Think you’re smarter than Augustine, the Reformers, and Spurgeon? Lessons on discipleship for church planters.
One of the biggest regrets of my early Christian life is that I was never truly discipled, nor did I disciple anyone. While various men took an interest in my spiritual life, there was no “follow me as I follow Christ” moment in any of our conversations, no rhythm of accountability and responsibility for one another. As a result, I studied in seminary largely as an island, and I entered ministry as an island.
Talk about dangerous! The Christian life – let alone pastoral ministry – cannot be pursued in isolation (we were saved to and for gospel-community). I remember realizing one day that I had spent most of my life in church, yet I had no idea what I was doing in living the Christian life.
Flash forward to the time when our core team began plotting the future course of what would become Redeemer Church. We had a choice to make: What will our conviction be in making and growing disciples as part of our church family? All of our founding members grew up in church life. We all attended Sunday School, some were part of scripture memorization programs, I was the youth group kid with all the awkward Christian parody T-shirts (yeah, I wore the shirt emblazoned with “The Lord’s Gym: Bench Press THIS!” — a Gold’s Gym knockoff).
I’m convinced that nobody discipled me because no one had discipled the men I looked to for spiritual leadership.
And yet none of us had experienced a meaningful discipler-to-disciple relationship. Were the systems in our former churches flawed? Somewhat, but all systems have their flaws. Was it that people hadn’t cared about our souls? No, I don’t think that was the issue either. Instead, I’m convinced that nobody discipled me because no one had discipled the men I looked to for spiritual leadership.
Look to the Past to Plan the Future
Our core team was at a crossroads: Do we replicate the systems we experienced, but with greater levels of intentionality? Or should we simply look to what large and successful churches are doing and attempt to do something similar in our context? We all liked that idea. I mean, who doesn’t want to adopt something new, popular, and flashy? It’s always a great thing … until it isn’t. (I’ve learned my lesson; never purchase a car or an Apple product during its first generation — you will regret it).
After some reflection, we decided to see if there was another way. Where did we look? Church history. We started in the very first church history book, Acts. We wanted to understand what the first Christians valued and how those values influenced their daily lives.
What I saw was something foreign to my own church experience. These Christians lived their lives together. In particular, they devoted themselves to three things: the apostles’ teaching, fellow believers, and Jesus’ mission (Acts 2:42–47). The early Christians wanted to be taught, they wanted to be known, and they wanted to proclaim Jesus. Based on this pattern — and heavily influenced by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester’s book Total Church — we planted Redeemer Church with three core values: gospel, community, and mission.
If It’s Not Broke, Don’t Fix It
The very American concept of rugged individualism has led Christians to act as if we do not need one another.
Moving beyond the book of Acts and looking to what the first Christians (post-Acts) viewed as discipleship, we saw some incredible contrasts with contemporary discipleship methodology. Today, we have largely diminished “being a disciple” to making a profession of faith and receiving baptism. After that you’re on your own. The very American concept of rugged individualism has led Christians to act as if we do not need one another. The early church demanded more.
The initial discipleship process for new converts included a regimented three-year plan for growing new believers in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. New converts – called catechumens – regularly heard biblical preaching, received basic theological training, and renounced their sinful practices. Every step of this process was drenched in relational interaction that was grounded in gospel-community.
Still, this was 2,000 years ago. I’m sure at some point our fathers and mothers in the faith moved on from these practices and found better methods than those used pre-Nicaea. Right?
Of course I’m right. So I decided to prove my theory by jumping forward 1,300 years to the time of the Reformers. What I found shocked me and forever influenced the trajectory, mission, and methodology for making disciples in our church. The Reformers utilized similar (but culturally contextualized) variations of the earliest forms of disciple-making.
From Children to Church Planters
For instance, recognizing that this practice was standard in the early church, John Calvin exhorted all churches to reclaim the ancient practice of catechizing children:
“If this discipline were in effect today, it would certainly arouse some slothful parents, who carelessly neglect the instruction of their children as a matter of no concern to them; for then they could not overlook it without public disgrace. There would be greater agreement in faith among Christian people, and not so many would go untaught and ignorant; some would not be so rashly carried away with new and strange doctrines; in short, all would have some methodical instruction, so to speak, in Christian doctrine.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.19.13)
When we planted Redeemer Church, one of our goals was to follow the exhortations of the Reformers for parents and our congregation to work together to instruct children in the faith. For us, this meant parents participating in catechesis rather than relying on a professional children’s ministry.
We strongly encourage children to participate in worship as soon as the parents believe the child is mature enough. For those children who aren’t ready, we offer a children’s ministry heavily focused on making disciples. Each week, after a time of instruction, these children gather together to sing songs and hear a 15-minute version of the sermon, delivered by a staff member, seminary intern, or a spiritually mature parent.
