Lesson 8 Honest Relationships

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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Lesson 7 A Safe Place

Video 7 A Safe Place

Christians, and especially those of us who are leaders, need to cultivate environments where people feel free to be authentic. Jesus is not glorified when we try to make ourselves look better than we are. We don’t want people to stay where they are—discipleship is about moving from who we are to who Jesus wants us to be. But there’s no point in creating church environments where people feel pressured to appear further along than they actually are.

David Kinnaman shares some troubling statistics in his book You Lost Me. In a survey of Millennials who have a Christian background, many reported feeling that church isn’t a safe place to wrestle with tough questions or admit doubts about God. More than a third said that they didn’t feel safe asking their most pressing life questions in church. One in five said they have had a crisis in life that has made them doubt their faith. One in ten said that they aren’t allowed to talk about their doubts in church.

Churches that aren’t safe places for people to express doubt will have a hard time discipling people. After all, Abraham, David, Elijah, Peter, Thomas, and even John the Baptist would have had a really tough time fitting in at a church that didn’t allow for doubt. After all, our biblical heroes of the faith doubted. Yet they’re still heroes.

A performance-based church environment will prevent disciples from genuinely wrestling with the deep issues of life—the things that cause them to doubt. But a grace-based environment will liberate disciples to invite others to address their deepest and darkest struggles head-on.

Freedom from people-pleasing. Performance based discipleship feeds off of human approval. I know this from experience, and you probably do as well. Think about those days when you are spiritually off the charts. You wake up early and pray for an hour. You read the Bible for another hour. You fast all day, witness to a coworker, and cancel your Netflix subscription (for now). You are really pursuing God!

Aren’t you just dying to let other Christians know about it? When your pastor asks how your day was, doesn’t it feel so good sharing all the details? “I’d love to meet for lunch, pastor, but see, I’m actually fasting today. Plus, I’m going out to lunch with this coworker that I’ve been witnessing to . . .” When we’re performing well, we’re often eager to let others know about it.

A good friend of mine just burned out on ministry. He was a pastor at a thriving church, and he was doing many amazing things to further God’s kingdom. He was teaching, preaching, counseling, and serving. He was working very hard—and that was part of the problem. He just couldn’t say no—to anything. He just kept doing, doing, doing. He was performing well for Christ. Or at least he thought he was. Actually, he was performing himself into exhaustion to please others. His hyperactive, nonstop, 24/7 performance for Christ was actually crushing him. He nearly destroyed his family and spent a whole month in counseling because his performance wasn’t driven by grace but by a desire to look good in front of people.

Since all Christians are deeply shaped by our performance-driven culture, we will need to work extra hard reminding people daily that the gospel liberates us from trying to impress other people with our spirituality. Pharisaical pressure from other Christians needs to be confronted as aggressively as blatant immorality. Any Christian—especially a Christian leader—who makes others feel unspiritual or unmotivated to admit their failures is a roadblock to discipleship.

God knows how broken and messed up we really are. Yet he’s still pleased with us because he was pleased with Jesus. We need to make much of Christ’s performance, rather than our own.

Accountability groups can be a vital means of cultivating discipleship. According to The State of Discipleship, “Accountability is essential for busy, scattered people to make the time to invest in their spiritual growth.” It’s tough to become more like Christ if other believers are not coming alongside you to keep you accountable.

However, accountability groups can also discourage people from becoming more like Jesus, especially if they are performance based rather than grace based. I love what Jonathan Dodson says: “Although accountable relationships start with a noble aim—commitment to confession, encouragement, and prayer for one another—they often devolve into relationships based on rule keeping or rule breaking.” What often ends up happening is that people tend to put more faith in accountability than they do in the gospel. “The unfortunate result is a kind of legalism in which peer-prescribed punishments are substitutes for repentance and faith in Jesus.”

Churches should cultivate accountability relationships that seek to magnify the gospel. Christian accountability should never shame someone into obedience or make them feel unloved by God. True accountability should always celebrate God’s finished work on the cross and his vast sea of forgiveness available to those who mess up.

