The Most Neglected Discipleship Tool

August 12, 2014

"What comes to mind when you hear the term, ""discipleship?"" For many it evokes thoughts along the lines of studying, praying, or mentoring.  Though it includes those things, it really is much more. I like the definition of discipleship I learned some years ago from Robert Mulholland's book, Invitation to a Journey: A Roadmap for Spiritual Formation. Here it is:

Being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others

I intentionally put the last phrase in italics. Its that piece, which for me, makes this one of the best definitions for discipleship. Too often, we treat discipleship as a personal, internal exercise. Something purely for our benefit alone. But how often do we read, study, and pray with the intent of growing so we can not only serve better, but be better in every relationship we are involved. Mulholland's definition was brought to mind recently while meditating on a verse from Hebrews. Hebrews 10:24 reads:

Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds.

This is one of those for the sake of others passages. I believe it gives us one of the most powerful discipleship tools in Scripture. Its this simple gift called encouragement. As a pastor, I've seen the difference this oft-forgotten tool can make in the life of a person, a group, or an entire community. It can very quickly alter the perception of a situation and turn despondency into hope. Sadly, in the church world, the tendency can be to sometimes lean towards criticism and judgement. Those, do little to motivate people to anything positive, let alone the difficult task of discipleship. How many of us actually take time to sit down and think of ways to encourage someone else? Especially to such degree that it evokes in them a motivation to outburst of love and good deeds? I believe this little gift called encouragement is one of God's best tools for inspiring and motivating others to grow in their faith. What really strikes me about encouragement is the ratio between what it will cost you versus its benefits. Especially when you consider the following:
  1. It doesn't require special training
  2. It doesn't require a special time
  3. It doesn't require a lot of planning
  4. It doesn't require finances
  5. It doesn't require a long relational curve
  6. It doesn't require a special reason
It just requires you to do it! That's it, that's all. Yet, it can sometimes feel like the church just doesn't get the the full import of the difference it would make if we made this a regular part of our environments. Here are some reasons for making encouragement part of your daily routine: 1. Encouragement forces you to take note of something praiseworthy in another person. Can't imagine a better tool for deepening your appreciation of others, and at the same time, becoming more like Christ. Let's be honest, we are naturally wired to seeing the faults and weaknesses in others. Some of us are even guilty of celebrating their failures. What if we spent more time lifting people up, rather than knocking them down. 2. Encouragement provokes perseverance. Ever hit a rough patch? We all do at one time or another. What difference does it make when someone comes along and virtually carries you through the crisis? Doesn't that give you the strength to keep going? I've known many who've dropped out when the going got tough. They confused faith with a free and painless ride. But when another comes along and becomes the hands and feet of Jesus in practical ways, it can often make the difference between becoming better or becoming bitter. 3. Encouragement fosters a contagious environment. The word contagious is one of those words that can be used positively or negatively. When judgment, hypocrisy, and criticism are the order of the day, it creates an atmosphere similar to a restricted ward handling the outbreak of a disease. Conversely, an environment that is encouraging, uplifting, and hopeful, has a way of drawing people in. I've yet to meet anyone who thrived in an environment where they were the brunt of criticism on a regular basis, but I've met many who have surpassed their own expectations because of the people who supported and encouraged them along the way. There is a little exercise I do in my class from time to time. I ask my students how many ""Joseph's"" there are in the New Testament. The majority answer two: Joseph, Mary's husband, and Joseph of Arimathea. But in Acts 4:36 we are introduced to another who plays a prominent role in the early church (in Acts 1:23 another is mentioned but only in passing). We don't know the person by their actual name, Joseph, but by their nickname – Barnabas, which means Son of Encouragement. Barnabas was so identified by his ability to encourage others that it even replaced his given name. He was also a significant companion and co-worker with the apostle Paul. I certainly don't think for a moment that this is a coincidence. That behind the ministry of the apostle Paul was a person known for his ability to encourage. I wonder how many time Barnabas was able to lift and carry the great apostle in those moments when his heart was sinking. I believe God knew exactly what Paul needed and Barnabas was just the man to help. From this, let me ask you a question. What if our churches adopted the practice of nicknaming people by the characteristic that best described them? What nickname would you be known by? Would it be positive or negative? If you’re struggling with your answer, why not just start by doing what Hebrews 10:24 commands, and think of ways of encouraging someone today. It could not only make all the difference to them, but to you as well. photo credit: Dan Finnen via photopin cc"

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