Is There a Silver Bullet for Discipleship?
How Commonly Used Methods Could be Stifling Discipleship
One night I was sitting with a friend discussing all matters of life. Suddenly she asked me, “What is discipleship? What’s your definition of discipleship? What do we need to do to carry out discipleship?” The questions somewhat caught me off guard. I was trying to come up with a succinct answer, but I couldn’t come up with one that felt satisfactory.
I think at the heart of the question was, “Is there a silver bullet to discipleship? Is there one way or method I am missing that would produce great fruit? What am I doing wrong in how I am leading others and what is the right way?”
If you were to pick up one of the hundreds of discipleship books, you would discover that there is a desire to find this silver bullet, some even claim to have it. We are searching for the right method that seems the most successful. I would like to encourage us to stop and think about how some of our well-intentioned methods might be “stifling” discipleship.
Teachings on discipleship usually focus on what we should be doing. “You must meet in homes and accomplish these things in a 2-3 hour span once a week. You need to hold each other accountable, pray together, have fellowship, read and study the word, memorize scripture together. Don’t forget to sign up for community outreach and think about ways you can go on a mission trip as a group. Also, you need to set up a potluck once a month or a game night because we need fellowship.”
These things are clearly not wrong, but I do believe these things can unintentionally stifle the growth of the gospel transforming our lives and the lives around us.
The question we are left with in the church is, “What is discipleship?” How do we do this? I have been in groups over the years that have been termed discipleship groups that are more of a moral book club than people who love God and gather to be fueled for the mission. It had all the elements of what books might say is a sure discipleship method, but it lacked fruit and transformation.
My fear is this is true for more discipleship relationships. When we limit discipleship to the methods we are bowing down to the method as our god and making them our ruler. Discipleship in its very essence is to follow me as I follow Christ. It’s to know him, walk with him and lead others to do the same. How we do that has to start more from our posture and worship towards God than it does with the 5 elements that must be present when believers gather.
Let me give you an example of how I have seen this play out as I discipled others. I had the privilege of working as a college minister for about 11 years. Each year I ran into the same thing with students, I called it the “try harder, do better” mantra.
Within the first few minutes of chatting about life they would begin to discuss their methods to “try harder, do better.”
“I need to get in the word more, do you know any good Bible reading plans?”
“I am feeling convicted that I am not sharing my faith, so which mission trip should I go on.”
“I really need to spend some time developing my prayer life, so I am committing to go off by myself and have a prayer retreat every Friday to journal and pray.”
“I want to start a Bible study in my dorm, but I feel unequipped, what do I need to do?” and the list would continue.
As I would meet with these students, what once was a passionate goal and seemed to be their heart’s desire began to seem more like a burden.
I would ask how things were going and immediately guilt would be plastered across their faces. I was constantly burdened for these students, praying that they would not just go through the motions of spiritual activity but that their hearts would be gripped by the love of Christ, which would cause the desire for these good spiritual activities.
After a while, I began to ask the students, “Where does God command you to read the Bible every day? Where does he say to pray and how to pray? Where does he give us commands to conduct our small groups in certain ways, like meet once a week, share accountability, read and study the word?” My point with these questions was not to say, “Do what you want he will love you anyways.”
His word does address these things and how they are to be desired and obeyed in the believer’s life. My goal was I wanted them to know for themselves what God’s word said about these things. I wanted God’s word to be the thing that sustained their “resolutions” or “goals.”
I often would say to them, “Do you know that he will love you the same no matter if you read your Bible today or not?” I want to be clear with this because I made it a point to be clear with them, as a Christ follower our hearts have been changed and transformed with new desires. I believe because he has put a new heart in us (Ezekiel 36) we will do the things that are good for us like pray, read the Bible, and love our neighbor as ourselves.
However, there was nothing that they could do or not do that made God love them more than he already did. We were dead in our trespasses when Christ died for us. We were enemies of him when he went to the cross. The wash of relief as we talked through this was evident. They began to release the stifling mantra of “try harder, do better.” I could see that when the gospel had its rightful place, governing their actions, it produced fruit and transformation.
These truths I believe can be applied to our methods in discipleship as well. Methods have their place, but they are wisdom not law. God commands us to go make disciples of all nations in Matthew 28:19-20. He gives us a very direct command but the “how” or the method is something that he does not give. Why? He is causing us to have greater dependence on him. If there was a formula, discipleship would run the risk of depending on self rather than having the posture of absolute desperation of God to work.