The apostle Paul was criticized for giving people a license to sin by emphasizing grace too much. “And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, ‘The more we sin, the better it is!’” (Romans 3:8). A few chapters later, Paul addressed this criticism head-on: “Should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not!” (Romans 6:1-2). Grace doesn’t cause people to sin, and it should never be a motivation to keep on sinning. A person who sins because of God’s unconditional grace hasn’t truly understood God’s unconditional grace.

God’s grace meets us where we are, but it doesn’t leave us where we are. The same grace that encounters sinners also conquers sin. This is why Paul spends the first five chapters of Romans exploring God’s unmerited favor and then spends the next three encouraging Christians toward obedience. Obedience flows from grace. True grace enables and produces obedience. I love how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results.”

Grace is not a cul-de-sac but a highway; it’s not an off-ramp but an on-ramp toward obedience. This is why Paul says that grace is “not without results.” He goes on to say that it was God’s grace that caused him to work “harder than any of [the other apostles].” How? Because God’s grace didn’t putter out after saving Paul. It kept chipping away at Paul until it pushed obedience out the other side.

Grace and obedience aren’t enemies. They’re friends. Grace doesn’t prevent obedience. Grace enables it. “Work out your own salvation,” Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” Sound legalistic? I know—it does to me, too. This is why Paul goes on to say, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). Work hard—by God’s grace.

Both obedience and grace should hang in the air of our discipleship communities. As we seek to become more like Christ, we should talk more and more about grace, not less. Grace doesn’t just save us; it also sanctifies us. “No disciple will ever graduate from the school of grace,” Dodson says. “We are born in grace and we breathe by grace.”

Whether your discipleship community consists of one-on-ones, triads, small groups, or large groups, the group’s fuel tank must be filled with grace. When—not if—people fail, they need to be reassured that God is still for them, that he still scandalously delights in them, that their failures have been covered by the blood of Christ. Grace doesn’t just get us in the door of salvation; it’s what makes us more like Jesus. People will never be able to obey God until they first believe they are accepted by God. Acceptance precedes obedience.

Grace-based discipleship frees us up to engage in meaningful and authentic relationships. And discipleship is all about relationships. When two (or three, or four) broken people come together and have nothing to hide, no one to impress, and no plastic image that they’re trying to put on, it becomes so much easier to engage in honest relationships. And honest relationships are at the core of effective discipleship—the topic of our next class.

Lesson 6 Grace and Discipleship

Video 6 Grace and Discipleship

In his excellent book Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Jonathan Dodson rightly stresses the relationship between grace and discipleship: The wonderful news of the gospel is that Jesus frees us from trying to impress God or others because he has impressed God on our behalf. Gospel-centered discipleship is not about how we perform but who we are—imperfect people, clinging to a perfect Christ, being perfected by the Spirit.

Discipleship is not about impressing God or others, and it’s not about performing well. Discipleship is primarily about Jesus and his continual work in us through the Holy Spirit. Rather than asking, “How well are you doing spiritually?” let’s put it differently: How is God making you more like Christ?

I’m on an imperfect journey of becoming like Christ. When I was a sinner, the Father set his affection on me and sent his Son to die for me. Even though I wasn’t delightful, God delighted in me; even though I was running from God, God was running to me—and he’s faster than I am.

God looks upon me as a beautiful work of art, even though I have so much ugliness in my life. I often feel valueless, but God paid the highest price to purchase me. I am prized and honored in the eyes of my Creator.

I am redeemed, forgiven, adopted, and beloved. I am known, pursued, and the object of God’s infinite affection. When I’m apathetic toward God, he’s never apathetic toward me. Though I’m prone to wander, he’s prone to pursue. I am the crown, the jewel, the apex of God’s majestic creation.

And I am never alone. My Savior is with me even to the end of the age. He’s with me because he wants to be with me. When I sin, God forgives. When I fail, Christ succeeds. Though I have no strength to obey, God strengthens me through his Holy Spirit who lives in me.

My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. God is working in me, giving me the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Father. Son. Holy Spirit. Our spiritual lives are cradled and enabled by his powerful presence.

