The hot button discussion in American Evangelicalism this week is the recently released “Nashville Statement”. This is an attempt by some Reformed Evangelicals to clarify their views on sexuality; the statement has raised a fair amount of agreement and a fair amount of disagreement. Given the theological diversity of my friends, some have loved it and others have found it terrible. You can see the diversity of public opinion within “15 Reactions For And Against the Nashville Statement.” In my opinion, the following posts have been tremendously helpful in thinking about #NashvilleStatement: [Read more…]
I’ve long been intrigued by the elusive subject of Christian discipleship. As a “child of the church,” having spent the entirety of my life in and around churchianity, I’m well versed in numerous definitions of what it means to be a disciple and yet, as I’ve read Scripture over and over and engaged the thinking of numerous authors, both pastors and theologians, I’m often left with more questions than answers. But because I believe that Jesus’ command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20) is one of the most important commands we have, I can’t set the subject aside and pretend it’ll eventually work itself out.
Before jumping to a working definition of discipleship, I think it may be helpful to identify some problems and challenges that tend to be unhelpful in our understanding of the subject:
Discipleship is not simply knowing stuff.
One of the negative consequences of the Enlightenment seems to be the assumption that many western Christians have made concerning the assumed transformative nature of information. We’ve basically spent hundreds of years assuming that if people just learn and memorize information, their lives will be transformed mysteriously into the image of Jesus.
Yet, as Bob Logan has noted numerous times, what we’ve actually done is educate people beyond their obedience. People have a ton of head knowledge but their lives are not being lived in a way that is shaped by that information. It’s as if we’ve downloaded entire systematic theologies into the brains of new Christians and then expected them to live out all 1,500 pages of it. The reality is that those new followers of Jesus have been over-saturated with doctrines and have yet to learn and practice the ways of the kingdom. Rather than educate people beyond their obedience, we need to educate people alongside their response. As followers of Jesus learn the ways of Jesus and become acquainted with his teachings, they, in turn, apply them to their lives. [Tweet “As followers of Jesus learn the ways of Jesus they apply them to their lives.”]
Discipleship is not a one time event.
While it’s true that people ontologically experience salvation immediatley upon the profession of their faith, people often experience salvation on a practical level as a process. Justification is certainly granted to broken sinners when their hearts turn from the ways of the world and, by God’s grace, cling to the work of Jesus on the cross, yet people seem to often come to terms with the beauty of God’s redemption slowly and in the context of numerous conversations and experiences.
I’ve seen this transition take place in our culture and think it’s largely just a chance of methodology and experience. The transition is noted in that fifty years ago, most conversion experiences were sudden and immediate. Folks would attend a Billy Graham revival and make a decision to follow Jesus and the experience was articulated in language emphasizing immediacy rather than process. Today’s cultural landscape tends to produce experiences of conversion that celebrate the process of discovery and thoughtfulness.
This became obvious a few years ago when I met a man who had been attending our church for a few months who finally came up to me and said, “You know I have been coming to church here mostly because my friends invited me and there was free coffee. But recently I think I might have become a Christian.” I replied, “What makes you think that you are a Christian now?,” to which he replied, “Well, I’ve come to understand that Jesus died for my sins on the cross and was raised from the dead and he sent his Spirit to help me live my life for God.” I responded, “Yep… I think it’s safe to say you are a Christian!”[Tweet “Yep… I think it’s safe to say you are a Christian!”]
Discipleship is not one size fits all.
One of the beautiful things about Jesus, I think, is how he took the time to meet people where they were at and engaged them in terms directly connected to where they were at in life. Whether engaging the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), a man with leprosy (Luke 5:12-16), or the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), Jesus’ words and actions were unique and directly ministered, challenged, and healed those he was engaging.
That’s why any effective process or program related to discipleship has to have a lot of space for what is needed and what God is doing. While I love church resources that are “plug and play,” I absolutely despise the assumption that every city, every church, and every Christian is the same. Why? Because they aren’t!
Toward Defining “Discipleship.”
