Where Does Your Congregation Turn For Help?
My wife and I were on a marriage retreat with twelve couples. The men and the women were painfully but honestly working through the failures in their marriage. The small group leaders for the retreat were then instructed to help the couples think about how the gospel applies to their marital weaknesses. Afterwards, I sat down and debriefed with the small group leaders and this is what I got:
“It was the slowest part of the weekend.”
“People just didn’t know what to say.”
And worst of all, “I don’t think people know how to apply the gospel to their lives.”
In this article on discipleship, we look at the urgent need for Christians to teach others how to live gospel-centered lives. The first step in discipleship occurs when the preacher applies the Bible to the life of his congregation. As believers hear the Word and grow in their understanding of the gospel, they increase in their love for Christ.
A second step in discipleship occurs when Christians, equipped with the Word, move out of their comfort zones and engage others in sanctifying relationships. As believers meet together, they sharpen one another and help each other to see the glory of Christ.
Pastors and church members too often fail to fulfill these tasks, and consequently we rarely see adequate spiritual growth in our churches.
THE PASTOR’S FAILURE: NEGLECTING BIBILICAL APPLICATION
Ask any Christian what his pastor taught on Sunday morning and at best you’ll hear a quick overview of the passage and an illustration or two. Ask him how that message makes a difference in his life and generally you’ll hear something vague: “It was helpful.” “It was encouraging.” Or maybe even, “It makes me glad to be a Christian.”
None of these responses are bad. In fact, hopefully they are true. But what happens when “Joe” or “Suzie” Christian walks out of church on Sunday morning and back into a fallen world? Let’s take a few practical examples:
- Jonathan walks into his office on Monday and mistakenly discovers that his boss is secretly engaging in unethical business practices.
- Peter is told that he’s showing the initial signs of Parkinson’s.
- Susan’s 5-year-old son breaks into temper tantrums every five minutes and he consistently ignores his mother’s instructions.
- David’s wife tells him that she no longer loves him and wants a divorce.
- Jill’s boyfriend tries to talk her into having sex, even though he professes to be a Christian.
Do these people know how the gospel is relevant in their particular situations? If they are like most Christians, they don’t. And so they turn elsewhere.
- Jonathan calls his three best friends and asks for their advice.
- Peter gets on the Internet and reads everything he can about Parkinson’s.
- Susan remembers something she read in a magazine and tries to help her son’s self-esteem.
- David and his wife turn to a counselor who recommends communication techniques from the latest marital research.
- Jill turns to Oprah Winfrey. What will the goddess of American television say?
Why do Christians turn in directions like these? Why do people walk out of churches not knowing how the Bible makes a difference in their homes, friendships, and workplaces?
On the one hand, church members are bombarded with options just like everyone else. Television commercials, street billboards, Internet advertisements, and magazine ads overwhelm us with alternatives: “Ten tips to a better sex life,” “manage your money better,” “reduced stress and happiness with these vitamins,” “making your life more efficient,” “lonely? Sign up now for a love that lasts.”
On the other hand, might pastors be at fault? Probably. Ask any Reformed pastor how much sermon preparation time he devotes to exegeting the text compared to thinking about biblical application. Application too often falls by the wayside. It is trite and tacked onto the sermon. Yet at what cost?
Other evangelical pastors repeatedly face the opposite problem—their sermon application is weak because they don’t root it in the biblical text. Too many pastors read leadership principles into Nehemiah long before they’ve actually spent time wrestling with the biblical text.
Andreas Kostenberger has asserted that biblical application is “the most critical, albeit the hardest, part of the interpretative process.” Exactly because it is so difficult pastors fail to preach sermons with text-driven, robust application. Again, I ask, at what cost?
People who don’t know how to apply the gospel to the nitty-gritty details of their lives will never grow in their love for Christ.
There you have it. That’s your wake-up call, pastor. If you neglect to teach your people biblical application you have failed to shepherd the flock adequately.
THE CHURCH MEMBER’S FAILURE: NEGLECTING RELATIONAL SANCTIFICATION
While I’m passing out the blame, let me also include church members. As Christians, we rightly desire to be fervent evangelists. But once we get people in the front door of the church we too often feel like our job is done. We are rarely concerned with the long-term spiritual welfare of other believers in our churches.
I want to suggest that one of the most important things that church members can do with their time is what I would call “relational sanctification.” Here is something a friend of mine (Greg) wrote recently:
I have come to rely on the relationships I have in my church. I need them, and I miss them when I am not able to avail myself of them on a regular basis. Vacation kills me. They’re fun, to be sure, but by the end of a week or two, I am painfully aware that something is missing in my life—and it is the relationships at my church. Those people keep me accountable, they help me to think, they help me to lead, they help me love my wife and child. In short, they make me a better person. I think that is how God intended it to work. His people crash up against one another, and through the heat and pressure of those interactions, he shapes us and molds us to look like Christ. . . . I do not think there are many churches out there that are experiencing that kind of relational sanctification. Most churches, I fear, simply come together for a worship service once or twice a week, and then anything more than that would simply be a waste of time. I want to teach a church how to fellowship with one another, and then through that fellowship, how to encourage one another to live lives that will be glorifying to Christ—through bearing one another’s burdens and sorrows, through sharing one another’s joys, and through rebuking and admonishing one another when the need arises.
I love it how Greg says that vacation “kills him.” You don’t hear that often, even from Christians. Yet Greg misses the church—the people, the relationships.
My favorite sentence in this paragraph is right in the middle: “His people crash up against one another, and through the heat and pressure of those interactions, he shapes and molds us to look like Christ.” That is exactly right! God intends for us to live out our faith together—sharpening one another, serving one another, exhorting one another, rebuking one another, loving one another, and so forth.
