Eliminate Barriers with this Simple 5-Point Discipleship Plan

Discipleship relationships can feel structured and demanding, which, I believe, is why so many men avoid them.

We didn’t care much for homework when we were students, and now we’re overwhelmed with overdue to-do lists from work. Some of those to-do’s feel burdensome, and others we enjoy, but they all take time and energy. Marriage, family, and church bring additional commitments, including, perhaps, a group Bible study or two. It’s all good stuff. But sometimes the last thing we want is one more “thing” that requires preparation and the burning of intellectual and emotional energy.

There are times when we want or need an in-depth study as a part of a discipleship relationship. The accompanying commitment and hard work are the only way to produce meaningful results. But there are stages in life when the best discipleship relationship is simple and has very few barriers to entry. So how do you make that type of relationship meaningful? After all, if it’s not producing spiritual growth, it’s not discipleship.

One option that’s worked for me is to provide a few basic talking-point options that can guide a discussion. For instance, here’s a five-point plan I’ve used:

  • A problem (some specific challenge you’re facing)
  • A promise (a verse of Scripture to which you’re clinging for hope)
  • A praise (something for which you’re thankful)
  • An action (something you are committing to do)
  • An insight (something you’ve learned that you’d like to share)

The group or individual commits to thinking through these and comes to our meetings ready to discuss at least two of them. Most guys can read over that list and come up with responses to all of them on the spot. It’s also an easy list to review throughout the week. Discussing these topics almost always leads to some deep and fruitful conversations, which, in turn, leads to spiritual growth.

If you’re looking for a simple structure that’s not a barrier to a discipleship commitment, perhaps this approach will help. Feel free to jot these down. Maybe take a photo and save it on your phone. Then, find someone you can discuss them with each week. And, if you use them, let me know how it turns out.

Beyond Symptoms: Getting to the root of our problems

What’s the root of your problem?

I ask because we’ve become a symptoms-focused culture. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it certainly is now. We look at a problem and gravitate toward addressing the most obvious symptoms while doing little for the disease.

I don’t have to look any further than a mirror to find a guilty party.

For instance, my wife and I adopted a couple of kittens about 14 months ago. They lived inside through their first winter, which spoiled them more than a little. They’ve been mostly outside cats since the spring and full-time outside cats since we got a new couch this summer.

Here’s the problem: Because we live in a wooded hillside area, our property is visited by any number of wild critters, including raccoons. These black-eyed bandits are fond of cat food, so they regularly make themselves at home on our back deck. One of my solutions has been to trap them (cat food makes great bait) and then release them several miles from our home. But God has provided a seemingly endless supply of raccoons in our woods, and I’m getting a bit tired of hauling them off.

The root of the problem is that raccoons will always find their way to this free and easy food source. The best solution, of course, is to limit their food supply by not leaving cat food outside after dark. It’s a hassle to remember, but much less of a hassle than becoming a taxi service for the area’s raccoon population.

Maybe we treat the symptoms because we don’t know of a cure for the disease. I can’t eradicate all raccoons or change their desire for cat food. Despite advances in modern medicine, doctors often can’t do much more than address the symptoms of our ailments. Or, maybe we know the cure — which is sometimes true in medicine — but we find it easier or more convenient to treat the symptoms and just live with the disease. That’s why we wear clothes that make us look a little thinner rather than eating healthy food and exercising. Or, maybe we focus on the symptom because it gives the appearance of progress. Perception is better than reality.

For the world to really get better, however, each of us needs to do the hard work of addressing the true root of our problems: We’re sinners.

We can mask that reality and find all sorts of ways to justify it or explain it away, but the truth of it will always gnaw at us and prevent us from living as we’re called to live.

How do we treat this disease? We call on the Great Physician and then follow His prescriptions. Only God can take away our sins. He’ll do it if we ask, but we still have to live as fallen creatures until He brings us home. In the meantime, we can treat our disease through obedience to Him. That includes disciplines like prayer, the study of His Word, fellowship and worship with other believers, and submission to His authority over every aspect of our lives.

Those things aren’t easy, but they are essential to our spiritual health.

Treating the symptoms of our spiritual illness isn’t a bad thing, it’s just incomplete. We don’t have to do one or the other; we can address both at the same time. But if we never address the root of the problem, we’ll spend the rest of our lives treating symptoms that only get worse over time.

A one-sentence response to a jacked-up world

We live in a world that’s a bit … well … jacked up. Perhaps you’ve noticed. The recent massacre in Las Vegas just adds to the evidence. There are many things we can and should do in response to the evil in our world, but the results are out of our control. It’s frustrating and, at times, depressing. Rather than letting it get you down, however, you might try repeating the words of Habakkuk.