While there are, as a I indicated above, many definitions for the word disciple and voluminous literature on the subject of discipleship, perhaps the Gospel of Matthew is a good place to start:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24 NLT)
In the first century, the word “disciple” (Gk. mathetes) described someone who was a “learner, pupil, or apprentice” and is used to describe someone who is “constantly associated” with someone and their teachings (cf. BDAG, 609). Jesus’ command (and, I think, invitation) to “follow me” is one of the most important ideas in the New Testament. It’s the place where a relationship with the Lord begins. We begin following him and learning his ways, his words, his teachings, his thoughts, and his mission. We observe what he says and what he does. We begin to engage his proclamations and demonstrations. We can’t really begin to apply Jesus’ teachings until we learn them! It leads to recognizing another important statement in Scripture: Jesus is Lord. As people begin to follow Jesus and learn his ways and encounter him, they begin to understand more and more that he is Lord.
If you put yourself in the
shoes sandals of the early disciples, think about the invitation to follow Jesus as an opportunity to walk with him and hear him teach on the kingdom of God and to see him invite people to experience eternal life. As you hear Jesus day after day, you begin to fall more and more in love with him and as Jesus continually asks that pesky question who do you say he is, your answer becomes more and more aware of his goodness, grace, and purposes.
So I think it’s safe to say that disciples of Jesus follow Jesus. But what else does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? How might we understand following Jesus in a more fleshed out manner? Martin Manser writes that discipleship is:
“The process of becoming a committed follower of Jesus Christ, with all the spiritual discipline and benefits which this brings.” (Dictionary of Bible Themes)
Manser’s definition is helpful, I think, because of the word “becoming.” Avoiding the unbiblical and unhelpful suggestion that discipleship is crossing a finish line, this explanation envisions discipleship as a process of becoming. Another thoughtful definition comes from Chris Byrley:
“Discipleship is the process of devoting oneself to a teacher to learn from and become more like them. For the Christian, this refers to the process of learning the teachings of Jesus and following after his example in obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit. Discipleship not only involves the process of becoming a disciple but of making other disciples through teaching and evangelism.” (“Discipleship,” Lexham Theological Wordbook)
This definition is helpful because it emphasizes the process of learning from and becoming like Jesus himself in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yay for a trinitarian theological approach! But what’s also a gold mine is that Byrley includes an emphasis on “making other disciples” as part of discipleship. Multiplication and discipleship go hand in hand. [Tweet “Multiplication and discipleship go hand in hand”]
This brings me to one of the best definitions of a disciple. The legendary Bob Logan define’s disciple as the following:
Logan has fleshed out eight dimensions of discipleship, or activities associated with being a follower of Jesus as follows:
- Experiencing and worshiping God.
- Partnering with the Holy Spirit.
- Sacrifical service.
- Generous living.
- Personal transformation.
- Authentic relationships.
- Community transformation.
I had the honor of being part of a team that met with Bob Logan and helped put together these dimensions using Vineyard language, so I can vouch for the content and I’ve used them a lot and found them to be very effective (check them out here).
So disciples are people in the process of becoming more like Jesus as they learn his ways and apply his teachings to their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit. They are also involved in helping others also become more like Jesus.
Spiritual Formation’s Discipleship Triad
Thinkers within the discipline of spiritual formation often emphasize knowing, being, and doing. They suggest that a healthy and holistic approach to Christian spirituality will acknowledge that this paradigm avoids ignoring the importance of our thinking, our identity, and our actions.
Disciples seek to know Jesus and Scripture. They are curious about the ways of the kingdom and seek to know more about it. Yet, as Ed Stetzer states, “we learn and know so we can be.” Being is related to our identity as children of God, united in the Spirit. And as ones with knowledge of God and aware of our identity as God’s ambassadors, we do the works of the kingdom. Knowing, being, and doing. The discipleship triad that emphasizes our heads, hearts, and hands. Stetzer again states, “Knowing who you are in Christ, then being who you are in Christ (by walking worthy), leads you do doing the work of God.”
So when I think of discipleship, I think of process. I think in terms of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the life of someone. I think of people becoming like Jesus and helping others become like Jesus. I think that the process is transforming all of who we are. It’s calling for us to know and to be and to do. Jesus invites us to structure our lives around the kingdom and points us to himself as the source of lasting joy, peace, and salvation… qualities we are called to share with the world around us.
In Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s fantastic The Cost of Discipleship, he states:
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Discipleship is, quite frankly, the process of dying to ourselves so that we can experience life in Jesus. And it is, as Eugene Peterson notes, a long obedience in the same direction.
Over the years I’ve been approached by a few people who wanted to either use the gifts they believed they had or be trained and equipped to minister through speaking (e.g., preaching, teaching, training, etc.). In simple terms, they wanted opportunities to speak from the stage during larger worship gatherings. These people really believed that they had something to offer the church (and they probably did) and they wanted to “use their gifts.” Some of these people even guaranteed the effectiveness of ministry!
