February 5, 2013

How Too Much Discipleship Kills Christians

Our current church membership stands at about 70, with another 10 or so waiting in the wings to be baptised. We have a Sunday attendance of anywhere between 70 and 100 (I suspect that’s roughly the same number of urinals found at many mega-churches). By any description, we are a small church. Yet, as of October 2015, we will have, at varying levels, 25 people being trained and/or discipled full-time in various capacities.

  • We have two young men being intensely discipled for a year in James Ramsay House’ (JRH), our discipleship home for new believers. All of these men will study as part of our intense discipleship program (IDC) developed and taught in house. They will serve in our local cafe, at local clubs, in the church, and begin to play a positive role in their local community.
  • We will have eight paid interns who receive a small stipend in order to train and develop skills, either for a future in full-time Christian ministry, or for roles as full-time Christians in the workplace. They, too, will be doing theological training.
  • We have a full-time Ministry Team, including myself, of eight people: Pastor, Youth Worker, Cafe Manager & Pastoral Worker, Assistant Pastor and Women’s Worker & Administrator, amongst others. This team, too, receive on-going training throughout the week on a variety of topics and books.
  • We have a growing number of individuals who come to spend anything between two days and three months with us in order to get a feel for our work and discuss ideas for ministry in other council estates and housing schemes.

Now, many of these people were gambles when we took them on. Some have not even completed High School, some have been addicts and criminals their whole adult lives, some have suspect temperaments and some, in the early days, had no clue as to the inner workings of a housing scheme. I have no doubt that the majority of them would not be considered as training material in most churches I know. The leadership here at NCC, without doubt, are taking many risks.

Now, to be fair, some of these risks have come back to bite us. We’ve seen our fair share of failures. In fact, I would put the failure rate at around the 50% mark. JRH had, until just recently, four men being trained but one, tragically, decided to return to his previous lifestyle. On the other hand, we have seen spectacular successes. Therefore, we believe that our risky policy is worthwhile and will, ultimately, reap enduring benefits for the church and the gospel witness here in Niddrie and our surrounding schemes.

If we are really going to raise indigenous leaders in these areas, then we are going to have to take giant, faith-filled risks with local converts. Textbooks and theoretical debates are all well and good, but we have to begin putting principles into practice if we want to pass the baton on to faithful men and women.

For example, in Niddrie, one of our newest interns has been saved less than 12 months and yet has shown an incredible theological aptitude to go alongside their youthful evangelistic zeal. (I can already hear the sharp intake of breath as some people read this). How can we justify this? What about character? What about maturity? Great questions. In fact, the right questions. But let me ask you a question: How can we teach and even gauge these things in our area of ministry without a practical context into which character and maturity can develop? The next generation of leaders are not going to ‘catch’ godliness and maturity from the pulpit and a midweek Bible study alone. They’re going to do it by being thrown into the deep end of Christian service very early on in their Christian walk. Brilliant. So, how have we come to this stage in our ministry here at Niddrie? Is it because I am such a genius and wonderful forward thinker? Sadly, no. Let me tell you how we have arrived at this point in our ministry.

This year I went away to think and pray for a day and I began to wonder why so many of our new converts weren’t reaching out to their friends and family with the gospel of the Lord Jesus. They loved Jesus, and God was certainly at work in their lives. They came to all the Bible studies, sometimes up to four a week. They attended the Sunday services. They were excited about their faith, they were being discipled and mentored, and yet there was a lack of dynamism, taking responsibility for new ministry ideas, and a lack of active participation in community outreach. They just seem to come and take.

Don’t get me wrong, they were growing at remarkable rates in terms of biblical knowledge, but we weren’t seeing leaders rise to the fore. It was all one-way traffic. Obviously, the reasons behind this are long and complex, but one thing in particular began to trouble me. What if we were over-discipling (in the wrong information-giving sense) our new believers? What if we were encouraging this passive, consumerist Christianity? Upon further reflection, I came to a stark conclusion.

We were guilty of paternalistic discipleship. Much of conservative evangelical church culture operates with a 1 Timothy 3 type mantra that goes something like this: ‘We shouldn’t spiritually promote people too soon.’ Now, of course, there is great wisdom in that. That particular brand of conservatism, though, is even more manifest if the new believer in question comes from a criminal background or has an ‘interesting’ testimony or is a ‘trophy of grace’.

The reaction in many middle class churches, in my experience, to these converts is to leave them on the sidelines and wheel them out for the odd testimony events. I am not saying they’re not cared for or discipled, but I have met very few men currently in ministry from my background in the UK. There are some, but we are very few. Now I know this, and so the response in Niddrie has been to ensure that we quickly team up our new believers with a mentor and ensure they quickly get hooked up with a regular Bible study and become a part of community life. Because of the high level of unemployment here, it is not unusual to have people at two or three Bible studies a week outside of Sunday services.

The problem was, as I saw it, that we had begun to molly coddle them to such an extent that they had, inadvertently, learned to become consumers like many Sunday attenders (across the church as a whole—I am not referring just to NCC here). I began to fear that we were over discipling our new people. We over studied with them. We over protected them. Instead of letting them fly, we bought, quite innocently, into the lie that they were too weak, too ill educated, or too young to be let loose on their own. Worse yet, because of the victim mentality in housing schemes, this in turn played into their sense of entitlement and crippling over dependence.

Therefore, instead of serving, evangelising, and contributing, they were taking their treasure, digging a deep hole, locking it up in a box and keeping that beautiful gift to themselves. The truly terrible thing about this was that we who were trying so hard to help them, were actually providing the shovel, the box and guarding the key for them as well! I decided that we needed to prayerfully and wisely give our new believers opportunities to fly if we were going to see them really grow, blossom, and mature into future leaders. It was a painful thing to reflect that our feted, thought out, missional, intentional, gospel-centred approach to discipleship was actually contributing to the stunted growth and leadership development of our community. It wasn’t that too much discipleship was hurting our people, it was too much of the wrong type of discipleship.

As a result of this reflection, we have made some slight tweaks this year. One of them is to push people out more quickly into levels of responsibility and service no matter how insignificant it may seem. More than that, we are teaching our new believers more quickly not just the facts of the faith but how to actually share it, conduct a simple Bible study, and lead a person to the Lord. We are, in effect, taking the training wheels off more quickly and trusting that God, by his Spirit, will help them to grow and mature in a more rounded way.

So far, this approach has been nothing short of disastrous on the one hand and a supreme blessing on the other. Disastrous because we have already had one ‘casualty’ who, as soon as he received any freedom, was off scoring drugs and chasing girls. Another one, on his first trip into the Job Centre on his own, ended up getting drunk in the local pub. This led to one walking away from our care but another drawing closer to Christ as it spurred him on to realise how important community and accountability are in the battle against Satan and the sinful self. We are expecting more mess and more casualties, but the bottom line is that the people are either our converts or the Lord’s. If they are ours, then they will fail, but if they are his, then they will ultimately persevere no matter how many times they fall.

Pray for us. Pray for our people.

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