The Lost Art of Discipleship

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I’ve been at the congregation I currently serve for about 1/2 a year. One of the first tasks on my plate when I arrived was to assemble positions for a pastoral team. We knew we needed more manpower, but we didn’t yet know exactly what qualifications and skill sets would best serve the needs of our healthy-sized church and very large school.

As I studied and prayed, I began putting together a detailed grid of pastoral roles that I believed might best serve our needs. And by God’s grace, one of our vacancies has recently been filled. We now have on staff a Dr. and a Prof. and a Skipper/Senior Pastor, which I suppose makes me…that’s right, Mary Ann.

Our hope/prayer is that by early 2017 we’ll be able to add another pastor. One of the questions I’ve been most frequently asked by those who know I’ve been involved in forming the roles grid is “What would that pastor do?” It’s a perfectly legitimate question and one that I myself have considered while in the process of laying out the responsibilities. But within the question lies a problem. The pastoral position is being perceived primarily as a series of tasks to accomplish rather than a relational role to fill.

There’s an important principle that’s been discovered, mostly popularized in the business world, referred to as the Dunbar Rule. In short, the Dunbar rule is named after an Oxford anthropologist named Robin Dunbar, who stated that a human being cannot maintain more than 150 meaningful social relationships. Technically, the range is from 100-250, but the typical number used is 150. Dunbar’s findings have been considered essential to the development of things like social media.

If Dunbar is correct, then this is a hard and fast rule of human capacity. None of us, no matter how talented, can adequately maintain more than a few hundred relationships at most. This has to be seen as the max potential for a human. While anthropology and psychology are often considered soft science, they are still data driven, and human relationships have to be considered somewhat scientifically. So consider relationships like this: Usain Bolt, the fastest human alive and can run at a max speed of approximately 28 mph. You absolutely cannot expect humans to run at 50 mph. Similarly, if the person with the highest relational aptitude possible can manage 250 meaningful relationships (more likely 150), you simply cannot expect a single man to pastor 500 members effectively for a prolonged period of time.

This has massive implications for churches, many of which have been woefully understaffed for ages – partially due to unrealistic congregational expectations and poor stewardship, partially due to ministerial arrogance. This as much as any other factor has led to the insane ministry burnout rate (the average pastorate in the US has dropped to about 4 years, far faster than most other professions).

A lesson on ministerial size dynamics needs to be learned. The common New Testament word used for “church” is the Greek word ecclesia. It is NOT a building (Acts 17:24); it’s a body of believers gathered around Word and Sacraments (Eph. 2:20-22). As a group of people rather than an inanimate structure, a minister’s work must be understood not merely in performing tasks, but in fostering relationships, of which we now know there is a numeric ceiling.

Consider the analogy the Bible offers of pastors as shepherds. Did you know the max number of sheep a shepherd is capable of overseeing himself is recognized to be around 400? In fact, there’s a fairly sophisticated counting system developed long ago by English shepherds, called Yan Yan Tethera, in which they can keep track of their sheep, up to 399, by counting on their fingers. Occasionally a shepherd can handle a few more sheep, but even this number can only be accomplished through an extensive support system of sheep dogs.

Point being, even 400 SHEEP are difficult to account for by one man, let alone humans who have significantly more independent (and rebellious) wills. If overseers are truly called by God to shepherd a flock, a congregation had better be mindful of numbers, and furthermore have a number of other well-trained sheep dogs incorporated into a system of accountability.

What does this all mean? It means churches have to get smarter about human relational dynamics. Since every active member seeks some sort of relationship with a pastor, you cannot reasonably anticipate a pastor to shepherd more than 200 people. If that’s the expectation, you will almost invariably, over time, struggle for survival. So you have to decide whether you’re staffing to expand, maintain, or survive. Similarly, in the same way that every human can only have so many “meaningful relationships”, every human can also only have so many “close” personal relationships as well. Consequently, a larger church’s goal should not be that every single person in the congregation knows everyone else. But everyone should know somebody. In other words, no one in The Body will know everybody, but everyone in The Body should know, serve, and be accountable to somebody.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek outside of Chicago, the massive church American churches were aspiring to be, notoriously admitted in 2007 to Christianity Today that “We made a mistake” by being overly dependent on programs at the expense of “age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and relationships.” The church needs more discipleship.

