A Crazy Idea For Sanctification: the Local Church

A Crazy Idea For Sanctification the Local Church

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One-to-one interaction is the most efficient way to help another person change. For too many believers, discipleship in a community, in the context of a local church, is not the place where you see this kind of intentional reciprocality. Favorite books and popular preachers become our disciplers, which is not God’s best, no matter how wonderful the celebrity preacher or your favorite book is because those means of grace are passive instead of surgically illuminating and uniquely transformative. Nothing displaces a competent, caring friend who can exegete you with God’s Word in a customizable way while bringing solutions that fit who you are and what’s happening in your life.

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A Crisis of Hurting

Some Christians sometimes isolate themselves while cuddling with books and famous online people, hoping to find safe, private, personal, marriage, or family transformation. Though the temptation is understandable, it’s not primarily the Bible’s way for one another sanctification. The most frequent email requests I receive from people are questions regarding specific situations in their lives. Each morning I wake up, there are emails from real people with real problems, looking for practical answers. They are not interested in what a book says.

These hurting people don’t want to hear another sermon. They’re looking for someone who will take the time to listen to them, understand them, and give them valuable biblical feedback. Even the best Christian books and well-crafted sermons cannot do what a Christian can do when sitting in front of a person, offering real answers. This kind of vision for discipleship requires work. It needs the discipler to dedicate real time to an individual. It requires patience, courage, discernment, and wisdom. It requires the struggling person to be humble, open, honest, and vulnerable.

Discipling with Dialogue

One-to-one interaction is how Jesus built His team and followers. When you read the four gospels, you notice how Jesus rarely taught in a monologue-type format (teaching). Though He was a teacher, the Bible does not give us a lot of scenes showing Him teaching. If you pull out the Sermon on the Mount, you will not find much monologue teaching from Him (Matthew 5-7). Using monologue was not His specialty. Jesus was a dialogue guy.

He spent nearly all His time interacting with folks, showing them how to be Christlike. One of the most significant weaknesses of the modern-day church is how we’ve given discipleship to famous authors, Bible studies, podcasts, and sermons. While there is a place for media for discipling others, it should not be the primary method. The monologue discipleship model has created two adverse side effects on the church.

Side Effect #1 has led to the biblical counseling (BC) movement, especially para-church organizations like mine. The BC movement deals with real people with real problems in a practical way—similar to the way Jesus did. The church seems to be more focused on teaching. Still, when somebody has a problem, they refer the hurting person to a—so-called—professional because they don’t have the time, resources, or expertise to deal with sanctification issues. Read that sentence again. Did it sound odd to you? The church seems preoccupied with programs and ministry demands while—perhaps—assuming their people know how to counsel themselves.

Side Effect #2 is a breakdown in the community because of an isolationist mindset where people feed themselves in private. People retreat to their books, podcasts, and personal devotions to find answers to their most perplexing problems. Rather than running to the community, the temptation is to become remote, insecure, and guarded about their authentic selves. There is a distrust of the community. Confidentiality is one of the more frequent questions individuals ask me: “I don’t want anyone to know what I’m going through.” Essentially, they say, “I want you to fix me so I can go back to church.” It is as though everyone wants a private room to separate from each other until they are doing better.

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Up in Your Business

You see a different picture when you read how Christ built His church or how the early churches poured themselves into each other. Read Acts 2:42-47 about the early church. See if you can “feel the community” in that passage. The people have all things in common. There is mutual sharing, caring, and communal intrusion into each other’s lives.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 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 a need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

The early church does not have a lecturer-to-student feel. It does not have the hurting-isolationists-with-a-book feel. A sense of transparency, vulnerability, and humility bleeds through the passage. Gospel-centered people have nothing to protect and nothing to hide. They have one common goal, laid out in three parts. The goal is Jesus, and the parts are as follows:

  • Personal: I want to know more about Jesus.
  • Communal: I want to experience Jesus’s life with each other mutually.
  • Evangelistic: I hope to share Jesus with people who do not know Him.

What Did Jesus Do?

The early Christians were in each other’s business, and what they were doing had a far different feel than the guardedness of the average Christian today. Regarding matters of the heart, today’s Christians prefer getting fixed in private, only to resurface later to do community with fellow believers. The New Testament Christian was not that insecure or image-conscious. They came just as they were, integrated with fellow strugglers, and mutually matured in a community. They were well aware of what was going on in the lives of those around them—including their thought lives.

The New Testament believers learned this gospelized living from Jesus’ leaders. The folks Jesus trained passed on what they learned to others (2 Timothy 2:2). How did the Savior do it? His primary discipleship style was living with the folks He trained. Jesus knew the buckshot, monologue approach would not get the job done. He needed to get with the people, love them, learn about them, and lead them from within their social context—discipling within the milieu.

Unique Unpacking

You will not get to know a person the way you should by attending a safe and sterile Bible study or a church meeting staring at the back of a person’s head. I am not saying biblical training and studies are unnecessary or ineffective. Knowing the Bible is essential, but growing in Bible knowledge and being Christlike are different. Paul was one of the most learned students of his day. He was a Bible scholar. But poor Paul did not know how to take what he knew about the Bible and live it biblically (Acts 22:3). Somebody had to teach him.

