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Creating a Culture of Discipleship in Your Church

Disciple-making is part and parcel of who we are and what we do.

Apr 15, 2020

We want to talk about how to help our churches speak to one another, engage in conversation, and be involved in each other’s lives for the purpose and for the glory of God, and to help them in their sanctification. As we do that, certainly the church grows itself up. Now the way I want to conduct this is we’re going to do some theory because there’s a biblical foundation behind what we do, and that helps us understand why we do what we do. I also want this to be incredibly practical, so there’s going to be a lot of ideas and practical aspects that we’ll address. 

We’re not interested in just having a counseling ministry. We want a church that functions the way God designed the church to function. And the church counsels, the church disciples. It’s what the church is designed by the Lord to do, and so we want to make certain that we have the correct kind of a culture in the church—one that is practicing and living out these commands from the Lord. There are three foundational considerations for us to look at.

The Conviction that Counseling Belongs in the Church

The drive for training starts with conviction. If I’m convinced I need something, I’m going to go after it. If the people in my church are convicted that biblical counseling is meant to exist in the church and that all of us need to participate at some level, they’re going to want to be trained. 

We recognize biblical counseling as an essential element in the ministry of any local church that desires to be biblical. Now part of that is the Great Commission in Matthew 28.  

Christ says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

So first, the biggest issue that every person faces is: Are they rightly related to the Lord? We have to address that issue by making disciples and baptizing them. And at the same time, we’re teaching them to follow all that has been commanded. That means that even in our counseling ministry, we are training people to be disciple-makers. 

In the Great Commission, Christ says, “Teach them all that I’ve commanded you.” That’s part of what you need to teach those you counsel—teach them to teach others all that Christ commanded. It’s a cycle. There’s a mandate on our lives, we are all commissioned with this wonderful opportunity to be training disciple-makers. 

My dad worked in the furniture business. He served in the Vietnam War, and when he came back, he went right into a furniture company and he stayed with that company until he retired. It was owned by a man who owned multiple stores on the West Coast in California. And there was a larger East Coast company that wanted to buy his stores because they wanted to expand to the West Coast. 

But he constantly refused because he wanted to leave the business to his children. This went on for a good number of years and his children got older and they matured, and then he sold to that big companyHe did not want to leave it to his children. His children were not faithful, and they were not good people. And the last thing he wanted to do was leave his company in their hands.  

We have a wonderful Father who looks at us as children. And He gives us this wonderful privilege of working in His purposes and His will, to accomplish what He wants through our lives and in the lives of other people. Not only do we get this privilege of being called the children of God, but we get the privilege of serving our Father in His business of making disciples. That’s a wonderful privilege.  

The Privilege of Discipleship

Part of our training our folks to counsel face-to-face is helping them grab hold of how incredibly wonderful that privilege is. I’m here today and I’m doing what I do because in college I got involved in ministry on campusI had this blessed opportunity of sharing the gospel with fellow students. I watched the gospel transform their lives, had the privilege of discipling them, and watched the gospel continue to transform their lives. As a naive individual, I just asked the simple question, “Can you do this for a living?” 

To which they answered, “Yes, you can.” And there began the ministry in the pastorate. Why? Well because I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my life than being about the business of proclaiming the gospel to other people and watching God use His Word to transform their lives. 

One of the best things we can do to train and equip our people for face-to-face ministry is help them see that it is something that we obligated to do, but we’re obligated as a son or daughter would be to their loving father. I want to do what my Father does. I want to be a part of that ministry. I want the people that I’m pastoring to recognize the joy that comes with ministering His word to the issues of people’s lives. 

We recognize that this is expectation of the church in other places within Scripture as well. In Romans 15:14, Paul says he’s confident that the church is able to admonish one another. And according to Galatians 6:1, what do we need when we’re in caught in trespasses and sin? I need a spiritual person. I need a fellow believer. I’m dependent as a child of God within the body of Christ. I’m dependent that if I’m caught in a trespass, you are the ones who would be responsible for coming along and restoring me. 

And as such we recognize also that we are responsible for coming alongside brothers and sisters who are caught in trespasses. 

In Colossians 1:28, who are we proclaiming? We’re proclaiming Christ. What are we doing? We’re admonishing, we’re teaching, and we’re warning for the purpose of maturing, completing, and perfecting people in Christ.  

Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” And that’s a plural “you.” In the South we would translate it, “Let the word of Christ dwell within all you all.” It goes on, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” 

A dear brother who is a missionary in Thailand bought me a bag of coffee from Thailand. That coffee is sitting in my car right now. And when I open my car door later, there’s going to be this wonderful aroma because coffee richly dwells in my car right now. 

When people come to our church, is there admonishment? Is there teaching in all wisdom? Is there the singing of hymns and songs and spiritual songs all to the praise and exaltation of the Lord because the Word of God dwells richly in this place? 

 Your church is already a counseling ministry. The question is not: Are our people offering counsel to their fellow believers? Everyone counsels. But there are several questions we should ask of the counsel our church members are giving one another. 

Is the counsel focused on the right goal? That goal is the progressive sanctification of the believer for the glory of God.  

Is the counsel biblical? Our counsel is only as good as it is biblical. Does it originate in the Bible? 

Is the counsel heart-focused? In other words, does it eschew the goal of merely solving problems and address the idolatry of the inner man?  

A biblical counseling ministry is not something more for the church to do. Rather, it is something the church should already be doing. And we must have that conviction and mindset.  

Leaders Equipping the Church

Next we’ll look at Ephesians 4. The theology of God’s work of salvation that we see in chapters 1-3 of Ephesians leads to chapter 4 where Paul says that we should walk in a manner that’s worthy of our calling in Christ. 

The word “worthy” means axiom. In mathematics, the terms axiom is used when one side of the equation equals the other side of the equation. Paul has spent a good deal of time emphasizing how amazing this calling is, so that he could turn and say: Now, let our lives emulate and reflect the worthiness of that calling. Let our lives equal the value of that calling.  

In Ephesians 4:11, he says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry.”  

And what does it mean for the leaders of the church to equip the believers? It means to sufficiently supply someone with everything they need to do the task before them. 

What is he training them to do? The work of the ministry. Now this is the point where many of us look at the “work of the ministry” and then we put our heads up in the air, we put our hands on our chin, and we start thinking, “What are the works of the ministry?” 

Most of the times when we’re thinking that, the answer is in the text. And true enough, it is here. What are the works of the ministry? 

Verse 13 says, “for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” 

We know the works of the ministry are purposed for building up the body of Christ. And they’re connected to helping believers grow in discernment and maturity in the way of thinking, maturity in the way of living. So that we’re not gullible, simple-minded, being tossed to and fro by everything that is said. 

Rather we need discernment, maturity of thought, and maturity in our behavior that is connected to our theology. 

And then Paul continues in verse 15, “but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” 

What is the most fundamental, essential work of ministry? Speak the truth in an attitude and a heart of love, because I care more about the effect of what I’m saying on you, than I care about the effect of what I’m saying on me. 

Speaking the truth in love is speaking God’s truth for the intended purpose of loving someone so that they are not gullible, not tossed to and fro, but rather they’re strengthened in discernment. They know how to navigate the different issues that they face in life. 

This is what we want to see happen in our church. When each part is working properly, it makes the body grow so that it builds itself in love.  

There’s a mutual relationship between all the people within the church. There’s a mandate here: The way the church operates is that the people of the church are speaking the truth to one another in love. As we’re doing that, the body grows. 

Ultimately church growth is not so much numeric, as much as it is growing up into maturity of thought and behavior.  

That’s the vision that we want to have for our church.  

Ministering God’s Word 

A vision that I would often cast to the church was: I want you to know how to minister to a non-believer, a new believer, a believer facing problems. 

Can you open up your copy of God’s Word and explain the gospel message to a non-believer? I was very clear with my ushers at church to say, “If anyone comes to you asking any questions about the gospel, do not bring them to me. You take them, open your copy of God’s Word and explain the gospel to them.” And for those who resisted, saying “I don’t know how to do it.” My response was, “Great. We have a class next week. Let’s learn how to do it together.” 

Part of training and equipping our people for face-to-face ministry is also helping them see the responsibility they have to minister.  

I had the wonderful privilege of serving for a while as the pastor of a church in Southern California. While I was there, we equipped a number of people in counseling training. I got to come back a couple years later to preach on a Sunday morning. A person who was visiting that church came up to me after service to begin talking to me about these issues she was facing. Obviously, I’m a visiting pastor, so I’m not going to be able to meet with her. And a wonderful, godly lady came up to greet me, who had gone through all the training we done. And I introduced the two of them. Now they meet for counseling. That’s what I want to see.  

