December 30, 2016

Disciples Making Disciples – All by Itself

This is the fourth of six articles in the series “Disciples Making Disciples,” about growing and nurturing disciples for God’s kingdom.

If it were not so common, it would be breath-taking. Plant a seed that looks inconspicuous and lifeless into the ground, and it comes to life all by itself. In Mark 4:29-32, Jesus tells a parable that explains this very fact, that seed grows all by itself and humans don’t know how. The life-giving power of a seed, in the right conditions of well-prepared soil, is unexplainable.

Once the plant sprouts, however, there is work for the gardener. Most plants need water to survive, and in most places rain is not consistent. Watering is our work. How do we do this, spiritually water new followers of Jesus?

Growing disciples should be able to put into practice what they are discovering.

Spiritual Nourishment

Our connection with God the Holy Spirit brings spiritual life (John 7:37-39). The word of God is inspired by the Spirit and has life-changing power (Heb. 4:12, 2 Tim. 3:15-17). When I get with friends to read and discuss just one passage of Scripture, and themes that develop out of it, I consider those spiritual highpoints. I’ve heard of groups of people, with little religious background, just opening up the Gospels and reading a story at a time. This activity nurtures spiritual life.

If Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1), maybe we should be open about new ways to pray. Jesus’ 12 disciples were of Jewish background. They would have learned to pray as they were learning to speak. The Shema (Jewish prayer, Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41) was taught to most Jewish children. However, the disciples recognized that Jesus often spent all night in prayer (Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28, 29). He found prayer a real connection with God, and they wanted that kind of prayer life. Prayer is meant to connect us with God. Learning how to pray in new, meaningful ways is important for all disciples.

Bible reading and prayer connects people to God and nurtures the spiritual lives of new disciples. But life still has challenges. What then?

Taking Care of Weeds

I had a vegetable garden when I lived in Suva, Fiji. I didn’t have to water it once, because in Suva, five days without rain is a drought. However, I did find myself caring for the plants. Weeds also grew prolifically. I remember driving past a Fijian village near my home and seeing healthy cassava plants about a meter (3 feet) high. The only challenge was that the weeds were thick and at least two metres high. Weeds inhibit the potential of the harvest.

Every time I’ve studied the Bible with people, it seems as though bad things happen in their life. One young man lost his job. A young couple started to have relational issues. A man was challenged to work on Sabbath for the first time ever. An aging relative was diagnosed with cancer and needed extra attention, and so forth.

Jesus said that Satan wants to take the Word of God away from people (Mark 4:15). Satan knows the Word’s power. All the issues that come up are like weeds, and weeds have to be pulled.

But the challenging life issues in budding disciples of Jesus have to be dealt with gently. Caring, perhaps more mature disciples of Jesus, need to support those going through tough times.

Constant Care

Often, after Jesus had prepared the soil and planted the seed in one place He moved on to other places to do the same (Mark 1:36-39). However, He would then come back to the places he had previously been to nurture and develop the interest in people. He would eat with them, ask questions about their understanding of the Bible (Mark 2:16; 14:18; Luke 7:34), teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-8). But He didn’t make their spiritual development dependent on being physically near them all the time. He even challenged His disciples to go and do what He was doing (Matt. 10 and Luke 10).

Growing disciples should be able to put into practice what they are discovering. Besides prayer, Bible reading, and witness, people can learn to give, to reflect on nature, learn how to deal with temptation and suffering, keep the Sabbath. These are all spiritual disciplines of following Jesus.

Cultivating people is best done personally. Small groups and Sabbath school classes, Sabbath lunches, picnics, and church socials are all good places where church people can work together to develop other disciples. Corporately, Adventist schools and media can provide cultivating resources and experiences.

All plants grow all by themselves. However, the gardener has to keep an eye on them. He can water, fertilize, and weed to ensure that the plants have the best possible chance of producing a good crop. In disciple-making we call this “cultivating.” People growing in Jesus need guidance, nurture, and care from others who are on the journey of discipleship.

The gospel is powerful; it changes lives when sown into receptive hearts. But all of us need the on-going cultivating that other disciples of Jesus can bring as we face life’s challenges.

Glenn Townend is president of the South Pacific Division of Seventh-day Adventist Church.