We have discipleship problems and chief among them is that nearly every Christian understands how important it is to be a disciple but has very different definitions of what it means to follow Jesus. So, let me clear it up.
A disciple is a follower of Jesus. Nothing more, nothing less.
Many Christians know we are supposed to follow Jesus, but we aren’t sure practically how that looks today. Crazily, we are living in a day of age where we have more discipleship information than ever. Yet, I would argue more confusion than ever.
Disciples need clear targets.
As Christians, we can have the best intentions in the world, but if we succeed at things that don’t actually matter, we can do more harm than good. D.L. Moody once said, “Our greatest fear shouldn’t be of failure but of succeeding at something that doesn’t matter.” So I’ll go a step further and say my greatest fear is that Christians succeed at something that actually pushes people away from Jesus.
It’s fine to have good intentions. But, in our good intentions, somehow, we’ve missed the targets that Jesus is most known for. Jesus is known for love, grace, good works, kindness, and unity. But, sadly, Christians, from the book UnChristian, are known for judgment, hypocrisy, division, and being out-of-touch.
If Jesus is known for grace, which is getting a free gift you don’t deserve, and we are known for judgment, which is getting what you do deserve, we have miserably failed. By definition, judgment and grace are opposites. We have missed the mark. If Jesus is known for unity and we are known for division, we’ve missed the mark. If Jesus is known for His good works and we are known for our hypocrisy, we’ve missed the mark.
We haven’t just missed the mark a little bit. Instead, we’ve become known as the exact opposite of the One we are called to embody.
Intention to follow Jesus without precision on Jesus leads to confusion.
It’s time to shoot at the correct targets. If our intent is to follow Jesus, let’s take precise aim at Jesus. Why would we look to anyone other than Jesus for how to be a disciple? It’s not like we have to guess what a disciple looks like. God sent His Son Jesus into this world to not only give His life for us, but He also showed us the path to follow Him as well.
Intention to follow Jesus with precision on Jesus leads to transformation.
About a decade ago, as I was planting a church, I had this longing to lead my church beyond its comfort zone. I noticed strengths from my core group. Loyalty, commitment, and generosity to support a church plant were chief among them. But, when it came to serving in the community or inviting a friend to go to church, I noticed pushback. So, I came up with this crazy idea. If they won’t listen to me, someone they certainly cared about but was new in their lives, might they listen to Jesus? So, here was the question I began pondering:
What if we take the words of Jesus and actually put them into practice?
Before you start giving me too much credit for my idea, I must admit that I stole the idea from Jesus Himself. Jesus provides us with the key to following Him at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.
“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” Matthew 7:24-27
If you have read the Sermon on the Mount, you know it’s rather difficult to understand. Jesus uses humor and sarcasm and introduces counter-cultural ideas. It amazed all who were in attendance. It still amazes us today.
But what stuck out to me is that He closes this sermon with an illustration so simple that it reminds me of the children’s story “The Three Little Pigs.”
Jesus is saying, “If you want your house to stand up and not to blow over when the winds, or the storm, or the bad, evil wolf comes, practice what I’m preaching. Do what I say.” Jesus says in Luke 11:28: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” James, the brother of Jesus, says it even more simply in James 1:22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
That’s the big idea. To change the picture we are giving of Jesus, we will take Jesus’ words, the ones written in red letters in your Bibles, and put them into practice. That’s the very unoriginal yet revolutionary idea that will change not just the followers of Jesus but the world in which we live!
Another way to say it is this: The best way to follow Jesus is simply to follow Jesus!
So, on the heels of this Jesus-centered idea, I read through all of the Red Letters in the Bible. You know, the words of Jesus. I analyzed everything He said, mainly regarding what He is calling, commanding, and asking His followers to do.
The more I looked at what Jesus asked, called, and invited His followers into, I found what I believe are the five most important targets for disciples to shoot for. These five targets form the basis for the bestselling book Red Letter Challenge:
Let me break each of these down for you quickly. But before I teach these targets to you, I must point out that if you are on a discipleship path, and it’s working for you, Praise God! Keep going! Most of us aren’t. Most of the people we pastor in our churches are not. And so why not start with the targets that most frequently came out of the mouth of Jesus?!
Target 1: Being
Before God ever asks us to do anything, He simply asks us to be with Him.