But I basically told each of them this: “Ummmmm, no thanks.”
Besides being really turned off by anyone who can guarantee certain aspects of their “ministry,” something else caused me to put things on hold. Each of these people said something like the following:
“I’m totally willing to teach the Bible but I don’t want to go to any of the fun events with people”
“I’m not interested in meeting with people who have questions about what I talk about.”
“Don’t count on me attending that event because there will be people there who drink beer and smoke cigarettes.”
These three responses, in my opinion, disqualify people from serving in influential leadership roles because they undermine the model of holistic ministry that Jesus demonstrated.
“I don’t do fun events.”
People don’t seem to understand that it’s in the context of relationships and spending time together that one’s influence grows. If you really want to be effective in ministry situations, you need to spend time with people. You need to eat dinner with them. You need to go bowling with them. You need to do the things that you assume aren’t spiritual because they actually are. Spiritual things happen around the table (cf. John 12:1-8 occurs around a dinner table).
So while you sit at home being all “holy” and “spiritual,” isolated from engaging human beings, effective missional disciples spend time with people just like Jesus did.
“No questions, please.”
If you believe you are “called” to speak to churches, please be humble enough to realize that your ideas in your sermons may provoke questions… and that’s a good thing. Yeah, people might disagree with you and want you to explain more about why you believe what you said or why you gave the advice that you did, but it’s actually a continuation of the ministry opportunity!
I’ve found that some of the most helpful “ministry” in relation to my preaching has been at a coffee shop! And I’ve come to find that most of the time that people only want to preach from a platform and aren’t willing to answer questions is because they primarily want to vent… which is totally unhelpful. Sure, they might call it “prophetic,” but the underlying arrogance (and ignorance) really damages any credibility you have.
“Beer and cigarettes!”
I get it. You are convinced that drinking a beer is a bad witness. I totally disagree (and have blogged about that here), but it really doesn’t matter. You don’t need to drink beer to be around people who do. Jesus had no problem hanging out with sinners, right? In fact, he hung out with them so much that their bad reputations rubbed off on his reputation and people actually thought that Jesus was a drunk:
“The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!'” (Luke 7:34 NLT)
I’ve found time and time again that people actually are disarmed by my willingness to spend time with them in their space (i.e., not the church building). I’ve found that I have opportunities to speak into their life because they know that I’m not hiding behind a sense of self-righteousness or legalism.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to drink beer or start smoking cigarettes to be “relevant.” I’m saying that you should be okay with being around people who do. You can’t influence them for the kingdom if you aren’t in their lives and they in yours!
What do you think?
Preaching is the art of provoking hearts and minds toward Jesus and his kingdom. I believe it’s an art because I’m convinced it’s similar to painting or composing music. You can take a class on painting and learn the basic mechanics of brush strokes, but that’s way different than being a Claude Monet. You can also learn how to play piano notes and even chord progressions, but that’s a far cry from being Ludwig van Beethoven.
I think the lines blur a bit between preaching and teaching, as the sermonic structure of communication tends to vary between those in church leadership who participate in congregational speaking. Most of my favorite preachers tend to transition, quite smoothly I might add, between what I’d consider preaching and what seems to fall into the teaching category.
Biblical Foundations for Preaching
One simply needs to read the Old Testament to encounter some of the great preaching of the Bible. The Prophets of old often proclaimed to the people of Israel (and the nations) the truths of God in startling fashion. Jesus himself was a great communicator and genius at using stories (parables) to provoke the hearts and minds of his listeners. Throughout the Book of Acts, the Apostles and other disciples (e.g., Stephen and Phillip) were preachers (for great survey’s of the biblical foundations for preaching, I highly recommend Inspired Preaching: A Survey of Preaching Found in the New Testament and Preaching: A Biblical Theology).
As far as what we read and observe in Scripture, preaching appears to be extremely important within the life of the Church for at least two reasons:
- Preaching is a means by which people hear the gospel, the story of God, the teachings and works of Christ, and the invitation to come to King Jesus and his kingdom.
- Preaching is a powerful way to encourage and challenge (not the only way).
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
“What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this: It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence.”
So preaching is a means by which God speaks through women and men about Jesus and the stories of God to both win them and to encourage them. Preaching can be used by God to communicate his presence and his power and point people to Jesus.
