Bible Gateway interviewed Alan Briggs about what it takes to make disciples.
An estimated 4,000 churches are planted every year. An estimated 3,700 churches close every year. It’s not easy starting or sustaining a vital Christian witness of any kind. It’s even harder when there’s no structure to support the good work you’re doing.
What does being a disciple of Jesus mean?
Alan Briggs: We become numb to words through overuse. The word “disciple” accidentally represents one who simply fills their week with Bible studies and their head with scripture. Those practices are great, but they’re incomplete.
I define a disciple as someone who is actively learning Jesus, obeying Jesus and reproducing Jesus into others. We must learn his life and commands if we’re to obey them. When we obey him we simply cannot miss his call to embody and proclaim the best message in history to those around us.
Why don’t you think American (and other) Christians are serious about the concept of discipleship?
Alan Briggs: Two main reasons.
First, we live in an information culture in the West. We’re overloaded by information. Most Christians have no idea where to focus. Should we do a book study? Should we start a small group? Should we study a book of the Bible? The scores of Christian books on Amazon are overwhelming, but most Christians are overwhelmed to simply open their Bible and choose one book or chapter. This leaves us petrified, so we choose to run and hide. The issue is not usually in knowing enough about Jesus but in focusing our efforts to live in obedience.
Second, many Christians are overwhelmed at the complexity of their view of discipleship. Christian leaders have rarely presented laser-focused ways to get folks to start engaging Scripture, prayer, and learning Jesus in a community. We must always seek to whittle down the complexities into clear simplicity of learning Jesus, obeying Jesus and reproducing Jesus into others.
I’ve been teaching this material for years. I wrote Guardrails to give simple handles to guide followers of Jesus. The life of a disciple is not easy, but it’s simple. We must come back to simplicity.
Alan Briggs: The term “apprentice” is new to many people, but it’s an old term for a learner. Trades still use the term. Apprentices are willing to give their lives to learning so they can live into their destiny. I use “disciple” and “apprentice” interchangeably.
Every Christian is an apprentice of Jesus. Apprentices grow through experiential, relational, and formal learning. We learn the way of Jesus through his Word, through his people, and through joining with him in ministry. We’re always apprentices of Jesus, and we’re to apprentice others in our faith through spiritual reproduction.
What is the Kingdom of God and what role do Christians have in it?
Alan Briggs: Simply put, the Kingdom of God is the reign and rule of God in all things. Jesus was obsessed with bringing heaven to earth; a new way of embodying justice, generosity, grace, love, healing, and freedom.
This alternative Kingdom was the foundation for the life and ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul. Kingdom principles are laced all through Jesus’ ministry, but many followers of Jesus have missed it. I missed it for years myself. The Kingdom of God has been undervalued and under-understood.
Our role in God’s Kingdom work is fourfold:
We PRAY for his Kingdom to come. Jesus teaches the disciples to pray “Your Kingdom come.” This should anchor our lives and become a cry for liberation from the self-satisfaction and consumerism we’re immersed in. We should always be looking for how God is bringing heaven to earth and filling the cracks of brokenness in this world with the mortar of the gospel.
We OBEY Kingdom impulses. Next in progression is “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God invites us to participate in his work; to join with him co-laboring in his cosmic and life-altering mission. When the Holy Spirit prompts us to act we must respond.
We learn to SAY what God is up to. Telling stories of God’s advancing Kingdom is powerful. Those stories inspire others to join. When we keep keen eyes aware of what God is doing and how his Kingdom is advancing, we see glances of God’s plan unfolding. These stories become a sprinkling of lighter fluid to fires of his church.
We learn when to get of the WAY. Sometimes we’ll find ourselves trying to pry open a door to join God’s Kingdom work. We must learn when to get out of the way of what God is uniquely doing before we become an obstacle. Far too often we try to take credit for God’s work or resist raising up another leader because we’re controlling.
Alan Briggs: Discipleship is a journey. Imagine you’re driving a nail-biting mountain road with steep cliffs and drop-offs. Guardrails provide some safety to know if you were to brush up against them you won’t topple off the cliff. I see Christians everywhere who are hungry to follow Jesus, and they’re simply looking for a few pointers and a touch of theology to keep them moving safely in this discipleship journey.
Briefly outline each guardrail and its biblical foundation.
Alan Briggs: For discipleship to be sustained over a long period of time these six principles must be present. I call them SHARRP.
