One of the churches that’s taught me a lot is St. Paul’s Bloor Street here in Toronto. One of the staff there is Tim Haughton, the minister of discipleship. Tim leads the church’s small group ministries, and also provides direction to one-on-one discipleship.
I’m glad that Tim was willing to answer some of my questions about discipleship.
It’s probably important to begin by defining discipleship. What is discipleship?
Whenever I have heard people define discipleship, they often go back to the Greek word for disciple – Mathetes – rooted in the Greek verb to learn. Discipleship for many then becomes the process of learning the bible, the teachings of Jesus, the doctrines of the faith. Very important things, but is that discipleship? I have been greatly influenced in my thinking by Jewish writers who reflect on what the life of Disciples or Talmidim of a Rabbi like Jesus would look like. Yes there certainly was an element of learning, they would literally memorize the teachings of their Rabbi word for word, but it was more than that. Their desire was to become like their rabbi. Discipleship is the process of change and transformation not only to learn about Jesus, but to become like Jesus. The Jewish people had a saying, “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi”. To bring it home – discipleship is following so closely to Jesus that we are covered in the dust he kicks up from his feet.
What are some of the barriers to discipleship that we face in our churches today?
Where to begin? Apathy, consumerism, clergy-centric mentality in both clergy and congregations, busyness… But I have often found that once the Holy Spirit begins to grab a hold of a person’s life, once the gospel begins to come home to someones heart no barrier is insurmountable. I don’t see it then as the church’s role to dismantle the barriers as much as to put before people’s minds and hearts the power and wonder of what God has done for us in Jesus and allow the Spirit to stir all of us up to a deeper pursuit of Jesus.
How do you disciple those who see their primary role in church as attending Sunday worship services?
At St. Paul’s we often have conversations about how we disciple those who aren’t in a small group, aren’t exercising their gifts in ministry, aren’t in one to one discipleship relationships. Part of the fruits of those conversation end up in our announcements, both verbal and written. We always offer a “next step” where-ever a person is in their spiritual journey. This might be an invitation to a small group, a reading plan or book to support the sermon series, a short-term commitment to daily prayer and bible reading. Our language is always of journey, growth, not spectator but participant. We never express in our language that Sunday worship services is sufficient for our spiritual growth but are constantly inviting people deeper. We also give careful thought in our preaching to the reality that there are people within our community at all different stages of a journey of faith and as much as is possible we seek to speak to each identifiable group of people (seeker, sceptic, churchgoer, growing disciple, leader) and call them deeper.
What kinds of things do you do at St. Paul’s to disciple people?
Small Groups, preaching, opportunities to utilize individual gifts play a huge role in discipleship at St. Paul’s. Many have written at length on discipleship in these areas, but the one area of discipleship I gravitate to the most is that of one to one discipleship. It was David Watson who compared large group discipleship with one to one discipleship in this way. Large group teaching and discipleship is like trying to fill milk bottles by spraying water with a hose over the top of a group of bottles – some does get in – but most does not – and it take a long time to fill up a bottle that way. With one to one discipleship you can take the hose and connect it directly to the bottle. Each year I take about 6 individuals through a process of one to one discipleship. Meeting biweekly we read scripture together, unpack the gospel, and apply it directly to the person’s life. Part of that process is meant to uncover how the person has been gifted for ministry, giving opportunities for that gift to be expressed, and then debriefing, encouraging and refining that gift together in conversation. It was the Puritan Richard Baxter, who made discipleship of individuals and families a core of his ministry that once noted that he would see more growth in a ½ hour of one to one discipleship than he would often see in 10 years of a person listening to his preaching. I would certainly resonate with such an observation.
Are there any resources you’d recommend?
As far as resources for doing the work of discipleship? I often take new and returning disciples through Stephen Smallman’s The Walk – and have learned some great tools of one to one discipleship through Sophie De Witt’s One To One: A Discipleship Handbook, and a great primer for one to one discipleship is David Helm’s One to One Bible Reading.