You remember Habakkuk, right? He’s one of those Old Testament guys who knew all too much about God’s displeasure with a jacked-up world. Habakkuk 3 records a song by the prophet, and near the end he lists all sorts of legitimate reasons for being worried about the condition of the world. Then, he provides something we need just as much today as he did thousands of years ago: perspective.

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,” he says, “I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Habakkuk 3:18)

No matter what was going on or would happen, Habakkuk was choosing to rejoice and be joyful – not in the circumstances, but in the Lord who was his savior. The world was out of Habakkuk’s control, but not God’s. Jesus told us something similar in John 16:33 – “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

That doesn’t mean we don’t actively fight against evil. It means we fight with a God-focused perspective on the outcome. It hit me recently that my first response to our jacked-up world should be to have the wisdom-soaked attitude of Habakkuk. Think about whatever irritates you about this world – large things or small – and give it a try …

A madman has fired bullets into a crowd?

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

Hurricanes are bashing Texas, Florida and the Caribbean islands …

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

Earthquakes are crippling regions of Mexico …

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

North Korea is going nuclear …

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

Your favorite team lost again …

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

You can’t figure out this feud between President Trump and the NFL …

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

You have troubles at work …

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

You have troubles at home …

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

Crime … abortion … racism … politics … protests …

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

No matter what might cause you to worry, hand-wring or feel tempted to rant on social media or in person with your friends, there’s something powerful about saying that verse out loud. It’s re-orienting. Calming. Reassuring. Refreshing. It’s a reminder that despite your weakness, nothing is ever out of God’s control. And that’s a great perspective.

Why it’s so hard to do the next right thing

The best advice often is easy to believe but difficult to live.

This truth hit home recently when a close friend made what he would confirm was a stupid decision, and I offered up one of my favorite pearls of wisdom: “Trust God and do the next right thing,” which is a slight variation of a famous Oswald Chambers quote.

I love the simplicity of it. In my quest to grow like Jesus, I often find myself falling back on this uncomplicated approach. Our growth depends on our response to the perpetual series of choices we face. How do we make those choices? We start by trusting God. Then we do the next right thing. Rinse and repeat. Maintaining that process doesn’t keep us from failing, but it allows us to react well to both success and failure and to experience growth along the way.

It’s not easy to do. I know, because I’ve lived through many, many of my own failings wherein I was slow to embrace the advice I’m so quick to give.

My friend had broken a trust and damaged an important relationship. Thankfully, he was repentant. He felt shame, guilt, pain and remorse. Some might say those are bad things, but I would suggest they are necessary to move us toward the grace of God. He also was depressed. Self-focused. Overwhelmed. He struggled to get past his mistake and move toward restoration. So, I suggested, among other things, that he stop doing what wasn’t working, then trust God and do the next right thing.

His response: “Not sure I know what that is.”

I realized he wanted to make everything right – to magically transform his world back to the way it was before he erred. That wasn’t possible and he knew it. Still, he had allowed himself to be imprisoned by his mistake. Nothing he could do would fix it, so he didn’t know what to do and, therefore, he did nothing.

The next right thing just seemed way too big to even contemplate.

It’s not. In fact, that’s the beauty of the advice. We can apply it first and foremost with the smallest of things and, over time, it helps us with everything else.

Here’s what I’ve found: The “next right thing” never involves a million complicated actions; just one. …  Breathe. Pray. Ask for forgiveness. Perform an act of service like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn. Turn off the television. Read a book. Go to church. Have lunch with a pastor. Go for a run. … But don’t worry about the outcome. That’s why the advice begins with “trust God.” It not only opens us up to discover the next right thing, no matter how seemingly small that thing might be, but it takes the results off our plate and gives them to the One who is eminently more qualified to own them. It allows us to stop asking why so we can start acting in obedience on one small choice after another.

The time to adopt this pattern is now. When we’re overwhelmed by our mistakes – or the pain caused by someone else or by a huge decision or by anything in life – it’s hard to break free unless we’ve already built some muscle from this spiritual discipline. But no matter where we find ourselves, God is waiting to help us move toward something better. We just need to stop doing what isn’t working, trust Him and do the next right thing.

What the Secular World Misses from David and Goliath

David’s victory over Goliath is one of the world’s favorite and most revisited Biblical stories, perhaps because it’s so easy to draw secular lessons while ignoring the story’s main point.

