How to have a Life Worth Imitating (Disciple Making Essentials series) – THE CROSS – Part 1 of 3

OK, so last week I wrote about the three ingredients I believe are essential for having a Life Worth Imitating.

They are:

  1. The Gospel (a personal relationship with the risen Christ)
  2. Loving God and loving people (living an UP/IN/OUT lifestyle)
  3. Apprenticeship (life on life learning from a mature Christ follower, AND life on life coaching of younger believers)

That’s all fine and good.  Nice circles.  Clever little overlapping thing in the middle there.  Awesome.

Now what?  What are you suppose to do with this?  How does it actually work?  (Please, don’t just tell me how it works, show me!)

There are only three ways I can attempt to answer that question:

  1. By observing how this process works in scripture – especially in the life of Jesus
  2. Recalling how this process worked and is working in my own life
  3. Paying attention to how it’s working out in the lives of those around me – past and present (this can be very helpful – but I will focus on the first two for now)
One more thing before we dive in – we need to see how all of this functions through two lenses:
  • The leadership lens (I am Paul discipling Timothy)
  • The learning lens (I am Timothy being discipled by Paul)
It’s of little value to only consider the leadership lens if we are not simultaneously learning and growing under the intentional leadership and coaching of a more mature Christian.  Leaders are learners, and leaders that quit learning will soon quit leading…often abruptly.
THE GOSPEL (upper left circle)

As a learner…

The example of Jesus:

“I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” ~ John 11:25 – 26

Jesus is speaking to his good friend, Martha, whose brother Lazarus just died.  Jesus was moments away from bringing Lazarus back from the grave – but just before demonstrating the death-defying quality of the eternal life Jesus gives, he tells us something very important.  He is the resurrection.  He is the life.  He gives eternal-resurrection life (his own life) to those who believe in him.  And then he asks the big question – “Do you believe this?”  Jesus expects a personal response – do we believe he is who he claims to be, or not?

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God.  “The time has come,” he said.  “The kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!” ~ Mark 1:14 – 15

Once again, Jesus reveals something very important about himself; he has brought the kingdom of God near personally.  He is the only way to the Father and to the King (John 14:6).  How do we access God’s kingdom and adoption into his family?  We repent and believe the good news.  Jesus is the good news.  This all comes about through a personal relationship with Jesus by which we enter God’s kingdom as citizen, soldier, representative, servant and child.

Jesus, God the Son, came to us from heaven, born of a virgin.  He lived a sinless life and through his words, his works, and his ways explained and demonstrated kingdom living.  He died on a cross paying the just penalty for our sins.  He rose from the dead, conquering both sin and death.  He ascended to his Father.  He sent God the Spirit to empower and teach us.  And he will come back one day to establish his rule and reign on planet earth and once and for all destroy the works of Satan, judging the living and the dead with grace-filled justice.

Personal experience:

There were three critical factors in my own story that brought the good news of Christ to life for me:

  1. An awareness of my own brokenness.  As a 13 year old I came to grips with the reality that my life was not going in the right direction.  The angst and insecurity that accompanied growing up in a home shaken by alcoholism, my own poor decisions and sinful pursuit of life apart from God, and my ignorance and indifference to the gospel left me feeling angry, confused, and despairing.  In other words, the tension in my life made the soil of my heart receptive to God’s offer of new life in Christ.
  2. The loving witness of Christ followers.  Two family members demonstrated for me the grace and love of God in a way that made me hungry for more.  They were my grandmother and my uncle Joe.  They both took me under wing, cared for me, mentored me, and showed me the life of Christ by the way they lived and loved.  As my life became less stable I began gravitating to them more and more – especially my uncle Joe who I looked up to and wanted to emulate.  Joe befriended me, spent time with me, introduced me to Jesus, and invited me to church and to a family Bible study that he helped lead.
  3. A clear understanding of the gospel in a relational environment.  I began attending a Baptist church near Detroit with Joe and his family.  I also joined a Sunday School class with kids my own age.  Over the next 6 months, as I felt the love and acceptance of the youth leaders and students – and as I listened to Biblical teaching that always came back to Jesus – I woke up to the spiritual realities of the gospel.  Getting down on my knees in my bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, I prayed to receive the forgiveness and life that Jesus offered.  I made a personal connection with Christ for the first time that day.

