Mailbag #81: Helping a Church Grow in Discipling . . . How to Receive Members Who Left a Former Church Poorly.
I’ve enjoyed reading Dever’s book, Discipling. Do you have any advice on how to assess how a church is doing at discipling? In other words, if I am tasked with helping our church grow in discipling, how do I know where to focus my efforts? How can I spot the strengths and weaknesses of the church when it comes to seeking to help others follow Jesus?
Just asking these questions regularly—and asking them with other elders and leaders in your church—is a really good start! Let me explain:
In our elder meetings, as we go person-by-person through the membership directory, we ask ourselves this question: “Do we know there are people in discipling relationships with this person?” (Either discipling or being discipled . . . hopefully both exist.) This data is crucial for us as leaders who “are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:16). That accountability doesn’t mean elders are responsible to do all the discipling, but it does mean we are responsible to make sure it’s happening. So we have to ask ourselves, and if we don’t know, then we have to ask that person or someone else who knows.
Those relationships can be formal or informal. In fact, the book you referenced defines discipling as “deliberately doing spiritual good to someone so that he or she will be more like Christ.” I think that definition is helpfully broad. A large enough elder team may be able to stay informed of a lot of informal relationships throughout a large church, but we’ve found our church’s small group structure a useful tool for tracking and facilitating those relationships. However your church facilitates discipling relationships, your elder team needs to make it their business to ensure that those relationships exist in real spiritual substance, not just on paper.
When church leaders consistently evaluate and promote discipling relationships in the church, the congregation eventually begins to share the same values. As elders ask small group leaders about their discipling relationships, small group leaders begin to do the same with those in their circle of influence. Eventually, all the members begin to sense the importance of discipling and they begin to seek out opportunities to disciple and be discipled.
Simply continuing to ask the question—regularly, convictionally, and as a united leadership team—will go a long way in assessing and even effecting the discipling culture of the church.
—Joshua de Koning
Like any church, we occasionally have new attenders who come to us after leaving their previous churches on bad terms. More than just general church hopping, I’m talking about those who probably ought to be under discipline from their previous churches, except that they are usually not since most churches don’t practice discipline.
When we know that a visitor has not repented of sins committed against another church, what’s the proper way to protect our own flock and to encourage the visitor to repent? Does Matthew 5:23–24 imply that we should refuse to allow them to attend until they have reconciled with the people of their previous church?
Your question is a great encouragement. First of all, you’re caring for other churches and not just your own. Secondly, you’re caring for your church by not blindly bringing unaddressed sin into your flock. Thirdly, you’re caring for these attenders who may be attempting to run from godly discipline. And fourthly, you’re taking the Word of God seriously. So, for the sake of others who are reading this article, I’m going to address a few general issues about membership and discipline before I answer your question specifically.
If people join your church without addressing unresolved issues with their former church, they’ll bring that sin with them. This sin will stymie their growth and is potentially dangerous to your church. For that reason, always ask potential members about their previous church and why they left. Ask about any unresolved issues with the previous church.
Furthermore, these situations show why it’s important to cultivate good relationships with other gospel-preaching churches and pastors in your area. You will need one another’s help in these situations. Allow me to illustrate.
A couple began attending the church I pastor because they’d been “offended” by the leadership of their previous church. Since I only had their side of the story, and since matters were clearly not resolved, I called the pastor of their former church and asked if he’d be willing to meet so we could attempt to resolve their broken relationship. He was reluctant to do so, but finally agreed. This couple was also reluctant to meet, but finally agreed to as well—particularly since I indicated that we could not move forward with church membership until we had resolved these issues.
As we met, both sides were able to share their perspectives. The couple had not handled things well at all and their previous church was frankly relieved that they had left. The meeting gave the couple the opportunity to ask forgiveness from the pastor and it gave that pastor the confidence that we wouldn’t tolerate gossip about him and his church. It would have been ideal for that couple to have returned to that church, but they’d burned quite a few bridges, so with the blessing of the previous church, we assumed care for this couple and allowed them to join with a clear understanding that they needed to grow in some specific ways. They did and have been members at our church for several years. Furthermore, our church continues to enjoy a good relationship with their previous church.
So, yes, we’re to help people obey Matthew 5:23–24. But we must also recognize that, as Romans 12:18 commands, we must live peaceably with all as far as it depends on us. Ultimately, we don’t have a magic formula. We need to shepherd potential members, care for their souls, seek the truth, and value meaningful relationship with other pastors and churches.