Discipleship and a Healthy Church

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Becoming a true disciple comes only after discovering God’s will for your life, while true discipleship involves discovering God’s will for your church and the role you will play in achieving that vision. Both of these stages only emanate after studying, interpreting, meditating, and applying the word of God to your life through sacrifice, relationships, and transformation, and in discipleship by developing healthy disciples who know Christ, grow in Christ, and go forth in Christ’s name sharing His love with others. To ensure the success of this process, it is the church’s primary mission to ensure this development takes place in a healthy environment. This paper will examine the characteristics of a healthy church and explain why a healthy church is the ultimate goal of discipleship. In addition, it will also highlight the specific roles and importance of the local church and emphasize specific ways to create a healthier body of Christ in preparing disciples to fulfill the Great Commission.

WHY A HEALTHY CHURCH IS THE GOAL OF DISCIPLESHIP

For an organism to be considered healthy it generally means all systems and parts are operating at optimum levels and are working in conjunction with each other. In a like manner, the church, which is the body of Christ must also be healthy by using all its parts to be effective in the mission and mandate that Jesus has passed on to the called out ones. In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth relating to the body, Gordon Fee points out:

With a set of parallel rhetorical questions, Paul begins to apply the analogy, but does so by keeping the analogy itself alive. Taking up the two members of Ch. 12 v. 16 (eye/ear), he asks: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?” Then, keeping to the sensory organs, he adds: “If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” This interchange of the sense organs makes it clear that Paul’s point is not the “inferiority” of one to the other. The point is the need for all members; otherwise some function of the body would be missing.

As Dr. Jay Sulfridge further illustrates, “Christians are called out of the world and [are] called to a Savior who calls them to a mission. The church is a fulfillment of the kingdom and the kingdom is a fulfillment of the mission of God and the mission of God springs from His nature and love.” By engaging in this mission, the church essentially becomes a living organism as people find their role in His body and begin to engage in proclaiming the gospel. Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus broadens the emphasis on “His body” as F.F. Bruce explains:

Because “we are members of his body,” and collectively “his body,” Christ “nourishes and cherishes” us. The church as the body of Christ and the church as the bride of Christ are two concepts with distinct origins, but a link between the two is found in Gen. 2:24, where husband and wife become “one flesh.

If a healthy body equals a healthy church then a sick body would point to sick church. Using this methodology, understanding the vital signs of the church and the principle: if you take care of your body, the body will take care of you gives great insight to the importance of discipleship as a goal in becoming a healthy church. In the diagnosis, as Dave Earley points out, “The world tries to measure health by externals, [but] Jesus is looking deeper; He is looking inward to see the condition of the body… [And] Jesus… is analyzing the health of His body and we would be wise to follow His example.”

These passages of scripture denote an undeniable sense of unity, which must be attained within the church where despite diversity there is harmony and oneness. To accomplish this, there must be a deep connection that exists between disciples and leaders in the church to ensure the success of the mission. A true spiritual leader is someone who not only follows God’s will for their life, but also helps others to influence God’s will in their lives as well. It is the job of the spiritual leader to move people from their own agenda onto God’s plan for their lives. An effective spiritual leader also knows how to equip, empower, and then release disciples to do God’s will in fulfilling the Great Commission. Dietrich Bonhoeffer poses the question if it is harder to be a disciple today than it would have been when Jesus physically walked the earth. With the mindset that Jesus was physically with the twelve, but that He is not with us, Bonhoeffer illustrates:

This question refuses to take seriously that Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive and still speaking to us today through the testimony of scripture. He is present with us today, in bodily form and with His word. If we want to hear His call to discipleship, we need to hear it where Christ Himself is present [and] it is within the church.

Part of being a healthy church means you have healthy leaders who understand the importance of growing further in their spiritual disciplines because as Donald Whitney points out, “The greatest danger of neglecting the Spiritual Disciplines is the danger of missing God.” Leaders are meant to train and equip the saints so the saints can do the work of the church, but the problem is as John Maxwell highlights, “Most Christians are educated well beyond their level of obedience.” Obedience and submission are true signs of a healthy church, but our culture has twisted the meaning of these words to mean oppression and judgment.