My son is a marine. What do they say about Marines? Every Marine is a rifleman. Every member of my church is a swordsman. I want them to know how to make use of their copy of God’s Word and apply that to the non-believer explain the gospel. 

Can they open up their copy of God’s Word and explain the fundamentals of what it means to be a follower of Christ? 

And we also know that believers are going to have problems. If a believer is facing problems, do you know how to help them from God’s Word? It can be a sin issue. It can also be a seasonal issue where a believer feels like, “I’m going and embarking onto a new season of life and I’m not sure how to navigate that. Can you help me?” Because in biblical counseling we’re talking about discipleship for a lifetime as the body of Christ works together. 

One of the things I ask of pastors is, “What do you do to equip your church?”  

I teach biblical counseling at Boyce College, and I tell students who are looking for churches that when they are interviewing churches, ask the leaders:  

“What do you do to equip me for the works of ministry?” 

“What do you do to equip me to speak the truth in love?” 

Every church you visit where you have an opportunity to talk to them, ask that question. Because that’s something that, to a certain extent, every person in our church should expect. 

Changing the Corporate Culture in a Church 

A culture is a blend of values, beliefs, symbols, rituals, myths, and so on that have developed over time. It can be formal in the sense that churches have some form of written mission or values, but we have to recognize it’s always informal.  

There are always the unwritten ways in which people operate. So how can we create a culture in which equipping for face-to-face ministry becomes common? 

Well, the first step is for leaders to recognize that the old ways are not producing disciples of Jesus Christ.  

My first ministry role was a youth pastor, and I felt pressure early on from parents. I tried to please everyone and what ended up happening was our church bulletin was 90 percent youth events, and 10 percent everything else. 

And people looked at that and said, “Wow, what an incredibly successful youth ministry. Look at all that you’re doing! 

But the things that we were doing were not making disciples. We had to come to the conclusion that what we were doing wasn’t working. And I was so grateful to learn the importance of having a philosophy of ministry. We need to develop our philosophyhow we’re going to carry out ministry in a way that’s going to please the Lord, rather than constantly trying to please people. 

We live in a culture where we’re trying to measure growth numerically. And yet, there’s a lot in the church that’s hard to measure. In most of our churches, people are looking for budget, buildings, and bodies. How many people are attending? How much money are you bringing in? And what are your buildings like? That data does not in any way measure that we’re making disciples.  

The second step is for the leaders to study the Scriptures and identify the values and structural changes necessary to produce disciples. We’re developing a biblical philosophy of ministry. A discipleship ministry that comes from and through the Scriptures.  

The leaders can then teach and talk about the new cultural perspective. This can be very simple. When we’re teaching and have any opportunity to teach it’s just saying things like,  

“Hey when you speak to your neighbor this week, let’s make sure we focus on …” 

“When you talk to your co-workers, let’s …” 

“When you guys meet as a group and you’re counseling one another, let’s keep in mind that …” 

In other words, we just assume everybody is ministering the Word to other people. It’s not saying we need to add something. No, this is an expectation. Even just a slight change in a phrase like that can help communicate that disciple-making is part and parcel of who we are and what we do. 

The leader teaches and talks about this new culture. The leader enacts the necessary organizational and structural changes. One of the things that we can fail on is execution of a new plan.  

A lot of people come to me and ask, “What’s the best Bible reading plan out there?” And my response is typically, “The one you use is the best one.” So, what’s the best plan for making disciples? It’s the one you enact. Obviously, it needs to be biblically informed, but the key is putting it into practice and not delaying. 

Then the leaders need to graciously and biblically respond to the expected reaction from those vested in the old ways. I came into one particular church that was in shambles, and I made a lot of changes and upset no one. I know many people look at that and mark it down as a miracle. That is unnatural, but part of it was I spent a good deal of time building a bridge of theology that could bear the weight of command.  

One of the clearest examples you see of this in Scripture is James 1:2. 

I mean right off the bat, “Count it all joy when you face trials.” Now that seems really odd. But what does he say next? “For you know.” That command is based upon a theological understanding that he supposes they have. There’s a command, but there’s a theology that can bear the weight of that command and James is aware of that. 

Go beyond your doctrinal statement, develop a philosophy of ministry and communicate it often. 

We want our members to understand clearly, they are expected to minister to one another. We want to have this kind of language in our membership documents and so on and so forth.  

