As I began this series of articles I listed eight strategic principles I have observed in healthy disciple-making churches. Last week I talked more in-depth about the relational component of disciple-making. Today I will expound on the transformational element.
Effective churches define what it means to be a maturing Christian disciple differently than do most churches. Most of us would say that the more you know about the Bible the more mature you are as a Christian. And there is, without a doubt, a knowledge component to Christianity. However, the Bible describes a maturing Christian as someone whose life is being transformed daily into the image of Christ. As such, effective disciple-making churches reject the popular definition of a mature disciple is simply someone who knows what to do (attends classes, participates in a small group, regularly attends worship, etc.). Their mantra is discipleship is not just about the transfer of information, but it is about genuine life transformation.
Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ involves doing His will, not just knowing what His will is. It calls for people to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. In other words, it is an obedience-based rather than simply a knowledge-based discipleship model. Knowledge is necessary but is not enough in and of itself. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21-23).
In James 2:18-20, we read, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” If you read the entirety of James chapter two, you would agree that James is using the word “faith” to describe a person’s emphasis on “knowing about God” and the word “works” to describe a person’s emphasis on obedience—doing what God says we should do.
Paul’s description of a disciple in Romans 12:1-2 includes both a knowledge and an obedience component—both are necessary. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” I wish our Bible translations would use the original Greek word instead of the word “transformed” in verse two. It is a word that provides a vivid picture of the Biblical meaning of being “transformed, and it is a word we are already familiar with because we use the Greek word in biology: “metamorphosis.” When we hear the word metamorphosis, we immediately picture an ugly worm being transformed into a beautiful butterfly. The Biblical definition of a maturing disciple is just that dramatic. Paul declares in II Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Jesus’ sharpest criticism was directed at the religious elite--they had great knowledge but were not being transformed by their knowledge. “Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matthew 23:1-3). Jesus then gives a series of exhortations beginning with “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” describing areas where their knowledge of what is right isn’t impacting their willingness to do what is right.
Throughout the epistles, life transformation is emphasized. Paul’s deeds of the flesh versus the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:19-25 is one example:
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Peter’s three-fold emphasis on obedience in I Peter 1:1-2, 13-16, and 22-23 is another:
To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.
Sunday morning I heard Good News Jail and Prison Ministry Chaplain John Heatley preach at my home church. He shared three questions he regularly asks someone who has landed in jail:
"There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death "(Proverbs 14:12).
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
His prayer is that they will admit that doing things THEIR way isn’t working and that they will humbly trust in the Lord and learn to heed God’s word and avoid repeating the mistakes that got them where they are.
Notice that his experience as a jail chaplain has led him to seek the Biblical balance between knowledge and obedience. Remember, “To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). What does your discipleship-making model reflect relative to transformation?
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I introduced you to the eight strategic principles I have observed in healthy disciple-making churches. Today I will begin to discuss them in more detail. I would caution you to not think of them as being discussed in order of priority, but think of them as integrally intertwined. I would go so far as to suggest that if you are not firing on all eight cylinders then you will not experience the fullness of what God can do in and through your church.
1. Relational—Leaders of disciple-making churches understand that God’s work is not accomplished in a vacuum or by Lone Ranger types. These leaders understand that deep discipleship cannot take place in a worship format alone and that God (who Himself is a relational being) does His work best in a relational environment: small groups and one-on-one. If a church body expects to have a significant impact upon its community, both its leaders and individual members must be willing to invest in the lives of those who are far from God.
My observations are that disciple-making is more caught than taught. You can read all the great books on discipleship—and you’d better begin with the Bible—but unless you have been intentionally discipled by others, you will probably not be willing to invest the relational capital required to make a disciple. Proverbs 14:4, which has become one of my life verses, speaks to this reality: “Where there are no oxen the stall is clean, but great gain comes through the strength of an ox.” A modern paraphrase might be, “Life isn’t as messy when I don’t have to deal with people, but life is ultimately better when lived in community.”
There is an old adage that says, “If you want to go fast, then go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Another with a similar meaning is “Do you want to grow squash or oak trees?” The latter has particular application in a world where speed and size are celebrated above character and quality. My experience is that when you sacrifice quality and character, your speed and size will simply create a bigger and more spectacular crash—and it WILL HAPPEN. If you need proof, I would again refer you to the current podcast series being done by Christianity Today entitled The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Church.
All of this means that relational evangelism must be the norm for the life of every believer. There might have been a day when there was enough basic Biblical knowledge in our culture for us to see fruit from “hit and run evangelism,” but those days are gone. Gallup recently reported that for the first time in the 80 years they have done polling, church membership has fallen below 50% in America. If that isn’t bad enough, they also indicate that Americans who report no religious affiliation has grown from 8% to 21% in the last twenty years. AND 33% of those under 30 years of age say they have no religious affiliation.