People often don’t want to do the painstaking work of making disciples because it is costly. It takes time we don’t have to give. Relationships are also invasive. To make a disciple you have to be vulnerable yourself and you have to enquire into the life of another person. All this means dealing with the messy details of life—suffering, emotional ups and downs, fights, doubts, financial woes, parenting woes, and so on.
“I’ve got enough problems of my own,” you might say. “Why do I want to get myself dirty with someone else’s problems?”
Christians who fail to pour their lives into others shouldn’t be surprised to see other believers rarely grow in their love for Christ.
There you have it. If you (as a church member) neglect to invest in others in your church you have failed to follow adequately Christ’s exhortation to go, make disciples, and teach them to obey everything he commanded.
THE SUFFICIENCY OF SCRIPTURE
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what I’m about to say next. Christian discipleship is about teaching others to apply gospel truths to every aspect of their lives. Pastors should do this in their sermons, and members should do this in their relationships with one another.
Discipleship is rooted first and foremost in the sufficiency of Scripture. To say that something is sufficient is to say that it has everything it needs to do what it intends to do. The Bible claims for itself that it will never return void and that it will accomplish all that it sets out to do. “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).
Moreover, the Bible is sufficient
- as our guide to salvation and a life of godliness;
- in that its scope is comprehensive—providing everything needed to define and speak to the wide variety of life’s problems;
- in guiding and defining what we believe, how we think, what we say, and how we behave.
The Bible is comprehensive in that it provides us with a Christ-centered worldview that equips fallen men and women to see everything in the world from God’s perspective. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin described this worldview using the analogy of spectacles:
Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.
The Christian life is filled with physical suffering, emotional ups and downs, spiritually “dry” periods, and many other struggles. With each struggle, Christians face a choice—will I look to the world for help, or will I let the Bible speak into my life? Every time a Christian turns to something other than the Bible for help, he fails to trust in the sufficiency of Scripture. He shows that he believes the Bible is not comprehensive enough to meet the nitty-gritty details of his particular situation. When he desires to go beyond what Scripture says he shows that he “remains dissatisfied with what God has given. It is to claim, at least implicitly, that God was not clear enough, or that he needs our help in leading his people in righteousness.”
Again, hear John Calvin:
If this thought prevails with us, that the word of the Lord is the sole way that can lead us in our search for all that is lawful to hold concerning him, and is the sole light to illumine our vision of all that we should see of him, it will readily keep and restrain us from all rashness. For we shall know that the moment we exceed the bounds of the Word, our course is outside the pathway and in darkness, and that there must repeatedly wander, slip and stumble.
If Scripture is adequate for the Christian life, there is no need to “exceed the bounds of the Word.” To do so is to a Christian’s own peril. Since God’s Word is sufficient, then we must teach believers to run to Scripture as their primary source of strength and comfort. We must help believers to bind themselves to the Word of God.
A WALK THROUGH DAILY LIFE
Christian discipleship helps people to come face-to-face with Christ in the pages of Scripture. As people grow in their love for Christ they come to see how the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—transforms the way they should live.
So, what about “Joe” and “Suzie” Christian? How might their solutions differ if they actually turned to Scripture first? What if they lived as if the gospel was relevant to every aspect of their lives?
- Jonathan’s boss was engaging in unethical business practices. Jonathan realizes that every heart will be revealed on the last day before a God who is just and righteous (Rom 2:16). He no longer fears his boss, but fears God instead, freeing him to do what is right (Prov 1:7).
- Peter was diagnosed with the first stages of Parkinson’s, but he knows his ultimate treasure doesn’t belong to this world. Suffering helps Peter to not rely on himself or the world, but on God alone (2 Cor 1:8-9). He also knows that suffering matures Christians into a godly people that the Lord is molding for himself (James 1:2-4).
- Susan’s son doesn’t listen to her. She realizes that her son must learn to live in obedience to God (Eph 6:1-3). She must teach him to live under godly authority (Heb 12:5-6) and must discipline him in order to save his soul from death (Prov 23:14).
- David’s wife wants to end their difficult marriage. David realizes that his pride has ruined his wife’s ability to follow his leadership (Prov 16:18). He confesses his sin to God (Ps 51:4) and seeks forgiveness from his wife. David’s wife can forgive only because God has forgiven her through the death of his Son (Col 3:13). Jill’s boyfriend wants to have premarital sex.
- Jill finds her confidence in God, not in any relationship (Prov 3:25-26). Her desire to live like Christ calls her to a life of holiness and purity (Lev 11:45) that gives her no choice but to break up with a hypocritical boyfriend.
Look at how beautiful the Christian life becomes when people make choices that are radically shaped by the Word of God. Now admit it, pastor: you wish your people lived this way. I hope you’re not discouraged because they don’t yet live this way. They can, because nothing is impossible with God!
Ask God right now to help you to be a more faithful expositor of his Word. Ask him to teach you how to preach “robust” biblical application that is grounded in the biblical text.
Ask God to raise up members from your church who will find great joy in making disciples. Pray that they will never be satisfied with spiritual apathy in others. Pray that they would be willing to do the costly work of investing in others.
Your task is clear: Go, make disciples, and teach them to obey. And if you do, I hope you will find a harvest of righteousness that will grow beyond your wildest dreams.
1. Andreas Kostenberger, Application: The Hardest Part in Interpretation, October 27, 2006, www.biblicalfoundations.org
2. Joe Thorn, Thoughts on Sufficiency, Aug. 8, 2006, www.joethorn.net
3. Again, I indebted to Joe Thorn’s Thoughts on Sufficiency, which points out this useful Calvin quote.