Outsourcing Discipleship

The English language changes more than just about any other language out there, and I’m old enough now that I have seen new words come into common use.  One of those words is “outsourcing”.  For those of you who aren’t up on business jargon, outsourcing is when a company decides to contract out services that it used to provide internally.  For instance, a small business might decide to shut down its marketing department and outsource that to a marketing firm.

In the business world, this can often make a lot of sense.  However, as always, we must be cautious with our applications of worldly wisdom to the spiritual realm.  In particular, we ought to be wary of the dangers of outsourcing our discipleship to the church.

The problems with this, with handing work to the church that individual disciples should be doing, start emerging once we consider THE NATURE OF DISCIPLESHIP.  Here, let’s look particularly at John 15:8.  This is only one verse, but in it, Jesus says a mouthful.

Chronologically, this begins with the responsibilities of disciples to bear fruit.  Let’s pause for a moment to consider the implications of two different words, “disciple” and “Christian”.  “Christian” is only used a couple of times in the Bible, so it’s pretty much left up to us to define it, and generally, we apply the term to anybody who has obeyed the gospel.  If you’ve been dunked, you’re a Christian.  It’s a low bar!

“Disciple”, on the other hand, is used hundreds of times in the New Testament, so it’s a term with a rich Scriptural meaning.  Basically, a disciple is somebody who has been baptized and is seeking to put into practice all the commandments of Christ.  They’re somebody who is determined to be like Jesus.  This isn’t a label that gets slapped on us.  It’s something we have to earn.  As Jesus says here, only when we bear fruit do we prove to be His disciples.  Those who don’t bear fruit aren’t.

However, when we bear fruit and prove to be disciples of Jesus, we also glorify our Father.  We don’t only bring glory to God when we come here and sing together.  In fact, I think that the great majority of our glorification of Him occurs outside of the assembly.  We glorify God through godly living.

What’s more, notice how this honor is clearly something we bring to God on our own.  If individual disciples aren’t bearing the fruit that the Father intends for them to bear, then He will not be glorified.  God isn’t concerned only with the ultimate results.  He is concerned with the personal involvement of Christians in producing those results.  When we take the individual out of the equation, we are short-circuiting His plan for us.

Let’s look at several examples of how this plays out.  Let’s begin with WORSHIP.  As probably most of us know, we can find our marching orders as disciples in Colossians 3:16.  We’re supposed to sing.  We’re supposed to teach and admonish one another, singing with thankfulness in our hearts.

However, every congregation executes this instruction imperfectly, and some execute it very imperfectly.  Let’s say that’s true here.  Our worship is draggy, unenthusiastic, and quite frankly depressing.

Let me tell you what the worldly solution is.  A couple of weeks ago, Lauren and I had the Barnetts over for dinner, and while she was there, Ashley was kind enough to play her violin for us.  Honestly, friends, she’s awfully good.  The obvious quick fix, then, is to build a country-and-western band around Ashley.  We pay her to practice church songs for 10-20 hours a week, hire some other talent away from the Toilsome Road Baptist Church, and we’ve got ourselves a pretty good little house band.  Lo and behold, we have solved our problem with unenthusiastic worship!

The thing is, though, that we haven’t solved the problems with ourselves.  If we do that, the musical quality of our services will have increased, but we will still be the same Laodicean bunch who produced the halfhearted singing in the first place.  We have thrown money at the problem, but we have not become better disciples, and no matter how good the music sounds, we have not glorified the Father.

Instead, the only solution for our discipleship problem is for us to become better disciples.  We need not only to sing, but to pour our hearts into our worship, to be here for every singing night, because we personally feel responsible for glorifying God.

This is true not only for Christians who like to sing and can sing, but for those who don’t and can’t.  Let me tell you, friends:  there are few things that hearten me more in an assembly then when I hear a brother or sister who can’t sing a lick giving it their all anyway.  That sends a powerful message.  It says, “God is more important than my pride.”  If we all worship God together with that spirit, I guarantee you that nobody will complain about the result!

Let’s also consider CARING FOR THE NEEDY.  We see the charge that Jesus lays on us here in James 1:27.  Obviously, the text is specifically about widows and orphans, but its general application is that we should help anybody who needs help.  Honestly, I think this is a strength of the Jackson Heights church.  From the things I’ve heard people say, to the stories I’ve heard about others, to the things I’ve seen, I think the brethren here do a good job of being loving and compassionate.  Of course, there’s always room for us to excel still more, but we need to celebrate the good we’re already doing.

