My good friend Judd was giddy with excitement as he shared the new, innovative program his church had recently developed to help new believers deepen their understanding of the importance of discipleship in the Christian journey. As we finished our coffee, Judd, an associate pastor at his church, also mentioned that this new series of classes included information on the need for Christians to establish their own biblical worldview. Judd invited me to attend a couple of the sessions and I agreed.
After attending the first three sessions of the 10-week program, I was both shocked and concerned. Although the classes were well-organized and the teachers were highly skilled, the information presented seemed more appropriate for a clergy seminar or a graduate class in theology. Judging from the expressions on the faces of most of those in attendance, as well as their lack of participation in discussions, it was easy to see that they were overwhelmed and confused.
Many churches are now seeking to institute discipleship programs, but my experience has been these efforts often lack a clear direction and focus. While it is encouraging to see these trends toward discipleship development, I tend to think the situation remains somewhat critical.
I returned from China five years ago and, after spending a few months getting my feet back on the ground and reacquainted with American culture, I began to travel a bit, teaching about the Chinese Church, Global Christianity, and also about the importance of discipleship training in churches at home and abroad. Interestingly enough, there seemed to be more interest in the first two topics than in efforts to develop transformational discipleship programs that were both Christian in content and transformational in practice. More than a few churches said they had come to depend on small groups to do discipleship and, although a few of these small group programs seemed effective, most I observed seemed to be little more than social gatherings with scripture reading and a few prayers thrown in.
This lack of emphasis on discipleship in the contemporary church has led to many unfortunate circumstances, not the least of which is that so many Christians are walking around feeling as wounded, depressed, and hopeless as those outside the faith. That this is so, however, should not be surprising. Christ did not call us to a “country club” religion. In fact, he didn’t call us to religion at all. He called us to relationship and mission. To participate in this life-giving relationship and to fulfill our mission as Christ-followers, we must indeed become just that – Christ-followers. Tragically, few realize that this involves far more than belief in a few arcane doctrines, tossing off an occasional prayer, and being a tithing member of a local congregation. And perhaps nothing is more essential in this challenging age than having an army of true Christ-followers.
In order to establish a well-equipped group of Christ-followers, I believe that discipleship programs should start as soon as possible after a person becomes a Christian. Most churches, to their credit, attempt to make teaching available to newcomers but, more often than not, this involves little more than plugging them into an existing group structure, getting them involved in service, and letting them know about the Wednesday night covered dish dinner. Unfortunately, this does little to address what may really be going on with the new believer and surely doesn’t provide much of an opportunity to answer their questions about the faith. New Christians, plugged into a group of seasoned Christians at a church, are often too intimidated to discuss questions and areas of the faith that baffle them.
A more effective approach is to provide groups for new believers, as well as basic, simple classes that are taught in a low-key, casual manner and are conducive to addressing questions about the faith. Some churches have begun such programs, along with mentorship efforts, and have had much success.
The mission of the Body of Christ, as given by Jesus in the Great Commission, involves going into all the world making disciples. This noble commission requires more than just seeking converts or adding names to church rolls. It necessitates exactly what Jesus called for: disciple making. While an increasing number of churches are becoming more involved in disciple making, many, like my friend Judd’s church, don’t really know where to start.
After over thirty years experience conducting training programs for churches on discipleship issues, I have come to firmly believe there is one over-riding principle in providing programs for new believers: Keep it simple.
I stress this not because new believers are not intelligent enough to grasp sublime theological concepts, nor because they have no interest. I stress keeping things focused on the basics primarily because new believers (and many of us aged veterans as well) need to gain a general perspective of what the Christian journey of spiritual growth entails and how they can apply Christian principles in their lives in a practical, useful way. The more subtle aspects of the faith can come later.
While working in China as a tent-maker missionary I developed the following general guidelines for mentoring new believers, specifically sharing with them the basic aspects of the Christian journey. These concepts are simple, easy to grasp, and even easier to commit to memory. Over the past four years at LifeBrook Ministries we have trained a number of Christian educators in using these principles and the results have been quite positive.
Space does not allow for a detailed discussion in the confines of a short article. However, it is my hope that what follows will be of help to those mentors, teachers, pastors, friends, and others who are working with new brothers and sisters in Christ.
The information is divided into six interrelated categories: Acknowledgement; Acceptance; Alignment; Abiding; Abandonment; and Actualization.
In this context, acknowledgement implies admitting to ourselves that we are not functioning at our optimal level, probably nowhere near it in fact. In the spiritual context acknowledgement means coming to a living realization that left to our own unaided efforts, we can make little progress. We must admit that we are not the Captains of our own ships and that we need help. The only true and eternal source of that help is God, incarnated as Christ and permeating all creation as the Holy Spirit.
To advance spiritually we have to acknowledge our own personal powerlessness and accept it. Once we have done so, we then have to accept that we live in a benevolent universe that has our continual growth and positive transformation as a part of its evolutionary goal. Further, we have to begin to accept the gospel offer made to us by Christ, who came to this world to put us back into right relation with God and help us grow into loving people who manifest sacred character.
Having accepted that such a reality exists, we then take positive actions to deepen our daily contact with the Holy Spirit and to seek a personal relationship that Spirit. Alignment involves undertaking specific spiritual practices that foster the deeper contact with spiritual forces that we both need and seek. The classic spiritual disciplines come in to play here and will be discussed in detail later on.
Abiding implies that once we have made contact with and entered into a degree of alignment with a spiritual power greater than ourselves, we continue with diligent effort to maintain and deepen that contact. “Abide in me,” the Lord has told us. The goal here is to live as much as possible from our Spirit and let the spiritual energy flow through us in our thoughts, actions and relationships, thereby being a positive help to ourselves, others and all of creation.
As we deepen our abiding, we will quickly come to see that a struggle begins. This struggle usually comes about due to the ingrained and habituated power of our old self trying to maintain the status quo. As our alignment deepens and our abiding continues, we quickly discover that God possesses both intelligence and purpose and, further, demands are made upon us in terms of how we live our lives on every level. As we increasingly discover the divine plan and purpose for our lives on a spiritual level, we then must learn to abandon ourselves to this plan and purpose. Ultimately, this involves living more fully and consciously from our Spirit and less from our flesh, or in other words, our lower self. As Paul said, we take off the old and put on the new.
The ultimate goal of the spiritual work in which we are engaged is to actualize the divine plan and purpose in our daily living. We contact the divine energy, allow it to give us direction and put those directions into practice as we go about our daily rounds. In essence, by actualizing the divine plan and purpose we continually incarnate that plan and purpose in the world. We develop Sacred Character and let our actions flow from that character. In essence, we become living epistles that continue to incarnate Christ on earth. The more people who are able to do this, the greater the Light on earth will be. This is the fundamental purpose of the Body of Christ.
I have found that creating material for new believers based on these six areas of teaching highly beneficial, easy to understand, and pragmatic. Participants in training programs, informal classes, and individual mentoring have consistently reported that applying these six principles to their faith journey was not difficult and very few reported experiencing lasting confusion over the details of Christian discipleship.
The principles presented in this article are being further honed and developed and, with God’s help, may become a practical tool for all who use them.
(c) L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved