In Three Environments for Disciple-Making, I wrote about three spaces, or environments, to consider in your mission of making disciples. The environments identified in this post were life-on-life, life-in-community, and life-on-mission. We have discussed these environments in previous question-and-answer posts with groups experts Jonathan Dodson and Steve Gladen. Today I want us to hear from the author of Saturate, Jeff Vanderstelt. In Saturate, Jeff argues that small groups are most effective and most beneficial when they are focused on the task of disciple-making, both within the group and outside it. I caught up with Jeff for an installment of five questions.
In Saturate you refer to All-of-Life discipleship. Let’s begin with a short description of how you define “All-of-Life” discipleship.
In Ephesians 4:15, the apostle Paul states, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” This passage is in the context of Paul describing how the church is called to equip every believer to grow up into maturity and that maturity looks like Jesus. Notice that Paul states we are to grow up in every way. This refers to every aspect of our lives. In other places Paul shows that our eating, drinking, working, resting, and relating are all meant to be done for the glory of God. So, first of all, when I say “All-of-Life” discipleship I am referring to developing each other toward Christ-likeness in every aspect of life. Discipleship is not a program we attend or a curriculum we get through, though both assist in discipleship.
Discipleship happens in the everyday stuff of life with followers of Jesus being committed to life-on-life, life-in-community, and life-on-mission together throughout the week. Life-on-life means we are committed to our lives being visible and accessible. We commit to help each other grow up in every aspect of life by having every aspect of life visible and accessible to each other. Life-in-community means we are being discipled by many people, men and women, expressing a variety of gifts, not just by one person. Life-on-mission means we disciple people best when we are making disciples together, with both Jesus followers and those not yet following Jesus.
How do you approach topics that may be best explored in gender-specific sub-groups? Is breaking into gender-specific groups fairly regular or more of an exception?
First of all, one of the things I often have to clarify is that a missional community is not an event but a people who love one another like family on mission together throughout the week. I say this because often people try to fit all of their discipleship work into a weekly event for an hour or two. It’s just not possible to make disciples in that amount of time. Second, to answer your question, most of our groups have another time during the week where they meet in gender-specific groups. We call these DNA Groups (Discover Jesus together in Scripture, Nurture the truths of Jesus in each other’s hearts, Act in response to repentance and belief). Our missional community gathers weekly for a family meal on Wednesday nights, the women connect on Monday nights, and our men connect on Tuesday mornings. And we all gather together on Sunday mornings with the rest of the church.
How are each of these environments resourced? That is, what do group members “do” in each of the environments? Even though Life-on-Mission would seem to be self-explanatory, I’d love to know how missional “events” are planned and scheduled.
These environments are resourced by people who have been and are being trained to “BE” disciples first. So, first of all, we believe we need to equip the church to see they ARE disciples on mission all of the time. That is one of the reasons I wrote Saturate and Ben and I created the Saturate Field Guide. I find that the reason most Christians are not “on mission” is because they don’t believe God has made them His missionary people. When, and if, they believe they truly are missionaries to their neighbors, co-workers, and friends, often they already know what to do.
With that said, some of the work we have to do is to “undo” wrong thinking. For instance, thinking mission is an event is one example. Mission is not an event—it is a lifestyle. So, we don’t teach people to run events. We teach people to invite unbelievers into their lives and the activities they are already engaged in. Or join unbelievers in the activities they are involved in. We are not calling people to add more events to their already busy lives. We train them to engage in what they already do with gospel intentionality. It’s not necessarily additional, but intentional. And ideally, getting a few Christians to join together in the activities of everyday life with gospel intentionality is the goal. Activities like eating, playing, and working. I interact with parents all the time who tell me they don’t have time for Jesus’ mission because they are too busy with their children’s activities. What they often fail to see is that the mission is in the middle of those activities. They can disciple their children and the other parents and coaches during their sports events. They can see their children’s school activities as the ministry and engage as disciple-making disciples there.
The biggest thing we need to learn is how to walk in the Spirit, be saturated with the gospel, and ask God to work through our lives to both attract people to Jesus through our visible witness and call people to Jesus through our verbal one.
