By Beth Guckenberger
My husband, Todd, and I met in March of 1990, and as a high school junior, I remember teasing him that he was a month late. I had spent the 14th of February watching other girls get flowers and chocolate. The day after our conversation, I was called out of first bell for a delivery of roses he had sent to my high school, with a sweet note wishing me a belated Happy Valentine’s day. Then every period for the next eight, another bouquet of flowers arrived, until I went home that day with both my arms and my heart full.
I had no idea that while I was a young smitten girlfriend, God was using this extravagant experience to teach me about discipleship, a powerful tool I would employ later in life while we served overseas as missionaries. Todd and I moved to Mexico, a culture where the people who matter to you know it by your extravagant acts of love. When someone knows you care, they will both share and listen, allowing your life to influence theirs.
My mom told me when I birthed my babies that love was spelled t-i-m-e, and no place was this idea more evident than in the Mexican church. They took time to linger in conversation for hours over a taco dinner. These loving-well principles are foundational for a good discipleship rapport. It’s the life-on-life model Paul testified to: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
We’ve since moved back to the States, but I’ve brought these lessons home with me as I’ve wrestled with how we love well and make disciples in any culture:
• Be about the details. Remember what someone tells you, and take the time to make a call to follow up. It’s special to feel you are known.
• Take initiative. Reach out, send a text, and get a date on the calendar. Half the battle of discipleship is making the time.
• Connect, even if it’s quick. On weeks when life gets busy or someone is sick, make a point of touching base. Send a meaningful article or verse you’ve been thinking about or leave a voicemail. Let the other person know you are still thinking about them, even if you’ve not had the chance to sit down together.
• Listen. This is a lost art and the glue to any discipleship relationship. It’s not about what you have to teach them; it’s about eye witnessing a journey. When the moment allows, speak to your own experiences or gained wisdom, but make the time dominated by their voice and not yours.
• Talk about hard lessons learned, remembering that discipleship is different than mentorship. Discipleship is about leading someone deeper in his or her faith by modeling your own.
• Go out of your way. God made it clear how he feels about love—it was his greatest commandment and the marker by which he indicated someone would know we were his. So go to the doctor with your friend, show up for their kids’ football game, or take the time to meet someone important to them. Do what’s inconvenient just for the purpose of loving another. Be about the kind of extravagant love someone still is talking about 26 years later.
• See people in terms of their assets and not their deficiencies. “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, and criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. . . . Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them” (Matthew 7:1, 12, The Message). I don’t want any critical spirit boomeranging back to me, and I don’t want to wait until someone does or doesn’t do what I hope they will. I want to ask myself what I want people to do for me, and then instead, take the initiative toward them. I want my behavior to say loud and clear, “I love you.”
• Emphasize Scripture. Joshua 1:8 talks about how not letting the Word depart from our mouths and meditating on it day and night brings desired results in our lives. Let’s encourage those we disciple to commit the Word to memory as we model it ourselves. This guarantees that no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, the truth of the Word is sown in our hearts.
• Commit to saying yes to people more and tasks less. This will mean more time sacrificed, more going to get coffee with someone, and more picking up the phone. But that’s OK. People matter. Relationships have to trump achievements every time.
• Study together Jesus’ model for ministry, work, and rest. I love what I do, so working more than is healthy is a temptation. But I am committed to understanding rhythm and leading others on what I hope will be a ministry marathon.
• Keep short accounts. Don’t give the enemy a foothold. If there is a misunderstanding, confess your sin, be humble, and show that as maturity. God teaches us in Proverbs that it’s to our benefit to overlook an offense. Not only should we model that in our own relationships, but especially in our communication with those we are discipling.
• Cry for and with others. Jesus had feelings and expressed himself. Demonstrate empathy; let others know you care. The church has a tremendous platform for the gospel when it expresses itself in practical ways.
Excel Still More
This is only a partial list. There is always more we can do to love well. There is always opportunity for further growth in our own lives and in those we are discipling. We will never arrive until Jesus brings us home, so meanwhile we must get busy humbling ourselves and loving well. This will mutually benefit those we labor alongside.
Finally, never stop striving to be excellent in your discipleship ministry. “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more” (1 Thessalonians 4:9, 10, emphasis mine, New American Standard Bible).
We live in an age where discipleship needs elevating. Transformational change happens with life-on-life interaction and extravagant love. There has never been a time like now to step up our game, excel still more, and demonstrate to a lost world there’s another way to live.
Beth Guckenberger is Co-Executive director of Back2Back Ministries and a speaker and author.