A crisis is due (time of arrival uncertain)

September 11, 2001 is a day that no New Yorker (or our generation) will ever forget.  It started off as another ordinary day as people hurried into the day.  Someone overslept, another had a fight with his wife, someone’s car broke down, one planned to get engaged that evening.  But for more than 5000 people in the Twin Towers it was the last day of their lives.


We never schedule a crisis in our dairy – no one knows when disasters is going to hit.  A sudden death of a loved one, news of cancer, robbers in your home or a letter of retrenchment.  These things happen to someone every day.  Jesus spoke the truth: “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).  All we can do is “be watchful” and ready (1 Peter 5:8) and respond in a godly way.

Judah’s king Jehoshaphat had such a day as three big armies crossed the sea from Syria to invade Judah.  Yet this Godly man did not panic or run away.  His response to this crisis is recorded for our comfort, encouragement and learning (Romans 15:4).

Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (1 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (2 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (2 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (3 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (3 of 3)

What can we learn from this great historic account deliverance?

  1. DEVOTION: Live ready (v6-13)


Jehoshaphat is a king that served God with the devotion of king David, “walked in his commandments” (2 Chronicles 17:3-4) and had his “heart set on God” (19:3).  Not only did he serve God in the privacy of his heart and personal life, but this righteous ruler courageously brought about a great reformation in the nation of Israel by destroying Baal worship with its immoral public practices, and by further commissioning priests to teach the Law of God throughout Judah and later judges to bring about justice in his kingdom.

So when the news of this crisis came to his palace, Jehoshaphat did not fear but did what he did every day: he went into his inner room and prayed to the God whom he had faithfully served all his days.  I love the way the book of Daniel records how that godly prophet responded to the death threats of not worshipping the emperor: “and Daniel went to his house… and he kneeled on his knees three times a day and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since his youth.” (Daniel 6:11)

So what do we learn from this?  A crisis may hit any of us at any moment, and the best way to be prepared is to be securely rooted in a devoted relationship with God.  When war breaks out the soldiers should be disciplined and trained; when exam day comes the student should be prepared; when a fire rages the fireman should be trained.  When a crisis hits, the believer should be firmly established in the devotional disciplines and relationship with His God – just like Jehoshaphat was.

Secondly, Jehoshaphat was ready because he was forewarned about some impending doom (2 Chronicles 19:2).  Peter teaches us to “be watchful because the devil walks around like a prowling lion” (1 Peter 5:8) and Paul urges the believer should “not be ignorant if [Satan’s] plans” (2 Corinthians 2:11).  We are ready by staying close to God and watching in prayer, listening to what the Holy Spirit reveals to us.

  1. PRAYER: Run to God (v13-14)


As soon as the news of the approaching armies reached the king he proclaimed a fast, and everyone in this reformed nation ran to their God.  Jehoshaphat’s prayer is deliberately included as an example prayer for a crisis such as this.  This is how he prayed:

  • Praise: Even with the crisis looming Jehoshaphat starts by praises to God, allowing his (and the assembly) to consider Whom they are praying for: the Almighty God who Rules from Heaven and has power over every nation, and he is the God who made covenant with them!
  • Remind: The king reminds himself (and the assembly) of what God has done in the past, which immediately makes this present crisis seem less dooming since God has done many similar miracles for Israel in the past. Furthermore Jehoshaphat reminds himself (and the assembly) of the promises of God, stirring faith that God had already promised to do the thing he was about to ask. These two reminders stirred the assembly’s hope that God is at hand and for them, and therefore he is willing and able to deliver them from this disaster.
  • Confess: “You have not because you ask not”. Only after praising God for his attributes and faithfulness does the King confess his problem to God and asks for intervention, but he adds their helplessness in the situation and trust in God’s willingness and ability to help. He prays “For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.” (verse 12).   God promises “grace to the humble” – and that is exactly what the nation needs in this crisis!
  1. WAIT: Let God direct you (v13-15) 


After the prayer the whole nation “stood before the Lord” (verse 13) – just waited patiently, quietly for God’s direction or instruction. Each minute that they stood waiting they knew the army marched closer to Jerusalem.  But no-one did anything to prepare for war or flight – they abstained from all food and rest and entertainment because they knew that all their efforts will be futile – they literally looked and waited for God to save them.

Just like Habakkuk did years later, the Jews took their eyes off their enemies and looked towards God: I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me” (Habakkuk 2:1). Then God answered through the prophet Jahaziel that he will destroy their enemies – they simply had to walk to the edge of the desert and see what He was going to do.  Juda was encouraged by God and worshipped God with relief and gladness.  God heard their prayers and would save them from certain destruction!

Because they waited, God answered the questions “Lord, what do you see?”, “Lord, what will You do to save us?” and “Lord, what must we do?”  In every crisis the Word of God is what changes the situation from trial to triumph.

  1. FAITH: the worship of faithful obedience (v16-21)


But as in almost every situation, God involves us in His salvation.  What did the Jews have to do?  In simple obedience walk head-on towards the enemy.  As Moses had to face Pharaoh, Joshua had to encircle Jericho, David had to walk up to Goliath, and Gideon had to walk into the Midianite camp, so Judah had to march in faith towards this massive army.  As Daniel’s friends discovered, God’s Great Plan sometimes requires us to walk through the fire. But as they obeyed in faith, they started singing the ancient Israeli song associated with God’s faithful deliverance of the Egyptian Army after their Exodus “Praise the LORD, for His mercy endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 20:20)

And this act of faithful obedience and praise resulted in God’s intervention into the situation: the three invading armies turned on each other and completely annihilated each other so that “No-one had escaped.” (v24)  All Judah had left to do was carry the spoils of war back – for three full days!  What a marvelous victory by the Lord!

  1. THANKS: Stop to give honour (v24-26)


But the story does not end with the spoils and peace – Jehoshaphat had the wisdom to end where they began: at the House of God.  The whole nation returned to God’s Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks to God and make His praise glorious.  They returned to the place where they prayed, waited and received the Word and direction from God.

Just like one of the ten lepers who had received healing from Jesus returned to give thanks and “was made well (or whole)”, so Jehoshaphat and Judah was reward with “quite” and “rest all around” because of their gifts of thanks.

The other day the Lord said to me as something happened which was out of my control, “Don’t walk around defeated.”  I want to leave you with this phrase – when Crisis hits don’t walk around defeated, like heathen who live “having no hope and far from God in this world” (Ephesians 2:13).

Rather, like King Jehoshaphat, devote your life to seek and serve God.  When news of crisis comes, turn to Him in prayer, reminding yourself of Who He is and what He has done, present your problem to Him and confess your helplessness and trust in Him. Ask Him what He will do and what you should do. Then wait – let Him direct your response.  Act confidently – God is in control of your life, and you are precious to Him.  And once He has saved you, make His praise glorious!



Get up! Encourage yourself

“Wherever you go, there you are.”  Grin or laugh about the silly statement, but it is a truth with significant consequences.  The older we get the more we realize that we cannot run away from ourselves – the painful or shameful memories of past failures and disappointments with oneself, our emotions or our own shortcoming – because “wherever you go, there you are.”  Sadly we can’t outrun ourselves.  Where you go, these aspects of your life follow you.

wherever you go there you are

But we also realize that the people in our lives come and go because we move on, because we hurt or get hurt, or because inevitably our loved ones pass away.  So apart from the constancy of God in our lives, only “you are wherever you go” – no one else.  Good or bad – this truth requires some reflection and response.

