By Eddie Pipkin
This is week three in my blog series about customizable discipleship, the strategy that we should offer those want to become like Christ a variety of options so that they can find the best fit for their unique learning style, passions, and context for growth. Based on the extensive work we’ve done in my and Phil’s newest book, Disciple Like Jesus, we define the journey of discipleship like this: “A disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ who is committed to these lifestyle priorities: Belonging to the Body of Christ; Becoming More like Jesus; Blessing the World.” This transition to Christlikeness doesn’t just happen by osmosis – it’s not that we go to church a few times a month and the transformation just magically happens – we have to be intentional about developing specific spiritual skills and habits to get there.
Once we have inspired people to want to be more like Jesus, and once we have convinced them that this is a process of transformation (not just ingesting information), the task at hand is giving them the skill set to empower that transformation. [The analogy to physical fitness is always a powerful tool for visualizing this process: Once people know the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, they might enthusiastically commit to embracing fitness. But watching The Rock deliver inspiring pep talks is not going to be enough. Reading every website about fitness (no matter how detailed) is not going to be enough. Even touring the gym – or paying the dues to join the gym! – is not going to be enough to confer fitness. The committed discipline of regular workouts will be required – we’ll need to gradually and cumulatively develop fitness skills.] The church leadership too often settles for fans in the stands who watch the “Olympics of worship” while feeling like they are, by virtue of their enthusiasm, accomplished athletes. It’s too often a shock for Christians who have been checking all the right boxes, then suddenly find themselves faced with a real-life crisis and struggling in unanticipated ways. [Back to the analogy, it’s like those watching vocal and enthusiastic fans suddenly find themselves in an actual 10K and are like, “I can’t make it through the first mile without collapsing on the side of the road! What happened?”]
Discipleship – becoming more like Jesus in priorities, attitude, action, word, and deed – is arrived at by developing foundational spiritual skills and habits. I love the way VOUS Church in Miami eschews the traditional language of spiritual disciplines and instead invites people to participate in their habit labs. It’s the same development of spiritual muscles, just an evolution in how to talk about and engage them.
If we’ve been involved in church for any length of time, we know that we’re supposed to be praying more, reading our Bible more, reaching out to people in love more, serving more, and giving more, but it can all get a little overwhelming, can’t it? And if our primary interaction with church is the weekly worship service, we tend to see only one or two ways to do each of these things, so we can feel unengaged if the way that is being presented is not a way that feels intuitive or productive to us.
That’s why in our book, Disciple Like Jesus, we break the discipleship journey down into segments that a person can wrap their imagination around: “Discipleship is a commitment to Belonging to the Body of Christ, Becoming More Like Jesus, and Blessing the World.” We fall back on the classic three-legged stool metaphor in which each of these legs/categories is necessary for a strong and healthy faith. Each category has lifestyle components that bring it to full fruition (abundant life). Belonging to the Body of Christ is lived out through “a lifestyle of worship” and “a lifestyle of hospitality.” This is the area in our life in which we build and nurture relationships with God, with fellow believers, and ultimately with people in a hurting world. Becoming More Like Jesus is lived out through “a lifestyle of opening ourselves to God” and “a lifestyle of obeying God.” It is the area of our life in which we delve more deeply into God’s character and the mysteries of faith through Bible study, prayer, intellectual curiosity and applied theology. Blessing the World is lived out through “a lifestyle of service” and “a lifestyle of generosity.” In this area we adjust the priorities of our life choices to spread God’s grace by changing our communities through sacrificial commitments of our time, service, and resources.
Transformation! Everyone who has professed a commitment to discipleship – to following Jesus – is on a spectrum of maturity in each of these lifestyle areas. Discipleship is not monolithic in context or progression! We might be highly mature in our embrace of hospitality or generosity, but completely at sea in practicing prayer or serving sacrificially. Churches shouldn’t present a monolithic approach to discipleship skills, and as individuals, we should neither sit on our laurels because we are accomplished at one aspect of the disciple’s life (while ignoring other aspects with which we are less comfortable) nor beat ourselves up because we don’t shine in a particular area that the church has told us we must shine in to be considered worthy of the title of disciple.
Everybody’s different – that’s how God made us. There is no one-size-fits-all discipleship.
That being said, it’s important to have a vibrant, practical strategy for progress and growth in all the lifestyle areas. It’s important to encourage people to pursue those strategies in partnership with others. It’s important to live out the values of discipleship and encourage the development of individual discipleship skills in every aspect of our institutional life as members of a faith family.
The strategy for growth should focus on offering opportunities to learn specific skill sets:
- How do I pray?
- How do I read my Bible? How do I apply what I’ve read?
- How do I understand theology?
- How do I manage my resources responsibly and practice generosity?
- How do I listen to and respond to the Holy Spirit?
- How do I welcome others into my life?
- , etc., etc., etc.
The strategy for growth should also take advantage of applying discipleship lifestyle principles to the kinds of small groups and outreach and service gatherings that are already happily happening.
- We incorporate prayer into our activities. We help leaders of activities understand and practice different kinds of prayer so that people can experience and learn about them.
- We incorporate Scripture into our activities. We focus on the principles of our faith by including foundational Scriptures in whatever we do. This can be spoken. This can be visual. This can be musical. By doing this, we reinforce what it is that binds us and empowers us.
- We incorporate service whenever and however we can. Any small group that meets for any length of time should consider a service component as part of what the gathering does. It is truly exciting when the nature of the service can reflect the theme and purpose of the gathering. For instance, if you are conducting a small group study on environmental stewardship from a biblical perspective, how beautiful for it to culminate in an environmental service project.
- We train the leaders of any activity to think through how that activity intersects with the discipleship lifestyle categories. How does each reflect worship, hospitality, opening to Jesus, obeying God, serving the community, and living generously? We train the leaders to discuss these questions with the people in their small groups and at their events. It is something we are thinking about and implementing constantly.
Within our larger, regular gatherings, in our children’s ministry and our youth group sessions, in our social media presence, and definitely, absolutely, in our weekly worship, we are intentionally communicating spiritual skills to participants. We are actively demonstrating ways to pray, ways to read and share Scripture, ways to extend hospitality, ways to serve and give. We are moving beyond just one-element-done-one-way thinking and stretching ourselves to be innovative and show people the many options for how they express these lifestyle attributes. This is a powerful tool by which we free people from the constraints of expectations to, for instance, “do prayer right.” We open our imaginations and theirs to the possibilities of the thousand ways prayer (and everything else we’ve been talking about) can be done.
Think about that last paragraph and the challenge it laid out: For most worship services that will happen this coming Sunday, the Bible reading is presented in exactly the same way that it is almost every single Sunday; a prayer is offered in exactly the same format; service opportunities are presented with exactly the same announcement presentation. Think about what this communicates to people – people who are wildly different in their life experience and maturity levels – “This is how Scripture is considered. This is how prayers are prayed. This is the approved method by which we serve.” How static, how tragic! To crimp the limitless possibilities of how people may know and serve Christ! Shame on us for our dull and plodding approach. (If that last, provocative assessment doesn’t apply to you – if you are giving people exciting variations of faith expressions from which to choose – bravo! You have done excellently, good and faithful servant!)
For all of us who have answered the call to serve and lead, these are relevant questions – essential questions if we are to carry the work of the Kingdom forward.
How have you implemented discipleship skills development into your congregational life? Is it a regular, strategic expectation of the people called to be disciples? Is it a once-a-year emphasis, then back in the closet? Do you have a unified, cohesive strategy? Is it fresh, or are you doing what’s been done for the last two generations? How’s that working for you?