Not According To Plan
Relying too much on discipleship programs can actually hinder the work of the Holy Spirit.
Imagine you are walking through a garden and you notice a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. What would happen if, in an effort to help it, you took some scissors and snipped the cocoon away?
In a few hours you would witness a tragedy. The wings, shrunken and shriveled, would not fill out with all their potential beauty. Instead of developing into a creature free to fly, the butterfly would drag a broken body through its short life. The constricting cocoon and the struggle necessary to be free from it are God’s way of forcing fluid into the butterfly’s wings. The “merciful” snip would have been in reality quite cruel.
Similarly, in well-intentioned efforts to help others grow spiritually, we may interfere with what God is doing in their lives. Trying to force people to follow rigid discipleship programs can actually stunt spiritual growth. Experience convinces me that an approach to discipling others based on methods alone is bound to fail.
The way to maturity is often difficult and ugly, forcing us to embrace our poverty before God. In helping others grow we must teach them to struggle well, not avoid the fight while building a shining exterior. Sometimes the struggle is exactly what they need. By trying to make things easy for people, we may actually cripple them.
We must understand the role God has called us to in influencing spiritual growth in others. Influence is the key word here. We cannot cause or control growth in another. Paul wrote, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6). He went on to describe how we are God’s fellow workers. What does it mean to be a fellow worker? Before understanding our role and His role, we must look at the process of personal transformation.
How a Disciple Grows
In Rom. 12:2, when Paul says we must be “transformed,” he uses the same word we would use to describe a caterpillar becoming a beautiful butterfly: metamorphosis. This is the same expression used to describe what happened to Jesus at the transfiguration (Mt. 17:2). It means to become something brand new, changed completely from the inside out. The word implies that we are not causing the changes that are taking place.
Transformation involves a newness of thought and will. Titus 3:5 identifies this as a ministry of the Holy Spirit, “through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Something new is called into being within each of us. We become new in character, renovated. We become “new creatures” (2 Cor. 5:17). This metamorphosis is not only initiated by a creative act of God, it is continued and enabled by the Holy Spirit.
We do have active responsibility in our personal growth. In 2 Cor. 3:18, Paul describes us as standing unveiled before God. Naked, exposed to our very roots before the Lord, we find ourselves transformed (same caterpillar word) from glory to glory, in increasing degrees of maturity. Having everything revealed is directly related to experiencing real change. The degree to which we are willing to embrace the truth about ourselves determines our capacity for change. If we ignore or deny reality, we bring the growth process to a halt.
There is another responsibility beyond honest self-assessment. We must follow where the Holy Spirit leads. Some years ago I was flying a friend to a meeting. Outside Macon, Georgia, we encountered a terrible storm. Suddenly, all my navigation instruments quit functioning, showing red flags or lights. Lightning had just taken out the airplane’s navigational aids.
I called the tower and asked for help. As they gave me heading and altitude changes, I had a choice. I could have said, “No, I don’t like those instructions, I’m going to land my way.” Or, I could have said, “I give up, you get me down,” and let go of the stick. Either response would have gotten us killed. Both my will and the controller’s had to be active, participating, each doing its assigned task.
The function of the air traffic controller is a good picture of the Holy Spirit’s role in transformation. The words used in Gal. 5:16-18 reflect this duality: “Walk by the Spirit… led by the Spirit.” The Spirit leads, we follow. Our part is active obedience.
Who really is responsible for growth and change in a life? Philippians1:6 indicates it is God: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Ultimately, change is the responsibility of the Spirit of God and the individual. It is never, never the discipler’s responsibility. What then is the role of the discipler?
From Programs to Process
Understanding the discipling process will help answer this question. A disciple is a pupil, learner, or follower. In the days of Christ, a follower strove to emulate the example of the master in thought and action. The student fully embraced the knowledge and character of the teacher, who was not only the master, but the model (Mt. 10:24-25).
Discipleship, then, is a process, not a series of events, not a sequence of achievements to check off a list. The New Testament builds for us a picture consistent with the biblical definition for disciple: someone in the process of maturing in Christ. Yet we find it easier to view discipleship as a program than a pilgrimage. We tend to like things that can be reduced to measurable steps. Unfortunately, growth does not lend itself to such linear expectations.