Nicodemus was another learned Bible student who stumbled all over the new birth. He knew a lot but was unaware of how to take the Old Testament, which he had, and practicalize it into his life. He, like Paul, needed someone to teach him (John 3:1-8). The Samaritan woman was also well-trained by her culture and religion. She was a hybrid in more ways than one. Her religious training was just as deficient as Paul’s and Nick’s. She needed someone to cuddle up beside her to unpack her. Jesus did not send her to a Bible study or ask her to listen to a sermon.

Christ exegeted her on the spot—at a well. He took a real person and got into her real business by customizing the gospel for her while hanging in her social environment (John 4:7-26). Paul, Nick, and the Samaritan woman had one thing in common. They met Jesus in the milieu—in the natural social environment in which they lived. Jesus interacted with all of His counselees where they lived. His discipleship method positioned Him to be an effective discipler. He did not offer Paul, Nick, or the Samaritan woman an excellent book to read. He read them and told them what He was learning. He pulled this off because He spent time with them. He knew them.

Take It to the Streets

Too many leaders meet their people at the church building or in other environments that are ministerially sterile or artificial. They listen to their problems, offer counsel, make a book recommendation, and send them on their way. It does not work well. I’m in a similar boat. When people call me, they want to bring their world into my office to converse. I’m glad they are willing to come; I’m happy to serve them in the minimal way I can help someone.

But this puts me in a dilemma because I cannot help them comprehensively. They need someone onsite in their lives to serve them, observe them, and bring discipleship care to them. Jesus spent time eating, drinking, and relaxing with His friends. He did life with those He developed. Jesus knew them inside and out. He was aware of the nuance of their lives. What He got out of them by living with them was priceless information.

Time & Relationship Priorities for the LORD

Living Like Jesus

The local church is the closest approximation in our culture today to what the Savior had in His day. Jesus lived in a small group, and within that small group, He divided His leadership development time differently. His calendar looked like the following:

  1. Jesus: He spent time with the Father, receiving refreshment, challenges, and envisioning.
  2. Peter, James, and John: These guys got the top spots on His calendar.
  3. Other Apostles: He then spent time developing the rest of His team.
  4. Mary, Martha, and other friends: He never forgot about the community. He had many friends and was often with them, but He did not neglect building the main guys who would carry the mission and vision.
  5. Multitudes: He preached to this group and occasionally broke some bread to feed them and other ministry efforts. (Delegation Tip: His team did the distributing, and He did the multiplying.)
  6. Pharisees and other resisters: Occasionally, He did apologetic and evangelistic work.

Jesus was a methodical man on a mission. His mission had two primary parts: die for the sins of the world and get His main guys envisioned and equipped to carry the gospel message to the church. We only have to do one part of His mission, as outlined in Ephesians 4:12-14. However, in our zeal to get the gospel message out, we can be ineffective in developing our infrastructure—the local church. We provide books and Bible studies, while assuming our people are practicalizing the Bible into their lives. We don’t follow up well. A decade later, you learn a leader’s marriage is on the brink of divorce, and you’re perplexed. How did that happen?

  • They attended our church for two decades.
  • They taught Sunday school forever.
  • They led mission outreach every year.
  • They are respected and loved by our church family.
  • They counseled dozens of our people.

We say, “I never saw it coming.” We were not involved in their lives. It’s a miscalculation of the doctrines of sin and sanctification, and it’s an assumption that sound preaching, good books, and ministry busyness were what they needed. Jesus did not leave sanctification solely to the preaching of the Word. The best discipleship is hands-on discipleship. We are two thousand years removed from when the Savior trained His group, and His method is still the best. Yes, we have better technology. We have excelled in theological precision regarding our beliefs through councils and creeds. We have written a dizzying amount of books and Bible study materials.

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Build Relationally

Even with all of these things, none of them can supplant building relationally, one-to-one, the way Jesus did, with another human being. The functional centrality of the gospel working practically in the lives of the local church is today’s most significant need. The way I seek to serve my church with this vision is pretty simple. There are three groups of people in my life today: our family, our church, and everyone else. I know bits and pieces, more and less, and this and that about group three. I don’t know them well and have minimal impact on their lives. Then there is my family and church. I cannot even begin to tell you what I know about them, what they know about me, and how we engage each other. Here are some examples:

  • We have sinned against each other.
  • We have been angry with each other.
  • We have prayed for each other.
  • We have cried with each other.
  • We have laughed with each other.
  • We have secretly judged each other.
  • We have confronted each other.
  • We have encouraged each other.
  • We have said hurtful things to each other.
  • We have spent hundreds of hours in different contexts with each other.

The local church is a dangerous and vulnerable group of people for the glory of God. After all this interaction, we are still not as effective as we need to be. I’m not discouraged. No, not at all. It’s sanctification progress. It took the Savior three years, with fewer distractions, to get His group up to speed.

Call to Action

  1. How do you change your family to make it a more effective sanctification community?
  2. How must you change to help your church become a more effective sanctification community?
  3. Pick a person that you can have this type of life with, and invite them into your life, marriage, or family. Will you contact that person today?

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