By Eddie Pipkin

We began a discussion in last week’s blog about setting up a discipleship initiative using the principles established in the recently published book that Dr. Phil Maynard and I co-authored, Disciple Like Jesus.  This approach calls for lifestyle transformation based on a coaching / mentoring approach that leverages tried-and-true methods of discipleship instruction while exploring ways that accountable spiritual growth can be customized to meet the needs and strengths of individuals on their discipleship journey.  This week we’ll explore some of last week’s points more fully.  How can these principles be practically applied in a local church?  How can we maximize the likelihood of success for transformational outcomes?

As we discussed last week, it is critical for everyone in the leadership process – beginning with the clergy leaders and extending to all the key players in the ministry – to be unified in their focus on discipleship.  This unified vision Is essential because transformative discipleship can’t occur unless these two things happen:

  • A clear strategy for discipleship is developed, empowered, and de riguer.
  • An integrated focus on discipleship becomes an organic part of EVERYTHING that happens with the local congregation’s life.

We featured a lot of bullet points last week that laid out steps for developing the strategy emphasized in the first point.  It is a simple fact – but ignored in thousands of congregations across the landscape every year: If there is no detailed discipleship strategy, discipleship will not grow.  It is the most basic of confusions: for many congregations it is the equivalent of the expectation that by regularly watching videos about health and fitness, we will lose weight and develop an athletic physique.  That’s not how it works.  For disciples, the confusion begins in the premise that spiritual life and growth are primarily a mental activity, a matter of good intentions.  And while it is true that good intentions and a productive attitude are building blocks of transformation, the real proof of change, the real path to results, is in application and action.  Of course, if we’ve been on the path of discipleship for more than five minutes, we know this.  If we’re church leadership, we periodically acknowledge it in the myriad meetings we attend.  So we make a show of defining a discipleship strategy (which as we discussed last week, generally means we offer a class or two).  It’s too often an afterthought – the resources go to worship, to pastoral care, to whiz-bang children and youth programs, etc. etc. (and nothing wrong with any of those essential and popular elements of church life, but who is focused on discipleship for discipleship’s sake?).

If we dig down deep and focus on a discipleship strategy – reference last week’s blog for what elements make such a strategy effective in the long term – we then need to empower it: organization and communication and training, with an added layer of communication and training, followed by additional rounds of communication and training.  Go survey the people involved in implementing your discipleship strategy.  Where do they see problems?  Where do they see the greatest needs / opportunities in bringing your vision / strategy to fruition?  Again and again, we see these themes of insufficient organization, communication, and training rise to the surface as a way to describe the frustrations of the people who must be empowered to carry out the work of transformative leadership:

  • They need a clear organizational structure. Who do they turn to for timely guidance and the resolution of problems? Where do they turn to for easily accessible, pertinent resources?  These things should be crystal clear.  Anything less is disheartening, disorienting, and discouraging.
  • They need regular, relevant communication. They need communication from their leaders, to keep them in synch, feeling valued, feeling like they have a place to turn to resolve issues, feeling connected, and feeling like they know what’s coming down the road.  Most churches are terrible about this kind of communication, in large part because leadership confuses a quick conversational check-in (“Hi, how’s it goin’?) with intentional, focused communication.  They also need steady communication to the congregation-at-large which communicates the vision and expectations for discipleship.  Some churches are more skillful at this type of messaging.  Many, many are not.  Many suffer from the “one and done” mindset rather than crafting a persistent drumbeat of repeating the message consistently over time and through multiple mediums (which is what is required for the message to get through).
  • Training: they need it! Sometimes your leader / partners are acutely aware, even desperately aware, of their need for training.  Sometimes they are completely clueless that they need training – they are suavely confident in their innate ability to disciple others with style – but they may be missing the mark (either in their style choices or, commonly, in sticking to the professed vision which should theoretically be driving the entire discipleship process).  Leaders and teachers need regular skill training and refreshing.  They need support.  They need to vent (a key to avoiding burnout).  They need to know that other leaders and teachers are experiencing the same challenges they are.  Very few churches have an intentional focus on providing such training and group leader/teacher collaboration.

For the third part of the first point, I dropped some French on you, awkward but intentional: the church wide discipleship strategy should be de riguer.  I don’t generally drop a lot of French into my blog posts, but I was struggling to find exactly the right word in this case.  I was trying to capture the essence of accountability, because without that element, any discipleship strategy fails.  Mandatory felt heavy-handed, so I discarded that because it plays right into people’s fears about discipleship.  Perhaps binding was the best choice, since it combines the ideas of accountability with the sense of a voluntary agreement.  But I settled on de riguer in the end because it’s just kind of more fun, and I really am always hoping that we can help churches turn the perception of discipleship from drudgery to excitement.  The phrase’s literal translation from the French is “in strictness,” which not only speaks to accountability but also captures the sense that our salvation relationship with Jesus is, after all, a covenant relationship, and our end of the covenant is lifelong discipleship.  But the common translation into English is “required by etiquette or current fashion,” which means it is what all the cool disciples are doing – it’s the hip and relevant mode for living which we have embraced as a community of Jesus people.  And as such, it is a defining element of our institutional and individual lives.

As for the second major point we introduced in this blog, discipleship formation should be an intentional part of EVERYTHING in the life of a local church ministry.  We’ll focus on this more next week, but worship is one place to really get the creative wheels spinning on this notion.  Most of the discussion about discipleship that happens in worship is inspiring / challenging / invoking people to be better disciples.  We give them the impression that the response to this call to discipleship lies in a next step of discipleship training that occurs in a special environment outside the worship setting (or frankly any other setting in their life other than the designated discipleship class).  As far as discipleship modeled in worship, they generally get a pretty vanilla demonstration: prayers are slotted and performed in exactly the same way week to week; ditto for Scripture interaction.  Part of the thrill of customizable discipleship is leaning into the truth that there are hundreds of ways to pray and engage with Scripture.  Would that worship gave a hint that this was true!

How are you doing in keeping discipleship in your community foremost and focused?  Do the people in your congregation think of discipleship as de riguer?  Are you leaders and discipleship partners well communicated to and well trained?  Do they feel like an integrated and essential part of your overall strategy?

More on this scintillating topic in next week’s Part 3!  See you in then.  And prayers for those of you reading from Louisiana and elsewhere in the path of Hurricane Laura.