Sooner or later in life you will find that you are left to face a big, troubling situation all by yourself.  With no-one else to spur you on, you will need to encourage yourself in God.


Although he did not live an isolated life, David had to face many critical situations alone with his God.  In 1 Samuel 30 we find David at a very vulnerable position in his life: he and his group of mercenaries (all refugees from Israel) just returned to their refugee-town of Ziklag after being rejected by the Philistines to participate in war on Israel.  As this agitated group of warriors returned to their hometown they found it plundered by a band of Amalekites who left with all their possessions and loved ones.  The historian records that David and the people who were with him wept until they had no more strength to weep… And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in soul, each for his sons and daughters.” (v3-5)

David was at the end of himself, and so were all the soldiers with him.  They have been living with the Philistines for the last 16 months as foreigners far away from family and familiarity.  They were tired and without income.  The last bit of comfort were their homes, family and community – now this too was taken away.  They worried what those savages would do to their loved ones.  The anguish was great and brought David to an all-time low – it seemed as though God had rejected him.

But our shepherd-king knew his God, and strengthened himself in the LORD his God.” (v6) David knew he needed courage to go on, and he knew where he would get it.  Better yet – he knew from WHOM he would get courage – “the God of Encouragement and Endurance.” (Romans 15:5)

How did David encourage himself in the Lord his God?


worship_1I bet that this psalmist sang a song that he wrote just over a year earlier, after God had delivered him from Abimelech the Philistine King (Psalms 34).  In that song David vowed to “bless the LORD at all times (verse 1) – in all circumstances, good or bad.  Why? Because the Lord is always God, always good.  Then he vowed “his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (verse 1) – leaving no space for negativity, grumbling, complaining, fearful or hopeless confessions.  David’s mouth was dedicated to speaking of God’s power and goodness – he therefore his heart was encouraged to move on in faith.



This discipline of praise lead David to magnify the LORD, and …exalt his name” (verse 3).  Is it possible (or even necessary?) to make God bigger than he is?  No.  God’s magnitude will not change with David’s praises – but when you tell God of his rehearse his great attributes and benevolent, righteous character, your perspective of our circumstances does change.   By making God bigger, you make your problems smaller.  You see life from God’s perspective, and that makes your troubles seem smaller.  When we praise God we remind ourselves that God can make a way where there seems to be no way – even in this hopeless situation we now face.  That reminder stirs hope, the confidence that this troubling situation will “work together for the good” (Romans 8:28) and that God “will make a way” where it seems impossible (Isaiah 43:19).  Hope stirs courage – it gives strength to the heart.


Then, in the praises, David reminds himself of how God answered and delivered (verse 4) him in the past.  He probably recalled how the Lord saved him from the lion and the bear while he was watching his father’s sheep, and how the Lord gave him victory over the giant Goliath and later as captain in Israel’s army. He probably recalled how the Lord had delivered him many times from the hand of the jealous King Saul and the barbarians he fought as mercenary.  David truly experienced how the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (verse 18)

This gave David strength to get up from the pit of despair, to get out of his raided house, face the angry mob of mighty men outside and encourage them to pursue their enemies!



But David was wise enough to not act in presumption.  David knew how to wait on the Lord [to] strengthen your heart” (Psalm 27:14), and that it requires patience and discipline until God gives the go-ahead. The historian records that before David got up to pursue the band of Amalekites he inquired of the LORD, ‘Shall I pursue after this band? Shall I overtake them?’ [God] answered him, ‘Pursue, for you shall surely overtake and shall surely rescue’” (1 Samuel 30:8).  Only then did David encourage the men with this prophesy of success, turning their hopeless frustration into hopeful fortitude.

David and his men were so invigorated by this encouragement from God that they pursued the Amalekite army for two days and then engage them in combat from twilight until the evening of the next day” (verse 17).  A promise from God gives one strength to go on.


Had David not leaned the discipline to encourage himself in God, his story might have ended in this chapter.  But he gained the necessary courage to press on in the presence of God.  Not only did David himself benefit from his self-encouragement: his army of mighty men got turned around from self-pity to strength, their wives and children got rescued, and everyone was prospered through this pursuit to such an extent that David even had wealth to share with the tribal leaders in Israel – the very thing that turned their hearts and attention to him and invite him to return from exile and receive his kingship.  All because David could encourage himself in the Lord his God.

Can you identify with David’s feelings of frustration, loss and despair?  Then follow his example: shut the door to all the noises and demands, praise God and remind yourself how powerful and close he is, and what he has done for you and others1 in the past. Then wait patiently on him for direction, and see how the Lord “encourages your heart and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:17)

You’ll be surprised to find that – like for David – self-encouragement not only changes your mood, but your circumstance and the lives and destinies of those around you.  After all, what else would you expect from a meeting with Allmighty God?



  1. When one is in despair it is often difficult to remember good times and breakthroughs of the past. I find it helps to rehearse and reflect in prayer on what God had done for others as recorded in Scripture. I would recall Gods saving intervention in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Gideon, David, Daniel etc… Their life stories as recorded in the Bible give me courage in my times of difficulty.  This is what Paul referred to when he wrote “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”  Try this.

Encourage one another

Have you considered what your legacy will be?

What will you be known for one day?

What will your colleagues remember you by?

What will your kids imitate (either intentionally or unintentionally)? Or what are they learning from you now?

What is your influence right now? When you leave the office today, or the dinner party tonight or the Bible study group this evening, what do people say of you after you’re gone?  What are you known by?


St Barnabas “Son of Encouragement”

Imagine being known and remembered primarily for being an encourager.  I want to be that guy!  Joseph, a Levite of Cyprus, got the nick-name “Encourager” (“Barnabas”) by the apostles and the early church (Acts 4:36-37).    His ability to encourage was so influential that he is still remembered today by that name.  What a legacy!  This Encourager had much influence in the early days of the church and missions.  For instance after the zealous persecutor Saul of Tarsus had his life-altering encounter with the Lord Jesus and became Paul, the Encourager was the one who went to look for him, encouraged him and brought him to the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-28).  When the believers fled from Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom and resulting authority, witnessing as they travelled, they “accidentally” established a big church in Antioch with Gentiles (Acts 11:19-24).  The Encourager was delegated by the Apostles to discover what was going on; he saw God was at work and encouraged them to continue what they were doing.  Afterwards he went to look for Paul, and encouraged him to join him in Antioch and to pursue the ministry he received from the Lord – the ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 11:25-26).   Years later, while the church was praying, the Holy Spirit set apart two people for missions to the Gentiles – Paul and the Encourager (Acts 13:1-3).  Again we read of the Encourager when he and Paul had an argument over John Mark (Acts 15:36-40); Paul considered him to be fickle and untrustworthy, but Barnabas could see God at work in and through him, so he encouraged him and took him along on his ministry trip. It seems whenever there was a new thing or a big change about to happen, God positioned the Encourager right there in the middle of the crisis, to put strength in the hearts of his people so they might press on amidst uncertainty and difficulty.


To encourage literally means to PUT STRENGTH INTO THE HEART (en = into, courage = strength).  Fear does the opposite; it takes away the will to fight.  So in times of uncertainty or hardship with much opposition, people lose the will to press and as their hearts close up or cower away.  In times such as this people need to be strengthened in heart, they need to be encouraged to press one.