It must to SIMPLE. In 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, the apostle Paul confronts the tendency to complexify the gospel. “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Sometimes the greatest barrier to seeing gospel fruit in our ministry is ourselves. Until the cross is at the center of our ministry we’ve gotten the whole thing wrong.
We can be so wrapped up in big words and complicated tasks that our efforts literally become devoid of God’s power. As long as we think we’re impressive and prolific, people won’t see that Jesus is. We take the simple message of the gospel and jack it up. We accidentally add insulating layers and cool off the boiling hot message that Jesus died to get us off death row.
It must be HOLISTIC. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9 we encounter the importance of a faith that shapes every aspect of our lives in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” We express our obedience through loving God in all aspects of life: God and man, space and time, word and deed, inside and outside. Everything in life is spiritual territory.
It must the ADAPTABLE. The book of Acts chronicles the infancy of the church. Ordinary disciples simply respond to what the Holy Spirit asks them to do and what the context requires. You cannot extract a single model of ministry from the book of Acts, because they continue to adapt to the Holy Spirit. Obedience to the Holy Spirit brings God’s authority, so listening to the Spirit will always force us to adapt our ways to the will of God.
It must be REGULAR. The parable of the sower in Matthew 13 has a lot of teach us. Some seeds were eaten by the birds, scorched by the sun, and choked by thorns. But the last batch of seeds produced a significant harvest. I most frequently observe the seed falling on the rocky soil. Often I watch young believers grow rapidly but fizzle out because their roots are shallow. The busyness and worries of life hit all of us, and we get worn down. When our identity is not rooted in Jesus alone life is simply too hard, frustrating, distracting, and mundane to handle without Jesus. We must always be seeking a faith of the long haul where our practices are consistent and our focus is set on faithfulness.
It must be REPRODUCIBLE. Paul was more than just a teacher to Timothy; he was a spiritual father. Timothy was most likely estranged from his biological father, but Paul saw potential in him. He discipled him, equipped him, challenged him, raised him up to be a pastor, and kept in contact with him. This is the ideal process for spiritual reproduction. These words in 2 Timothy 2:2 encompass Paul’s reproducible discipleship process: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
Paul’s instructions to Timothy are clear: What you’ve seen and heard from me should be offered as a gift to others. This is a process for four generations of discipleship from the start: The discipler, the disciple, those the disciple entrusts with the message, and those who then hear the message. Kingdom leaders intentionally plant the seed of the gospel and challenge others to reproduce it. We should always be looking for more multipliers of the message of Jesus within us.
It must be POSITIVE. Most discipleship groups I encounter are motivated by shame and guilt instead of freedom in Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul approaches a hot topic in an unusual way. When addressing the topic of sexual immorality, a topic rampant in our culture today, he leads us to the positive. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We often try to motivate through negativity, but Paul creates a positive expectation. Jesus came to offer life “abundantly” (John 10:10), not simply escape from death. How would it change the groups and churches we lead if we aimed at glorifying God instead of managing sin? People would leave drenched in grace and freedom, yet challenged toward living in the way of Jesus.
How can Christians begin discipling relationships with their friends?
Alan Briggs: It starts with invitation. Pursue a few friends, and express a vision to grow toward Jesus together. Pick a regular time and place and ground yourself in one piece of Scripture. I recommend starting with The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as a primer for living a life like Jesus. Begin to look for others God is asking you to repeat this process with. I give tips in the book for effectively leading simple Jesus-shaped groups.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Alan Briggs: I use it regularly and love it! The main portal is an easy tool for reference, memorization, and sermon prep, but a lot of folks don’t know about the other tools. The Scripture Engagement tools are particularly helpful for folks who want to apply practical tools to their Scripture study.
Alan Briggs: Don’t believe all the articles claiming the Christian faith is dying. Yes, there’s a recalibration of faith today. Some are choosing to pursue Jesus apart from the local church. There’s no more social advantage to being called a Christian in North America, but that’s not all bad. The Christian faith is thriving in many countries today under persecution, and there are pockets of people in every country who are choosing to take Jesus seriously and embody his life. Jesus reassures us, “In this life there will be trouble; but take heart, I have overcome the world.”
Bio: Alan Briggs is the multiplying pastor at Vanguard Church, Colorado Springs, and the director of Frontline Church Planting. He’s the author of the newly released Guardrails and Staying Is the New Going: Choosing to Love Where God Places You. Visit him at alanbriggs.net.
This interview was published by Bible Gateway in Fall of 2016.