In a world of fragile egos, driven by numeric likes, views, and hit counts, churches developed consumer-catering, bigger and better programs and lost the art of discipleship. Numbers aren’t evil. They’re necessary and helpful. But there is not a direct correlation to ministry success. The greatest attendance boon in recent U.S. history for American churches were the two Sundays following 9/11. Logically then, by measuring success in terms of numbers, the best “attractional program” for your church would be an Islamic terrorist attack.

Obviously, numbers cannot be the endgame. If healthy discipleship leads to increased numbers, then praise be to God. But inflated numbers that exist apart from actual relationships are a disservice to the Church in the long run.

The ultimate relational inspiration for the Church naturally is Christ himself. To properly minister to us, an infinite God became a man of self-restricting finitude in the person of Christ. Jesus spent the three years of his ministry pouring himself quite intentionally into 12 young men. This is not to say that he didn’t ever minister to others, but counting his twelve disciples, his converted brothers, his female followers, etc., Jesus’ church numbered about 120 members shortly after his resurrection. The Holy Spirit moved these trained leaders to ministry action and then on the day of Pentecost 3000 were converted. By the way, guess what 3000 divided by 12 is? ANSWER: 250. Granted, they were about to scatter throughout the Mediterranean world, but they were still accounted for. The early church continued to add to their numbers daily (Acts 4:4 says there were now 5000) and by Acts 6 we see the number dynamics coming to a head. Some of the widows were being overlooked. So, they decided to add 7 more men as laborers. By the way, guess what 5000 divided by 19 (i.e. 12 +7) is? ANSWER: 263.

Human relational numbers are perhaps soft science, but they’re quantitative and real nonetheless. I’m convinced Jesus and the early Christians understood this long before Robin Dunbar.

Jesus “discipled” and began the Christian Church with a congregation of about 120. If you’re a pastor and you think you can handle considerably more than 150, you may very well have an ego issue. If you’re a church member and think your pastor should be able to handle considerably more than 150, you may have unrealistic expectations – like a “we want our pastor to have more meaningful relationships than Jesus did” level of unrealistic expectations. Jesus poured himself into the lives of a specific group, and the lasting result was that he brought salvation into the world and provided a firm foundation for his Church.

For churches that have had unrealistic expectations, the solution is not merely to learn and try harder, but to repent and become new. Jesus offers both forgiveness and guidance. And by commissioning us to “make disciples” he encourages us to pour ourselves into the lives of a few who are eager to learn and minister themselves, and likewise, place ourselves under the leadership of someone else we can learn from.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “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.” (Matt. 28:18-20)

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3 Insights on Finding PEACE in Your Life

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The day before Jesus is crucified, he assures his disciples that though he is soon going away (within the next 24 hours), he’ll leave them peace.

Specifically, he says:

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:26-27)

So, Jesus dies, rises, ascends into heaven and sends his Spirit.

Shortly thereafter, a deacon named Stephen calls the Jewish leaders to repentance over what they did to Jesus. For his troubles, for his truth, they stone him to death. At the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, a Czech priest by the name of John Huss, was burned at the stake for confronting the Roman Church at the time for corrupting the Bible’s teaching about sin, grace, Church, and Holy Communion. About 500 years after that a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged two weeks before the US liberated the concentration camp in which he was being held. He knew this was coming, but he couldn’t for a single day sit by idly and watch Hitler’s regime murder innocent Jewish men and women without opening his mouth.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” (vs. 27) Really?!?!

And while nothing to this degree has quite caught us yet, let’s be honest. When the family member goes into the hospital again or you get that unfortunate diagnosis; when this month is yet again one of those “okay, I guess I’ll try to pay of this debt with that credit card now” months; when you realize your significant other has said or done the unthinkable…

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” (vs. 27) Really?

There’s only two possibilities. Either Jesus is lying here…which doesn’t mesh with the countless other reasons we have for trusting his credibility in the Gospels OR Jesus is offering us something here that is much bigger, much more profound than what we initially might think he’s saying.

So, let me share with you three insights into what Jesus is actually telling us about genuine peace.