Five Goals of Preaching
When I am studying, collecting ideas, mind-mapping thoughts, and prayerfully working on the sermons I preach, I have a number of goals that are in the back of my mind. I’ve found that they help keep me centered on Jesus as well as serve to keep me from becoming a “hobby horse” preacher who only talks about the end times in every sermon (I digress). These goals also help ensure that I’m able to provoke as many of the hearts and minds as I can. When you are preaching to larger groups of people, you can’t assume that everyone is going to be engaged in the same way… yet if you aren’t intentional at attempting to communicate in a way that can engage everyone, you certainly won’t. At any rate, here are my goals:
(1) Glorify Jesus. It might seem obvious, but I hope that after every one of my sermons, Jesus was glorified. I desire my ideas and illustrations and applications would be built on Scripture and in line with the Great Tradition of orthodoxy. As people are to worship in all that they do (Rom. 12:1-2), on most Sunday mornings an aspect of worship that I participate in is preaching. I want Jesus to be lifted up through my words!
(2) Point people to Jesus. Related to glorifying Jesus, I want all of my sermons to clearly point people to Jesus and his kingdom. “Christian” preaching should be for Jesus, about Jesus, and done with Jesus’s presence through his Spirit. I hope that every single person who hears my sermons hears me say, “Yes… life has many complex problems and challenges but I am telling you that Jesus has all of the solutions and ways forward that you need” in some way, shape, and form.
(3) Empower, equip (through education), encourage, exhort, challenge, and provoke. What I love most about the Holy Spirit’s work through preaching is that God is doing so many things in the congregation simultaneously! Several weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon, a number of people sent me texts to let me know what God had been doing during the morning’s message. One person said they received a ton of hope about a situation they were facing and felt like they could trust God. Another said they hadn’t ever really thought about their role in the kingdom like that, so they were challenged to “partner with God.” Yet another felt like they could start praying for people and be more present in people’s lives.
The simple fact of the matter is that I think it’s important that we recognize how God can do a variety of “things” in the sermon space and that we can design our sermons to accomplish a variety of “things” in what we say.
(4) Stir people’s emotions, especially affections. I remember growing up and hearing that all the crazy charismatic Christians only cared about emotions and that it wasn’t right to base things on feelings and that feelings can’t be trusted, etc., etc. As a self-described “charismatic,” let me just say this: that teaching is heresy (and I don’t use that word lightly). It’s far more gnostic in origin and essentially denies how God created us! While it’s true that we need to be discerning about emotions, they are not the enemy. What preacher doesn’t want people to fall more in love with Jesus through their preaching? And shouldn’t the affections for people also be stirred? Shouldn’t our feelings of repentance and our desires for holiness spring out of hearing of the beauty and majesty of God? Yes.
The idea that emotions and feelings and affections is “bad” is both anti-biblical, it’s specifically anti-God. So… ummmm… don’t fall for it.
(5) Be proportional. Most folks talking about preaching tend to emphasize proportionality in regard to the percentage of the sermon dedicated to exposition, illustration, and application. This is extremely important.
All sermons need, I think, to have Scripture. This doesn’t mean you have to repeat the verses over and over again and call it “expository preaching” that is “verse by verse” (because it is not). But it does mean that sermons should include what has been foundational and authoritative for God’s people for thousands of years (yes, I’m going beyond the history of Christianity there because the people of Israel loved the Old Testament).
Sermons also need to have a proportional amount of illustrations and applications. People need to be able to hear stories about how Scripture can be related to their lives and how they can apply what they are hearing, especially in a world that has an increasingly uninformed understanding of the Bible.
Yet this is not the only type of proportionality one should have. I think we should attempt for our sermons to proportionally press into the following:
- Encourage people toward mission, especially God’s mission. Sermons should get people to engage in making Jesus known.
- Encourage people toward spiritual formation, such as prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, soul care, etc.
- Encourage people toward serving, in both the local church and in the community.
- Encourage people toward community. Relationships matter and discipleship happens in community.
Sermons can’t do everything and it’s absolutely critical that preachers do their best to have one “big idea” (or as Andy Stanley calls it in Communicating for a Change, a “sticky statement”). This is especially true for new preachers who have a tendency to try and put every biblical-theological idea they have ever had into their sermon.
No. Stop. Just have one basic idea and preach a shorter sermon than all of your favorite preachers do. Just trust me.
- What would you add?
- What goals do you think preachers should have?
- How do you define “preaching”?