A couple of weeks ago our small group studied the first few verses of Colossians 2. We are currently going, a few verses at a time, through this beautiful letter written by Paul and inspired by the Spirit of God. I was struck by the opening words of the second chapter:
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ. (Colossians 2:1-2 ESV)
At first glance, it seems Paul is either whining or bragging on himself. “I want you to know how much I struggle for you.” What does Paul mean here? As we studied this passage, it became that what Paul didn’t mean was, “C’mon guys, can’t you see how hard I’m working for you here? A little credit would be nice.”
No, not at all. What Paul is saying is something different and, sadly, a little foreign to the way we think of discipleship today. I think when most of us think of discipleship, we think of it in this process: first, evangelize; second, meet regularly and go through a curriculum for spiritual growth. Both of these things are important. Evangelism–actually opening our mouths and sharing the good news of what Christ has done–this is our mission. And systematic study is vital for the spiritual growth of new converts.
But if we look at what Paul is saying here, we find that discipleship is so much more than we think. Paul is communicating to these people how much he is invested in them, how much he is for them. Imagine, for a moment, how encouraging this must feel. Paul cared deeply for their spiritual lives. He loved them. He spent long nights praying and thinking of their spiritual welfare. This is what true brotherly love and discipleship look like.
I fear that much of our discipleship is didactic in nature. We’re trying to make a point. So we think that discipleship means writing another blog or sending another tweet to people we barely know. But real discipleship happens off-screen, in private conversations, over a period of many years. It springs from natural friendships.
Paul had earned the right to speak into the lives of the believers at Colossae. Not because he had a PhD from a seminary. Not because he was on the NYT bestsellers list. Not because he had 100K followers on Twitter. Those things can all be leveraged for influential good. But the real spiritual growth transfer happens in deep and caring relationships. This church and these people would listen to what Paul had to say because Paul had been invested deeply in their lives.
I wonder if we put enough premium on this kind of relationship today. It seems there is a lot of drive-by discipleship today. It’s so easy to think that because we’re posting pithy quotes online that we’re doing God’s work. It’s easy to think rebuke and discernment are at-replying a famous Christian on twitter with whom we disagree. But is this really how people grow?
Pastors and church leaders would do well to model Paul’s investment in their people. Pastors who deeply care for their people, who actually know them well, will see a much better response to their preaching. But pastors who are only present on Sunday to deliver content—God uses this preaching to change lives, but it won’t be as effective as faithful, person-to-person ministry over a long season.
Parents would also do well to model Paul’s life. Our kids have to know that we are for them. So when we discipline and rebuke, they know it’s out of love, not out of frustration or anger. Are we present with them?
Even when we write, email, tweet, text: Does the intended audience feel that we care about them? That we are invested in them? That even if we must sharply disagree, contend, proclaim—we’re doing it with a heart broken by love for the people God loves?
Or are we doing drive-by discipleship? This is a good question to ask ourselves.