When, instead, we view the process of growth as a pilgrimage, we can come alongside others and help them on the way. How? By determining where the Holy Spirit has them so that we can use our discipling tools and skills to help them go further. In helping others grow spiritually we need to remember that we can influence but not cause, facilitate but not direct, encourage but not control self-awareness and obedience. When we view helping others grow as a program, we tend to define steps too clearly and force others to jump through hoops to accomplish discipleship objectives. The focus is no longer on the person, but on the program.
Should we ever use programs to help others grow? Not if we are depending on a program instead of modeling and teaching what it means to “follow” Christ in our daily lives. How can we tell the difference? One clue something is wrong is finding ourselves unwilling or unable to accept a legitimate deviation from the program for the sake of the disciple. We need to be sensitive to each individual’s unique needs in this process, and to acquire skills that allow us to create a custom discipling program for each disciple.
Bill wanted to grow in the Christian life, and his pastor assigned him to me to disciple. Though this arrangement was not ideal, since Bill and I were strangers, we worked at getting to know one another. Soon we were into the basics of quiet time, Bible study, prayer, lordship, fellowship, witnessing, and Scripture memory. But Bill stubbornly refused to memorize Scripture, although the program we were using required it. So I departed from the checklist. What Bill needed was to get the Word into his heart it really didn’t matter how. So, we began memorizing life principles and where they could be found in Scripture.
This appealed to Bill. Soon he was studying the Bible with new interest and intensity. To my knowledge, Bill has never memorized one verse. But he is one of the godliest men I know. He has a better command of biblical principles in some areas of life than I do. Forcing Bill to stay with the program would have been “snipping the cocoon” for him. So would letting him off the hook and not finding a way to get the Word into his life. Bill and I had to struggle together to find a way to fill this spiritual void with new life and vitality. The discipler can only apply the “how-to’s” of any program correctly when he weds them to the disciple’s specific needs. To do this, the discipler needs to rely on the Spirit for discernment.
From “Me” to “We”
Discipling in cooperation with the Spirit also means giving up our role as the spiritual helper and bringing others into the discipling process. Paul describes his ministry among the Thessalonians in terms of “we,” “us,” and “our.” Discipling is a team effort.
Certainly one-on-one is an important element in any discipling process. But to assume total responsibility for someone else’s growth not only usurps the Spirit’s role, it denies the interdependence to which God has called us. God intended discipling to take place in the context of His people, His Word, and His Spirit (Eph. 4:11-12). The discipler needs others who can serve as models and friends as he helps the disciple respond in obedience to God. This makes the role of small groups key in the discipling process, since real spiritual growth takes place primarily in the context of relationships.
When I first assumed responsibilities for small-group ministry in a large church, I was excited about the opportunity to help so many people grow at once. We trained small-group leaders, recruited the congregation to fellowship groups, and developed a curriculum of Bible study and prayer.
After a year, hundreds of people were involved in an activity, but no real growth was occurring. Knowledge increased and some relationships developed, but there was no new vitality. No ministry was spreading naturally beyond the confines of the groups. And we saw no evidence of the fruit of the Spirit growing in the life of the church. People were studying the Bible and praying together, but their lives were still isolated from one another. They were part of a program, not participating together in pilgrimage.
Several things had to change. The small- group leaders had to move away from their lone-wolf, it-all-depends-on-me approach to ministry and move toward functioning as an interdependent Body with many gifts (1 Corinthians 12). Shepherding the groups needed to be a team effort.
These groups also needed a social dimension that allowed members to be involved with each other naturally, outside the scheduled meetings of church activities. This is, for the most part, where the relationships develop that allow you to come alongside and genuinely help another. This also is the context that draws believers and nonbelievers into ministry most naturally. We experience the relevance of scriptural truth to our lives most easily in casual, relational settings.
Finally, the leaders needed to change their thinking about change. Transformation is an issue between God and the disciple. It involves a lifelong process in which the discipler cooperates with the Spirit to help the disciple. It is more important that we understand those we are trying to help and listen to the Spirit than to master any tool, skill, or formula related to discipling. Discernment knowing what to do, when, and why comes from such sensitivity, not command of ministry skills.
How can we be used of God to make a difference in the lives of others, not just create a lot of activity? First, we need to be Christ’s followers ourselves, modeling what we teach. We need to be people of prayer, depending on the Holy Spirit to guide us as we encourage and help others in their spiritual pilgrimages. And we must see tools, skills, and programs as aids, not crutches. “And those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan. 12:3).
This article “Not According to Plan” by Jeff Gernigan was excerpted from: www.discipleshipjournal.com website. A publication of NavPress and The Navigators. All Rights Reserved. February 2009. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’