What should the corporate culture of a discipleship-focused church include? We want to make certain that we have biblical, expository, nouthetic, practical preaching. Our preaching and teaching should not just be new facts, but also an exhortation to do something about it. Not just growing up in knowledge, but an expectation that knowledge should affect our affections, our heart, our desires, our thoughts, the way we live, and the way we conduct our lives among other people.  

That’s the whole process that Peter describes in 2 Peter 1. In verse 3 talks about the fact that we have been given “all things pertaining to life and godliness.” Then in verse 5, he says “you need to make every effort.” Meaning you need to be diligent and quick-paced in doing what? You need to supplement your faith because fundamentally, that’s where we all start. 

And then what do you supplement your faith with? You supplement your faith with virtue, which basically means moral courage. It’s this idea that “I want to do what’s right, but I don’t know what it is.” And so that’s why Peter then says, add to your virtue, knowledge. I know the right thing to do, and it doesn’t stop there because I need to actually do it. But then I recognize that there’s something resisting me doing what I’ve just learned. That’s right. You add to it self-control, because self is a problem. There’s resistance to doing that which we’ve just learned, so we have to implement self-control. But we also recognize it’s not self-control one time. You supplement self-control with steadfastness or perseverance. Now supplement that with godliness, brotherly love, and love. And these are all the key ingredients of growing up and becoming more like Christ.  

Another issue to consider in creating a corporate culture in your church is seeing that there is active discipleship that’s intentionally intrusive. 

It’s vital that we get involved in people’s lives. It’s vital that we care about each othercare about the possibilities of the hardness of our hearts, and care about whether we’re worshipping the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and loving others as ourselves. Or are we being drawn away? 

Everyone has a go-to; a person that they turn to first when things are going wrong. At the last church I worked at, we had 2,750 members, and we worked hard to make sure that every member had an elder, a shepherd, that they could turn to when they were in distress or trial or something came undone. 

It could be a small group leader or it could be an elder, but everybody knew who they were and everyone had a go-to. 

We can also train and equip our members by teaching them to study Scripture in a particular way. 

In Ezra 7 it says the hand of the Lord was on Ezra. The people of Israel have been dispersed and now they’re coming back to worship as a community. And Ezra 7:10 says the hand of God was on Ezra and had favor on him, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” Ezra had set or aimed his heart. You recognize from the beginning that Ezra’s affection was aimed in a particular direction, ultimately the Word of God. In particular, it was to study it, do it, and to teach it.  

We approach things that we’re studying very differently based on what we’re expected to do with the material. I love being a professor because I have the power of a grade. If I give assignments to my students and I say, I just want you guys read these books, how do you think they might read them? Maybe at the last minute they’ll skim it. 

But what if I say, I want you to read it and then write a 2-3 page paper responding to the main points of the book and their application to your life and ministry? 

Will they read it different? Yeah.  

Now what if I said, I want you to read that book and write a 6-8 page paper teaching me what that book teaches? Is that going to be different? Absolutely.  

So now imagine we teach our people to study Scripture with the understanding that they will be expected to know it, expected to do it, and expected to teach it. 

How does that change the way people will approach the Scripture? When I know that there’s an expectation on my life to know it and to do it and to teach it, that changes the way I approach it 

I had the wonderful experience of being around a Master’s Seminary professor named Alex Montoya. And Alex Montoya warned everyone in class, “If you visit my church on a Wednesday, you better be ready to preach.” And he talked about a pocket sermon. You better have a pocket sermon. And sure enough, if you visit on a Wednesday night, Alex is giving announcements, and then he’ll say, “Brother Don, you come on up here and give us the Word.” And he’ll sit down. And Don better get up there and preach. 

So what’s the point? The point is you do not go to Alex Montoya’s church without being prepared to preach. You’ve got to be ready. Please understand and get this: Let us as followers of Christ not live life in such a way that we’re not prepared to teach people God’s Word. Let us study to the point where we know what the Word means, we know how it fleshes itself out in everyday life, and we know how to explain it to somebody else. 

I love the fact that the Word of God is described as a double-edged sword. Even in the hands of an amateur, a double-edged sword will yield great effect. The power is not in the knowledge of the person as much as it is in the Word of God.  

Selecting and Equipping Counselors Within the Local Church 

How do we know who those people are that we should equip to be counselors in the church?  

First, they’re actively involved in the life of the church. They’re involved in people’s lives. You see how other people respond to them.  

You also see their giftedness lived out. They’re living the life of the gospel. Biblical guidelines certainly we have to consider are: 

Are they aligned theologically with the church? 

Are they growing in the faith? 

