The words Jesus said when he called his first disciples were, “Follow Me” (Matt. 4:19). Even now he utters these words to all who have ears to hear—but what does it mean to follow him? In what ways did he draw people toward becoming more like him? And how are we to imitate him in our own process of discipleship?
First, Jesus always met people where they were in life. He loved all people and knew what they needed at every moment. He welcomed children, finding value in their purity and ability to believe. He ate with sinners and did not pour out contempt because of their station in life. He saw women for who they were, not for how society labeled them. Jesus was patient in meeting people where they were and then intentionally helping them grow their faith. Second, Jesus taught people for the purpose of transforming them. He understood the hazards of people filling their minds with knowledge without transforming their hearts. His mission was to restore all of humanity to God’s original design. Third, Jesus preached the message of a hope that we are to embody as the people of God for the sake of all others.
Meet Them Where They Are
Too often, a cookie-cutter approach is used to disciple people in the church. Especially when we lack the necessary resources, we find ourselves in a one-size-fits-all teaching culture, and that size is usually reflective of the leader’s preferences. A preacher insisting on using academic language in an intergenerational context is missing the point. A small group leader fascinated with highly sophisticated theological matters can lose those in the group who are less educated. Youth leaders lecturing about the Bible to their teens without any meaningful engagement will be met with glazed-over eyes.
Only when we consider the varied and distinct needs of our congregation can we truly say we are a church that values every person.
Are we welcoming the child, the uneducated, the ethnic minority, the single mom, the elderly, the newlywed by considering their spiritual needs and helping remove whatever barriers stand in their way of learning? Pedagogically speaking, do we know the particular methods of teaching that are most effective for different age groups? Do we use a diverse teaching style so that a wider demographic of learners can benefit?
Only when we consider the varied and distinct needs of our congregation can we truly say we are a church that values every person. Only then can we say we consider them important and one of our own.
There are some practices that can help us be better at becoming more individualized in our teaching and learning environments. First, do the research. Read up on different learning styles—especially styles that are different from our own. Second, know your people. What are some of the key issues of the life stages they are in? Are we teaching parents how to disciple their children? Are we demonstrating how faith and work intersect? Do our singles know how to honor God in their life priorities? Third, ask a lot of questions and listen well to the answers. Giving room for feedback and implementing strategies that reflect the feedback communicates that we care and want people to grow in Christlikeness.
Teach to Transform
We are doing a disservice to our people if we are teaching them knowledge without giving them the space to process and live out that knowledge in community. A pastor assigned to his first church was told that most of the members had attended for more than thirty years. He was excited about the potential of the church and started brainstorming how to mobilize these veteran Christians to do the work of God. After a few weeks of pastoring, however, he came to realize that, in fact, the church was full of longtime Christians who had never matured in their faith.
We cannot be satisfied with the mere dissemination of knowledge to our people. We need to assess whether they are growing in their faith and moving toward Christlikeness. Do their family members, coworkers, and closest friends see a difference in them? Are they more loving? Are they more generous? Are they less attached to their vices? Are their relationships healthier? Are they more committed to the mission of God?
One way to promote transformation is to leave room at the end of any teaching for people to engage with the Holy Spirit by answering these two questions: (1) In light of what I learned, what is God telling me right now? (2) How am I going to respond? In fact, these questions can be asked beyond a formal teaching event. They can be asked at any significant life event. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I asked myself these questions and discerned that the Lord was leading me to trust him and to bring as many people on the journey as I could. When I found myself yelling at the kids more often than I would like to admit, I asked these questions and discerned that God wanted me to rest and take a weekly Sabbath so I could be at my best for the children.
Out of community comes support, accountability, and partnership structures that are invaluable catalysts to grow our faith.
Having community to process with is another important way to encourage transformation. Out of community comes support, accountability, and partnership structures that are invaluable catalysts to grow our faith. Are there safe spaces for people to be honest about their weaknesses and failures? Do they have bonds of trust and mutual respect so that accountability to one another isn’t threatening?
It takes a certain amount of intentionality to build transformative measures into our discipleship systems. We want transformation, yes, but we need to consider the different areas in which we need to grow. If we focus only on our relationship with God and neglect to love one another, we are missing key qualities to Christlikeness. The opposite is just as true. Loving one another but neglecting our relationship with God can lead to problems as well. If we look to Jesus and reflect on his life, we see three directions he was always moving toward. He reached upward to his Father in heaven, he reached inward to his disciples, and he reached outward to those who didn’t know him. Likewise, we are to follow Jesus’s example. We need to grow in our devotion to the Lord (reaching up), our love for each other in the church (reaching in), and our ministry to those in our communities and beyond (reaching out). Are we cognizant of each of these when we disciple our people?
Restore to Embody the Hope of the Lord
God meets us where we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there. The hope we have in the Lord is that we are continually being restored and reconciled to the perfect image of Christ. This is not just a personal hope but also a collective hope. God is working toward reconciling all creation. This restoration of hope should be the beacon of light that directs us out of the darkness of the broken world. There is healing in our hearts and in our relationships with God and with others.
Faithful discipleship must reflect this kind of hope where our people believe this for themselves and embody it wherever they go
Faithful discipleship must reflect this kind of hope where our people believe this for themselves and embody it wherever they go. Do we believe whole neighborhoods can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and the boldness of God’s people? Do we believe that the most hardened of hearts can turn toward Jesus? Do we believe we can be overcomers of our sinful nature through Christ? And are we constantly teaching this over and over again in our sermons, our Sunday school classes, our small groups, our mentoring relationships, and all other means of disciple-making in our local contexts? Are we faithfully showing up to take a stand against marginalization, unbalanced power dynamics, oppression, and exploitation?
Faithful discipleship is to imitate Jesus. Jesus met each person where they were but refused to leave them there. He lovingly leads his people to growth and Christlikeness. To Jesus, transformation is a nonnegotiable. His will is for us to be transformed from the inside out and to be a people of hope dedicated for partnership with the Spirit to restore all things through Christ.