A special welcome to the new partners who have signed up in the last week or two. Great to have you as part of the conversation.
I suggested in last week’s post that perhaps the key moment in the growth of Christian disciples is when we start to look left:
I lift my head up, and open my eyes, and see the multitudes all around me that need to move to the right—to take steps towards knowing Christ or growing in Christ. And I realise that God has called me, in my own weak and faltering way, with my own particular relationships and opportunities, to help those people take one step in that rightward direction.
The more we move right, the more we look left, and long to see others take a step to the right.
The question we left hanging was simple enough: How does this happen? How do I become that sort of ministry-hearted person?! And (as a leader) how do I see more of those sorts of left-looking people emerge in the congregation?
The answer is simple but not easy.
If this looking-leftness is a function of moving-rightness, then we already know how God moves people to the right—it’s through what the Reformers called the means of grace and what we in our love of alliteration call the four Ps (Presenting the Word, Prayerfully, in and through People, Persevering in Practice over time). These are the means God gives us for spiritual growth. There are no others.
So to see more people become left-lookers, just prescribe the four Ps, twice daily after food, and all will be well.
To which you might say, “Well we’ve been doing that already, and the patient isn’t showing much improvement! We preach the word and pray and so on, but there still seem to be lots of people who are stuck in a complacent, self-focused Christianity. Isn’t there a special pill for those people?!”
Well, yes and no. Two important further points need to be made.
Firstly, while the treatment is never anything other than the four Ps, the four Ps aren’t uniform or one-dimensional. The ‘whole counsel of God’ is rich and multi-faceted, and we apply different aspects and implications of it to different people at different times. That’s what ‘moving each person one step to the right’ really means—meeting each person where they are, and applying the word of God to them in their particular circumstance, with its particular implications and outworkings. There is an order to the teaching—basic principles followed by meatier instruction. And this also intersects with the different levels of maturity and understanding that each person has. As Richard Baxter puts it (riffing on Hebrews 5:11-14):
The ministerial work must be carried on prudently and orderly. Milk must go before strong meat; the foundation must be laid before we attempt to raise the superstructure. Children must not be dealt with as men of full stature. Men must be brought into a state of grace before we can expect the works of grace from them. (The Reformed Pastor, II.2.3)
At some point in the growth of every Christian it’s time to ‘move them to the right’ in this specific area—that is, to help them see that they are not just disciples but also disciple-makers; to teach them about the privilege and joy that every Christian has in seeking to move everyone around them to the right through the four Ps, within the amazing plan of God. How will Christians know and embrace this wonderful truth if they are not taught it?
This teaching can and should happen within the course of regular Sunday preaching, as we teach people of God’s extraordinary purposes in Christ, and as we expound those passages that particularly speak of our part in that plan.
However, occasional references in sermons won’t be sufficient. We need to bring this particular word to the people who need to hear it, and take the time to help them hear it, understand it, learn it and embrace it. This might happen in a number of ways:
at special seminars, weekends-away or teaching times that address this particular topic;
in small groups (either occasional groups formed for this purpose or as part of the regular small group diet);
in one-to-one meetings;
using books and other resources that bring together the Bible’s teaching on this subject.
(Incidentally, this is why I wrote The Course of Your Life study material, and the little book that goes along with it, The Thing Is. I was struggling to find good study resources or material that taught about this particular area in a coherent and helpful way. See more on this in the PS below.)
The framework or method or context will vary—what’s important is that we intentionally teach, apply and work through this aspect of God’s Word, to our own hearts and to others.
Secondly, however, we become this sort of left-looking person as we put the word into practice—as we learn the practicalities of how to move others to the right, and begin to actually do so.
Hebrews 5 says something about this as well. “Solid food is for the mature”, it says, “for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14). As they implement and practise what they have learned, the mature develop muscles of discernment and understanding. It’s maturity not just in solid-food-knowledge—although it is certainly that. It’s also maturity in the lived practice of that knowledge.
People learn to be left-lookers by beginning to exercise those muscles; by taking part in the action. This could be by beginning to read the Bible with someone else; or by taking some steps to pray for and talk with their neighbours; or by joining the welcoming team on Sunday mornings; or by door-knocking their street; or in a thousand other ways, both structured and informal.
This is what ‘training’ really is—teaching a new way of thinking that generates a new practice or way of life, and then growing in that practice by doing it. And this is where ‘training courses’ can be extremely useful if they are used well—if they help us to prayerfully teach God’s word on a particular topic, and then provide opportunities to practise and grow in that knowledge by implementing it.
In my experience, moving people to the right in this crucial area—that is, helping them become loving, ministry-hearted, left-lookers—often fails by neglecting one or both of the two facets above:
We fail to teach clearly, compellingly and personally about the nature of the Christian life as a disciple-making life. We work hard at recruiting people to serve in different ways, to be part of ministry teams, to ‘get involved’—but we don’t prayerfully address the heart with the powerful and sharp word of God about why we should serve and what ‘service’ really is (it’s moving people to the right).
We do teach about ‘moving right and looking left’, but fail to provide practical training in how to do it, along with structured opportunities for people to learn by doing.
The result of one or both of these failures is the landscape that many of us battle with in our churches. We constantly struggle to find people willing to lead or be involved in the various ministry structures or teams we run. And those who do get involved often suffer from a lack of joy, perseverance and right-moving intentionality in the work they are doing.
The underlying issue is both spiritual and practical. We need to plant and water, and do the weeding and organize our farm activities—and pray that God would move more and more people to the right, so that they start to look left.
As always, I’d be interested (and we would all benefit) from you sharing your own experiences and reflections about growing ‘left-lookers’ in your congregation. Drop a comment on the website or simply reply to this email with your thoughts and questions.
Sometimes you only really realise why you’ve done something after you’ve done it. Looking back, most of what I’ve done over the years at Matthias Media has been in service of the principles in this article—to provide biblical teaching and training resources to help Christians become left-lookers, and then to train and equip them for moving others to the right through the four Ps.
The two resources I mentioned above have a special place in this. The Course of Your Life was my attempt at creating a training framework to revolutionize people’s view of their own life as ‘disciple-making disciples’—over time, in a group with others, with practical learn-by-doing elements as well. The Thing Is was the little book version to read alongside the course (or as a lead in or as revision). If you haven’t ever checked them out, here are some sample chapters to take a look at:
I tried very hard to find an image of Richard Baxter looking left, but this was the closest I could find …