Connecting the Dots Between Shepherding, Disciple-Making, and Meaningful Membership

Desiring God 2013 Conference for Pastors

Brothers, We Are Still Not Professionals: Reclaiming the Centrality of the Supernatural in Ministry

What I want to think about in this session is a lot like — but not the same thing — what we just thought about in the last session. What we just thought about in the last session was the disciple making pastor and pastoral ministry. We thought about what’s at the core of a pastoral ministry that the Lord might use to make disciples. This time I want to think with you about disciple making in the local church — the local church in disciple making.

The way I want to do that is by taking, oh, some marks of a healthy church and thinking not in terms as I usually do of the church as a whole, but trying to take in our mind’s eye an individual Christian and kind of run them through these things and see how this particular aspect affects the individual Christian. That is, I want to focus on how we should think through our local church and the way God would use it as a means to fulfill that Great Commission.

So again, let’s just start back there looking at those words of Jesus in Matthew 28. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18–20; all Scripture quotations in the NIV).

Marks of a Healthy Church for the Sake of the Great Commission

I want us to think about how we grow as Christians and what the local church has to do with that. What kind of church will cultivate true discipleship among our members? Could it be that a healthy local church is the missing element in the lives of too many disciples of Jesus Christ today? How many times do I meet Christians who tell me that, “Yes, they don’t really have much help in growing in Christ to their local church”? Now they could just have an overly critical spirit. They could be mistaking things. But they could be telling the truth. It could be that the pickins are slim where they are. So exactly how does a healthy local church contribute to Christian growth?

1. Expositional Preaching

Let’s think about this together. So first let’s begin with expositional preaching. You take a Christian, and you put them in a church where there is expositional preaching. Why does that help them to grow? Why is that basic for their discipleship? Well, think for a minute. How did you come to Christ? Someone had to give you knowledge from outside of yourself. You heard a word that wasn’t internal to you that you didn’t know intuitively, but God’s word came to you from outside and that’s how his Holy Spirit gave you life. The word of promise was held out to you and the Holy Spirit gave you the gift of faith. Listening to God speak in his word is how we’re first converted. So is it any surprise that to continue to grow as disciples, we want to be in a church that helps us to hear him?

I’m thankful that what seems to be a fad of 10 or 20 years ago is, I think, passing away, where people were trying to gear their churches around unconverted people’s felt needs. That just turns the church into a kind of echo chamber where people’s own self-knowledge is what drives the agenda of a local church. Of course, one of the main things we learn when we begin to read the Scriptures is that we’re not even asking the right questions about ourselves. We don’t even understand what our real problem is. So how surprised can we be that when we try to build a church around the non-Christian self-understanding that we go astray.

So if we want to see disciples made, we should want to see in our local churches God’s word taught, his word preached, and the expositional ministry of God’s word being central. There is nothing in this Word that we don’t need. All Scripture is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training and righteousness, all of it. So, brother pastor, I would just challenge you, are you committed to trying to do consecutive expositional messages through every kind of Scripture? Will you preach those in the Gospels? Will you take a prophet? Will you preach from the Psalms? Do you go through the letters in the New Testament, even the ones not by Paul? Do you preach through Judges? I mean, do you assume all of Scripture is there?

The Beauty of the Whole Counsel of God

I have met people who have degrees from evangelical seminaries who are in charge of church planting efforts in major cities. I’m thinking of one example in particular now from a few years ago. I was in Europe speaking to a group of missionaries, and one person came up to me at the break and said, “I’m in charge of church planting in this large city.” And he said, “Yeah, the Lord really spoke to me this year and told me just to plant churches this year based on the words of Jesus in the Gospels.” And I was taken aback by this and after a moment I just said, “Well, actually I don’t think that was Jesus that told you that. I think that was Satan. He appears as an angel of light. The Spirit of Jesus actually inspired 27 books in the New Testament, all of which are to be instructions for his churches.”

I really did say that. I am that socially awkward. But I was just aghast that somebody was taking Christian money and I think sincerely but wrongly then stopping their ears and teaching other pastors to stop their ears against all the stuff not in red in the Gospels, and all the rest of the New Testament.

Friends, all of this is God’s word. Do you want to see people growing in Christ? Do you want to see disciples being made? Teach all of God’s word. When we avoid parts of God’s word, we’re avoiding parts of God. We’re avoiding things that he would speak to us about himself. I think when we preach through all of Scripture it helps us to see God’s care and concern through history, through God’s long actions. I think it helps us to become aware of the beauty of the word, and the more you become aware of the beauty of the word, the more you become aware of the beauty of God’s care for us.

