I am sitting at Reverence Church and I am disappointed. We all are. Attendance is down significantly at our third evening service, the church planting team seems disjointed and distracted, and “George” is drunk. We smelled it on his breath as soon as he walked in. Months of work, time, and sacrifice seemed to be washed away in a moment.
We had loved “George” for years. We served him faithfully through the Mobile Ministries food truck when he was homeless, rarely sober, and simply in need of a sandwich, extra pair of socks, and a family to love him. Recently our hopes had even been raised as “George” entered detox and then completed a three-month program. These were his first days of sobriety in years. The team had welcomed “George” into the family. They opened their homes, shared meals, gave rides, went bowling, watched Patriots’ games, prayed with him, encouraged him every step of the way, and it all suddenly felt pointless.
This type of ministry can be like building sandcastles to hold back a rising tide. One relapse or one family deciding not to come can feel like a fragile community is being washed out to sea. You can’t help but think: in the neighborhood there are 11,000 who are without Christ and without family, and we can barely hang to the tiny fraction of people who happen to walk through our doors.
We were deflated, but then we looked through a new set of lenses and God’s plan suddenly came into focus.
Let me explain:
After our disappointing service, I went home and reflected on something the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Timothy to his young disciple. To set the scene: Paul is a prisoner in Rome, however, his greatest heartbreak was watching the church in Ephesus fall apart. This was a church that Paul had devoted two years of his life to and now it was slipping away. There were real questions as to whether the movement that Paul was so dedicated to would survive.
Paul’s humanity bleeds through this letter as he wrestles with his disappointment. “Everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me,” he writes to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:15). He remembers the tears Timothy shed when they were separated and urges Timothy to come to see him as soon as he can.
But first, Timothy has a mission to fulfill. He has been sent back to lead what remains of the church in Ephesus. What advice does Paul give him? What will he do to ensure that this movement survives? Here it is:
2 Timothy 2:1-2: You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men [people] who will also be qualified to teach others.
In other words, Timothy is called to focus on generations. If you look closely, you will see four generations of followers of Jesus:
- Paul, who mentored Timothy to follow Jesus. (This is generation one.)
- Timothy, having received the teachings of Jesus from Paul (generation two).
- Timothy is commanded to entrust what he has received to faithful people (generation three).
- Timothy is not finished coaching these faithful people until they are fully equipped to teach others (generation four).
Timothy’s mission is to give away what he has received from Paul to those who are empowered to teach others. Timothy was not called to pack each church building; he was called to focus and build generations of disciples who would produce waves that have continued unbroken until this day.
That’s when it hit me. I had been looking at the worship service through the wrong lens. What I saw that night was not a church plant that had shrunk by thirty-three percent, but a chain of disciples that God had been creating link by link for decades.
I thought back to the moment when my own Paul entered my young, green, overconfident seminary student, life. Paul McPheeters, my pastor at the time, made time for me each week with no agenda other than to help me discover the calling that God had for my life. He gently shaped my character and guided me as I learned to ground my identity as an adopted son of God. That was twenty years ago.
During that deceivingly dismal night, I was sitting in a worship service that I was not leading. Dave led that service. That moment was the fruit of a ten-year friendship that began before Dave even became a believer. We have been friends through his baptism, navigating his call to ministry, and leading a church plant. I simply gave to Dave, what Paul had given to me, and now he is passing it on to others.
But there is more. Sitting in the front row that night, listening to Dave’s message, is Jim. Jim is troubled because he has been discipling “George” and his heart breaks to see the man he has opened his heart and his home to relapse into his addiction. What we saw as a huge disappointment, was a beautiful story of generations of disciples more than twenty years in the making:
Paul McPheeters (generation one) —> Nate (generation two) —> Dave (generation three) —> Jim (generation four) —> “George” (generation five?)
What would our churches look like if we thought in terms of generations of generations?
What would our lives look like if we focused on helping just a few to follow Jesus who will be empowered to mentor others?
A Call to Action
Do you have someone in your life, a peer or a mentor, who is helping you follow Jesus and empowering you to disciple others?
If you do, what can you do to deepen this relationship? If you don’t, what will you do to build a discipling friendship with a mentor or a peer?
Do you have someone that you are helping to follow Jesus? If you don’t, consider this daily practice (we call it “Praying for your Five”):
Pick five people in your life that don’t follow Jesus and commit to pray the following things for them:
- That God will work through the circumstances of their lives, both good and bad, so that they become open to following Jesus.
- That God will provide you with an opportunity to invite them to follow Jesus with you.
Finally, if you are mentoring someone to follow Jesus, are they doing for others what you are doing for them? What can you do to empower them?