Most Christians don’t think of their spiritual lives like this. Again, 68 percent of born-again Christians think that the expression “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the mouth of God. And it shows. According to another Barna study, three out of five churchgoing Christians “equate Christianity with a list of moral rules to be followed.” That is roughly the same percentage as unchurched people.

Another recent study looked at whether churchgoing Christians more resemble the attitudes and actions of Christ or the Pharisees. Christians were asked questions such as the following:

  • Do you regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from yourself?
  • Do you see God-given value in every person, regardless of their past or present condition?
  • Do you feel compassion for people who are not following God and are doing immoral things? You know, the things Jesus thought and did on a regular basis.

The survey also asked questions that reflect the attitudes and actions of the Pharisees:

  • Do you tell others that the most important thing in my life is following God’s rules?
  • Do you think that people who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not?
  • Do you believe that it’s not your responsibility to help people who won’t help themselves?

The results were quite disappointing. Fifty-one percent of self-identified Christians are primarily pharisaical in attitude and action. Only 14 percent tended to be Christlike in attitude and action.

To be sure, surveys and statistics aren’t inerrant. They can’t give us a perfect window into the heart of every person. But I do believe they can give us a decent ballpark view of how people actually think and act.

As I reflect on the different Christians I’ve interacted with over the years, the results of this survey aren’t too shocking. Christians often talk about grace and say they’ve been saved by grace alone. But when you dig into how they live, they appear to rely much more on their own performance than on Christ’s finished work on the cross. And they project this performance-driven version of the gospel onto others, then back onto themselves. And down we tumble down the rabbit hole of legalism. At the bottom lie piles of Christians who are trying to become moral without clinging to and celebrating the finished work of Christ.

One of the reasons our discipleship is failing is that we’ve left the gospel out of it. Intuitively, many Christians think that the gospel saves us but has little ongoing relevance for our discipleship. But discipleship, or becoming more like Christ, is all about diving deeper and deeper into his unconditional favor for us. You cannot become more like Christ and not become more and more addicted to his grace.

I love how Jonathan Dodson puts it: It is continual trust in his death and life for my sin and righteousness that matures me, drawing me deeper and deeper into an ever-present hope of acceptance before God. This hope is Jesus Christ as my Lord and Redeemer, not a better moral track record. When we absorb the radical gospel focus of the Gospel Commission, it compels the mission of making disciples who, in turn, preach and teach the gospel of grace to others.

Or more succinctly: “The gospel that makes disciples is the very same gospel that matures disciples.”

We live in a country that’s obsessed with performance. From the time we are kids, we try to outperform our classmates in school or our fellow athletes on the field. If we’re going to make the all-star team, we must perform better than the rest. If we want to get a girlfriend or boyfriend, we have to look better than the competition. And we never outgrow our performance-driven culture. We advance in life by performing well in college. We’ll get a raise at our jobs if we perform well. We’ll have a better chance at getting married if we can make ourselves look better than we are. Your Facebook “you” is much prettier, much happier, and has many more friends than the real “you.” Our entire lives are shaped by performance and by making a good impression.

Enter Jesus: “Come to me, all of you who are weary from performance, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, author’s rendering). Our performance comes to a screeching halt when we meet Jesus. He’s not impressed with our moral track record, and he yawns at our laundry list of sins. He meets us where we are and walks with us through thick and thin.

Just think of how Jesus rolled with his first disciples. Peter is a prime example of a disciple whose spiritual walk was upheld by grace. Quick to speak and slow to think, Peter’s fragile character makes my sad prayer life look a little less embarrassing. On one occasion, he tells Jesus that he won’t let him get crucified. Jesus rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23). Wow! Have you been accused of speaking the very words of Satan? Peter has. He was accused by Jesus himself.

On the night Jesus was betrayed, he washed his disciples’ feet. Peter tried to stop him, but then Jesus told him that if he didn’t let Jesus wash his feet, Peter would “have no share with” Jesus (John 13:8). Peter’s response is a bit uncomfortable: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:9). Give me a sponge bath, Jesus! Talk about awkward. And what about that time when Peter denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69-75)? This is truly unbelievable and encouraging all at the same time. Peter has been hanging out with Jesus for three years. When asked whether he is a follower of Jesus, Peter says that he doesn’t even know the guy.

