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The Essence of a Disciple
JULIA WAS COMPLETING her last quarter of seminary and applying to different pastoral positions within her denomination when she received a call to a small congregation only an hour away from her school. She was thrilled to begin pastoring this congregation that was just shy of a hundred members and averaged about seventy people on a Sunday. This was an older congregation, and Julia saw lots of potential to reach its surrounding neighborhood.
Shortly after she got to the church, the church council discussed what should be her most important priorities. Four of the six elders expressed the need for the church to reach younger families; they were glad that Julia and her husband were at the church. But then a member of the church council timidly raised his hand. "What good," he said, voice trembling, "is a full church when nobody is growing? We need to focus on helping people become disciples of Jesus first — then we can figure out how to bring more people in."
This man's statement caused a robust — and, at times, heated — discussion. Some members argued that the church was great at making disciples. Look at how many of their members had been at the church thirty years! Surely these were great models of what a disciple was. Other members challenged this assertion: Yes, the church had many members with longevity, but were these members really growing as disciples?
As the meeting progressed, Julia reflected on her seminary experience and realized that she never gained a clear understanding of what a disciple was, let alone how to develop one. The meeting ended with the council concluding that one of the next steps would be to develop a working definition of a disciple — including some characteristics that they hoped would be produced in a disciple through the ministry of the church.
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One of the biggest challenges associated with developing a culture of discipleship is a lack of a clear, mutually-agreed-upon understanding of a disciple of Jesus. When a church doesn't have a unified vision around the characteristics and nature of a disciple, it will likely have a challenge making disciples. As is often said, if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time. A church can have a mission statement centered around making disciples, but if the nature of discipleship is unclear or there are competing visions of what it means to be a disciple, the church will never fulfill its mission.
At the foundation of this book are eight core qualities and twenty-one subordinate characteristics of a disciple. These qualities and characteristics will be further unpacked and given biblical support in chapters 3 through 7, but for now, we will take a thirty-thousand-foot view of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Our definition is based first and foremost upon the great commandment found in Matthew 22:34-40.
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."
Just prior to this passage, the Sadducees, a group of Jewish leaders who didn't believe in resurrection, tried to give Jesus a problematic scenario to prove that there is no resurrection. Jesus, as always, gave a response that they didn't expect, and they went away speechless. It is then the Pharisees' turn to try to trip up Jesus. They want to see Him diminish aspects of the law by lifting up one part of the law over the others. So, in a patronizing tone, they ask Jesus to name the greatest commandment.
Jesus' response is again unexpected. He answers the question not by lifting up one of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5; instead, He elevates what is known as the Shema, which means "hear" in Hebrew. It is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."
To this general command, He adds a second part to the command from Leviticus 19:18, indicating that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Then He says, "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." Some translations, like the NIV, use the word hang rather than depend, which underscores that these two commandments are like a skeleton: Other commandments and prophetic statements from the Scriptures become the flesh. Jesus is not elevating one commandment over the others; rather, He calls these commandments the greatest because they encompass God's call on our lives.
If we test Jesus' statement, we find it to be true, of course. We can't break any of the other commandments and still have kept the great commandment from Matthew 22. If we love God with our whole selves, then we will worship Him alone, we will honor His name, and we will keep the Sabbath. If we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will not commit adultery, we will not lie, we will not steal, and so on.
If all of God's desires for our lives can be summed up by the great commandments, then perhaps this verse is foundational to our understanding of discipleship. In this command, Jesus lifts up three aspects of ourselves with which we are to love God. We are to love Him with
our whole hearts;
our whole minds (or, as this book will say, "head"); and
our whole might (this book will use "hands," that is to say, our actions).
LOVING GOD WITH OUR WHOLE HEARTS
The Greek word for "heart" is kardia. From this word, we derive many medical terms, such as cardiologist; however, just as we use the word heart to convey something more than just the muscle that pumps blood through our body, so the Jews and the Greeks had deeper meanings as well. The heart is symbolic for several aspects of our lives.
The heart can symbolize our inner passions, desires, affections, and longings. An example of this use of the term heart is when Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19-24, "Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven." In verse 21, He says, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
The heart can also be symbolic for our interior lives with God and our closeness to Him. In Matthew 15:8-9, Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13, saying,
This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
Jesus and Isaiah are illustrating that some people were good at appearing to be close to God. In reality, however, external facades masked a disconnect between the people and God.
A final usage of the word heart is to describe one's character and integrity. In Mark 7, Jesus has been having heated interactions with the Pharisees over the nature and importance of their cleanliness rules. Jesus' accusation is that the Pharisees are elevating their own traditions above the commandments of God. He goes on to say that having clean hands does not actually make a person clean; we are not made unclean by things outside our bodies — rather, our impurity comes from within. Jesus makes His point in Mark 7:21-23:
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
Notice that this list of sins includes both items that are visible and items that are invisible to the outside world. The external, visible sins are things like theft, murder, and slander. The internal sins, which may not be visible to others, are things like pride, coveting, and evil thoughts. When we were developing the simple discipleship assessment and engaging in the validity studies, some of the individuals taking the assessment realized that they didn't have people in their lives who knew them deeply enough to answer these questions. Some of these participants had been in small groups for years and yet still didn't have people who really knew them. Because some of these matters of the heart can easily be hidden from others, it is important that we develop relationships where people know us intimately and have access to see the things that might be hidden from our normal sphere of connectedness.