I. Fear Kills Peace

“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (vs. 27)

You might assume that PEACE is the opposite of many seemingly negative emotions – sadness, anger, fear, etc. Not really. There are many occasions where the Bible tells us to rejoice (e.g. Rom. 12:12; James 1:2; Phil 4:4), but it never says that being sad is wrong. In fact, in a sinful world, there are many things we should be appropriately sad about. And the Bible actually talks about the reality/necessity of righteous anger (e.g. Eph. 4:26; James 1:19), but encourages us to be angry at the right things and to process our anger in healthy, productive ways. Point being, peace can’t be the opposite of sadness or anger. The ultimate proof of this is Jesus himself, who became sad and angry throughout the Gospels.

But you know what Jesus never got? Afraid.

Arguably the most spiritually negative emotion that you and I face, the one that I think all the other spiritually problematic emotions flow from, is fear. The Apostle Paul tells the young pastor that he mentors, Timothy, that the Spirit of God “does not give timidity (i.e. fear), but power.” (2 Tim. 1:7)

So, I’ve had a lot of people come to me before whom I’ve counseled and I’ll ask what they think God wants for their life. Many have said, “I think God wants me to be happy.” And it’s true that God seeks our ultimate happiness – a lasting joy in heaven – but in this lifetime, in a sinful world, it’s impossible (and arguably unloving) to make us feel happy all the time. If you’re happy when you’re loved one dies, or your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you, or you lose your job, or you see injustice in the world, if you’re happy at that point…that doesn’t make you strong, it makes you a sociopath, totally out of touch with reality. God does not guarantee or even encourage happiness at those times, but he does say you logically have no reason to be…afraid. Why?

Fear comes whenever we venture into self-sufficiency. So, for example, Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, perfect paradise. They were naked and felt no shame. They disobeyed God when they ate from the tree he told them not to eat from – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And what was their reaction? They immediately ran, hid, and tried to cover themselves up, because they felt vulnerable, exposed, and afraid. Satan’s lie was to convince Adam and Eve was that they were worthless slaves of a demanding God. He made them afraid of something that wasn’t real. So they moved away from God’s Word and God’s will, they disobeyed God…and that’s when they found out what fear really was. They attempted self-sufficiency. And they broke the planet. And then they were afraid.

So, it works like this. If you believe you are small in a big universe that you have to control, you will understandably be overwhelmed and afraid. If you believe you are big in a big universe that you have to control, you’re delusional and will be humbled. But if you believe you are small in a big universe that God controls for your good, you will not only not be afraid, but you will feel valuable and loved.

II. Phony Peace is Tempting

The second point is an encouragement not to fall for cheap substitutions. Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (vs. 27)

1) Mental Avoidance

St. Augustine opened up his Confessions with a prayer that says, “My heart will not rest till it rests in you, O LORD.” In other words, every human being on this planet is naturally restless. And every one of us is uncomfortable as a result of that. So, what do we do? Our first instinct is to self-medicate the discomfort. We look for peace by any means necessary.

One of the things that’s always been fascinating to me is there are many different preferred methods to this self-medicating. So, we all know that obviously when someone turns to hard recreational drug use or crazy excessive alcohol consumption, they’re probably trying to quiet the demons. But there are many more socially acceptable ways to self-medicate. Shopping a little too much. Eating a little too much. Becoming all-consumed with sports or Facebooking or Pintresting, or TV/movies, gardening, music, hobbies, or even more noble-sounding causes. Doesn’t matter. Why do we do those things excessively? Yes, they’re pleasurable, but if crazy science fiction movies are so inherently good/pleasurable, then why doesn’t everybody gravitate towards them all the time? Why isn’t everyone flooding online message boards at 3:00am talking about the release date of the 7th Avengers movie? It’s because that might be my preferred method of escapism/self-medicating. It’s disproportionately pleasurable because it’s my drug of choice. Since we’re unique individuals, we look for a personalized self-medicating cocktail to sip in order to find peace. Recreation is one thing, recreation for escapism is another.

None of that makes problems go away. It merely distracts us. If you have crazy high unpaid bills, and you get overwhelmed and sit down and play 8 hours of video games, you’ve maybe calmed down your body chemistry, but you haven’t objectively helped your situation. In fact, now you’re just 8 hours closer to bad credit and bill collectors. True peace is NOT dismissive mental avoidance.

2) Changed Circumstances

I’ve shared with many of you how earlier on in life I struggled a great deal with anxiety and depression. So, I bought this at-home wellness program called “Attacking Anxiety and Depression” and there were some things I took away from it. One of the most important things, and something that I’ve read a variation on countless times since in other mental health literature, is that when confronted with a stress-inducing situation, there are really 3 things you can do (from a secular standpoint). You can 1) Flee the situation; 2) Change the environment/situation; or 3) Change the way you feel about the situation.

