How to Be a Spiritual Parent

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Good follow-up includes meeting a new Christian’s many needs, and helping him learn to meet his needs on his own. A new Christian needs personal, individual attention.

Your example in living for Christ will set the pace for the new believer you are following up.

Your main follow-up tool is the Bible.

Your goal for the new believer is Christlike maturity that bears up under the strain of everyday life. Good follow-up will cost you something in time and prayer.

Parents watch in amazement as their sons and daughters grow. Babies turn into children and children into adults as the intricate processes of maturity unfold.

Follow-up—that is, being a spiritual parent—is like this too. It is watching in fascination as God uses you to help a believer who is young in his faith to grow.

Perhaps you are a parent with two or more children. If so you have learned that in certain respects all children are alike. As babies your children all needed their diapers changed, and they all needed milk. They slept a lot, and as they grew they learned to exercise and play. After seeing this with your first child you did not have to discover it again with your second. You weren’t surprised in the least when the second one wet his diapers or cried when he was hungry.

Does this mean you found a pattern for raising children that you have used identically with each child? Of course not. Your children do have common, basic needs which you have met in more or less the same way for each one. But each child is also unique. Each has required personal, individual attention from you. Any child must have this in order to properly mature.

So it is in spiritual follow-up. There are basic things every new believer in Christ needs. You don’t have to worry about whether he should read the Bible. You don’t have to determine whether he needs the support and acceptance of other believers, or whether he should pray. To really mature he needs all of these, no matter who he is.

But he will also have distinctly individual needs that must be met in distinctive ways.

Follow-up means meeting all these needs for young Christians—and teaching them how to meet their needs on their own. Follow-up is bringing individuals to spiritual maturity as disciples of Jesus Christ. And as the Episcopalian author and pastor Sam Shoemaker reminded us, disciples are hand-tooled, not mass-produced.

Paul was a diligent, effective workman in follow-up, and the Scriptures reveal the patterns in his efforts. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6). In this work of follow-up Paul knew that God is the chief laborer. God himself completes the work in a soul that begins when his Spirit causes a new birth there.

But in his work God uses people. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:11–13 of a dynamic process in which those with such gifts as evangelism and pastoring are to prepare God’s people for service, with the end result of their service being Christlike maturity for all believers. So this process of maturing, which we call follow-up, actually involves all Christians. The whole church with its leadership and laity has a part.

How unwise it would be for parents to raise a child in isolation. Without exposure to neighbors, schoolmates, teachers, and many others, a child’s development would indeed be shortchanged. Likewise in spiritual growth, new believers need help and stimulation from many other Christians.

But along with the fellowship of believers, a new Christian also needs personal, one-to-one attention. He needs help from someone. The heart of follow-up is one person working with another.

Paul told the Colossians that his goal was to help believers attain perfect maturity in Christ. “To this end I labor,” he said, “struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:28–29). How did Paul expend the energy God gave him? To what were his efforts directed? According to his own testimony he toiled not simply to win converts, but to help them reach maturity in Christ.

Paul reminded the Corinthians of his personal care for them in this way: “Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul was their one spiritual father.

Who can have this privilege of being a spiritual parent? It can be yours. Follow-up is not accomplished by programs but by people. God acts through us. As E.M. Bounds put it, “Men are God’s method.” In follow-up we are laboring with God in the ministry of developing better people.

What do you need to know or do to become an effective follow-up worker?

The place to start is with yourself. Are you growing in Christ? Do you desire to follow Christ and to mature in him, and do your plans and activities in life reflect this desire? Remember that it takes a disciple to make a disciple.

Be a pacesetter. Paul wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). We are called to live the kind of life that encourages those around us to strain a little harder to follow Christ more closely. Some of those we help may be highly gifted persons who in the end will accomplish more for God than we ever will. But they will never push out in front unless we set the pace for them in the early years of their faith. We must be in the race ourselves to help them run on to victory.

You will need a tool in follow-up—the Scriptures. A new believer who quickly learns the value of the Bible will have discovered the key to his spiritual growth. Paul knew this, and told the Thessalonians that he thanked God continually because they had accepted God’s word “not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

If you not only teach young Christians from the Scriptures, but also teach them to consistently get into the Bible for themselves, you will have made the greatest single contribution to their lives that you can make. They must learn to read and study the Bible intelligently, to memorize and meditate on it, and to apply it in their lives daily. This will keep them centered on the Lord. It will bring them back to the great mine of spiritual resources, the place where God’s promises are found.

Realize also that follow-up begins with your own evangelism. You can follow up new believers who have been led to Christ by others, or work with those who have been Christians for a longer time but only now are willing and desiring to follow Christ more closely. Effective follow-up with such persons is of course needed. But an even greater thrill comes when you personally lead someone to Christ—a neighbor, a co-worker, a family member—and then help that person become grounded in his new faith.

Therefore, as you share Christ with others, as you explain the gospel to them, as they openly respond to Christ and as you lead them in a prayer of repentance and faith to accept Christ into their lives—remember that your responsibility does not end there. It is only the beginning of a work that must be completed with follow-up. If God leads you into the spiritual battle of leading others to Christ, he will also guide you in caring for them and helping them grow.