See how encouragement can produce strength and endurance in a very practical way in “Death Crawl Scene” from Facing the Giants: []

Everyone needs encouragement at times.  And a need for encouragement is not a sign of weakness just a desire for water is not a sign of weakness.


It is helpful to keep in mind that the Old Testament history, poetry as well as prophesies were written during times of tremendous uncertainty and hardship.  The intent of the writings is to remind the reader of God’s promises, God’s power, God’s proximity and God’s personal commitment to his people.  Every book in the Old Testament is very encouraging.  That’s why Paul referred to it when he said “whatever was written in former days was written for our learning, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)

The Bible: an encouraging record of God’s power, promises and proximity.

Likewise most of the New Testament was written during the three periods of most severe persecution of the first century (around AD 45, 60 and 92).  Many of these communities also suffered from internal conflict, so understandably the Apostles wrote with the intent to encourage the believers to remain faithful to Christ in their worship, witness and works.

Thus the New Testament is a great place to learn about this skill much-needed ministry skill of encourage.  So how do you encourage another?

We come together to encourage on another.
We come together to encourage on another.

When the author of Hebrews moves from orthodoxy (right belief) to orthopraxis (right practice) in the 10th chapter, he encourages the scattered, persecuted church to maintain “full assurance of faith” (10:22) in Christ while “holding on in hope” of eternal reward (10:23).  These instructions come as no surprise, but he goes on to instruct this fearful group to “not neglect to meet together” (10:25).  These believers may die when they meet together openly in their hostile environment!  Why should they risk the public association as Christians?  He writes says believers should meet together to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (10:25).  He says “think about ways to encourage one another to greater love and more good works!”  Continue to come together so that you may effectively encourage one another!”


We look for gold within the dust.

Such a deliberateness requires a disciplined community that – amidst personal hardship – have trained itself to only speak words that are encouraging and leads to the edification of another (Ephesians 4:29-31). Therefore there is no room for complaining, criticizing, slander or gossip in their communal verbal culture.  Rather, the tone of conversation is always one of affirmation, thanks, recognition, exhortation – always encouraging, even when correcting.

Our verbal culture is always uplifting.
Our verbal culture is always uplifting.

Notice the way the apostles start and end their New Testament letters with affirmation, thanks and encouragement.  Jesus speaks the same way in Revelations to the seven churches around Ephesus, starting and ending each message to these congregations with affirmation and praise, and ending each letter with hope – a promise of reward.  What an example of verbal encouragement!


The verbal encouragement obviously stems from eyes that have been trained to be “light” and not “dark” as Jesus taught (Matthew 6:22-23), in other words they have trained themselves to recognize whatever is good and godly, and not to fixate on what is negative and evil.  As a pessimist sees the glass “half empty” an optimist sees the same glass “half full”, so one who has trained his eyes to see good can see goodness in great difficulty and thereby become an exceptional encourager when everyone else complains.

We look for gold within the dust.

Eugene Person’s paraphrase of Proverbs 11:27 (MSG) sums up this disciplined attitude well: “if anyone can find the dirt in someone, be the first to find the gold!”  An encourager always seeks what is good and Godly in someone, and when he finds it he praises it, drawing attention to it so others can also see and celebrate it.  Because, as Andy Stanley puts it, “whatever gets celebrated gets repeated!” 


New Testament Prophesy is exactly that – a message from the Lord that reveals and affirms what is good and even praiseworthy, meant for “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:4).  Prophetic words from the Lord – whatever the message – communicates to the receiver that “I, the Lord know who you are, what you are going through. I care and I am for you!”  Indeed very uplifting, encouraging and comforting! That’s why Paul encouraged this very charismatic but persecuted church in Corinth to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy…” (14:1). Everyone needs encouragement, and the Lord wishes to encourage His church (also) through prophesy!


One of the best ways of encouraging one who goes through hardship is by simply being with them in their times of hardship, and to encourage them to not give up.   Paul wrote to the Galatians that they ought to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), or more literally to “stake yourself to” the one suffering, using the imagery of strengthening an injured leg, to prevent it from folding under the load.  Whatever the hardship, your presence with one suffering is encouraging and helps preserve the person’s spirit.

We encourage one another by our support.
We encourage one another by our support.

The affirmation that “you are not alone, you are not forgotten” is an extremely powerful motivator to press on through hardship.  Community, love and a sense of belonging is in itself a reason to live and not give up.  Jesus knows that, and therefore, in various forms we find these words of comfort to persecuted congregations “Behold, I am with you! I will never leave you or forsake you.” (see Hebrews 13:5; Matthew 28:20 etc).   May times our presence and ministry to hard-pressed people reaffirm this encouraging truth: “God knows about you and He is near to you.” 


One of the primary ways in which believers are encouraged within the New Testament writings is through hope – the certain promise of reward that give sense and meaning to the current suffering.  As for the athlete, the student, the pregnant mother and fighting soldier, anyone who undergoes suffering will hold on if they know that what they go through is rewarded in some way.  Like Paul says “these light afflictions do not compare with the glory that awaits us” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Encourage through hope to press on.
Encourage through hope to press on.

The most common hopeful encouragement in the New Testament is the promise of rewards on “the Day of the Lord” – Judgment Day or the Return of Jesus, where the Lord will reward faithfulness and obedience amidst suffering, and judge the wicked. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:2-14 as example).  But even temporal hope is a strong encouragement, and the Bible abounds with examples of encouragement to push on with the promise of reward in this life, such as David’s prayer “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen [encourage] your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14) 


Just as long-distance runners need water and cheers throughout the race, so the people around you need encouragement to go on.  God is “the God of Endurance and Encouragement” (Romans 15:5) who wishes to encourage his children, cheering them on as they do good, comforting them with his presence, promising that their efforts are worth it.

You and I have the privilege to imitate this loving, encouraging God who cheers his children on.  You and I have the privilege to put strength into the hearts of fatigued, faithless and fearful people.  And for that, you will also have your reward!

So look up.  Chances are the first person you meet now will need a cool cup of encouragement.  Be ready!


What is Church? God’s Special People

“This is a big old ship, Bill.  She creaks, she rocks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up.  But she gets where we’re going.  Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you.” [i]

If you’ve been in church long enough you would probably smile and nod at J.F. Power’s comment quoted above.  To say that the church is imperfect is a euphemism.  But to walk away from church is silly, if you understand the nature of church.  The church is made up by redeemed, but broken people.  And therein lies the tension between the expectation of Christ-like perfection and the reality of sinful, selfish people.  Church is messy, but church is glorious.

It is easy to get so busy with the activities, meetings and politics of church organization that one lose sight of the identity and nature of church.  When that happens, these necessary activities drain the life and joy out of church life, and we miss the beauty we once knew within Christ’ community.  So, what is church?

Simply put, church is GOD’S SPECIAL PEOPLE.

