Bring Discipleship Back to the Church for Crazy Busy Christians

Tim Keller has said, “I don’t know any pastor who has been more personally fruitful in discipleship ministry than Randy Pope. Nor do I know of any church leader who has had a more sustained, lifelong commitment to making the ministry of discipleship a pervasive force throughout his whole church.”

Pope’s new book, Insourcing: Bringing Discipleship Back to the Local Church (Zondervan), tells the story of how his congregation has learned to bring discipleship back from the margins of church life to the mainstream over the past 25 years. Insourcing brims with practical guidance for anchoring robust personal discipleship where it’s always belonged: in your church.

I corresponded with Pope, founding pastor of Perimeter Church in Atlanta, about the concept of “insourcing,” what he has against Bible studies, and what he’d say to crazy busy Christians. You can learn more from Pope on this topic in his workshop at The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference, one week from today on April 9. There’s still time to register; we’ll see you in Orlando!

What are the most common discipleship-related misconceptions or mistakes you perceive in evangelical churches today? 

The greatest misconception in most churches today is that if we simply give good directions, we can delegate the work of the ministry and expect good outcomes. Of course we can all point to that rare hearty soul who goes and does as instructed, but I’ve found that, as Ken Blanchard says, moving from directing to delegating tends to create “disillusioned-learners.” As leaders, then, it’s important we grasp the significance. We may unwittingly create disillusioned learners, and the tragedy is that these individuals may never fully comprehend that God can use them in his greater story of redemption—even if their first attempt ended in failure. We believe something more than directing and delegating is needed.

What is “insourcing” and why is it significant?

Obviously it’s a bit of a play on words. For decades the church has been focused on a lot of things other than life-on-life discipleship. Such discipleship has been largely “outsourced” to ministries that make this their primary focus. “Insourcing” calls pastors to bring discipleship back into the local church. I talk to pastors who really don’t believe that life-on-life missional discipleship can be done within the church. I understand their thinking and somewhat sympathize. However, if we believe the church has the opportunity to affect the lives of individuals and then through those individuals to affect communities, cities, and people around the world, it’s imperative we have a plan for helping them become mature and equipped followers of Christ. Our desired outcome should be mature and equipped followers investing their lives in the lives of others and taking the good news of the gospel to the lost world in which they live, work, and play.

Why don’t you allow your small groups to turn into Bible studies?

Okay, let me clearly say that we are not against Bible studies. At Perimeter we have many groups who gather together, and they do a variety of studies. Many of those small groups do indeed study the Bible. In this statement, I’m making a distinction between small groups and our Journey Groups, which are a part of our life-on-life missional discipleship effort. When I say I don’t allow my Journey Group to become a Bible study, I mean that Bible study should take place as preparation for our time together; therefore, when we gather we’ll have time to do the many other things necessary for making mature and equipped followers of Jesus.

For instance, we make sure the Truth being discussed is both understandable and usable, which we refer to as Equipping. Our Journey Groups also include Accountability, since Truth always has implications as it works in and through our lives. After challenging one another in the area of Mission, we invest in prayer (Supplication) for one another. This forms a framework we call TEAMS, and it serves as an operating system for our life-on-life missional discipleship Journey Groups.

Life-on-life discipleship doesn’t “just happen,” you observe. “It takes hard work and a defined plan.” Given that busyness is such a common hindrance to such discipling relationships, what would you say to the believer who desires to disciple but struggles to find the time?

People are busy. They have little or no margin in their lives. Certainly the people at Perimeter are no different. However, as is often the case with busy people, they aren’t opposed to engaging in something if the return exceeds the value of the time invested. People want their life to count for something. When believers begin to understand God’s story, their first impulse is a desire to understand their role in it. Our job as leaders, then, is to show them how they can engage without sacrificing their families or suffering from burnout. Skills are needed to find a life balance that allows men and women to be intentional about their choices rather than just going with the flow. Discipleship gives men and women an opportunity to gain those skills. Further, through accountable relationships with members in the Journey Group, there’s built-in support for them as they seek to bring their lives into alignment with God’s calling. I often tell people, if you want a legacy, a generational effect, then give your life to investing in the lives of a few men or women. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a person growing spiritually and being used to help someone else do the same.

Over the past two decades, your church has resolved to make personal discipleship its “do-or-die aim.” How is this encouraged and carried out practically among your members?

Churches have personalities, and often take on the personalities of their leader. For better or worse, I know many of Perimeter’s characteristics are due to my long tenure as the founding pastor. In our context we speak often of the mission to which we feel God has called us—to “make and deploy mature and equipped followers of Christ for the sake of family, community, and global transformation.” That sets the table nicely for an ongoing need for people to be equipped and then to engage where they live, work, and play. Our desire is that they’d not be content to sit on the sidelines. We believe they want to invest their lives in something meaningful. So we encourage our people to become sincere worshipers and see themselves as kingdom ambassadors, taking the gospel to the people God has strategically placed in their lives. We could do better, but God has been kind as we continue to make ourselves available and seek to be faithful to his call on us as a church.