This time of year, I begin to hear the noises coming from the basement. It’s those boxes that I’ve hidden away in the vain hope that I won’t have to see them again. Don’t worry! It’s no deep, dark secret. It’s our Christmas decorations. Boxes and boxes of them. Around Thanksgiving, they begin calling my name. I don’t resist their call on purpose — it’s just a very busy time of year. I have to ask the question: Do I stop watching the Georgia Bulldogs and go put up Christmas lights…? Of course not! I allow the business of the season, and other things crowd out the boxes begging to be unpacked and strewn all over the house.
Too often we do the same thing with the call to disciple others. We know we’re called to disciple the people God has entrusted to us in our churches, but sometimes that calling can get lost, especially under the slew of other things we have to do to support the church. Discipleship takes time and focus, and demands our attention. We know that there is more to it than preaching good sermons and starting small groups, but what? How do we know if our efforts are making any difference? The complexity and time required to create a discipleship culture lead some churches to just count heads and evaluate themselves on the growth of attendance numbers — but attendance numbers alone do not equal discipleship. Discipleship doesn’t happen on its own; it requires meaningful relationships and systems processes to support it. There no easy measurement of discipleship, and sometimes the busyness of ministry crowds out of focus of making disciples.
You can preach a stunning message on Sunday morning, but that alone won’t pave the way for discipleship. I’ve found the most basic, most important building block for a growing, effective discipleship ministry regardless of the busyness of ministry is simply creating a space for it. Discipleship thrives when it’s given an environment that supports and encourages it.
Three keys to creating a space for discipleship
- Discipleship always takes place in the context of relationship. Jesus taught the masses, but broke bread with His disciples. Creating space for discipleship means creating space for community and relationships. Small groups are one of the most obvious places for this, but not all small groups are really discipleship venues. Look beyond simple attendance into involvement — connecting after services, volunteering, whatever is the most important measure of involvement to your church. Encourage your small groups to grow and raise new leaders. And just because small groups are the most obvious choice, don’t limit yourself to them! Discipleship can happen in a variety of ways, whether in a small group or a service project or a retreat or more.
- The people with the most to pour out and the people who need it most won’t always connect on their own. Do your small groups and other gatherings tend to segregate themselves by age? It’s a natural inclination, but it’s not optimal. The older generations in your church have so much wisdom they can share with the younger, but these valuable discipleship connections often never get a chance to form, just because no one is intentional about bringing the generations together. Perhaps you can establish a mentoring program, so men and women with more life experience and wisdom can take younger men and women under their wings and help disciple them. If you’re in a college town, you might create space for older couples to ‘adopt’ students, putting them all in a place to learn from and grow with each other. Or perhaps it can be as simple as encouraging people of varying ages to form a small group to pray together at the Wednesday night service and watching relationships form in the context of prayer.
- Tangible metrics will help you evaluate intangible life change. When you’re doing everything you can to create a space for discipleship, you need to know if your efforts are bearing fruit. Discipleship may not be directly measurable, but the behaviors that are influenced by someone’s discipleship journey are! Track faces, not just numbers, to get a handle on if people who’ve plugged into your small groups or service programs or whatever else are coming more consistently or serving in more places. Generate reports on attendance for more events than just regular services; track giving patterns and volunteer progression. Taking steps to get more involved with the church is a sign of discipleship. Don’t miss those signs!
The needs of our ministries keep us hard at work, but it’s important that we carve out an intentional space for discipleship and the relationship that encourages it. Ministry is busy — but never too busy for discipleship. Ah, but you probably shouldn’t expect the Christmas decorations to get put up while the Dawgs are playing.