DiscipleShift Book Review

I have read more books on discipleship and small groups ministry than I can remember. So, when I was recommended the book DiscipleShift by Jim Putman earlier this summer, I was somewhat hesitant to dive in. Much of what I have read over the past ten years concerning discipleship in contemporary Christianity is largely theoretical. Of course, there are obvious standouts in the discipleship literary landscape that have fundamentally shaped the way we as Christian leaders think about helping Christians mature. But, for every Exponential by Jon and Dave Ferguson (which offer abundant and paradigm-setting insights), there may be five to ten other works that provide not the how’s of discipleship, but the why’s and what’s. This information is useful to be sure, but perhaps not as helpful.

DiscipleShift belongs to the former category: a book published in April 2013 that I believe ought to be in the hands of every pastor and ministry leader – a book that will provide leadership insights into the importance of genuine Christian discipleship for years to come.

What causes this work to stand out among the rest is its absolute insistence on the fact that  the discipline of discipleship in a Christian community is not merely one avenue among many toward having a healthy, growing, ministry – it is the only avenue. If the Church isn’t making disciples, maturing followers of Jesus Christ, then it can’t rightly be called Church. The community of Christians exists for this one purpose: making disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them all that [Jesus] has commanded. DiscipleShift is honest about this mission and offers suggestions and tools for leaders to guide their communities into being shaped by that one goal.

“Attendance, busyness, construction, finances, and programs are not real indications of success. The core question of effectiveness the question that ultimately matters is whether the people who are getting saved are being conformed to the likeness of Christ. Are we making mature disciples of Jesus whoa re not only able to withstand the culture but are also making disciples of Jesus themselves.?” (p.19)

Far from being a book which makes discipleship sound good on paper only, Putman and his co-authors Bobby Harrington and Robert Coleman draw from years of experience and rigorous study to help form a picture of ministerial success that measures and values the same things Jesus did during His discipleship ministry.

“This model we advocate measures success by how many people are being loved and led into the way of Jesus, are coming to Christ and following Him. It measures how many people are being transformed into Christ’s likeness and are pursuing His kingdom mission. It values and measures how many are actually becoming disciples who can make disciples” (p. 29).

Rather than measuring the classic numbers of how many people, how many programs, and how much money, DiscipleShift calls leaders to dig deeper and measure not how many people showed up or raised their hands, but how many of the people who showed up got connected to a small group, or how many people in a small group are being mentored to lead, or how many leaders are mentoring others. It’s a model that teaches us to  focus on reproduction for the life of a believer; not just involvement, but fruit – the very things Jesus told His disciples were most important.

So if you’re struggling with not seeing the results from the ministry with which you’re involved, and if you’re looking for a resource that can help shape or re-shape the work God is asking you to do, or if you’re simply interested in finding out more about what the word “discipleship” means at all, pick up this book and apply it. I certainly intend to.


Why Inviting People To Church Is So Hard

Have you ever considered why Churches grow? There are actually many Church growth models out there. A Google search for the exact phrase “Church Growth Strategies” returned 98,400 results. Almost all of the results were tools of evangelism, i.e. sharing your faith with people who have not yet experienced Jesus. There were even some incredibly creative and diverse ways to share your faith I found. But if you look at each and every one of these programs and strategies, they all have one thing in common – they require an invitation.

Both the old and new testament are filled with invitations from God to His people. For instance, Psalm 34:8 invites us to experience the goodness of God and to accept His blessing as we rest in Him,

“Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”

Jesus invites us to come and enjoy rest in Matthew 11:28,

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

In the book of Acts, we see how the Spirit of God brought 3000 new believers into the Church on the Day of Pentecost. Peter, filled with the Spirit, stood up and preached the gospel, boldly proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and inviting people into the Kingdom of God:

“Repent and be Baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins.”

For many years, the number one reason cited for people not going to Church is that no one ever invited them. Can you believe that? And still today, according to Michael Harvey of Back to Church Sunday,  80% to 95% of people in our Churches have no intention of ever inviting someone to Church  and, by extension, into a community of faith where they can encounter the risen Christ. There are many reasons for this, but it generally boils down to a rather simple one: fear. Fear of rejection, fear of messing up a relationship, fear of not having the right words to say, the list goes on and on of things that we fear when we invite others into Christian community.

Now, as a example, I want to simply throw out some things for your consideration. Have you ever thought about other areas in our lives where fear ought to exist but it doesn’t deter us? People have fears of car accidents, yet we still drive. People have fears concerning the world that our children are born into, but we still keep having them. So why do we let fear govern our mentality about faith?