“Hey, weren’t you hanging out with this man from Nazareth?”

“No sir, I wasn’t. I don’t even know the man.”

Imagine if your pastor got up next Sunday and told the entire congregation: “I don’t even know who Jesus is.” He’d be fired on the spot and rushed out of church. But Jesus is far less threatened. He’s less threatened by our doubts than we are. He knows how fragile our faith actually is—even if we try to spackle over our weakness with good Christian performance. Just before Peter denied Jesus, Jesus told him that he would never let him go: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail” (Luke 22:31-32).

Peter’s faith was created and upheld by Jesus himself. Were it not for Christ, Peter would have continued to deny that he knew Jesus. Like that old hymn “Come Thou Fount”: Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it—prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

Peter is a perfect example of what discipleship looks like. We are zealous yet apathetic, full of faith and doubt, obedient one day and disobedient the next. We are on an imperfect journey toward a perfect Savior who upholds us by his grace and promises to never let us go. We all, like Peter, are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. But God’s goodness binds our wandering hearts to him. Discipleship will never get off the ground until we cling to this basic point.

Lesson 5 Your Spritiual Health

Video 5 Your Spiritual Health

How are you doing spiritually? No, really. I want you to answer the question. How are you doing spiritually? Take a few seconds and think about it. Don’t worry. No one’s watching. Just answer the question in your mind. It’ll just be between you and God. And, well, God already knows how you’re doing.

Rather than trying to guess what you said, let me share with you how I would respond to the question. When someone asks me how I’m doing spiritually, the first two things that come to mind are Bible reading and prayer. As a Bible professor, my Bible reading is usually pretty good, though I feel a bit guilty since it’s part of my job. I often wonder how much Bible reading I would be doing if I were a mechanic or a business owner instead of a “professional” Christian. Most of my Bible reading these days has to do with preparing to teach a Bible class or researching the Scriptures for the latest book I’m writing. If I were a lawyer, a doctor, or a stay-at-home mom (I mean, dad), would I be reading the Bible as much as I am now? Or at all?

In terms of my prayer life, um . . . well . . . yeah, it pretty much stinks. On a good day I may spend some time in prayer in the morning—like, five to ten minutes. But those good days are few and far between. Usually I toss up a prayer here and there, often out of guilt that I don’t pray as I should, or because I gave that Christianese knee-jerk reaction when a friend told me about a trial they were going through: “I’m sorry to hear that, brother. I’ll pray for you.” Did I just say that? Did I mean it? Okay, I’d better pray for my friend right now because I don’t want to be a liar. Besides these guilt-driven prayers, it’s not uncommon for me to go a few days and realize I haven’t prayed at all.

By now, I usually have a softball-sized lump forming in my gut as I grow disgusted at how well, or not so well, I’m doing spiritually. And then I reflect on how I’m living.

My guilt is temporarily soothed by the fact that I’m generally living a pretty moral life. I’m not out getting drunk. I’m not having an affair. And if I can be completely honest, I haven’t struggled with porn ever since I became a Christian. (Part of this is because I got saved in 1999, just before the Internet became an omnipresent beast, so I never had to wean myself off Internet porn. In my teen years, you had to actually buy a magazine or a VHS tape—remember those?).

I’ve got a healthy marriage and four wonderful kids. I usually read the Bible to them at night, though we certainly go through seasons where my wife and I rush them off to bed so that we can squeeze in an extra hour of Netflix. Oh no. I forgot. Netflix. Maybe I’d be doing better spiritually if I didn’t watch Netflix every single night of the week. Maybe I should read a book instead. Or maybe I should pray.

As I feel the weight of spiritual depression setting in, I remind myself that I love God’s mission. Every year I take a mission trip to Nepal and serve the impoverished believers in that developing country. I give food to lepers. I preach the gospel to blind people. I teach the Scriptures to new and old believers. I absolutely love to experience God through these marginalized Christians living in the midst of a Hindu nation!

