Painful Memories (by Jon Shuler​​)

Almost everything that I write about has come from the life I have lived as a priest of the church, by the gracious gift of God. Much of it the hard won truth learned from mistakes and my own sins. If my words sometimes seem to cut to the heart, it is because those same words have cut mine. I have learned, actually am still learning, the truth of the Letter to the Hebrews. God disciplines those he loves. If he has called you to his service, he will discipline you for effectiveness and productivity in the kingdom.

In 1988, as rector of a sizable parish, I experienced that discipline, and it has made a lasting memory. In that year I believe the Lord Jesus conveyed to my very core that the mission of his church was written for us in Matthew 28:19. That was phase one.

Sometime later that same year I experienced a personal interrogatory from God, or so I believe. In a series of questions put to me in prayer, I was brought to recognize the pitiful outcome of one years ministry in the parish. Near the end of the series I was made to see that barely a dozen new confirmed members had been added, after all the time, energy, volunteers, staff, and financial resources.. Then this question was put to me: “Would any of them die for me?” The question was followed by a statement. “I called you to make disciples, and you are making Episcopalians.” I was a broken man. That was phase two.

My ministry since that day has been shadowed by the certainty that I will be held accountable for my obedience to that call. For years before that day I was actively, and quite contentedly, busy in the normal life of a priest in the Anglican Family. But from that day I experienced my life as one under discipline. The discipline of one who is loved, but nevertheless disciplined.

Ten years later I had another painful moment. I was serving as a missionary in South East Asia, and the Lord was granting a harvest of souls. I was doing nothing different, but people were coming to faith. I dared, foolishly, to complain to God. Why had he not brought me to this field when I was a younger man? Immediately I was struck in my heart by the voice of God, who made it very clear to me who was in charge of every detail of my life. I had no grounds to complain. None.

Then again, ten years later I was serving as an Interim in Florida. The parish was in very real distress, after the loss of a beloved senior minister. I arrived thinking I knew what was necessary for them to be well. The Lord showed me I did not. He made it abundantly clear to me that thirty years later, I was still not understanding how to make a disciple of Jesus.

Painful memories, but grace filled, from 1988, 1998, and 2008.

Next Week: “Who Will Follow If….”

The Most Basic Building Block? (by Jon Shuler​​)

Anyone familiar with sports knows that the most essential training to prepare for a new season involves returning to the fundamentals. This kind of remedial action in any organization is sometimes called clarifying the “basic building blocks.” Using it as a metaphor let us ask: What then is the most basic building block for the kingdom of God?

Is it not one convinced and committed believer? Someone who has responded to the love of God in Christ Jesus, has been brought through to a living faith that has changed them from the inside out, and who is dedicated to the journey of obedient discipleship? In other words a disciple of Christ Jesus.

When ever there are two of these disciples gathered, the Lord of Lords promises to be with them. In that Spirit made threesome is also the beginning of the church as the body of Christ in any place. If those two have learned from the Master, and are beginning to be obedient, they will not be small indefinitely. The two will become four, and the four eight, and the eight will multiply in short order. Gathering will soon require multiple spaces during the week and a larger common place on the Lord’s Day. One glorious reality they will discover is that the Lord Jesus will be with them whenever and however they gather. They cannot outgrow his presence with his faithful ones. When the basic building block is present the body of Christ grows and the kingdom spreads.

Once this process was witnessed in England. From it grew the church in England, and for centuries that church grew and gave itself away. When did that stop, and why?

Many answers have been given, and most of them have some salience. The doctrinal battles of the late 16th Century that began to divide the Protestant world into defined sub groups of Christians. The fracturing of Christendom itself at the Reformation. The European wars of religion in the 17th century. The coming of the Industrial Revolution. Each of these can be pointed to. But behind every other suggestion is one that alone leads to the truth, and that is the erosion and breakdown of an understanding of the nature and practice of disciple making discipleship. When the church community began to lose this understanding of the word disciple, that a truly “made” disciple implicitly means a disciple making disciple, the deterioration began.

For centuries the erosion was slowed by the continuing widespread understanding that parents were to disciple their children, and that masters were to disciple their charges. Schoolteachers were discipling their students, and members of all guilds and professions were doing the same. But when the Medieval Culture that kept these patterns alive began to die, a decline probably well along by the late 13th Century. A new pattern of church life was gradually replacing the apostolic one. A single ordained priestly leader in a single village, with the task of preaching and teaching the faith and administering the sacraments had emerged as normal. That pattern in the local parish soon became so deep that nothing in the Reformation era replaced it. The most important behavior necessary for the spread of the kingdom of God was missing.

