Have you ever felt alone in the trenches of ministry?
I felt the real sting of loneliness in ministry for the first time about five years ago. My husband became the student minister at our church in Raleigh. We entered a healthy and thriving ministry, but lost many of our volunteer leaders over the first few months. We felt alone in the trenches of ministry.
I’ll never forget when my breaking point came. One Friday morning, I took a thirteen year old girl out to breakfast at Chick-fil-A to just to hang out. After we finished our biscuits and were beginning to stand up to leave, this freckled-face redhead boldly blurted out, “Um.. Emily…Can we meet every Friday? Will you teach me how to study the Bible?”
I froze. Tears filled my eyes.
The very moment I started to say “Absolutely!” the flood of other discipleship meetings and pressing ministry needs came to the forefront of my mind. I felt sick to my stomach. I stammered, “Oh sweet girl, I would love to but unfortunately, I can’t commit to every Friday.” I took a deep breath and all of a sudden found new resolve, so I said, “But… I will find someone else who can.”
You may have never found yourself crying in Chick-fil-A with a thirteen year old staring at you, but most likely you can relate. Your loneliness may have come as you and your spouse pour out your lives to serve others in your city.
You and your spouse cook meals, babysit children, volunteer at community events, listen to marital struggles, and open your home until the wee hours of the night to your neighbors. Your spouse darts off from one coffee meeting to another with members of your core leadership team hoping to love them well in the midst of their daily struggles. You labor to prepare a Bible study for the small gathering in your living room, praying that group forms into a church one day.
You wonder if anyone will ever help bear the load.
Including Others in the Work of Discipleship
If you have found yourself in a season where you feel alone in the trenches of ministry, you may be asking, “Where do we go from here?” You feel the pressure to recruit people to fill volunteer roles on Sunday mornings. You’d like to find someone else to take dinner to that member who just had a baby. You long to fill the seats of your worship center (or living room if you are a new church plant). What need comes first?
To understand how to prioritize our needs, we must keep our eyes focused on our mission. Our churches exist because of Jesus’ last words famously recorded in Matthew 28:18-20– the Great Commission. In this passage, Jesus defines the mission of the church as making disciples.
We see the early church carrying out this mission throughout the book of Acts (Acts 1:8, Acts 14:21-23). Paul further unpacks the command to make disciples as Paul instructs his son Timothy to not just to make disciples, but to make disciples who in turn make more disciples. He says, “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1-2)
Friends, if you find yourself alone in the trenches I would like to humbly suggest that developing disciple-makers is your first and greatest need.
"“If you find yourself alone in the trenches I would like to humbly suggest that developing disciple-makers is your first and greatest need.”"
But how do we do this? When we found ourselves alone in ministry five years ago, we distilled the following principles by watching the elders of our church lead our congregation. They created a culture of making disciples throughout the church that we applied on a smaller scale within our student ministry. I believe these hold true for church planters as well.
1. Pray for God develop disciple-makers in your church
It would be so much easier if the first and greatest need you had was to find someone to bake a casserole, but instead, it’s to develop disciple-makers. This weighty task is impossible unless the Holy Spirit does the work. Humbly plead with the Lord to do a work in your church by sending co-laborers to reap the gospel-fruit He is growing in your city. Be comforted that He is a good Father who gives His children what they ask of Him, and that He will gladly go before you to prepare the hearts of your people. He will strengthen you for the task at hand.
2. Talk about making disciples from the front
In your weekly gatherings, keep the mission of making disciples before your people. Weave it into your sermon as the text allows. Help your people believe that making disciples is one of their primary roles as a follower of Christ. Show them that they both need to be discipled and to disciple others. “Make disciples” must be a phrase they become accustomed to hearing and is woven into the identity of your church.
3. Develop leaders who are disciple-makers
Your time is limited, so be strategic. Follow the pattern set by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:2– teach faithful men who can in turn teach more faithful men. To the best of your ability, concentrate the majority of your energy into investing in a few people who have leadership potential or who are already in leadership roles. The men and women you disciple now could be developed to labor alongside you and follow the pattern you have set.
