly and add one more. So, over the next few posts let’s consider how we ‘do’ discipleship in the schemes under the following headings: knowledge, faith, character, and action.

Let’s pray for spiritual fruit as we read and learn together. Any and all suggestions to improve things are welcome, as are any good book and article recommendations.

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