So many churches seem to strive for some sort of identity—something they can hang their hats on and say “this is who we are and this is what we offer.” We use different monikers: seeker-sensitive, reformed, traditional, contemporary, family-based… we use different models of “doing church”… and we employ all sorts of purpose statements, some which are short and pithy while others require some sort of advanced degree in biblical linguistics to even begin to know what they say.
Yet Jesus wrapped up the whole purpose and identity of the church in a simple statement: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
The church has one call, one purpose as we seek to follow and glorify Jesus: make disciples. It is a task with three simple steps: go—take the Gospel to the world, baptize—bring those who repent and believe into the community of church, and teach—explain Jesus to these disciples and what it means to love him by obeying his commandments. The first step is evangelism, the second step is that one-time marker identifying the disciple with Jesus and his body (the church), and the third is a lifelong process of learning, growing, and pursuing holiness.
That final step is the ultimate thrust of discipleship: we want people to come to know Jesus and follow him more fully so they can truly be more like him.
Such teaching is modeled and reiterated over and over again throughout the New Testament. We have the examples of Jesus and the Twelve; Pricilla and Aquila teaching Apollos; Paul mentoring Timothy and Titus; not to mention the commands of 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 2:1-10, and 1 Peter 5:1-4.
At its core, discipleship is mentoring—the older and more spiritually mature members of a church investing their lives in the younger and less spiritually mature.
It breaks my heart, though, that I have rarely ever seen such investment, mentoring, and discipleship actually occur in church. Infrequently have I seen with my own two eyes a church that contains a culture of discipleship woven into its DNA. Many churches seem to think that discipleship occurs solely through the teaching of the pastors and Sunday School leaders. Discipleship is so much more—it is for the life of every member to be invested in, and for them to desire and work to invest in others.
Laying the Foundation. The church I currently pastor has been a church in the same location for over 100 years. One-hundred years of being, of doing, of things happening. For most of its history (and for the size of its town) it was a large and thriving church. Not so anymore. Many faithful saints have died, others have moved, and some for various reasons have switched churches and at times even denominations. When I arrived, the church had been almost two years without a pastor and on a downhill slide. To hear people talk, some of the older members carry a gleam in their eye about what used to be—how full the sanctuary was, how wonderful the music, how big the choir. “It would sure be nice to have a choir again.” Problem is we don’t have anyone to direct it and hardly anyone who wants to be in it.
Yet young or old, I can look at people and mention the ideas of mentoring and investing. Some look confused, some say, “I’ve never heard of that before,” and a couple, “We did something like that at the church we used to go to.” I tell people what we’re going to do is lay a foundation and create a culture—it’s going to take time, but if we are patient and faithful to God’s word then we will get there.
I preach and teach Sunday mornings, then rotate Sunday evenings with another gentleman who wants to preach, and more teaching Wednesday nights after prayer meeting. All of it is part of the foundation—explaining and applying the Scriptures. But I also mentor. I invite all the men who want to join to come to my house twice a month and we go through a book on basic Christian beliefs. We usually have about eight or ten, ranging in age from 14 to somewhere in the 60’s. More than this I also work one-on-one with certain people.
When I first sit down with a person who I’m going to mentor one-on-one, I show them a little mathematical formula:
On a good Sunday (a very good Sunday) we might have close to 100 people in our building for worship. I tell the person, “A lot of people would think it great if somehow we actually had a charismatic and outgoing pastor who could get 100 new people in the church each year. It would be a revival of epic proportions.” Then I give them this formula: 100 + 100 * n (100 plus 100 times n), where n is the number of years completed. At the end of year 1, the church has doubled and has 200 people. At the end of year 2, 300 people; year 5 is 600; year 10 is 1100; in two decades we could have more people attending church than live in the town. That’s pretty good.
But then I give them another formula: 2 ^ n (two raised to the power of n). This formula is based on one person taking one year to invest in and mentor one other person. At the end of that year, the original mentor sends the person he’s mentored out to find someone they can mentor, and the original mentor gets another guy…another year. Again, n is the number of years completed. So at the end of year 1, this method of discipleship has produced growth in 2 people. At the end of year 2, 4 people; and at the end of year 3, 8 people. Now this seems slow, right? After all, by the end of year 3 with the first method we’ve reached 400 people, and 400 is a whole lot bigger than 8, so I’ve been told.
But what happens as we continue? Year 5, 32 people; year 10 is 1024 people—now this isn’t quite the 1100 as above, but we’ve almost caught up. By year 20, we have reached 1.05 million people. By year 33, 8.6 billion—more than the entire current population of the world.