I was an agnostic who became a Christian and I have to say as I have been preaching God’s word for decades now, one of the proofs of the truth of Christianity, that to me seems increasingly realistic, is the Bible. Now, 20 years ago, I don’t think I would have said that. Twenty years ago I would have read 19th century statements in praise of the Bible and kind of gone, “Yeah, yeah, it’s the pre-critical age. I appreciate they’re being devoted toward their tradition. I think it’s true, but I think it’s true because of tough inductive thought, not because of the beauty of Scripture.” Well now 20 years on, I think I was probably wrong. I think there are just too many things that are prophesied that happened and that fit together amazingly that you’re not going to find in any other holy book of any other religious tradition in the world that I’m aware of.

The Benefit of Expositional Preaching

There’s nothing like it. It is unique. You will help to build disciples if you teach them all of Scripture. All of it is there for correction. If we want to grow in the Lord, we need to be corrected where we’re wrong. We want to see the gospel in all of Scripture and see its coherence. I think if we give ourselves to expositional preaching, we help disciples to learn from preachers other than ourselves.

You know, you can be too important in somebody’s spiritual growth. You can almost eclipse the Son himself if you’re always the one kind of mediating God’s truth to him. But I think when you preach expositionally, you make yourself more replaceable in that disciple’s life, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s not a matter of how clever you are with this series you’ve come up with. No, it’s a matter of you serving up Mark’s Gospel to them, but what they get addicted to is not the way you serve up Mark’s gospel, but God’s word — Mark’s Gospel itself

And then when they find some other preacher that is also preaching Mark’s Gospel what they’re attracted to is not you and your unusual insight or winning humor, it’s the truth of God’s word. And so, if someone else is preaching Mark’s Gospel they’re interested in that, not because of the preacher fundamentally, but because of what the preacher is preaching. I think expositional preaching helps to build that kind of mature disciple where we discourage a wrong dependence, and we come to know more of God and more of his character. So I think expositional preaching in your local church is part of the way you will help your local church to be a disciple-making church. I think it’s the most fundamental way you will do that.

2. Biblical Theology

But let’s go on to a second thing: a church in which there is biblical theology. What I mean by that is a church in which the truth about God and us is understood. So it’s not just that you preach through the Bible. I guess in a kingdom hall someplace there can be preaching through the Bible in some sense. You could have expositional preaching that doesn’t really say true things. Now they’re not faithfully expounding Scripture, though that may be their intention. They’re getting it wrong.

What I mean by biblical theology then is not only that the method one uses is good, trying to take God’s word and expose it to God’s people, but the conclusions derived from it, the things said from the Bible, are true and good. And friends, if we’re going to be a growing disciple, we need to know the truth about God and we need to know what he says about us. We need to know about his care. We need to know about his character. We need to see his choice of a people and then his working with his people through various circumstances.

When you have an understanding of what God has done, not just in isolated verses in the New Testament but in the panorama of God’s working with a people for centuries, then you see something of the character of God and the young disciple is helped to know better this God they worship and trust him. You see his dogged faithfulness to an unfaithful people. You see this pattern of him saving. You begin to understand the Exodus after creation is the great event in the Old Testament, and it’s an event of salvation, of deliverance. It’s God saving his people. So the young disciple begins to understand that this is the God who saves. This is who he is. This is what he does.

We are lost and he comes and saves us. And in fact, the sort of echo of that in the Old Testament is the return from exile. There are these two great events in the Old Testament. So the Old Testament stops being just a sort of catch-all of Bible stories, and it starts becoming a story, a meta-narrative, which takes us through God’s dealings with his people and shows a faithfulness that then we find fulfilled in Jesus. And when we begin to see the whole thing together there is an added magnitude of splendor and glory that attaches to God, and his character in the faithfulness in his words, and his searching initiative and care. And these great doctrines that we come to believe are not based merely on propositions in a letter in the New Testament, though that’s absolutely fine. They are there. But instead, you see them enfleshed and played out in lives and in history throughout centuries and as it were, it lives in your mind’s eye. That helps a disciple, that helps a disciple when church isn’t going well for them, or when there’s a problem with their child’s health.

