Discipleship and a Healthy Church

Introduction

The disconnect between discipleship and the local church may be the most pressing challenge facing the body of Christ in the twenty-first century. The question that exists is specifically how discipleship and the local church relate. Until the body of Christ understands the importance of discipleship and its relationship to the church, the potential for lives being transformed into the image of Christ wanes. This paper shows that a healthy church is the goal of discipleship because the result of discipleship is the spiritual transformation of believers into healthy individuals that form a healthy body of Christ. Transformed lives that communicate the gospel, participate in relational living, deploy spiritual giftedness into ministry, and give generously of time and money are a few ways how disciples form a healthy body. The analysis of discipleship and the church is followed by a brief examination of my personal ministry context, three areas of focus necessary for a healthier ministry, and three initial steps to improve the spiritual health of my ministry.

Discipleship and a Healthy Church

A relationship exists between effective discipleship and a healthy church environment. However, prior to assessing the relationship, a brief definition of each term is necessary. The definition of a disciple is a person whose beliefs appropriate the justifying work of Christ, which forges an identity in Christ that allows God’s truth to transform his or her thoughts resulting in an emotional life exemplified by fruit of the Spirit that culminates in a transformed life of obedience in word and deed. A general definition of the term church (ἐκκλησία) means an assembly (cf. Acts 19:39), a gathering (cf. Acts 19:32, 40), or a community of people with shared beliefs.[1] However, Rod Dempsey particularizes the definition by explaining that the church builds up people in their knowledge of Christ and impacts the culture through transformed lives.[2] The question remains as to the relationship between discipleship and a healthy church and whether a healthy church is the goal for discipleship.

Significant difficulty occurs when assessing the relationship between discipleship and the church within modern Christianity. Based on modern church structure, members may believe that church is simply an institution where events and programs occur that, unfortunately, have little impact on driving spiritual growth or transforming lives.[3] Josh McDowell summarizes the plight of the church by stating, “The various creative approaches attempted over the course of this decade have drawn attention but produce little if any, transformational impact.”[4] More specifically, H. B. London, Jr. and Neil Wiseman’s research suggests that pastors have the second highest divorce rate among all professions, over 45 percent leave the profession due to depression or burnout, and 33 percent confess to inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in church.[5] Accordingly, to suggest that the goal of discipleship is a healthy or healthier institution that produces bigger buildings and budgets simply exacerbates the problem. Alternatively, Bill Hull believes that the church’s primary purpose is spiritual transformation, where a believer’s character is forged into the image of Christ within a community of believers.[6] Accordingly, if the result of discipleship is the spiritual transformation of believers, then the ultimate goal of discipleship is a healthy assembly (ἐκκλησία) of transformed believers into the image of Christ.

How a Healthy Church is the Goal of Discipleship

If the goal of discipleship is a healthy church, then identifying a few ways how disciples form a healthy body of Christ is an important next step in determining how a healthy church is the result of discipleship. Rod Dempsey provides twenty statements that describe a healthy church, which can be condensed into four main categories: (1) gospel messaging, (2) relational groups, (3) ministry deployment, and (4) generous giving.[7] First, disciples must deeply understand and communicate the gospel message within the context of the whole counsel of God.[8] Mark Taylor suggests that Paul describes the gospel in 1 Cor 15:1-2 as a message of Jesus’s death and resurrection that is preached, believed, appropriated, and salvific.[9] In other words, the salvific nature of the gospel message must be preached by disciples, believed by new converts, and then appropriated as new creations in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5:17) to experience its transformative power.

Second, disciples must engage in relational groups. The key to the second trait is the word relational. Sunday school classes, church services, Bible studies, and even small group ministries do not accomplish the group dynamics necessary for healthy body life if relationships do not exist. However, when authentic relationships exist in an environment of growth, nurturing, developing, sharing, and loving, then multiplication can follow. Richard Longenecker comments on the relational dynamics of the early church found in Acts 2:42 by suggesting it consists of teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer.[10] The relational dynamics in Acts 2 certainly contrasts significantly from the church environment across America on Sunday mornings where events and programs often trump authenticity and relationships.[11]

Third, disciples must utilize spiritual gifts to minister to others. The Apostle Paul clearly emphasizes the importance of utilizing spiritual gifts for the edification of the body of Christ (cf. Rom 12; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4). Whether the disciple’s giftedness is serving, teaching, mercy, knowledge, wisdom, or any of the other spiritual gifts, discipleship is about deploying these gifts to facilitate the transformation of others.

Finally, disciples must give of their time and money generously. Unfortunately, if giving means providing funds to support events and programs that do not transform lives, avoiding personal ministry by funding someone else to minister, or tithing to increase status or power within the institutional church, then the money is wasted. Craig Blomberg explains that 20 percent of the population of the world live in poverty and American Christians give approximately 2.4 percent of their income, slightly higher than non-Christians.[12] Blomberg insightfully suggests that Wesley’s slogan, “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can,” has been replaced with “money will solve all your problems.”[13] It is difficult to overestimate the evil perpetuated by the god of money (cf. 1 Tim 6:10) and the benefits of generously giving to both the giver and receiver.  In sum, a healthy church body includes disciples who are transformed into communicators of the gospel, deeply involved in relational groups, deploying spiritual giftedness into ministry service, and generously giving of their time and money.

