Some time ago, I attended a Lutheran Synod Assembly. As I sat listening to speakers exhort the assembled about the topics of Evangelism, Stewardship and Social Justice, I was reminded of my statistics professor as he described dependent variables. I see so many church leaders preach these topics as if you can get directly at them. Frankly, before I committed to discipleship, I heard hundreds of sermons about these topics, and they just bounced right off my hardened heart. Discipleship changed my heart and opened me to each of these topics in ways that never happened before.
Wikipedia defines dependent variable in this way:
Dependent variables and independent variables refer to values that change in relationship to each other. The dependent variables are those that are observed to change in response to the independent variables. The independent variables are those that are deliberately manipulated to invoke a change in the dependent variables.
I would maintain that you have a very difficult time gaining significant congregational buy-in to these ideas in the absence of discipleship. Preach these three alone, and people glaze over. At the Exponential Conference (for church planters) in Orlando, I heard this simple equation: First you multiply disciples, then you multiply leaders, and then you can multiply churches. In the church, we often skip step one, and start by trying to multiply leaders. In the absence of step one, a membership church grows, because those chosen for leadership positions have not personally committed to discipleship. That’s how we end up with a church that gives a cumulative 2.5% of income and considers it a tithe.
When we begin by multiplying disciples, everything becomes much easier. Bill Easum describes the environment created in a healthy church as a process where people are changed, gifted, called, equipped and sent.
People who enter the community are changed by an experience of the living God. With millennials, you get one chance--if they don’t experience God in worship, they won’t return (and recent studies report most people have not experienced God in worship in their church in the last year). Then, as people seek a deeper spiritual journey, the church helps them discern their gifts. Prayer and meditation about our gifts will help us define our calling (if you agree that God has prepared us for the plan He has for our lives). Once we begin to get clear about our call, we are ready to be equipped. That fact that I might feel called to be a Christian counselor does not mean I will excel without some practice and equipping. Once people are equipped, they are sent out into the world to serve others as the body of Christ.
Without drawing people into a discipleship journey, the motivation for evangelism, stewardship and social justice are often guilt-based. And guilt only goes so far. God looks more to motivation than to the specific act. Jesus honored the widow’s mite far more than the large contributions of the self-righteous Pharisees. When we embark on a discipleship journey, we begin to see that all we have is indeed a gift from God. We begin to grow a thankful heart. We soften to all the things God calls us to do. Our motivation is gratitude rather than guilt. That’s how we get to a tithe.
As we do acts of service out of our gratitude, our heart changes even more. I have had my attitudes towards homelessness changed more by one day of feeding homeless people under the interstate bridges of Atlanta than all the sermons I ever heard. I have had my attitudes towards illegal immigrants change more by a few days helping a family who had been dropped off at our church’s door than any of the political rhetoric splashed across our newspapers, and peppered into political speeches. When you see a woman who is eight months pregnant, with a three-year-old in tow, I realized that all the demagoguery I hear from politicians would have us penalize the unborn infants and toddlers for the sins of their parents. Is this fair?
However, I would never have gone under the bridges, or spent days helping the family of illegal immigrants, had I not been in a discipleship small group that decided we should do something missional together.
I truly believe discipleship is the independent variable. Change people through discipleship and you will change everything else in the church. Jesus called us to make disciples, and he will build the church. My friend Rick Barger told me recently, “I would rather have ten disciples on fire for God than a thousand people in the pews.” Amen. The key question facing Christian leaders is: How do you make disciples? However, we never even ask that question until we personally buy into discipleship for our own lives. Have you chosen discipleship? Or are you still just preaching stewardship, social justice and evangelism?