Do they have a biblically healthy family? 

Is their life characterized by a healthy submission to the Scriptures? 

Are they humble? 

Do they have a teachable spirit? 

How do we find these people? Certainly, the best thing to do is to pray for them, pray for you to witness and see and really invest in those people’s lives. Ask God to regularly show you potential leaders, to help you to see people who can stand out and do that. 

Ask people questions about their own ministry of discipleship.  

Have you been discipled?  

Have you discipled others?  

What’s your what’s your understanding of disciple-making?  

I had a gentleman who everyone in the church saw as an avid disciple-maker. He was a disciplerHe was meeting with men all the time, often for multiple years. I asked him one question. “One of the men that you’re discipling comes to you and confesses the fact that he has been wrestling with outbursts of anger for the last five years and really can’t remember a time where he didn’t wrestle with that. What would you do?”  

He said, “Oh, I’d send him to a counselor.” That was his knee-jerk response. He didn’t see discipleship all the way through, he saw that it stopped with the fundamentals. It’s stopped with the disciplines of grace, and that discipleship ended once there was a problem. 

So that’s an important aspect when we’re talking with people about being soul care providers or counselors. They understand discipleship for a lifetime that actually works through the struggles and sin issues of life.  

What Are the Essential Elements in a Training Program? 

I like to think about this in five phases.  

In Phase 1 we want to make sure people understand the fundamentals of biblical change. 

Because you remember what we’re going after is discipleship focused on the heart and sanctification. Books like How People Change and the Self-Confrontation Manual can be really helpful resources. You could give this instruction through classes, small groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, workshops. 

Phase 2 would be the fundamentals of biblical counseling and evangelism. In other words, starting to learn the practical aspect of ministering the Word to other people. Some helpful resources for this category include: 

Evangelism Explosion 

Grace Evangelism 

Who’s Your One? 

Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands 

Christian Counselor’s Manual 

Phase 3 is observations. If you’re going to train and equip people for face-to-face ministry, you better make sure you’re doing it and people are watching you do it. If you’re ministering to people and somebody’s not watching you minister to people, you got to change that. 

We don’t multiply ourselves by doing our ministry with nobody able to watch us do it. They hear about us doing the ministry, but they never see us actually do it. Get people involved, no matter where you’re going, no matter what you’re doing.  

I had a situation one time. I had a buddy of mine who was over at the house. He was a pastor-in-training. I got a call from a member in the church. Their son was suicidal and had taken a vehicle and basically just ran it off the road. He wasn’t hurt, police got the vehicle and got him. He was at their house at the time. I looked at my buddy. And I said, “Let’s go.” And he got in with me and I took him with me, and we sat there in that household and we cried and we talked and we did all kinds of things.  

I asked the sheriff if we could take him because he was going to have to be put into a facility because of what he had done and what he had said. We drove him and talked to him the whole time as we got there. My buddy was with me the whole time. We sat in that hospital. We were in that hospital for the next five hours before we could learn that they were just going to keep him. 

Whenever we have opportunities to minister one-on-one, let’s have people involved. If you have a counseling ministry, make sure somebody’s watching the counseling. One of the things I appreciate about our church is that we had a waiting list for counseling, and we had a waiting list for observing counseling. What a good problem! Make sure that people have an opportunity to watch others and be trained that way. If you’re going to equip people for ministry, then you have to give them an opportunity to observe it. Not only that, if you’re going to equip them for ministry, you need to give them an opportunity to practice it. 

Phase 4 is practicing. When I was a youth pastor, I started doing evangelism training. I had a number of homeschooling students, and they couldn’t do the first assignment because they didn’t know any non-believers. I started up a youth coffee house as a ministry to the high school across the street. And that place was full of people in our building every lunchtime. We had 70 students there and hardly any of them were believers. Who worked it? All of my home school students. Why? Well because they didn’t have school. Well, they had school, but they didn’t have it the same way. 

They were able to show up 30 minutes before to set up, and they were able to stay 30 minutes after the cleanup. And they ministered to the students during that time. We also teamed up with a local young life group. And we led to Wildlife campuses. For what purpose? To offer an opportunity for the people. There’s a consequence to training! Understand that if you train people they want to actually go do it. Give them the opportunity. So that’s another thing you have to think through— part of equipping them is also providing them the ministry opportunities to actually do it.  

Lastly, Phase 5 is continuing education. Conferences, videos and books can be very helpful in continuing to equip your people.