GOD’S people

Church begins with God: a community created and chosen, redeemed and reconciled by God and for God. It is in every respect God’s Church – a God-owned people.  Consequently, the church is and should be preoccupied with God and live God-conscious lives.  Thus we are people who live in the fear of God – we live in the knowledge that he exists, he sees all things and he will judge every person.  Moreover, because we are God-conscience we also live in hope because we know God hears every call and God saves everyone who cries out to him – we are not alone in this world!  The church is a God-worshipping community that live in thankful response to Christ’s work of redemption and in constant awareness of God’s gracious providence.  These thankful worshippers form a God-serving community who devote their lives on this earth to serve God’s His redemptive purpose, and a God-declaring people who preach the message of his coming kingdom. Most importantly, the church is God’s church because we are a God-abiding people, set aside by God to dwell in eternally.  As such the church community is a God-empowered and God-revealing people through whom the world knows the loving and righteous character of our God.

a SPECIAL people

The church is a special community, a people chosen by God.  We are God’s “ekklesia” – a posterity “called-out” by God, for God’s purposes.  We are separate, not part of this world; set apart by God, for his delight.  God has sanctified us for himself – we are holy to God, and unto God.  As such we are a counter-cultural community living differently because we do not values this world or the things of this world.  We are a special people because we are a people inhabited by God.  The God of creation, the God of the universe has made his dwelling place among us.  We have become an eternal community who live forever since the Eternal God has become our home, sharing his life with us.

no ordinary PEOPLE

The church is made up of people – humans who live ordinary lives here on earth.  A gathering of redeemed, but still imperfect, broken, mortal people.  But the church is God’s new race, God’s new humanity where there is no male or female, neither slave nor freeman, no distinction between Jew or Greek – a people who value life and identity in Christ more than economic, gender, race or education distinctions.  We are more than mere mortals – the church is God’s new creation, the restored Eden, the New Jerusalem where God is always in her midst and he is her perpetual light.  As Staney Grenz writes “the church is… a new humanity… who are seeking to point toward the future God has in store for creation.” [ii]  With his presence among us and his Spirit transforming us into his image, the church is God’s own representation as we have become partakers his divine nature.  Or as Grenz puts it [we are an] ‘eschatological people,’ a company who ‘pioneer’ in the present what the future will be like.”[iii]  The church is a foretaste of what the New Creation will be like when Christ returns.

But most importantly, the church is God’s own family – the privileged posterity who can rightly call him Dad as we have been born again of Him.  As such we are his favored offspring, his beloved children who bring joy to his face.  It is in the atmosphere of a local church that the loving nature and grace of God our Father is experienced and displayed.  It is through his family – imperfect as the humans therein – that God chooses to make himself and his mission known.  And that is the perpetual business of church: the gentle, purposeful redemption and restoration of individuals, families and society at large as God’s children go about representing the love of God our Father.  That is the privileged of being part of church.

[i] J.F. Powers, Wheat that Springeth Green, (NYRB Classics, 1988)

[ii] Stanley Grenz, Created for Community, (Baker Academic, 1998), p207

[iii] Stanley Grenz, Created for Community, (Baker Academic, 1998), p213

Church membership – who cares!?

“I’m attending this church (for now) – who cares about a name on a list?”

Formal church membership seem foreign and even impersonal to our current generation of passionate Christ-followers.  “To sign on the dotted line” seem so far removed from the deep spiritual relationships that our generation yearn for.  When conversation move away from passionate participation towards paper partnerships attendees become skeptical and scatter.  There is a general suspicion of anything formal or contractual.  And not without reason!

Off course we must note that the contemporary wariness of church membership is not only due to the fallible history of the Church; our generation holds a general resentment towards institutions and a skepticism in leadership at large.  It seems as though the bigger the institution, the more structured a partnership or the longer a commitment is, the greater our generation will stay clear of involvement.  This growing resentment towards institutions is also the reason for couples – even increasingly Christians – who do not see a need to get married formally.

So we dislike big, structured, impersonal and organized – we like small, intimate, personal, and organic.  We associate authentic spiritual life with small and intimate.  But a quick read of the New Testament reveals that the early church was big, very structured, and organized – yet very personal.  And it seems clear that membership in the early church was normative – in fact, the New Testament seem to associate Christianity with formal church membership.  Consider the following points.

  1. Accountability assumes membership

In the intimate setting where Paul greeted the elders of the Ephesian churches for good, he exhorted them to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).  Paul’s instruction to “care for the church of God” implied a very specific group of blood-bought believers whom the elders knew and had to protect against “savage wolves…with destructive heresies” (see verse 29).

Peter’s letter to a group of scattered congregations gave a similar instruction to elders who ought to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you… those in your charge” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  These elders had to oversee and lead by example “those in their charge” – a very specific group of people allotted to them by God.  Each elder had to watch over the members in his flock.  This was a clearly defined group of believers, i.e. members in a congregation.

The most sobering and challenging verse on this for me personally is Hebrews 13:17 where the apostle writes that leaders have to “keep watch over [their follower’s] souls, as those who will have to give an account.”  The elders of a local church must watch over and account for the members in that congregation before God, implying a relationship of accountability and entrustment – i.e. willing membership.

  1. Leadership assumes membership

Hebrews 13:17 also assumes that the congregation knows who their leaders are whom they ought to “obey” and “submit to” – the relationships were clearly defined.   So too Paul’s instruction to in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 shows that New Testament congregations had formal membership and leadership: there was something like a “those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord” who deserves respect.

  1. Church discipline and assumes membership

Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to regulate sensitive matters in church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17) assumes membership: if an offensive act from a fellow believer is not settled in loving confrontation with witnesses present, that person can be brought “to the church” – a clearly defined group of believers who knows this trespassing brother.  As in Jesus’ instruction, Paul instructs that the last resort of church discipline is for a congregation to excommunicate the sinning brother who now is “inside the church” to henceforth be with “those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) – from that moment he is regarded as “an unbeliever” (Matthew 8:17). This act of disassociation, writes John Piper, is not only a clear indication that membership was normative in the early church, but moreover it proves that church membership really means something.  It is a blood-bough, desirable and beneficial privilege for all believers.

  1. “One body” assumes membership

The term “member” for someone being part of a congregation was coined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 in his metaphorical description of the church as the living, interdepend body of Christ, where all the persons in this congregation are “members of the body” (v12).  He argues that a believer cannot say I do not belong to the body” (v15) – it is abnormal for the members to relate tangentially to the rest of the body; it is wrong and unhealthy for a person to not be built on or planted in a local congregation where life is received and given through the sharing of Christ Himself.  Membership was normative in the New Testament; every believer in the Early Church belonged to a local congregation.  Just like the Church globally is the Body of Christ, so too the local church is an expression of the Universal Church.

  1. “Known by your love” assumes membership

Ultimately, Jesus desires for the church to be known by your love for one another” (John 13:35) is only possible within the confines of a clearly defined congregation.  As this love is visibly discerned by outsiders, it reasons that relationships of church members must over time consistently witness acts of   generosity, forgiveness, affection, affirmation and shared life – not mere acts of kindness to passer-by’s.  The visible love among church members is the ultimate witness of our allegiance to Christ (John 13:34-35) and the reality of Christ among us (John 17:21).

Bringing it home

If you hear someone say “church membership – who cares?!” tell that person it is the most fitting question you can ask; membership is all about “who cares for you!”  Church membership is about entrusting someone appointed by God to watch over your soul and care for your needs – someone who must give an account to God for the health of your soul.  Church membership is about committing yourself to a community of believers for mutual accountability and edification – to discipline and be disciplined, to support and be supported, to encourage and be encouraged as you continue to grow in the character of Christ.  Church membership is the environment where we can securely live in vulnerability and mutual care, where love flows freely in generosity and forgiveness, affirmation and affection, radical acceptance and kind correction.  It is in church membership where the life and love of Christ flows and is displayed to the world.

