December 2016 -January 2017
Beyond the Walls
Discipleship in the Church
By Brad Ransom
I’ve been in full-time ministry since 1982. For the first 25 years, I served in local church ministry as a staff pastor and lead pastor. The last decade I’ve been in denominational leadership and have spent a lot of time reflecting on the years I spent in the local church, especially the years I served as lead pastor. I have come to realize I did some things well and others not so well.
Sometimes, it’s hard to see the “forest because of the trees.” When you’re in the midst of leading a church, preparing several sermons and lessons each week, counseling people in the church, organizing stuff, visiting hospitals, nursing homes, and shut-ins (along with the other things pastors do on a weekly basis), it can sometimes be hard to keep all the plates spinning. In addition to ongoing responsibilities, a pastor has ministry positions to fill, people to train, leaders to mentor, and the list goes on. Looking back, I think I organized things pretty well. I loved on people and built some fantastic relationships with families in hospital rooms, counseling sessions, and even the funeral home. But one thing I could have done better—intentionally building disciples.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about recruiting volunteers. I think I did okay at that. I’m talking about building leaders instead of filling slots. Over the years, I did build up some leaders, and most are still involved in ministry. But I certainly did not disciple to the level I could have.
I had the privilege of seeing hundreds of people come to the Lord during my tenure as a pastor. Our church was fantastic at successful outreach events and seeing people baptized, but in retrospect, I don’t think the number of leaders produced from these converts was in balance. If the truth were known, I think this is common among churches. After thinking about it for several years and training church planters, I have learned some things that may be helpful to others as they disciple and train leaders.
Discipleship begins with knowing your convert.
Too often, we try to force everyone into the same mold, or run him or her through the same discipleship process. In today’s culture, many people need to learn the basics before they can move on to other things. Many new converts in this generation have never been to church and know nothing of Creation, the Fall of Man, redemption, etc. They don’t know the stories of Moses parting the Red Sea, David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale. They have no idea who Saul is (or that he became Paul).
Discipleship begins with learning the spiritual background of your converts. If they have little or no history with church or Sunday School, it is crucial to begin where they are. We need to talk about worldview, absolute truth, integrity, character, and a dozen other things. Nothing should be assumed or taken for granted.
Discipleship continues with one-on-one conversations.
Having a discipleship class is fine, but don’t run your new converts through a class and assume they are “good to go.” Classes are important, but so are one-on-one conversations. Pastor, you can’t do this alone. You need help from other leaders who will take this task as a challenge and help disciple new converts. This is a time-consuming process, but nothing yields better results in the long run.
I met Scott through Mandy, who visited our church. Scott and Mandy were both unbelievers and met at work. Scott had a bit of a drinking problem, but after dating they got married. It wasn’t a pretty picture. The marriage quickly declined and was consumed by alcohol, fighting, and nasty words of discouragement. The marriage failed. Scott and Mandy divorced, moved, and Mandy changed jobs. She moved to our area and came to church after being invited by her next-door neighbor, who attended our church. Mandy was saved, and by God’s divine providence, Scott also was saved at a different church in another area. Scott and Mandy began talking again, and Mandy introduced me to Scott when they began exploring the possibility of trying their marriage again, this time as a Christian couple.
I began to see amazing growth in their lives. Scott and I began spending time together talking about the Bible, spiritual things, ministry, church, and more. Scott, Mandy, my wife Lori, and I began spending a great deal of time together. Scott and Mandy didn’t have a church background, but both were hungry to learn and grow. Eventually, Scott and Mandy married again and made amazing progress in the Lord. Over the next several years, Scott became very involved in the church and later volunteered as director of ministries. Eventually, Scott went on to pastor and serve as a hospital chaplain. He remains active in ministry and pastors First FWB Church in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
I tell you this story because it is a story of investment and high return. I spent much time with Scott individually, and our families were close. Our discussions were intense at times. Scott and Mandy are great examples of people who were far from God but now are great leaders themselves.
I certainly don’t take credit for where Scott and Mandy are spiritually, but I am thankful I was able to invest in them. God gave the increase in their lives, and they are great servants for Him. The one-on-one investment was worth the effort and paid the highest dividends.
By the way, this process goes both ways. Who invested in you? I am thankful for those willing to have those conversations with me when I was young, new, and growing in my faith. I’ll forever be indebted to men like Edwin Wade, Charles Wilson, Gary Curry, Keith Burden, David Crowe, and others who have invested in me and given me opportunities to grow and serve.
Discipleship can benefit from science.
That may sound strange, but I strongly suggest finding out as much about people as you can. Using spiritual gifts assessments to identify a convert’s spiritual gifts is a great way to help new believers plug in to ministry. A personality assessment and other “scientific” instruments to gain insight can be very helpful when discipling them and guiding them into a place of ministry in the church.
Many free resources are available in print and online to help new converts discover their personality types, spiritual gifts, love languages, spiritual strengths, and more. Take advantage of these resources to help move new converts along in their spiritual journey. Do your research and find resources that can help you and your converts discover as much as possible.
Discipleship requires plugging people in.
Many people go through discipleship classes and programs only to be added to a class roll or membership list and never reach their full potential. It isn’t enough to send new converts through a program. They must get plugged in to ministry and build relationships with others. If your church doesn’t have a system to get new people plugged in, you need to create one. Develop a plan to move new converts through your discipleship process, discover their gifts, and then get them involved. It is the best way to “close the back door” of our churches and keep converts from slipping out unnoticed.
Often, we perceive a lack of willing volunteers to serve the necessary roles in the church. Maybe it isn’t a lack of people, but a lack of discipled believers who have been effectively plugged in to ministry. It will be a time investment for sure, but one well worth it.
Discipleship doesn’t just happen. It is a process requiring time and effort. Jesus invested His entire ministry into discipling leaders who would go on to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6) for Christ. Who are you investing in?
About the Writer: Brad Ransom is director of church planting for North American Ministries. Visit www.fwbnam.com.