Most people recognize that fleeing the situation is generally not a great option. There are some cases that might obviously call for it – e.g. an abusive relationship. But it’s probably not healthy long-term to constantly bounce from job to job every time you don’t like something. Furthermore, some situations simply can’t be fled – health problems obviously can’t be fled. So most recognize fleeing an unwanted situation as an non-ideal option. The first instinct for most of us, rather, is to try to control an environment – to change all the circumstances. The biggest problem with this option is that a high percentage of our stress in life comes from interacting with other human beings, individuals with their own wants and wills. In that case, the more you attempt to control them, the more it typically aggravates the situation. Furthermore, circumstantial peace is always going to be…circumstantial. Intermittent. Erratic. True peace is NOT a mere change of circumstances. Wouldn’t you rather have a peace that was constant and relentless?

So what secular scholars largely agree on is that when it comes to a situation that is robbing you of your peace, fleeing is generally not a productive option, and changing an environment permanently is generally an impossible option. So 90% + of the time, the best option is to change the way you feel about a situation.

So your family member passes away, and someone says, “Just don’t let it bother you. It’s time to move on.” You get diagnosed with cancer. “I’m sure it’ll all work out!” People actually give pat answers like this all the time. And I know they’re trying to be friendly and helpful and much of the time they’re simply trying to diffuse the social awkwardness of the situation, but honestly, how do you know it’s all gonna work out?! On the basis of what can you proclaim that my unemployment, my loneliness, my health crisis is all gonna work out?! You can’t.

So, changing the way you feel about negative life situations may be the best option, but you still need a basis for why you’re going to change the way you think and feel.

So there’s mindless peace and baseless peace, but neither of those has any real value.

III. The Only Peace is Christ

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (vs. 26)

Jesus says here, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” (vs. 27) We saw what kills peace. And we saw what the world might call peace that’s really not peace. How does a Christian find true peace?

When you look at the context of this section, which we read earlier, you notice that Jesus is talking to his disciples about his imminent death. He’s leaving them…like the next day. He’s going to die tomorrow. And he says, “I’m leaving you…peace.” The Bible commentators will tell you, this is Jesus’ will.

Before someone passes, they leave a last will and testament. And those who are beneficiaries of a will do not receive their inheritance until…the testator dies. In other words, what we’re learning here is you’re never going to find lasting subjective peace (i.e. you’ll never feel true peace) in this life until you recognize you have objective peace in the next one, based on the death of Jesus. You will fear death unless you realize you have a better life coming to you. You will fear loneliness unless you realize he will never leave you. You will fear occasions that threaten your family unless you recognize that he’s promised all your needs will be met when you seek him first. You will be haunted by your past mistakes unless you realize that Jesus has paid the debt we owe to our Father for our sins. You will be tormented by regret unless you believe God works all things out for your good – by grace he turns the knots you and I make into beautiful bows. How can we be sure?

On the cross, what Jesus did is he endured the fear of a child detached from his parent. One of the scariest experiences of life is when you’re a little kid in a grocery store or shopping mall and mom or dad tells you to stay close, but you think you know better, and then you wander off. At that moment you realize that trying to do life your own way actually brings terror, not liberation. What Jesus got on the cross was cosmic lostness, the fear of a child alone in the universe, but he did it so that you and I could have peace. In fact, when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” (Matt. 27:46), it’s hard to understand because we don’t use words like forsaken much today. The eloi eloi lama sabbachthani here literally means, “You’ve abandoned me. You’ve left me behind.” See what he’s doing? He’s switching places with us. On the cross Jesus voluntarily faced the fear, abandonment, rejection that we deserved, and in exchange we received the warmth and acceptance and love from the Father that he earned.

And the more times you realize that nothing, even literally murdering him, will cause Jesus, your Lord and Savior, to abandon you – the more you will have peace. You do this day over day, and it’s not instantaneous, but I guarantee a year from now you will be a more peaceful, less anxious, fearful person.

If you would like more gospel resources for attacking issues of sadness, fear, anxiety, & depression, I’m currently teaching a sermon series R-E-L-A-X: Gospel Keys for Overcoming Anxiety & Depression, available here.