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The Need for Discipleship

By Kristi Northup | Posted In What Does the Bible Say

As a church planter, I understand the real challenge of developing volunteers into leaders. But is this enough to help people become strong and faithful lifelong followers of Christ? How do we develop the full range of people’s intellectual, emotional and practical devotion to Jesus, which they can carry into their work and home lives?

I reached out to my friend Jonas Sjöström. He and his wife, Shiloh, were some of my dearest friends in college. Jonas has a passion for the Word and for making disciples that has never dimmed. For 20 years, he taught discipleship at Inner City Church of Minneapolis (ICCM), helping people overcome the addiction and trauma often found in urban life.

Few survive 20 years in urban ministry, but the Sjöströms thrived. Jonas is currently serving as the local missions and prayer pastor at Cedar Valley Church (Assemblies of God) in Bloomington, Minnesota.

I interviewed Sjöström on his perspective of leadership and discipleship in the Church today.

I was troubled by our conversation. It has been such a time of upheaval, and I’ve been churning in a complex web of questions and answers. For several days after this interview, I found myself measuring every question against the basic answer Jonas kept giving: Teaching people to love God. It was personally convicting.

NORTHUP: How has your cross-cultural experience impacted your view of discipleship?
SJÖSTRÖM: I grew up in the Swedish Pentecostal movement, and even as a young person gained a fair amount of leadership experience. I came to North Central University as a 19-year-old, and that was a different culture. I ended up at ICCM teaching discipleship in the urban setting, yet a different culture.

Later, I returned to Sweden with my family and planted a church. During that time, we traveled to different European countries, and I’ve seen the Church throughout Europe in various decades. I’m married to someone who came to this country from India, which brings another perspective.

What do you see as the emphasis in the American Church?
Looking at conferences, the themes are pretty revealing. In America, we have leadership conferences, workshops, and endless books on how to help people align into vision statements. We do a great job teaching people business models. But looking at our own congregants, many of them don’t know how to spend 15 minutes alone with Jesus. It is painful to me.

Obviously, I’m not opposed to leadership. I have an M.A. in strategic leadership. We need to have a strategic plan, and we need to raise up leaders. But it is becoming clear to me that developing leaders is not the same as developing disciples. We’re often more concerned about developing leadership than we are with making them lovers of God.

“It is becoming clear to me that developing leaders is not the same as developing disciples.”
— Jonas Sjöström

So, if developing leaders is not the same as developing disciples, break down the difference for me.
Here’s how I see it: Leadership speaks to how we influence people in our cultural and organizational context. Discipleship answers why we influence people. Looking out at the Church, we’ve lost our why, and focused on the how.

Many of our people don’t know how to read their Bible, pray, witness, speak in tongues, fast, or share their own testimony. These are basic disciplines of any disciple of Christ. These disciplines won’t last if they’re born out of a method, a how. They need to be born out of the why, not just the how. These disciplines naturally come for people when they become lovers of Jesus.

I think the pressure of COVID has exposed some weaknesses in the Church. That’s good! We see an increased number of people needing help with depression, anxiety and addictions. Many parents are coming with their young adults who are failing to launch in life. I think it’s an indication we’ve done a less-than-stellar job at discipleship.

So then, what is discipleship?
The Holy Spirit’s first agenda with each believer is to start with the greatest commandment — love God. Discipleship starts with the heart and works itself out to our hands and feet. Why we do what we do? Because we love Christ above everything, above all. I encourage our leaders to shift their thinking from how we influence to why we influence.

Prayer, love of God and His Word, winning souls. Those things aren’t taught; they’re caught. We must model it and allow people to catch it from us. That happens mostly organically in smaller group settings, where there is transparency and consistent accountability.

It’s so strange, but many people know the headlines, the celebrities, the catch phrases, but they are so illiterate about the Bible. We haven’t allowed them to catch our love of the Word. We haven’t done a good enough job demonstrating we love the Word.

Talk to me about some practical ways pastors and leaders can do this.
Our lead pastor, Neil Rich, often says discipleship doesn’t happen in rows; it happens in circles. We’ve changed our monthly corporate prayer meeting from rows to circles. It’s amazing to hear the whole room praying out loud.

Prayer Circles provides a place to learn, to catch the how and why we pray. It’s a strategic time of prayer with provided topics and Scriptures, with words they can use. There is a maximum of six in each circle. Also, I put intercessors with people, let them listen as they pray.

It’s amazing to see how something practical like that is helping people pray out loud for the very first time. We must lower the threshold and show people how to do it. Small circles are less intimidating.

It’s easier to talk about methods and leadership structures than to confront the idea of loving Christ. That requires something of the one who is teaching. I have to demonstrate it.

John 14:21 says, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

It ties our love to the Word. It’s not the whip of the law driving people to the Word; it is love. As we love Him and obey Him, more and more, He reveals himself to us.

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