A crazy idea for sanctification: the local church
One-to-one interaction is the most effective way to help another person change. Discipleship in a community, in the context of a local church, is not the norm. Popular books and preachers are our disciplers. Christians isolate from each other while cuddling with books and online famous people, hoping to find “safe” personal, marriage, and family transformation. This “way” is not the Bible’s way.
The most frequent requests I receive from people are questions regarding specific situations in their lives. Every morning I wake up, there are emails from real people with real problems, looking for practical answers.
They are not interested in what a book says. These hurting people don’t want to hear another sermon. They’re looking for someone who will take the time to listen to them, understand them, and give them useful biblical feedback.
Even the best Christian books and well-crafted sermons cannot do what a Christian can do when he is sitting in front of a real person, offering real answers.
This kind of vision for discipleship requires work. It requires the discipler to dedicate real time to a real person. It requires patience, courage, discernment, and wisdom. It requires the struggling person to be humble, open, honest, and vulnerable.
Jesus discipled through dialogue
One-to-one interaction is how Jesus built His team and followers. When you read the four gospels, you notice how Jesus rarely taught in a monolog type format (teaching). Though He was a teacher, the Bible does not give us a lot of scenes showing Him teaching. If you pull out the sermon on the mount, you will not find much monolog teaching from Him (Matthew 5–7).
Monologing was not His specialty. Jesus was a dialogue guy. He spent nearly all of His time interacting with folks, showing them how to be Christlike.
One of the biggest weaknesses of the modern-day church is how we’ve given discipleship over to famous authors, Bible studies, podcasts, and sermons. While there is a place for media when it comes to discipling others, it should not be the primary method. The monolog discipleship model has created two negative side-effects on the church:
Side effect #1 — It has given rise to the biblical counseling (BC) movement–especially para-church organizations like mine. The BC movement deals with real people with real problems in a practical way–similar to the way Jesus did.
The church seems to be more focused on teaching, but when somebody has a problem, they refer the hurting person to a professional because they don’t have time, resources, or the expertise to deal with sanctification problems.
Read that sentence again. Did it sound odd to you? The church seems to be preoccupied with programs and ministry demands, while naively assuming their people know how to “counsel” themselves.
Side effect #2 — There is a breakdown in the community because of an isolationists mindset where people feed themselves alone. People retreat to their books, podcasts, and “personal devotions” to find answers to their most perplexing problems.
Rather than running to the community to receive help from the community, they are private, insecure, and guarded about their real selves. There is a distrust of the community.
One of the more frequent questions individuals ask me is about confidentiality, meaning, “I don’t want anyone to know what I’m going through.” They are saying in essence, “I want you to fix me so I can go back to church.” Everybody in the community wants a private room so they can separate from the community.
Getting into your business
When you read the story of how Christ built His church or how the early church poured themselves into each other, you see a different picture. Read Acts 2:42–47 about the early church. See if you can “feel” the community in that passage.
The people have all things in common. There is mutual sharing, caring, and communal intrusion into each other’s lives. It does not have the lecturer-to-student feel. It does not have the hurting isolationists with a book feel. There is a sense of transparency, vulnerability, and humility that bleeds through the passage.
Gospel-centered people have nothing to protect and nothing to hide. They have one common goal, laid out in three parts. The goal is Jesus and the parts are,
- Personal — I want to know more about Jesus.
- Communal — I want to experience the life of Jesus with each other mutually.
- Evangelistic — I hope to share Jesus with people who do not know Him.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common.
And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had a need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. — Acts 2:42–47 (ESV)
The early Christians were into each other’s business. What they were doing has a far different feel than the guardedness of the average Christian today. When it comes to matters of the heart, today’s Christian prefers getting fixed in private, only to resurface later to do community with fellow believers.
The New Testament Christian was not insecure or image conscious. They came just as they were, integrated with other fellow strugglers, and mutually matured in a community. They were well-aware of what was going on in the lives of those around them–including their thought lives.
Jesus lived with and “read” people
The New Testament believers learned this kind of Gospelized-living from Jesus’ leaders. The folks Jesus trained passed on what they learned to others (2 Timothy 2:2).
And how did the Savior do it? His primary discipleship style was living with the folks He trained. Jesus knew the buckshot monolog approach would not get the job done. He needed to get with the people, loving them, learning them, and leading them from within their social context.
You will not get to know a person the way you should be aware of a person by attending a safe and sterile Bible study or a similar kind of church meeting. I am not saying biblical training and studies are unnecessary or ineffective. Knowing the Bible is essential, but growing in Bible knowledge and being Christlike are two different things.
Paul was one of the most learned students of his day. He was a Bible scholar. But poor Paul did not know how to take what he knew about the Bible and live it out biblically (Acts 22:3). Somebody had to teach him.
Nicodemus was another learned Bible student, but he stumbled all over the new birth. He knew a lot, but he was not aware how to take the Old Testament, which is what he had and practicalize it into his life. He, like Paul, needed someone to teach him (John 3:1–8).