Next Week: Painful Memories

Questions for Leaders (by Jon Shuler​​)

It is an absolute truth of the gospel that each person will one day give an account for the deeds done in the body. No one will escape. It is also true that those with the responsibility to teach will be judged more severely. These two facts, if faced, must raise serious questions for those currently leading the church of Jesus Christ. Before them all must be this question: “What will be the standard by which we are judged?

The Lord Jesus has told us clearly, we will be judged by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. He has told us directly that only those who hear his words and obey them are part of his family. Only those who keep his commandments truly love him. Never in all Christian history has it been thought by any faithful believer that it was acceptable to ignore the plain teaching of Jesus. He will come again to judge “the quick and the dead.”

It is of course true that there have always been those in the church who are not themselves moved by the Spirit of God. The wheat and the tares coexist until the last Great Day. But it has never been a sign of faith and truth to allow, let alone encourage, those who lead to be such. Those called by the Lord to his service, in his household, are with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength to serve God and his people. They are to live under the Word of God and teach that Word to all who draw near. There are many things in the Scriptures that are not central to the obedient following of Jesus, but the things that are unquestionably clear are everywhere to be seen in the New Testament. Reading it prayerfully even a baby Christian begins to feel the pull to amendment of life. To grow up into maturity in Christ becomes their hearts desire. That alone indicates the reality of the new birth.

If that is so for all believers, how much more so for those who lead his people? Can there really be confusion about what is central? The living and preaching of the Gospel. The call to authentic faith. Learning to crucify the flesh and to yearn for the Spirit to guide and correct. Sharing the joy of the fellowship with those who love the Lord. Drawing near to the Lord’s Table together with them. Making disciples.

A critically important saying that I have shared before is this: “It you are not doing it, it is not in your DNA.” When leaders hear the clear words of Jesus and respond with excuses and alibis we betray ourselves. If we are giving our best energies, our best time, our best resources to things that are not eternal, we reveal that we have defective DNA. If we have become used to overlooking and disobeying clear teaching from our Lord, we have something seriously wrong. The glorious apostolic inheritance granted to the first community of faith has somehow suffered a spiritual genetic mutation in us. Why are so few of us making disciples?

Returning to the primary question for all leaders which we asked above: “What will be the standard by which we are judged?

Next Week: The Most Basic Building Block?

“Those People” Are the Problem. (by Jon Shuler​​)

I am sure I am not alone in being stunned by many things that have happened in this country in the last few months and years. But the reaction to some of these events has overshadowed, for me and I believe for many, the incidents that precipitated them. And the speed with which much of the media, and some in leadership, have rushed to decry the whole nation and its history has been little short of mind boggling. What is going on?

For starters it must be faced that we do not live in a perfect society or nation. We are quite some distance from realizing all of the dreams that were a part four nation’s founding. But it must also be faced that there are some forces in play which seek to bring down the established order of our country. There truly are people, now sensing opportunity, who want to reshape the fabric of this nation.They do not value the heritage that underpins the life that most of Christian America holds dear. There are forces that are overtly antagonistic to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the community of men and women who seek to follow him and his teachings. The sorrow in my heart as I write this is acute, but I believe it to be absolutely true.

Faced with this conviction, I am tempted to blame the trouble on others. If it wasn’t for “those people” all would be well. “They” have led us to this moment. “They” have sown the seeds of this destruction. “They” are the ones we need to bring under control. And surely it is true that those who break the law should be punished. But then, as my heart gets ever harder, the Spirit of God convicts me. This is dangerously near the spirit of the Pharisee. This is the very attitude of the censorious in every age. This is the horrible poison that leads to the rise of every tyranny that history unfolds before our eyes. This is not the way of Jesus. His way is a call to suffer for righteousness sake. His way is sound the opening of the gospel message: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” But that proclamation always brings judgment before it brings life.

Only God can spare a people from destruction. What God’s Word teaches about a house and a city is also undoubtedly true of a nation: “Unless the Lord builds…the builders build in vain.” (Ps 127:1) The temptation of the moment is to look for the problem somewhere other than where it lies. Judgment must begin with the household of God.

Next Week: Questions for Leaders

After the Pandemic (by Jon Shuler​​)

For many of us in the developed world the pandemic may seem over, but for most of the peoples of the earth it is far from over. Still in this country we have seemed to pass the worst of it, at least we pray so. Epidemiologists tell us, however, that this new disease has now been added to those that will be with us for the future. It will not go away. We will, perhaps, be getting regular boosters for a long time. The Covid 19 pandemic has disrupted the whole world, as all who read this know, and not least it has disrupted the Church. What have we learned? Or perhaps better, what do we need to learn from this disruption? 