It helps a disciple not just to know the individual propositions but to understand that this whole Book is telling me the same story. It’s giving me a thousand accounts which all are of this same God. And as he has been true and faithful in the past so I can rely on him to be true and faithful today. I think it’s encouraging for the Christian to see that meta-narrative, that plan, that meaning. I think that allows us to trust God and rely on him more. I think the meaning of the Scripture just comes to the fore. I think reading the Bible becomes less of the thought, “Oh, I better avoid this part. I never know what to do with that part. This scares me over here.” And you begin to understand the whole thing more, and you see how it is this great symphony with a unified vision of God and a story of his activity toward us that builds disciples when you teach them that about the word.

3. Biblical Understanding of the Gospel

Here’s a third thing: a church in which there is a biblical understanding of the gospel. If you really want to help a Christian become more of a disciple, help them to understand more of what Christ has done for them. Do you realize in some ways our experience is better than our theology? We have experienced God’s grace perfectly and without error on his side. He has done what he has done. Our perception of it can be failing and faltering, but we help God’s work in us when we realize more the depth of our need. This is one of the reasons I love the hymns that we sing by Horatius Bonar and John Newton. You find some of these hymn writers and you just find the words to those hymns and use them for your own soul’s sake. Do you know this one?

I asked the Lord that I might grow In faith and love in every grace Might more of his salvation know And seek more earnestly his face

I hoped that in some favored hour At once, he’d answer my request And by his love’s constraining power Subdue my sins and give me rest

Instead of this, he made me feel The hidden evils of my heart And let the angry powers of hell Assault my soul in every part

Newton goes on and he writes about his own need for the gospel. Friends, I think when we realize the truth of our need and we help a Christian to do that by being clear on the gospel, we help them to realize the even greater dimensions of God’s love. People in your church will not be helped if they are led by you to think lightly of sin because you only ever have a casual manner in your public services because you’ve bought the mistaken idea that casualness is a mark of intimacy with God. But it’s not. In the Bible, there’s nowhere that you find anyone who meets the real God who is casual about him. People fall down on their faces.

If you want to find something loud, well, you can find it in some of the psalms with a national, July-4th-like celebration, but you also find a lot of it in false worship, like around the golden calf. Do you want to know how that happens when they meet the real God? They shut up. They get silent. They fall on their faces. They stop objecting, they listen, and they watch in awe. That tends to be what happens in the Bible as people see the truth about God.

Friends, if we want to see the people in our church grow as disciples, we want them to understand the depth of their need because then they see how much God has done in Christ. We want them to be confident in this simple basic message of God’s love for sinners in Christ, of what God has done on the cross and by raising Christ, by Christ’s ascension and session in heaven where he stands there interceding for us. We want people to realize this. I think you can’t help but grow the more you come to understand what God has done in Christ, for whom he has done it, and how he has done it.

Instruction in the Gospel

Friends teach your church the gospel. I think I’m speaking the truth when I can say more than one time that I have evangelized and discipled a Christian by using the cannons of the Synod of Dort. I think they’re just a wonderful explication of the very core of substitutionary atonement. It’s just a wonderful meditation.

Now I’m not saying that’s for everybody and I’ve done that rarely, but I have done it and I found it edifying to stare at the center of substitution because I think meditating on the gospel returns you to the amazement that Charles Wesley knew when he wrote “And Can It Be”. Friends, the gospel is what we want the people in our churches to value. And if you want to see someone maturing as a disciple, you want to make sure your church is clear on the gospel. Make sure that all your services are clear on the gospel.

In our Sunday morning service, our main service, we are fairly traditional in that we meet when Christians have traditionally met. We meet on Sunday mornings, the first day of the week. It’s when the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead. There was a reason why Christians met then. It wasn’t a day off at first. They didn’t do it because it was convenient. They did it because Jesus got up from the dead and they were excited. So as a symbol of the tithing of their time and as a symbol of their giving their whole lives, they met on that first morning of the week. Even though they were Jewish and they observed the Sabbath, they would meet again on the first morning of the week.

Well, that’s what we do. We meet on the first morning of the week, on Sunday. And then one of the things we do when we meet is I want to make sure before the sermon ever happens, the gospel is clear. I want to make sure that from the praise of God and his holiness, to the confession of our sins, to the exaltation of the atonement of Christ, to our Scripture readings and hymns and prayers, to the call for repentance and faith, that the message of salvation is clear in our services.

