Build a Hothouse
By Carlton L. Coon, Sr.
Did you know you can start tomato plants in the dead of winter-if you build a “hothouse.” The hothouse is not the tomato plant’s final destination, but it’s the environment in which they start. Plants grown in a hothouse are eventually “hardened off,” but they get their start in a controlled environment.
You don’t have the option of sequestering a convert, but your church can provide a “hothouse” in which young Christians develop.
Jesus understood how things grow and develop: “For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear” (Mark 4:28). For there to ever be full com in the ear, the plant has to survive being a “blade.” New converts are “blades” to nurture. The farmer’s goal is not the “blade,” it is the “full corn in the ear.”
A nurturing environment responds to the dangers of the current climate. I want to share some thoughts on creating a “hothouse” to nurture the spiritually young.
Climate Condition #1 – Life Perspective
In North America self is enthroned. Entitlement and pleasure are attendants in the throne-room. Those you reach for have more “stuff’ than any generation, but are unsatisfied. They seek the spiritual. The search for the spiritual takes on several different levels of intensity.
Some want the spiritual as an addendum to an already over-stuffed life.
Others want to experience the spiritual as though it were a thrill-ride-a thing to experience and move on. They want an encounter but not a life-change. For such new converts, Christ’s kingdom holds little lasting value.
Many are sincere … and so desperate for change that God, God’s Word, and His church become a lifeline of hope. These you can develop.
We battle a mindset-transitioning the self-absorbed into one who lives for Jesus.
Respond to the Challenge: Has North American self-absorption worked well? Human wreckage is on every side. In your preaching and services, contrast Bible-based decisions with those based on se1finterest. Make it positive. Never preach the ugliness of sin without preaching on the beauty of salvation. Those who mature into strong Christians are not looking for a slightly prettier pigpen; they want something far different. Are you convinced this Christian life is the best thing going? Then say it … and say it often.
Climate Condition #2 – Biblical Illiteracy
In a recent Enrichment article, Greg Ogden wrote, “Tonight Show host Jay Leno took to the streets to question people about their Bible knowledge. He approached two college-age women and asked, ‘Can you name one of the Ten Commandments?’
Quizzical and blank looks led to this reply, ‘Freedom of speech?’
Then Leno turned to a young man and asked, ‘Who according to the Bible was eaten by a whale?’ With confidence and excitement the guy blurted out, ‘I know, I know, Pinocchio.'”
Remember what Home Missionary Knox Handkins said, “Our new people don’t know where the book of Genesis is.” You must tell them who David was, explain about Daniel, and tell them … oh yes, tell them all about Jesus and what He has done for them!
Responding to the Challenge: Simplify! Speak at a visitor or new believer’s level of understanding, but be constantly lifting the level of Bible knowledge and understanding. One of Paul’s instructions regarding a bishop was he was to be, ” … apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). Never stop teaching, even when you are preaching. These days, every text needs to be explained and put in historical perspective. Each Bible character needs an introduction. Brethren, no level of knowledge can be assumed.
It will be a failure of the pulpit if the famine of Bible knowledge leads us to “dumb down” Christianity. Historically, the liturgical church and the evangelical movement have followed the pattern of lowering expectations. The track record does not bode well for those who follow a similar course of action. Why would your new convert want to be part of something that expects nothing of them?
Strategy #1 – Discipleship Classes
A pastor and church intent on, “I travail … until Christ being formed in you,” has a plan to develop people. It includes some form of new convert, discipleship, or orientation class.
What is a Discipleship class?
Going back to the analogy of an earlier Communiqu’-a discipleship class is part of the spiritual nursery: a place for spiritual newborns to be fed. Sirloin steak is good, but won’t benefit a newborn. A lesson on “Justification by Faith” may need to be taught, but the new convert who doesn’t know what “justification” is can starve sitting at that table. The new convert has no teeth to sink into the good “meat” you put on the table. New converts need some milk.
What makes a Discipleship class effective?
It is taught at the new convert’s level of comprehension. This is “pre-school” for Christians. A baby determines the pace of the feeding. Charles Spurgeon said, “Christ said to Peter ‘Feed my sheep … feed my lambs.’ Some put the food so high that neither lambs nor sheep can reach it. They seem to have read the text, ‘Feed my giraffes.'”
A Discipleship class takes into account that most students will take five minutes to find the book of II Corinthians. It slows the teaching process down to accommodate the baby.
How does a Disciples class work?
1. Begin with making it special. Someone needs to invite every new convert with a personal touch. Some patterns for extending formal invitations to a Discipleship class are in the Pastor’s Resource for Global Impact, which is available online at UPCI.org or from the Homemissionsdivision.com website. Send the card or letter … and make it personal. Follow up with a phone call the night before the first class. These simple steps give importance and significance to the process.
2. Make the class times convenient for the newcomer rather than convenient for you or someone else. In taking care of babies, there are no convenient times, so you have to be flexible. Remember those late-night feedings? They were never convenient. Adopt a similar mindset with your discipleship classes.
3. In the first class – orient the new person as to what is involved. Give an overview of the curriculum’s content and the students’ options for growth. In our approach, there were three options:
* Sitting in the class as a passive participant.
* Participating in the class discussions and interaction. Asking questions and working to discover answers.
* Doing review and preview work at home.
4. Relax – a coat and tie are not essential. In a discipleship class, a podium and platform actually hinder learning. Coffee, donuts, and tea are important. The teacher arriving early to interact with students is important. Quite often the student will ask questions before or after class that they were embarrassed to ask during class.