However, let’s pretend that’s not so.  Let’s pretend that the Jackson Heights church is made up of a bunch of Scrooges.  We don’t care about poor people in the community, not one bit!  The worldly reaction is to take that work away from the disciples who aren’t doing it and turn it over to the church so the church can do it.  Now, we’re going to start handing out little envelopes to the people who come knocking on our door all week.  We might even start sending money to a homeless shelter or something.

This will certainly lead to a lot of money flowing out the door.  Maybe it will lead to better results than individual action, though I’m not at all convinced of that.  However, it will not lead to God being glorified through the fruit of His Son’s disciples.

The problem is that once we have turned helping others into something we never see and are never involved with, it loses its power.  It becomes about numbers rather than people.  We write our check, and we never have to confront the reality of unlovely people with complicated lives who still have souls and who still need help.  When we involve ourselves with people like that, we see them, and they see us.  That is when we walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

A similar analysis applies to HOSPITALITY.  Once again, the call to discipleship is pretty straightforward, this time in Hebrews 13:1-2.  This is another place where I’m inclined to see a subject heading in the Scriptural text.  I think “Let brotherly love continue” is a general principle, and one of the ways that we apply it is by showing hospitality to brethren we don’t know.  If we want to be a family in Christ, we have to open our homes to one another like family.

Now, I’m sure that just as is true everywhere else, some associated with the Jackson Heights church believe that this isn’t happening here.  Whether it’s people who get mad and stop coming or those who unhappily linger around, it seems like there are always those who complain that they’re being overlooked and ignored by other Christians.  So there are these complaints, and the elders decide that the solution to the problem is to build a fellowship hall where we can all eat together after Sunday services.  This, of course, means throwing yet more money at a problem, and it also means that now my sermons will have to compete with the smell of pot roast!

In this case, though, I’m pretty certain that the application of worldly wisdom won’t solve the problem at all.  Just because people are eating in the same room doesn’t mean they’re eating together.  One of the most miserable experiences in my life came on my first day of school after my family moved from New Jersey to Missouri.  There I was, in the middle of a cafeteria that had hundreds of kids in it, but I was incredibly lonely because nobody was talking to me.  I was so unhappy that I could barely choke my food down!

The only way to keep the same thing from happening in a fellowship hall is for individual Christians to reach out to those who are being excluded, and if that’s the only solution to the problem anyway, why not cut out the middleman?  The same Christians who disciple up in the fellowship hall can disciple up in the foyer after services and invite others out to eat or into their homes.  Once again, the only way to solve a discipleship problem is with discipleship.

Finally, let’s consider the subject of BRINGING UP OUR CHILDREN.  Look at the responsibility set out in Ephesians 6:4.  I think there’s a secondary application here to Christian mothers, but I also don’t think it’s an accident that Paul addresses this text specifically to fathers.  There is no one who has more influence on the spiritual development of a child than the father does.  Paul tells us, men, that we need to make sure this is an influence for good in two ways:  discipline and instruction.  Instruction is teaching them the truth; discipline is guiding them to walk in it.

I think there’s a tendency to want to outsource both of these things to the church, and that’s a problem.  I believe that children’s Bible classes are authorized, but I also believe that fathers must not make those classes their substitute teacher.  No Bible class or teaching program can fill the void left by a spiritually absent father.  My parents faithfully took me to Bible class the whole time I was growing up, but I’m not a Christian because of Bible class.  I’m a Christian because of the father who loved to talk Bible with me so much that even as an adult, literally every conversation I had with him involved the Bible sooner or later.

The same is true with discipline.  I know there are lots of churches around here that have youth centers and youth programs, places where parents can dump their kids off and not have to worry about them and the company they’re keeping for an evening.  Men, it’s not the church’s job to look out for our children and make sure that they have wholesome friends.  It’s not the church’s job to provide a safe place for them to hang out.  That’s our job.  That’s part of what bringing up our children in the discipline of the Lord involves.

I saw this from my dad too, particularly with my sister.  She was always a lot more social than I was, and for years, my parents’ house was the place where the parties happened.  It was their house where the stereo was turned up to seismic levels for hours at a time.  Even when my sister moved on to college, my folks invited all of my sister’s college friends to Sunday dinner after services, every single Sunday.

Nor did that only influence my sister.  At both my mom’s funeral and my dad’s funeral, in addition to the usual senior citizens who attend such things, there was a scattering of young marrieds in their 20s and 30s.  It was those college students, coming back years later, because they remembered what my parents had done for them.  We don’t need youth ministries, brethren.  We need disciples.

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