1 February 2023 | St. Albans, England [Daniel Duda]
Building a Culture of Discipleship
Discipleship is one of those forgotten and neglected topics in Adventism. We used to preach about the end of the world, the Sabbath, diet, tithing. But discipleship? We never used to talk about that! The very idea was, if you pay, pray, and obey, that’s all that was expected of you. If you kept the Sabbath, returned your tithe (and offerings) and stayed away from pork and worldly music, you were almost ready for translation. (Of course, there were always some vigilant saints who reminded us that we also needed to be vegetarians, drink eight glasses of water daily, and more recently – eat five portions of fruits and vegetables per day).
If I asked in a typical local church: Why are we here? What’s the purpose of our existence? In most churches, I am sure I would hear something about evangelism: ‘We are here to do evangelism.’ ‘Evangelism is the sole purpose of our existence.’ And maybe some knowledgeable people could even quote a bible text to support it. The Great Commission wording from Matt 28:18-20 readily comes to mind. However, do you know any text where Jesus forbids evangelism?
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a sing convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are (Matt 23:15 NIV).
Jesus did not condemn the leaders because they were lazy. They travelled around the land and sea, covered oceans and continents to find new names to add to their converts’ list. Imagine the travel expense reports, or their travel budget! Nevertheless, the outcome was outright destructive. I also want you to notice that the leaders did not get such a harsh rebuke from Jesus because they taught the wrong doctrines. They gave good Bible studies on Sabbath, tithing, healthful diet, they preached against idolatry, evil associates, and religious indifference. Their converts joined the religion of the true God and were twice as likely to be lost than before! Ultimately their evangelism produced enemies of God.
What Kind of Evangelism?
That’s why evangelism cannot be the sole purpose of our existence. We need to ask: What kind of evangelism? And: What happens afterwards?
When you develop relationships with people and they dare to come, when you create a safe environment in which they can investigate the claims of Christianity, and when they finally decide to give their lives to Christ: What next? What happens then?
Think about people that attend your local church. Real people you know. If new people came to your church, found Christ and turned out to be just like people who are already in your church, would that change the world, bring us closer to Jesus’ second coming? Evangelism is not selling Jesus, but showing Jesus. True evangelism is not mere telling about Christ, but about being Christ-like.
What do we expect of new followers?
If seekers became followers, what kind of people would they become? What kind of people are we reproducing? This is of utter significance. Do we expect people to change beyond changing the day of rest they keep, food they eat and percentage of their income the contribute to charitable causes? Do we expect them to be more loving, gracious, tolerant, kind?
Do we expect them to love their family more, to love other people more, to serve more to those who are less privileged? Do we expect them to have more concern for people who speak a different language, or for persons of a different colour, culture? Do we expect that they will now want around their church even people who are different from them? Do we expect they will not be easily irritated and not have a judgemental spirit in them?
Throughout the years, we have all learnt and now understand well that evangelism is not going to happen by default. Entropy will take care of that. Analogically we need to realise that discipleship, or spiritual development will not happen unless we are intentional about it. If leaders do not create a discipleship-building culture, we fail in fulfilling the Church’s mission. By neglecting to build a discipleship culture, we reveal that somehow covertly we believe in salvation by confessing the right doctrines. However, there is no Bible text that states salvations is a reward for believing the right set of fundamental beliefs.
The apostle Paul said: ‘Do everything without complaining or grumbling so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God, without fault in a crooked generation in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the Word of life’ (Phil 2:14-16).
Take for example Paul’s first line: Do everything without complaining or arguing. Should we aim for that in our churches? Should we expect that to happen? If somebody has been a member of our local church for let’s say five years, should they have really made progress in this area of life? What does it mean to take Paul’s advice as inspired?
Do we have low expectations?
Here’s what is really troubling me: It is not just that so many of us are not changing for years. What is troubling me is the fact that often nobody is surprised by it! We don’t expect people to change once they have accepted the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. Nobody says, we ought to call in a specialist consultant from somewhere, or we ought to have an emergency Church Board meeting to consider this strange situation where there is somebody who has been coming into our church year after year, and been doing church life the way that we say church life ought to be done, but he or she is not changing.
So What Can You Do?
Assess where people under your responsibility are. As a leader ask yourself: What kind of people are we producing? Nothing will change unless there is a clear perception that there is a problem, a sense of urgency. You could use some of the tools already out there or develop your own (Check the website of George Barna for useful material)
2. Cast a vision
Hold a series of sermons on ‘A Biblical Call to Making Disciples’. One sermon is a splash that does not change much. Put discipleship as part of your yearly sermonic plan. Do not let the people argue with you. Present the Bible teaching in an inspirational way so that people can see the great adventure they are missing in their lives (Helpful tool: Greg Ogden: Transforming Discipleship, IVP, 2016; Discipleship Essentials: A Guide to Building Your Life in Christ, IVP, 2019).
3. Organise your leadership team
Organise your leadership team in such a way that you model discipleship to your immediate circle. You can mentor only a small group of people. Choose the leaders that you can re-parent and they in turn will do the same for other leaders and their members (Cordeiro, Wayne. Doing Church as a Team, Regal books, 2009).
4. Involve people based on their giftedness.
The traditional way of doing church is based on either duty or guilt (‘You just got to put in the time’ or ‘It’s your duty.’) In that model, ‘church’ becomes on top of the many responsibilities that people must contend with every week. That kind of leadership does not work in today’s environment. Instead, find out how people are wired and then help them to become what they want to be for the sake of the kingdom. Once you line up a person’s gift with his or her ministry role, then you get people who are loving what they are doing. Your role as a shepherd-leader is to untangle the mess of people’s lives so that their dreams and gifts can be released for the sake of the kingdom. And when people are moving within their area of giftedness, there is maximum effectiveness and minimum weariness (Bugbee, Bruce. What Do You Do Best in the Body of Christ: Unleashing the Power of Your Spiritual Gifts, Relational Style, and Life Passion, Zondervan, 2022).
As Frank Laubach says, “the simple programs of Christ for winning the whole world is to make each person He touches magnetic enough with love to draw others.” (Quoted in The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard. William Collins, 1998).
A grace-based transformation
That’s why grace-based transformation must be on the top of our list of core values because our whole mission depends on this. That is the goal of the church. We all need to know that if this does not happen, nothing else really matters. Though we can think we are really successful as a church, we can report growing numbers of baptisms or organise interesting programmes, we can have terrific facilities and wonderful worship services and draw big crowds. Those are all good things, but that’s not what the church is all about. Building the discipleship culture in your sphere of influence is what God called you to do. We are #EngagedinMission when we grow lifelong disciples from all ages. And in 2023 when we want to concentrate on what Christ will do for Europe, we all can and must be part of that!
Discipleship takes the form of an increase in the degree to which our lives are dominated by grace (God acting in our life) and knowledge (our interactive relationship with God). It is not a matter of behaving in certain ways, but of being inwardly and thoroughly transformed into a different kind of person: having the character of Jesus Christ¹
¹Thelma Hall. Too Deep for words, Rediscovering Lectio Divina, Pauline Press, 1988).