Your goal for their growth is spiritual maturity, and the measure of this maturity is Christ-likeness. Paul told the Galatians that he was “again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (4:19). To the Ephesians he described maturity as “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). This taking shape of Jesus in a sinner’s life should be the aim of all follow-up.

God’s steadfast, unwavering purpose is that every Christian be conformed to Christ. The apostle John wrote confidently that when Christ appears,” we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2) Paul said that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29).

But Christlikeness does not mean conformity to a certain pattern of behavior you may think of as being Christian. Being Christlike does not mean memorizing verses or having a daily quite time or attending church. These may be involved in the process of becoming Christlike, but they are not the end. The real test of Christlikeness comes in the stresses and strains of everyday life.

How does a spiritually mature person act? Think again of the illustration of physical parenthood. A father and mother will want their child to develop a certain philosophy of life by the time he reaches adulthood. They will want him to have a certain point of view toward himself and others that is accurate and trustworthy, and that gives him a measure of stability.

They will want him also to make intelligent, confident decisions, adequately determining what is the right thing to do in difficult situations.

They will probably desire that their son or daughter chooses a good marriage partner and has a healthy, happy family.

The spiritual counterparts to these qualities are (1) a stable belief in and understanding of the Scriptures as the basis of faith and the standard for life, (2) the wisdom to discern between good and evil, and (3) the capacity for spiritual reproduction—knowing how to help others come to Christ and to grow in their faith.

Spiritual stability comes from a good understanding of the great truths of Scripture. We should not underestimate the value of knowing correct doctrine. Without it, Christians vacillate in their beliefs.

For example, take the matter of assurance of salvation. Now if someone is sure today he is saved and he’s not so sure tomorrow, but he’s quite certain the third day, yet doubting again on the fourth, he lacks maturity in this regard. He needs to understand and believe the promises of Scripture.

Not only is maturity in knowledge needed, but also maturity in character—the ability to discern between good and evil. This is a matter of time and practice. In Hebrews 5:14 we read that solid food —the deeper truth of God’s word—is for “the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Everyday experience and effort will be required to develop a lifestyle that conforms to biblical ethics.

You can help a young believer in this by encouraging him to make a stand for Christ now in what may seem like the “little things” of life. Taking care of these today will allow him to act in faith on bigger issues tomorrow.

Your goals for the person you’re following up:

  1. A stable belief in and understanding of the Scriptures as the basis of faith and the standard for life.
  2. The wisdom to discern between good and evil.
  3. The capacity for spiritual reproduction—knowing how to help others come to Christ and to grow in their faith.

Spiritual reproduction is a third mark of maturity. Jesus intended his first followers to spread his gospel so that others would believe, as we see in his prayer for the disciples in John 17: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.” Jesus commanded the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Disciples making disciples is God’s planned pattern for disseminating his presence in the world. This work requires mature Christians who can reproduce their own faith in Christ in the lives of others.

Bringing someone to this level of spiritual maturity is costly, just as being a good physical parent is. Follow-up is hard work because it requires you to give your life to someone. It takes time and energy. And it means opening yourself to close observation by a young believer.

As you begin helping others spiritually you may well come to a certain crisis point, if you stick with them long enough. As you reveal your life to them you may suddenly find that these new Christians have discovered your weaknesses. Fear may rise in your heart, and you may think, Maybe I should close the door now. But if you do, your follow-up will end. You must bring these young believers into your home, into your life and heart, and let them see that Christ’s presence can be manifested in a sinner.

Go places with them, listen to them, talk to them, think with them, pray with them. Follow-up is not done by something, but by someone—not a method or a system, but you.

Prayer, of course, is key in this. Prayer is an absolute essential because effective follow-up is really the work of God and his Spirit, and the true goal of follow-up is the formation of Christ in a person’s life. You are his instrument to help accomplish his purposes in the life of his child.

A student at Cambridge University named Forbes Robinson died of pneumonia when he was 21. Before his death he led a number of men to Christ, and he had a passionate heart to follow them up. He wrote the words below to one of them. Let his attitude be your own as you follow up others:

“I want you to be one of the best men who ever lived, to see Christ and to reveal Christ to other men. This is the burden of my prayers.

“My whole being goes out in passionate entreaty to God that he will give me what I ask, and I am sure that he will, because the request is after his own heart (Romans 8:28–29). I do not pray that you may succeed in life or get on in the world. I seldom even pray that I may see you oftener in this or any other land. I seldom pray that you may love me better, much as I crave this.

“But I do ask, I do implore, that Christ may be formed in you, that you may be made not in an image suggested by my imagination, but in the image of God; that you may realize not my ideal, but his ideal— however much my ideal may be real to me, however little I may recognize his when God creates it in you. I hate the thought that out of love for me you should accept my presentation, my feeble ideas of Christ. I want God to reveal his Son to you independently of me.

“I want God to give you a firsthand knowledge of him whom I’m only beginning to see. Sometimes, more selfish thoughts may intrude, but this represents the main current of my prayers, and if this idea is to be won from heaven by importunity, by ceaseless begging, I think I shall have it for you.”

You’ve been reading from Issue 1 of the Discipleship Journal. This article was written by Waldron Scott, who was general secretary of the World Evangelical Fellowship during the 1970s.

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