One of the things that I’m both happy and sad that I hear too often from members when they’ve been away at holidays or on vacations is that they come back, and after the Sunday morning service on the way out, they’ll just say, “Oh, it was good for my soul to hear the gospel again. I was at this or that evangelical church, my family goes there or something, and the whole thing was on how to be better parents or how to get your financial house in order. But they didn’t tell me the gospel.” And it’s not that they need to get saved again every Sunday, but friends, you want to grow disciples by constantly feeding them the gospel and helping them to be amazed regularly at the gospel of Jesus Christ — that someone like that would love someone like me. That’s what you want them to think again and again because it’s the truth. I could keep going on with that. That’s number three. A disciple-making church will be clear on the gospel.

4. A Biblical Understanding of Conversion

Number four: a disciple-making church will have a biblical understanding of conversion. People need to understand, especially, how dependent we are on God for our Christian life. That brings gratitude in our hearts to God. It brings deeper praise when we sing hymns, when we reflect on how God has provided for us. And I think it brings greater hope when we understand more of conversion, when we understand how spiritually — I’ll use a mild term — unlikely it was that we were converted. Do you see how that makes us bolder in our evangelism?

Do you want to see the disciples in your local church grow? Teach them how surprising it was that they were ever saved. Teach them what a stunning, even shocking, display of God’s plenteous grace and amazing mercy it was that he would save people like us. Because when you do that you make it clear that they didn’t save themselves. And therefore, when they’re looking around at the non-Christians they know in their family, at their workplace, and in their neighborhood, they don’t need to look for the weakest ones, spiritually speaking, in their unbelief.

It’s kind of like what you see on the Planet Earth specials when the predator animals are searching and they’re looking for the weak antelope that they can take down when none of the others are looking. I think Christians approach evangelism like that sometimes. We don’t need to do that. No, because we ourselves were very unlikely converts and we know that, not because of how profligate our lives were, although they may have been, or who our parents were, though that sometimes doesn’t help — no, we know because of our own hearts. We know because of spiritually what we see in the truth of God’s word about all of us, and therefore when we realize what a miracle conversion is it makes us bold in our evangelism.

So do you want to make the people in your church better at obeying all that Jesus told them to do by being bold in their evangelism? Then make sure they understand about conversion, that the new birth is from above. That it’s by God’s Holy Spirit that he gives gifts of repentance (Acts 11:18), and that he gives the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8). These things are gifts that the Holy Spirit gives and you don’t have to look for the most likely people to be converted to decide who you will have evangelized. You share the gospel with everybody, and you let the Holy Spirit then convert whom he will.

Teaching New Truths to the Unconverted

For instance, if you want to see people grow in Christ, if you want to see your local church making disciples, make sure you are teaching them the truth about conversion. I want to especially stress this today because I think in some of our concerns for contextualization, we can make it seem like the gap between the world we’re trying to reach and us,is not that great, and almost that it’s going to be easier for them to be converted if we make sure it’s as small as possible. There is some truth in this. I don’t want to preach to you in a language you can’t understand. That would be ridiculous. Having said that, when I’m making sure we’re speaking a similar enough language, if I want to see you, non-Christian, converted, I’m going to have to teach you truths that you don’t inherently know that will involve teaching you new words.

I’m going to have to make you think about substitution and justification. I may or may not use those precise words, though at some point I’ll have to, but I’ve got to teach you those concepts and at some point I’ve got to help you realize that there is an eternal difference between your state and the state of somebody who’s saved. And I don’t help you if I don’t do that. If I teach you the biblical truth about conversion, if I teach that to the Christians in my church, then they can breathe a sigh of relief and realize they don’t have to accomplish this new birth because they didn’t understand how this was going to happen, and they can become more bold in their evangelism. I can talk more about that, but I need to keep going.

5. A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism

Number five: If you want to help make disciples in your local church, you want to give them a biblical understanding of evangelism and you can see how this flows from a biblical understanding of conversion. I think the lack of growth in a person’s spirituality is often evidence of the fact that they’ve been wrongly evangelized. Sometimes the people aren’t growing spiritually that we’re trying to help grow because they’re dead spiritually. They’re church members, not Christians.

