How Too Much Discipleship Was Hurting Our New Christians

How Too Much Discipleship Was Hurting Our New Christians

Our current church membership stands at about 55, with another 15 or so waiting in the wings to be baptised. We have a Sunday attendance of anywhere between 70 and 100 (I suspect that’s roughly the same number of urinals found at any Mars Hill Church). By any description we are a small church. Yet, as of October 2012, we will have, at varying levels, 13 people being trained and/or discipled full-time in various capacities.

  • We have 4 young men being intensely discipled for a year in ‘James Ramsay House’ our discipleship home for new believers. All of these men will study with Porterbrook Scotland as part of other responsibilities. They will serve in our local cafe, at local clubs, in the church and begin to play a positive role in their local community.
  • We will have 3 paid interns who receive a stipend in order to train and develop skills, either for a future in full-time Christian ministry, or for roles as full-time Christians in the workplace.They, too will be doing theological training.
  • We have a full-time Ministry Team, including myself, of 5 people: Pastor, Youth Worker, Cafe Manager & Pastoral Worker, Assistant Pastor and Women’s Worker & Administrator. This team, too, receive on-going training every Friday morning on a variety of topics and books.
  • Finally, we have recently employed our first church planting trainee who will also be studying the Porterbrook material as well as a specialised reading list (focusing particularly on ecclesiology in the early months).

Now, many of these people were gambles when we took them on. Some have not even completed High School, some have been addicts and criminals their whole adult lives, some have suspect temperaments and some, in the early days, had no clue as to the inner workings of a housing scheme. I have no doubt that the majority of them would not be considered as training material in most churches I know. The leadership here at NCC, without doubt, are taking many risks. Now, to be fair, some of these risks have come back to bite us. We’ve seen our fair share of failures. In fact, I would put the failure rate at around the 50% mark. But, we have seen spectacular successes too. Therefore, we believe that our risky policy is worthwhile and will, ultimately, reap enduring benefits for the church and the gospel witness here in Niddrie and our surrounding schemes.

If we are really going to raise indigenous leaders in these areas then we are going to have to take giant, faith filled risks with local converts. Textbooks and theoretical debates are all well and good but we have to begin putting principles into practice if we want to pass the baton on to faithful men and women. For example, in Niddrie one of our newest interns has been saved less than 6 months and yet has shown an incredible theological aptitude to go alongside their youthful evangelistic zeal. (I can already hear the sharp intake of breath as some people read this). How can we justify this? What about character? What about maturity? Great questions. In fact, the right questions. But let me ask you a question: How can we teach and even gauge these things in our area of ministry without a practical context into which character and maturity can develop? The next generation of leaders are not going to ‘catch’ Godliness and maturity from the pulpit and a midweek Bible study alone. They’re going to do it by being thrown into the deep end of Christian service very early on in their Christian walk. Brilliant. So, how have we come to this stage in our ministry here at Niddrie? Is it because I am such a genius and wonderful forward thinker? Sadly, no. Let me tell you how we have arrived at this point in our ministry.

This year I went away to think and pray for a day and I began to wonder why so many of our new converts weren’t reaching out to their friends and family with the gospel of the Lord Jesus. They loved Jesus and God was certainly at work in their lives. They came to all the Bible studies, sometimes up to 4 a week. They attended the Sunday services. They were excited about their faith, they were being discipled and mentored and yet there was a lack of dynamism, taking responsibility for new ministry ideas and a lack of active, participation in community outreach. They just seem to come and take. Don’t get me wrong, they were growing at remarkable rates in terms of biblical knowledge but we weren’t seeing leaders rise to the fore. It was all one way traffic. Obviously, the reasons behind this are long and complex but one thing, particularly, began to trouble me. What if we were over discipling (in the wrong information giving sense) our new believers? What if we were encouraging this passive, consumerist Christianity? Upon further reflection I came to a stark conclusion.

We were guilty of paternalistic discipleship. Much of conservative evangelical church culture operates with a 1 Timothy 3 type mantra that goes something like this: ‘We shouldn’t spiritually promote people too soon.’ Now, of course, there is great wisdom in that. That particular brand of conservatism, though, is even more manifest if the new believer in question comes from a criminal background or has an ‘interesting’ testimony or is a ‘trophy of grace’. The reaction in middle class churches, in my experience,  to these converts is to leave them on the sidelines and wheel them out for the odd testimony events. I am not saying they’re not cared for or discipled but I have met very few men currently in ministry from my background in the UK. There are some but we are very few. Now I know this, and so the response in Niddrie has been to ensure that we quickly team up our new believers with a mentor and ensure they quickly get hooked up with a regular Bible study and become a part of community life. Because of the high level of unemployment here it is not unusual to have people at 2 or 3 Bible studies a week outside of Sunday services.

The problem was, as I saw it, that we had begun to molly coddle them to such an extent that they had, inadvertently, learned to become consumers like many Sunday attenders (across the church as a whole – I am not referring just to NCC here). I began to fear that we were over discipling our new people. We over studied with them. We over protected them. Instead of letting them fly we bought, quite innocently, into the lie that they were too weak, too ill educated or too young to be let loose on their own. Worse yet, because of the victim mentality in housing schemes, this in turn played into their sense of entitlement and crippling over dependence. Therefore, instead of serving, evangelising and contributing they were taking their treasure, digging a deep hole, locking it up in a box and keeping that beautiful gift to themselves. The truly terrible thing about this was that we who were trying so hard to help them, were actually providing the shovel, the box  and guarding the key for them as well! I decided that we needed to prayerfully and wisely give our new believers opportunities to fly if we were going to see them really grow, blossom and mature into future leaders. It was a painful thing to reflect that our feted, thought out, missional, intentional, gospel centred approach to discipleship was actually contributing to the stunted growth and leadership development of our community. It wasn’t that too much discipleship was hurting our people, it was too much of the wrong type discipleship. As a result of this reflection, we have made some slight tweaks this year. One of them is to push people out more quickly into levels of responsibility and service no matter how insignificant it may seem. More than that, we are teaching our new believers more quickly not just the facts of the faith but how to actually share it, conduct a simple Bible study and lead a person to the Lord. We are, in effect, taking the training wheels off more quickly and trusting that God, by His Spirit, will help them to grow and mature in a more rounded way.

I will let you know how it goes.