It Takes a Church

Walking Together on the Journey of Transformation

 

I didn’t grow up in church. I didn’t even grow up around the church. But a God I didn’t know still knew me and called me to be a pastor. I had no idea what a pastor did or what a church did. I just knew that I was supposed to be a pastor. As a student at Northwest Nazarene University (NNU), I met with Dr. Irving Laird from the religion department and shared my dilemma with him.

“I think I am supposed to be a pastor,” I said. “What should I do?”

“You should probably find a church to go to and start going,” he advised.

That had never occurred to me. During the next several weeks, I set out to find a church. My first memories of church were of trying to figure out why people were singing karaoke-style to songs I had never heard before and why they were quoting from a book I had never seen. I ended up choosing my first church for no other reason than that the lead guitarist played a vintage Les Paul and looked like a member of a popular band.

Eventually I wandered into my first Christian bookstore in search of my first Bible, and I encountered a strange land filled with Christian-themed breath mints and talking vegetables. I had no idea what NASB, KJV, NIV, or any other acronyms meant. When the sales clerk asked “What kind of Bible do you want?” I had no idea what to tell her, so I replied, “A holy one?”GP Winter2020 thomas graphic

She sold me one, and I read it. I was confused. I became more confused when other church people read stuff aloud from their Bibles that I didn’t have in mine. I was pretty sure my Bible was broken. I finally asked another NNU religion professor about it, and after looking at my Bible he said, “This is just a New Testament. It doesn’t have the other half of the Bible, the Old Testament, in it.”

I was incensed! Who sells half a book? The next time I went to buy a Bible, I didn’t ask for a “holy one.” I wanted a whole one. Eventually, I was hired to be the custodian and youth pastor of that church with the guitar player who looked like a rock star. And a few months later, I surrendered my life to Christ. Today, I am privileged to pastor the church that planted the university that introduced me to Jesus. I also get to serve on the board of trustees for Nazarene

Theological Seminary (NTS), the seminary that discipled me and showed me what it means to be a pastor. As I often tell people, I fell in love with Jesus at NNU, and I fell in love with His Church at NTS.

That is my discipleship journey. It’s a winding journey of transformation that started with prevenient grace and grew to include a Christian university, two different denominations, three senior pastors, a college chaplain, two seminaries, dozens of professors, many friends, and hundreds of other people in my life who have all helped me learn to follow Jesus.

I share my story with you so you will know I mean it when I say discipleship is complicated. There is no magic formula, silver bullet, or perfect program to create a Christlike disciple. When we think there is, our rhetoric is usually better than our reality. In the congregations where I have pastored, those sitting in the pews have included loggers and lawyers, police officers, politicians, and plumbers. They have been immigrants, migrants, refugees, and soccer moms. We have walked alongside soldiers with PTSD, students with ADHD, and professors with PhDs.

In my current congregation, people who cannot read or write worship with people who read and write Greek and Hebrew. There are people like me, who had never seen a Bible, worshipping next to three dozen retired pastors, missionaries, and district superintendents who have nearly memorized the Bible.

No one program of the church could have discipled me to be the person God called and created me to be. It took the whole Church. Likewise, there is no one perfect pastor or program that can disciple all of the individuals in our churches. This is okay because discipleship should never be treated as a program in the church but always as the mission of the church. Making—not just becoming—Christlike disciples is the mission of each individual in our churches, so one of the greatest gifts a church can give its people is an Individual Discipleship Plan or IDP.

This is not a unique idea. When I was a teacher, we developed IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), pulling together resources at our disposal to ensure our students’ success. Doctors meet with people to develop wellness plans. Financial counselors meet with people to make financial plans. Every day, people spend millions to hire trainers to help them wade through information to create a fitness plan. If we spend that much time preparing for this temporal life, why not dedicate that much energy preparing for the eternal?

This generation of believers has more resources available than any previous generation, yet they are more confused than ever. They don’t know who to trust, what to question, and where to turn. They need people to help them figure out their next step; people to help answer their questions; people to connect them with the resources available to them and to help them discern how to put these resources together. They need people

who will help them discover their own gifts and graces for ministry and guide them in exercising these gifts in the Body.

What would happen if the spiritual leaders of our churches sat down with every individual or family every year and talked about spiritual issues? What if this happened not only reactively—such as at funerals, weddings, or in crisis—but if we proactively partnered with the Holy Spirit who is speaking to people constantly?

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Our church is not a simple one, but we are doing our best to simplify discipleship for our people by changing our focus from Discipleship 101, 201, and 301 classes to one-on-one conversations centered on questions such as:

“How can we help you take your next step with Jesus?”

“Where are you stuck, confused, scared, or overwhelmed?”

“What are your goals in life?” “Where is Jesus inviting you to follow Him? How can we help?”

“How can you help others?” Then we work with them to come up with a plan to move forward, and we schedule a time to meet with them again in three, six, or twelve months to have the same conversation again.

For us, this isn’t a program of the church as much as it is a practice for the church. We believe this is a practice Jesus showed us when He invited us to follow Him. It’s a practice modeled by His disciples and modeled for me through those who helped me follow Jesus in my daily life. While I was not born into the Church of the Nazarene, I was reborn because of the Church of the Nazarene. The Church’s mission of making Christlike disciples is our mission because it’s His mission. God the Holy Spirit is drawing people to Jesus. Are we willing to walk this slow journey of discipleship and transformation together?

 

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