I don’t leave my love for missions in Nepal. There’s not a day that goes by when my heart isn’t heavy for people who have been neglected by society, oppressed by the majority, or even shunned by the church. The other day, my family and I visited an international church that was filled with immigrants and refugees from Africa. The two-and-a-half-hour service was translated into Swahili. I was bubbling over with empathy as I talked with joy-filled believers who came to America to escape civil war and genocide. We worshiped Jesus together through several languages. It was epic.

Okay, so my Bible reading is going okay, depending on how you measure it. My prayer life is in need of some serious improvement. I really should do something about my Netflix addiction. (Maybe after I finish the last season of The Walking Dead.) I’m a decent husband and father, though I still have much room to grow. I truly love people, especially the marginalized. So how did I score? I don’t know, maybe a 6 out of 10? Perhaps a 7? I guess it depends on how many points we get for prayer—or lack thereof. Maybe I scored more like a 5.

Do you see anything wrong with all of this? What’s the common theme across everything I’ve said? You can see it quite easily by looking at a few key words; they occur in almost every sentence that I’ve written above. I’ve reduced my entire “spiritual life” to my fragile pursuit of God. I never even factored in God’s relentless pursuit of me.

Lesson 4 All Christians are Disciples

Video 4 All Christians are Disciples

In the next few classes we’re going to interact with Barna’s The State of Discipleship study and other studies that have analyzed Christian discipleship in the United States. I won’t merely list a bunch of statistics, but I will examine the statistics and data to figure out what the church has been doing to disciple its people well and how the church can do a better job at making disciples who make disciples, who go on and—you guessed it—make disciples.

I will also interact with other relevant studies and authorities in addition to the Barna study:

  • pastors and scholars who have been thinking and writing about discipleship;
  • Christians and leaders who have thought through discipleship on a less public level;
  • various books and studies on Millennials and the church; and
  • personal friends, acquaintances, churchgoing Christians, and Christian “dropouts” whom I’ve met over the years.

My last source deserves some explanation. I’ve never been a full-time pastor, yet I’ve been heavily involved in church life as a deacon, elder, lay leader, teacher, or preacher in many different churches in my twenty-plus years as a Christian. I’m also a writer and a speaker, which means I get to visit and speak at many different churches around the United States (and the world). I’ve been exposed to the different ways in which Christians are “doing church” and discipling their people, which has been incredibly informative and eye-opening.

I used to think that not being a full-time pastor would disqualify me from writing a book on discipleship. But this way of thinking—that only pastors are qualified to talk about discipleship—is actually a big part of the problem. All Christians are disciples and disciplers. We all are missionaries and ministers who are called to serve God in his kingdom. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll unpack all of this in the following lessons.

So here’s a quick teaser of what’s to come in this course:

  • We’re going talk about grace. If we don’t have a firm understanding of grace, our discipleship rocket will never get off the ground.
  • We’ll show why relationships are far more necessary than programs for discipleship. Programs aren’t bad. But programs without relationships have proven ineffective in helping people become more like Christ.
  • We’ll affirm the claim—and some will dispute this, but trust me, it’s biblical—that Christians can’t adequately become more like Christ on their own. We need other people. We need community.
  • We’ll try to blow the doors off church so that our faith can permeate our entire lives, not just our Sunday mornings. Christian discipleship should be holistic, not compartmentalized.
  • We’ll argue that biblical literacy among Christians is a serious discipleship issue. People are dropping like flies from the church, partly because Christians appear to have their heads buried in the sand—ignoring the tough intellectual issues of the day.
  • We’ll reveal that biblical discipleship includes mission, not just morality. You can be porn-free, drug-free,
  • sex-free, alcohol-free, and never even watch movies on Netflix—and you could still be a terrible disciple. Morality is good. But without mission, it’s merely religion.
  • We’ll expose the fact that our churches are not very diverse, and this lack of diversity (in ethnicity, age, and socioeconomic status) is an unforeseen hindrance to discipleship.
  • We’ll challenge the very structure of how we do church. Many churches (not all) have inherited a way of doing church that’s way too expensive and complicated. And this can be a massive roadblock on our journey of becoming more like the Son of God, who was born in a feeding trough.
  • Finally we’ll talk through how to implement some of the changes we’ve discussed.