Joshua 1:9 states,

“Have I not commanded you? Do not be terrified, do not be dismayed. For I the Lord your God am with you where ever you go.”

We have a God who is bigger than all of our fears, who is with us no matter where we go and who is asking us to be the means by which others are invited into relationship with Him. We have a wonderful opportunity to share the love of God and extend that invitation to others everyday, but simply need to overcome the fear which holds us back. Remember the old adage, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to act in the presence of fear.” You have the ability to act and to live in the invitation that Jesus gives you to be a part of the Great Commission – to go and make disciples in spite of the fear that you may feel.  And as you live out the ability to act in the presence of fear, the fear grows less and loses the hold it has on you.  You can defeat this fear and make an incredible difference for the Kingdom of God. And as you do, you will strengthen your faith and be encouraged as you see God at work in and through you.

So what will it look like for you to take the risk and invite someone to Church? How can you step out and believe that God is bigger than your fear? What are ways of inviting people into faith that work for you?

One Church here in the north has seen an incredible growth through using the simple phrase, “I would like to invite you to my Church.” A simple statement which allows you to put out feelers and see if there is an interest in spiritual things – a question that paves the way for the actual invitation (if there is a positive response). If they balk at the idea of being invited to Church (and they might) there is no harm done and you can continue the relationship without it being awkward or uncomfortable. If they say yes, you make the invitation and find a time for you to bring them to Church. It is not complicated and it works!

While we may face a few (or many) “No” responses to our invitations, I think God is just waiting with a few “Yes” answers to truly surprise us and show us that He is with us and that He can and will work through us. I encourage you to take a small step out from behind the fear and see how God might work in your life using this rather simple exercise.


What Should Church “Look Like”?

Has you ever been asked what Church looks like? When most are asked this question,  they talk about the physical aspects of a building.  Gothic cathedrals to modern theatrical spaces, tiny white clapboard buildings to movie theaters and rented halls – we all have an idea of what Church ‘should’ look like.  Perhaps our ideas are shaped by our upbringing or by personal preferences.  Whatever the reason,  if you ask three different people in Church what it should look like, you might get four different answers. 

Too often, I find that we measure the success of the Church by the way it looks.  If we have a building that looks like what we think Church should be, the Church is a great one.  But what if we stopped looking at the physical aspect of the building and started to consider the spiritual ones?   Instead of thinking in terms of bricks and mortar, let’s think instead in terms of God’s people accomplishing the mission that was given to them by Jesus.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Matthew 28:19-20

To be a Church, the first thing we need to consider is: do we reach out to others with the love of Jesus?  As a group of believers, do you prioritize  reconciling our world with Jesus?  One of the benchmarks of a healthy Church are how many new people come to faith and if there is a growing body of believers who are being baptized into the Kingdom of God. 

Is the Church not just growing bigger numerically, but is it growing deeper spiritually?  Jesus calls us to the messy (but joyful) work of making disciples as we teach them to obey His word.  We need to be about the business of helping others to be transformed into the image of Christ.  While we might have a great building with an abundance of programs, but the end goal needs to remain the making of disciples.

Finally, a healthy Church recognizes the power of Christ being with them.  They take comfort and direction from Him, striving to live out the mandate that He has gave us in Matthew 28. A healthy Church relies on God for His provision, magnifying Him through the worship of their lives, and giving Him the honor and glory for how He works in and through them.

In my own life, I have had to learn to let aspects of Church life that I enjoy go, all for the sake of the mission of the Kingdom of God.  So like me, what do you need to re-evaluate in light of our mission?  What is there that you might need to let go to be faithful to the call of the Great Commission? Personally, I am working at scaling back to a simple focus on that which brings God joy and fulfills what He calls us to.  And in that, I am learning to find peace.  Why don’t you join me on the journey as we realize that the Church is not a building or a place, but a way of life.

Bride of Christ

The Bride of Christ

Let me paint a picture for you. It’s 10 am at a local coffee shop and the smell is intoxicating as espresso and sweet breakfast treats fill the air. I sit with my bakery indulgences and a warm latte waiting to meet a fellow Christian for the first-time. You see, I agreed to meet with a woman who was interested in learning more about walking with Christ. It wasn’t long before we began sharing snapshots of our lives and testimonies. Everything was off to a good start.

