I recently celebrated my birthday. My wife wanted to do something nice for me and she knew that I have been picking up my electric guitar again, so we brainstormed some things which might be fun or helpful additions to my equipment catalogue. Over the past few weeks I had been eyeing up a particular guitar effect pedal, so I sheepishly suggested that maybe purchasing it could be her birthday gift to me. She agreed, and my new pedal was ordered. Once it arrived, I spent about 90 minutes interfacing it with the rest of my equipment attempting to get the perfect guitar tone.
Mikala eventually came into the living room and asked me what the pedal does, and why there was another pedal which I had taken out of the chain. I explained that they were actually used for similar effects, so I wouldn’t need the second one any longer because my new pedal was better. We then spent the next little while talking about what actually makes one pedal “better” than another one. This got me to thinking about different tools people use to achieve something, and what makes them effective or not effective. So in a discussion about discipleship tools, it makes sense to have a set of criteria we can use to evaluate different tools for discipleship.
(As a caveat, this is a first-impressions kind of list. Evaluating tools requires time and extensive use, but consider this list a cursory look to see if the tool might be worth spending more time with.)
Where does it point?
Bridgetown Church (Portland, OR) pastor John Mark Comer was asked the question: “Who is the person you will be 5, 10, 20 years?” What he found is that the answer he would give if he continued on his current trajectory was someone who was good at gathering and organizing people for weekend services, but was poor at helping to shape people in the image of Christ. What was most troubling, he found, was that he himself could be heralded as a great pastor while looking little like the God he claimed to worship. This realization led to a wholesale reform of Bridgetown Church (you can learn more about their journey at practicingtheway.org), with Comer leading by example.
I hope that the first question we ask about every tool for discipleship we come across is “where (or to whom) does it point?” Is it clear that this Bible study curriculum, this book, this conference, this practice points directly and unashamedly to Jesus? Paul tells us that Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension are of first importance (1 Cor. 15). I think that truth should be reflected in the strategies and tactics we use to disciple people to look more like Jesus.
Consider navigating a plane. If a pilot is one degree off of their intended target, over 50 miles the plane might only miss its mark by 200 feet. But if you take the same trajectory over 2,000 miles, you could end up more than a mile away from your intended destination. For this reason, church and ministry leaders should be as clear as possible about how they or others grow in maturity in Christ.
Who can do this?
I’ll just say this plainly: the best discipleship tools are ones which can be used by anyone. If its true that anyone at any time with any background can come to Jesus, then it would behoove the Church to develop or discover ways in which we can help people experience Jesus wherever they are. If the only way you can use your only tools for discipleship is to have highly specialized training or a graduate degree, then those tools simply won’t be used by those you are leading. Part of the beauty of the Gospel narratives is that Jesus takes uneducated men and women and reveals to them himself and the Kingdom of Heaven, but he also teaches them how they can teach others about it.
To be clear, I think there is a place for specialized training. In fact, I’ve been the spiritual benefactor of those who have gone through extensive equipping. What I’d like to push back on is the idea that you need a seminary degree to practically follow Jesus. It's helpful to ask a few questions as you’re evaluating tools. Consider these few: would someone who didn’t grow up a Christian be able to use this tool well? what do I need in order to be able to use this tool? how difficult is it to teach someone else to use this tool?
Wisdom vs. Scripture?
I’m often guilty of recommending book after book to help people grow into maturity in Christ. Most often it comes from zeal for what the Holy Spirit has already done in me. But as an echo to a point I made earlier, it is foolish for Church leaders to assume that most people who they encounter have a common and working knowledge of the Bible and its themes. I find this to be one of the biggest differences between older generations and younger generations. So when it comes to pastorally walking a person or a congregation through a particular topic, my advice is to opt for Scripture wherever possible.
Books, articles, podcasts, and sermons are all part of my weekly input in an effort to learn to see the kingdom as Jesus described it. But in an effort to be as clear about Jesus as I can be, I’ve changed to preaching and teaching almost exclusively from the Bible because I know that most people don’t have the background to support faithful readings and interpretations of other things.
Like the point above, I don’t think other resources are harmful or worthless. But if I had to choose one thing for people I interact with to be interacting with, it would be the Bible 10 out of 10 times.
For me or for us?
I believe that the Bible teaches us that we need each other; we need the image of God in one another and we need the gifts of others to fully represent Christ. That means that growing into the image of Christ means we need to grow together. Together, here, can mean we grow closer to one another, but it can also mean that we are growing in the same direction. Most of the Apostle Paul’s letters were written to congregations, with specific instructions for how they as a congregation would continue to grow in Christ. In Acts 2, we see the early church practicing life in Christ intimately together, not alone. For these reasons, I tend to prioritize tools that we can use together in community.
Culturally, westerners tend towards the individualistic option. If all of these things are true about what life in Christ looks like, then it means the Church has to resist the cultural tide to do just “me and Jesus.” Growth comes through community most often, so what would it mean for us to practice the way of Jesus together?
I’m asking these four questions when I come across different tools for discipleship. How do you evaluate the effectiveness of discipleship tools? What did I miss?