My Experience in a Discipleship Group

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I made a startling discovery earlier this year. I did some research on the baptism, membership, and attendance trends in the church I serve as pastor and I realized that as a church, we have lost 500 people in the last 10 years! We have welcomed an entire sanctuary full of people (our sanctuary seats about 500) into our membership through baptism and transfer of letter, but our Morning Worship and Sunday School attendance have stayed about the same. Even though some of those people have passed away, moved out of the area, or stepping into places of ministry, you would think that we would be able to retain at least some of our newest members.

One of the reasons we have not retained our members, new and well-established, is because we have not done a good enough job collectively of discipling them. We have allowed baptism and new membership to become the finish line of faith instead of the starting line. We have welcomed people of all ages into our church and given them a variety of ministry opportunities without a clear plan for spiritual development.

This discovery led me to a new type of ministry that isn’t new at all. When Jesus Christ was on earth, he ministered to thousands of people yet focused the majority of his time on 12 ordinary men. Jesus narrowed his focus even further by investing in Peter, James, and John more than the rest of this disciples. Jesus made disciples in small groups. The Apostle Paul followed Christ’s example by teaching and training a select group of men out of the hundreds, maybe thousands, that he had contact with. Timothy, Titus, and Luke are familiar names to us today because Paul worked so closely with them during his time on earth.

The new type of ministry that I discovered is a Discipleship Group. A Discipleship Group is an intentionally small group (3 to 6 people) that meets for spiritual development and replication. Unlike Sunday School classes, these groups are gender-specific and closed to outsiders to facilitate deep relationships, open communication, and accountability. After twelve months, group members are prayerfully challenged to turn around and start their own group for the next year.

I have been involved in 2 exploratory Discipleship Groups in the last 2 years and experienced great benefits. As a believer, I have been prompted to spend regular time in Bible study and prayer, to invest in meaning relationships with other believers, and to live out the gospel daily. As a pastor, I have seen men in our church hear from God through His Word and look for ways to share it with others. I have only been involved with these particular kinds of Discipleship Groups for a short time, but I can see and anticipate the benefit they would bring to the church that I serve and the greater Kingdom of God – especially those who join in the next 10 years.

What experience do you have with small group discipleship, if any?

The Marks of a Disciple

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Jermaine Wilson experienced tremendous transformation. He grew up in Leavenworth, Kanson and started to sell drugs out of his childhood apartment at an early age. He was eventually incarcerated at the maximum-security wing at Lansing Correctional, a state prison in Kansas where he had a realization. “If I don’t change,” he thought, “I’m either going to spend the rest of my life in prison or dead in a casket.” In a strange turn of events, Jermaine is now the mayor of Leavenworth, according to a story that air on CBS earlier this year. Jermaine credits the transformation to God, education, and volunteer work. After prison, he started serving his community and got his felony record expunged, paving the way for a political run.

Jesus used a parable of the vine and the branches to teach us about spiritual transformation in John 15:1-17. Like Jermaine Wilson, the disciples experienced a transformation while they followed Jesus. In one sense, they become disciples the moment they said, “yes” to Jesus. In another very real sense, they didn’t become disciples until they put their faith in the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:29)

The parable of the vine and the branches invites the question, “When does an unbeliever become a disciple?” This metaphor and the explanation follows gives us three marks of a disciple. Notice that these marks are dynamic, not static, meaning they grow and develop over time.

1. Disciples build a friendship with Jesus.

Social media has changed the way we view friendship. It used to be that you had to be physically present with someone to make a friend, but now you can become friends with people all over the world with the click of a button. Social media can increase our ability to communicate, but it can’t increase our capacity to care.

A friendship with Jesus is based on trust and affection. Friends depend on each other because they have a two-way bond. Jesus calls us to “abide in me and I in you” (v. 4). We are branches and branches can do nothing by themselves, they are just sticks (v. 5).

Friends are better than servants because they care for each other. Jesus considers us friends because he gave his life for us (v. 13). He also reveals God’s Word and will to us (v. 15).

It takes time to build a friendship with Jesus. It takes up to three years to grow grapes on a vine. After the vine and branches are established, grapes grow like the life of the vine moves into them. Jesus could have downloaded everything he wanted his disciples to directly into their brain the moment he called them, but he didn’t because he wanted to develop a relationship with them.

2. Disciples bear fruit that lasts.

Spiritual fruit is the Word of God put into practice. In a broad sense, it’s every act done in obedience to Christ. Spiritual fruit is every display of Christ-like character, ever prayer prayed in accordance with God’s will, and every deed done to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ. The beauty of the vineyard is in the sheer magnitude of grapes produced, not just one particular grape. In a narrow sense, its ever act of love done for another believer (more about that in a moment).

God prunes us to make us more fruitful. The vinedresser removes all the old growth to make room for new growth and fruit. God uses His Word to prune and clean us (v. 3). He works to remove things in our lives that get in the way of our fruitfulness. Those things might be sinful habits, misplaced priorities, or even harmful relationships.

People who don’t bear fruit aren’t disciples, they’re imposters (v.6). True spiritual fruit remains to the end. Anyone can do something that looks spiritual on the outside. Only the deeds done in the power of God will make a lasting impact.

3. Disciples demonstrate love for other believers.

Spiritual fruit has a broad and a narrow definition (see the previous point). Demonstrating love for other believers is a prominent mark of a disciple because grows out of the first and second Greatest Commands revealed by Jesus in Matthew 22:35-40.  The first command is assumed in this passage while the second command is reinforced (v. 9).

We must follow Jesus’ example in demonstrating love for others. Jesus laid down his life for the ones he loved – his friends. We must show love to everyone we meet as our “neighbor,” but we have a special responsibility to love our fellow disciples.

Our special relationship with Christ must not become a source of pride. He chose us, we did not choose him (v. 16). Back to the parable, he planted us we did not plant ourselves.

In summary, an unbeliever becomes a true disciple when he or she builds a friendship with Jesus, bears fruit that lasts, and demonstrates love for other believers. These activities cannot be accomplished without the transforming power of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Have you tapped into that power?

Photo by Nacho Domínguez Argenta on Unsplash

Save the Best for Last

daniel-christie-1137189-unsplash.jpgIn the first half of his Gospel, the Apostle John describes a series of signs that Jesus performed in order to show his true identity. These were more than just miracles, they were powerful acts done for a specific purpose: to show that the God of the Old Testament had come in all his glory. John is careful to only include signs that Jesus performed at or near Jewish festivals or institutions like the temple, a well, the Sabbath, and the Passover.

The first sign appears in John 2:1-12, where Jesus attended a Jewish wedding. Jesus showed the unsuspecting wedding guests and his disciples that God had saved the best for last. The first-century Jews believed in God and honored the Scriptures. They took time out for God at least once a week and observed the Sabbath. But God had something better for them.

Jesus attended a wedding on “the third day,” which is a clue that something special was about to happen. At some point in the celebration, the wine ran out. Jesus’ mother, Mary, had some sort of responsibility for the refreshments at the wedding feast so she asked Jesus for help. At first, Jesus seemed hesitant to help, stating that his “hour has not come yet.” Then Mary instructed the servants to do whatever Jesus asked them to do.

There were six stone water pots at the wedding, each with the capacity to hold 20 to 30 gallons of water. Clay pots were more common and affordable, but they could become “unclean,” so the Jews used stone pots for ceremonial washings. The Jews had a complex set of rituals and traditions when it came eating and preparing food (Mark 7:1-4).  They would not eat without washing their hands in a special way. This wasn’t about hygiene, but about proving their standing before God.

Jesus told the servants to fill the pots with water and take it to the head waiter. Somewhere between the water pot and the headwaiters’ lips, the water became wine. The head waiter was so impressed that he spoke to the bridegroom saying, “Most people serve the good wine first when people are most thirsty and can appreciate the high quality. But you’ve surprised us, you’ve saved the best for last.”