Then, the conversation took an abrupt nosedive as she said one of the most disturbing comments loudly for all the other listeners to hear, “the church is a whore.”  She said this statement without deep sadness, but as if she had determined herself the rightful judge over God’s universal Church. I immediately felt defensive, but I allowed her to continue. She proceeded to vent about the lack of correct Biblical teaching and how the Gospel has become so sugar-coated that we no longer, in her opinion, address sin head on. It took only a few seconds for it to become clear that she was angry! Flabbergasted by her persistence to point a finger at all the Church’s wrongdoings, I finally couldn’t help but say, “I understand your passion to see people live right before God, but remember God sees the Church as His bride and I am pretty sure, flaws and all, that He is madly in love with her.” Yet her comments resonated with me for the entire day.

Her statement, as offensive as it may be, is a bold one that makes my temperature rise. Surely I would never refer to the Bride of Christ in such a way as to call her this outlandish name, but I cannot deny that I and all of the true Christ followers are, for better or worse, unfaithful. In fact, it is in our very nature. While I disagree with the way in which the comment was presented (as I do not believe in bashing God’s places of worship), there is a story in the book of Hosea that could shed some light on her point. In Hosea, each chapter illustrates a comparison between the ever faithful Hosea and his wife (a former prostitute often lured back into adulterous affairs). The prophecy of Hosea centers on God’s unending love towards a sinful Israel. Hosea 1:2 shares God’s agony over the betrayal of Israel,

 “For like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”

Hosea was the prophet used by God to communicate these real emotions that he too had felt for his wife. One of my all-time favorite books is actually written about Hosea and is called, “Redeeming Love” by Francine Rivers. This book vividly shows the relationship between Hosea and a fictional character (Angel) – a direct correlation to God’s pursuit of the Church. Can it be that God is constantly taking us back even when we deny Him our love? The answer is ‘yes’ – we are all unfaithful, yet we are still His spotless bride. This is so phenomenal to me that I thought I’d give a visual. If you are married, do you remember the moment before you said “I do?” Perhaps these are not the exact thoughts that were racing through your head, but the moment everything seemed new and wonderful. This is how Jesus sees us. He remembers the joy that He felt when we said “I do” to becoming His. We are not perfect; in fact, God was clear in communicating this through the illustration of Hosea and Israel’s disobedience. However, we cannot pain God by calling ourselves unclean when He has covered us in His righteousness through salvation.  There are two important points I would like to highlight:

We are unfaithful. (Romans 3:23)

If we were perfect, we would not need forgiveness; if we did not need forgiveness, we would not need a Savior. We are an unfaithful people. Don’t believe me, just look at our history, laced with wanderers constantly needing to repent for their sins. We too are these people who go astray, constantly falling short. Hence, the remarkable need for grace.

We are God’s spotless bride. (Revelation 19:7-9)

If you suffer from a constant cycle of guilt, this one is for you. You are God’s bride. He adores you and He sees you as His very own, for better or worse, as long as you remain in Him. Therefore, when referring to God’s Church, we must hold our tongue in bashing it for the sake of anger. We must be careful not to knock those in authority and those who God has called to serve His precious bride, us, the Church.


My prayer for you is that you remember God loves you enough to make it a permanent covenant. He did not give Himself because we deserved it, but because He saw us from the beginning of time as His and ‘very good.’ We must honor Him and His Church, always refraining from breaking His heart by lashing out against her. We are His beloved and may we never forget it!


Focused Prayer in a Group Setting

Recently I have been reflecting on a passage in Matthew,

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (6:5)

The reason the passage stuck with me comes from an internal debate I have been having about publicly praying with groups of people. You see, some people expect me to pray at every gathering and personally, I began feeling like I should edit my prayers to serve the whole because I am the one leading the group. I began feeling very disconnected and my focus was on my choice of words rather than being attentive to what God put on my heart to pray. I started then listening to others as we prayed and found that often we used the same words or statements, just in different phrasing.

I began to ask myself, how do we engage collectively in prayer while recognizing that it is what is on our hearts that needs to be focused on – not what we think we ‘should’ be saying. I knew I needed to shift my train of thought to listening to others and affirming what is on their hearts – not simply being politically correct.

As you consider your prayer time with other people, I’d encourage you to think on what some of those that came before us had to say – ultimately, these short quotes played a big role in my process of understanding,

“Our Lord did not say it was wrong to pray in the corners of the street, but He did say it was wrong to have the motive to be seen of men.” Oswald Chambers

“Prayer is not getting things from God, that is the most initial stage; prayer is getting into perfect communion with God; I tell Him what I know He knows in order that I may get to know it as He does.” Oswald Chambers

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Søren Kierkegaard

Here are some suggestions for the next time you pray in a group:

  • Focus your times of prayer on first listening to God, not just speaking.
  • See what is stirring everyone’s hearts and how those things are shared within the larger group.
  • See what is burdening the collective, often times God will place a specific burden on groups of people.
  • Pray together and affirm the things that shared by others in the group.
  • Ask the group how, when praying together, everyone can change and better grasp the character of the One (God) to whom we are praying.

