A Three-Question Discipling Method

In my work with the young men I see each week, I like to ask three questions to discern where they are going spiritually. They serve as a guide for our conversations.

1. What are you hearing from God?
2. What are you trusting God for?
3. How is God using you in other people’s lives?

I haven’t told my guys this (and let’s keep this just between us), but I have a growth pattern in mind as I ask these questions. I expect that at the beginning their answers will be more immature and self-centered and that as they grow in their faith their answers will be more thoughtful and outwardly-focused.

In one of my sessions with two guys this week, I asked them how they thought a person’s answers to these three questions would change over time if they are growing in their faith. They had some interesting insights:

1. As a believer grows in Christ, there will be an increasing focus on God and on others and less on self. There will be fewer prayer requests about parking spaces and more prayer about lost neighbors.

2. As a believer grows in Christ, there will be a decreasing reliance on his or her own abilities, accompanied by a growing confidence in the ability of God’s Spirit to do His work in people’s lives. The growing disciple will come to see personal and spiritual gifts as a matter of stewardship: managing the resources entrusted by God with Kingdom priorities in view.

3. As a believer grows in Christ, there will be an increasing sense of purpose shaped by what God values, not just by what they want or deem important. There will be an increasing freedom from values imposed by culture or social set and more of a focus on God’s priorities: that people will come to faith, that His people will persevere and grow in their faith, and that justice will be done.

4. As a believer grows in Christ, there will be an increasing focus on long-term, spiritual objectives, accompanied by a decreased anxiety about short-term results.

I was surprised and delighted by their responses! These guys have a good sense of where we’re going in discipleship.
 
So what does this increasing depth and growing spiritual maturity look like with regards to the questions themselves?

1. What are you hearing from God?
I ask this partly to discern whether they are, in fact, making Bible reading a habit. That is the most basic purpose for this question. The habit of taking in the Scripture (reading, study, listening to Scripture being read, etc.) is essential for any growing Christ-follower. Until Scripture intake is a regular, daily pattern, a man or woman’s spiritual growth is going to be stunted. As I have said more than once in the pulpit, if the only Scripture you’re getting each week is what you hear on Sunday morning, you are on a spiritual starvation diet. For a disciple to grow, he or she must be in the Scripture.

But that is only the most basic level. I also want to know if they are reflecting on what they are reading in God’s Word. Are there questions and applications that occupy their minds? Are they able to connect the dots, able to talk about how what they are learning from God’s Word and how it can bear fruit in their lives – in their priorities, their relationships, their daily and weekly habits, their ambitions, the way they deal with temptation and sin?

The more they grow spiritually, the more thoughtful and more personal their reflection on Scripture will be.
 
2. What are you trusting God for?
This question gives me the opportunity to talk about their prayer life. At the beginning, I expect the answers to this question to center on personal needs and needs of their family. And it is right and good that the men I disciple should begin at the beginning, with their own lives and the people closest to them.

But over time I hope to see more faith and more of an outward focus, as they realize that God has bigger things in mind for them than success in their jobs and health and security for them and their families. I will want to hear them talk about trusting God for big ministry objectives, a growing burden for the unbelievers in their sphere of influence: their workplace, their neighborhood, their families. I will hope to hear them mention the names of co-workers, neighbors, relatives for whom their hearts are burdened.

You know what it’s like to be around someone whose prayers are big, someone who is pleading with God to draw people to faith, someone who is trusting God to do things only God could do. That’s where I want my own prayer life to go and where I want my guys to go.
 
3. How is God using you in other people’s lives?
Here again, the first answers will revolve around family. And that is as it should be. After all, our families are the people God has placed us with; we have an obligation before God to minister first to our spouse and our children.

But if that is the entire scope of our concern, we don’t yet have God’s heart. I think about this sometimes when I drive by my neighbors’ houses: these are people who need to know the Gospel. They don’t know that God loves them so ferociously that He gave up His Son. As I said in a recent post, our primary motivation for sharing the Good News with our neighbors is the Second Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As my guys grow in their faith, I want to hear them answer this question in an ever-expanding circle of concern and attention. I want them to more and more reflect God’s heart for the lost, for the nations.
 
Right about now, some of you are thinking that all this sounds vaguely familiar. You’re right.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the basic spiritual disciplines as a three-legged stool, with Scripture, prayer, and service as the three legs. Yes, you’re right. This is another way of looking at that same concept. Well-rounded and holistic spiritual maturity will proceed along these same three lines. If we “specialize” in one or two of these aspects of spiritual vitality and neglect the other, we will be imbalanced and unstable. 
 
There’s no reason these questions must be reserved for intentional discipling relationships. Small groups can use these questions to challenge and encourage one another. Friends can use these questions to sharpen their iron-on-iron relationships. These three questions are another way we can “one-another” well.

May God’ Spirit continue to draw us close to one another and close to His heart as we question one another faithfully.


Persevere,
Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pastor

Leveraging the Power of Habit

I read a book recently that has prompted me to re-think the role of habits in my life. Justin Whitmel Earley isn’t a pastor; he’s an attorney. But it would be helpful to think of his book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, as a spiritual meditation on the power of habits.

Much of what is written about habits is about breaking bad ones. Earley talks about that, but his approach is much broader. He believes (rightly) that our daily and weekly habits are the architecture of our spiritual formation.

Habits become dangerous to our spiritual well-being when we fail to form our own habits and allow outside forces to form them for us:    


Take your work schedule or your social media scrolling, for example. Think about your internet history or how you spent your mornings last week. Think about what you usually eat for lunch or the time you spend with  family versus the time you spend looking at a screen during a normal day. These things define vast portions of our lives, and while we would like to think we’ve carefully chosen them, most often we haven’t even given them a second thought. Most often we just swim along with what those around us are doing. And much more often than we would like to admit or even understand, we are nudged into those choices by those who want to make money off the patterns of our daily life. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that habits form much more than our schedules: they form our hearts.


