Our desire to help others meet God in deeper ways is grounded in healthy motivations. However, over the last few years, I have noticed a gap between some of my discipleship methods and their outcomes. If my goal was Christian transformation, why was I seeing so many walk away from our ministries unchanged? How was the message getting distorted? After years of discipleship relationships and missions experience, I discovered that the primary models I had been exposed to for mentoring people into greater maturity in God’s kingdom often reflected more of what the leader/discipler wanted, and not enough of God’s character or what the disciple needed. The following blogs explore an invitational discipleship strategy to facilitate a loving dialogue and environment in order to promote participation in the life of God and Christlike growth within a community.
Climbing and Falling
It isn’t easy to see out of a ninja mask made for toddlers, but that wouldn’t stop eight-year-old me. Over the black turtleneck and ninja mask, I was covered in army camouflage and I looked awesome. I crept through shrubbery and shadows down my street until I came to the perfect entry point – the large tree behind a neighbor’s house that draped its long branches into the target’s backyard. I scrambled up, slid along a long branch, and contemplated the scene below. Carl, my closest friend from my soccer team, (tall, lanky and sporting thick glasses) was being pushed around and taunted by the neighborhood bullies. They were no joke… they had set a girl’s hair on fire the week before. I was determined to show them justice.
My clammy hands (I was nervous) pawed at the heavy wooden club my brother had bought at an army supplies store a year ago. Unfortunately, because my hands were in thick winter gloves the club slipped out of my grasp, clambering down the branches below. Off-balance and desperately trying to recover my only weapon, I quickly followed, bouncing off wide branches into a heap behind the group of troublemakers. Carl took one glance at the commotion and fled. I didn’t blame him.
I pulled myself to my feet as the eight boys turned to appraise me. Here was my chance! The moment had finally arrived. The powers of righteousness were with me, I knew that God in His power would bring vengeance upon these malcontents and I would become more than a neighborhood legend, I would become mythical. I would become a superhero!
It didn’t go well.
It was only a minute or two before they had my mask off and were pummeling me soundly. I tried to be brave, but one of them held a saw blade to my neck and demanded that I bring them money. I nodded, no intention of coming back anytime soon, and they released a bruised, sullen, limping eight-year-old to gather his ninja mask and dignity and go home.
Since the saw blade had nicked my neck, my mom took me for a tetanus shot in my bum while spread unceremoniously over the lap of my pastor’s wife (I am still bewildered why she was the one giving me the shot). Needless to say, this was not the heroic ending I was hoping for.
Heroes and Hurts
The kinds of superheroes and fierce warrior queens who captivate our imaginations work to shape our hope of who we could become. I imagined myself as the harbinger of justice, and I told myself that the fame and glory that would accompany such a role was incidental. I was deluding myself. Deep at the heart of my heroic action was a desperate longing for acceptance and glorious reputation. This is often our human path to leadership too — where earnest hopes twist through our aching needs, and we arrive in ministry positions as adults cloaked in a swirl of hurt, hope, insecurity, and fear. Obviously, no one sets out to be a control freak or a manipulative or dismissive leader to any degree, but along the way our fears and wounds can collide with a picture of leadership that is more influenced by culture (and our life journey) than by Jesus.
The good news is that I have learnt there is another way. It hasn’t been easy, but the pathway itself has challenged and grown me to be more Christlike and provided a way to share His life with those I minister to. This way has required me to ask more questions and offer less advice. It has shaped me to be a shepherd and caregiver; it has caused me dissonance and pain, but ultimately it has invited healing and growth from the Shepherd and the Caregiver.
Discipleship was modeled for me most often by a leader asking a question or two and then launching into a response that they thought I needed to hear (with one or two exceptions). Advice, encouragement, identification with stories from their own lives, cautions, rebukes, etc.; it all came out, whatever was deemed necessary to fix me.
And it could hurt. Fitting my own story into someone else’s agenda was painful and not at all liberating. The confusing mess of it was the absence of the Fountain I needed; the Wellspring of Life that was indwelling me. I was drinking from my leaders’ water bottles, and only a stubborn refusal to leave my inner growth (and ministry expectations) to their standards kept me going.
In the process, I have learnt that how I approach someone under my leadership or influence can reflect my true self or my false self; how I treat those around me can display either my reliance on Jesus or my fears, insecurities, assumptions and attempts of control. When I nurture a faith experience that emphasizes participation in the life of God, it enriches the Body of Christ because the balance of power moves from monologue (one direction) to dialogue (inclusion and community). When I create spaces where it is assumed and expected that all involved have the indwelling Spirit and that we can approach our conversations in the presence of Christ, it promotes increased understanding and compassion, as well as underscoring the beauty of the unifying nature of the Holy Spirit. Creating dialogue forces me to engage in mutual submission within the corporate expression of the Body of Christ. Learning to listen with compassion and understanding allows me to prioritize a loving experience for “the other,” rather than just create ‘teaching moments’ through monologue. As such, this very method provides me with an opportunity to grow in the fruit of forbearance, kindness, hope and love as I practice extending the life of Christ to those I minister to.
In Philippians 2:5, Paul exhorts the Philippian church to imitate Christ. Christ has authority and power beyond all we can imagine, yet he displays His power in the following way:
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3-5, NIV)
This is his second-to-final word on leadership and power – washing the feet of His disciples! His last word of power and authority was self-sacrifice, as He laid down His life on the cross.
In this same way, Paul exhorts the Philippian church to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Christ laid down equality with God to follow a cruciform path. A path that does not grasp for power but is built on love and serving others. We are called to walk and find victory in this cruciform path as well.
Consider the following:
- Take a few moments to ask the Holy Spirit if there are places in your interactions with others where you could grow. Ask the Holy Spirit to make you aware opportunities to practice extending the fruit of the Spirit.
- Pause during a discipleship or leadership interaction this week and ask Holy Spirit, what do you want to do in this interaction? Listen carefully and ask key questions that will draw the other toward what Christ is already doing. Actively respond in ways that show the love, patience, kindness and gentleness of God.