If we are relational in our disciple-making process it means that we are willing to “fight for healthy relationships.” We don’t write off someone because they are going through a tough stretch. We don’t let bad behavior go unaddressed, and we don’t address bad behavior in an unbiblical manner. Yes, it takes time and energy to do things the right way, but it’s what God expects us to do. Let me suggest some general Biblical principles that make my point:
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
I’m sure you have all been waiting breathlessly since I promised in my February 23rd article that, “Next week I will begin to drill down into the Biblical principles I have observed in every ‘healthy disciple-making church’ I have encountered.” After penning that promise, I took an unanticipated nineteen-week detour to discuss current issues in SBC life. Like many of you, detours and distractions are a part of my daily life.
Some of you have heard me say that flexibility in my role will kill me because I live in a fluid world. For those who have been in my office, you know that my motto is “a clean and uncluttered desk is the sign of a sick mind.” Some of that is caused by the reality that at any given moment I will be working on at least a dozen different projects. I don’t share any of that to complain or rationalize, but merely to explain the delay in keeping my promise. A man’s word is his bond, and my goal is to be a man of integrity.
Now regarding my promise…In a little over a week, I will complete my twenty-eighth year of service as an Associational Mission Strategist. During that time, God has given me the privilege of seeing healthy disciple-making churches in multiple contexts: church planting, church revitalization, international missions, and inner-city missions. He also gifted me with the ability to differentiate between cause and effect, or as some might state it, between doing the right things and getting the right results.
I’ve listened to the first two posts of a Christianity Today blog that is garnering a lot of attention. It is entitled “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” It’s basically an autopsy on what happens when a church places its focus on getting the right results, while they ignore the reality that they are not doing things the right way. Integrity, character, and relationships ARE important. You cannot brush off collateral damage as simply a by-product of getting the right results. All of us are accountable to God for how we steward our time and talents as we humbly acknowledge that any fruit that might be produced is because of Him (John 15:1-8).
Several years ago I began to write, refine my thoughts, preach, and teach regarding the principles I have observed in healthy disciple-making churches. I began with seven and after bouncing them off of one of the best global mission strategists in the world, Jim Slack who God has since called home, I have settled on the following eight:
1. Emphasizes genuine relationships,
2. Focused on life transformation rather than simply a transfer of information,
3. Willing to hold one another accountable,
4. Self-sacrificing for the sake of the Gospel,
5. Designed and functioning with multiplication in mind,
6. Organizationally aligned from top to bottom,
7. Always intentional and proactive, and
8. Implementing Biblical principles in a culturally relevant manner.
Before I expand on each of them in the following weeks, let me suggest that these principles are imbedded in The Great Commission:
"And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen”
Jesus’ opening statement, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” tells us that He is in charge and He is giving the orders. His concluding promise, “I am with you always” implies that we have access to that power; however, with great power comes great responsibility. God will hold us ACCOUNTABLE for the way we steward that power.
The primary command (main verb) is to “make disciples.” This command requires us to communicate two critical realities: First is the fact that apart from Christ, people are separated from the love of God, stand eternally condemned in their sin, and incapable of finding true joy and peace in this life. This reality should propel us in our willingness to be SELF-SACRIFICING. This also acknowledges that there is an initiating point for becoming a disciple: confession, repentance, and conversion that speak to the evangelistic nature of our self-sacrifice. Second, we understand that the Biblical concept of a disciple is not simply someone who is professing Christ, but a disciple is someone who is possessing a new and different way of life: TRANSFORMATION.
In addition to the one main verb, there are three descriptive participles in the passage. The first is having gone. Greek sentence structure and grammar raises this participle’s impact parallel to the force of a main verb. This provides the English translations with its imperative “Go!” This means that laissez-faire, whatever happens, attitude on our part, is not acceptable. Rather it requires us to be constantly vigilant, seeking to identify where God is at work so that we can join Him. In other words, we must be INTENTIONAL and PROACTIVE.
The second participle is “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The modifying clause referring to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speaks to the personal and relational nature of God and the reality that He created us as relational beings and acknowledges that ministry happens at the RELATIONAL level. Baptism has historically provided both a self-identification with the body of Christ and a specific affiliation with a local body of believers. Baptism becomes a symbolic relational connecting point to God and to fellow believers.
The third participle, “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you,” implies that our instructions are ALIGNED with Divine teachings and practices. And that alignment is not just knowledge-based. It is teaching with the intention of changing lives to “observe all that” Jesus had commanded.
His concluding promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” means that the task will be multi-generational. Jesus’ parting statement in Acts 1:8 was, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This statement speaks to the geographical expansion that will be required to carry the Gospel to the world. When these two concepts are combined, a process that is constantly EXPANDING and MULTIPLYING is required.
In the Biblical language (Greek), Jesus said our target audience is “panta ta eqnh” (panta ta ethne). Unfortunately, it is poorly translated into English as “all the nations.” A better translation would be “all ethnic groups.” Nations implies a geo-political state while the term “ethnic group” points to the language and cultural differences that exist in every nation. To reach every ethnic group, our disciple-making efforts must be CULTURALLY APPROPRIATE.
In the weeks ahead, I will begin to unpack these principles. But in the meantime, I would encourage you to objectively review them based upon the whole of scripture and not just the Great Commission.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.