Wineskins Archive

December 3, 2013

Mending the Tapestry of Discipleship (March 2013)

Filed under: — @ 2:37 pm and

by Craig Cottongim

When I was a young teenager, I was playing dodgeball with several friends. You know how in dodgeball, if you deflect the ball coming at you with your ball, you stay in the game, and you knock the other guy out. Well, the ball I was holding at the time was a half-deflated soccer ball. It’s amazing how after over 30 years I can still remember the ball I held in my right hand — holding it up like a shield.

When Eric Fisher (having already hit his growth spurt was a giant at the time) launched his ball at me with supersonic speeds, I should’ve applied the “dodge” element of the game. But, I held firm. My thumb didn’t. After the sound of a tree-branch cracking in two, my thumb was suddenly parallel to my wrist. It looked fake, but the pain felt real enough.

Our solution? We got this! Kevin Hensley, the only one of us old enough to have his driver’s licence, sped me away to the same woman who delivered me at birth and who was my mother’s doctor since her childhood — Lyida Seredynsky, she would fix me up! With her thick Yugoslavian accent she asked me where my mother was. Then, Doctor Seredynsky standing in the same one-room doctor’s office where all my life she administered shots to me from glass syringes and where she gave me that grape polio vaccine, she made a quick assessment. “Broken,” she said in her own broken English.

No real need for an X-Ray. She tried to manipulate the thumb, but I wasn’t too cooperative. She finally told me to look the other way and to be ready. On the count of three, she said she would set the bone. Not only was my thumb broken, but it was dislocated. She had to pull my thumb out, stretching the ligaments to their limits, and reset and relocate my thumb all at the same time. Well, when she hit number “two” she pulled… and I jumped!

I share this story hoping you’ll recall any broken bone stories you have — yours or a loved one’s. Why? In the days of Jesus there was a particular word which was used in their literature as a term for setting broken bones. It’s also the same word they used then, for repairing fishing nets. And this particular word was used when referring to restoring strained relationships. More important here, the same Greek word “katartizo” was also used for the idea of equipping and training someone.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40 ESV) The phrase here “fully trained” is kataertismenos (a sweet little participle there, for any Greek nerds reading this). The main point here, if you became like your teacher it’s because of being trained. File this away in the back of your mind for a minute.

We all know in Matthew 28:18-20 “where” Jesus says to “Go and make disciples,” but knowing the “how” & “why” of discipleship seems less clear, at least based on my observation. And, our lack of knowledge in applying Jesus’ directive has left us weakened as a Body. If you want to test out this “Great omission of the Great commision,” look around your congregation and see if you can quickly identify people purposefully discipling each other. Another way to analyze this, is to sit down with your leadership team and ask them to jot down in a paragraph or two your church’s discipleship model. People will find the command in Matthew 28 easily enough, but articulating “how” (beyond Sunday School or Sunday night Small groups) is a little more elusive.

To carry this “body” analogy just a bit further, really we aren’t satisfied with our spiritual growth or our outreach efforts. And it’s like we know we need to improve our diet and exercise routine, but we refuse to get off of the proverbial couch and just “do it.” Perhaps the most misunderstood and underutilized directive of Jesus, for our day, is discipleship. I’m not sure if we are just so inclined to be uber-independent or if we resist simplicity, but we are missing out and therefore the world misses out.

There’s a reason why a lot of churches don’t host discipleship seminars. Besides the fact discipleship wouldn’t work in a seminar setting… Discipleship isn’t glamorous, and intuitively it seems like it wouldn’t be appealing to the people we are “selling” church to. People love Dave Ramsey Financial Independence U. seminars, and simply say the word marriage and seminar in the same sentence as Joe Beam, and we fantasize about a full parking lot and people lining up at the door. Listen, I’m all in favor of churches hosting great events to bless their communities, and we are in the middle of planning one right now; but these events aren’t the core of what we are supposed to be all about.