Whether you’re a pastor, a lay leader, or a Christian who’s not in any formal leadership role, you’re called to be a disciple who makes disciples. We all must go. For some, the call to go will launch them overseas or across the border. For most, however, going will involve staying because the mission is all around us. We must all follow Jesus in the marketplace and in the streets, in our neighborhoods and at our schools, through our relationships with both Christians and non-Christians. We are all called to go—and make disciples who make disciples.

So let’s dive in and talk about that aggressive and scandalous and offensive thing called grace—God’s stubborn delight in his enemies.

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Lesson 3 Millennials and Other “Dechurched” Christians

Millennials and Other “Dechurched” Christians

As we look at the trend of people leaving the church, we shouldn’t conclude that the sky is falling or that God’s kingdom is coming to a screeching halt. Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18). God is on the move! Still, as David Kinnaman says, “The dropout problem is, at its core . . . a disciple-making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.”

Some may say that people are leaving the church because they simply aren’t Christians. And this is certainly true in some cases. Churches will always have people who attend for a season but then realize that they’re not as much of a Jesus freak as they thought. The quarterback-turned-Bible-study-leader may put on thirty pounds; or he may leave the church, and his “followers” may follow him. But in many cases, people leave the church not because they had some beef with Jesus or were fly-by-night pseudo Christians. In fact, 51% of teens who leave the church in their twenties say they left because their spiritual needs were not being met. At least 23 percent say that they actually wanted to know more about the Bible when they were in church but didn’t get it.

So they left. They left because they didn’t experience discipleship. They left the church to follow Jesus—that wild-eyed, hard-hitting, homeless peasant who told the rich young ruler to give all of his stuff to the poor.

People shouldn’t have to leave the church to find Jesus. But this is sometimes the case. Sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope interviewed one hundred such “dechurched” folks—former lay leaders, active members, and congregants—for their book Church Refugees. Their study turned up surprising results. They were expecting to find people who were burned out, overworked, or simply living on the sidelines of ministry. Instead, they found people who were still engaged, energetic, and desiring to make a difference in the world. Instead of being empowered by their churches in this desire, they were stiff-armed by bureaucracy or given a job that was restricted to Sunday services. As one dechurched Christian said: “There’s nothing for me to do there [in church] that’s meaningful.”

Many dechurched leavers were bubbling over with passion and imagination about how they could tangibly share the love of Christ with their communities. Packard and Hope sum it up: The dechurched are leaving to do more, not less. The church isn’t asking too much of people; it’s asking the wrong things of them . . . Jesus commanded his followers to care for the poor, the sick, and the hungry, [yet] the dechurched have experienced church as an organization that cares primarily for itself and its own members.

Understanding Millennials and other dechurched Christians will be vital for our study. I’m going to make a case that many people would not leave the church if the church was doing a better, more holistic, and more creative job at discipling its people.

The exodus of Millennials from the church mirrors the overarching decline of Christianity in America. It’s difficult to determine who’s a Christian and who’s not. Only God truly knows. But according to several studies, the number of genuine Christians is way lower than most people assume.

Some think that a large percentage of Americans are Christians. According to a Gallup survey, 45 percent of Americans claim to be born again. Other research shows that 76 percent of Americans identify as Christian. But claiming to be something and actually living it out are two different things. I remember talking to an Iraqi friend of mine about his faith. “I’m a Christian,” he confessed. I got excited and probed a little deeper about his faith commitment. “Oh, I actually don’t believe in God,” he told me. For him, being a “Christian” was a cultural way of saying he wasn’t Muslim.

Just because some people tick off the “Christian” box in a religious survey doesn’t mean they’ve put their faith and hope in Jesus Christ. According to several independent surveys, the number of genuine Christians in America—who show some evidence of actually following Jesus—is around 8 percent. According to George Barna, this percentage is down by about 30 percent since 1991. Pastor and author John Dickerson estimates that the percentage will be down to about 4 percent in the next thirty years if current trends continue. Reversing that trend is a discipleship concern.