Moreover, our staff and interns produce a weekly family discipleship guide for devotions and discipleship. These guides provide families with reflection questions from each week’s sermon (which apply to children and adults), a memory verse from the sermon passage, catechism questions that reinforce the teaching of the passage, and suggestions for family devotions. For some, this approach to family worship and discipleship seems revolutionary. Many are surprised to learn that we have recontextualized old practices mastered by the early church fathers and the Reformers.
Additionally, rather than seeing the seminary as the incubator for leadership development in the church, we became convinced that the local church is the primary agent for equipping believers for ministry. The seminary (and I say this as a professor in a seminary) should come alongside the local church by providing additional resources for building leaders for the church.
If you look to the history of the church, there is much to be learned about mentoring future leaders and pastors. I’ve learned a lot about mentoring from church history, particularly from Augustine and Charles Spurgeon. Augustine emphasized that mentoring requires an intense one-on-one relationship within the context of the community at large.
Spurgeon approached ministerial preparation in the context of meaningful and vulnerable relationships.
Charles Spurgeon reflected a similar approach in his pastors’ college. This atypical educational institution focused on developing students at their own pace. Such an approach required intimate and specific knowledge of each student’s intellectual capabilities, based in personal interaction. Spurgeon approached ministerial preparation not in an industrialized fashion (that is, quantity over quality), but instead in the context of meaningful and vulnerable relationships. To equip his students for ministry, Spurgeon spoke openly about the joys and struggles of the pastorate. By approaching education this way, rather than inculcating some abstract theory, he invited future leaders to imitate his life and ministry. And this was the (biblical) goal.
Augustine and Spurgeon wanted to train leaders who would continue to emulate their lives and faith as they went on to lead congregations. If ministry leaders never invite others to follow them as they follow Jesus, who will? Churches need to see their leaders investing time and effort in others.
Churches need to see their leaders investing time and effort in others.
In the life of our church, we try to replicate the wisdom of Augustine and Spurgeon in training our leaders. We prepare future leaders for ministry through classroom-style lectures, practical experiences (e.g. overseeing one of our church’s ministries), one-on-one and small group discipleship, and opportunities to teach (for those who desire seminary education, we do this in partnership with our local seminary). Our leadership team invites these “students” to imitate us as we imitate Christ (1 Cor 11:1).
Develop Convictions and Stick to Them
After examining the historically proven rhythms of discipleship throughout the history of the church, we landed on a few specific convictions for Redeemer:
- Discipleship must be relational rather than programmatic. Discipleship can never be divorced from gospel-community.
- Parents should disciple their children with the assistance of the church, rather than the other way around.
- Discipleship should equip those being discipled to know what they believe and why they believe it.
- Discipleship should equip believers to be in ministry, to lead in the local church, and to be disciple-makers.
Before You Plant
A man without a plan for making disciples should never plant a church.
Before you ever plant a church, you must be settled at a convictional level as to how you and your church body will approach the mission of making disciples. In fact, a man without a plan for making disciples should never plant a church. Far too many guys want to plant a church because they see “successful” planters (think: evangelical celebrity pastors) with large churches, and they desire to have the same thing. Consequently, these aspiring planters spend their time planning a top-notch worship service that they anticipate will draw the masses, but they give little attention to the mission Jesus gave us: make disciples and plant churches.
If you yearn to launch a Sunday morning experience but have little care for the hard work of discipleship, then make no mistake … you don’t actually want to plant a church. You actually want to organize an event. There is a difference. Church planting is all about making disciples. Therefore, look to the Scriptures for your mission (making disciples) and then look to history for the application (discipleship methods) and then contextualize your approach to your context. Conviction-driven discipleship is what gives birth to new churches and mature followers of Jesus.
After You Plant
So, you planted a church and now realize that your discipleship efforts are unhealthy, unbiblical, or simply not fruitful. What now? I would strongly encourage you to look to the past in order to chart your future course. Regain a vision for making disciples that is grounded in Scripture and has historically borne much fruit. A great place to start would be to read Ed Smither’s excellent work Augustine as Mentor.
Church planters, by definition, like building and creating new things. I get it. I am a church planter. Yet the longer I pastor, the more I realize that church planters should be less concerned with new things and more concerned with contextualizing old things. Our doctrines are old (they better be — or else they’re heretical), but we are tasked with communicating them in culturally relevant and understandable ways. Our mission is ancient and yet it gives life to new churches every day. Maybe, just maybe, we should stop trying to gain notoriety by charting a new course and instead see ourselves as just another laborer in a long line of faithful disciple-makers. When we adopt that mindset, we will begin to see that those who have gone before us left an impact for a reason: they knew what they were doing.
Dayton Hartman is lead pastor at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He serves as an adjunct professor of church history for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He attended Liberty University, where he earned an MA in Global Apologetics, and he holds a PhD in Church and Dogma History from North-West University.