Preaching and hearing the gospel is not enough.
Jesus didn’t just preach the gospel—he mediated it. As he taught and modeled the gospel of grace, it was mediated through his flesh and blood relationships. He didn’t rely on mountain top airwaves alone. He always came down the mountain, right into the mess of everyday sinners. Jesus was attached to disciples who were attached to one another. The gospel went viral through flesh and blood not silicon and megabytes. He mediated the gospel of the Father, Son, and Spirit through father-son-like relationships with others. His incarnation was not only to bear the cross but also to become a person his disciples could imitate.
Paul, too, brought the gospel down to earth when he faced factions and over-realized eschatology in Corinth. The church was more oriented toward personalities than actual persons, guided by personas rather than “fathered” by mentors they could imitate. Writing to the church, Paul contrasts guides with fathers: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:14-15). Guides were hired tutors bound to their students by money. But fathers are relational leaders bound to their children by love. Paul also called the church to mediate the gospel through close, imitable relationships.
Therefore, it is not enough to identify with a gospel guide. Favorite authors, preachers, and teachers are not sufficient for discipleship. Relationally detached, hired teachers cannot replace attached, loving fathers. In the tradition of Jesus and Paul, the church desperately needs to recover a relationally mediated gospel. We need fathers, not just guides.
WHO’S TO BLAME: PODCASTS OR PASTORS?
Today, many Christians identify themselves with specific preachers through podcasts or online sermons. Listening to these sermons can be a tremendous benefit to Christian growth and spreading the gospel. However, in the hands of sinners, podcasting can also become a detriment to growth. Listeners can be so beholden to a preacher outside their church that they identify less with those inside their church. They possess a technologically mediated gospel, not a relationally mediated one.
When this happens, disciples stunt their growth and the mission of the church. They settle for doctrine over life instead of “watching their life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16). When discipleship is doctrine-dominated, it tempting to act like an armchair quarterback. Disciples try to call the shots, criticizing local pastors for not being like other “celebrity” preachers or for not “doing church” like certain practitioners. Podcasting comparison (not podcasting) undermines the centrality of the local church. Instead of actively pursuing local leaders for discipling, church members passively listen to other preachers’ sermons. While “countless guides” are assembled in podcast playlists, local discipling declines. This “podcasting comparison” compromises the discipling impulse of the gospel. It produces more guides and groupies than fathers and sons. Worst of all, it misrepresents the gospel of the discipling God.
Who is to blame for this famine? Technology? Media mogul General David Sarnoff remarked: “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them.” Podcasts are not to blame. We are. Technological blame-shifting will not help our churches raise up spiritual fathers to disciple others. Pastors and non-pastors mistake a diet of theological information for whole-life discipling. As a result, we face a disciple-making famine amidst a homiletical feast.
Both pastors and churches will need to repent.
REPENTANCE FOR CHURCHES
There are disciples in local churches that need to repent of celebrity-leader comparison. Some will need to confess to their leaders. Others will simply need to change. Setting a new course, they should turn to affirm the leadership of their local pastors and look for ways to join the disciple-making mission of the church. Recognizing God has appointed elders and leaders for their good, disciples should search for a local father, or fathers, in the gospel. These gospel fathers will help them grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. Look for a “father” among those older in the faith, small group or ministry leaders, or pastors.
Instead of looking to countless guides for information, disciples should seek out (and eventually become) fathers who disciple for imitation.
Although technology itself is not to blame, “I” technology certainly caters to the individual consumer. Ken Myers notes that, in the West, the identity of “disciple of Jesus” has been replaced with “sovereign consumer.” As sovereign consumers, we select our influences without regard to God’s sovereignly appointed influences. We seek podcast theology over pastoral discipling. We prefer isolated information instead of relational transformation. While the sins of individualistic consumerism and evangelical comparison are ours, the podcasting medium, relied on excessively, does carry a message: “All I need is informational discipling.”
REPENTANCE FOR PASTORS
Pastors who offer theological information at the expense of genuine relationships also need to repent.
Fellow pastors, our theology should disciple. It must express itself in intentional, mentoring relationships. Our calling is to shepherd not only through preaching but also with people. Our flocks hear our countless sermons, but do they have many fathers? Are we favoring theological information over fatherly imitation?
Jesus could have transmitted the gospel by dropping a Bible from the sky, launching an infallible podcast, gathering Twitter followers, or projecting holograms of himself in every village and city. But he didn’t. He chose flesh, human touch, sight, smell, and presence. The Son of God became a spiritual father to twelve disciples in order to transmit the gospel through flesh and blood. He calls us to do the same. Technologically mediated preaching—and even preaching in person—isn’t enough. People need to see the gospel live and hear it in relational stereo. They need our bodily presence, faults and all. Disciples need encouragement that breathes and correction that has a heartbeat. We all need gospel fathers to help us imitate Jesus.