5. Focus on getting the new saint interacting with the Bible and learning how to have a relationship with the Lord Jesus. Discipleship classes are about the newcomer and their long-term spiritual health. Where there has been no learning, there has been no teaching.
* Student reading and involvement in discussion are important. As they are willing, have the students do all the reading. In the first class I always asked who was willing to read aloud. From that point forward, these people did the reading. The open Bible is the only authority you have.
* Encourage questions. Be willing to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll try to have you an answer by next week.” The answer, “I don’t know,” eliminates much of the intimidation a student feels.
* Give the student work to do outside of class. This is another way to get them into God’s word. This takes two forms: (1) Home work that reviews the last lesson (2) Pre-work that prepares the student for the following week. Every student won’t do the review or the prework. Those who do the work will grow much quicker. Give those. who are interested in quick growth the opportunity to advance.
* All lessons should take the new believers directly to the Bible to see what God says. The Bible needs to be clearly more important than the handouts or workbook.
* At the end of each class, I gave the student a copy of the more thorough teacher’s notes. The teacher’s notes help the student complete the home work.
6. Communicate high expectations of your students. From the outset, tell the new convert you imagine them being a Sunday School teacher or eventually teaching the Discipleship class they are now sitting in. A coach who anticipates his team being winners coaches toward a championship. Focus on your winners.
7. Aggressively follow up on absentees. You won’t keep many people who do not enter this process. Discipleship classes are “make or break.”
What are we to teach the new convert?
Teach toward what you want the person to be. Do you want the disciplines of prayer and God’s Word to be important to them? If so, give the new believer resources for prayer and reading the Bible.
Level One focuses on the basic disciplines-prayer, personal devotion, etc. It is almost a variation of the old-fashioned Wesleyan style of training. Level One is oriented toward a method of establishing good habits for the new believer. This level can take four to six weeks.
Level Two is doctrinal. We used a self-developed concoction called Take Root. This lasted ten weeks. There are many good resources available for you to pick and choose from.
Level Three addresses responsibility. This time the concoction was called Bear Fruit. Level three lasted eleven weeks. There are many good resources including: Ready to Be Free Discipleship Course; My Father’s House – Course I and II, My Father’s House Mini-Chart, My Father’s House in PowerPoint. Teacher and Student Books for all of the new convert curriculum are available from HM Sales.
In our efforts, Level Four placed the student in a defined role of ministry. We called this particular series Fitly Framed It lasted five weeks. During this time the goal was to advance the person toward becoming a “full com in the ear.”
How can we take Discipleship to the next level?
Little things mean a lot. Celebrate Discipleship graduates in a public setting. What gets honored gets repeated. Some years ago I was with Horne Missionary Brian Byers when he honored those who had recently graduated from a training program. Our celebration included students corning to the platform to receive a certificate.
I learned from Art Hodges to do a bit of sideline coaching … and to have a few people coached a bit to clap, cheer, and whistle in celebration.
Often, we’d have one of the new converts volunteer to bring the donuts and another would commit to prepare the coffee. This gives an opportunity to evaluate the newcomers level of “follow-through.” Did they make the commitment and then forget? Perhaps they went the second mile.
Don’t do shortcuts. Give a fifth grader a diploma calling him a college graduate and he still doesn’t have a college education.
It is important for your Discipleship teacher to know they cannot go free-lancing. The teacher’s dream about dispensationalism and one of Ezekiel’s visions may be relevant somewhere, but not to the Discipleship class. Pastor, you’ll have to reinforce this principle from time to time.
“Building a Hothouse” – Implementing The Strategies:
Like the tomato plant, our converts can grow if they have the right environment, or hothouse. Take a moment to assess your church’s hothouse.
* Are your services presenting a positive, life-changing alternative to the self-centered way of the world?
* Are you constantly working to intentionally raise the level of Biblical literacy among your flock?
* Do you have a Discipleship class in place?
* Is it at a convenient time for new converts?
* Does someone make a personal invitation to new converts?
* Is the class geared to the level of knowledge of the students?
* Is student-participation encouraged (reading in class, pre-work, and home work)?
* Are you following up on absentees?
* Are you celebrating completion of the class?
News & Views
September – October 2008
Spanish Evangelism Ministry Conference – The recent Spanish Evangelism Ministry Conference in Atlanta, Georgia was anointed of God. Lives were transformed through the preaching of men like Sergio Vitanza, Jerry Miranda, Darry Crossley, Martin Gonzalez, Wayne Huntley, Samuel Mendizabal, and others. In the Friday night crusade quite a number received the Holy Ghost. SEM Director Sergio Vitanza and his team are to be commended for their work.
General Conference Service – This year our overriding objective is that each preacher in North America be awakened to the opportunity that exists in cross-cultural evangelism. MCM Director Don Hanscom, and Home Missionaries Brian Lane, and Jerry Staten among others will tell of their part in the cross-cultural revival happening in North America. Evanglist Cortt Chavis will lead the worship team and a Filipino Choir will minister in their native tongue.
Apostolic Training Institute – Online We are beta testing Apostolic Training Institute as an online resource. If there are no problems, AT! – Online will be available for use in September. We will use distance learning techniques commonly used by online colleges. ATI’s twelve modules were developed for busy pastors to use as a resource for training local church leaders.
This article ‘Build A Hothouse’ by Carlton L. coon, Sr. is excerpted from Director’s Communiqu’, Sept/Oct 2008.