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The Role of Spiritual Leadership in Discipleship

By Shane Warren

Biblical discipleship has become a catchphrase in the modern evangelical movement. Unfortunately, in most instances a catchphrase is all it has become. Amid our varied definitions and newly discovered methods of discipleship, statistical studies show an alarming decline in the modern church’s effectiveness in reaching and transforming lost humanity.

A study released March 19, 2007, by the Barna Research Group states: “Life in America has changed greatly since 1994, with massive changes in technology, global politics, lifestyle choices, and family dynamics. But one constant has been the proportion of adults in the population who are unchurched … 1 of every 3 adults (33 percent) is classified as unchurched — meaning they have not attended a religious service of any type during the past 6 months.” Tragically, this study reports that more than 100 million Americans do not attend church. America’s unchurched are the equivalent of the population of the 11th largest nation in the world. What an indictment against the church.

The lack of revelation in true biblical discipleship is devastating to the body of Christ. We have focused so much on winning converts that we have not done a good job of making disciples. Multitudes of people flood our church altars with the mindset of praying a magic prayer that will lead to dramatic life change. We rejoice over their response; and, somehow, they are convinced by the voice of religion that true salvation has occurred.

Jesus’ altar calls were different. His view of what it meant to be saved was different from the modern church’s feeble definition. Jesus qualified the true heart of repentance by the test of discipleship.

The rich, young ruler ran and stopped Jesus in the street. He inquired, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The Lord responded by sharing one of His favorite sermons written by Moses.

The young man replied, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus then raised the bar of discipleship: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:17–22). Scripture is clear, this young man walked away sad.

The rich, young ruler was willing to be a convert, but he was not willing to pay the cost of discipleship. He wanted a religion that was convenient for his lifestyle apart from the lordship of Christ. His desire for convenient religion left him where it leaves every insincere person — sad and despondent.

Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ. This kind of discipleship becomes nothing more than an abstract idea, a myth that has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as a living Lord and Master. Without real discipleship there is trust in God, but there is not a genuine following of Christ. Cheap grace is a deadly enemy of the church.

Jesus understood the power and cost of discipleship. Real Christian discipleship began the day after John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River (John 1:35–39). One by one Jesus selected 12 men for whom He would daily model the character of the Father. By every religious definition of success, Jesus was a miserable failure. He held no credentials with the spiritual organization of His day. He never started a Bible school, nor did He establish a denomination. Multitudes attended His meetings only to reject Him rather than pay the price of commitment to faith. Only 12 men — the most common and humble of first-century society — were chosen for the church’s model. It is in this model, the biblical model, that we find the true method for making disciples.

There is only one approach to making real disciples — the Jesus way. Jesus did not use a conventional program to influence extraordinary life change in His ordinary followers. He simply modeled to them — by the leading of the Holy Spirit — the heart of the Father each day. As He faced the daily affairs of life, He used every detail to teach and train 12 men to become the disciples God created them to be. He so modeled the Father before them that He could say: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9, KJV).1

Herein lies the acid test for discipleship. Can you, as a spiritual leader, make that statement about your Christian walk? Can you say, “When you see me, you have seen the Father”? Are you a daily reflection of the Father’s heart? All programs and methodology aside, do people see the character of God working in your daily walk?

The word disciple in the Bible comes from the Greek root word matheo. From this root we get our English word math or mathematics. The Lord understood that the best mathematics for the church is discipleship. Was His view of discipleship effective? Yes. In the first week of the New Testament Church, approximately 8,000 people were added to the company of believers.

Throughout Scripture we see church growth qualified by terms such as added (Acts 2:47; 11:24, KJV) and multiplied (9:31; 12:24, KJV). Why is our modern church math not adding up? Could it be that even with our new, modern methods of church growth we still do not understand biblical discipleship? What is required to effectively change the lives of hurting humanity? The Word of God is clear in its teaching of the characteristics of effective discipleship.