Three of the eight core qualities we identify in Simple Discipleship pertain to matters of the heart. These qualities are discussed at length in chapters 3 and 4.
LOVING GOD WITH OUR WHOLE MINDS
The second aspect to the great commandment is that we are to love God with our whole minds. There is a little bit of a change in the way Jesus quotes the Shema in Matthew 22:37. In Deuteronomy 6:5, Moses uses the wording heart, soul, and might, but in Matthew 22:37, Jesus says heart, soul, and mind. The challenge in interpretation is that might and mind are two very different concepts: Mind has to do with our intellect, and might pertains to our physical nature.
The reason for the apparent discrepancy in the parts with which we are to love God is that the word soul can also have a variety of nuanced meanings. Over the centuries, the particular aspects of soul that have been emphasized are varied. In the Hebrew understanding, which is the understanding present in the Shema, the aspect of soul that was emphasized was what we would normally classify as the characteristics of the mind. In the Greek understanding of the word soul, the emphasis was placed more on physical acts of doing, where we are to love God with our actions — or, as we will say throughout the book, "qualities of the hand." So in essence, in the Shema, Moses is saying that we are to love God with our hearts, minds, and actions, and in Matthew 22:37, Jesus is saying to love God with our hearts, actions, and minds. For the purposes of this book, we will focus on the concept of loving God with our minds.
The ability to engage our minds in our love for God is a wonderful gift. The Lord has given us His Word not only as a means of connecting with Him but also to learn who God is and identify His purposes in the world. We learn who He has created us to be and what our mission is. In Romans 12:2, Paul tells us that the way in which our whole selves are to be transformed is by the renewing of our minds. As we engage our minds and let His Word and truth saturate our thought processes, we will be transformed individuals for the Lord.
Many times in Scripture, the Lord calls His people to have a better understanding of His Word and to pass on the truth of His Word to others. Perhaps one of the best passages to illustrate the expectation that God has for us to grow in our understanding of God's Word is Hebrews 5:11-14. The author of Hebrews writes in the previous verses about how Jesus is from the priestly order of Melchizedek. Then he stops, almost midthought. It is as if he realizes that by continuing on this line of thinking and giving his explanation, he would just cause greater misunderstanding among the people, because they didn't have the capacity to understand. The author writes,
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
In this passage, there is clearly the understanding that God expects our minds to grow. He has the expectation that we grow in our knowledge of His Word, that we grow in our ability to process deeper theological truths, and even that we all have the ability to teach other people. He uses the analogy of a move from milk (the basic doctrines of the Word of God) to solid food (deeper theological truths). What a great analogy that we can easily understand. We all know that babies need milk and they are unable to chew or swallow solid food.
I think of the growth of my own son, when he needed only milk or formula for the first couple of months. Then, after a few months, we would put a little bit of the first stage of rice food in his bottle with a bigger nipple. A few months later, he was eating pureed baby food that he could mush around in his mouth and swallow. The next thing I know, I am enjoying a rib-eye steak with my twelve-year-old son. Now, my son still enjoys milk — it helps the meatier food go down more easily, and he likes the taste — but people would look at him (and us) funny if he was still bottle-fed. And yet we don't bat an eye when people in our churches are only able to take in the basic elements of God after being Christians for more than a decade.
Core quality 4 examines the characteristic of the mind, our ability to know the Scriptures, and our capacity to continue engaging in His Word. These aspects will be fleshed out more completely in chapter 5.
LOVING GOD WITH OUR WHOLE MIGHT
One of the first sermons I ever preached was on serving God. A lady came up to me after the sermon and said, "That was a great sermon. I want to start serving God when I retire in ten years." God's Word, however, is abundantly clear: We are all to engage in His mission and purpose in the world.
Christianity is not a spectator sport. I heard it said once that oftentimes, life in the church is like a professional football game: thousands of people in the stands who desperately need exercise and a few people on the field who desperately need rest. Somehow, the church in the West has decided that participating in the work of God in the world is only for people with extra time on their hands.
There are two ways we engage in God's mission in the world. First, there are some things that we are called to do regardless of the specific gifts and callings that God has given us. For example, all of us are called to care for orphans (James 1:27), feed the poor (Matthew 25:35), and make disciples (Matthew 28:19).