Most folks know the story of the young shepherd rising to the challenge of the 6-foot-9ish champion from the Philistine army and slaying him with a stone from his sling. And there are all sorts of lessons to be learned from it.

For instance, Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of B Lab, sees David as an agent for bold change. He used the story recently as a battle cry for leaders to create a new Renaissance by building more socially responsible businesses. “David made a choice,” Gilbert writes. “A choice to embrace risk and act, despite the long odds.” And he paraphrases the great Martin Luther King, Jr., saying, “The future does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability; the future is created – it is created first in thought, next in commitment and last, and most importantly, in action.” Then he ends by calling his readers – the Davids (and Donnas) of our world – to action. “What is the future you want to create?” he writes. “Now, act to make it so.”

It’s all good stuff. I find myself nodding in agreement. But I also see the gaping hole – the critical missing piece from Gilbert’s otherwise fine essay.

Or, consider the TedTalk by the ever-popular Malcom Gladwell. He flips the script in a fascinating way, making the case that David, in fact, was not the underdog in the story, and that we often give giants too much credit and ourselves too little.

Cue applause. Great stuff.

Gladwell’s theory about why Goliath was really the underdog is open to debate, but much of it certainly is plausible. And his overriding lesson is valid, even if you can poke a few holes in the premise behind it. Yet, he, too, leaves out the key point and thus the most enduring lesson for us all.

In reading the story, it’s worth remembering that practice pays off, that we must embrace risk and take bold actions to achieve significant success, that looks can be deceiving, that even giants have weaknesses, and that underdogs (perceived or real) can win the day if they have the necessary skills, courage and self-confidence. But don’t stop there. Remember why David felt compelled to fight. Why he had courage. And why he won.

He fought because he was appalled that the Philistine had insulted God. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” he asks in 1 Samuel 17: 26.

He had courage because he knew he had the skills to win and, more importantly, because he knew God was with him. “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine,” he says in 1 Samuel 17:37.

And he won because he put his faith in God and gave Him the glory. “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves,” he says in 1 Samuel 17:47, “for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give all of you into our hands.”

So, you can leave God out of the story and still learn some valuable life lessons. But you’ll miss the point.

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Simplifying Discipleship

Go and make disciples.

It seems like such a straightforward statement, and Jesus was clear in Matthew 28:19 that it’s not an optional activity. Yet the Church seems to struggle with the concept. When we take a fresh look at it, however, we can see that “making disciples” doesn’t have to be that hard.

I didn’t realize there was an issue until I began paying closer attention following a couple of conversations with friends. Six or eight months ago, I began praying about an idea I’ve had for a discipleship website that would provide a one-stop shop for resources, content and discussions on the topic. To vet and develop the idea, I started talking to people who are smarter than me. During one conversation, the guy across the table said something like, “Not many men are as involved in discipleship as you are.” He wasn’t feeding me ego biscuits; he was painting the bleak reality of how little is done when it comes to discipleship. And the more I’ve looked into it, the more I agree.

A month or so later, I mentioned my website idea to another friend. He liked the idea but said he probably wouldn’t use the site because he isn’t involved in discipleship. About a week later, however, he mentioned that he was coming back from an early morning Bible study where he (at age 59) had been the only guy not in his 20s. It had never dawned on him that spending time studying the Bible with those young guys was discipleship.

That’s when it hit me: Not enough men are involved in discipleship, and some are involved without even knowing it. In both cases, part of the problem is that too many people are intimidated by what they think discipleship involves. Most of them have over-complicated the definition.

So, here’s a simple definition of discipleship: Helping people grow like Jesus.

With that definition, discipleship can include evangelism, or what I call spiritually mentoring someone toward a relationship with Christ. For followers of Jesus, discipleship becomes all about sanctification – the refining process God puts us through until we join Him in heaven, or growing like Jesus. And we “make disciples” when we help ourselves or someone else experience that growth.

To become obedient to Matthew 28:19:

  1. Ask God to provide an opportunity to spend time with someone or a group of someones with the purpose of helping each other grow like Jesus.
  2. Act in obedience when (not if) that opportunity comes.

That’s it. It can be one-on-one meetings over coffee. It can be a small-group Bible study. It can be a discussion at halftime of a football game or while helping a buddy with a chore. It can look however you want, so long as it’s intentional and there’s an effort to teach obedience to the commands of Christ. (Matthew 28:20)

It’s really not complicated or scary. You aren’t responsible for the results – God is. And you don’t have to do it alone (because Jesus has promised to be with you). Can you ask for a better helper than God? So, go and make disciples. Let that step of obedience become the next step in your growth.