Now do things work according to such mathematical formulas? Of course not—we have to get the Gospel into everyone’s language, come in contact with them, etc. Even then, the Bible is clear: not everyone is going to listen to the Gospel and follow Jesus. Some are too blinded by Satan in their false belief and others are too in love with their sin. Yet this formula does show the potential power of simple mentoring with a Gospel focus—beginning with just one person investing in one other person for a year and teaching them to do the same, we can potentially reach the entire world in less than a generation.
This usually creates a “wow” moment in which I smile and say, “This is our foundation. It will take time, but we are going to work to change this culture one person at a time.”
The Challenges We Must Face. Sharing the Gospel with people, then mentoring them when they come to follow Jesus—that is where it’s at, that is the simple power of discipleship. And I have found when I sit down and talk with people and explain to them the power and process of Gospel-mentoring, they understand the potential. Yet, then the “buts” start coming out, those pesky excuses that Satan and our own dogged sinfulness and stubbornness employ to make things more complicated. We must face such challenges with faithfulness to God’s vision of transforming the world.
First, is the challenge of consumers who refuse to be reproducers. Mentoring takes time and effort. You have to be humble enough to realize that you need someone investing in you, and willing to make sacrifices in your schedule in order to make it happen. Then you have to be willing to put in the work and make some more sacrifices to spend time investing in others. Not doing it is easier, especially if you’re a person who just likes to be spoon-fed and sent on your way. These are the people 1 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 5&6 apply to. “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.” These people are more than happy to receive and listen, just don’t push them and don’t challenge them. And if you do, well then they might leave you to go become a face in the crowd at another congregation where they won’t be pushed and challenged. You pray they don’t go, but if their heart isn’t in it there’s not much you can do—it has to be a move of the Spirit.
Second, is the challenge of talkers but not doers. These are the people who talk the talk—they know the vocabulary, they know the how-to, they’ve seen mentoring work before. “It’s great, it’s wonderful, I’m all behind it.” Great, now who are you going to mentor? …blank stare… These are kind of like those people who create the first challenge, but they’re excited about what you’re doing. They talk a good talk, but they never get in the game. They’re the arm-chair quarterbacks of discipleship. You can pray for them to move to action, but they’re not going to be your focus.
Third, is the challenge of those who are perpetually “not ready.” Again, they see the value and the idea excites them, but it also somewhat frightens them. You’ve been talking to them for a while, and you know they’ve grown enough to be able to help someone else even if it’s just baby steps. So you present the challenge. “I’m just not ready for that,” they respond. I tell them, “All you have to do is be one step ahead of someone else in your Christian walk—that’s one thing you know they don’t, or you’ve experienced and they haven’t. That’s one thing you can help them with. Then as you continue to grow, you can help them continue to grow.” These people need some gentle prodding to boost their confidence.
Funny thing, though, I actually had someone challenge me in this point. They told me I was wrong and that you needed someone who was a lot further ahead. After all, letting young Christians mentor baby Christians is how false teaching spreads. In the last church they were in, you couldn’t mentor someone until you had completed X amount of training in their discipleship program.
I understand the concern, but discipleship in the Bible is not so much about programs—it’s about life. And nowhere does the Bible say you have to have so much training before you can invest in, help with, or mentor someone else. In fact, part of the biblical process is that even if we are mentoring others, we are never finished being mentored. As an overseer, I will be on the watch for false teaching and I will do my best to correct it. But if we’re going to talk about the sovereignty of God it must be more than lip service. We do have to trust that the Spirit of truth “will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). We are not left without a sovereign, eternal, and all-powerful helper. If we commit ourselves to actually creating biblical disciples, then we must trust that Jesus and his Spirit will get us there. Might there be some bumps along the way? Yes, but that’s life. You deal with them and press on!
Fourth, and final for this piece, is the challenge of impatience. I have found when laying the ground work of discipleship, the people who are there at the beginning tend to get very excited—and that’s good. Their eyes have been opened to something that is so biblical, so simple, and so powerful…and then they begin to look around. “Why aren’t other people doing this?” “Why have we never done this before as a church?” “Why don’t other churches around here do this?” They can get a bit frustrated and a bit mad… I look at them and say, “Patience. Remember that formula I showed you: 2 ^ n? It starts slow, and this is just the beginning.”
We live in a fast paced world—it’s hard for us to handle slow. But discipleship is a slow process. Jesus lived on earth for 33 years. We don’t know much about what happened the first 30, but he took those last 3 and invested in a group of 12. One betrayed him, so really it was just 11. At first they seemed to stumble and bumble quite a bit, but then after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, he sent them the Holy Spirit and unleashed them on the world. It takes time but it has powerful results.
Consider what discipleship (spiritual mentoring) looks like in your church. Is it a culture, or is it something that rarely occurs? If need be, are you willing to help lay a foundation and see people changed?