I believe if you start to focus on some of the core elements, it will greatly transform your collective prayer life. I know it has ours.


How Does the Bible Describe the Church?

Imagine for a moment that you’ve never stepped foot inside a church building before in your life. You’ve never opened up a Bible, never heard a sermon preached. Maybe you’ve never even heard the name of Jesus spoken before.

But then one day someone gives you a Bible, and you begin to read it. Cover to cover. You read about the beginning of all things in Genesis, and discover a God that is larger than life. You read about Noah’s flood, and discover a God who demands righteousness and punishes sin. You read about Moses and the Exodus, and discover a God who will rescue His people from the bondage that enslaves them. You read about King David, and discover a God who loves us despite our glaring imperfections. You read about Jesus, and discover a God who would send His Son to die, so we could live eternally with Him. You read the New Testament, and discover a God who wants to spread the message of His Kingdom to the ends of the earth, that none might perish.

Now imagine after reading about this God, you stepped foot inside a church building for the first time. What would you expect? Any expectations that you enter with would have been born solely out of what you’ve read in God’s Word. Your expectations would not be tainted by centuries of church rituals and tradition. There would be no influence of past observations and experiences. No expectations based on what you’ve been taught since you were a child. Just the teachings of the Word of God.

I’ve written in the past about our common modern day church experience, but my aim here is not to observe and critique our church experiences of the past. It’s to begin to consider what the gathered Church might look like if we stripped away any preconceived ideas of what we believe the Church is supposed to be.

If we look to the Book of Acts, where the New Testament Church begins, we see that the Church is built around four defining features: the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  (Acts 2:42)

Let’s take a closer look into the first three of these four features, to learn more about how they impacted the daily lives of the first century believers, and how they should impact our lives today.

The Apostles’ Teaching

Teaching has always been a central focus of Christian gatherings. Early Church gatherings provided an opportunity for believers to receive instruction from the apostles’ teaching, as they submitted themselves to the authority of the Scriptures. In Acts 20, we even see an example of Paul preaching from early evening until daybreak, probably a timeframe of 10 to 12 hours! While this was a special occasion, we see that the Apostle Paul believed the teaching of the Word of God was so important that he filled an entire night with it. The same should be true today. While a good sermon lasting 60 minutes isn’t necessarily any better than a sermon lasting 20 minutes, we should always hunger for more teaching and preaching of God’s Word.


As we continue on in Acts 2, we read the following:

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2: 44-45)

Here we see that the early believers didn’t view the Church as a place where they gathered together on Sunday morning, they viewed themselves as the embodiment of the Church. As a fellowship of believers, they would live as one community sharing everything they owned. We see further example of this in Acts 4:

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32, 34-35)

This is where we seem to miss the mark most often today. Most likely, this is a result of the focus we’ve placed on Sunday morning in our culture. We’ve made Sunday morning the central focus of our Christian lives, while we live out our own lives Monday through Saturday. But what if we placed a greater focus on gathering together in groups throughout the week, living our lives together as the early Church did? Sunday morning still has an important role to play – its role simply needs to be refocused.

The Breaking of Bread

In Acts 20:7, we read a curious statement indicating that the early believers were gathering together not for the apostles’ teaching, or for prayer, but for the purpose of breaking bread together. Sometimes this meant sharing a meal together, and other times it meant partaking in the Lord’s Supper. But what is apparent is not only did they break bread every time they gathered together, they considered this to be a foundational practice.

As we continue to read further into Acts 2, we learn more about this practice of the early Church:

“And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:46)

Here we read that the early believers would break bread together daily and attend the temple together. But while the early believers did meet together often at the temple in Jerusalem, the primary meeting place for the Church in the New Testament is in people’s homes. They would go from home to home, breaking bread and teaching the Word.

So ask yourself a question: Is that something you’ve ever done? Today, is it enough to simply observe communion once a month, or does the Bible call for the Lord’s Supper to be more than that? You be the judge.

In the end, Christianity is not simply about our individual relationship with God. It’s about a community of believers living out their lives together in obedience to the teachings of the Scriptures and in spreading the message of the Gospel. When we look back at Acts 2:42, the verse states that “they devoted themselves” – it wasn’t an individual thing, it was something they did together.

When we begin to live like this, I believe a funny thing will begin to happen: Others will take notice and want to be a part. And what better way to teach the world what it means to follow Jesus, than by following His directions for how to live our lives.