WHO TO IMITATE: GOSPEL FATHERS
You’re probably wondering: “What is a gospel father?” Paul viewed himself as one: “I became a father to you in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:14). A gospel father (or mother) is someone who takes spiritual responsibility for a disciple’s growth (Thes. 2:7-14). This relationship happens by relating to someone through the gospel. It does not begin because the father is morally, experientially, or spiritually superior. It begins by a common, joyful commitment to the superiority of Jesus and his unmatched grace towards us. The gospel connects father to son, mother to daughter in a shared identity in Christ Jesus.
When we repent and believe in Jesus, we are converted not only to his lordship but also into his family. This family is like interconnected circuits, rewired into a new network of relationships energized by grace. When grace is absent, the network drags and gets disconnected. Fathers are separated from sons, mothers from daughters. Guides dominate. Family dysfunction creeps in. The gospel, however, offers an endless power supply of grace to strengthen family relationships. This is why we need not just fathers, but gospel fathers.
Gospel Fathers are Templates of Christ
Gospel fathers take responsibility for others by giving their disciples a template to imitate. As a gospel father, Paul exhorted his disciples: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:15; cf. 2 Thes. 3:7, 9). The author of Hebrews reminded the church: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
Imitation is hardwired into family. My one year-old daughter bends her lip in like I do when I’m thinking. My seven year old son loves to explain things like I do, using hands and all. As gospel fathers, we have a responsibility to show the church what it is like to follow Jesus. We are to be templates of Christ. In order for people to imitate us, we must spend time with them. An occasional meeting won’t do. People need to share our life as well as our faith. They need to see our struggles as well as hear our sermons.
As a pastor, the people with whom I spend most of my informal time often go on to become gospel fathers, leaders, and pastors. Why? Because shared time exposes them to a template of Christ that, by God’s grace, they can confidently imitate. They see through the template into Christ. They observe how desperately I need the gospel of grace to reflect the image of Jesus. They see me frustrated and full of faith, discouraged and confident.
When gospel fathers share their lives with others, the template becomes tangible and attainable.
Tell the Gospel Truth and Offer a Template
Fathers also tell their disciples the gospel truth. They instruct their children and give them something to imitate. Guides cannot offer imitation, but fathers can. Fathers who are present are fathers we want to hear from. When we are present, our words have more meaning. Gospel fathers get deep into people’s lives to struggle with and for them in life. Our experience and example is not enough. They need the gospel of grace applied in concrete, practical areas of struggle.
One of the men I spend regular time with is a professional in the tech field. In his new position, he found himself continually frustrated. As we peeled back the layers through shared meals, prayer, and life, we discerned that he was most frustrated when his boss disapproved of his work. This demanding boss made it difficult for him to work in peace. As a result, he oscillated between a sense of overconfidence and under-confidence depending on how his boss related to him. I shared how my confidence in preaching sometimes rises and falls depending on how the church responds. He was surprised. I also shared how I have found great confidence in Christ because Scripture reminds me that, though I am inadequate for preaching, the Spirit of God has made me more than adequate (2 Cor. 2:4-6). He reminds me that my approval comes through Christ not the church. Similarly, his approval is secure in the gospel, which frees him to work from approval in Christ not for approval from his boss. As a result, our confidence doesn’t rise and fall with what people think but rests securely in what Christ thinks. Working through 1 Corinthians together we seized upon this promise: “all is yours, you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:23). We have everything we need wrapped up in the love and approval of the Father and the Son! Now we encourage one another regularly with this gospel truth. Sharing my life as a template along with telling him the gospel truth, my “spiritual son” has since weathered unemployment remarkably well, drawing from deeper confidence in Christ.
When discipling others, we must be present enough to provide a template but truthful enough to point them to Christ. As good fathers, we must assure our disciples they are loved and accepted regardless of their success in imitating us. Through these kinds of relationships, others can see that the gospel of grace is enough to get us through both failure and success.
WHAT WE NEED
If the church is to grow, fathers must be present to be imitated. Disciples must seek them out. We must find time with men and women who can mediate the gospel to us. Pastors and church leaders must move beyond dispensing truth to offering a template. The church needs gospel truth and relational templates. We need the gospel mediated through fathers, not just guides.
Jonathan Dodson is the lead pastor of Austin City Life and the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Crossway, 2012).
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