Now, I would like all Christians to be church members, and I would love for all church members to be Christians, but neither of those things are going to happen I think. So we’re just going to have to continue to labor in an imperfect world. What we want to do with those who are converted and who are members of our church is to teach them to trust God in his call to us to spread the good news, like there in Matthew 28:18–20. When he gave this command to his disciples he knew what he was doing. He knew he was telling this to the very same people who had deserted him just weeks before, who knew what fear of man was.

He knew precisely into whose hands he was committing the Christian mission, but he knew that he would supply their weakness by the strength of his Spirit. He knew that he would give them the truth of his word. He knew that accompanying the word would be the Holy Spirit giving gifts of repentance and faith. He knew precisely that in their weakness, his strength would be made perfect. He knew exactly what he was doing.

So friends, if you want to see your members grow as disciples, you need to help them to understand what the New Testament teaches us clearly about evangelism, which will help them feel more able to obey him when they realize that it’s not finally their duty to convert anyone. Rather, it’s their duty to proclaim. There is a wonderful freedom in that. If you’ve never read J. I. Packer’s little book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, let me encourage you to read that.

So again, it’s a pastor’s conference and a time for great humility. Raise your hand if you have read Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Okay, I’ll tell you that’s less than 25 percent, I think, in my quick calculation. Okay, the other 75 percent, I have great news for you. There is a little book with only four chapters, short chapters, and it is very clearly written. I know you are too mature to need it, so don’t read it for yourself, but your members might be really helped if you would read it because then you would know it and you would know what it’s like and you would know to commend it to them. So for their sake, why don’t you think about getting a copy of J. I. Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God? Because I think the more the disciples in your church understand the sovereignty of God, I think the better evangelists they’re going to become.

I think they’re going to share the gospel more frequently. I think they’re going to do less calculus about whether or not this person is likely to believe, and I think they’re going to be more faithful and just go and say, “Oh Lord, I’m going to climb in this cannon one more time and try to have a gospel conversation with this person who looks entirely disinterested because I know you convert people and you never do it because we are so worthy of being converted or that it’s so obvious we’re about to be converted.” I think you can help your congregation to be better disciples in evangelism as they come to have the freedom that there is in understanding the wonderful sovereignty of God. I think it helps to understand God’s work and regeneration. I think it encourages a trust in God, and obviously it helps to prevent manipulation and to have realistic expectations of what you’re supposed to do in evangelism.

Sharing in the Joy of Answered Prayer

One of the things I’ve tried to do as a pastor is to encourage the church to note God’s answers to prayer and God’s grace in their lives. So on Sunday nights in our prayer meeting, we’ve been sharing stories of God’s faithfulness. So I’ll try to harangue them with mild pastoral guilt from the front, saying, “Come on, come on, has God been doing anything? Give him glory. Send me emails. Let me know what God’s been doing. Share something that’s brief and edifying and you can share in a way that would build up the church.” If I harangue them like that, I’ll get two to five emails through the week it seems right now.

Last night we had the congregation gather. Sunday mornings the place is full, and Sunday evenings we’ll maybe have it half or two-thirds full again, but most people are back. Most of the members are back to pray with us. Last night we were meeting, and Joel shared about how he had been praying for opportunities to evangelize and how he had been on a train going from DC up to Philadelphia and he was in Baltimore. This was a couple of weeks ago. A guy got on the train and it was pretty full. The guy had, as Joel said last night, a full Muslim beard, and the guy wasn’t finding a place to sit and he sat right next to Joel. Joel thought, “Well, I’ve been praying for an opportunity to evangelize.” So Joel began talking to Mustafa, as we now know his name was. He’s from Mumbai in India and he turned out to be an imam who had just come from Friday prayers in his mosque. And Joel got a wonderful opportunity to speak to him. He said that all the way to Philadelphia he got to share with him about Jesus Christ.

Now, Joel didn’t report to us last night that this guy was converted, but we can hope he will be. We prayed for him last night. But what Joel did is give glory to God by helping the disciples who gathered for prayer last night understand biblically that evangelism is Joel telling that good news. That guy may or may not be converted. That’s up to the Lord and whether or not he repents, but what we want to do is be faithful in telling that good news, and a biblical understanding of that will help the disciples in our church to be better disciples.

6. A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership

Number six: a biblical understanding of church membership will really help disciples — I mean really, really help people grow as disciples. If you have not thought through biblical church membership, you have a treasure trove of encouragement in Christian growth coming your way, because I think when you begin to understand church membership biblically it helps you to grow together as Christians. You realize you’re committing yourself to God, and as part of your commitment to God, you’re committing yourself to specific other Christians. And I think when you do that, it forces you to deal with areas of your life that you wouldn’t otherwise.