So where do you belong?  Who should give an account for your soul?

From surviving to THRIVING!

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to THRIVE; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style” ― Maya Angelou (American poet, actress and activist in the American Civil Rights Movement).

Reading through the gospel John, one cannot escape the promise of LIFE, of flourishing and thriving, in Jesus.  Over and over Jesus promises that “I have come that you may have LIFE… and that you may have it in overflow” (eg John 10:10).  In fact, the over-arching identity and mission of Jesus (at least from John’ Gospel) is one of LIFE-GIVER.

Jesus is LIFE.  He said I am THE BREAD OF LIFE (John 6:35), “I am THE LIGHT OF LIFE (John 8:12), “I AM THE DOOR” for the preservation of life and access to life (John 10:9), “I am THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who lays down his life for the sheep, that they may have life (John 10:11), the “I am THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE that “whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live(John 11:25), “I am THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE (John 14:6) and lastly “I am THE VINE” though whom we have access to and power for life, for “apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

I share Mark Hall’s philosophy on this video of Casting Crown’s album THRIVE:

THRIVE in spite of hardships

This promise of LIFE is not defined as an easy life, overflowing with worldly goods and void of suffering.  Jesus did not promise his followers a life void of pain, suffering and difficulty; rather, he promises “In this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33). 


The apostles echoed his words when they wrote to the suffering churches “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12) and “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (1 Peter 4:12).  In essence, the New Testament says “don’t just SURVIVE hardships – THRIVE in spite of it!”  The LIFE Jesus promised is not snuffed out through suffering.

This tree started growing from the remains of a burnt-down cottage.
This tree started growing from the remains of a burnt-down cottage.

THRIVE in spite of lack

It is difficult for us to think that it is possible to THRIVE in spite of financial difficulty. Yet it is true that most of the New Testament Church was really poor, being marginalized and persecuted because of their faith in Christ. Yet the church had power and grew rapidly; they knew to be true what Jesus taught: “life does not consist in the wealth of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)


Just like some plants flourish in the harsh conditions in a dessert, so a LIFE OF THRIVING is not dependent on abundance of wealth or material success.  In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul nor the other apostles had much possessions.

The dessert is full of life and beauty.
The dessert is full of life and beauty.

THRIVE in spite of imperfections

Just as a THRIVING plant may not be void of imperfections, so a THRIVING life is not a perfect, faultless life either.  Paul likened the full LIFE of Christ contained in human imperfections to a fire shining through the cracks of a clay pot that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Our imperfections shows God's glorious life.
Our imperfections shows God’s glorious life.

Thriving therefore is not dependent on worldly comfort, prosperity or perfection.  So, Biblically speaking, how does one move from a life of mere SURVIVING to THRIVING?

  1. A Place to Belong: LIFE flows through receiving and giving love

Using the metaphoric language of a tree, the Psalmist writes “They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”  To THRIVE, one needs to be “planted in the house of the Lord” – to find your space in church community which one calls “home”, a place of belonging.  To THRIVE one has to open your heart to people, and be received into theirs.

“like a tree planted next to water…”

It’s common to not feel part of a community, to feel like an outside.  But Paul writes that – regardless of our background – Jesus has “made us accepted” into Christ’s beloved community through adoption (Ephesians 1:5-6).  If this remains “cognitive truth” at best we will SURVIVE; but once this adoption and acceptance becomes “realized or incarnated truth”, once we experience the blessedness of unconditional acceptance in the community of love we THRIVE in life.  We thrive in a community where love is evident both in our giving and receiving of one another.

Jesus refers to this THRIVING as the GLORY we share in wherever we living in unity, in harmonious, Christ-centered community. He said to his followers that THRIVING LIFE or GLORY will set us apart from the world, so that we will be recognized as Christ’s followers, sharing in his LIFE (John 17: 21-23).

Thriving in belonging.
Thriving in belonging.

Thriving happens in Christ’s community, in God’s family (Ephesians 3:14-19) within the security of unconditional love and acceptance, and space to grow and be yourself.  A place where there is no need for presence, where we can live in truth.

  1. Community of Truth: LIFE flows where the LIGHT shines

David observed that it is not financial prosperity that causes one to be blessed but rather by “delight in the law of the LORD” leading to a life devoted to its perpetual study and mediation.  He concludes this person “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalms 1:1-3).   As trees flourish and bear fruit next to a flowing stream, so humans THRIVE in a life devoted to the way God intended – a life directed by “the Law of the Lord”.  The “Law of God” or “Truth” is the manual for how God has ordained life, and the pursuit thereof promises a THRIVING LIFE (James 1:25), although not without opposition or difficulty.

One thing that the “Law of God” (or “Word of God”) does for the sincere reader is to search one’s heart and show what is true and what is false (Hebrews 4:12).  This shows what is dynamic and of God (truth), what is destructive and of the sinful self (selfish ambition), or deceptive and from Satan himself (a lie).  That which is from God causes eternal THRIVING LIFE in self and others; that which is from self or Satan causes death and destruction (James 1:13-17).  The Word of God brings to light the veracity of motives, thoughts and feelings.  It causes one to LIVE in Truth.

Thrive in the Light of Truth.
Thrive in the Light of Truth.

One prospers in the Truth: an environment of honesty without deception, of sincerity without pretense.  Such a community that embrace truth in love cultivates tremendous vigor – it leads to THRIVING LIFE.  Where there is freedom in unconditional acceptance to either confess faithlessness or failure, or to lovingly confront and correct destructive behavior or beliefs so that one’s life may be directed in Truth and be set free to THRIVE (Romans 8:32).

  1. Hope – a reason to LIVE on

As mentioned earlier, a THRIVING LIFE is not void of trials, tribulation or temptation, but rather this resilient life THRIVES in spite of hardships because of hope – the confident expectation that good will come.  Like the tree shoots out its roots, even splitting open solid rock because it follows the scent of water beyond it, so THRIVING in hard times requires the hope of reward.  There must be a reason to push on.  There must be a promise of THRIVING life beyond this hardship.

Press on in hope.
Press on in hope.

Paul was a man that endured much: “imprisoned frequently, in [danger of] death often… five times I received forty stripes minus one, three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness– besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  But he did not give up, and he did not just settle to SURVIVE, but pressed on to THRIVE in spite of these hardships.  How?   Through hope!  He writes “we do not lose heart… For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).  Paul always kept his eye on the promise of ETERNAL LIFE, not being phased with temporal hardships.  Paul THRIVED on hope.

His life philosophy was that “all things work together for the good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28), and reasoned that “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2-5). He stressed the fact that this hope is not an empty dream, because already the Holy Spirit is living in the believer as a guarantee of ETERNAL LIFE (Ephesians 1:14) and what he calls “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) – the promise to share in the GLORIOUS LIFE in Christ.  Therefore Paul rejoices in these hardships, because it helps him produce godly character and reminds him long for a life without sin and suffering in Christ’s Kingdom.  He does not want to forfeit that prize by giving up now!

THRIVING amidst hardships means we push on in hardships in faithfulness to God, because we know “He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23) – our perseverance has promise of the prize.  Although itit is much more costly!  To hold on, to break through, to push forward in hope leads to a better LIFE.   THRIVING in hardships requires hope – a clear picture of what the reward for perseverance is.