He's right, of course. Our habits not only reflect our values, they also form our values. All the more reason to form our daily and weekly habits consciously, intentionally, as a matter of discipleship and not merely as a matter of convenience. His subtitle, Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, says it well.

The cover illustration is taken from a story he tells in the book. He tells about a Carolina jasmine vine that his mother planted in the garden next to the garage. His mother knew that the jasmine was a potentially aggressive plant that could take over the yard, but she built a trellis against the wall for the jasmine to climb. And that plant, which could have been a vicious invader, became a beautiful addition to their landscape, its rich fragrance one of Earley’s fond childhood memories.

Habits are like that. If we allow our habits to be formed by outside forces, they can overwhelm us spiritually, relationally, emotionally. But if we are intentional about establishing and maintaining good habits, they can be a powerful tool for spiritual formation. 

For Earley, as for many of us, his phone became a main focus of his rehabilitation of his habits. After landing in the emergency room with what he thought was a heart attack and hearing from the doctor that there was nothing physically wrong, he realized that his daily routine had become so chaotic that he had to rethink the architecture of his daily and weekly habits from the ground up.

He landed on four daily habits and four weekly habits that are helping him to regain his sanity. He doesn’t recommend these eight habits as the only path to spiritual wholeness, but they are worth some careful thought:
The daily habits are

  • kneeling prayer at morning, midday, and bedtime

  • one meal with others

  • one hour with phone off

  • Scripture before phone.

The weekly habits are

  • one hour of conversation with a friend

  • curate media to four hours

  • fast from something for twenty-four hours

  • sabbath.

If you’re like me, you find yourself at once intrigued by some of these habits and revolted by others.  (For me, the most cringe-worthy of Earley’s habits is “curate media to four hours” per week. Seriously? Four hours of media per week?) But don’t let any one of his suggested habits dissuade you from seriously considering his central idea: we need to be thoughtful and intentional about the habits that form the mental and spiritual backdrop of our lives. We serve no one well – not our families, our church, least of all our Lord – by letting our habits form themselves.

Where to begin? Start with a habit audit. Just pay attention for a week. Figure out what the architecture of your habits looks like now.

  • What are your morning and evening routines?

  • If you’re married, what are the routines that characterize your time with your spouse, your children?

  • What are your smartphone habits?

  • What are some things you are sure to do each week?


We have said that a disciple is someone who is bringing every aspect of life into obedience to Christ. Our habits may be invisible, but they are potent. And surely our habits are one of those aspects that must be brought into obedience to Christ.
Make this a matter of conversation – between you and God, between you and your family members, between you and your spiritual friends. And leverage the power of habits to make room for your spiritual life to flourish.

Persevere,
Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pastor

Genuine Repentance

It was the first thing John proclaimed when he began his ministry of preparing the way for the coming of Jesus: “Repent!” And it is still true: when God’s Spirit first makes us aware of our broken and fallen condition, we come to realize that the only way forward is to turn around. Repentance is the necessary first step to enter the Kingdom of God.
 
But repentance is not just the first step in our spiritual journey; it is our constant companion along the way. Because we so consistently sin and fail, there is a constant need to repent, not only with God but also with one another. In fact, the healthiest relationships involve a lot of confessing and repenting and forgiving.
 
But not everything that looks like repentance actually is genuine repentance. We’ve all heard enough celebrity “apologies” to know that sometimes what is presented as repentance is sometimes only a cloying substitute; sometimes it’s nothing more than blame-shifting and excuse-making and comparison. For myself, I noticed that it’s easy to lie to myself, to tell myself that I am repenting when I’m only doing what is necessary to manage my guilt and mitigate the consequences of my actions.
 
What does genuine repentance look like? I heard it said once that genuine repentance involves two steps: confessing and renouncing.
 
When we confess, we are calling our sin what it is and abandoning excuses. To confess wrongdoing to God or to someone I’ve offended, I must describe my actions and my character in unflinchingly realistic terms. I strip off the varnish of self-respect and own up not only to what I’ve done but also to the character defect behind it. I will speak of being impatient or self-absorbed or careless or arrogant; I will admit that I jumped to conclusions, that I didn’t listen carefully, that I wasn’t actually honest. The person I’ve offended (God or man) already knows these things about me. I am only acknowledging what we both know to be true. When I confess, I own up to my guilt without excuse.
 
It's true that when we confess our sin to one another, restoration may not happen immediately. If our offense is deep or long-standing, it may take a long time to rebuild a broken relationship with a brother or sister. But this is not true with God; He is eager to restore our broken fellowship when come to Him in humility and repentance. Think of His glorious promise! “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). So long as we refuse to frankly acknowledge and admit our sin before God this is a promise that is out of our reach.
 
But if we think we’re finished with repentance when we confess, we deceive ourselves. We have not actually repented until we renounce our sin. Jesus used the language of hyperbole to describe what it means to renounce our sin: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30). Notwithstanding history’s long, sad testimony of half-blinded and one-handed men who have taken him literally, Jesus wasn’t speaking of actually maiming ourselves. But he was telling us to be ruthless with our sin and with the opportunity to return to it. For me to renounce sin is to regard it with loathing, to put as much distance as possible between me and it. So long as I allow myself the luxury of flirting with temptation, I am not renouncing my sin.
 
Sure, there are easier ways to “repent.” I can layer my confession with dignity-saving caveats. And I can keep temptation on speed-dial. But until I confess my sin (call my sin what it actually is) and renounce my sin (treat it with the hatred and contempt it deserves), my repentance is nothing more than window-dressing.
 
God give us the grace to recognize our sin and to repent: to acknowledge our sin in genuine confession and to renounce it decisively.    

Persevere,
Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pastor

The Third Leg of a Stool

The spiritual disciplines are essential for spiritual growth. We cannot expect to thrive spiritually if we neglect them.