Discipleship Has a Person

Without the person of the Holy Spirit, all methodology of discipleship is in vain. Jesus instructed His disciples to “stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49, KJV). When He gave this important instruction, as many as 500 people may have been present (1 Corinthians 15:6). Sadly, only 120 obeyed Him and went to the Upper Room. The ones who followed the Lord’s instruction received a supernatural empowerment to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). This small group of believers turned cities upside down, endured the fires of persecution, and silenced the cynics of their day. We never read about the ones who chose not to go to the place of empowerment.

Many Pentecostal churches are now minimizing the importance of the Pentecostal distinctive in discipleship. For fear of losing members or of confusing the unchurched, they ban the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in public worship services. They dare not pray for people to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Vexing the Holy Spirit, they unknowingly replace the power of discipleship with the programs of man. But the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer can never be overstated. The empowerment that comes through the Holy Spirit and His baptism is paramount in making potent disciples.

If you remove the Holy Spirit from the discipleship process, you lose the power of that process. Peter walked with Jesus for 3 years. He lived, ate, slept, and ministered with the Master. What Jesus did not do for Peter in 3 years, however, the Holy Spirit did in a moment. The coward who denied the Son of God before a little girl stood on the Day of Pentecost and boldly declared his faith. Nothing empowers disciples as the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Discipleship Has a Plan

“According as He hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4, KJV, emphasis added), God had a plan for making disciples. If discipleship in the local church is to be successful, it must have a plan, a process. Methods are not bad as long as they are submissive to the Master. Pastor, what is your plan for making disciples?

Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him. Peter replied affirmatively. Jesus, in essence, told Peter to prove it by taking care of His lambs (John 21:15–17). The heart of the Father is revealed to the believer through the process of discipleship.

Neglecting the newborns of the Kingdom is spiritual fratricide. They must be nurtured, and their spiritual maturity must be facilitated. Every church’s personality and size varies, but in each situation the church must do everything in its power to capitalize on a young believer’s decision to follow Christ. Isaiah 26:18 declares, “We have been with child, we have been in pain, we have as it were brought forth wind” (KJV, emphasis added).

The church is pregnant with destiny, but are we bringing forth wind? We go through the effort of service preparation and planning only to find our hands empty at the close of the day. If we do not facilitate spiritual growth for the babies of the Kingdom, we will find our labor has been vain and useless. The desire of God for each of us is that we bring forth much fruit (John 15:8). Where is the fruit of our labor in the Lord? For many of us, our fruitlessness is the result of our lack of planning in our discipleship process.

Discipleship Has a People

As good as our methodology is, it cannot replace the human touch. For discipleship to occur, your laypeople must have a vision for it. Pastors do not have the ambidexterity of an octopus; therefore, their people must have a heart for the spiritual growth process. Until the body of Christ understands their interconnectedness, real spiritual formation or reformation will not transpire.

Accountability within the body of Christ is a powerful tool against the spirit of this generation. In fact, there is an explosive power in unity. When the local church unifies with the heart of evangelism and discipleship, dynamic growth is present. We are our brother’s keeper, and to shirk our responsibility to one another in the body of Christ is a mortal sin against our own body.

Discipleship means following the discipline of another. Part of biblical discipleship is biblical discipline. This is a topic not discussed much in the church. Nevertheless, the church must have clearly defined boundaries within the structure of its organization and within the intangible fabric of the community of believers.

People long for relationships that require accountability; they desire to belong to a community. When you create a community in which the expectations of discipleship are believed and practiced by the entire congregation, it will successfully impact new converts as they come into the church.

Your people are the net that helps you retain the new fish you catch. From time to time, use or misuse will create holes in the net. A good fisherman regularly mends his nets. Psalm 133 states clearly that there is an anointing in our unity, and it is in the coparticipation of the body of Christ that God commandsthe blessing.

Discipleship Has a Price

Make no mistake: Effective discipleship has a price because there is no such thing as a crossless discipleship. One of the great tragedies of our time is the watering down of the gospel to make it more palatable to hearers. In doing so we do not preach the gospel at all; we preach “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4, KJV). If we are not careful, our attempts to make the gospel more relevant to our culture will render it and us powerless to change our culture. Contrary to some teaching, Jesus had and has no problem being relevant in every generation. He is “the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, KJV).

