Today I continue my 2013 Discipleship Interview Series with Dan Darling. Dan is the senior pastor at Gages Lake Bible Church in the Chicago area. He’s a writer for Leadership Journal and the author of four books including Real: Owning Your Christian Faith.
To quote a Christian clique, I think you “live in the tension.” If you look at the New Testament, there are many, many active verbs when it comes to our sanctification. Words like strive, press, study, work. So the life of a disciple is not just passive, waiting for a wave of the Spirit and then on you go. And yet, we are told so many times that sanctification is something only the Spirit can accomplish. There are times when we can overwork and think that it is our choices, our goodness that is making us more like Jesus. Perhaps the best word might be pursuit. We are called to a life of active, constant, sacrificial pursuit of Jesus. This means time, energy, expense. It means we don’t consider our spiritual growth something we fit into the margins of our life, but that it is our life. That we work and toil and sweat and that God uses that effort to make us more like Jesus. The way God causes us to grow is by the tools He provides: His Word, the Person of the Holy Spirit, the active community of faith, prayer, trials, spiritual exercise. And yet the results, the forming and making and carving are all works of HIs hands and not ours.
Who has been influential to you in forming your view of discipleship?
It has been a variety of influences, but I would say three things have formed me more than most: 1) Conversations: When we talk discipleship we don’t often think of casual conversations, but how formative they can be! I’m thinking of two or three mentors and two or three friends whose late-night conversations over coffee or early morning breakfasts have formed in powerful ways. And it wasn’t organized, systemized, catechized in any way. Yet God used them in big ways in my life. 2) Books are invaluable. I dare say that the average Christian doesn’t read nearly enough. As a pastor I have to push people to read books and yet when I read the New Testament, I can’t escape the strong push to study. Paul, at the end of his life, asked for his books. He wasn’t done studying! In my life, God has used godly men to disciple me from afar, through their books. 3) Then experience has really formed my view of discipleship, especially as a pastor. I’ve learned that I actually cannot make anyone grow. God must do this work in the heart of a person. I can encourage, rebuke, exhort, suggest, but I can’t force a person to pursue godliness. I have also found that when I stop trying to press someone into sanctification and just step back and pray, God does work in that person’s life. I’ve also learned that growth looks different on different people. God isn’t much interested in creating disciples of Dan Darling, but disciples of Christ, which is far different (and better!).
In terms of discipling new believers, what is of chief importance?
I think it’s vital to get them plugged into the community of faith and to get them reading the Word in some kind of organized, systematized way. But we don’t want to overwhelm. This is where systems can sometimes be counter-productive. We think we have to dump the entire Christian life on someone in a few days. I also think it is important, vital, to see what kind of person they are and how they process information. What is their emotional makeup? You get this in conversations, friendships, and just knowing them. This is why you don’t just want to hand someone a book. You may simple want to keep up with them spiritually, ask them how they are doing, offer resources and just be there. We really underestimate the power of friendship in discipleship. Heart-to-heart relationships between two people empowered by the spirit of God bear much, much fruit. You look at Jesus’ methods. He essentially had 12 guys follow him around for 3 years. Sure there was formal teaching and preaching and intentional lessons, but much of what they learned was just by talking, interacting and watching Jesus.
How should a ministry define success in terms of discipleship? What does winning look like?
Obviously the Bible has certain metrics such as water baptism, regular attendance at church, communion, lifestyle change, embrace of mission, etc. So we need to look for those in the lives of our people. But I think we also need to be careful about too closely measuring discipleship because what is growth for me looks different on someone else. God has created each of us with differing gifts, different callings. Someone can move through a system and not really experience much growth. Personally, one of the key benchmarks for me as a pastor is to see how intentional a person is about growth. Do they prioritize weekly worship? Are they receptive to teaching, even rebuke? Do they treat the spiritual life as optional or intentional? Do they see their lives as part of the mission of God? Do they recognize their unique calling? Do they love and serve the local body of Christ?