That much is plain, and all the books on spiritual disciplines will say so. And they will lay out a great many disciplines for us to consider. Donald Whitney’s classic Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Iists ten spiritual disciplines. In addition to obvious ones like the reading and study of Scripture (to which he gives two chapters) and prayer, Whitney lists several more that I might not have thought of as spiritual disciplines:

  • Worship

  • Evangelism

  • Service

  • Stewardship

  • Fasting (never my favorite)

  • Silence and solitude (a novel idea in our hyper-connected world)

  • Journaling

  • Learning

That list is, frankly, daunting. And I hesitate to recommend it to anyone just starting out in organizing his or her life to begin in the spiritual disciplines. I fear that much of what we say about the disciplines can lead people to take on more than they are ready for, and they are quickly overwhelmed and discouraged, and they give up.
 
Let me suggest three basic spiritual disciplines that form the core of Christian life. Think of these as the irreducible minimum of the spiritual disciplines, the three legs on a three-legged stool:

  • Scripture

  • Prayer

  • Service

If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to envision the spiritual disciplines as things a believer does in private, alone with God. From that point of view, Scripture and prayer obviously have a prime position here. In the study of God’s Word, I hear from God. In prayer, I speak to God. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that prayer has always been difficult for me. I have long known that I would rather study the Bible for an hour than pray for fifteen minutes. Prayer is hard work, at least for me.)

But I have come to realize recently that Bible reading and prayer can work like two legs on a three-legged stool. I have come to realize that service belongs in this discussion as one of the non-negotiable basics of spiritual discipline. It’s all too easy (at least for me) to approach the spiritual disciplines in a way that can easily become self-absorbed, as if the whole point of the disciplines is about me. Service pushes me out toward others. As a matter of fact, if my spiritual disciplines are comprised solely of the things I do alone with God, I am not following the example of Jesus, who came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

What does the spiritual discipline of service look like? It can take on any number of appearances, from cooking a meal for a neighbor in distress to helping out at a church work day to serving as an usher at the Sunday worship service to cleaning out the gutters for an elderly friend to changing diapers in the church nursery. Service does two things that need to be done in our lives: it presses us out toward others, and it creates opportunities for spiritual conversations to emerge naturally with the people we serve. Acts of service aimed at unbelievers can lead to opportunities share the Good News about Jesus with them.

Give some thought to how you might incorporate service as an essential element in your spiritual disciplines. Who are the people God has placed in your life whom you can serve? How can you serve them thoughtfully and creatively?

Persevere,
Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pastor

Why My Spiritual Life Feels Like an Uphill Battle (Because it is.)

Many years ago a friend introduced me and a few other friends to rock-climbing. Our guide was a former missionary, a mature Christian man, and he used his tutorial as a spiritual metaphor.

In his brief orientation, he explained that the biggest adjustment for people in rock-climbing is the vertical environment. In most other activities, when you feel tired you can stop and rest. Not so with rock-climbing. Since you are clinging to the side of a mountain, you are expending energy just staying where you are. In other words, when you stop, you’re not resting; you’re fading.

When you’re rock-climbing, you have to keep moving. If you’re not moving up, you’re moving sideways to find a better route. Even moving backward (when you must) must be strategic. If you pause to rest, you will quickly find your energy depleted, and you will move downward at an alarming pace; that is, you fall. (Not to worry, though. All but the most experienced climbers are always hooked into a harness so that you fall only a few feet before the harness catches you.)

Our friend explained that the spiritual life is a lot like rock-climbing. Spiritually, you are in a vertical environment, and you must constantly keep moving up, or you will fade and slide backward.
 
Why is it that spiritual growth is so demanding? I can think of at least three reasons. Any one of them would be enough to make the going rough, but all three together make it a constant struggle:

  1. The world: We live in a culture full of people shaking their fists in God’s face. In the middle of that environment, we are trying to follow Jesus, constantly about the task of bringing every aspect of life into obedience to Christ. This is why we need one another; we need to be around others who are knee-deep in that same struggle, striving as we are to obey Jesus in the middle of a rebellious and defiant culture. Following Jesus in a broken culture (as all cultures are) is swimming upstream, fighting your way uphill.

  2. The flesh: I won’t presume to speak of your heart, but I know that my heart is, as Jeremiah put it, “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (17:9). I am continually astonished at my ability to lie to myself and, worse, to believe my own lies. And just in case I forget how wicked and deceitful my heart is, life – all the setbacks, the conflicts, the disappointments – all the ebb and flow of life has a way of exposing the wickedness of my heart, showing me aspects of my nature and inclinations I would rather ignore. I have my hands full fighting the battle with my own heart.

  3. The devil: As if the world and the flesh were not enough, we have a powerful, relentless, and cruel enemy whose sole aim is to destroy the work of God in our lives. He will never rest until either we are released in death or he is finally put away at the End. Until then, he will never give up.

 
My friend was right about rock-climbing. It is exhausting.
And he was right about my spiritual life: it too is a constant uphill battle.
Just when I feel overwhelmed, as if I can never hope for victory, I remember that this battle is the Lord’s. I remember – and treasure – the promise Peter records for us: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness…” (2 Peter 1:3).
 
So if you’re feeling as if your spiritual life is an uphill battle, you are right.
It is.
Don’t give up.

Persevere,
Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pastor

Why Does the Word "Evangelism" Make Me Nervous?

Maybe you’re different, but there’s one sure way to make my blood pressure spike. Start talking about evangelism.

Especially, start talking about how evangelism is something we ought to be doing. Start that conversation, and my mind begins to maneuver toward the nearest exit.

You would think it would be different with me. My mother shared her faith constantly. She was a bold one, my mom. But this shy introvert didn’t pick up the habit. I was behind the door when they were passing out evangelistic boldness.

Which makes me feel awful when people say (rightly) that we ought to be evangelizing, telling our friends, neighbors, co-workers about Jesus.

My discomfort with the word “evangelism” comes from the two things I know about it:

  1. I should be doing evangelism.

  2. I’m not doing evangelism.

Couple this natural shyness with a question that has been plaguing me for the past several months: If Jesus’ Great Commission (“Go and make disciples”) is the heart and soul of the Christian mission, why isn’t that mandate repeated throughout the rest of the New Testament? If it’s really that important (and it is), why don’t we hear the New Testament epistles beating that drum over and over again? Why don’t we hear Paul repeatedly urging his readers to share their faith with their neighbors?
 