The Samaritan woman was also well-trained by her culture and religion. She was a hybrid in more ways than one. Her religious training was just as deficient as Paul’s and Nick’s. She needed someone to cuddle up side her to “unpack” her.
Jesus did not send her to a Bible study or ask her to listen to a sermon. Christ exegeted her on the spot–at a well. He took a real person and got into her real business by customizing the Gospel for her while hanging in her social environment (John 4:7–26).
Paul, Nick, and the Samaritan woman had one thing in common. They met Jesus in the milieu–in the real social environment in which they lived. Jesus interacted with all of His “counselees” where they lived. His discipleship method positioned Him to be an effective discipler.
He did not offer Paul, Nick, or the Samaritan woman a good book to read. He read them and then told them what He was reading. He pulled this off because He spent time with them. He knew them.
Taking it to the streets
Too many pastors and ministry leaders meet their people “at church” or in other environments that are ministerially sterile or artificial. They listen to their problems, offer some counsel, make a book recommendation, and send them on their way. It does not work well.
I’m in a similar boat. When people call me, they want to bring their world into my office so we can have a conversation. I’m glad they are willing to come; I’m happy to serve them in the minimal way in which biblical counseling can help a person.
But this puts me in a dilemma because I cannot help them in the comprehensive way in which they need help. They need someone on site, in their lives, serving them, observing them, and bringing discipleship care to them.
Jesus spent time eating, drinking, and relaxing with His friends. He did life with those He developed. Jesus knew them inside and out. He was aware of the nuance of their lives. What He got out of them by living with them was priceless information.
The Savior’s time management
The closest approximation we have in our culture today to what the Savior had in His day is the local church. Jesus lived in a small group, and within that small group, He divided His leadership development time differently. His calendar looked like the following:
- Jesus — He spent time with the Father being refreshed, challenged, and envisioned.
- Peter, James, and John — These guys got the top spots on His calendar.
- Other Apostles — He then spent time developing the rest of His team.
- Mary, Martha, and other friends — He never forgot about the community. He had lots of friends and was often with them, but not to the neglect of building the main guys who would carry the mission and vision.
- Multitudes — He preached to this group and occasionally broke some bread to feed them as well as other ministry efforts. Delegation Tip: His team did the distributing. He did the multiplying.
- Pharisees and other resisters — Occasionally He did apologetic and evangelistic work.
Jesus was a methodical man on a mission. His mission had two primary parts: (1) die for the sins of the world; (2) get His main guys envisioned and equipped to carry the Gospel message to the church.
We only have to do one part of His mission, as outlined in Ephesians 4:12–14. In our zeal to get the Gospel message out, we’re not doing a good job developing our infrastructure–the local church.
We provide books and Bible studies, assuming our people are practicalizing the Bible into their lives. We don’t follow-up well. A decade later you learn a leader’s marriage is on the brink of divorce. You’re perplexed. How did that happen?
- They attended church here for two decades.
- They taught Sunday school forever.
- They led mission outreach every year.
- They are respected and loved by our church family.
- They counseled dozens of our people.
And then we say, “I never saw it coming.” The reason we did not see it coming is because we were not involved in their lives. It’s a miscalculation of the doctrine of sin and the doctrine of sanctification. It’s an assumption that sound preaching, good books, and ministry busyness are what they need.
Jesus was not that confident. He did not leave sanctification solely to the preaching of the Word. He preferred personal involvement. The best discipleship is hands-on discipleship. We are two-thousand years removed from when the Savior trained His group, and His method is still the best.
Yes, we have better technology. We have excelled in theological precision to our beliefs through councils and creeds. We have written a dizzying amount of books and Bible study materials. Even with all of these things, none of them can supplant building relationally, one-to-one, the way Jesus did with another human being.
The functional centrality of the Gospel working practically in the lives of the local church is today’s greatest need. The way I seek to serve my church with this vision is pretty simple. There are three groups of people in my life today: (1) my family, (2) my church, and (3) everyone else.
I know bits and pieces, more and less, and this and that about group three. The truth is I don’t know them well and have minimal impact on their lives. Then there is my family and church. I cannot even begin to tell you what I know about them, what they know about me, and how we engage each other. Here are some examples:
- We have sinned against each other.
- We have been angry with each other.
- We have prayed for each other.
- We have cried with each other.
- We have laughed with each other.
- We have secretly judged each other.
- We have confronted each other.
- We have encouraged each other.
- We have said hurtful things to each other.
- We have spent hundreds of hours in different contexts with each other.
The local church is a dangerous and vulnerable group of people for the glory of God. After all this interaction, we are still not as effective as we need to be. I’m not discouraged. No, not at all. It’s sanctification progress. It took the Savior three years, with fewer distractions, to get His group up to speed.
Call to action
- How do you need to change your family to make it a more effective sanctification community?
- How do you need to change to help your church become a more effective sanctification community?
- Pick a person and invite them into your real life, marriage, and family. Will you contact that person today?
Originally published at Rick Thomas.