A little while back I heard a story that broke my heart. A couple I had known for a number of years shared with me that they had recently moved to a new town and joined a large and seemingly thriving church. The church appeared to have everything they were looking for: right philosophy, good preaching, missions emphasis, and a strong youth and children’s ministry. Since one of their sons had been going through some challenges, the couple interviewed the youth pastor and asked if it would be possible for him to take some one-on-one time with their son. The youth pastor’s response? “I really don’t have enough time for that kind of ministry.”
I would like to think that this is an isolated case, but I’m afraid that a lack of personal discipleship has become a painful reality in many of our “large and flourishing” ministries. Though most youth pastors would not be so brazen as to publicly make such an incredible admission, close examination of what is taking place reveals a very real crisis in ministry. Ministry is now designed for the masses, the crowds, the congregations, the youth groups. The pragmatic approach is often adapted to reach as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. Organizations, programs, and schedules once served the purpose of reaching people, but are now focused on reaching ministry goals. It seems we are succeeding in corporate ministry and failing with people. We are reaching the crowds, but have no time for one.
No time for one? But the ministry of Christ was one of “life touching life.” Even when the crowds were pressing Him, His concern was for the individual. This is illustrated powerfully in Mark 5 when a woman touched His garment in the midst of a suffocating crowd. Jesus knew it immediately and asked, “Who touched me?” The disciples wondered how He could ask such a question with so many people pressing all around Him. They saw a mass of people; Jesus saw an individual. We do not come away from our study of the life of Christ with a file folder of unique programs, plans, and curriculums. Rather we come away with a model of disciple making—a way of life. We see a man who poured His life into others. And isn’t this the same with Paul and Timothy, Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha? God’s “ministry plan” has never been about the big program, the grand scheme, the innovative idea, or the strategic plan. It has been about pouring one life into another. Certainly God will allow organizational tools to help accomplish a task, but that is all they are – tools. How many servants of God have been caught up with a new agenda, a better program, a novel idea and have failed in the process to see that one person? Faces only blend into the crowd for them.
Discipleship begins with meeting people where they are and meeting them often—one at a time. This means we need to get up and go, not just offer a class and set out a sign. Discipleship is about taking the initiative; we are commanded to “go.” Jesus said in John 4, “I must go through Samaria.” He went for one person. It seems, however, that today many churches have lost the burden to take such an initiative. Energies now are placed in improving and expanding the program, analyzing the market, offering more, responding to the competition, attracting crowds and wooing them in. I see two problems with such an approach: First, we have a tendency to compromise the integrity of what we are commanded to be as a church. Secondly, we never get out of our own neighborhoods and comfort zones to penetrate this dark and pagan world.
If we are to meet people where they are, we need to remember that they are not all at the same place. So one program will not fit every person. Even in the same audience, not all have the same experience and background, not all have the same perception of need, or the same obstacles to overcome. A good teacher will understand where each student is, how each learns. He begins at the level of his audience and with patience and persistence—and by God’s grace—assists each one to where he or she needs to be. No two students will ever be exactly the same. Christ met people where they were, and took a different approach with various individuals. He spoke to where they were living in language they could understand.
If we meet people where they are, we will engage in an informal dynamic in discipleship. There is a place for the formal classroom setting with more space (physical and psychological) between teacher and student, but some of the greatest learning occurs when both walk through life side by side. This is one thing that I greatly appreciate about Northland. Sitting in the dining hall, having lunch together, sharing a pizza or a bag of popcorn, watching a soccer game…and talking about life and ministry. Yet even here it is so easy to walk by a crowd of people and ask, “How ya doin?” and never give a thought to the individual. I have come to see that even in my role as president, the greatest and most lasting influence I may ever have will be one on one, not preaching to the masses. Could we even make this case for the ministry of Christ and the ministry of the apostle Paul? I think we could. Christ said to His disciples in John 20:21, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” Paul told Timothy, “The things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” This is personal discipleship: one man teaching – and walking side by side with – a small group of other men, over an extended time, so that truth is not only “taught” but “caught.”
As I look back over the past twenty-some years of pastoral ministry, there are a few things that, given the chance, I would do differently. The biggest of these would be the amount of time and attention given to one-on-one discipleship of the “faithful-available-teachable” few. As a pastor I often found myself driven by two strong currents: “the program” and “needy” people who refused to change. The last few years of my ministry in Denver I was finally able to discipline myself to focus on discipling the hungry hearts of a few men. That work probably bears more fruit than anything else I was involved in.
So, my challenge to you is…make time for the one. Don’t get so caught up in programs and ideas for large groups that you fail to capitalize on the most effective kind of discipleship, which is “life touching life.” And the greatest opportunity you may ever enjoy will be finding that one in the crowd who really wants to learn, really wants to obey, and really wants to follow the Lord. Make time for one.