David writes on hope: “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” and concludes “wait in the Lord; be of good courage and he will give strength to your heart” (Psalm 27:13-14).

  1. Jesus – the source of LIFE

Earlier we wrote that Jesus us the SOURCE of ENDURING LIFE: He called Himself “THE BREAD OF LIFE” (John 6:35), “THE LIGHT OF LIFE” (John 8:12), “THE DOOR” to LIFE (John 10:9), “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who preserves and leads us on in LIFE (John 10:11), ” THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE” (John 11:25),  ” THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE” (John 14:6) and “THE [LIFE-GIVING] VINE” (John 15:5).

Jesus is the source of LIFE.  This thriving life is found in Him.  He told his followers to “Abide in me… for apart from me you could do nothing” (John 15:5).  How do we “live” and THRIVE in him?  Simple

Jesus said came that we “may have life abundantly” (John 10:10) – not just life to survive but LIFE in overflow, in excess: THRIVING LIFE.  This LIFE is found as we “abide” or live in Him (John 15:5) – in communion and prayer with Him; as we study his will and live in obedience to his Word (John 15:7); and as we participate and share in his loving community (John 15:12).


How do I grow from here? – phases in discipleship

Building a tower

The famous “pit” of the incomplete Chicago Spire

I am always surprised at my impatience every time I pass a construction site where “nothing seems to happen” for weeks on end – sometime even for months. When the foundation is being laid it might easily look to the ignorant onlooker as if there is no work being done because – everything above ground looks the same!  We tend to think that because I can’t see any development on the surface, no progress is being made.  But that’s not the truth.  We all know that constructive growth happens in progressive phases.

An artists representation of the completed Chicago Spire tower.

So too with discipleship – our growth in Christ happens in phases.  And – like in our sky-scraper example – the strength and longevity of our spiritual health depends on the quality of its foundation.  When the necessary foundation phases are not laid down properly, the disciple will lack endurance and vitality in their spiritual life.

Phases in discipleship

One of the most helpful research studies on the various phases in discipleship was done by the Willow Creek Association in 2007.  After an extensive study of over 200 churches and 80’000 members, Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson identified a framework of four phases where church-attendees found themselves in their relationship with Christ.[1]  This framework ranges from those who have a basic belief in God, but seek surety regarding Christ’s person and role in their lives (exploring Christ), through attendees who are growing in relationship with Christ (grounded) and feeling close to Christ (maturity) in daily communion with him, to believers who see their relationship with Christ as the central most important aspect of their lives (leadership).  After identifying these phases, the researchers identified three “growth-movements” and sought to identify the spiritual catalysts that most likely caused spiritual growth to the next phase of a disciple’s relationship with Christ.  These catalysts were grouped as (i) spiritual beliefs and attitudes, (ii) organized church activities, (iii) personal spiritual practices and (iv) spiritual activities with others (i.e. activities not organized by local congregation).

Adapted from WillowcCreek REVEAL study 2007
Adapted from WillowcCreek REVEAL study 2007

The graph above is adapted from this REVEAL study, showing four phases in discipleship with the catalysts they found most likely to produce spiritual growth in a disciple within that phase. Below is a summery of the findings as illustrated in the graph above.

  1. After conversion, during the grounding phase in discipleship, the two agents that contribute the most to the disciple’s growth in Christ are Biblical Teaching (growing in knowledge and attitudes) and participation in church activities (like Foundation classes, Bible school, small group and weekend services); these two groups of activities causes the most spiritual growth within this phase of discipleship growth.
  2. During and after the initial grounding in Christ, the two factors contributing the most to the disciple’s growth in Christ are firstly personal devotional disciplines, and secondly a lifestyle of witnessing, where the disciple shares his/her faith with others. (It is important to note stress again that devotional disciplines must be demonstrated – the habits are best acquired through participation and demonstration; so also with witnessing). No further growth in Christ will occur without a lifestyle of devotional disciplines; the disciple must become a self-feeder to grow in spiritual maturity – just like a baby that needs to learn to feed itself.
  3. The last significant growth phase, where a disciple grows from maturity to leadership, happens as the disciple acts on his/her own conviction or initiative and takes responsibility for a church-related ministry or activity, or even the care of some younger disciples. Just as a boy grows from a baby dependent on others, through maturity as he cares for himself, into a the young man who cares for his own family, so the disciple must grow to become one who takes ownership and responsibility for the spiritual well-being of others in some form.  Without this step, mature believers tend to become discontent, frustrated and tend to disengage from faith or move to another ministry, because they are not “fed” in church any more.  If they do find a place to serve faithfully and see the impact it has on others, these members will continue to grow and inspire others to partner with the church in a similar manner. Along with this “initiative” the disciple also needs to grow in understanding and response to the Lordship of Jesus over his/her personal life.  The study shows that, in this stage of the disciple’s life, he/she needs little from the local church to grow apart from encouragement and opportunities of engagement in full participation in Christian service. [2]

Greg Hawkins comments’ on the results of the study is indeed noteworthy…increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities [read “church programs”] does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does not predict whether they love God more or they love people more.” [3]  This is a very important conclusion: each disciple should be personally coached, given what he or she needs within their own walk with God.  One cannot give a one-size fits all program for every disciple – one must consider the phase of the disciple and coach them within in their current challenges.

There should be little surprise that the number one catalyst that provokes spiritual growth in a disciple is the Bible (studying, reflection, and the belief of its accuracy and authority). [4]  [I might add that helping people study it is the also the most neglected in contemporary church discipleship programs].

The Bible – still the most influential catalyst for spiritual growth.

Hybels refers to this as “the wake-up call of my adult life,”[5] since the church spent all their efforts and resources in developing programs to produce disciples, yet now he knows that that all they should have done was teach people “to take responsibility to become ‘self-feeders’… …how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.” [6]

This study has brought a new perspective to contemporary discipleship models: where in the past the commonly held notion was that greater participation in church activities (or discipleship activities) ensured spiritual growth (becoming like Christ), the result of this study indicates that church programs only initiate the discipleship process by grounding converts in their faith, but continuing in these programs will probably not lead to maturity in Christ.  The more mature a disciple grows, the less significant will a church program be on that person’s spiritual growth into Christ.[7]

Consider the maturity

Therefore, in summary, their reveal study concludes that the journey through discipleship has distinguishable phases: after conversion the young disciple needs to be grounded in the faith through instruction in doctrine and shown how to abide in Christ through the basic disciplines. During this phase instruction into basic truth and settling into a habitual life of personal devotion is important. Thereafter the disciple matures in character through training in the Christian lifestyle through observation and emulation of modeled behavior.  In this phase participation in fellowship and practices such as service and witnessing are important. In the last phase leaders are trained through delegation and participation in the discipleship process of others, and later through commissioning or deployment.  During this last phase mentorship and shared responsibility, with coaching in skills and character shaping is the focus.

Thus, to encourage growth towards maturity in Christ, a disciple should be helped firstly to be faithful in attending fellowship and bible study (such as church celebration, small groups, Bible School, etc).  Secondly, the apprentice needs to be coached in devotional disciplines in meeting with God faithfully.  Thirdly, as he/she grows in relationship with Christ, the disciple should grow in confidence in serving and taking initiative as the need arises or the Lord directs, so that his/her love for God may find expression in serving others.

So what should you do to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18)?  What is your next goal?


