“Seminary never trained me for this.”
This is a common refrain heard among church leaders. While no truer words have been spoken about a variety of topics, there was a day when I realized the seminary I attended never trained me to make disciples. Those words are worth repeating: the seminary I attended didn’t train me to make disciples.
Don’t get me wrong, seminary was a wonderful experience. I learned theology and biblical Greek, how to create a lesson plan for adult education, sermon preparation and how to be a non-anxious presence when counseling people. As a result, my faith and confidence grew.
Although I may have been able to recite the Great Commission from memory and parse the verses in Greek, I quickly realized after graduation that there was a disconnect between the training I had received and the greatest need within the local church. I wasn’t equipped to make disciples who made disciples — at least not the way Jesus did in the gospels.
A gaping hole in our church’s discipleship model was discovered two years ago. We did not know how or have the tools to make disciples who made disciples.
I, as the pastor, had learned theology and biblical Greek in seminary, could create a lesson plan for adult education, was adept at sermon preparation and knew how to be a non-anxious presence when counseling people. I was uncertain, though, how to initiate and sustain effective discipleship. We looked for help.
Thanks to collaboration with Groundswell, Rev. Jon Wiest helped us at Grace Point Church (Topeka, Kansas) train, empower and release disciple makers through discipleship groups (D-groups) as we used the Banding Together material. D-groups are gender-specific groups of three to five people who meet weekly for interactive Bible reading, personal accountability and prayer.
In the fall of 2019, five D-groups formed and successfully launched. Then, our world turned upside down due to COVID-19. Even with all of the social distancing restrictions that made large church gatherings challenging, our disciple makers found creative ways to meet. I continued to disciple new disciple makers in the principles found in Banding Together. As of today, Grace Point Church has 20 fully functioning d-groups with several others in the pipeline.
The impact has truly been life changing.
“My experience with my discipleship group has helped me to realize the power of connecting with what God wants me to hear from His word through the Holy Spirit,” said Tonya. “I didn’t even know that the role of the Holy Spirit was so powerful in my life. I’d always tried reading the Bible but was never engaged. Journaling has really helped me to think about what I am reading and the more I read, the more I am able to feel connected to my Creator … I learned that my identity is in Christ, not in my works, not in my failures, not in my human roles, but in Christ alone, and because Christ is enough, I am enough … I cannot express enough how grateful I am for this opportunity to really make Jesus my number one priority and growing my faith in him and through him.”
Tonya’s story is not uncommon. After some initial resistance to joining a D-group, another disciple shared his thoughts.
“If there was a legitimate excuse (or even an illegitimate one), I thought of it,” said Tim. “My reluctance was on steroids. And, yet, for some inexplicable reason, I still agreed to give this D-group thing a try — perhaps because I simply didn’t know how to say ‘no.’ Today, I can say without reservation, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made — a decision that in some ways changed my life. My life continues to be filled with stresses, deadlines and pressure. And I’ve yet to become a theologian or experience some metamorphosis from being a deeply private person to a dynamic personality. I’m still largely reserved and frequently confounded by biblical passages that leave me with more questions than answers. But my life has changed.
“God has given me three incredible new brothers who pray for each other, support each other and genuinely care. Brothers who share breakfast and food for thought. Brothers who challenge each other one minute and needle each other the next. Brothers who willingly discuss everything from sports to scripture, TV shows to temptations, family issues to physical struggles.”
Tim went on to share how God is working in his life and the lives of his family members.
“God has introduced me and my family to new opportunities and new cultures despite a pandemic that left all of us feeling isolated and alone,” said Tim. “He’s helped me create time and space to breathe each morning, even if it’s only for 10 or 15 minutes in his presence. He’s covered me with a refreshed sense of peace. Finally, he’s provided new perspectives, starting with this one: since my D-group began meeting, I’ve come to realize that Jesus steps with us when we step beyond our comfort zones. He often presents us with opportunities so he can stretch and encourage us.”
Friends like Tonya and Tim remind me of Acts 4:13 which says, “When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus” (CSB). Like the religious leaders in this passage, I stand amazed by how the Holy Spirit uses “untrained and uneducated” disciples for his kingdom and purposes.
I see Jesus dwelling in and delighting in Tonya and Tim. I hear Jesus’ voice calling them to follow him into the adventure of the Great Commission to make disciples who make disciples.
Rev. Josh Cooper is discipleship pastor at Grace Point Church in Topeka, Kansas.