Healthy leaders know their roles and giftings and understand how and why it is so important to grow new disciples and teach them spiritual disciplines. Thomas Frederick illustrates how, “Spirituality as defined from a purely psychological perspective is inadequate to capture the depth of this human experience because it misses the core of spirituality—discipleship and discipleship in the contemplative tradition fosters a deeper experience of the divine in the believer’s life.” This knowledge comes from proclaiming the gospel in word and deed. There must be no doubt of the importance of winning new believers to Christ and teaching them how to grow by surrendering and sacrificing for the kingdom of God, and by devoting time with them so they can truly appreciate the price that was paid to make them a new creation.

Healthy churches are vital to the advancement of the gospel and proper discipleship in the process is the only way people are going to grow closer to the Lord in understanding their role as disciples and the big picture role of the church. Baptism is a crucial act in this process, because as Sulfridge illustrates, “The person who accepts Jesus as Savior also accepts Him as Lord , and the evidence of this submission and surrender is baptism [and] the church that does not baptize new believers is not healthy.” This public declaration of faith should just be the beginning of their changed life and it should serve as a promise to fulfill the Great Commission.

The discipleship process is crucial in helping believers understand exactly what God is calling them to do and one of the most important principles to teach new believers is the principle of the tithe because a healthy church is one where the members understand where their time, talents, and treasures are, so will their hearts be also. Teaching the word of God is not enough because it is not truly effective in the discipleship process if you cannot add practical application. James tells his readers, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.” The scriptures should be taught for the purpose of obedience by understanding how they apply to the church today. Stressing the importance of missional discipleship, Christopher Beard believes, “The missional church movement has emerged as a voice calling for a return to the church’s inherent missionary nature and identity. As a part of that call, “discipleship” has been identified as the key to success of the movement as well as the success of the Western church as a whole.”

As the leaders begin to take a more active role in equipping and empowering the saints and the pastor begins to focus more on pouring into the leaders, the church will naturally begin to become healthy. Depending on how far removed from this model the church is determines how long the progression may take and how many parts may need to die off. Using the analogy of the human body, which is full of complex systems, we recognize when they are all working together, the body matures and grows with little effort. In a like manner, when all the systems and parts of a church are working together and you do not have people or ministries trying to go against the flow and vision of the church, the natural outcome is health, vitality, and longevity. As the saints begin to mature and truly recognize Christ as the head of the church they will begin to love others even more, so a healthy church must have an environment where love flows freely. In John 13:34-35, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Another key indicator of a healthy church is one where people are plugged into areas of ministry where their spiritual gifts are being best utilized. In order for any church to be healthy, they must be intentional in helping believers identify, grow, and use their giftings. In just about any model you will see, eighty percent of the work being done by twenty percent of the people. This 80/20 principles carries over to almost every aspect of the church, especially in giving, so one of the priorities of any church that wants to become or remain healthy needs to focus on recognizing and developing the spiritual gifts of more of their members, so they will know how to use them properly and so they can become part of the Great Commission.

Finally, the importance of prayer cannot be overstated for believers, laborers and non-believers. For those currently serving, they need prayer so they do not burn out; for those who just started believing, they need prayer so they will get plugged in some form of ministry and for the non-believers, they need prayer for opportunities to arise for someone to speak life and truth into their lives and that their hearts would be receptive to God’s word. The sad reality is that the harvest is plentiful, but those willing to work are few. A healthy church understands what they do for the least of the people they do for the Master. The members of a healthy church through sound discipleship know they must practice what they preach, they must constantly be equipping and empowering new believers, and they must be moved by what moves the Lord’s heart.

PERSONAL CHURCH / MINISTRY AND AREAS FOR GROWTH

The mission for the church I am a pastor at is to create an environment where anyone at any stage of life can experience the dynamic presence of God. We are a church built on love, acceptance, and forgiveness with a heart to make sure that no on has to fight alone. Life can be brutal and is often the cruelest teacher, so the primary ministry of my church is to be a healing center. The DNA of our church is very multigenerational so we continually look for ways to use the wisdom of our Abrahams, the creativity of our Isaacs, and the energy of our Jacobs. Just as there are many parts to the body, we have found how much can be accomplished when all the generations work towards a common goal like advancing the kingdom.