These two dilemmas seem to be related: my evangelistic reluctance and the absence of the evangelistic imperative in the epistles. Can this shy introvert find an excuse in the silence of the epistles on the evangelistic mandate?

I think not. I think both my shyness and the epistles’ silence are resolved in the way Jesus answered a key question about the Law, particularly the way he answered a question that wasn’t asked.
 
Do you remember when Jesus was asked about the relative importance of the commandments in the Law (Matthew 22)? Two things about his reply are remarkable:

  1. Jesus doesn’t quote any of the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue). These ten imperatives stand at the heart of Jewish ethics and law, yet Jesus doesn’t go there to find the greatest of the commandments, the one thing God wants from us more than anything else. Instead, he goes to Deuteronomy 6, where Moses declares: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” God knows that genuine obedience is ultimately a matter of the heart: without love, obedience is a meaningless exercise, and genuine love always issues in obedience.

  2. Jesus answers a question that was not asked. The question was about the greatest commandment, but Jesus’ answer includes also the second greatest commandment: Love (take care of) your neighbor in the same way and to the same extent that you love (take care of) yourself. These two commandments, says Jesus, comprise the whole of God’s expectations for our lives. If we are compelled by love for God and love for our neighbor, we will do what is right and good.

 
Which brings me back to evangelism and the matter of motives. If my motive for telling people about Jesus is that I ought to, I will freeze up. But there’s an altogether different driving force in my love for God (who gave up so much to save me) and my love for my neighbor (who doesn’t know that God loves him this way). This is not the force of a mandate but the graciously compelling power of love.

I have previously recommend Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Gospel Comes with a House Key. (We have copies of it on our Resource Shelf, or you can order it here.) Butterfield understands the role that love of neighbor plays in sharing our faith: “God is calling us to so greatly love others that we do not desire for them anything that might separate them from God.”

So my wife and I pray for our neighbors. And we pray for them by name. Why? Because our neighbors aren’t projects that we need to work on so we can cross a task off of a list. Our neighbors are people whom God loves, people for whom Christ died, people who desperately need to hear the Good News about Jesus.

Our dream is that the good people of PPC will love their neighbors well. That we will get to know them and create the space we need for spiritual conversations to emerge without being forced. The real work of evangelism (there’s that word again) will be done around the kitchen table or over coffee in the family room as we talk with our friends. Let’s be the people who love God deeply enough and love our neighbors well enough to walk across the street.

Persevere,
Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pastor

The Most Difficult Part of "One-Anothering"

I minored in music in college. At the same time I was learning a little bit about music theory, I was also discovering jazz music. My growing understanding of music theory made jazz even more fascinating because I could understand something of the creativity and originality in the way jazz music is constructed, how jazz musicians and composers bent and reformatted the rules on music composition and performance.

I began to buy jazz albums and play them in my dorm room. Then something happened to curtail my forays into the world of jazz: my roommate talked to me about the effects of jazz on his conscience.

My roommate had come to faith as a senior in high school. But before that, he was a party animal. The stories he told me about his party days even led me to think he might have been an alcoholic when he was in high school.

When he heard my jazz, he told me, it awakened appetites in him that he was trying to forget. This was odd, because jazz had no such effect on me. What impressed me as creative and original led him to a dark place he didn’t want to go.

What were my options here? After all, I was listening to music I had purchased, playing it on my equipment. And there was nothing inherently wrong with jazz music, at least in a chapter-and-verse sense of the word. I surely had a right to listen to my music. (You did notice all the first-person pronouns in there, didn’t you?)

But this wasn’t about my rights. I had to weigh the value of my liberty against my love for my brother in Christ, and that wasn’t really a tough call.

In the end, I knew I had to do what Paul urges in his letter to the believers in Rome: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:1-2). 

And to be candid, this wasn’t a difficult choice. My brother’s conscience was far more precious to me than my liberty.

We may give a nod to the old saying:

In essentials, unity.
In non-essentials, liberty.
In all things, charity.

But, like many sayings, that is easier said than done. Sometimes the stakes are so high that we have a hard time deferring to our brothers and sisters in these matters. When some liberty is extremely important to me, I may find it very difficult to lay aside my preferences for the sake of my brother or sister. Worse, when my moral sensibilities clash with someone else’s, when an activity violates my conscience and I have a powerful personal conviction about it, I may not be able to “bear with” my brother and allow to him to enjoy his liberty without judging him.

That’s why bearing with one another may be the most difficult aspect of “one-anothering.” It requires us to examine our motives and clarify what really matters to us. And because we follow our suffering Savior, the answer must always be obvious. We must “bear with” our brothers and sisters because we follow the one “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Persevere,
Paul Pyle

Why We Need One Another to Make Disciples

In his book Knowledge of the Holy, AW Tozer observes that even though our concept of God is fundamental to everything else about our spiritual life, it is difficult for anyone to know what he or she actually thinks about God:
 
“Compared with our actual thoughts about Him,” writes Tozer, “our creedal statements are of little consequence. Our real idea of God may lie buried under the rubbish of conventional religious notions and may require an intelligent and vigorous search before it is finally unearthed and exposed for what it is. Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.”
 
He’s right, of course. It’s easy enough to declare our belief in the traditional language about God and to imagine that those words – carefully crafted by our spiritual forebears – convey our own view of God. Our actual practice may be different, however, as other factors – our own family background or the influence of popular theology or the attitudes of people we admire – have actually formulated a kind of caricature, a distorted picture of God. And without knowing it, the God we actually think about is only the caricature, not the Holy One of Israel, Ruler of Heaven and Earth. This is no ruse. We are not being hypocritical, we are simply blind to our blind-spots.
 
Which makes me wonder if Tozer is being too optimistic. Knowing how easy it is for me to lie to myself and how difficult it is for me to detect my own blind-spots, could any amount of “intelligent and vigorous search” and “painful self-probing” be sufficient for me to uncover my own actual view of God? I’ve got my doubts. I’m not sure I am capable of detecting my blind-spots precisely because I am blind to them.
 
