Do You Fight Fires or Change Lives?

Do You Fight Fires or Change Lives

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The best discipleship soul care happens in a community, not isolated, artificial settings where there is a disconnection between the person and the community. God can change lives in one-and-done or a season of meetings, and no reasonable person would argue against the good Lord doing just that, but the most compelling soul care needs time, people, and context. Body-to-body ministry is the primary way change happens, placing a requirement on every believer to do all they can to equip themselves to make our local churches more effective discipleship communities.

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Doing Denny’s

A few years ago, a man called, asking if I would mentor him. He asked if I would meet with him once or twice a month for discipleship purposes. I understood his question but was struggling with how to tell him that what he was asking would not deliver what he wanted. The only discipleship model he knew was the one-to-one model that has become prevalent in the church over the past few decades. It is an insufficient model, though it adapts well to our fast-paced lifestyles and busy calendars. Adaptability is its most significant feature. If you are busy and do not have the time to dig into the muck of a person’s life in the context of community, the every-so-often, one-to-one routine is a quick and safe option for you.

Ineffectiveness is its greatest weakness. I call this “doing Denny’s,” named after the restaurant chain, not because of any affiliation or affection for the restaurant chain, but because it rolls off the tongue. The question is not whether meeting with someone in any context is helpful because it can be. The real issue is whether meeting with someone outside of that person’s regular life settings is the best option to help him transform into Christlikeness. These abbreviated and artificial meetings have a limited effect but not a full effect, which is the difference. The early church’s discipleship model was relational, holistic, communal, and in the milieu.

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. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes (Acts 2:44-46).

Totally Messed Up

We must consider several things regarding best practices for change, such as the doctrine of total depravity. People who only practice one-to-one soul care outside of real-life contexts need to reflect more on the overall effects of sin in their lives. The Bible teaches the total depravity of the human race. Total depravity means radical corruption. We do note the difference between total depravity and utter depravity. To be utterly depraved is to be as wicked as one could be. Hitler was extremely degenerate, but he could have been worse than he was. I am a sinner, but I could sin more often and more severely than I do. I am not utterly depraved, but I am totally depraved.

For total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin. – R. C. Sproul

Carefully think through what Sproul is saying. We are not only worse off than we ever imagined but are capable of doing things that are more wicked than anything we have done up to this moment (Romans 3:10-12). If the only context in which you are meeting with a person is one-to-one, in an environment outside their everyday community, you will limit your ability to know and impact them. This lack of complete relational care will make you frustrated when they do not change.

A lack of long-term, effectual change is one of the biggest reasons I do not prefer counseling as a stand-alone event disconnected from a community of believers who can provide ongoing, reciprocal care. The overwhelming majority of the people who change do so because they were involved in more than a counseling event or a counseling season. The doctrine of human depravity demands more than a counseling event or season for actual life change.

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I’m F.I.N.E.

When you meet a person and ask how they are doing, they say they are doing fine, good, or okay. As one of my friends says, “The word ‘fine’ means feelings inside never expressed.” He is right. We will always and forever put our best foot forward when asked how we are doing. There are several reasons for this, some of which are good, though there is a deeper problem. We may say we are “fine” because it is quick and easy, but we are never actually fine, and to compound this problem, we are never fully aware of how “un-fine” we are. None of us have enough self-awareness to inform ourselves how to be self-suspicious. Remember total depravity? The word total means total. We are totally depraved. Our thinking is not entirely in line with the gospel, and it never will be until we meet Jesus when we receive our body upgrade.

  • All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit (Proverbs 16:2).
  • There are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not free from their filth (Proverbs 30:12).
  • There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 14:12).

Even on our best days, when we are operating at optimal levels, we do not know ourselves the way we need to be understood. We have Adamic blinders that guarantee blind spots. Personal blindness makes discipling someone outside of their day-to-day community an insufficient way of doing sanctification because they will never be able to give you all the information you need to help them (Romans 8:26). If I am counseling a spouse and the other spouse is not present, I automatically know there is another story that I will never be able to perceive until I talk with the person not present.

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him (Proverbs 18:17).

For me, it is the worst possible counseling scenario. These deficiencies in soul care are what I wanted to communicate to my friend. I tried to care for him, but I wanted him to be in a sanctification community where people knew him daily. Caring for him at “Denny’s” on an every-other-week basis is better than nothing. But it is not as good as seeing him at his local church, in his home, with his wife and family, and in the many other contexts that real community offers.

Firefighter or Life Changer?

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).

Christians are acutely aware that if a person changes, God’s grace enables and empowers the transformation. We are planters and waterers; only the Lord can bring change. The question for us is not about who does the changing but how we cooperate with the Changer of Lives in His transformation process. Thus, each discipler must decide on the kind of soul care they want to provide. There is no one way or one correct answer for discipleship. There are many options. Jesus used several. He determined the care needed by the person He was interacting with and the type of need in their lives.