Area One

The top three areas that our organization needs to focus on to become a healthier body of Christ starts first with getting people who are not serving into some role where their giftings can be identified and then utilized. There is a spirit of apathy and complacency that runs rampant in congregations where believers think once they are saved they can just sit back, relax, and turn church more into a club of whose who instead of actively becoming involved in the Great Commission. It is the role of the pastor to equip the saints so they are able to do the work of service. By helping saints grow spiritually, they will be able to grow closer to God and by equipping the saints, they will learn how to share the love of God with others. As a mother bird pushes a young chick out of the nest, there are full-grown individuals that need the same nudge. After getting people engaged in ministry, focusing on spiritual disciplines like Bible intake is crucial, because the more one reads the word of God, the more they will understand His ways; the more they understand His ways, the more they will learn to trust Him; and the more they trust the Lord, the more confidence they will have standing upon His promises and proclaiming them to others.

Area Two

The second area that will help develop a healthier body of Christ is by being better shepherds over our flock. In I Peter 5:2, we see Peter addressing the elders proclaiming, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care.” As Putman points out, “This verse points to the pastor’s responsibility to see that the people are being cared for spiritually.” After we get a declaration of faith, we fail at moving the new believer immediately into a developmental stage where they can begin to serve and learn about their giftings and callings. Peter Davids elaborates further on this imagery illustrating how, “The image of shepherding God’s people ‘or His people’s being his flock’ is an OT image that is common in the NT, but the command to elders to shepherd is found only here and in Acts 20:28-29. Both places significantly connect shepherding with ‘watching over it,’ showing that shepherding is a job of oversight.” By failing to use our elders as mentors and teachers for new believers, we are also robbing them of the growth they can attain by pouring into someone’s life. Just as the body is made up of many parts, so too are there many gifts and when we do not allow them to operate fully, essentially we are quenching the work of the Spirit. As the church, we also need to make it as easy as possible for others to come to faith while at the same time providing goals and setting realistic expectations for new followers of Christ. In essence, the goal is to win them to Christ, grow them in Christ, and then to send them out in Christ’s name and this only happens by continually developing spiritual disciplines and through training them on how to evangelize and make new disciples.

Area Three

The third area our organization can still work on is the care and compassion of our attenders. We have a catchy motto of “no one fights alone,” but without a system in place to put action behind it; they are just empty words. My primary role as the care pastor is to keep up with all our members and the turmoil and disasters life often presents. Since our church has become a healing center for people who have been wounded in their past, this often presents many obstacles to speak truth and life into people who have been so broken as a result of deep hurt, legalism, or any other number of ways the church has handled issues poorly. This is an area I believe would drastically improve the overall spiritual health, if we were able to develop a discipleship program where individuals more mature in their faith could come along side and stake themselves next to new believers or spiritually wounded believers and help them navigate the stormy waters of life back to the calm waters of God’s will. As a church, we have chosen to operate with complete transparency because even as pastors, we have the same temptations and face many of the same struggles as the congregation faces. We want the congregation to know they are not alone and that we all have fallen short of the glory of God because we live in a fallen state. This has been well received by the majority, but for some, it was too much and as a result, they chose to leave the church. The interesting thing has been watching some of the same families who left come back when they were facing a crisis. Without a doubt, pastors are far from perfect and there is no way they can do all the ministry alone and I have never understood why some pastors insist on trying to because in the end, it spreads them too thin and makes them ineffective. Sara LeGrand conducted an amazing study of pastors, which revealed:

Female pastors felt guilty for taking personal time and experienced pressure to prove themselves; local pastors reported financial strain and utilized a variety of interpersonal relationships; young pastors indicated child-related stress but also greater interest in nutrition, exercise, and church-based health promotion; and large-sized church pastors expressed increased confidence in negotiating personal time and reported more sharing of pastoral duties.

Pastors should focus on excelling in their areas of giftings while looking for others who are strong in their areas of weakness. This is contrary to academia that says to turn your weaknesses into strengths. I disagree and submit that by concentrating on your strengths and delegating your weaknesses the entire organization will thrive and produce more healthy disciples. This lack of confidence and insecurity puts a lid on any organization and causes you to never hire someone or put someone in a leadership position that could be potentially better than you in an area.

