Discipleship: It’s not about me

personal trainer

“The trouble nowadays is that it doesn’t mean anything to some people to be a Christian. What we must have is a higher type of Christianity in this country. We must have a Christianity that has in it the principle of self-denial. We must deny ourselves. If we want power, we must be separate.”

D.L. Moody

In my 20’s I worked as a personal trainer in a boutique, one-on-one fitness studio. Designing unique programs for clients was a big part of the job. Not every client was alike, so not every program could be. I had to consider the client when designing the program. I couldn’t ask someone who had never exercised before to bench 300 lbs and run a half-marathon. In fact, normally when a client was new to lifting, I needed to stay away from certain dumbbell exercises because the client wouldn’t have developed enough coordination to stabilize the weight on the way up. If someone came in with a shoulder injury, a heart problem, or recently manicured nails (yep, that actually happened), it was my job to help them achieve their fitness goals despite their unique challenges and needs.

In essence, the exercises that I would have said were “the best” or identified as the “weight room necessities” weren’t always the right exercises for a particular client. I had to consider everything from orthopedic problems to their personal preferences because I was trying to cultivate a life-long fitness habit. Whatever I designed needed to be challenging but doable so they could progress. After progress was made, I could design something new that was differently challenging but doable.

My experience working with clients has helped me as I engage in other aspects of life … like discipleship. So many times, we want people to participate in the programs or meetings we put together so they can grow in their faith, but we haven’t really thought about whether or not our programs “fit” those we are seeking to disciple.

Discipleship is about others

By default, I want to see people meet my standards or participate in my program. This focus on the goals I have in mind makes it easy to overlook the needs of people to grow in their faith at their own pace and in their own way. As a result, sometimes we design discipleship without considering the person.

The people we have in our lives are there because God has called us to disciple them. Whether congregants, friends, kids, spouses, or random folks we meet on the street. If, for example, coming to a Bible study is too much for someone we are discipling, maybe we should consider challenging that individual to commit in different ways more tailored to their needs so they can make progress in their faith.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting the importance of “holy habits” and practices such as worship, Bible study, service, hospitality, or prayer. I’m suggesting that when people won’t rearrange their schedules to make room to come to some meeting or event we’ve worked hard to arrange, we might not want to jump to the conclusion that they aren’t committed to Christ or to becoming his disciple … there may be other factors of which we are unaware, or they might just not feel the need to make the meeting or might not see that attending would help them advance in their faith (whether they are right or wrong about that is a different question).

We all have moments where we opt for convenience over following Christ … that’s a problem. However, we also have moments where we opt out of “yet another activity” because we need a break, are spending time with others in our lives who need our affection and attention, or have one of a host of other theologically-fitting reasons.

Tips for making discipleship personal (and successful)

As we engage in discipleship, I would offer the following suggestions:

Don’t default to feeling anger toward those who aren’t willing to commit to a particular activity.

Anger suggests they have done something wrong when in fact they may simply have done something you don’t fully understand. Instead of anger, cultivate the sort of curiosity and care that will lead you to engage those you disciple to understand them more deeply

Remember your role.

We live in a world that isn’t as it should be…we need to be lamenting that fact, but we also need to recognize and trust that God is working in the world and in the hearts of people. Our role is to make disciples…not fill Bible studies or Sunday services. I believe it is absolutely true that disciples must not neglect assembling together. I also believe that people don’t change just because they “should.”

Get creative.

Discipleship is a challenge. When discipling men and women at different points in their faith, we can’t simply demand that everyone do the same activities. (We can’t ask someone who just started exercising to squat 500 lbs!) We need to learn to engage in personal discipleship … to discern well the next step an individual needs to take in their walk with Christ.

We have to push believers to become disciples … there is no doubt about that. At the same time, we must recognize that often discipleship needs to be “challenging, but doable.” There are certainly moments when it is appropriate to call God’s people to radical action, trusting the Spirit to provide the strength required as men and women step out in faith, but we should not assume that such moments occur every day. Much of discipleship requires that we engage in the more mundane disciplines by which we consistently deny ourselves through time.

Denying ourselves is crucial to demonstrating to the world that we are different. As D.L. Moody said, “The trouble nowadays is that it doesn’t mean anything to some people to be a Christian. What we must have is a higher type of Christianity in this country. We must have a Christianity that has in it the principle of self-denial. We must deny ourselves. If we want power, we must be separate.”

Lord, help us to deny ourselves so that we can demonstrate the difference you make as we make disciples of all nations “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind

Photo credit: Gustavo Fring