Those of us who lead have certainly discovered that the communities we lead are much less stable than we might have thought. The number of regular attenders has dropped significantly, and not all seem likely to return soon, if ever. It is almost as though the discovery of the extra time on the Lord’s Day has become a coveted reality that takes the place of worship with the family of God. Though a remnant have been faithful throughout, and returned fully when free to do so, many have clearly drifted away. Who is truly a member has become an unknown to ponder.

The first question that I began to ask is one my readers will be familiar with: “Are we really making true disciples of Jesus?” Other questions follow soon after. If a man or woman is truly born again of the spirit of God, would they be so casual about their participation in the life of Christ’s church? Can I be a sincere disciple and remain apart from other believers week by week? Does the gospel mean so little to me that I can take it or leave it, according to my own whims?

These are serious questions, and avoiding them, as a leader, is surely a grievous error. Shepherds will be held accountable at that Great Day. What then should we do?

Always, and everywhere, the path through such times has been that of repentance and renewal. Nothing else can ever take the place of this truth. And always it is hardest for those in public leadership. Revival almost never begins with those who are already charged with the task of caring for the people of God. But it should.

What might the outcome be, if the ordained leaders in your town or region came together to humble themselves under God’s hand? What might happen if the petty jealousies and rivalries were confessed and put away? What might the Holy Spirit do if the leaders of a town knelt under the throne of God and begged him for new life? For themselves and for their people. What if the Word of God was truly unbound in their lives and preaching?

Next Week: “Those People” Are The Problem

Managing True Gospel Growth   (by Jon Shuler​​)

The challenge for every leader called by Christ Jesus to have responsibility in the body of Christ is to balance two realities. One is to allow the Holy Spirit to guide and direct the life of the community, and at the same time to ensure godly order that builds up the church. It is possible to be too controlling, thus quenching the Holy Spirit, and it is also possible to be too lacking in order, thus giving rise to excess that is not of God. To be a faithful overseer is to learn to manage that tension well. It is not easy in the modern era, at least in the developed world, because the willingness of individuals to be guided and governed by the Word of God has diminished so rapidly.

The most important way to begin to alter this situation, is to begin again to require all rising leaders to be disciple-making disciples. No other action step will ever be as fruitful as this one. If disciple-making is well learned, following the example and teaching of Christ Jesus, these new leaders will be founded in the behavior that leads to good order and obedience to the Holy Spirit. Such leaders will be willing to be led in the fulfillment of the Lord’s Final Command. They will understand that bringing all ministries into alignment with that great mission is their calling, individually and in concert with one another. To lead the leaders of a local body of Christ to be united in the work of disciple-making, is the most effective way for the growth that Christ Jesus desires to come to pass.

It must, of course, begin with the senior leadership of the congregation. If the overseeing pastoral leader does not understand the need, and dedicate himself to mastering it, it will never be seen in any fulness in that community. Other leaders, both lay and ordained, will almost never succeed in giving training that will last if the senior leader is not seen to be showing the way. The reason the apostles were so effective is principally because they had learned from their Master. They had seen disciple-making first hand, and they were able to follow his example when the Holy Spirit had fallen upon them. To tell those under our care how to function, but not to demonstrate it, is to fail in the most elementary leadership behavior. As Jesus said, when a disciple “is fully trained [he] will be like his teacher.” (Lk 6:40)

If the senior leader (and the senior staff) do not model disciple-making behaviors there will be a chasm in the life of the congregation. There may be much activity, there may be a good deal of religious behavior, but there will not be much gospel growth. Gospel growth lasts to eternity, religious behavior dies away in every generation.

When those charged with leadership responsibility see disciple-making as their primary task, everything in that community begins to change for the better. Those learning to be disciples, as Jesus teaches, will be desirous of taking their proper place in the body of Christ. Those who begin to demonstrate leadership ability will be willing to themselves be led. Those being led will be willing to be accountable to godly oversight. Gospel growth will be faithfully managed.

Next Week: After the Pandemic

Little Groups   (by Jon Shuler​​)

Over the past weeks we have looked at what I call “the Cycle of Discipleship,” with the seven steps or stages that I have been led to understand. Welcomed, gospeled, converted, nurtured, equipped, deployed, multiplied. When the cycle is complete it begins again. The one discipled begins to disciple another, and the one who discipled begins again as well. If done well, with the guidance and blessing of the Holy Spirit, the pattern continues until the Lord returns. Paul explicitly suggests a four generation concern should be part of every leaders intention. (see II Tim 2:2)

As convinced as I am about this pattern’s usefulness as a template for making disciples who will  make disciples, I have found one more key factor. It is this: we must be in a community that understands this cycle, and wants to see it lived. Perhaps a better way to state it would be to say we need to be in a disciple-making culture. I have rarely seen that in an organized parish, but again and again I have seen it manifested in little groups. When one person who has begun to see and internalize the cycle, they can impart it if they have two or three others who want to learn.