This is one of the reasons we need one another so much – to help us see things about ourselves that we are incapable of seeing – or unwilling to see. When we listen carefully to one another, when we examine the Scriptures together, when we hear one another pray, we can help one another uncover our heart attitudes about God. And about a whole host of other crucial matters: the authority of God’s Word, the sanctity of marriage, our identity in Christ, and so much more…
 
Discipleship has been called “a long obedience in the same direction,” but it is not a solo journey. We need one another as traveling companions, to encourage and support but also to probe and admonish.   
 
Who are the one or two people you know well enough that they have your permission to listen carefully and ask you those probing, uncomfortable questions? Cherish that spiritual friendship. And invest in it. You and your friend need one another.

Persevere,
Pastor Paul Pyle

Getting a "Grip" on Scripture

When I taught high school, I used to tell my students, “You don’t have to be mean to be a teacher, but it helps.”

In fact, I said it so often, it turned into a well-rehearsed call-and response: I would say, “You don’t have to be mean to be a teacher…” And they would answer (rolling their eyes), “But it helps.”

I know. I know. Context is everything. They knew I was joking.

And I was.

Mostly.

But it is partly true: Just like a coach or a physical therapist, an effective classroom teacher has to push sometimes – and be impervious to his students’ protests and complaints.

I drew on that mean streak once to help my students understand how to get a grip on the Bible. I picked out a tough-guy know-it-all to come to the front of the class and help me with an illustration. I told him to hold a large book in his hand while I talked to the class. The catch was that he wasn’t allowed to use his thumb.

Know-it-alls don’t usually think things through, and, true to form, this tough guy was more than happy to accommodate my request. He gripped the book between his palm and his four fingers, smirking while I talked.

I turned and explained to the class that when we want to get a grip on the Bible, we have several means at our disposal:

1.       We can hear God’s Word.

2.       We can read God’s Word.

3.       We can study God’s Word.

4.       We can memorize God’s Word.

All these are good, but they are not equally good. We have said before, and I repeat it here again: if the only exposure I have to Scripture is the Sunday morning sermon, I am on a starvation diet. No matter how good the preaching is, I need to encounter God’s Word more often than 30-40 minutes each week.

But even if I am reading, studying, and even memorizing God’s Word, even if I’ve engaged all four fingers, I still won’t get a grip on it until I engage the thumb.

(By this time the tough guy’s smirk has been replaced with a grimace. The muscles in his forearm are beginning to burn.)

So what is the thumb, you ask? What is the one other thing I must do with God’s Word if I want to really understand it and allow it to master my life?

It is meditation, personal and intentional reflection on God’s Word. In fact, thinking deeply about Scripture is essential no matter what other means I use to encounter it. Just as the thumb can interact with any one of the other four fingers but works best when interacting with all of them, so careful reflection on the Bible is the one approach I cannot afford to neglect.

(By this time, everyone in the classroom – including the tough-guy know-it-all – gets the point. If I want to get a grip on Scripture, I’ve got to think deeply about it.

It is never enough even to hear the Word and read the Word. Not even if I hear, read, study, and
memorize it.

In other words, it’s never really about just checking the box, completing a task.

I must take the time to reflect on God’s Word. What it is saying, what it means, how my life might be shaped by it.

This is the only way I can get a grip on Scripture, and the only way it can get a grip on my life.

Paul Pyle
Pastor of Discipleship

One-Anothering Well

Last Sunday I preached the first sermon in our “One Another” series. I showed that the 59 “one another” passages in Scripture actually speak to an essential part of how we fulfill the Great Commission (Jesus’ mandate to “make disciples” of all nations, Matthew 28:18-20). The early church made disciples by a three-fold process of proclamation (telling the story of Jesus) and edification (cultivating vibrant and attractive community life), which resulted in replication (seeing new people to come to faith in Christ and training them what it means to follow Jesus).

The church was a unique kind of social body in the first century Roman world. Christian community defied the usual categories of race, ethnicity, and class. And it was the vibrant community life of those early Christians, the way they treated one another and the way they ministered to the community, that set them apart. That kind of community life created a curiosity for gospel proclamation, and disciples were added to the church.

What was true then is still true today. When we “one another” well, we cultivate the kind of vibrant Christian community that makes the gospel (proclamation) attractive. When our conversations and relationships are gospel-centered, when we “forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32), we create an atmosphere that is attractive for outsiders, who long for that kind of community life.

When we fail to “one another” well, we cast a shadow on the gospel itself. So the way we interact with one another really is an essential component in making disciples.

One of the saddest verses in the Bible, I think, is 2 Corinthians 4:3, where Paul observes that “if our gospel is  hidden, it is hidden from those who are perishing.” We hide the Good News about Jesus when we fail to practice gospel-centered community or (worse) when we practice it well but hide it from our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

It is our dream that Patterson Park Church be known not only for great music, great missions giving, great ministry to families, and great preaching and teaching but also for vibrant community life that invites people to come to know Jesus. 

Paul Pyle
Pastor of Discipleship

The Three Tracks of the Spiritual Disciplines

Talk to anyone who is active in making disciples, and you may soon find yourself having a conversation about the spiritual disciplines, those holy habits that cultivate the soil of our hearts so that God’s Spirit can create life-transforming fruit. Just as physical disciplines such as adequate rest, good diet, and regular exercise promote physical well-being, so also the spiritual disciplines (most notably: regularly engaging with Scripture and pursuing a life of prayer, service, fellowship, and evangelism) are vital to our spiritual well-being.

But the spiritual disciplines can never be thought of as an end in themselves. If I am engaged in the disciplines for the wrong reasons – to impress my Christian friends, to satisfy the expectations of my own checklist spirituality, or (worse) to earn God’s favor – I have created my own idol, my own impotent means of achieving my own goals. Jesus said that if that is my mindset about the disciplines, I may well get what I hope for – impressing my friends or achieving my goals – but God has no interest in that sort of discipline (Matthew 6:1-6). All my activity is bent in on myself and serves only my interests, not God’s.