I remember when I lived in England, there was an American coming over to do evangelistic work among the college students and he would come to the church that I was at just in time for the sermon, and he would listen to the sermon and then he would leave. We were walking along one day and I said to him, “Look, did you ever think of coming for more than just the sermon? Why do you come just for the sermon? You don’t come for anything before when we sing and pray.” And he said, “Well, I don’t really get anything out of that stuff.” I said, “Okay. Have you ever thought of joining the church?” And he looked at me like I had three heads. He said, “Joining the church? Why would I join the church? I know what I’m here to do. I’m here to evangelize and disciple.” And this was a really good guy. I have to tell you, he’s a really good guy. He said, “I’m here to evangelize and disciple. If I lock arms with all those people, they’ll just slow me down.”

Well, I knew what he meant. We had a lot of students in the church, but we also had a lot of non-students there. He was there specifically to evangelize and disciple students. But I said to him, “Brother, did you ever think that if you lock arms with all those people that yeah, they may slow you down, but you may help to speed them up, and that God may care more about the whole than just about you individually in your perception of your own experience. He’s kind of aiming for a larger thing.”

The Practical Reality of Our Discipleship

Friends, church membership is the practical reality of the kind of discipleship that Jesus calls us to. It helps us to better understand our responsibilities that we have. Love, we learn in John 13:35–36, is supposed to mark us out to the world in that kind of committed love to one another, a love between people for whom there’s no other explanation.

One of the fun things about being in Washington DC is that it’s a city where you have a lot of Caucasians, a lot of African Americans, and a lot of other nationalities. And there are not a lot of places that are less integrated than Christian churches in Washington DC. But praise God, in our church, and I know in other churches that preach the biblical gospel, I think I increasingly see a diversity that brings witness to the fact that our unity isn’t in any kind of cultural explanation, but it’s in our spiritual unity in Christ. That’s what’s expressed.

Furthermore, being on Capitol Hill, we get a special opportunity with partisan divides between liberals and conservatives, while we’re united on social issues, on how we implement various amounts of government spending or defense issues. There are just countless issues that come up that people can get very heated on and that their jobs depend upon. And yet here at church, they are one body and they’re together. I’ve actually been there when guy number one is on national TV threatening guy number two, who is sitting up there, with losing his job if he doesn’t vote for something, and yet there they are sitting in the same church. I think it’s bringing glory to God in the way they’re relating to one another.

Friends, a church is a place where the community around you gets to see the members displaying a love for each other that can only be explained by something supernatural. We have accountability to each other. I think it helps us to be assured of our salvation. It helps us not to deceive ourselves. We learn that following Jesus must be personal, but it can never finally be private. Too many people play at being disciples of Jesus as a kind of private hobby, but the very fact that it’s private shows that it’s not real.

How can that be exposed? By your church being clear on church membership, teaching people that you’re glad to have them and you’d like them to join or go find a church they will join. It’s one of those two options. For non-Christians it’s a different matter. You want them to come hear the gospel and be loved. But if they’re somebody who’s professing to be a Christian, you want them to join the church or go to a church they will join. That will help them be better disciples.

7. A Biblical Understanding of Church Discipline

Number seven: a biblical understanding of church discipline particularly helps. I think one of the unintended consequences of a church’s neglect of proper discipline is the increased difficulty in growing disciples. It is very hard to see Christians grow as disciples of Christ in an undisciplined church because the models that set out before them are unclear. They’re confused. Friends, God’s plan for the local church does not allow us to leave self-deceived people in deception. It calls us in love to speak.

We’re helped to do war with our own flesh. The practice of church discipline is a basic component of forming disciples. What would it mean for you in your own physical family if you only said “yes” and never said “no” to your kids? They wouldn’t be reared as they need to be. They couldn’t grow and mature as human beings. Friends, as Christians we have to hear “yes”, but we have to also be corrected from God’s word with each other. It’s good for us to have discipline. Surely, as pastors, many of us here know examples, maybe in our own lives, the lives of those closest to us, or the lives of members of our church, where people have been brought back from sin by discipline. Maybe you didn’t go all the way to the stage of ex-communication. Maybe it was some earlier step in church discipline, but we have examples of where the person confronted repented. What sweet fruit is that of pastoral ministry?