I have chosen not to say “small group” because in church circles it leads almost everyone to think of the small groups they have been a part of that never became disciple-making environments. At least not in the way I am here describing them. In truth, just saying “little” instead of “small” will not help without careful attention. The longer someone has been a part of an organized church family, at least in the developed world, the less likely they are to understand what I am talking about. They will imagine a fellowship group, or a book study group, or a service group, but they will not be thinking of a disciple-making group. Saying “little groups” gives me a chance to reframe their understanding, and I do so by pointing them to Acts 2:42-47.

In this wonderful passage Luke paints a picture for us of the organized life of the first church after the day of Pentecost. It could not be more different than the contemporary church I have known. People are meeting daily in one another’s homes. They are going up to the Temple to pray together. They are breaking bread together, and rejoicing in God’s goodness. They are meeting one another’s truest needs. They are expecting God to answer prayers and touch lives. It is a picture, I believe, of the church as it ought to be whenever she is faithful. The details will always be contextualized in terms of time and place, but the ingredients will be the same.

When a few followers of the Lord Jesus are willing to let this picture be a guide for them, and to gather regularly, with the Word of God at the center, and to learn to allow the Spirit of God to come among them, with at least one of them understanding disciple-making discipleship, the ancient reality becomes true again. The Lord adds to their number those who are being saved, and new little discipling groups keep forming.

Next Week: Managing True Gospel Growth

Unmistakable Clarity?   (by Jon Shuler​​)

How to define a “faithful” disciple? How to know if one has been “made?” These two questions were pressed deep into my heart when I first realized that all my good work as the rector was not producing disciples as the Lord expected. I was getting pretty good at making denominational Christians, rooted in some Anglican traditions, but not enough were people following Christ Jesus as their Lord and Master.

It was easy for me to resolve the first question. If they have begun to follow the Lord Jesus, truly following him with serious attention, they are learning to be disciples. And I was reasonably sure that meant, for starters, learning to worship him in spirit and in truth, to pray to him, to open his word daily, to be generous, accountable to authority, and learning to love the brethren. Of these things I was sure. With those things internalized maturity in all things needful would come, I was sure. But how would I know if someone was now a “made disciple?” This was the Risen Lord’s Final Command. “Go, make….” (Mt 28:19) I prayed and prayed about this, and then it finally became clear to me: I would know someone had been made a disciple when I saw them discipling someone else. I would see that they had become a disciple-making disciple.

Surely this is to be seen clearly in the teaching Jesus gave on the night before he suffered and died. He told the disciples in training that they would “bear much fruit and prove to be [his] disciples. (John 15:8) There it is. How had I missed it for so long? Years of training, years of church life, years of ministry in the name of God, yet I did not see it. Welcome I understood. Gospel preaching and teaching, I understood. Conversion as my prayer for those in the flock, I understood. Nurture and equipping too, as concepts I understood. But replication as normative for a disciple? That I had never fully grasped. Until we see that, disciples making disciples, we have not learned the full meaning of our call to be “fishers of men.” (Mt 4:19)

What was missing that made this great omission so stark? I think now I can answer simply. No one I had known knew how to make a disciple in the Jesus way, and therefore I had never experienced it. I had never witnessed it in all its simplicity. Though I had read the New Testament many times over, I had never understood that the central focus was to make disciples who could make disciples. That was to be the test of my work. That was to become my metric for “effective and productive” ministry. (II Peter 1:8) Then God sent a servant into my life who understood the ways of the Lord, and I began to be discipled by him week by week, on the phone!

What the man I call Colorado Bob taught me was this. To disciple a man you need to meet with him regularly and talk about how you and he are seeking to follow God’s Word. You need to pray together, simply, that Jesus would guide your time together. You need to let the Holy Scriptures speak to practical struggles and joys. You must trust Jesus to be the master discipler, and constantly turn to him. That is it. That is discipling.

Next Week: Little Groups

Actually Sent?   (by Jon Shuler​​)

Like many church kids of my generation, I grew up thinking that to be “sent” by Jesus meant I would have to go to Africa or China. I never heard, nor did I ever think, that to be sent was something that was to happen right where a Christian lived. I had no understanding that I could be used to help share the love of God in my own home town, my family, or my circle of friends. In other words I was never effectively discipled.