Contrary to popular opinion, this story is not about alcohol. The use of the stone washing pots and the words of the head waiter in verse 10 tell us the reason for Jesus’ first sign and the point of this story: Jesus as better than the religious rituals or traditions of the Jews. The coming of the Messiah was more important for God’s people than following a set of restrictive practices.

Like the ancient Jews, we have our own set of religious rituals and traditions that have a limited basis in Scripture and little bearing on our relationship with God. Unfortunately, like the Jews, we sometimes enjoy looking down on others because they do not follow our rituals or traditions. When we do we need to personalize this story – Jesus is better than our religious rituals or traditions. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is more important than what we wear to church, how many times we go to church, or how many times we “walk the aisle.” That doesn’t mean our rituals or traditions are worthless, it means they are a means to a greater end – faith in Jesus Christ.

Maybe you need to reevaluate your spiritual life in light of Gospel? Maybe you need to trust in Jesus, instead of some experience or practice? Maybe you need to follow Jesus and his leadership in your life. When you do, will know that God saved the best for last.

Photo by Daniel Christie on Unsplash

Portraits of Discipleship

lili-popper-29472-unsplashThe term “discipleship” means different things to different people. Some people think of discipleship as a specific kind of bible study curriculum or an optional class at their church that is focused on discipleship. Other people imagine a person – one of the original twelve disciples that Jesus Christ called to follow him. Another group of people may get stuck on the root of the word which is “discipline.” These understandings aren’t wrong, they are just incomplete.

Discipleship is more than an idea, or a person, or class. Discipleship is a process in which people grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ and learn to serve him more effectively. In John 1:29-51, John the Apostle (one of the original twelve disciples) shared three short stories about Jesus and his interactions with his first followers. You could call these short stories portraits of discipleship.

Each one of the three stories in this passage answers two questions: Who is Jesus? And what does it mean to follow Jesus?

  • THE LAMB OF GOD WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD (v. 29-34)

John the Baptist told his followers that Jesus Christ was “the Lamb of God” while John was baptizing and preaching by the Jordan river. Lambs were very important in Jewish thinking. A lamb was killed at Passover and its blood was spread on the doorposts of the home to symbolizes God’s pardon. This teaches us that sin can only be wiped away by the blood of a sacrificial lamb.

  • THE RABBI WHO TEACHES US ABOUT OURSELVES (v. 35-42)

John the Baptist passed on two his disciples to Jesus: Andrew and either Philip or John. Andrew went and found his brother, Simon, and introduced him to Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus took the opportunity to teach Simon something about himself. Even though Simon was impulsive and outspoken, he would become as solid as rock through his time with Jesus. Jesus gave him a new nickname, Peter, as a promise of the transformation that would happen in his life.

  • THE TRUE KING WHO RULES OVER GOD’S PEOPLE (v. 43-51)

Jesus went into Galilee and found another disciple named Philip. Like Andrew, Philip found his brother, Nathaniel, and introduced him to Jesus. Jesus explained to his growing band of followers he already knew Nathaniel. Jesus knew Nathaniel while studied the Scriptures under a fig tree. Jesus also knew that Nathaniel was truthful and authentic

Nathaniel immediately recognized Jesus as the True King of Israel. The Jewish Messiah was God’s chosen reprehensive to lead his people according to God’s promise to King David (2 Sam. 7). As such, Jesus Christ bridged the gap between heaven and earth, reintroducing God’s activity among his people.

These three portraits of discipleship present one compelling truth: The things we learn about Jesus should lead us to follow him.

This passage is more than a list of titles and descriptions. It contains a series of experiences and interactions with Jesus. It teaches us to balance our knowledge about  God with our knowledge of God. It invites us to have a similar experience with Jesus as his first followers: Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathaniel.

Each one of these portraits of discipleship highlights a different “first step” of discipleship. Some disciples come to Jesus for forgiveness, others for transformation, and others are encouraged to surrender their lives. As you assess your connection to Christ, make sure that the things you are learning are leading you to follow Him.