The second way we are called to serve is by using our individual gifts to fulfill the specific ministries that God assigns us. One of those passages is 1 Corinthians 12, which gives some examples of the types of gifts that God has given to believers for building up the church. Paul's point is that all of these gifts must work together in order to fulfill God's purposes — no gifts or roles are more important than others. Ephesians 4 discusses the unity of the body and the different roles that are present within it: apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher. Paul then says that the only way the whole body of Christ, the church, will be healthy and fulfilling its purpose is if each part of the body is functioning properly.
The final four qualities in the discipleship profile are related to loving God with our strength or actions. Quality 5 is related to our ability to take the posture and attitude of Jesus as we engage in the contexts where God has placed us. Quality 6 looks at our ability to engage others in discipleship, which includes sharing our faith with nonbelievers and then helping other believers grow into maturity. Quality 7 looks at our ability to commit to the Christian community, by being devoted to the mission of a congregation and having a closer community of believers who help one another grow. Finally, quality 8 is related to understanding and living out the specific ministries that God assigns us. These four qualities of a disciple are articulated more completely in chapters 6 and 7.
DISCIPLESHIP OUT OF BALANCE
It is easy for a disciple to be out of balance in these three general areas of discipleship — loving God with our whole hearts, minds, and might. Every believer will more naturally gravitate toward certain discipleship qualities and characteristics that align with his or her spiritual gifts. Particular churches and denominations will tend to emphasize one or two of these areas over others. It is important, therefore, to examine our personal discipleship to see if we are in balance. It is also helpful to examine our churches' approaches to discipleship for the same reason.
If a church emphasizes helping disciples love God with their hearts and minds but negates loving God with their hands, the church will become doctrinally pure and have a robust devotional life but will likely be insulated from the outside world. In this situation, individuals might selfishly think that the church exists to meet their spiritual needs and not focus on God's mission in the world. An example of this attitude might be the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-22. Jesus says He knows their deeds, and they are neither hot or cold. This refers to the two streams of water that went into Laodicea: one from Colossae that was cold and refreshing and one from Hierapolis that was hot and healing. They both served purposes, but by the time those waters came to Laodicea, they were lukewarm and gritty; people would drink that water and immediately spit it out.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Simple Discipleship"
Copyright © 2018 Dana Allin.
Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Alex Absalom, ix,
Introduction: The Main Thing, xi,
1 The Essence of a Disciple, 1,
2 Jesus — the Great Disciple Maker, 15,
3 Gospel Identity: The Center of a Disciple, 31,
4 Qualities of the Heart: The Character of a Disciple, 47,
5 Qualities of the Mind: The Knowledge of a Disciple, 65,
6 Qualities of the Hand, Part 1: The Mission of a Disciple, 77,
7 Qualities of the Hand, Part 2: The Ministry of a Disciple, 91,
8 Designing a Personal Plan for Discipleship, 105,
9 Discipling as Coaching, 121,
10 Strategies and Environments for Discipleship, 137,
Appendix A: A Simple Discipleship Assessment, 167,
Appendix B: Resources to Aid in Discipleship Design Development, 173,
Appendix C: Sample Designs, 175,
Take the Simple Discipleship Assessment!, 181,
What People are Saying About This
If it bothers you that the church in North America is overprogrammed and underdiscipled, start reading this book today. Dana Allin delivers on a clear and compelling way forward in a tool that will invigorate and accelerate real disciple making in your church.
As a US denominational leader during a critical time for the church in this nation, Dana fully understands the strategic significance of discipleship for the credibility and authenticity of the movement that claims Jesus as Lord. He knows that the nondiscipleship of the church under-mines everything we seek to do. We must correct this deficit or continue to decline. Pay attention!
Christ’s mandate to the church is this: Make disciples. Do you have a method? Dana distills years of Christian leadership into a simple process. This book is a gift to any who wish to live their lives in the likeness of Jesus Christ or help others do the same.
In Simple Discipleship, Dana Allin brings together two of my favorite topics: coaching and discipleship. His thesis in this bookthat discipleship happens primarily through life experiences and relationship rather than listening to sermons and reading booksis absolutely right. He also gives the reader practical tracks to run on: specific qualities and characteristics of a disciple, tips for creating a personalized disciple-making plan, and a path to implementation. Dana is clearly writing from a wealth of experience, and our churches would all be stronger if we followed his lead.
The church exists to make disciples. Dana Allin issues here a desperately needed invitation to embrace our assignment with urgent grace and eager hearts. Listen and heed the sound of the trumpet.
Helpful discipleship books are being published every month. But this one is different and rare. This book is linked with a very useful instrument that looks at your spiritual growth through the eyes of yourself and othersa 360-degree view. Defined qualities (eight) and character-istics (twenty-one) of discipleship are listed. Through this book and instrument, a person can begin to assess the strong and stunted areas and find joy in serving and in growth. The best chapter might be the one on how to coach someone through the discipleship process. Don’t miss this one!
Discipleship continues to be one of the biggest challenges of the twenty-first-century church, both in the West and in the East. Simple Discipleship is a clear, passionate, and very practical account of who a disciple is and how to go about making one. It is a beautiful and timely gift to the church of the Master Disciple Maker.