Maybe you feel that your church or other churches in your city are growing. And maybe they are. But whenever churches grow, we have to ask where the growth came from and why it is occurring. That is, we have to distinguish between transfer growth and conversion growth. Conversion growth is when a church grows because people are getting saved and coming to church for the first time. Transfer growth is when people leave one local church to attend another. Transfer growth is not often the best way to measure whether discipleship is happening. It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good either. After all, Jesus never commanded his followers to “go into all nations and transfer Christians from one church to another.”

If your church is growing because other people are leaving another church and coming to yours, then you still have to ask the discipleship question: What are those other churches not doing in discipling their people? And how will your growing church disciple these new members? Many newcomers stick around for a while but then move on after the new-church buzz wears off.

Lesson 2 Making Disciples Who Make Disciples

Video 2 Making Disciples Who Make Disciples

According to The State of Discipleship, most Christians and Christian leaders agree—on paper at least—that “becoming more like Jesus” is fundamental to the Christian life. Yet, on the whole, churches are not doing an effective job at making disciples who make disciples.

And, according to the Barna study, only one percent of leaders say, “Churches are doing very well at discipling new and young believers.” A sizable majority—six in ten (60 percent)—feels that churches are discipling “not too well.” Contrast this with the responses of people outside of church leadership: Christian adults, however, have a very different perspective than their leaders: 52 percent of those who have attended church in the past six months say their church “definitely does a good job helping people grow spiritually” and another 40 percent say it “probably” does so.

So, leaders say churches are not doing a great job, and non-leaders generally say they are. What do we make of this disconnect? For one, I don’t think someone who has attended church “at least once in the last six months” will necessarily give the most accurate evaluation of the church’s effectiveness. Someone who goes to the hospital a few times a year is probably not the best authority on whether the hospital is doing a good job. I’d rather ask the doctors and nurses who are there every day doing the work. I’m not saying we need to canonize the opinion of church leaders. But I do think their analysis is closer to the mark.

The Barna study also shows how many people are engaging in what the study calls “discipleship activities.” “Despite believing that their church emphasizes spiritual growth, only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity.” These activities include “attending Sunday school or fellowship group, meeting with a spiritual mentor, studying the Bible with a group, or reading and discussing a Christian book with a group.” In other words, The State of Discipleship reveals that a relatively low percentage of Christians are involved in church beyond attending (most) Sunday services.

But then again, just because someone is attending a church program doesn’t guarantee that discipleship is happening. Some Bible studies are amazing avenues of spiritual growth. Others, though, are incubators for heresy, legalism, gossip, or cultic displays of power and control. I’ve been to some life-giving Sunday school classes. But I’ve also been bored to death by irrelevant and confusing monologues delivered—often read—by kindhearted but incessantly dull teachers. Or what if the college quarterback gets saved, starts leading a Bible study, and the attendance goes through the roof, especially among teenage girls? Are they wanting to grow closer to Jesus or closer to a guy with six-pack abs? God only knows. Certainly we can’t evaluate the church’s discipleship based merely on attendance figures.

Besides, what are discipleship activities anyway? Can we really determine whether people are “becoming more like Christ” based on their Sunday school and Bible study attendance? Did Jesus himself attend or put on any of these discipleship activities? Many churches today on the West Coast, where I’m from, don’t even have Sunday school. The single mom who works on Tuesday nights will find it hard to get to the church’s Bible study that meets on Tuesday nights. And what if I don’t want to attend a Christian book discussion group? Does this mean I don’t desire to “become like Christ?”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these activities. They can play a vital role in one’s desire to become more like Christ. But we can’t determine whether a disciple is growing in Christ based on their attendance of church activities. Even if they are growing in their knowledge of Jesus through these activities, such learning should fuel their passion to live this stuff out. We must also do the work that Jesus calls disciples to do. Learning without doing is not really learning. We learn by doing, not just by learning alone. When Jesus said “come follow me,” he wasn’t heading to Sunday school. He was on his way to heal the sick, befriend a tax collector, stand up for an adulteress, and proclaim Good News to the poor.

Discipleship and mission go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. And mission—impacting the community for Christ—is most effective outside the four walls of the church.