After years of seeing hundreds of thousands of people complete Red Letter Challenge, I genuinely believe that being is the most important of all of the targets. Why? Because all of our doing flows out of being in a relationship with Him.
Jesus often speaks of ways we could “be” with God. For example, there are verses where He asks us to abide in His Word, pray earnestly, and worship God. Other times Jesus references fasting, eating, celebrating, and Sabbath. All of these are opportunities to spend time with God and grow in our relationship with Him.
At the root of it all, God desires to be in a relationship with you. He doesn’t have to. And here’s the truth about God. He doesn’t need you. He doesn’t require you, me, or any one of us. But He wants us. He desires a relationship with us. He invites us into it.
Our doing flows out of our being. I hope our ministries flow primarily out of the overflow of our hearts, our relationship with God. If not, while results may come here and there, all of our doing will eventually end in our burnout, moral failure, or some slow bleed into mediocrity and apathy.
Many people want to be greater followers of Jesus, and they want some handles on the process. It doesn’t start with rules—it begins with a relationship. There was only one person who ever existed in a perfect relationship with God, and His name was Jesus!
The best way to grow in our relationship with God is to learn from Jesus, the only One who had a perfect relationship with God.
Jesus invites us into this opportunity. Matthew 11:28-29 (MSG) says it this way: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me, and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
Many of us talk about wanting to be great followers of Jesus. You cannot be a great follower of Jesus without being in a great relationship with Him. Our doing is just so much more effective when it comes out of our being.
When we look to Jesus, we will learn just how to “be” like Him. To be like Jesus, we need to be with Jesus. If you’d like to learn more about how Jesus connected with God, what habits were in His life, check out Being Challenge.
Target 2: Forgiving
Jesus speaks a lot about forgiveness. Sadly, though, we have a forgiveness problem. We aren’t gracious of others because we are rarely gracious to ourselves. Most Christians have a more challenging time receiving God’s forgiveness for themselves than they do in actually forgiving others.
Incredibly, nearly every time that Jesus speaks of forgiving others, it’s connected to your own receiving of God’s grace.
- Matthew 6:12: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
- Luke 6:37: Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
- Luke 11:4: Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
Even the Apostle Paul doubles and triples down on it in his words.
- Ephesians 4:32: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
- Colossians 3:13: Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
All of this leads me to this conclusion:
Forgiven people become forgiving people.
Jesus paid the penalty of sin for you and for me. Ephesians 2:8-9 says it perfectly for us: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”
After receiving His forgiveness, then you learn and grow in forgiving others. The world needs the grace of Jesus like never before. So start today and receive His forgiveness in your life. To go on a 40-day journey to help you receive God’s grace, check out Forgiving Challenge.
Target 3: Serving
We live in a world starving for meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. Sadly, most people attempt to consume more, consume greater, and consume bigger. And, ultimately, that will lead us to fulfillment. We’ve never consumed more than today, yet collectively, statistics show that we’ve never been as empty as we are right now. I wonder how much longer we will chase after the things of this world to fill that void.
The reality is that fulfillment doesn’t come with consumption. Fulfillment is best experienced in contribution. There is a very little-known verse in the very well-known story of Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus says in John 4:34, “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.
Jesus reminds us that what nourishes and fills us up is not when we consume but rather when we contribute. Jesus felt more revitalized, rejuvenated, and filled up when he served others.
That way of thinking goes entirely against our human nature, doesn’t it?
Sin has turned our perfect attention away from serving God and others to instead serving ourselves. See, at the core of every one of us is sin, and sin makes us self-centered and self-aware. By default, we automatically think of ourselves first. By nature, we are natural consumers. “Have it your way” comes easy and natural to us. Contributing does not.
Not surprisingly to me, psychology teaches this truth of Jesus to us. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs introduces what brings human beings ultimate fulfillment. He teaches that the greatest fulfillment we can have on this side of heaven is when we help serve someone else so they can achieve their highest potential. So if you are running empty, or trying to find why you exist in this world, serve God. Not only does it help others, but it profoundly fills you.
After we’ve spent time with God (BEING) in a relationship and received His grace (FORGIVING), now we can’t wait to use our gifts and talents (SERVING)! In fact, directly after the grace-filled verses we read earlier, the apostle Paul writes, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10
It’s no coincidence where this verse sits.
