Discipleship Requires Prayer: The Pulse of a Healthy Church, Part 5

by Rev. Carl Greene

Hebron SDB Church, PA

 

 

A friend of mine once told me an intriguing story from his childhood. One night while his family was returning from a trip, they got caught in a terrible storm. The visibility became so poor amidst the darkness and torrential rain that his father started guiding their vehicle based on the movements of the car in front of them. Since they seemed to be going in the right direction, they simply followed the taillights in front of them. They closely followed the movements of the leading car—until ‘it’ happened.

The car in front of them slowed down and came to a complete stop. This would be a complete stop in the middle of the road. The family wondered if there was some obstruction in the road or if the car ahead of them was having engine trouble. Then, the car ahead of them turned off the lights—as they sat in the middle of the road. And wondered what would happen next.

There was a knock at the driver’s window, causing all sorts of alarm in the car. Why would someone come to their window in the pouring rain? What sinister motives might be at work here? My friend’s father cracked the window and asked what the trouble seemed to be. The stranger at the window said that he was going to ask the same thing. At this point, the father became rather irritated, concerned about being stuck in the middle of a road with terrible visibility.

The father questioned this stranger quite directly—who in their right mind would stop in the middle of the road, let alone shut off their lights as well? Using churchy words, he expressed this concern “with much warmth,” so to speak.

The stranger paused, crouched closer to the window, and said “Mister, you’re not in the middle of the road, you’re sitting in my driveway.”

This story has been told to me a number of times, with varying details, but there is a common moral. It is important to choose the right leader and the right road. No matter your life journey, no matter how bad the storm, it is imperative to be following the right leader on the right road.

How are we doing at offering the right road as churches? Perhaps we raise our expectations and seek to join God in His work. We emphatically engage in outward focus and boldly speak the Gospel message. Where do we go from there? Is our only metric of spiritual growth whether or not people attend worship services consistently, or maybe whether or not they attend Sabbath School or a small group? There has to be more to discipleship than this.

A healthy church is passionate about people being life-long disciples of Jesus Christ. That seemed to be Jesus’ intent with His disciples. In many ways, discipleship is the relationship between the student and the teacher which leads to following the right leader on the right road. A primary mission for the healthy church is the ongoing process of discipleship of her members. This is a mission that is not simply done by our own strength, but requires passionate prayer.

In Ephesians 3:14-19, Paul offers a prayer of discipleship as a way of life. The prayer begins with a clear establishment of Who is in control.

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named… (ESV)

Paul is not resting on his own plans, a great five- step plan to discipleship, nor the endurance of the people he is writing to—Paul first and foremost relies upon the work of God. When it comes to discipleship, we too need to passionately rely upon God’s work in prayer. Discipleship can be one of those things that we think “we have under control.” After all, we might stink at evangelism, but discipleship is an area at which we excel. We offer Bible studies, we make people feel guilty when they don’t come to worship services, we encourage spiritual disciplines… But do we as churches truly foster discipleship? Might it be possible that discipleship goes well beyond our strategies and requires an act of God? It seems as though Paul is pretty passionate about praying to the One “from whom every family in Heaven and on earth is named”—praying to the One who gives us our identity.

Remember, this letter to the Ephesians is mainly written to Christians who already have a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. They know they should be following Christ—but are struggling in how to follow as disciples. This is what Paul prays for—that God will spur them on in their discipleship. More specifically, Paul prays that their discipleship will be defined by three things: Power, Indwelling, and Knowledge.

POWER

Here is how Paul prays for power in discipleship in Ephesians 3:16: “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” (ESV) Fascinating—Paul’s first turn for discipleship is to ask God for power, not that the lousy Ephesians would smarten up and learn a little faster.

This focus on power makes sense to me. Some years ago, my wife and I had a toaster that stopped working and needed to be replaced. We contacted the manufacturer since the toaster was still under warranty, but really did not want the cost of sending back the entire toaster. The manufacturer said they did not want the toaster—all they needed to verify that the toaster was dead was the electrical cord. By cutting off the electrical cord to the toaster, we made it clear that the toaster was unusable. No power, no functioning toaster. Power matters!

But, when it comes to discipleship, do you and I pray for this? I pray that God will change the behavior of my children. I pray that God will fix the outward problems of relationships within the church. I will pray that God brings more people to church or Bible Studies. Those are good prayers, but I am not asking for God’s power to be at work.

Dr. Martin Sanders has said that “You can’t become the person God dreams for you to be in your own strength.” That is a powerful statement about discipleship. The discipleship process cries for praying for God’s power to become the people He dreams for us to be.

This opens the door to a tangible step we can make in our churches towards deeper discipleship. Rather than asking “How are you?” at church each week, maybe we should aim to look for greater discipleship opportunities. After all, what response do we truly get from “How are you?” Rarely does anyone share what is truly on his heart with that question—I usually get a bland non-answer. Once in a while someone might tell me that he is terrible, and even less often do I get a response of “finer than fur on a fish.” Maybe the “How are you” question could be replaced by praying for power.

Dr. Martin Sanders recommends that we spend time praying for people during the week. Specifically, that we spend time praying for power in their discipleship process. Then, when we see them at church we replace the “How are you” question with: “I want to let you know that I see God at work in your life. I just want to affirm that and ask how I can continue praying for you.”

That sounds somewhat potentially awkward—but does a healthy church thrive in the shallows of small talk? What if we sought active discipleship in our churches through prayer for power—and actively engaged people in conversation about how we can specifically pray for them in the discipleship process? I know for myself, simply knowing that someone is praying for me and cheering me on in the discipleship process goes a long way in encouraging growth over stagnation.

BEWARE OF IMITATIONS

Friends of ours on the other side of the globe recently gave us some candy. There was a Snickers Bar—which was yummy and full of caloric goodness. They also gave us an imitation Snickers Bar. It looked just like the Snickers Bar, had the same color scheme on the wrapper and a similar looking name. The imitation name did lack in quality though—it was named a “Stalkers Bar.” The name gives an indication of the flavor quality as well. Rather than the sweet goodness of a Snickers Bar, biting into the imitation provides a dull, earthy flavor rather akin to eating clay. Something that looks so close, yet is miles apart.

The same is true when it comes to discipleship. As a church, we can provide imitation discipleship that has a bunch of glow words that sounds churchy, but does not truly lead someone in the path of discipleship. A critical first step is to pray passionately about the discipleship of our churches. And, to specifically pray for God’s power to be at work in that process.

Next time, we’ll continue through Paul’s prayer of discipleship—looking at Power, Indwelling, and Knowledge. And, in the end, we’ll also see what discipleship has to do with Processed Cheese Food.

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