Three Areas of Focus

As the Executive Director of Lives Transforming Group, a 501(c)(3) non-profit ministry, my ministry context is discipleship coaching and counseling. Last year the Lives Transforming coaches and counselors facilitated over 2,500 individual discipleship sessions, hundreds of small group sessions, and over 40 large group sessions while leading over 1,000 men and women into a relationship with Christ. Lives Transforming has many areas of the organization that need to improve to create a healthier body of Christ. However, three important areas of focus are (1) additional relational groups, (2) multiplication initiatives, and (3) spiritual formation tracking. First, although Lives Transforming’s strengths are in individual discipleship coaching and large group teaching, the ministry needs additional recovery, relationship, and Bible study groups. Unfortunately, programs such as Celebrate Recovery often miss the mark of transformation by focusing on behavioral modification and accountability, rather than one’s status as a new creation in Christ, who is transformed by the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:1-2). Lives Transforming needs to fill the void. Second, although Lives Transforming currently performs training workshops for discipleship coaches and counselors, an initiative that encourages believers to disciple others is needed. Without this initiative, the organization will continue to grow by addition rather than multiplication. Third, Lives Transforming utilizes a training manual, Christian Convergence Counseling and Coaching: A Training Guide for Counselors and Coaches, which provides evaluation forms to assess the growth of the participants and the effectiveness of the discipler after each session. However, Lives Transforming needs to create a system of statistically tracking the results of the sessions to verify transformation is occurring at the pace expected.

Steps for Improvement

With the three areas of focus identified, it is important to ascertain the initial steps necessary to implement the three initiatives to improve the spiritual health of the organization. First, regarding additional recovery, relationship, and Bible study groups, the next step is identifying curriculum. Fortunately, Lives Transforming has recently procured the publishing rights to many of Robert McGee’s resources including Rapha’s Twelve Step Program for Overcoming Codependency. McGee’s works align with the discipleship process that Lives Transforming uses by focusing on one’s identity in Christ and mind renewal. Accordingly, an initial next step would be to investigate the possibility of repurposing one or more of the resources purchased and deploy them into the Lives Transforming ministry. Second, regarding training believers to disciple others, the Lives Transforming training manual is already available for use, but the logical next step is to develop marketing materials to enhance awareness of the opportunity and benefits of training to the hundreds of current participants. Once the organization has increased awareness, then Lives Transforming can identify qualified trainers and dates for training sessions. This initiative increases the chance for multiplication of the ministry rather than addition. Third, regarding the evaluation of individual sessions, a next step would be to create a comprehensive feedback system based on the fruit of the Spirit. The system would track the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral health of the disciple as well as the effectiveness of the discipler. A potential resource to pull from is Randy Frazee’s book: The Christian Life Profile Assessment Workbook: Developing Your Personal Plan to Think, Act, and Be Like Jesus. By focusing on areas of relational groups, multiplication, and spiritual formation tracking, Lives Transforming will contribute to creating a healthier body of Christ.

Conclusion

This paper has shown that a healthy church is the goal of discipleship.  Since the result of discipleship is spiritual transformation and believers constitute the church, it follows that the goal of transformed believers is a healthy body of Christ. Transformed lives that communicate the gospel, participate in relational living, deploy spiritual giftedness into ministry service, and give generously of time and money form a healthy assembly or church environment. Three important areas of focus for the Lives Transforming discipleship counseling and coaching ministry are the creation of additional relational groups, the deployment of multiplication initiatives, and the integration of spiritual formation tracking. Three initial steps to improve the spiritual health of Lives Transforming are identifying curriculum, developing awareness through marketing materials to participants, and creating a comprehensive feedback system that tracks the growth of the disciple and the effectiveness of the discipler. Finally, an important practical application of the research is that local church leaders must first facilitate the transformation of individual believers into healthy imagers of Christ to have any chance of having a healthy assembly of believers called the church.

Bibliography

Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000.

Blomberg, Craig L. Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions. Edited by D. A. Carson. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999.

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

Hawkins, Greg, and Cally Parkinson. Reveal: Where Are You? Barrington, IL: Willow Creek Association, 2007.

Hull, Bill. Choose the Life: Exploring a Faith That Embraces Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004.

London, H. B., and Neil B. Wiseman. Pastors at Greater Risk. Ventura, CA: Gospel Light, 2003.

Longenecker, Richard N. Acts. Edited by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke-Acts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

McDowell, Josh. The Last Christian Generation. Holiday, FL: Green Key Books, 2006.

Putman, Jim, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman. DiscipleShift. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Taylor, Mark. 1 Corinthians. Edited by E. Ray Clendenen. The New American Commentary. Vol. 28. Nashville: B&H, 2014.

[1] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 303–4.

[2] Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Disciple Making Is…: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 39–40.

[3] Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Reveal: Where Are You? (Barrington, IL: Willow Creek Association, 2007), 33–60.

[4] Josh McDowell, The Last Christian Generation (Holiday, FL: Green Key Books, 2006), 28.

[5] H. B. London and Neil B. Wiseman, Pastors at Greater Risk (Ventura, CA: Gospel Light, 2003), 20, 86, 172.

[6] Bill Hull, Choose the Life: Exploring a Faith That Embraces Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 129.

[7] Earley and Dempsey, Disciple Making Is, 212–13.

[8] Ibid., 213–14.

[9] Mark Taylor, 1 Corinthians, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2014), 28:370.

[10] Richard N. Longenecker, Acts, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke-Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 756.

[11] For discussion on authenticity and transparency by pastors in the local church, see Jim Putman, Bobby Harrington, and Robert E. Coleman, DiscipleShift (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 100–6.

[12] Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions, ed. D. A. Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 17–20.

[13] Ibid., 20.