As a leader…

The example of Jesus

Reflecting on the Gospels the following jumps out at me:

  • Jesus lived a life worth imitating and invited others to follow him
  • Jesus taught and lived with grace and truth
  • Jesus created a spiritual family with open seats around the dinner table
Early in the book of Matthew we see that people are drawn to Jesus.  There is a quality to his life and words that is absolutely magnetic.  His preaching was accompanied by a demonstration of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  He spoke of his Father with authority – like he knew him personally and could give credible, first-hand testimony.  In Matthew 4:19 Jesus says to a couple of fishermen, “Come, follow me…and I will send you to fish for people.”  Jesus invites them to follow him, as he daily followed his Father, and in the process promised to change them into different people who were able to do different things.  It all began with the quality of Jesus’ life – he lived an abundant, full, fruitful life.  And this is the life he invited others to experience.
According to the first chapter of John, Jesus came full of “grace and truth”.  We see the grace of Jesus on display over and over again as he healed the sick, set free the spiritually oppressed, shared meals with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, and invited the forgotten and marginalized into relationship.  But he never shied away from speaking the truth.  The invitation was very high, but so was the challenge.  Jesus made it clear that if anyone wanted to be his disciple they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him day by day.  Jesus held grace and truth in perfect tension – never sacrificing one for the other.
Jesus didn’t come to start a religious movement, he came to give birth to a global spiritual family.  In this family, Jesus functions as spiritual parent and his followers start off as children who one day grow up to start families of their own (always submitting to Jesus as the leader of the extended family).  Envision a large banquet table with Jesus sitting at the head.  The seats are filled with members of his family (not those related by blood, but those who know and do God’s will).  There are people from every walk of life, from every nation, and from the least to the greatest.  Some that we expect to be there are not, and many who you thought would never make the cut are sitting close to Jesus.  But the most beautiful thing about this banquet table?  The empty chairs!  There is room for more!  
Personal experience

As I reflect upon on 33 years of following Christ, countless attempts to introduce people to Jesus (with many failures and a few successes), I offer the following best practices to the local church leader related to the Gospel:

  1. Devote your best leaders and resources to middle school and high school students.  By far the most fruit I have ever witnessed in terms of the Gospel has been among young people.  Please don’t make the mistake of entertaining them to keep them “out of trouble”.  Invest in them – equip emerging leaders with the tools to “show and tell” the good news to their peers and apprentice young believers.  SonLife provided excellent training for me as a young leader.  Dann Spader took the work of Robert Coleman’s “Master Plan of Evangelism” and contextualized it to youth ministry.  It was a brilliant strategy for the 1980s – 1990s and served me very well during my decade as a youth pastor.  You may need to do some searching to discover the best training options for today – would love to have some of our youth ministry experts comment on this post and offer some suggestions!
  2. Prayer unlocks hearts and opens doors.  When it comes to sharing the Gospel with people, prayer really is the key.  First off, when a believer begins praying for family and friends who do not yet know Jesus, God begins changing the heart of the one praying.  And, as our hearts change we become more sensitive to the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people, and more compassion, grace and truth begin flowing into those relationships.  Also, the clear teaching of Jesus is that no one comes to God unless the Holy Spirit draws them.  Prayer as our first strategy acknowledges our utter dependence upon God to change  hearts and takes the pressure off in a healthy way (while stirring our sense of urgency and passion for lost people at the same time).  Specific examples that I have used in the past are the “Top Ten Most Wanted List“, and Life Transformation Groups.  
  3. Plant new churches!  After serving in youth ministry Sandi and I planted a church in the small town of Williamston, Michigan.  We had never witnessed so many adults respond to the Gospel and begin a relationship with Jesus at any other time in our lives, before or since.  The first two years of that church planting endeavor were very fruitful – we honestly didn’t know what to do with all of those who were responding (another topic for another day).  The best training I am aware of right now for church planting is called “Generate” – and if God is stirring your heart in that direction you should definitely check it out.
  4. Learn how to engage in spiritual conversations and train others to do the same.  The best resource I have come across lately for this is “Q Place“.  The basic idea?   We learn how to naturally and relationally build loving relationships, ask good questions, and share our grace stories with the people God places in our lives.  For me, this is a must for every disciple who cares about making disciples.
  5. Look for an unmet need in your community that stirs your heart and help to meet it.  There is an old saying that goes like this: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  As corny as that may sound it is entirely true.  Something that stirs my heart lately?  The millions of people in our country (like me) who walk with an emotional and spiritual limp because someone they love is (or was) addicted to alcohol or drugs.  I have joined a local Al-Anon chapter and am building relationships with people who are trying to put their lives back together by escaping the trap of codependency.  In this group I am free to talk about my faith, my own journey, and how God has already brought so much healing into my life and relationships.  But I am also compelled to share my ongoing struggles as we help one another find the grace of God one day at a time.
  6. Learn a simple method for sharing the Gospel.  So, you are meeting needs, having spiritual conversations, and praying everyday for the spiritual explorers in your life.  And then, one of them asks you how to begin a relationship with God.  What do you do?  What do you say?  The default setting for too many Christians is to invite them to church.  BIG MISTAKE!  Instead, share with them your own story and then explain to them the simple steps they can take to begin their own relationship with God.  The tool that has helped me more than any other in these situations has been the Bridge Illustration.  I encourage you to use it – or another tool that covers the A,B,Cs of the Gospel – so that you are not caught off guard when God opens that door!

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