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Singing to the Lord

When I became a follower of Christ in the early 1990s, I noticed something about the music of my youth: I still enjoyed it, but I listened to it differently. I heard messages, both positive and negative, that I’d never noticed in my secular state of mind.

My youth was mostly in the 1970s, which everyone knows was the greatest decade. Sure, there was disco, but there was also (to name a few) Pink Floyd, Ted Nugent, Led Zeppelin, The Guess Who, Rod Stewart, the Temptations, James Taylor, the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Willie Nelson, the Commodores, the Eagles, Waylon Jennings, and some guy named Elvis (until Aug. 16, 1977).

Most of those artists, with the exception of Elvis, have this in common: You don’t hear their hits in church. But many of the world’s most popular songs would work rather well in church if we simply looked at, listened to and sang them differently. That’s because many are love songs or songs about struggle, hope, forgiveness and pain – the topics, for instance, that we see scattered throughout the Psalms.

There also are many songs that, on the surface, seem like they would work great in church but have a message devoid of any really good news. “Take Me To Church” by Andrew Hozier-Byrne is an ode to some weird obsession with a woman. You don’t want that church. “Imagine,” the classic hit by John Lennon, paints a vision of hopelessness. No heaven? No, thank you. “I Did It My Way” by Frank Sinatra (or, if you prefer, by Elvis)? Well, I don’t want to do it the world’s way, but my way is pretty flawed, too. How about God’s way?

There are a great many popular songs, however, that we could retrofit for church. Some are faith-based songs by secular artists. Some work if you sing them to or for the Lord (and perhaps with a minor tweak or two in the lyrics). I brainstormed a few dozen one day when I should have been working, and here, in no particular order, are 12 of them:

  1. “When Love Comes to Town” by U2 and BB King. Or almost any other U2 song – “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for” or “Yahweh.”
  2. “Jesus is Just Alright” by the Doobie Brothers
  3. “You Are So Beautiful” by Joe Cocker
  4. “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts
  5. “Forever and Ever, Amen” by Randy Travis
  6. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder
  7. “Always and Forever” by Luther Vandross (or Lionel Richie)
  8. “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News
  9. “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum
  10. “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner
  11. “Because You Loved Me” by Celine Dion
  12. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis

Don’t get me wrong – I love the old hymns, and I’m a fan of praise and worship music, too. I’m pretty eclectic in my musical tastes. I’m not suggesting we sing any of these songs in church; I’m just saying we could. What matters isn’t the musical style, it’s the state of our hearts. Worship isn’t music. It’s a state of life.

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Training my brain on scripture

I read recently about the ways technology is changing our brains. For instance, easy access to information is training our brain to “index” rather than “retain” information. Makes sense.

I can still remember my family’s home phone number from when I was growing up, but who bothers to memorize a phone number these days? And all that time I spent memorizing sports records seems like such a waste now that anything we want or need to know is easily found with a quick and simple Internet search. We just need to know the key search words that will lead us to the facts. Or the fake news, as the case may be.

In many ways, this is awesome. There’s only so much room in my head for information, useless or otherwise, so I’m OK with keeping most of it stored on a hard drive or the cloud or wherever it is Google stores such things. If I need it – say, to win an important argument about who is the all-time leading scorer in NAIA men’s basketball history – I know where, or at least how, to find it.

On the other hand, I’ve come to recognize the value of the basic disciplines my parents tried so hard to instill into my ever-resistant soul when I was growing up.

For instance, I argued for years that it was pointless to make my bed each morning when, as was plainly obvious to anyone, I would mess it up again that evening. Why not keep it perpetually prepared for my impending slumber? As an adult, however, I’ve discovered that making the bed each day provides a nice sense of order in the midst of my sometimes chaotic life. Plus, it makes my wife happy. I retain many of my youthful slob-like tendencies, but I find comfort in knowing things are well ordered. Things have a place and they are in their place.

Retaining knowledge is as important as ever. Very often, I hear arguments on the political debates of our day that are weakly rooted in quick Google searches that led to unverified articles that shade the truth and do little more than promote confirmation bias. But retaining knowledge requires discipline, and some of us, myself included, aren’t particularly good at it.

This is frustrating at times, but never more than when I’m trying to remember a Bible verse. Of all the things we should memorize, scripture should top the list. Yet, I stink at this discipline. I’m not bad at remembering what scripture says, but I fail miserably at quoting it chapter and verse. I’ve used a journal, index cards and an app. I memorize verses for a few weeks or months, but then they slip away.