How helpful is that to them growing as disciples? How good it is for the other Christians to see the warning. I remember the first time our church practiced church discipline, I think maybe in a century. There was a palpable sense of hush and awe and awareness of God’s holiness. I don’t think it was about pharisaical legalism. I don’t think a lot of self-confidence was growing in people’s breasts then. I think there was humility before God. It’s good for the church as a whole. It helps the church to have a feel of being before the Lord. And it’s good for non-Christians. It helps to kind of weed the garden so that when the non-Christian comes in, what they really are seeing is a collection of Christians — not entirely, of course. There will always be hypocrites, but we don’t show indifference to hypocrites in the church. We love hypocrites so much that we want to confront them in their hypocrisy.

We want to see disciples growing up reflecting the glory of God, and part of how we do that is by helping a local church to have a biblical understanding of church discipline.

8. A Biblical Understanding of Church Leadership

I think also, number eight, having a biblical understanding of church leadership will help grow disciples because it helps to bring the influence of godly leaders into the lives of Christians where it’s meant to be. And I think as godly leaders lead in godly ways, it helps us to trust in God’s own authority. It helps us trust God by trusting other Christians to care for us. I think one of the main reasons God gave us families is so that there would be a trajectory away from our lack of trust in others when they tell us “no” — to trust that someone can tell us “no” and love us. That’s exactly what Satan told Adam and Eve God could not do, and Satan was lying. Satan is lying to the Christians in our churches when he tells them, “You can’t be told ‘no’ and still be loved.” You can be. We all have been by God supremely in Christ, and we need to hear that from him.

Authority is for that end, to lead us and to give practical role models and mentoring. I think one of the clearest places I’ve seen this when my preaching through Scripture was in 2 Samuel. At the end of 2 Samuel, David is nearing death. And in 2 Samuel 23:1–4, we have the last words of David:

The inspired utterance of David son of Jesse,
     the utterance of the man exalted by the Most High,
the man anointed by the God of Jacob,
the hero of Israel’s songs:

“The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me;
     his word was on my tongue.
The God of Israel spoke,
     the Rock of Israel said to me . . .

Now pause there just for preachers. Isn’t it interesting how much these are built up? It’s like you have frame within frame, within frame, within frame, within frame just to show how special these words are. It says, “These are the last words of David, the oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man exalted by the most high, the man anointed by the God of Jacob Israel, singer of songs.” And then it’s quoting David, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me. His word was on my tongue. The God of Israel spoke. The rock of Israel said to me . . .” Yes, yes. What are these final words, David? Here they are:

“When one rules over people in righteousness,
     when he rules in the fear of God,
he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning,
     like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.”

Friends, that’s 2 Samuel 23:1–4, and it explains why your method of handling being a pastor or an elder. The authority you have with that is so terribly important. It’s like the authority you have as being a husband if you’re a husband, or as mom and dad if you’re a mom or dad regarding the authority you have in your kids’ lives. It’s like the authority you have in a political sphere, or at work, or in a classroom if you’re a teacher, or if you’re an employer and have people who report to you. Friends, authority is a way we specially stand in the place of God. And if you want to see disciples grown in your local church, you’ll neither shy away from authority nor abuse authority. Both of those are terrible, confusing things to young disciples who need to grow. You will use authority in a self-sacrificial way for the good of those you’re serving and leading. That’s what good authority is.

Awakened by Authority

A lot of you were given Jonathan Lehman’s new book on church membership when you came in. It’s really good. I hope you read it, enjoy it, and are helped by it. Jonathan was a member of our church back around the time Ryan Townsend came to Christ back in the 1990s, and Jonathan was a hypocrite. I didn’t know it but I suspected it and didn’t need to tell him that, but I prayed for him and loved him. There came a very difficult time in our church’s life. And as Jonathan tells the story, through the exercise of pastoral authority and that becoming clear to Jonathan, and him seeing how much he hated it and resented it, and him deciding that he should, if he’s going to follow Jesus, submit to it, Jonathan was converted. Now that’s how he tells his own story. You can find more about it if you read his books, but I think it’s true that very often the rebellion that is in the person’s heart gets especially strong with any — even godly — exercise of authority.

