The excitement with which we entered the cable car quickly became apprehension. Whilst on holiday in northern Italy, Dad took my brother and me on a boys mountain biking trip. The plan was simple: hire bikes, get in a cable-car, bike back down to the bottom of the mountain. As we waited, decked out in shorts, tee shirts, and backpacks, three Italian men entered the cable-car with their bikes wearing what could only be described as full body armour.
What were we letting ourselves in for?
As it happens, our fears were well founded. We were hopelessly ill equipped for what turned out to be a ‘walk your bike slowly back down to the bottom of the mountain’ trip.
Whenever Jesus talks about life following him as his disciple, he is clear that it is the best life going: ‘I have come that they may have life, and life to the full!’ (John 10:10). But he is also clear that it is a very challenging life. A narrow road (Matt. 7:13-14), that comes at significant personal cost (Mark 8:34-35), with great pressure to fall back in line with the rest of the world on the broad road (John 15:18-19). Which is why the Bible is clear that disciples must not just be won, but discipled: equipped with everything they need for the wonderful but challenging life following Jesus. This is a vital function of the local church. Indeed, any church that isn’t effectively equipping disciples is failing in one of their core responsibilities.
There is more to say on this than a short article allows, but two vital ingredients of a disciple-equipping church stand out: Bible teaching and genuine community.
1. Bible teaching
When Paul left his young trainee, Timothy, with the job of pastoring the church in Ephesus, he urged him,
All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
To be equipped himself in the role of equipping the believers in Ephesus, Timothy had
everything he needed in the Bible. That shouldn’t be surprising given that these are God’s own ‘breathed out’ words. We may have questions about the Bible, its authority and reliability, but the claim here is that it should function in the life of a church not as a dusty reference book, but as a vital training manual, known, loved and used by all.
‘Bibles in the pews’, is a great start, but the goal is always ‘Bibles in our hearts’, as God’s Spirit writes the truth he inspired in the Bible into the particular circumstances and challenges of our own lives, and through that equips us as his people.
This happens through preaching: Timothy is called upon to ‘preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage- with great patience and careful’ instruction’ (2 Timothy 4:2). It also happens through small groups, and 121, as Paul himself had modelled when he himself was in Ephesus: ‘you know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house’ (Acts 20:20).
Jesus gives his church people with word ministry/teaching gifts, to do this work of equipping:
'It was Christ who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.' Ephesians 4:11-12
If we want to be a church who are thoroughly equipped for the joyful but demanding life of Christian discipleship, learning together from the Bible must be central. But it’s not everything we need.
2. Genuine community
You can get just about everything online. Brilliant preaching (in fact, much better preaching that you get from your regular pastor), Bibles, audio Bibles, study notes, even theology courses. So what’s to stop me plugging in and getting equipped as a disciple from the comfort of my own home?
As amazing as these online resources are, they will only get you so far. Because for deep transformative discipleship to take place, there must be relationship. Here are a one example of many Biblical passages that make this point.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. Col. 3:16
Picture of a group of believers gathering together to sing praises to God, and to deepen their relationship with Christ by teaching one another. Not just listening to a sermon! Because Jane knows that Amy is having a nightmare with the kids, she can speak God’s words of truth and encouragement meaningfully into Amy’s situation. Because Jonny knows that Mike has just lost his job, they can meet for a drink, and Jonny can share his own experience of God’s faithfulness to him in a similar situation.
This is the kind of thing the apostle Paul has in mind when he says ‘instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ’ (Eph 4:15).
And it’s not just speaking. It’s also serving. Jesus has poured out the gifts of the Spirit into the lives of believers so we might serve one another in love (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12:1-31).
All of which requires us to really get to know each other. To make coming to church a real priority (which always requires putting other things lower down the priority list), and to take the time not just to attend, but to develop a genuine community made of genuine relationships.
The wonderful but challenging call to be disciples requires us to be well equipped. So let’s strive to be a church who keeps learning together from the Bible, and keeps growing together in love and community.