Lesson 1 Introduction

Video 1 Introduction

He was an unmarried peasant who was executed by the state for treason. Many of his friends were criminals, sinners, thugs, and misfits. Few of them were religious. He got kicked out of his home church (or synagogue) after saying things that deviated from the status quo. He spent most of his time with drunks, gluttons, fornicators, and thieves. He was so close to sinners that the religious leaders thought he was one. And nearly everything he said and did made religious people mad—such as when he told them to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, and give their money to the poor.

Jesus—the Jewish prophet king from Nazareth—was dangerous. He wasn’t tame. He wasn’t predictable. He wasn’t safe. Even though he befriended immoral people, he upheld a moral standard that was so impossible to obey that he walked out of a grave for us to attain it. He wasn’t very sensitive to those seeking to follow him. He never eased anyone into the kingdom or said things that people wanted to hear. Jesus was a hard-hitting, enemy-loving, harlot-embracing, wild-eyed Messiah, who resisted doing things the way we’ve always done them. The biblical Jesus hits us between the eyes with truth and embraces us with tears when we disobey that truth. Jesus demanded that “if anyone would come after me” (that is, become a disciple) “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to say, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In this course we will explore what it means to become like Jesus, which means that it’s a course about discipleship. When we talk about “becoming more like Jesus,” we’ve got to slam our clichés on the operating table and dissect them to see if they’re biblical. And this course is going to serve as the surgeon. When we talk about discipleship and becoming more Christlike, we’ve got to keep asking: What does it mean to become like Jesus?

As we’ll see, discipleship means becoming more like Jesus. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should sell our homes and walk around the streets as homeless peasants. But I do think we need to take a fresh look at the scandalous nature of becoming Christlike.

If I can be completely honest, I’ve never had a huge desire to write books and teach about discipleship. I just figured that all the pastors and churches in America are doing a pretty good job. And if it ain’t broke, why write a book about it?

But then I read the recent Barna study The State of Discipleship, and my desire to write and teach was ignited. In 2014, the international outreach ministry The Navigators commissioned the Barna Group, a Christian research firm, to perform an extensive survey of adult Christians, Christian scholars and influencers, and ministry and church leaders about their understanding and practice of discipleship. Some of the results of that study were informative; others were encouraging. But many of the results were depressing. We’ll unpack some of the depressing details in due time, but to sum it up: The American church is not doing very well at discipling its people. Which is a big problem since discipleship means becoming like Christ.

The State of Discipleship revealed that our methods of making disciples are broken. Whatever we’re doing, it’s not working. Few churches and Christian leaders are effectively helping people become more like Jesus. Reading the results of that study really fired me up. Once I realized that our methods of making disciples have proved ineffective, I decided to peek behind the curtain to see what was going on.

One of the problems I found was that many Christians who are trying to become like Christ are not becoming like the Christ of the Bible—that radical Jewish peasant-prophet from Galilee. Instead, they are seeking to conform to the god of moral therapeutic deism. And when I peeked behind the curtain (that is, read the Barna study), my suspicions were confirmed.

Moral therapeutic deism is a phrase coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their groundbreaking book Soul Searching. Their study was focused on the religious beliefs of American teens, but it captures the typical beliefs of many American Christians:

  • God exists and watches over the world.
  • He wants us to be good people who are nice to others.
  • The goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  • God isn’t too involved in our lives unless we need him to solve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

The God who exists in the minds of many church goers is “one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs—especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.”

Of course, not every Christian thinks this way. But a surprising number do. My evidence for this used to be anecdotal—based on my own limited experience with other Christians. But then I read The State of Discipleship (and other studies like it), and my anecdotal experience was confirmed.

While many Christians say they want to become more like Jesus, the Jesus they’re imagining is largely a modern (and American) religious and cultural construct. He’s a Jesus who wants us to be good people, work an honest job, go to church as often as we can, be wise with our money, save up enough to retire well, raise well-behaved kids who don’t drink or party or have sex before marriage, and be nice to our neighbors while seeking justice for our enemies. But the short-haired, dark-skinned, unmarried peasant who received the death penalty for treason—the Jesus of the Bible—neither modeled this nor taught it. If we’re going to become like Jesus, we need to clear aside the clutter and see this Jesus for who he really is.