And that’s why you, if you’re a pastor, want to give very careful attention to this. That’s why I’m never surprised, but I’m always saddened when I see bloggers just viciously going after this or that person in authority. I understand there are abuses of authority in a fallen world, and those are, I think, unusually terrible sins. But I also understand that rejection of authority itself is utterly satanic. It is exactly the strategy the evil one has always taken. Friends it will not help the disciples in your church to grow if you sow the seeds of general suspicion and mistrust as a kind of godly criticalness. It isn’t.

9. A Geographically Integrated Life

Let me add a ninth thing that I don’t think I’ve ever publicly spoken of before. It is not one of the nine marks of a healthy church. It’s a new mark of a healthy church. It is this: I think if you want to help Christians grow and help them to be better disciples you want to add to these the teaching that it is a virtue to have a geographically integrated life. It is a virtue to have a geographically integrated life.

Now, let me come clean. I live on Capitol Hill. I walk downstairs from where I sleep to where I work. I walk across the parking lot to the church. Half of our church members live within a mile of our church. When the blizzards happen and suburban churches close, we just keep right on going. I walk to the bank, the doctor, and the store, and I walk to meet people for lunch. So I’m aware, part of what I’m about to say is socially located, but I think that the virtues of this can be transposed into whatever your setting is. I think it will compound the good you get out of any of the spiritual disciplines if you have a geographically integrated life. That is, if where you live, where you work, where you meet with your church, and where your church members live are near each other. You can see each other more easily. You can help each other more naturally. You can be involved in each other’s lives and your corporate witness is more corporate and more of a witness to the non-Christians around you.

In a highly dispersed way, a local church becomes more of just a series of individual friendships and attendance at a meeting. But the more the community life is integrated — and I don’t mean you have no non-Christians living around you but only members of your own church in these two subdivisions — the more I think you’ll find all kinds of dividends in serving the Lord and giving yourself in love to other members of your church and trying to help them. The costs of helping them go down, the inconvenience of meeting them is present, and the accountability that’s implicit in that is helpful. Anonymity goes down and accountability goes up. There are just virtues all over the place as you begin thinking about it.

Now, I think what that looks like, as I say, varies I’m sure from social setting to social setting. But I guess what I want to challenge you to do is that as you’re teaching the members of your church how to think as Christians, as disciples, teach them at least to think in this category. Don’t just think about how good the school districts will be for your kids, how close you are to the supermarket, and how big your backyard can be.

Smart non-Christians can think such thoughts. As disciples of Jesus, let’s also think about other things. Who do we want to live around? Certainly non-Christians who need to be reached. So if there is an area where you have a concentration of non-Christians, why don’t some of us move there, but not just one. Why don’t some of us move? Why don’t we have a church there? Why don’t we also take into account the good that we could do to others if we lived near those three older families? Why don’t we take into account the way our kids’ lives would be affected if they saw these five other families around us as they grew up?

I could keep going. This is spinning it out. But that’s what you get to do in the afternoon as you have your coffee. Think about how a geographically integrated life, and to be kind and gentle I’ll say a more geographically integrated life, would be a good thing for you to think about for your setting.

Setting Our Sights on Being Local

So for example, in our local church, by God’s grace, our building is full when we gather on Sunday mornings. We can’t have any more people in it. We’re done. Now, does that mean we’re done growing? No, we’re not done growing. So yesterday morning I talked to a Roman Catholic guy and a Jewish woman coming to church. They liked the sermon on John. They’re coming back. They live a block away. So we get non-Christians all the time. But the Christians who live far from us, we’re always trying to help them find churches closer to where they live that they can then integrate their lives into better, whether it’s an E-Free church, or one of our kind of revitalizations that we’ve done, or an Acts 29 church — some church where they’re going to hear the same gospel preached.

We want them to think about maybe if there’s a church around the corner. So I met this guy James a week ago yesterday, and he told me he was coming from Annandale, and I said, “Well, do you live in Annandale?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Do you mean to continue to live in Annandale?” He said, “For a while.” I said, “Well, you should check out Bill Kind’s church. It’s an E-Free church. It’s really good. Bill’s a great guy. It’s close to where you live. I mean, you’re welcome to drive in here, but it’s going to be hard to park and hard to find a place to sit. But Bill is right around the corner from you, and you could get to know the people in that community better.”

So James, yesterday, went to the E-Free church at Annandale. Brothers, I would encourage you to have that as part of what you think of when you’re trying to help disciples grow. Help them integrate their lives. There’s so much more we can talk about. But these are some of the ways that I think the marks of a healthy church contribute to Christian growth.