No, the spiritual disciplines must always be understood as a means to the greater end: obeying what Jesus called “the first and greatest commandment,” to love God holistically, with all that I have and am, to draw closer to Jesus.

Which means that there are three tracks that we must travel simultaneously if we want to engage in the spiritual disciplines. I have already pointed toward the first two:

1.       The first track is my motive: I am engaged in these disciplines as the necessary means to the one worthwhile end: knowing God.

2.       The second track is the depth of my commitment to the disciplines themselves: I’m going to do this, even though I know it will hard and no one will notice or give me credit for it.

Right, Paul. You’ve just summarized what you started with: my commitment to the spiritual disciplines must be serious and it must be God-focused.

So what’s the third track?

I add this third track because it is distressingly easy to turn a select set of the spiritual disciplines – the ones that I can do on my own (Scripture and prayer) – into a kind of sanctified navel-gazing: dedicating myself to the disciplines and forgetting God’s heart for other people. Jesus called his people to spread out and tell everyone about what he had done, so if I really am pursuing the heart of God, He will give me a heart for people outside my circle, outside the faith.

So the third track?

3.       Cultivating an outward focus on people around me: my neighbors and co-workers who need Jesus, anyone, in fact, who needs my help. If I really am getting to know God better, I will find myself dissatisfied with merely building up an impressive inventory of spiritual insights and holy habits. If I am paying attention, God’s Spirit will prompt me to look for people around me who need what I have to offer: my assistance, my prayers, my counsel, the Good News about Jesus.

It is my dream that PPC would more and more be the kind of fellowship where God’s people are unceasingly occupied with all three tracks: yearning to know God, investing in the spiritual disciplines, and looking outward for people in our lives who need our help.

Where should I start?

I am now working with eight young men in four triads (me and two other guys). We meet every other week. I love meeting with these guys and finding out where God is working in their lives. And I love being part of what God is doing in their lives.

But I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Ha! Bet you didn’t see that one coming! Making disciples is an OJT experience for this guy (on the job training, learning by doing).

I spent four decades in Christian ministry, but it was classroom-oriented, with me seeing dozens of young people for 45 minutes each day. It was mass-produced disciple-making, not the kind of relational ministry that can take place in micro-groups like my triads. Classroom management I understood; I was good at it. Instructional design. Assessment. All the tools in the educator’s toolkit, I had those down.

But sit me down with a young man who wants me to disciple him? Where to begin?

Over the past year I’ve been learning as I go.

One thing that encouraged me early on was realizing that the only three components that are necessary in a disciple-making relationship are always at hand for the believer: God’s Word, God’s Spirit, and God’s people. I have drawn on all three extensively as I’ve felt my way in this new (to me) form of ministry. I have the confidence that I am doing what Jesus told his church to do: make disciples. That means every time I pray for God to give me wisdom as I work with my guys, I know that God is ready to give me what I ask for.

One excellent resource that we have on our “Discipleship Resources” shelf is Multiply by Francis Chan. The book is designed for small groups or micro-groups to use in a disciple-making context. The book surveys the entirety of the Bible, so it is also a Bible study. Short videos (available at multiplymovement.com) accompany each chapter. If you’re not sure where to start, Multiply would be a good first step in disciple-making.

Don’t let uncertainty about method keep you from getting involved in a disciple-making relationship. If you love Jesus and have walked with God for a while, you have something to share with a younger believer. If you’ve put your faith in Christ, you already have the essential tools to help someone else: God’s Spirit, God’s Word, and (here at PPC, access to) God’s people.

Don’t hang back. If you are a younger believer, begin to pray that God will bring someone into your life to help you grow. If you are an older believer, think and pray about whom you could approach. Justin Gravitt has a great blog post on looking for someone to disciple; you’re looking for someone who is FAT: faithful, available, and teachable.

It is our dream that PPC be filled with older believers investing in younger believers, that making disciples is as much part of our DNA as solid teaching and preaching. It is our dream that PPC someday be known as a fellowship filled with disciples who make disciples who make disciples.

Paul Pyle
Pastor of Discipleship

Four Reasons Every Christian Needs Time in Silence

I’ve been noticing something about myself lately. And I don’t like what I’m seeing.

I have an attention-span problem. No, I’ve never been diagnosed ADD, but I am beginning to notice that I have trouble focusing on what’s important. My mind wanders – when I’m praying, when I’m reading Scripture, when I’m singing in church. All those times when it is important for me to give my undivided attention to a matter, I find my attention dissipated, wandering far afield, unfocused.

I’ve been thinking about why this is so. Part of it, surely, is the fast-paced, over-stimulated envrionment of our culture. I saw a headline recently that we are exposed to some 5000 ads every day. (Of course I didn’t take the time to read the article. My mind wouldn’t slow down enough to do that.)

But I cannot lay the blame solely at the feet of my environment. My own habits are at least partly (okay, probaby mostly) to blame. I have cultivated the habit of filling my personal space with sound, words in particular. I don’t like to listen to music when I’m driving. When I’m in the car, it’s sports-talk or a sermon or NPR or an audio book, something that will occupy my mind. It’s like I have a constant craving for mental stimulation.

I think I’m allergic to silence.

A disciple of Jesus is someone who is constantly about the task of bringing every aspect of life into obedience to Christ. In my case, it’s my wandering thoughts I need to bring into captivity. I think I need to learn to practice the spiritual discipline of silence.

That’s why Brian Croft’s article “Four Reasons Every Christian Needs Time in Silence” caught my attention (momentarily, at least). Although Croft writes as a pastor to pastors, everyone who is weary of the frantic pace of life needs to stop and consider what he has to say. If that’s you, click on the link and see what he has to say.

P.S. In case you’re interested, I have deleted Twitter from my phone, and I am now on a radio-fast in my car. My mind still wanders incessantly, but it’s a start…

 

Why the Gospel Matters

When I preached recently, I reminded us of where the New Testament writers got their word “gospel.” They borrowed it from their culture: the gospel was the proclamation of a herald that the king had won a decisive victory and would soon return in triumph. New Testament writers seized on that language to tell us what God has given us in the death and resurrection of Christ; he has won the decisive victory over sin and death and will someday return in triumph.