[1] Hawkins, Parkinson, REVEAL: Follow Me, p20-21.

[2] Ibid, p78.

[3] Hawkins G., from video results of study: [Accessed 12 March 2011]

[4] Ibid, p105.

[5] Hybels B., from video response to results: [Accessed 12 March 2011].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Spiritual Life Survey Results Revealed, Willow Magazine, Issue 3 2007,  [Accessed 12 March 2011]

Don’t tell me, show me! – the process of discipleship

Ken Blanchard, who spent years developing his famous Situational Leadership Model[1] and devoted his life to advising secular leaders on how to lead and grow healthy organisations. The leadership model he developed draws focusses on the required leadership style and approach based on the maturity of the followers.

Ken Blanchard came to Christ late in his life and found it remarkable to see how church leaders fail at this, especially since his model of leadership agrees so much with Jesus’ model for discipleship. [2]


He notes that church leaders tend to instruct (“say”) their members on how to live and what must be done, and then commission them to do it (“send”).  But – as we see everywhere – the cognitive download in itself rarely leads to fruitful life transformation of these members, not even mentioning a lack of societal reform.  This class-room approach rarely ever works.  He explains that church leaders frequently make the mistake to assume that after instruction, a disciple has both the ability and confidence to execute what has been instructed.

Ken Blanchard illustrates how Jesus’ model of discipleship – which mirrors his own model – equips the disciple with the necessary knowledge, skill and experience to ensure that both the disciple and his leader are confident in the capacity and confident to do what is required.

Therefore, after instruction, a disciple needs to observe (“see”) in practice what he has been taught, then have the freedom to try what is being taught in a safe coaching (“support”) environment, before being commissioned (“send”) to live it out, as illustrated in the adapted model below.


Even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveal how Jesus discipled his followers along this model: a period of primarily instruction as in Luke 5-8 (“say”), where after His disciples were “with Him” (Mark 3:14) to see his life example and ministry (“show”).  After this Jesus sent out his disciples on short term mission outreaches, with coaching and feedback as in Luke 9-10 (“support”), and eventually he commissioning them in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-20 (“send”). The Great Commission only happened after the disciples had proper instruction, a period of observation, and ample time to gain confidence in participation under the guidance and coaching of Jesus.

This Great Commission of Christ also implies this model of discipleship when He said “make disciples” through conversion (“baptizing”), instruction (“teaching”) and training, as the command states (“teaching them [how] to obey my commands”); the focus is on training and coaching more than instruction. Leaders should not merely relay the commands of Christ, but rather teach them how to obey Jesus’ commands.

This model is extremely important. Whether you instruct a disciple in devotional disciplines (such as Bible study, prayer and fasting, witnessing and discipling), skills (such as teamwork, teaching and preaching, healing and deliverance, conflict resolution), or character (such as integrity, compassion, kindness, humility, self-control), the process of discipleship is the same.

To enable a disciple to fully grow in the imitation of Christ, the teacher needs to say what must be done, be shown what that looks like in practice, be supported in participation, and only then be sent to do it in confidence.


[1] Blanchard K., (Ed) Segil L., Goldsmith M., and Belasco J.A., Partnering: The New Face of Leadership, (New York: AMACOM, 2003), p59-71.

[2] Lecture relayed by Randy Pope during a “Discovery Bible School” of Perimeter Church, 2010 found online.

So what are we busy with? – the aim of discipleship

The Spaghetti-Marshmallow lesson

Sadly, lessons are better learnt though personal mistakes, so there is a certain group activity that I love to start with which teaches a very memorable lesson.  I’d hand each small group a big pack of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti, give them 15 minutes and instruct them to build the highest, freestanding tower they can, and to add some pressure I throw in a prize for the winning team.

A recent group doing quite well with their spaghetti-marshmallow towers.
A recent group doing quite well with their spaghetti-marshmallow towers.

Without fail the teams jump in and start building by sticking marshmallows to the ends of spaghetti sticks.  The towers usually look very crooked and rarely stand by themselves.  What is the lesson they learn? Without a clearly communicated goal even our enthusiastic efforts fail – passion is not enough.


This is spaghetti tower lesson is quite a generic life principle, but I often use it to help us reconsider our thoughts and efforts regarding discipleship.  What are we busy with now, and why are we doing this?  This is exactly Bill Hull’s point when he writes believers “engage in the process with no regard or the product” – we are often busy with “discipleship activities” without considering what we ought to achieve through it.

The aim of discipleship

So what is the aim or goal of discipleship?  Jesus made it quite clear when he said “A disciple is not above his teacher, but when he is fully trained will be like his teacher(Mark 6:40).  The aim of discipleship is for the disciple to become like his master through teaching and training.

It is interesting to note that the word “disciple” occurs only in the four gospels and a few times in the book of acts – nowhere else is this word in the New Testament.  It is indeed interesting, since Jesus’ core message was that of discipleship in the Kingdom of God.  The apostles used the word “imitation” through instruction and copying of modelled behavior as in his letter to the Ephesians: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians5:2).  [See also 1 Corinthians 4:17 and 1 Corinthians 4:17; 1Thessalonians 1:6-7; Philippians 4:9].

Both the concepts of discipleship and imitation therefore require deliberate effort to imitate someone’ life.  Thus the success of the disciple or imitator’s efforts rest on the clarity of the image or life they ought to copy.  The better you know the person you ought to imitate, the more likely you will resemble the master.

If discipleship is a life devoted to imitate Jesus, then the success of your discipleship activities rests on the clarity of your image of Jesus.


Walk as Jesus Walked

The Apostles teach us that our conformity to the image of Jesus Christ our Lord is our past purpose (Romans 8:29), present process (2 Corinthians 3:18) and future promise (1 John 3:2).  This requires deliberate intent, as the apostle John writes “Whoever says he abides in [Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:6).

But what is the image of Jesus we ought to imitate?  What does the New Testament reveal of the character of Jesus?  The authors of the New Testament explicitly instruct disciples to imitate Jesus’ humility and obedience (Philippians 2:5-7) and meekness or gentle self-control (Matthew 11:29), servitude (John 13:14-15), selfless love (Ephesians 5:1-2; John 13:34), patience or longsuffering (1 Peter 2:21),  kindness and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32), as well as His missional intent (John 20:21) and ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).  In less explicit imitation language the apostles instructed disciples of Jesus to grow godly characters that are compassionate (Colossians 3:12), confident (2 Timothy 1:6-7), hopeful and peaceful (Romans 15:13).

But the Gospel writes records that Jesus also deliberately taught the disciples skills, including teaching, preaching, healing and deliverance (Matthew 10:8), discipling others (Matthew 28:19; see also 2 Timothy 2:2 and Titus 2:3), pastoral care (Matthew 25:36), teamwork and cross-cultural ministry (Luke 10:1).  The New Testament writers also dictate that disciples need grow in witnessing to unbelievers (1 Peter 3:15) and skills ministry skills such as facilitating and use of spiritual gifts in a meeting.

The disciples are to shape their lives by the disciplines modelled in Jesus’ life, including a devotion to prayer and studying and memorizing Scripture, a life of thanks, praise and worship, a commitment to fellowship, selfless serving and giving (see especially Matthew 20:28), and witnessing.  Jesus also modelled the need for times of fasting, solitude, silence and rest (or sabbath).  [I don’t see a need to “proof-text” these habits visible in Jesus’ life].