  • He did not provide soul care for some people, as we see in John 2:24-25.
  • He did provide soul care if those who needed it and would turn from their wicked ways, as seen in Matthew 23:37.
  • He offered advice but did not extend Himself beyond that in Luke 18:18-23.
  • He did not provide care to His family if they were not going to do the Lord’s will, as seen in Matthew 12:48-50.
  • He reached out to the community through others but did not personally interact with them, as seen in Matthew 14:13-21.
  • He provided instruction to the community but found it wiser to get away from them, as seen in Matthew 14:22-23.
  • He spent most of His time with individuals that He could replicate into leaders, as seen in Matthew 4:18-19.

Jesus implemented a whosoever will method for discipleship, meaning He did not withhold care from anyone, but everybody did not receive the same kind of attention from Him. Providing the same in-depth equipping to every person who knocks on your door is impossible. Different levels of soul care are one of the many things I appreciate about Jesus. He was discerning and courageous enough to know who would get His best discipleship time. He was unafraid to say hard things to people, even if it made them mad (John 11:21) or if they left Him without life change (Mark 10:17-27).

Everybody can receive your care, but not everyone can receive your ongoing attention. If you cannot discern the difference and divide people accordingly, the requests for help will overrun you, and areas of your personal life will unravel. Because my friend did not attend my church, it was unwise for me to set up ongoing and unending meetings in artificial contexts when he could receive better soul care from those who did life with him at his local church. I could give him some tips. I could point him in the right direction. I could envision him about getting long-term discipleship care in the community context, but I could not provide adequate, comprehensive care because we did not do life together.

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Sanctification Contexts

The infographic gives you a glance at the two discipleship models I’m describing. These are the two most common ways soul care happens in the church today. The two circles on the right are meetings prearranged between two people who do not do life together on a daily/weekly basis. These kinds of meetings are more artificial than real. Let’s call them Mable and Marge, both married with children. They meet every two weeks at a local coffee shop for about ninety minutes. Mable is discipling Marge, who is in a difficult marriage, and her teenage children are apathetic toward the church. Her husband has anger issues, and Marge bounces from fear to bitterness to anger, depending on the week.

All Mable can do is fight fires. She has no leverage over the whole family and no insight into the fundamental dynamics of the home. She does not see how Marge blows up when at her wit’s end or how her husband checks out because of her double-minded behavior (James 1:5-6). Marge will talk about getting frustrated, but that is a far cry from reality. Seeing is believing, but Mable cannot see. She can only take Marge’s perspective because they are “doing Denny’s.” At best, Mable can give advice and send Marge on her way, hoping a nugget of truth dropped will slow down the dysfunctional spin of the home.

The problem with this model is that their primary interaction is in a context that does not resemble how they live. Artificial settings describe counseling sessions. Counseling is another “doing Denny’s” model of discipleship. The artificial context model leaves you guessing, speculating, drawing conclusions, assuming, and hoping you understand because you are never the proverbial fly on the wall of their lives. The second model gives you “wall space” to hang out with those you are discipling. You are not doing Denny’s. You are doing life together with another person, couple, family, or small group.

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Doing Life

This second, more extensive circle is how I have historically led small groups. In the doing life together model, you see thirteen different contexts in which you can connect with someone. You will not do all of those things with every member of your small group, but you could potentially do any of those things, and if you are doing small group life well, you will be doing most of them, and those you’re developing will be modeling your leadership. You cannot do this kind of life with every person you meet. Not even Jesus could sustain this level of discipleship with everyone. He had a small group of twelve people. They received His most comprehensive care. Nobody was left behind if they did not want to be left behind, but everybody did not get prime time with Him.

Discipleship is a two-way street. It is not a uni-directional model. Reciprocal soul care is the primary reason for doing life together: we need someone caring for our souls, too. I do not want to meet at Denny’s with someone to care for me if they are not caring for my wife and children simultaneously. There is no way for them to know me if they do not know my wife and children. If you want to know me, spend time with them and me.

My family will give you a more accurate description of the kind of person I am than meeting with me alone. Not only will they help you to help me, but you will find out quickly what kind of husband and father I am. They are “Exhibit A” to the leadership and care I provide in our home. Please don’t ask the farmer at Denny’s to describe his garden to you, the fruit of his hands. Walk into his fields and examine them yourself. It will not take you long to get an accurate bead on the kind of person you are discipling.

Call to Action

  1. Are you a firefighter or a soul care provider?
  2. Why is meeting with someone sporadically and in artificial contexts not a good discipleship model?
  3. What are the advantages of meeting someone in multiple settings?

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