But the gospel – the good news about Jesus – can grow stagnant if we don’t “pay it forward,” if we don’t look for opportunities to share that good news with people who need to hear it.
 
I want to recommend two resources to refresh our commitment to the gospel.

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  1. Ray Ortlund’s book The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ is a simple, straightforward examination of exactly how the gospel is good news, for each of us individually and for us as a covenant community of faith in Christ. I am reading it now. A few copies are available on the Discipleship Resources shelves across from the children’s ministry welcome desk.

  2. RightNow Media’s Gospel on the Ground provides two excellent videos on what it means to make our lives a conduit of the gospel to people around us who need to hear the good news about Jesus. The videos are accompanied by several questions for reflection and application.

 
Read Orlund’s The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ, and check out RightNow Media’s Gospel on the Ground. But regardless of what you read or watch on your screen, pray faithfully for your neighbors and co-workers who don’t know Jesus. Pray that God will open doors for you to cultivate a relationship with them so that you can be the herald who proclaims the good news: Christ has conquered death and sin.
 
Persevere,
Paul Pyle
Discipleship Pastor

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Evangelism and Friendship

A few months ago, a visitor asked me about Patterson Park’s evangelism program. I wasn’t prepared to answer his question, at least not the way he asked it, because we don’t have an “evangelism program.”

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We have excellent outreach opportunities in our Friday night Steps recovery ministry and our jail ministry (both ministries overseen by our Outreach Director Bob Wheeler). But we don’t have the sorts of programs the visitor was looking for: classic evangelism training or door-to-door canvassing or street evangelism programs.  

What we do have is neighbors and co-workers, people we are around every day who need to know about Jesus. That’s the “mission field” we live in.

In today’s Discipleship Weekly, we want to feature a RightNow Media segment called “Evangelism and Friendship.” It’s a brief training segment that features two videos and some self-assessment questions. The first video is the story of Sandy, a man who came to realize that his day job, air traffic controller, was also his mission field. Sandy tells the story of how a co-worker who began with ferocious opposition to the gospel, eventually came to put his faith in Christ and became a sold-out Christ follower. But don’t look for a story of instantaneous conversion. That story took more than a decade to unfold.

The second video features a pastor of a church in Florida whose outreach is built on neighborhood hospitality. That’s where we want to PPC focus its outreach efforts: in our neighborhoods, with the people we live with.

We have previously featured Rosaria Butterfield’s excellent book The Gospel Comes with a House Key, where Butterfield expands on what outreach by one family in one neighborhood can have a profound impact.

Bob is always looking for volunteers to help with his outreach opportunities. If you would be willing to serve as a mentor in his recovery ministry or if you want to look into participating in the jail ministry, contact Bob at bwheeler@pattersonpark.org.

Go to the RightNow Media link “Evangelism and Friendship” to see Sandy’s story and hear how one Florida church is empowering its people to reach their neighbors.

Our dream is the we would begin to cultivate the kind of long-term relationships with our neighbors that can bear the weight of spiritual conversations, that over time we can see our neighbors move toward faith in Christ.

Nanette and I are praying about how we can reach our own neighbors. Begin your own neighborhood outreach by praying for your neighbors, by name if you know them. Ask God to open doors of opportunity for you simply to get to know them. Then pray that as your neighbors get to know you, they will want to know Christ.

Persevere.
Paul  

The Art of the Question

When I was a classroom teacher, I liked to create and maintain a kind of weekly rhythm in my lesson plans.

· I liked to give tests on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

· We would usually pray for our pastors and our churches on Mondays.

· Wednesdays we would talk about the verses that would appear on the Friday verse quiz.

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· Thursdays were for HotSeat, when we would get a student up on a stool in front of the class and ask “getting-to-know-you” questions.

·  I would always conclude HotSeat sessions with my own two questions for the student:

o   What do you think you want to do when you leave high school?

o   How can we pray for you now?

In my discipling relationships with eight men in four triads (micro-groups of three), I like to follow a rhythm as well. I have three questions I like to ask the guys each week:

·         What are you hearing from God? As you read Scripture, and reflect on it, what is God telling you? I ask this question not only to encourage my guys to be in the Word, but also to encourage them to think deeply about what they read.

·         What are you trusting God for? What are the things that you are praying about? What are the obstacle or burdens that you are struggling with? How can we support and encourage you in these matters?

·         How is God using you in the lives of others? Most of my guys are married, so that’s an obvious place to start. But I want my guys also to be thinking about how God might use them in the lives of their pre-Christian friends, neighbors, and relatives.

Jim Putman has written about four key diagnostic questions he likes to use at the beginning of a discipling relationship, “Four Enlightening Questions To Ask The People You Are Discipling.” These questions not only give provide insight for the one doing the discipling, they also give the disciple some understanding of what to expect in their time together.

Questions are a powerful device in the disciple-maker’s toolkit. As you pray about investing your life into the life of another, think about your own set of questions that you can use.

 

Living Out My Faith at Work

Have you ever wondered how to connect Sunday morning to Monday morning? We gather on Sundays (weather permitting) and study God’s Word and worship and pray together; we gather in groups and classes to encourage one another and learn together. But how does all that translate to our workaday world, where we mix with people who don’t share our faith and worldview?

Matt Williams has wondered the same thing.

Matt is attending seminary, hoping one day to be in vocational ministry. But right now he works as a manager in a medical office. So he’s had to think through how God can use him now, where he is.

Matt’s article, “Eight Principles That Help Me Live Out My Faith at Work,” explores what it means to integrate his faith and his ministry into his workplace environment.

You might expect that he would spend a lot of time talking about how to provoke and conduct spiritual conversations with co-workers. That is one of his eight principles (#3), where he struggles with the question of how to do evangelism without antagonizing either his co-workers or his boss.