I’ve interviewed Jonathan Dodson and Steve Gladen on Life-on-Life and Life-in-Community in prior posts. What tips would you have for a group leader that wants to move his or her group more toward a Life-on-Mission environment?
First of all, if they are already studying the Bible together, move from “personal application only” to communal and missional application. For instance, instead of only asking the question “How will you apply this?” Ask “If we believe this, how will we apply it together in our community and how will we apply it together on mission?” Start obeying God’s word in community.
Most of the Bible was not written to individuals and therefore was not meant primarily for personal application. It was written to God’s people (plural) and intended for communal application. And God wants his people obeying him together in the middle of a dark and broken world, not inside our Christian cul-de-sacs. Getting believers to obey God together in the midst of non-Christians is one of the most powerful witnesses to the gospel we have. Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples by our love for one another. So, let’s start loving God and one another in the midst of a world that needs to see God’s love on display.
Next, the group leader needs make sure everyone knows, believes, and can communicate the gospel in culturally relevant ways—showing that the gospel speaks to every aspect of life. The gospel isn’t just a bridge over the gap of sin so we can avoid hell when we die. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, and it impacts every single aspect of our lives today and forever. Group leaders need to immerse their group in the gospel so the group becomes a gospel-fluent people.
And then the group leader needs to regularly remind the group why they exist. They exist to glorify God by displaying what He is like and declaring what He has done. They were rescued and saved by Jesus for a purpose—to make disciples who make disciples for the glory of God and the good of their city. Each group should identify people or even a people group they believe God is sending them to that don’t yet believe in and know Jesus. Then, they should regularly pray for them and ask God how they might intentionally engage in life together with them.
This isn’t about inviting people to attend a church event. This is about a group learning to be God’s people (the church) on mission in the everyday stuff of life with others. For instance, my missional community is presently asking God for how we should engage in our children’s sporting events and school activities in order to show and share Jesus with the families there. Others are asking how they might together show and share Jesus to their co-workers while at work and through after-work parties they attend together. I know of another missional community that is making their nightlife activity their mission by going to the same restaurants or clubs with gospel intentionality together.
The key in all of this is relationships. You will never get a group on mission by just studying about mission and remaining distant from mission. You need to actively engage together in relationships, while at the same time relating together to God in prayer prior to and during these activities.
Taking into account life-on-life, life-in-community, and life-on-mission, is there a natural way for these environments to evolve out of a church’s values, or is the expectation that these environments must be very intentionally and meticulously developed? What are the first steps to adopting this approach to discipleship?
I believe the church’s job is to make this normative. It must be embraced by the church leadership, filtered through all its teaching and training, shaped by how it spends its time and resources, and shown in the lives of its leaders. If the leaders are not engaged in this kind of discipleship, then they should never expect the church to get there. Churches also need to make more space for their people to live this kind of life. Too many churches fill their schedules with activities at their buildings, thus filling people’s schedules with Christian activities that pull them out of the mission field. We have made it a point not to create events that prevent people from being on mission throughout the week. In fact, at this point in the church I lead, Sunday is the only day we have scheduled events. And even those events exist to equip or support our people on the mission of making disciples.
The most important thing is getting church leaders and programs to shift toward equipping and supporting the people to be disciple-makers, instead of looking to leaders and programs to make the disciples for the church.
Once that happens, then the leadership of the church needs to ask if everything they do serves to equip God’s people. I call this a disciple-making audit. I believe every staff member or leader in a church needs to ask how they can better focus their energies and gifts to equip the people for ministry. Instead of doing the ministry for the people, start equipping the people for the ministry.
As the visionary leader of the Soma Family of Churches, Saturate, and the lead teaching pastor at Doxa Church in Bellevue, WA, Jeff Vanderstelt travels around the U.S. and the world doing what he loves—training disciples of Jesus to make more disciples of Jesus and equipping the Church in the gospel and missional living. Jeff is the author of Saturate, Saturate Field Guide, and coming in spring of 2017, Gospel Fluency. He and Jayne, his wife of twenty-three years, have three children: Haylee, Caleb, and Maggie. Connect with Jeff at his website jeffvanderstelt.com or on Twitter: @JeffVanderstelt.