Don’t “Outsource” Discipleship

My dad is an increasingly rare kind of man. He grew up the son of a farmer outside of a town with one stoplight in the Texas panhandle. He spent his childhood on tractors as well as in the classroom. And while he would eventually earn a Ph.D. in statistics and teach at the university level for 40 years, he learned how to fix a refrigerator, change his own oil, install ceiling fans, and cultivate crops.

The reason I describe him as rare is because he’s just as likely to have a conversation with you about a bell curve or the statistical anomalies of the stock market as he is to help you fix the small engine on a lawnmower because that’s how he grew up – if something was broken, he would fix it. And if he and his dad didn’t know how to fix it, they’d take it apart, see how it worked, and then fix it. 

I cannot do that. Some of it has to do with my natural unhandiness, but it also has to do with the fact that we have become an incredibly specialized culture. We have the luxury now of having very dedicated and knowledgeable people in every imaginable field, and as a result, we don’t have to know at least a little bit about everything. Because whatever we don’t know something about, we can just outsource that task to someone else, whether that means hiring someone to put up Christmas lights, repair our car, or invest our money.

We outsource. So why should discipleship be any different?

After all, church leaders are the experts. They’re the ones who’ve read the books, attended the conferences, and gotten the training. So Christians ought to expect the same level of proficiency coming from church leaders that they expect from a mechanic – when it comes to our spiritual growth and development, we outsource that task to the people who really know what they’re doing. 

Right?

Surely yes, until we dig in a little further into a passage like Ephesians 4:11-13:

“And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.”

Here you find a passage about spiritual gifts, about the church, about the nature of ministry, and about growth. In particular, you find some clarity on the issue above when it comes to the role of church leaders and church members.

Without going into too much detail, what you have first is a listing of people with specific gifts who often serve in full time ministry roles – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – these are people we know and love. They are the ones whose paid vocation is in the realm of spiritual growth and direction. But we have more than a list here – we have a job description. And that description is as important as it is often neglected in the minds of regular, every day church members:

… to equip the saints for the work of ministry…

To put it another way, the church staff is not to do the work of ministry, but rather to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Which means, of course, that there is a job description here for the regular, every day church member as well, and it’s this:

… the work of ministry…

This is not an outsource situation; it’s an equipping situation. And as church members, here is where our expectations should lie – it’s not that our church leaders manufacture spiritual growth and discipleship in us, but rather that they are effectively equipping us to do the work of ministry. So why bring this up now?

Well, because it seems to me that there has never been a time when the work of ministry more needed to be distributed. Everyone is hurting. Everyone is lonely. And everyone is fighting the drift. It would be a horrible, negligent mistake for us, as church members, to assume our church leaders are responsible for fighting this battle. It’s unfair to them, and it’s a gross avoidance of responsibility for us. This is our job, Christians, to do the work of ministry. To check in with each other. To encourage one another. To read the Bible and pray together.

The work of discipleship is not to be hired out; it’s to be joyfully accepted in our midst.

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