INITIAL STEPS TO IMPROVE SPIRITUAL HEALTH

Just as when you are sick you go to the doctor to get a diagnosis by evaluating your overall condition and symptoms, the same can be done when establishing the spiritual health of a church. The first question you need to answer is, are your leaders spiritually healthy? Things have a way of trickling down and if the prominent people in your organization lack the spiritual maturity and discipline to be leaders; that is an immediate red flag. In addition, the church staff as William Tuck points out should model this standard:

In the total organizational structure of a church, it is essential that the paid professional staff base their understanding of each other and their varied ministries on a strong theological and biblical foundation. An understanding of the theological foundation on which healthy leadership rests will hopefully enable ministers to labor more effectively and respect and appreciate the services of their fellow workers. Attitude toward and treatment of one’s fellow staff workers are indications of one’s theology. The practice of ministry is intrinsically involved in one’s understanding of theological truth.

By allowing someone to serve or lead who violates God’s word or the bylaws of the church you are basically saying that behavior is acceptable since you have not dealt with it, but you must tread carefully here and you must always bring instruction before correction. Michael Beasley reminds us, “Quick-fix solutions to the challenges of enabling church growth simply do not exist. Rather, ensuring the growth of churches is incidental to the more important task of ensuring their health; an endeavor that demands time, honesty and commitment.”

The second question you should ask is do your leaders have the proper understanding of their role in helping to grow believers? The role of the spiritual leader must be to help move people closer to God’s agenda by encouraging, equipping, empowering, and then releasing them to continue the work God has started in them. To improve the spiritual health in the church, your spiritual leaders must understand the importance of communicating God’s plan and will in their lives, which involves knowing Christ, growing in Christ, and ultimately joining Him on His mission to save the world.

Each church is made up of multiple systems i.e. evangelism, stewardship, mobilization, discipleship, or other mission mindsets, so having a clear definition of these are crucial. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses in your systems, you not only can gauge the health of your church, but you can also implement a plan to improve the overall condition. Through strategic planning and accountability you will position yourself for maximum results.

CONCLUSION

A healthy system equals a healthy body of believers and a healthy body of believers leads to a reproducing church. As disciples learn God’s will for their life, through spiritual discipleship, they begin to see God’s will for their church and will become engaged in that mission. By ensuring this process takes place in a healthy environment, a healthy church full of healthy believers will be the end result. Lastly, by understanding the role of pastors is to equip the saints and the role of the spiritual leaders is to equip and empower new believers to do the same will multiply and reproduce new believers and will follow the teachings God has provided.

Bibliography

Beard, Christopher. “Missional discipleship: Discerning spiritual-formation practices and goals within the missional movement,” American Society of Missiology, April 2015 vol. 43 no. 2 175-194. doi: 10.1177/0091829614563059 (accessed 12-2-15).

Beasley, Michael. “The Healthy Churches Handbook Review.” Theology March 2013 vol. 116 no. 3 224-225 http://tjx.sagepub.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/content/116/3/224.full.pdf doi: 10.1177/0040571X13475404s (accessed 12-2-15).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4: Discipleship. Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 2003.

Bruce, F.F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Davids, Peter H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle of Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Earley, Dave and Rod Dempsey. Disciple Making Is… How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013.

Fee, Gordon D. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Frederick, Thomas V. “Discipleship and Spirituality from a Christian Perspective,” Pastoral Psychology. July 2008, Volume 56, Issue 6, pp 553-560. http://link.springer.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/article/10.1007/s11089-008-0148-8/fulltext.html (accessed 12-2-15).

LeGrand, Sara et al. “Healthy Leaders: Multilevel Health Promotion Considerations for Diverse United Methodist Church Pastors,” Journal of Community Psychology. 41: 303–321. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21539. 2013. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/doi/10.1002/jcop.21539/abstract (accessed 12-2-15).

Putnam, Jim, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman, Discipleshift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.

Tuck, William Powell. “A theology for healthy church staff relations.” Review & Expositor 78, no. 1 (1981 1981): 5-14. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed 12-2-15).

Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014.

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