Imagine you are walking through a garden. Some areas are lush and filled with beautiful fruit. Then you take a few more steps and notice huge patches of dry ground where plants are bent over, withered, and brown. That dry patch will eventually produce dryness in the rest of the garden.
Our fundamental churches are like that garden. Wonderful aspects of our ministries are flourishing, and the perfectly green trees there give shade and encouragement. In the midst of the lush areas, however, are areas of discipleship and counseling where the soil of many of our fundamental churches is cracking and dangerously dry.
The First Layer of Dryness: The Lack of Discipleship
The first layer of dryness is the realm of discipleship. We are commanded in several passages of Scripture to build each other up in the faith. In his list of gifts in Ephesians 4, Paul clarifies the purpose of the gifts as …
the building up of the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects unto Him, Who is the head, even Christ (Eph. 4:12-15, NASB).
We would never dream of telling our physical children, “I give you a house to live in and food to eat. The rest of growing up is your job.” If we are to help the spiritual children grow up, we must invest personal time, energy, and thought into their development.
Some pastors say that their discipleship happens in the pulpit. I would agree that the preaching of God’s Word always builds the faith of the listener. However, Christ didn’t stop with just formal preaching. He taught His disciples many things He did not share with the masses. He spent time with the small band of followers, constantly teaching truth—sometimes to just one or two or three of the 12. He invested personal attention because He knew they would change the world with the truth He had given them.
The classic passage on discipleship is 2 Timothy 2:2—“And the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Paul gave Timothy individual tutoring about doctrine, pastoral theology, and personal growth. Unfortunately, in our fundamental churches, there’s often a great lack in the individual discipleship process. Seventy-one percent (708 people) of those who took the Young Fundamentalist Survey said they have never been personally discipled by anyone. We all make excuses for our lack of discipleship—“I don’t have time,” “I don’t know what to teach,” “Nobody wants to put the work into learning,” “That’s the job of the Sunday school teacher,” etc. The truth is, we don’t want to take the time and effort to build one another. Thousands of messages have been preached on Matthew 28:19-20. We hear about “the Great Commission,” “the great authority,” “the great power” of that passage. When is the last time you taught your people the other half of the Great Commission—“teaching them to learn of all things whatsoever I have commanded you”? Then why are we surprised when believers become spiritually dry? We are not pouring the water of life into their thirsting souls.
One practical suggestion for seeing real discipleship take place is to teach a group of mature believers how to disciple and then to assign them to one other person in the church on whom to practice the process. You as the leader would need to provide some discipleship tools to help them in their new endeavor. Another idea is to break up into small groups through the Bible Study Hour. Each group would have a leader who guides the group through a discipleship curriculum. This method would accomplish a two-fold purpose: (1) you would be training your mature believers how to disciple, and (2) you would be passing along biblical truth to your congregation. Ultimately, discipleship in your church will “make it or break it” through the example, the enthusiasm, and the emphasis of the leadership.
The Second Layer of Dryness: The Lack of Real Biblical Counseling
The soil of hearts gets dry not only because of the discipleship area but also because of the lack of real biblical counseling in most of our churches. I have often thought and taught that “biblical counseling” and “discipleship” are synonymous. I have recently come to change my opinion slightly. I see the purpose of both biblical counseling and discipleship to be taking each person from the level where he or she is to a new level of conformity to the image of Christ. That purpose statement comes from my philosophical foundation of the hope that is available in Christ—the sufficiency of Scripture for all matters and the efficacy of the truth for every problem of life. In those two areas, philosophy and purpose, a biblical counselor is a discipler and vice versa. The difference to me lies in the practical areas of functionality and form. Discipleship typically concentrates more on a didactic technique of laying one truth on top of another to help both parties learn more from the Scripture in a particular area. Biblical counselors, on the other hand, mainly tend to address a wrong behavior or thinking and to teach the counselee how to correct that thinking or behavior.
There’s no question that we all struggle through steps of sanctification. We see the great spiritual needs in our own lives and in the lives of those surrounding us, but we do so little to get help for those needs. We have become masters at wearing a mask. A friend of mine, for example, covered up his pornography and immorality for six years while he was an elder at his church. I wonder how many times this hypocrisy is repeated in our churches. I also wonder how things would be different if people were encouraged to get the biblical help they need and if they knew where to get that help.
One reason for not getting the help they need is that people feel they will be condemned if they reveal the true nature of their sin. Our self-righteousness often gets in the way of real ministry to sinful hearts. I work in an addictions program in my church called Changed Life Ministry, and first-timers come in skeptical and searching for answers. Over and over again, we have heard statements like, “I felt welcome and not judged when I came to Changed Life” (commercial intended). We don’t sugarcoat their problem with psychological labels, and we don’t mince words about their sin and the devastating effects it has; but we won’t see lives changed without meeting people where they are and without showing them God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. Someone’s heart will never blossom into conformity to Christlikeness if he is watered with the concrete of self-righteousness.
Another reason for the lack of biblical counseling in our churches is the tremendous amount of time necessary to guide someone on the path of sanctification. Certain issues demand an extensive amount of counseling. Many pastors are good about giving of their time to counsel people in their congregation. Some have designated specific hours for the purpose of counseling. The pastor must “give himself to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4), so sometimes his time is seriously limited. One option is to train people in the church to help with the load of the counseling. Several Bible colleges now offer biblical counseling degrees. A degree is not essential for someone to be an effective counselor, but some classes would be a huge benefit. First Baptist Church of Lake Orion, Michigan, actually pays a biblical counselor a part-time salary in order to make counseling available to the congregation and community. This process takes time and resources, but what are we willing to pay in exchange for a soul? Without compassion and guidance, people wander aimlessly through their sin struggles, and then the soil of the heart gets progressively harder.
The ground of people’s lives is often a cold, rocky place; but the tools of personal discipleship and dedicated biblical counseling can soften that ground into a fertile area that will multiply itself in bushels of spiritual fruit.
Joy Wagner taught classes and was the ladies’ dorm supervisor at Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) for 10 years. For the last year, Joy has been working as a counselor at Red Rocks Baptist Church (Lakewood, CO).