Video 8 Honest Relationships
I’m not a very relational person. You might not believe this if you met me. I can turn on the friendliness when I need to, and I know how to ask questions and get to know people. In other words, I can fake it pretty well. But I actually like to be alone. Maybe love would be a better term—I love to be alone. I could be alone all week. Even two weeks straight, and it wouldn’t bother me one bit. As long as I have a good book to read, a project to work on, good movies to watch, and a refrigerator packed full of meat, I’ll be just fine.
That is why this section is tough to write, because I’m part of the problem. I’m the one that needs this help the most. You might need it too, but I know I need it. Because here’s the thing: discipleship can’t happen without relationships. Deep relationships. Authentic relationships. Relationships where people can share their intimate struggles, confess their socially unacceptable sins, and rely on others for spiritual strength. But these types of relationships are fairly rare among Christians. Many Christians I talk to say they feel alone, unconnected, or isolated at church. They have some superficial friends, maybe one or two close friends if they’re lucky. But on the whole, most Christians never get below the surface with their church communities. Until we figure out how to cultivate deep relationships among Christians, our discipleship will continue to suffer.
One reason discipleship has suffered is that we have focused too heavily on discipleship programs rather than investing in authentic relationships. David Kinnaman sums up the problem: We are at a critical point in the life of the North American church; the Christian community must rethink our efforts to make disciples. Many of the assumptions on which we have built our work with young people are rooted in modern, mechanistic, and mass production paradigms. Some (though not all) ministries have taken cues from the assembly line, doing everything possible to streamline the manufacture of shiny new Jesus-followers, fresh from the factory floor. But disciples cannot be mass-produced. Disciples are handmade, one relationship at a time.
Both The State of Discipleship and prominent discipleship leaders echo Kinnaman’s plea. If we are going to do a better job at discipleship, we can’t rely on programs alone. We must foster authentic relationships as the means of transforming people into Christlikeness.
Discipleship should be a way of life, a holistic integration of the gospel into every fiber of our week. The State of Discipleship shows that this is especially true of Millennials who crave intimate relationships. Millennials value intimate relationships far more than Gen-Xers (my generation) and Boomers.
While this includes peer relationships, many Millennials desire intergenerational relationships from older believers as well. The State of Discipleship shows that 59 percent of Millennials who remain active in their faith had a close relationship with an adult believer in their church (apart from their parents or pastor). Twenty-eight percent say that they were mentored by an older believer in church, while only 11 percent of those who dropped out of church said the same. This shows that Millennials are much more likely to stay engaged in the faith if they are connected with older believers.
And it’s not just Millennials. All Christians need to be in relationship with other believers if they desire to become more like Christ. Every single discipleship leader I’ve talked to (or whose books I’ve read) says the same thing: Discipleship cannot happen apart from relationships. You can have all kinds of killer programs, but if these programs don’t also foster relationships, then growth toward Christlikeness will be minimal.
Discipleship is knowing and becoming like Christ—living in vibrant, fruitful relationship with him. What we do (personally or with others) is to be a means, not the end. Even disciple making can become a project or activity in and of itself rather than a privileged participation in the work of the Lord. God uses friendships to bring an “iron sharpening iron” effect. Small-group Bible studies and discussion groups provide the opportunity for peer learning, motivation and encouragement. Pairs, trios, or groups meeting for prayer often open the door to experience God through others and to grow in faith. The strength of programs and systems is revealed in a relational context—providing a beginning point and concrete steps within the relationship toward a greater end: knowing Christ and making him known, and helping others do the same.
Rich relationships are also one of the main reasons why people stay connected to church and to Jesus. Leaving a church is easy when you’re not connected with other people. It’s hard to leave if you are connected. Many Christians stay at a church because they are relationally connected, even if they don’t love the teaching or worship or color of the carpets. Relationships—the deep ones, not the exhausting superficial ones—are often the glue that keeps us connected to our church communities.
A friend of mine recently left his church in search of another church that had better teaching and a more missional mind-set. He spent a few months at a church known for having some of the best teaching in town. But three months later, he returned to his old church. I asked him why, and he said, “I just had too many deep relationships with people at my home church. I couldn’t stay away.”
We shouldn’t foster rich relationships, however, just to keep people in church. Otherwise, we become nothing more than an intimate country club. We should pursue relationships because it’s part of what it means to become more like Jesus, and we can’t pursue this impossible journey without a deep connection to others on the same journey.
Our God is a relational God. Since we are created in his image, we are relational people. If I’m truly honest with myself, my desire to be alone is often driven by sin and selfishness. When I’m alone I can do what I want, when I want, and how I want to do it. I don’t think about, let alone worry about, other people around me. I don’t have to talk if I don’t want to talk. I don’t have to ask questions or show interest in someone else’s life. I can just take care of myself.
Sounds pretty selfish. And sinful. In order for us to flourish as humans and become more like Christ, we must engage in intimate, sacrificial, authentic, non-superficial relationships.
