Sarah (not her real name) was sitting outside her home with her mother and sister when they heard music playing down the street at the outdoor community plaza, and they decided to check it out. What they discovered was a children’s program being conducted by our evangelistic team as the opening part of a gospel rally designed for everyone. Curious, they stayed for the entire event which consisted of singing, a gospel film, and the preaching of the Word. Drawn by the power of the Holy Spirit, they came to know Christ that night.
Sarah was a well respected leader of the local youth organization in a community entrenched in the traditional church. In reaction to her profession of new found faith in Christ, the whole community snubbed and harassed her. One man publicly humiliated her. But the Assemblies of God pastor discipled her and together with the support of the church, her mother and sister, she was able to stand strong against the opposition and joyfully witness for her Lord. Today she has the favor of the town leadership and is employed at the city hall.
Sarah’s story provides an excellent example of what it means to become a disciple of Christ through the ministry of a local church. The biblical basis for local church discipleship can be found in Matthew 28:16-20, one of the many biblical passages that deal with this subject. Here, Jesus clearly states that the commission he is giving his disciples is based upon his own authority and that all is to be done in his name. The focus of the Great Commission is to make disciples, not mere converts, baptizing them as a sign of identification with Christ and teaching them to obey what Jesus had commanded. Both public identification with Christ and walking in obedience to his Word are marks of a true disciple.
But how does discipleship happen? From decades of personal experience, I can testify that it is a process that begins when we first come to Christ and lasts a lifetime. What are the components of discipleship? Simply put, the components of discipleship revolve around the practice of various spiritual disciplines, which help us understand and put in practice the teachings of Christ. These include prayer, fasting, reading, studying, hearing, meditating on, and memorizing the Word of God being the most common. As we practice the spiritual disciplines within the context of our churches, homes, work, or school, God builds his character us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We grow in Christ together.
God intended that most of the spiritual disciplines be done within a community of believers called the church. God’s plan is that, in the local church, we would find fellowship and draw strength from one another as we face ups and downs of life together. Every church must then provide teaching and mentoring opportunities for discipleship to take place. In the past, Sunday School, mid-week Bible studies, prayer meetings, and children’s programs provided structure for discipleship and growth. Today, the Holy Spirit has provided some new strategies, such as small groups and mentoring. The type of ministry is not nearly important as its content. That so many churches have done away with such structures for growth is lamentable, but the lack in our churches today does not change God’s command. To claim to be a New Testament church means providing opportunities for people to grow and mature in their faith and to be a follower of Christ calls for participating in the discipleship process in a local church.
If someone leads a person to Christ, bringing them to their church is natural. But what is to be done as the
expands into areas where there is no church, or where the existing church does not preach Christ? If there is no church, new churches must be planted. In the Kingdom of God , where my wife and I serve, the dominant religion is folk Catholicism, and there are thousands of communities, many of them small, that have no gospel preaching church. If we intend to reach the Philippines for Christ and since the local church is the best place for discipleship to take place, thousands of new churches must be planted in order for the Great Commission to be fulfilled. Philippines
But simply starting a new church is not enough. These new churches must provide opportunities for people to grow and mature in their relationship with Christ and one another. To do this, a trained pastor must be provided, which is the reason why the Assemblies of God now has around 900 Bible schools all over the world. In our district in the
, we have a Bible school that has a three year training program. That eighty-five percent of its graduates over the last forty four years have found their way into the ministry indicates that the school has done its job. Philippines
The problem is that our Bible school cannot provide enough pastors fast enough to meet the need for new church planting in all of the places we need to go. To meet this need, God spoke to Debbie in 2007 to pioneer church planting schools, which were designed to train laymen and women to plant house churches in their own locale. Since these people cannot get away from their jobs and families to attend Bible school, it was imperative that the church planting schools be held in a nearby location and for a shorter duration of time. In the beginning, three schools were started in local churches and the training sessions lasted one and one half days per month. About twenty students attended. Today, there are now seventeen schools with about 200 students. Specific statistics are hard to come by but there appears to be about eighty houses churches now open in our district. While we rejoice because of the growth, great care must be taken that good teaching and mentoring, which are key components of discipleship, are taking place. Additional tiers of training are needed—an issue we intend to address when we return. These lay pastors, in turn, must put discipleship structures in place for these new believers to grow in Christ. A church with an ill-trained pastor is a breeding ground for heresy, but a new believer without a church to provide love, instruction, and encouragement is a tragedy.
A pastor, no matter what his or her background, must be committed to bringing new believers to maturity in accordance with 2 Timothy 2:2. Sarah, her mother, and her sister came to know Christ through the ministry of an evangelistic team that was working with a local church. The pastor of that church incorporated them into the local body and discipled them. All over the world the Assemblies of God is planting new churches for this purpose. Millions and millions of people, like Sarah, still need to be brought into relationship with Christ and his body.