In recent years there’s been a growing recognition that if the church isn‘t making disciples, it might as well go home. Church communities need to be places that foster discipleship, and that means seeking to help and resource followers to grow in their love for God, their obedience to Jesus, and their yieldedness to the Spirit’s leading. When I was called to the church where I serve several years ago now I was given the remit of championing this key aspect of church life. Since then, and to that end, like many churches, we’ve experimented with various resources, ideas and structures – small groups, training courses, mentoring, video blogging, one year Bible reading schemes, accountability initiatives, and so on. Some of these have worked well and caught on; others, not so much.
But, whilst such approaches are all well and good, I’ve come to realise that a large portion of discipling comes down to unavoidable bread-and-butter disciplines such as intercession, friendship, regular contact, Bible study, and speaking the truth in love. This latter discipline is the one I’d like to zero in on. It’s a ministry of the word, played out in everyday conversations, a simple yet highly challenging discipline, whereby the contours of scriptural truth and of the disciple’s life are overlaid, and discrepancies pointed out in a gracious manner with loving intent. It is the disciple’s choice whether or not they choose to recalibrate their life around the new information, but it’s the task of the one discipling not to ‘not shrink back from declaring … the whole counsel of God.’ (Acts 20:27).
Ephesians 4 is an often-visited passage, and also happens to be the home of this concept. In it Paul talks of how the people of God are to become ‘mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ’ (v13), and explains how this is achieved both through each part of the body performing ‘its own special work’ (v16), but also, and crucially, through a pervasive culture of truth-in-love-speaking. Paul is resolved: ‘we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ’ (v15). A little later in the chapter he instructs his readers: ‘stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbours the truth’ (v25).
But this is a very hard thing to do. At least it is for me! Especially when the truth is challenging, or the last thing a disciple wants to hear. On such occasions I feel pretty unenthusiastic about telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. For one thing we’re trained from birth to downplay, or sidestep, obfuscate, or dress-up the truth in any way we can in order to honour the elaborate, unwritten and fear-riddled social contract of our fallen human society.
More often than I care to admit I have hidden from this responsibility behind novelties and programmes and the latest ideas. But there’s just no getting around it: truth in love is grist for the mill of spiritual growth. The better we have mastered this one discipline the greater the kingdom traction in all our communication with others.
Sadly, more frequently we opt for ambiguity-in-fear over truth-in-love. Fear clips the wings of communication, and renders it a flightless bird. It flaps around in useless platitudes and empty niceties, proliferating words that fail to be load-bearing or useful for the disciple who is starting to build their life on Christ. They’re like the gears on a bike or the cogs in a machine where the teeth have all worn down and spin loose in the chain.
I asked for prayer recently from some of our church leaders that I would grow in precisely this area, i.e. that I would make the most of every discipling opportunity in the bread-and-butter encounters of everyday ministry. One person ran with the image and prayed that God would spread his jam on my bread-and-butter work! I liked that! May God likewise spread the jam of his anointing on all your bread-and-butter discipling in the days ahead, and leverage every encounter such that the whole church ‘grows in every way more and more like Jesus Christ’.