As each person moves forward in their spiritual journey, we have to point them to specific keys to their spiritual growth and maturity. They need Jesus, they have found Jesus, and now they want to grow in Jesus. But how? Where do they begin? Our typical first step is to point them to the pastor, figuring that he will be able to point them in the right direction and help them become fully grown followers of Jesus. But that might not be the best first-step. Instead, I want to challenge us to make some shifts in our perspective of what true discipleship looks like. These four keys can be the difference between irrelevance and having a massive impact on our city.
Four keys to true discipleship:
Key #1: Moving from dependence on the pastor to dependence on Jesus.
The number one obstacle for church plant success is staying outward focused, and a big part of this is because church plant teams are usually made up of young believers who have a hard time not feeling a sense of codependency toward church leaders. How the launch team models discipleship will set the tone for how discipleship happens church-wide as it grows and develops years down the road. So if the team remains dependent on the pastor for their spiritual growth, the church will eventually stop growing spiritually. Why? Because a church can only grow as far as their discipler can take them. Yet a pastor can never grow people spiritually. Only Jesus can. Making the shift from dependence on a pastor to dependence on Jesus is do-or-die for a church plant. If its people don't make this shift, the church plant will not just suffer. It will die.
As people grow in their walk with the Lord and take ownership of their faith, they tend to have less dependence on the pastor for meeting their spiritual and emotional needs. This is because their dependence on Jesus is growing. But making the shift to total dependence on Jesus and letting go of dependence on the pastor (or pastor's spouse) is difficult at first. There are growing pains.
It's like a weight scale. When a person is spiritually young, s/he puts a lot of weight on the the pastor to meet his/her needs. But as s/he matures, the dependence moves from the pastor to Jesus. So the challenge is making a shift to a culture in which the team takes ownership of their own faith apart from the pastor, remaining secure in their identity in Christ as opposed to attaching their identity to the pastor's investment in them. It's not easy, because in the initial stages we become accustomed to the pastor meeting our spiritual and emotional needs, even as inadequate as that may be. As we move closer to Jesus we have to let go. And letting go is hard. As we get to know Jesus more and more as our spiritual counselor and life-giver, we are able to do so. So while it's hard to make the shift, it's worth it.
Key #2: Moving from counseling-based discipleship to action-based discipleship.
One of the other difficult parts for church plants is embracing a discipleship style that centers less on counseling and more on hands-on ministry. In this type of discipleship, believers must see each other as their source of community and counseling instead of the pastor. The pastor's role is then focused more on leadership development and equipping with very little time counseling. Alan Hirsch (missiologist) says that while most of us see discipleship in terms of counseling and Christian therapy, the truest forms of discipleship don't work that way. Even Jesus was called the great counselor (Isaiah 9:6), yet we just never saw him engaging in that sort of discipleship culture. Did he counsel? Absolutely. But not in a destructive way. Instead, his team (disciples) were growing together in community and accountability. Jesus spent more time showing and teaching them what the Christian life looks like. This is why Hirsch says that for most people, "we have to act our way into a new way of thinking instead of thinking our way into a new way of acting."
I have talked with other planters whose teams have struggled not to get frustrated when the pastoral leadership isn't able to meet their emotional needs. Since no pastor can actually BE Jesus in the life of his team, it can become a significant opening for the Enemy to attack and divide. Moving past this barrier is crucial for a church's spiritual health, but it's not easy. We need to lean hard into Jesus, remain faithful to each other, and stay focused on the people God is calling us to reach.
One of the struggles in making this shift is the hunger for human connection. And this is okay because God wired us for connection! So then, where do we get this connection if not from the pastor? Our brothers and sisters in Christ. The problem? We tend to feel inadequate as believers to shape and counsel each other. Our American church context makes the pastor the only person able to do so. But think about it this way. You have Christ in you, the hope of glory! (Col 1:27) Through Christ, your Christ-following peers are perfectly adequate sounding boards for life and counselors for all that comes with it.
Key #3: Moving from Spiritual Abdication to Spiritual Responsibility.
Before we can truly grow spiritually, we have to admit that we are spiritually immature and have a lot of room to develop. We all need to grow. We all have insecurities that we don't want to let go of. And we have grown up in an American culture where the Church is the dispenser of spiritual goods and services, where the pastor is our spiritual feeder and we are the recipients of his service to us. We see our emotional and spiritual needs and we want the pastor to meet them. So when he lets us down (and he will), not being able to fill the void in our hearts that all along could have only been met by Jesus, we get angry. We get upset. We feel let down and frustrated because the pastor didn't care for us in the way we expected him to. It could be that he wasn't available enough. Or it could be that he wanted to talk about practical application and we wanted to talk about our emotional struggles. Whatever it is, our frustration is caused by our expectations of the pastor and our focus on where he is letting us down.
The Bible uses the word "pastor" do describe a spiritual gift of shepherding. While all people are called to love, only certain people are given this gift. They are uniquely wired to nurture and protect, to counsel and listen, and they are known for their loyalty and devotion to individuals emotional and spiritual needs. In the American church, we use the term pastor to describe the point leader of a church, but in early Christianity the shepherds weren't necessarily the point leaders. The elders were. So today we have created a culture of contradiction, where the lead pastor is tasked with the leadership and vision of a church community and the counseling and emotional support. Yet the early church saw these two things as unique and separate gifts, where some are called to lead the vision, direction, and mission, and others are called to counsel, nurture, and protect. The people who can do both? They are rare. Yet in most cases we expect our pastors to be both shepherds and leaders. We depend on them not only for direction, but for emotional support as well.
In the end, we are always disappointed because our pastors can rarely do both. At the core of our struggle is the fact that we have been trained to abdicate our spiritual growth and emotional needs to the pastor, expecting him to meet our needs instead of taking ownership on our own. Instead of asking why the pastor isn't teaching us what we want him to teach us, we need to ask, "What is God showing me about myself?" In other words, our primary question shouldn't be about the pastor's flaws, but about where we need to grow. Instead of asking if the pastor can change into who we think he should be, we should ask, "How can I change into who God wants me to be?" This is not easy because when we change the question our frustrations, disappointments, hurts and complaints become about us and the areas where we need to grow. When we change the question, it becomes impossible to point the finger at another person and blame them for our own spiritual shortcomings.
Key #4: From a me-centered story to a Jesus-centered story.
This is the hardest of all because it speaks directly to our pride. The biggest shift in this is taking ourselves out of the center of our own story. Only Jesus can be at the center. Until we make this crucial shift, we will struggle. Doing so may be difficult, but it is essential. Jesus is on a mission to bring hope to the hopeless and life to the lifeless. And until we let him take over completely and become our hope and life, we will always look to ourselves or the people in our lives to do so.
It brings up a vital question: How far am I willing to go and how much am I willing to sacrifice in order to be obedient to Jesus and his mission? Now that is a question that could rock us. Could you imagine what would happen if we asked this question of ourselves and made the necessary adjustments in our own lives to be fully obedient to Jesus?
There is great hope in all of this. Making these shifts can be hard. It can feel impossible. But with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). When we choose to trust Him with our churches and our spiritual future, we find that his strength shows up. It begins with a choice: a choice to make some small (bit significant) shifts in our perspectives. And when we do, everything changes.
So, what shift do you need to make?