On the other hand, even considering pitching discipleship to outsiders can be intimidating, because it’s almost like we are asking people to deny themselves and count some “cost” before becoming followers…

Well, there has been a cost in not focusing on discipleship as our primary objective. In bypassing discipleship, we have cultivated directionless and inward focused churches. We exist as the Body of Christ for one objective, to make disciples of Jesus, period. Everything else we do either needs to be funneling energy to that objective, or flowing from that. Our churches are losing young people left and right, and our numbers have been declining since at least the 1980’s. It’s not uncommon to see people who have circled the wagons and try to maintain the status quo. I don’t think this is by preference, I think it’s by design.

What can we do? A solution to reversing our stagnation is reinvigorating our view of discipleship.

If you are still mulling over my comment about the the discipleship seminar, there’s a good reason why we shouldn’t host a discipleship seminar. Discipleship doesn’t happen or take place in a seminar setting. Discipleship happens, purposely and personally. I love Paul’s model, which was based on how Jesus did discipleship, which was the common way Rabbis trained their followers then. It was a lifestyle, it was unstructured for the most part because it was an everyday thing. You spend time together learning how to imitate the Master.

I don’t want to blame anyone, but if you are asking: Who has the responsibility to recharged this topic? I would proudly say: We who preach do. We who feed the flock from the Word week in and week out, should first and foremost set the example too. Like what Paul says in II Tim 2:2, we should be purposely training trainers to train.

Here’s the rub: Discipleship requires trust. Trust takes time. It becomes difficult to have the right relationship between preachers and members when we have such a high turnover rate in our pulpits. So we in ministry, either need to stay longer, or get to work quicker.

Are preachers the only ones who should or can disciple others? No way! I’m simply saying someone needs to spin the flywheel and get this thing going again. The call to make disciples is for everyone, not an elite group or secluded segment of the congregation. I’m saying we who preach have the ear of the people weekly, why not take advantage of this time then and model for our people what Jesus placed as the capstone of His time on earth.

As I reflect over my nearly 20 years in ministry, the most rewarding memories are those of when I discipled others. Sitting down at a backyard bonfire, over roadtrips, in informal settings and in structured small group environments, having the blessing of forming someone’s spiritual walk. Teaching them how to study the Bible, giving advice on prayer, taking them along as I shared the Gospel. In a nutshell: Equipping, developing and then deploying people is richly rewarding.

By the way, those people on the other end, they are the ones who have stayed in touch with me the most through the years. I’ve baptized well over 100 people, but sadly I’ve only really discipled a handful. I can only remember a fraction of the people by name who I’ve baptized, but those who formed a relationship with me through discipleship, those names I’ll recall till my last breath. Much like the two men who invested the most time in discipling me, Gary Lambrecht and Ted Matthews, I’ll never forget them. They literally changed my life.

Rethinking this topic, as I’m writing today, has inspired me to want to reread a few classics. In fact, I’ve pulled them off the shelf so I don’t forget to read Milton Jones’s Discipling: the Multiplying Ministry, Bill Hull’s Jesus Christ, Disciplemaker, and of course Leroy Eims’s The Lost Art of Disciple Making. I’m going to pray about who I should be investing my life into here too … I’m kind of pumped now!

If you were to weave a tapestry of the ministry of Jesus, the picture of discipleship you would hang on the wall — if gleaned from the Gospels — would be one of Jesus calling people to be with Him. As that tapestry unfurled, it would show Jesus teaching people about the present Kingdom of God. And as the final threads were knit, those people in close proximity to each other would be looking more and more like Jesus by the end of your tapestry. May you too mend your tapestry; I know I have my work cut out for me.

November 26, 2013

Does the Bible Really Say That About Selecting Elders? (April 2013)

Filed under: — @ 3:19 pm and

by Craig Cottongim

Our heritage proudly claims to be people of the Book and we always turn to the Bible for guidance in every practice. Having served in a few congregations on both sides of the Mississippi, I’ve noticed oftentimes we share a common practice in our churches — an American/Democratic process for selecting Elders; not a process we found in the pages of the Sacred Script.

Most every congregation I am familiar with, either through personal experience or through communicating with, employs some sort of democratic-election process for selecting their elders. This is neither Biblical nor prudent. Here’s where things can get uncomfortable: There is a Biblical example for how we should select elders and it’s not what you might expect. Before we go further: In none of the examples in the New Testament do we have a vote being taken or do we witness a popularity contest.