When Jesus gathered his disciples, he called them into a relationship: “Come follow me.” Even though he spoke to large crowds on occasion—sometimes it was unavoidable—the primary way in which he “discipled” his followers was through relationships. On the road, over a meal, on a boat under the hot Galilean sun. Discipleship wasn’t something Jesus did in addition to his otherwise busy ministry week. Discipleship was the natural outgrowth of doing life with other people.
Most of the time, we see Jesus interacting with a small group of disciples. Usually it was the twelve apostles, though sometimes he singled out Peter, James, and John. But there were also Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), Nicodemus (John 3:1-15), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the unnamed woman at the well (John 4:1-26), Levi and his shady friends (Luke 5:27-32), and many other relational encounters recorded in the Gospels. These were not just random conversations but relational encounters, where Jesus was revealing himself and teaching people about what it means to follow him.
Jesus’s primary mode of discipleship is relational, which is simply a continuation of God’s desire to relate to us through the incarnation of Christ. On a few occasions we see Jesus teaching in larger settings: The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), his speeches in the Temple (Matthew 23:1-36; John 7:28-39), and his parable-laced sermon by the sea (Matthew 13:1-25). Some of these, however, happened spontaneously as Jesus was hanging out and relating with his disciples (see Matthew 4:25–5:1). If we were to stand back and look at the life of Jesus as a whole, the bulk of his time was spent investing deeply in a few rather than addressing large groups of people. What’s most shocking, though, is not that he engaged in relational discipleship, but whom he engaged with.
I’ll never forget talking to a fellow college professor about investing in the lives of students. I had just been hired at a fairly large Christian university. I didn’t want to just spout off information in a classroom; I wanted to “disciple” my students. My classes had anywhere from forty to 150 students—and I was teaching a lot of classes! “How do you do it?” I asked my friend. “How do you know whom to invest in? Do you just focus on the ones with the most potential?”
I thought I was stating a no-brainer. When I was a baseball player, the coach would always take more time to invest in the most talented players, the ones who had a future. This is just good leadership, right? Wouldn’t it be most efficient for me to single out the students who were the most Godly the most wise, the most hardworking—those who had the greatest potential?
My friend was always good at leading me to the right answer rather than spoon-feeding it to me. He responded, “That may be efficient and effective—but is it the most Christian?” As I mentally scanned the life of Christ, it hit me like a ton of Bibles: Jesus didn’t single out the most promising, the best leaders, the naturally gifted and Godly people. He actually singled out the worst.
Peter was a bumbling coward who never seemed to get it. I’m pretty sure Jesus considered him to be high-maintenance. I know I would. The other members of the “inner three,” James and John, were a couple of hotheads whom Jesus should have sent to an anger management seminar rather than into the world to preach the gospel of love (see Luke 9:51-56). These two thugs would have made fine candidates for ISIS or maybe an inner-city gang. But instead, Jesus trained them to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.
Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector were a fascinating pair. I’m not sure what Jesus was thinking when he brought these two together. Simon was probably a member of a feisty group of Jewish militants looking to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel. Matthew was a Jewish sellout, a traitor who went to work for Rome in taking money from the hands of his hardworking Jewish neighbors. Simon and Matthew: You could not find a more contradictory pair!
Thomas was a cynic (John 11:16). Nathanael was sarcastic (John 1:46). And Judas, of course, would betray Jesus just after Jesus had washed his feet (John 13). If there were any kingdom-of-God-planting manuals in the first century, they surely would have advised Jesus not to select these twelve hoodlums. They’re not going to get along. They’re going to hinder your mission. They’re not worth your investment.
But Jesus came to establish an upside-down kingdom, where enemies are loved and persecutors are prayed for. And he deliberately invested in the “foolish things of the world” to show off the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). The Christian way is the countercultural way. And how much more powerful is it to see those whom the world considers unworthy go out and turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6)?
I’ll never forget first meeting my friend Joseph Madison. I was leading a small group, and Joseph was a participant. Joseph was in his mid-sixties, single (never married), and, well . . . let’s just say he wasn’t the quarterback of the football team. The world would look at Joseph and say, “You have nothing to offer.”
At first, it was tough to lead the group when Joseph was around. He seemed to talk too much and chime in with irrelevant information. He’d get flustered at our conversations or talk loudly over other people. I remember talking to a member of the group who had known Joseph for years. It turned out that Joseph had actually been a catalyst in restoring half a dozen marriages. “You wouldn’t believe it!” my friend told me. “I don’t know how he did it. He just dove into some broken relationships and became an agent of healing. If it wasn’t for Joseph, those couples would have gotten a divorce.”
I grew to love Joseph Madison. It was evident that he had a tender heart toward God and deeply cared for other people. No one would have guessed that Joseph had the potential to become a “marriage counselor.” And here’s the thing: No program-driven church would ever let Joseph near a stage to give a marriage seminar. The stage is for good-looking professionals—not for sixty-year-old single people.
Maybe this is why Jesus didn’t use the stage to turn the world upside down. He used the broken and busted, the marginalized and outcasts. He used and still uses people like Joseph Madison.
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