RMlogo Do you fight fires or change lives_
Courtesy RickThomas.Net

Do you fight fires or change lives?

The best discipleship soul care happens in a community, not in isolated, artificial settings where the person is disconnected from the community. God can change lives in one-and-done meetings but the most effective soul care needs time, people, and contexts.

A few years ago a man called, asking if I would mentor him. What he was asking was if I would meet with him once or twice a month for discipleship purposes. I understood his question but was struggling how to tell him that what he was asking would not deliver what he wanted.

The only discipleship model he knew was the one-to-one model that has become prevalent within the church over the past few decades. It is an insufficient model, though it adapts well to our fast-paced lifestyles and busy calendars.

Adaptability is its greatest feature. If you are busy and do not have the time to dig into the muck of a person’s life in the context of community, the every-so-often, one-to-one routine is a quick and safe option for you.

Ineffectiveness is its greatest weakness. I call this “doing Denny’s,” named after the restaurant chain, not because of any affiliation or affection for Denny’s, but because it rolls off the tongue.

The question is not whether meeting with someone in any context is effective, because it can be. The real issue is whether meeting with someone outside of that person’s normal life settings is the best option to help him transform into Christlikeness.

These abbreviated and artificial meetings do have a limited effect, but not a full effect, and that is the difference. The early church’s discipleship model was relational, holistic, communal, and in the milieu.

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 need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes. — Acts 2:44–46 (ESV)

Totally messed up

Several things need to be considered here, such as the doctrine of total depravity. People who only practice one-to-one soul care outside of real life contexts need to give more reflection to the overall effects of sin in our lives.

The Bible teaches the total depravity of the human race. Total depravity means radical corruption. We must be careful to note the difference between total depravity and “utter” depravity.

To be utterly depraved is to be as wicked as one could be. Hitler was extremely depraved, but he could have been worse than he was. I am a sinner, but I could sin more often and more severely than I do. I am not utterly depraved, but I am totally depraved.

For total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin. — R. C. Sproul

Carefully think through what Sproul is saying. We are not only worse off than we ever imagined, but are capable of doing things that are more wicked than anything we have done up to this moment (Romans 3:10–12).

If the only context in which you are meeting with a person is one-to-one, in an environment that is outside of their everyday community, your ability to know and impact them will be limited. Among other things, this lack of full relational care will tempt you to become frustrated when they do not change.

A lack of long-term, effectual change is one of the biggest reasons I do not prefer counseling as a stand-alone event disconnected from a community of believers who can provide ongoing, reciprocal care.

The overwhelming majority of the people who change do so because they were involved in more than a counseling event or a counseling season. The doctrine of human depravity demands more than a counseling event or seasons for actual life change.

Rest of the story

Typically, when you meet a person and ask how they are doing, they say they are doing fine or good. As one of my friends says, “The word ‘fine’ means feelings inside never expressed.”

He is right. We will always and forever put our best foot forward when asked how we are doing. There are several reasons for this, some of which are good, though there is a deeper problem.

We may say we are “fine” because it is quick and easy, but the truth is we are never actually fine, and to compound this problem, we are never fully aware of how “un-fine” we are.

None of us have enough self-awareness to inform ourselves how to be self-suspicious. Remember total depravity? The word total means total. We are totally depraved. Our thinking is not entirely in line with the Gospel, and it never will be until we meet Jesus, when we receive our body upgrade.

  • All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit. — Proverbs 16:2 (ESV)
  • There are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not free from their filth. — Proverbs 30:12 (ESV)
  • There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. — Proverbs 14:12 (ESV)

Even on our best day when we are operating at optimal levels, we do not know ourselves the way we need to be known. We have “Adamic blinders” that guarantee our blind spots.

Personal blindness makes discipling someone outside of their day-to-day community an insufficient way of doing sanctification because they will never be able to give you all the information you need to help them (Romans 8:26).

If I am counseling a spouse and the other spouse is not present, I automatically know there is another story that I will never be able to perceive until I talk with the person not present.

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. — Proverbs 18:17 (ESV)

For me, it is the worst possible counseling scenario. These deficiencies in soul care are what I wanted to communicate to my friend. I wanted to care for him, but my greater desire was for him to be in a sanctification community where people knew him on a daily basis.

Caring for him at “Denny’s” on an every other week basis is better than nothing, but it is not as good as seeing him (1) at his local church, (2) in his home, (3) with his wife (4) and family, and (5) the many other contexts that real community offers.

Firefighter or life changer?

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. — 1 Corinthians 3:6 (ESV)

Christians are acutely aware that if a person changes it is the grace of God that enables and empowers the transformation. We are planters and waterers; only the LORD can bring change. The question for us is not about who does the changing, but how do we cooperate with the “Changer of Lives” in the process of his transformation.