Imagine what a church would look like if every elder and ministry leader was also a disciple-maker: An elder disciples the Children’s Minister. The Children’s Minister disciples a few key children’s ministry leaders. Those leaders disciple Sunday school teachers, and those Sunday school teachers love, serve, and disciple the families within their class. It’s a grand and perhaps an ideal vision, but wouldn’t it be a beautiful church? Pray and work to create a culture of discipleship flowing from the top down to reach every single member.
You may be thinking…
“I am meeting with a few people I hope will be leaders, but they aren’t catching on to this vision.”
“As a church planter, I’m only discipling new believers right now, and they are far from being co-laborers and leaders in the church.”
Make sure you have a clear direction for your discipleship. I am concerned that we often gather with members of our church, but rarely disciple. What do your meetings look like? Do your meetings look more like two friends casually hanging out? Or possibly even counseling through a specific sin struggle? A key component of discipleship is that we are lovingly and humbly instructing another believer in the Word of God– we are passing on the faith and laboring to help them grow in maturity. A part of their maturing is wrapped up into their own call to make disciples. Making disciples is an act of love and obedience to God (Mark 12:30-31; 1 John 4:19-21; John 14:15, 23, 15:12-14; Matt 28:19-20). We must call those we are discipling to obey Jesus by making disciples– there is no litmus test of when is too soon. Keep them centered on God’s Word, use discernment, and shepherd them through the process.
Or, you may read all of that and say– “Yes! That is exactly what I am doing! They still aren’t catching on.” Persevere in prayer and know your job isn’t to change their hearts. Your Heavenly Father sovereignly controls their hearts. Your calling is to be obedient and faithful. I’m praying for you, brother and sister, to be strengthened by grace as you labor in this difficult trench.
4. Understand what is holding your people back and address those areas
A few months ago, my pastor’s wife and I became burdened that the majority of the women in our church were not meeting together to disciple one another– despite having a culture of disciple-making ministry leaders. We began to talk about ways we could encourage and equip them to do so, and we found an avenue through teaching a Sunday evening class called Disciple-Making Women. Throughout the course of this class, we have been teaching the ladies about the work of discipleship. A few weeks into the course, we asked them to share what obstacles were holding them back from beginning. We synthesized these objections into 5 categories: (1) Fear- How do I lead someone else?; (2) Time- When can I actually do it?; (3) Adequacy- What if I’m not good enough?; (4) Personality differences- What if I don’t get along with the person?; (5) Lack of desire- What if the person I am meeting with doesn’t care? What if I don’t see the need?
And so, with this new knowledge, we began figuring out ways to address these specific concerns in this class. It has been beautiful to watch these ladies step out of their comfort zones and join us in the work of making disciples.
5. Create clear pathways for discipleship
Give a clear avenue of where members can go for discipleship– either to be discipled or to help disciple others– and then provide support for those groups. This does not have to be a formal program of “discipleship groups,” but there should be a well-communicated channel for pursuing discipleship. This can happen within the context of your small groups or as an extension of your discipleship ministry. However, don’t assume that it will naturally happen. People will grow discouraged and afraid if they hear from the pulpit that discipleship is a means of their growth and maturity in Christ, but do not know how to find someone to disciple them or find someone to disciple. Consistently highlight where and how they should go about initiating these relationships, and then be available for counsel and support as they begin the work of discipleship.
6. Celebrate it as it happens
Remember that your church will prioritize what you celebrate. Rejoice when God answers your prayers and you are no longer alone in the trenches! Share testimonies of God’s work in people’s lives through discipleship. Share photos of it happening on social media. John 13:35 says: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” So, allow others to see the beauty of the unity of the Body of Christ. It is a powerful testimony and tool to reach others. People want to be in a group of people who authentically love and serve one another, and a disciple-making church does just that.
It’s not a one-time process
A disciple-making church is not built upon an easy 6-step process but over the long haul and through these regular rhythms. Although it doesn’t answer the immediate question of who will help you bear the load you are carrying right now, this long view of ministry will establish a disciple-making culture within a healthy church.
I can celebrate and testify that these commitments have been the bedrock of our congregation and also helped pull my husband and I out of the trench. Today, we get the privilege of watching a team of excellent leaders disciple teenagers in our church while coaching them through the joys and challenges of discipleship.
Soon, I’ll be in your boat as a church planter’s wife and I may need to re-read this post for future encouragement. But until then, my friends, know that we are praying for you and love you deeply. We are glad you are in the trenches with us laboring for the Kingdom of God.