Our gratitude for what God has done leads us to serve Him. We don’t serve God because we have to or because it’s how we earn our salvation. Instead, we serve God because of everything He’s done for us, and for this reason:
While serving others won’t save you, it just may help save someone else.
You have what the world needs inside of you. His name is Jesus. As we spread His Light into this world, we give people the opportunity to glorify our God. And nothing is more fulfilling and rewarding than making an eternal difference.
Target 4: Giving
Jesus talked about money more than he did love, heaven, or hell. In fact, he spoke more about money than any other topic except the kingdom of God. Yes, money.
The more I read the words of Jesus, the more I’m convinced it’s impossible to be a stingy Christian. We cannot follow Jesus well and, at the same time, ignore his teaching on money. If you are truly following Jesus, you are generous.
Why would Jesus talk about money so much? He knows the power that money can have in our lives. That’s why He said, in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus wants a relationship. He wants our hearts. And where our money is there our hearts are. Where is your money?
He also talked about money because people desperately need wisdom and perspective regarding their finances. We live in a nation with unparalleled prosperity. Yet, amid that prosperity, financial stress is the norm. You see it in almost everyone you come in contact with. Look at this list of things that are considered normal:
- living paycheck to paycheck
- paying off monthly payments
- acquiring debt
- experiencing worry, anxiety, and fear in your finances
- having tension and fights in your marriage (it’s the number one topic of argument in marriages, according to a Stanley and Markham study)
- having little or no financial margin.
If those things are considered normal, I want to be weird. I want to be different. It turns out that when we make this life all about collecting more, it doesn’t actually equate to a fulfilling life.
Jesus shows us and offers us a better way.
The heart of the Good News is that we have eternal life because God gave His one and only Son Jesus. And Jesus gave up His life for you and for me. So when we give, we reflect the heart and character of our God.
Giving like Jesus will definitely challenge you, but why not? Our typical approach to finances is not working. So let’s be weird like Jesus. After all, Jesus said, “Is it better to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35
Target 5: Going
Final words are important. In courtrooms, closing statements have had the power to sway a verdict of guilt or innocence. In addition, the last recorded words of a person’s life carry importance to them. We have four written Gospel accounts on the life of Jesus plus the story of His ascension in the book of Acts. Therefore, there are five opportunities to see what could be the “final red letters” of Jesus. While the words that close Matthew known as the Great Commission are the most popular, Jesus, in fact, issues a similar invitation at, or near, the end of all four Gospels. And, if that’s not enough, He reminds us again in His very few and final words before He ascends in Acts 1.
Don’t take my words for it. Look at His words:
- Matthew 28:19: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.
- Mark 16:15: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
- Luke 24:47-48: Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
- John 20:21: As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.
- Acts 1:8: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
In Jesus’s final words, He reminded us that what God put inside of us is meant to come out of us. Let us not overcomplicate things, though. At the end of the day, Jesus is asking each of us to be His witnesses. And what is a witness? Someone who tells their story. We do not need a doctoral dissertation or understand how everything lines up. We don’t need to share facts about the whale that consumed Jonah or how God created the world in 6 24-hour periods. I’m not saying any of that isn’t important. I’m simply saying the power in sharing the Good News of Jesus is connected to your story.
Because while some people may argue about the creation, the flood, or the whale, you know what they have a more challenging time arguing about? Your story. Because they can’t. It’s yours. There is power in your story. And, when you tell your story, you also have God’s promise that you do not go alone! God sends His Spirit with you.
I love how Revelation 12:11 puts it:
They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony;
How do we overcome the enemy? By the blood of the Lamb. That’s the blood that Jesus has already spilled for us on the cross. AND the word of our testimony. Before Jesus, we all had a death sentence hanging over our heads. Jesus removed it by His grace. And now, He calls us to go. With the power of God inside of us, go, share your story with others.
When we share our testimony of what Jesus has done in our lives, we will see death sentences removed from people all across the world.
Following after Jesus is the single greatest opportunity of our lifetime.
After all that Jesus has done in all of our stories, the stakes are too high and too crucial for us to settle for a mediocre, broken-down, shadow-at-best version of Jesus. So instead, let’s show the world who Jesus really is. When we collectively give the greatest and fullest expression of Jesus that we can possibly can, that’s when the world will change.
But, the greatest and fullest expression of Jesus simply cannot happen without you.
We need you. Others need you. You need us. And we all need more Jesus.
Let’s do this.