Each discipler will have to decide on the kind of soul care they want to provide. There is no one way or one right answer for discipleship. There are many options. Jesus used several. He determined the care need by the kind of person He was interacting with and the type of need in their lives.

  1. He did not provide soul care for some people as we see in John 2:24–25.
  2. He did provide soul care if those who needed it would turn from their wicked ways as seen in Matthew 23:37.
  3. He offered advice but did not extend Himself beyond that in Luke 18:18–23.
  4. He did not provide care to His family if they were not going to do the LORD’s will as seen in Matthew 12:48–50.
  5. He reached out to the community through others but did not personally interact with them as seen in Matthew 14:13–21.
  6. He provided instruction to the community but found it wiser to get away from them as seen in Matthew 14:22–23.
  7. He spent most of His time with individuals that could be replicated into leaders as seen in Matthew 4:18–19.

Jesus implemented a “whosoever will” method for discipleship, meaning He did not withhold care from anyone, but everybody did not receive the same kind of care from Him.

It is impossible to provide the same in-depth equipping to every person who knocks on your door. Different levels of soul care are one of the many things I appreciate about Jesus. He was discerning and courageous enough to know who was going to get His best discipleship time.

He was not afraid to say hard things to people, even if it made them mad (John 11:21) or if they went away from Him without life change (Mark 10:17–27).

Everybody can receive your care, but not everyone can receive your ongoing attention. If you cannot discern the difference and divide people accordingly, the requests for help will overrun you, and there will be areas of your personal life that will unravel.

Because my friend did not attend my church, it was unwise for me to set up ongoing and unending meetings in artificial contexts when he could receive better soul care from those who did life with him at his local church.

I could give him some tips. I could point him in the right direction. I could envision him about how to get long-term discipleship care in the context of community, but I could not provide adequate, comprehensive care because we did not do life together.

Sanctification contexts

Contact Points for Sanctification

The infographic gives you a quick glance at the two discipleship models I’m describing. These are the two most common ways soul care happen in the church today.

The two circles on the right are meetings prearranged between two people who do not do life together on a daily/weekly basis. These kinds of meetings are more artificial than real. Let’s call them Sarah and Clarice, both married with children.

They meet every two weeks for about ninety minutes at a local coffee shop. Sarah is discipling Clarice, who is in a difficult marriage and her teenage children are apathetic toward the church. Her husband has anger issues and Clarice bounces from fear to bitterness to anger, depending on the week.

All Sarah can do is fire fight. She has no leverage on the whole family and no insight into the real dynamics in the home. She does not see how Clarice blows up when she is at her wit’s end or how her husband checks out because of her double-minded behavior (James 1:5–6).

Clarice will talk about getting frustrated, but that is a far cry from reality. Seeing is believing, but Sarah cannot see. She can only take Clarice’s perspective on how things are because they are “doing Denny’s.”

At best, Sarah can give advice and send Clarice on her way, hoping a nugget of truth dropped will slow down the dysfunctional spin of the home.

The problem with this model is the main interaction they have with each other is in a context that does not resemble how they live. Artificial contexts describe counseling sessions. Counseling is another “doing Denny’s” model of discipleship.

The artificial context model leaves you guessing, speculating, drawing conclusions, assuming, and hoping you understand because you are never the proverbial fly on the wall of their lives.

The second model gives you “wall space” to hang out with those you are discipling. You are not doing Denny’s. You are doing life together with another person, couple, family, and small group. This second, larger circle is how I historically lead small group life.

In the “doing life together” model you see thirteen different contexts in which you can make a connection with someone. You will not do all of those things with every member of your small group, but you potentially do any of those things, and if you are doing small group life well, you will be doing most of them, and those you’re developing will be modeling your leadership.

You cannot do this kind of life with every person you meet. Not even Jesus could sustain this level of discipleship with everyone. He had a small group of twelve people. They received His most comprehensive care. Nobody was left behind if they did not want to be left behind, but everybody did not get prime time with Him.

One last thing. Discipleship is a two-way street. It is not a uni-directional model. Reciprocal soul care is the primary reason for doing life together: you need someone caring for your soul too.

I do not want to meet at Denny’s with someone to care for me if they are not caring for my wife and children at the same time. There is no way for them to know me if they do not know my wife and children.

If you want to know me, spend time with them and me. My family will give you a more accurate description of the kind of person I am than meeting with me alone. Not only will they help you to help me, but you will find out quickly what kind of husband and father I am.

They are “Exhibit A” to the kind of leadership and care I provide in our home. Don’t ask the farmer at Denny’s to describe the fruit of his hands to you. Walk into his fields and examine them yourself. It will not take you long to get an accurate bead on the kind of person you are discipling.

Call to action

  1. Are you a firefighter or a soul care provider?
  2. Why is meeting with someone sporadically and in artificial contexts not a good discipleship model?
  3. What are the advantages of meeting with someone in multiple settings?

Originally published at Rick Thomas.

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