Do not be afraid to communicate the price of discipleship and to require it. People desire to be challenged. Some may write it off as religious; but you will find that when the cross of discipleship is borne, it adds value and validity to the believer’s life.

At times, being a disciple can be painful; however, to endure the Cross is not a tragedy. The suffering of the Cross is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplifts that make no costly demands, we turn the cross of Christ into an ordinary, everyday calamity. When you take away the price of following Christ, you remove His lordship from discipleship. Jesus insisted on being Lord of all. “No servant can serve two masters” (Luke 16:13, KJV).

There is a price for the new disciple, but there is also a cost to spiritual leadership. It is not easy to deal with a baby in the Lord. As do natural children, they make numerous mistakes and ask a plethora of questions. At times we forget that we were once in that spiritual place and someone assisted us through our spiritual transformation.

My wife, Pam, and I treasure pouring into young believers who have a sense of destiny. Each week our house is flooded with people who are eager to know more and do more for God. In fact, we meet regularly with two groups: Newcomers and what I call my Eagles’ Gathering. Every week we invite new believers and newcomers to eat dinner with us. We also meet with Eagles, people who feel a call to Christian service. Pam and I pour the Word of God and our life experiences into them. This practice has become the source of our greatest joy. As a pastor, nothing charges my inner man more than to see young believers expand in their capacity for God and in service to Him. Often we are asked, “Why do you go to all this trouble? You pastor a large church. You don’t need to do this.”

My response is: “You can’t change a life from an office.”

You must be willing, as was Christ, to live with your people. Jesus said, “Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations” (Luke 22:28, KJV). The disciples saw Jesus at the weakest moments of His life. In His humanity, Jesus was tempted in all points just as we are (Hebrews 4:15). The dramatic life changes of the disciples were the result of watching Jesus deal successfully with the inconsistencies of life.

Unfortunately, some pastors remain untouchable to their people on a personal level. They hide in the safety of their offices only to appear for a brief sermon or two each week. Consequently, their people never have a firsthand look at the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the daily life of their shepherd; thus, they do not have an adequate example of coping with the conflicts of life. This practice produces pastors who only preach to their people instead of shepherding them into God’s best for their lives.

Why did we enter the ministry? To help hurting people and to reach the world with the gospel. Remember, God anoints the one who is in the field with the sheep. When God needed a king, He did not look in an air-conditioned office. He looked in a field. His eye was on a shepherd. When God wanted to announce the coming of His Son, He chose shepherds tending their flocks by night. For hundreds of years the Shekinah of God’s presence had vanished; but when He wanted to reveal His glory, He chose shepherds (Luke 2:8,9).

Jesus is called the “good shepherd” (John 10:11, KJV) who gives His life for the sheep. If you want anointing for ministry, if you want to see God’s glory revealed, if you want to pastor as Jesus did, do the work of a shepherd. Live with your sheep. There is a price for discipleship, but discipleship is priceless.

Discipleship Has a Pastor

John Maxwell often says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The Person, plan, people, and price of discipleship are only as good as the pastoral leadership of the church. “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). Without a visionary, there is no vision. Everything great that God has done on earth, He did through people who were surrendered to Him.

Pastor, your church is a reflection of your leadership. The key to moving forward in God’s will is to locate yourself. Evaluate yourself and your congregation using the following criteria:

  1. Is the personof the Holy Spirit active at every level in our ministry?
  2. Do we have a realistic, workable plan for spiritual formation in our church? Is it clear? Can our leadership follow it easily?
  3. Do the people have a vision for soul winning and the discipleship process?
  4. Does our organization understand and cope well with the price of discipleship?
  5. Am I, as pastor, actively setting the example of a disciple in my daily walk?

If pastors do not lead their people with vision and prophetic insight in the will of God, they will fail to reach God’s destiny for their church. People are waiting for their pastors to become their Joshuas and to lead them across their Jordan. A pastor cannot lead them where he has not walked himself. Pastors must take the initiative. A pastor’s role as spiritual leader in the discipleship process is imperative if it is to be effective.

Shane Warren, pastor, First Assembly of God, West Monroe, Louisiana

Endnote

1. Scriptures marked KJV are from the King James Version.

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