Since we do take liberties in how we select elders, we should take a step back and ask: Is the Bible silent/ambiguous on how to place shepherds and elders in a leadership role? No, it’s not.

So what does the Bible say? In other words, ask yourself, what does the Bible really say about selecting elders or shepherds? In the New Testament, we have three, maybe four good passages that give us instruction and encouragement on how we should select the elders who lead, teach and protect the local congregation.

That being said, what do the Scriptures teach? The Bible teaches the local evangelist/minister is charged with the important responsibility of guiding the church to ordain their elders and shepherds.

Why? For starters, who knows the congregation the best and who has been privileged to spend time in prayer and study on their behalf? Typically, we’d say the preacher, and hopefully this is true the majority of the time. It makes sense from a logical stance that the preacher would play a major role in this process of selecting elders.

The instant we recommend the preacher is responsible for selecting shepherds, some people raise an objection: He’ll pick a “good ol’ boys club” or “he’ll put his cronies in place.” If those are suspicions are accurate, then I certainly wouldn’t trust that preacher to open the Bible and feed people from pulpit… Beyond this making good sense, we have Scripture to support the notion the local minister analyzes the congregation and recognizes the people who are qualified to serve as shepherds.

Paul and Barnabas take the responsibility, as missionaries, for selecting elders as they followed up with churches they planted and preached to. An example of this is in the Book of Acts, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:23). But, weren’t they Apostles? Beyond their example in Acts, we have clear instructions that Paul gives to the local ministers, in two Epistles, i.e., First Timothy and Titus on the selecting of an eldership.

Scripture is very clear that Paul expected Titus to select the elders in the local congregation, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—” (Titus 1:5 ESV) Titus is serving as an evangelist, ministering in Crete, yet their churches were without elders. Paul gave Titus instructions on how to find the right men to serve, and Paul left it in Titus’s hands on how to execute the process.

We see the same idea in First Timothy. Here it seems there are already men serving as shepherds in Ephesus. Timothy will be given instructions on how to relate to these shepherds, and how to also correct elders who sin. It seems that nearly the entire letter of First Timothy is handbook on how a local minister should serve a congregation. Paul gives Timothy guidelines on what the character of the shepherd should be, and after laying these out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul adds later on that Timothy needs to be patient when he ordains elders, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” (1 Timothy 5:22 ESV)

Why am I convinced it’s the best way to go for the local church, for the preacher to select elders/shepherds? For one, I see this clearly in the Bible. Secondly, I know it works. I served as the preacher for a Midwestern church that had been without elders for 20 years prior to my arrival. I felt my first responsibility to this church was to make a difference in the lack of an eldership, and guide them through a process to install an eldership. I had no idea how it would work out or what direction we would take, as we started. I read and studied. Alongside the Bible, I relied heavily on Strauch’s Biblical Eldership And Lynn Anderson’s They Smell like sheep.

I taught the adult Sunday school class for 6 months on the subject of elders and then I preached a series for a month, on elders. The conclusion I drew from our study, was the preacher held the responsibility for finding elders

I shared this openly with our class and from the pulpit. I then asked the church if they trusted me, and if they trusted the teaching I presented. With plenty of positive affirmation, the congregation said they did trust me. I then shared the names of the men I observed who smelled like sheep, and asked the church to enter into a discernment process — which meant we prayed and fasted together for forty days.

That was over 10 years ago, and though I’m no longer with them, we stay in touch. By the way, those godly men are still serving as elders, lovingly shepherding the flock. I didn’t act in a dictatorial fashion or as a dominating preacher, and I was open to feedback all along the way. We followed the example we discovered in the New Testament, we waited on God, and we felt God blessed us along the way, each step.

Maybe our churches could reduce the amount of conflict they dealt with, if we turned to the Bible for a guide on ordaining our elders. Placing the right people in leadership is one of, if not the most important steps in the life of a congregation. If the elders and ministers vie for competition or lack the ability to collaborate, then there’s so such conflict that the local church flounders. But. If the right chemistry is in place, then the sky is the limit and your congregation can truly flourish!

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