That’s OK, though, because I know I never want to become just an indexer of God’s word. I want to keep it in my heart. So, I’ll keep at it and do the best I can. If I forget the chapter and verse but remember the gist of the message, I figure I’ve gained something important. I might not have every pillow fluffed perfectly and properly placed, but I’ve made my bed.

Trivial side note: I was a cub reporter working for the Arkansas Democrat in the late 1980s when someone on the sports copy desk asked the question, “Who’s the NAIA’s all-time leading scorer in men’s basketball?” There was no Google, so I reached for the NAIA media guide. Before I could flip a page, Robert Yates, a college kid working with us part-time, said, “Bevo Francis.” And he was right. Two other players have since surpassed Francis on the career scoring list. But Francis still holds the record for most points in a game, scoring 113 for Rio Grande (Ohio) in a 1954 game against Hillsdale (Mich.).

Clarence “Bevo” Francis

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Finding Wisdom in Troubling Times

Deciding on a blog topic isn’t always easy, and not always because you feel like you have nothing worth saying. I seldom have writer’s block. More often, I have writer’s fire hydrant. And the Charlottesville violence left me overwhelmed with opinions and ideas regarding racism, monuments, statues, hatred, evil, protests, politics and all sorts of other things that were spewing forth from my mind.

How can I write everything I’m thinking and feeling? How can I contribute beyond all the other voices? What should I say and how should I say it?

Then I re-read Proverbs 8, one of my favorite books in the scriptures. Rather than doting on the symptoms of the problems we face in this world, it speaks to the cure for the root cause of our disease. It won’t tell you if statues should come down in your town’s square, what you should or shouldn’t write on Facebook, or specifically how to respond to friends and neighbors who look or think differently than you. But it will tell you how to put yourself in a position to find those answers.

Proverbs 8 is 36 beautiful verses, 33 of which are poetically written in the personified voice of wisdom. Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52), and the troubles in our lives and in this world are rooted in a lack of wisdom. Eve took that first bite of the forbidden fruit because she lacked wisdom. Adam stood passively beside her, ignoring his responsibility as a husband, because he lacked wisdom. Racists in America and terrorists in Europe drive cars into crowds because they lack wisdom. So, when wisdom speaks, we should listen.

Here’s some of what you’ll learn about wisdom when you leave this blog and read Proverbs 8 for yourself:

  • She raises her voice and takes a stand.
  • She detests wickedness.
  • She is just and righteous.
  • She is more valuable than silver, gold or rubies.
  • She dwells with prudence.
  • She isn’t the same thing as knowledge, but she possesses knowledge … and discretion.
  • There are things she hates … evil, pride, arrogance, perverse speech.
  • Her insights are powerful.
  • Those who seek her, find her.
  • She was the “first” of the Lord’s works and present for creation.
  • She brings a blessing to those who keep her ways.
  • She is the path toward life; without her, the path leads to death.

Wisdom isn’t synonymous for Christ or God the Father or the Holy Spirit, but the Trinity possesses and provides wisdom to draw us to Jesus and to strengthen our relationship with God. The wisest thing we can do is surrender our lives to Christ, and then we can begin to really grow in wisdom because we’re listening to Him, not to our flesh. As we navigate the troubling times in which we live, we need this wisdom more than ever.


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The Blog God Spiked

Several weeks ago, I wrote two blogs and scheduled them to post while Audrey and I were on vacation. When we returned, I realized one of them never posted. One of two things happened. I didn’t schedule it properly or my really, really smart, hi-tech blog posting system malfunctioned. You decide.

Last week, I reread the blog and decided to use it. I polished it up, sent it to a friend for proofing, and then reread it one last time yesterday morning with plans to post it today. That’s when it hit me: Don’t post this blog.

There’s nothing wrong with the content itself. Actually, I rather liked it. It wasn’t particularly deep, but it reflected my warped sense of humor and made a decent point about how leaders can use manual labor (e.g., not typing) to clear their minds and spark some creativity.

Then something dawned on me. About the time that blog was originally scheduled to post, someone I know died while doing the exact hard work I had described. I suddenly imagined his friends and family reading this tongue-in-cheek blog and finding no humor in it at all. My heart sank, but my spirits quickly lifted. There’s no greater feeling than to realize the hand of God somehow intervened in your life. I’ve experienced it in some big ways – like with the birth of my children or the day I realized Audrey was “the one” for me.

So, today’s blog is about the blog I didn’t write. The one God spiked for me – twice.

We never know when God will allow us to see how He is intervening, but our response should always be the same: Thank you, thank you, thank you.


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