His other seven principles, though, cast a broader vision for seeing the workplace as an arena for faithful service beyond the realm of evangelism.

Some surprises:

#1: I don’t pray for a good day.

#7: I’m grateful for the church.

Read “Eight Principles That Help Me Live Out My Faith at Work.” How can you integrate your faith in your daily workplace experience?

Reveal Survey

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Patterson Park Church is in the middle of a two-week survey on spiritual vitality in our congregation. This survey was first used by a well-known mega-church to help them assess how well they were doing in fulfilling Christ’s mandate to make disciples. It has since been used by hundreds of churches and a million congregants throughout the US.

Ministry leaders will use the results of our survey to shape our vision and strategy for making disciples here at Patterson Park Church. We know that the survey results will be a mixed bag: we’ll get some encouraging news and we see some blind spots revealed. But this is what we need to do if we want to serve and lead our people intelligently and well.

Our plan was to launch the survey Sunday with an announcement at the morning service. When we had to cancel services, we wondered if we would need to reschedule the survey to ensure that we could get enough responses to be statistically viable.

We posted a video on our Facebook page Tuesday morning to remind everyone about the survey, and by Wednesday morning more than 70 people had taken it. By Thursday, we had almost a hundred responses, well on our way to our goal of a minimum of 250 responses!

Thanks to all of you who have already taken the survey. Spread the word to your friends from PPC: the higher our response rate, the clearer the picture we’ll get of how we are doing in fulfilling Jesus’ last command.

To take the survey, click here and follow the instructions. It will take about 15-20 minutes.

When you answer the questions, please be candid. Don’t answer according to your aspirations (what you hope someday to do) but according to your actual present habits and practices. And don’t give the answers you think the leaders want to see. Your answers will be totally anonymous; all the leaders will see will be aggregated totals, not individual responses.

Thanks for your help in giving our leaders a clearer picture of what we can do better to make disciples at Patterson Park Church.

Six Habits of an Effective Disciple-maker

“Discipleship” is such a broad and elastic term that we cannot really use it without first ensuring that our hearers and readers understand what we mean by it. Certainly, there are connotations that come to mind – spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture memorization, Bible reading, Bible study, etc. – and they are part of the meaning of the word “discipleship.” We know we are like farmers; we cannot make ourselves grow spiritually any more than the farmer can make the crops grow. Just so, our spiritual progress is something only God’s Spirit can bring about in our lives.

But also like the farmer, who plows and plants and tends, what we can do, we must do. I am the one who must cultivate the habits that God can use to bring about life-change.  

But if all we mean by “discipleship” is what we do to grow spiritually, if all our attention and efforts in discipleship are limited to the spiritual disciplines, we are missing the main point of Jesus’ mandate: to make disciples. Not just to grow ourselves, but to help others move toward spiritual maturity. A man or woman who is committed to “discipleship” as Jesus meant the term must give careful attention to how he or she can invest in the lives of others.

Jim Putman is one of the leading voices in the contemporary disciple-making movement. His recent blog post, Six Habits of an Effective Disciple-maker, describes the behavior patterns of the man or woman who has made disciple-making a way of life.

As you read through his list, you will probably find, as I did, some things you are doing now and other things you need to begin doing. Don’t let this (or any other such list) be a source of discouragement or dismay. As I have often said, when you find something in your life you realize you need to change – some habit you need to break, some new habit you need to form, some heart-change you know God wants to see – “pray from where you are.” Begin that process by asking God, “who gives to all men generously,” to give you what you need to bring about that change in your life: first, a warming and growing burden in your heart, then the wisdom and courage to go forward with that the changes He has brought about.

For my part, I am asking God to help me be more intentional about establishing relationships with people who are outside the faith (#2). My wife and I are praying for our neighbors and praying about ways to make connections with them.

I am involved now with several men whom I want to “equip toward spiritual maturity” (#5) and someday “release for ministry” (#6) to make disciples on their own.

As you survey the possibilities for the new year, think about someone you could come alongside to help him or her grow toward knowing Christ in a deeper way.

How Can Scripture Be Personal?

I’ve been thrift-shopping for decades. I usually walk out of the store empty-handed. But I enjoy the serendipity of finding some treasure I didn’t know I was looking for, like that three-volume New Testament dictionary set I found at Goodwill or that nearly-new sweater with the tags still on it (Salvation Army). You never know what you’re going to find when you’re thrift-shopping.

Over the year I’ve noticed some patterns in thrift store merchandise. For instance, do you know what is the time of year you’re most likely to find gently-used exercise equipment at a thrift store? February or March, of course. Those expensive pieces of equipment first showed up under the Christmas tree, and they were used diligently for a few weeks into the new year. But after a while, along about the time you realize you realize you’re using your exercise equipment more for a clothes rack than for actual exercise, you admit to yourself that it’s time to cut your losses. That massive machine is taking up space. And even though you spent hundreds of dollars on it, you come to the conclusion that your visions of exercising yourself into prime physical condition were just that: visions. You never really made exercise a part of your habits, your routines. And now that the novelty has worn off, it’s time to clear out the space and hang your clothes somewhere else.

The same thing can happen with our spiritual disciplines, especially with our intentions to read the Bible every day. This is especially the case if reading the Bible seems boring, a chore, a dry and meaningless task that seems impersonal and pointless.

How can I make my Bible reading personal and relevant, so that it isn’t just a box that I check?

David Powlison talks about bringing the “near horizon” into focus so that our Bible reading is personal, not just academic but powerful and personal. The “far horizon” deals with how the Scripture impacted the lives of far-away those people who lived thousands of years ago and far away. The “near horizon” deals with the burdens and needs I have right now. If I am going to see the Scriptures transform my life and not just inform my mind, I must see them in the “near horizon.”

I want to encourage you to set aside the time and the place in  your schedule for you to encounter God in His Word. And let Him speak to your “near horizon,” the needs and burdens you are struggling with now.

Stick with it; commit yourself to listening for God’s voice as you read His Word.

Persevere.

Pastor Paul

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