Church was always a part of growing up, however, and I grew to love her. I was a true son of the family. Acolyte, Junior Choir, Youth Group, then in early adulthood Sunday School Teacher, and Lay Reader. But “sent?” That was for missionaries who went to far places, and came home with tales of adventure and hardship. Now I know better. Every true disciple is to be sent into the place where God has the most need for them to serve.

For many it is inside the household of God. There are ministries needed close to hand, and others that cry out for laborers in the town or region round about. In the schools, the hospitals, the places of business. When someone has come to any level of maturity, there is work prepared for them to “walk in.” (Eph 2:10) What I now understand is that only when those first steps are taken faithfully, will someone be asked to do more, or to go further. The challenge to be found faithful in a little is the Lord’s prescription for being entrusted with much. (Luke 16:10) But first must come the initial assignment, the inaugural placement. Is the church actually doing this with any regularity? Is she seeing to it that all God’s children learn to say: “Here am I! Send me?” (Is 6:8)

After a lifetime of hearing sermons preached from this text in the prophet Isaiah, I have yet to hear one that applies the next verse. “And [God] said ‘Go.’” Indeed I have come to realize that the pews are filled with men and women who do not even know how to hear the Lord, let alone obey his direction to go. There has been a profound breakdown in the life of the church, which is called to equip people to know the voice of their Shepherd, and to obey his direction.

Remedying this gap is not easy in a long established place. The customs and patterns are well established and difficult to change. But the new converts, if there are new converts, are ripe to be equipped and sent. They have an inner desire to allow God to use them, now that they have woken up to his call and received his abundant grace. But once again I must warn, the place to make this transition is not the classroom. It is in a relationship with other disciples who are walking the same path of learned obedience to their Lord.

Many suggestions have been given, and many schemes tried, but I know only one way that these truths can become widely shared in the local congregation. The senior leader must lead it, and it means letting go of the control of the work. Other leaders must be equipped, capable of walking alongside a few others, and helping them discover their individual callings. The people of God must help one another actually be sent.

Next Week: Unmistakable Clarity?

Effectively Equipped?   (by Jon Shuler​​)

I know of no local congregation, with a vibrant life in Christ, which does not engage in many activities designed to instruct their people. Bible Studies, small group  fellowships, programs of one sort or another, the variety is extensive. The question I ask is this: Are all these activities effectively equipping the congregation to serve Christ Jesus well? Are the men and women sitting under these things becoming the disciples the Lord Jesus clearly describes in the New Testament? Or have they become used to, trained in fact, to being perpetual students of the words and thoughts of their earthly teachers and guides?

Recently a woman, raised in the church, came to me in her seventieth year and asked to be discipled so as to be able to disciple another. The request was both a joy and an occasion of sorrow. Seven decades! Of course I will help her, and by God’s grace she will have a significant impact on the lives of other women as long as she lives. But the remedial work will probably be slow. She had a fine career, and I doubt not that her love and faith were used by God in the lives of many. But I cannot help but grieve at what might have been.

To be equipped for ministry. That is how the apostle Paul describes it. (Eph 4:12)The apostle Peter says equipped to be “good stewards of God’s varied grace.” (I Peter 4:10) Both are describing the same reality. The people of God are to be using the gifts and talents, the experiences of their lives as followers of Jesus, to be serving the Lord in his church. It is the irreplaceable locus of their discipleship, but it is not for the purpose of institutional survival. The purpose for equipping all God’s people is that they equip others. Thus they build up the body of Christ. Thus they help the kingdom of God to spread on the earth.

Various attempts have been made to enumerate all the various gifts and ministries that are explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures. Some say twenty-three, some twenty-seven. What surely matters most of all is that the gifts anyone possesses, by the Creator’s first touch in the womb, by the experience in life God has granted, or by the direct impartation of the Holy Spirit, are used to glorify God and build up his church.

When I first heard these biblical truths taught, I was in a classroom, and so I established classes to teach these things. To my chagrin, the classroom did not convey what I desired to convey. The classroom taught people to want more classes. It taught them that they needed to know more to be “good Christians.” It taught them that it was alright to pass a lifetime in the church, always learning but never sharing fully in the ministry of Christ Jesus. When finally I saw my error, and cried out to the Lord for guidance to make a difference, he answered my plea. The people of God must be the ones who pass this on in their lives, not in the classroom. That is what was missing.

Next Week: Actually Sent?