In the New Testament the apostles also highlighted the need for the disciplines of accountability and confession (James 5:16 and 1 John 1:7-9).

Lastly, in pursuit as imitators of Jesus (and also in our efforts to make disciples) we need to ask what are the most essential truths and beliefs a disciple of Jesus must hold onto?  Obviously this question has been asked through the ages, even within the first century.  From that question the Apostle’s Creed was formed, which new converts had to confess as their “oath of allegiance to Jesus their Lord” (from where we get the word sacrament) at their baptism.  This creed is a mere 110 words, containing the most essential doctrines of the Christian faith. The central part (about 70 words) centers on our belief of the person and work of Christ.  Although the doctrines contained in the creed is global in scale, I suggest that there are four doctrines I find necessary to teach in discipling contemporary Christians: Church and mission, Stewardship, Identity in Christ and Biblical sexuality.  Depending on your immediate context these four doctrines might be adjusted, although I suspect these issues are universally challenged by our contemporary culture today.

Profile of a Mature Disciple of Jesus

This leaves us with the following summary of a Profile of a Mature Disciple – a clear goal of what a disciple of Jesus ought to know and believe (head), live like (habits), skills he/she must master (hands) and what his/her character should grow to (heart).

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
one holy Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Church and mission | Stewardship | Identity in Christ | Biblical sexuality
Prayer Use Bible in ministry Compassion
Fasting Witnessing Kindness, mercy
Fellowship Healing, deliverance Humility, Selflessness
Bible study, mediation Use spiritual gifts Meekness, gentleness
Thanks, praise, worship Discern God’s voice Patience, faithfulness
Accountability, confession Teamwork, Delegation Confidence
Serving, giving Cross cultural ministry Joyfulness
Witnessing Pastoring others Hopefulness
Solitude, silence Discipling others Obedience
Sabbath (rest) Facilitation Peace

I find this profile very useful in my own pursuit of Christ-likeness, as well as the relationships with fellow believers with whom I walk a close road.  It helps me to “consider how we can stir one-another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25) as we meet to pursue Christ together.

On target
Discipleship requires a clear goal.

Deliberate effort and clear goal

Paul said that the culmination of his life efforts was to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28-29).  This maturity thus comes with deliberate effort towards a clear goal.  Not as though we can earn our salvation!  We simply respond to the graceful promptings of God’s Spirit as he writes elsewhere “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

So, how have you grown into the image of God?  And where will you respond to His promptings to continue to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”? (2 Peter 3:18)

A life of power – the need for discipleship

Power to win

The 1995 Rugby World Cup was in my matric year, which meant it was a good year for high school rugby.  I don’t know boys passed their exams during that season because all I can account for during that time was playing rugby with my friends, watching rugby highlights on the TV, listening to rugby commentary in the car and when there were no rugby broadcasts we’d play 1995 World Cup Rugby computer game.  It was an exhilarating few months from the build-up to the final, and what a final it was!  South Africa vs New Zealand, 80 minutes of extraordinary hard rugby turned to 100 minutes because by end of normal the teams were tied at 12 points each.  It seemed as though the the Webb Ellis Cup trophy would be shared by these two teams for the next four years until Joel Stransky received the ball from a scrum, and under tremendous pressured kicked a perfect drop goal from just outside New Zealand’s 22m line.  What a great victory he secured for South Africa! [see the video below]

But, oh! how this victory destroyed rugby in every school for the rest of the season…  Every match looked like a kicking competition.  I don’t think we even broke into a sweat in some games.  It doesn’t matter what position a player was supposed to play – every boy who got hold of the ball would attempt at a drop-goal.  Needless to say there were nearly no successful attempts.   Why could I or my school friends not execute a successful drop kick under pressure like Joel Stransky?  The answer is quite simple: we did not live the disciplined life he lived – on and off the rugby field.  We did not devote our lives to the hours of practice and mental preparation he did.  Those hours, amounting to years of preparation, paid off in those crucial seconds, because his gained power to perform when it was needed.

Power to break

On some Saturday mornings me and my brothers would watch a broadcast of Judo or Taekwon-Do championships where athletes scream and break bricks with their fists, kick through thick planks and smash concrete with their foreheads. [See example video below].

Carefully studying their methods and moves we’d get psyched and try it ourselves in our own back yard.  We’d find some bricks and planks, stand exactly like them, remind one another to “focus our energy”, scream and … crack our fists, sprain our toes and bruise our foreheads.  Although we copied their moves, screams and facial expressions as closely as possible we seemed to lack their power.

Why?  Because we did not live their lives.  We had their “form” but not their “power” – the power that stems from a disciplined, devoted life.

Power to survive

The best contemporary image for discipleship I have discovered is from the new movie Karate Kid .  In the 2010 version the young Dre (Jaden Smith) runs from some mean boys who know Kung Fu but is saved by Mr. Han (Jackie Chang), a master at Kun Fu.  [see the video below]

Afterwards Dre asks Mr. Han to teach him Kun Fu.  Mr. Han reluctantly agrees but instructs Dre to do seemingly meaningless exercises that has nothing to do with self-defense.  But seeing as the young Dre was only interested in learning to fight, he ignorantly rebels after hours of mundane exercises and starts walking out.  Mr Han calls him back and gives him the lesson of his life, showing him how the “pointless activities” of “jacket on / jacket off” and “pick the jacket up” was preparation for self-defense.  He concludes with the powerful life-lesson that “Kung Fu lives in everything you do… everything is Kung Fu.” [see the video below]

As a pastor I have had so many people over the years who come for counsel and prayer to gain power over something – smoking, pornography, anxiety, depression, obsessive thoughts.  Or to “fix a marriage”.    I’ve been at conferences where some big ministers invited people to “sow money now” that they may prosper.  Others invite people to come for impartation that they may gain a specific spiritual power.  These people sound like the ignorant, young Dre who simply wanted to be shown how to fight and overcome his enemies without living the life his King Fu master lived.  But like Mr. Hun I have come to understand that the power to reign in this life comes from the daily devotions and disciplined self-denial in everything we do, as we really live lives devoted to Jesus.  Everything we do is discipleship.

A need for deliberate discipleship

Have you ever met old Christians – genuine believers – who practically grew up in church, yet when you spend some time with them quickly discover they are staunch racists, or stingy and greedy, or habitually rude, bitter, or anxious?  And you think: how is it possible that a person can be a believer your whole life and after 60 years of going to church that person does not resemble the gracious, merciful, loving Jesus whom he or she follows?

Paul was referring to this hypocrisy when he wrote “In the last days there will be people… having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1,5).  In other words people who fake godliness – who act as though they are kind at heart when they are among believers, but in reality they are rude and demeaning, or act as though they are at peace with others but they harbor unforgiveness an bitterness in their hearts.

Spiritual growth does not happen automatically and does not stem from a “secret key” – it requires a deliberate intent (2 Peter 3:18) and disciplined effort (2 Peter 1:5-8) of spiritual practices through which we deny ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:27), transform our mind (Romans 12:2) and character as we come face-to-face with Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), exercising ourselves unto godliness (1 Timothy 4:7), into the image of Christ Himself (Romans 8:29).

We need to remind ourselves every so often that the word disciple is derived from the word discipline; a disciple lives in the power of his master to the degree that he imitates the disciplines of his master.

In the next posts we will look more into the goals and means of discipleship.