T.A. McMahon and James McCarthy discuss Discipleship in the church today.
In today’s program, Tom is joined by Jim McCarthy to discuss “The Meaning of Discipleship.” Now, along with his guest, here’s TBC executive director Tom McMahon.
Tom: Thanks, Gary. As Gary mentioned, our topic for today is Discipleship. It’s a biblical educational practice and more that is so little implemented in today’s churches that few Christians, I’m concerned [know] what the term means.
Well, our guest, who is well qualified to tell us, is Jim McCarthy, the author of a number of books including The Gospel According to Rome, and John Calvin Goes to Berkeley. He’s also produced a terrific documentary entitled Catholicism: Crisis of Faith.
Jim, we could spend hours discussing your books and your DVD, but I’m more interested today in talking about discipleship.
First of all, welcome to Search the Scriptures 24/7, Jim.
Jim: Thanks, Tom. It’s good to be with you.
Tom: I opened our program by stating my concern that fewer and fewer evangelicals today can explain, or even know what the term “discipleship” means. Jim, you’ve been involved in discipleship training for decades. So give our listeners a definition of discipleship, and tell us about the programs you’ve been overseeing.
Jim: Tom, the word “discipleship,” as it occurs in the New Testament, has its root in the word we get “mathematics” from, and it simply means to be a learner. And I think it’s a beautiful concept, because, you know, there’s different terms for Christians in the Scripture. One is a “believer”’—that kind of focuses on the fact that we accept certain truths. But a “disciple” is one who is committed to be a learner, to sit at the feet of Christ, to learn the Scriptures, to seek to be like Him, to follow Him, and to do what He did.
And I think it’s really important in the church today, because that’s been lost. So much is just “Believe, and get into heaven,” and go about your business. But being a disciple means you’re going to live a life following Christ, serving Him, and coming to know Him better.
Tom: Mm-hmm. Jim, when you say that it’s lost in the church—look, you can speak from your experience, from your observations—I mean, how long have we known each other? Maybe 25 years? Something like that?
Jim: Something like that.
Tom: Yeah! So all we’re talking about here, folks, is our observation of what’s taking place—what has taken place in the evangelical community. And we have seen changes. We have seen evangelicals—those who would claim that their lives would be based on the authority of God’s Word, and we have seen that authority—the confidence in God’s Word, I believe Paul wrote the book of Hebrews, and in Hebrews 2 it says, “Take heed lest ye slip away,” and we have seen a slippage that’s been staggering. So, that’s why we’ve chosen this topic for a couple of sessions with Jim and myself. This is absolutely critical.
Now, Jim, because we’re talking about the Word of God, and how the terms in there—“believer,” certainly, “discipleship,” certainly—what verses of Scripture would you say that really underscore the importance of discipleship?
Jim: The first one that comes to my mind is probably the best known, which is Matthew:28:19-20: The Lord, following His resurrection, told His apostles, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you and lo, I’m with you always, even to the end of the age.”
This verse is often quoted in the context of evangelism: Go out into the world and proclaim the gospel. But as you look at it, it’s not now just proclaiming the gospel. He says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples…and to teach them everything that I have commanded you.” And so, it’s not something that happens on a day or a weekend. It’s something that occurs over a number of years, and this is our commission, this is what He wants us doing, is passing on the faith to others through the process of discipleship.
Tom: And we would ask a simple question: How could that happen if a person who claims to be a believer doesn’t really know what he or she believes? We’re seeing that in spades today.
Jim: Well, we are. And I think the results are apparent as well. People are very weak in their faith, they’re drifting, they’re denying the faith, they’re not passing the faith on to their children, and churches are declining, and if they’re not declining, they’ve moved away from the basics of the Christian life to what in large respects is entertainment. And I think we need to get back to discipleship—teaching others how Christ taught His disciples.
Tom: Mm-hmm. Jim, as an example, the first thing I said to you was your program in discipleship —training young believers. How long has this been going on for?
Jim: Well, the program I’ve been associated with started in 1972 when three men, MacDonald, Gene Gibson, Jack Davies, just saw the need for greater training in the local church, and at the time, Bill MacDonald was the president of a Bible school, and he wasn’t satisfied with the results he was seeing in the lives of young believers. So they put this concept together of inviting six to eight men each year to spend nine months with them, go through the Scriptures to study it daily together, and also to be involved in ministry together—to go out and do evangelism, do pastoral work, to teach these young men how to preach, teach, do pastoral work, and visitation, and to pass on many things that they had learned in their lives during that period.
I went through that program in 1980, and for me it was just life changing! I had been raised Roman Catholic and been saved five years at the time—I was in my middle-twenties, and just really in need of…well, I wanted to serve the Lord, but didn’t really know how to do that. And so that time that I spent with them was—it was just life changing. And then I had the privilege a few years later to go back as an instructor in that program and spend another ten years with those brothers teaching them. And since then, we’ve continued on the program, both…all three of those men now are with the Lord, and we’ve continued the teaching in various forms.
Tom: Jim, I had both the thrill and the privilege of spending some time with your students, and that was really exciting for me. And particularly in this way: I would say, just like you who at an older age got involved in discipleship training, but I would say that probably the mean age of the students that you had were probably, maybe mid-twenties? Would that be accurate?
Jim: Yeah, I would say mid-twenties or early thirties. We tend to get fellows who are already in their careers, are already married and have children—they’ve kind of learned, they feel, as much as they can from their church and they just want to take another step.
Tom: Right. But the thing that thrilled me was, look, you have your children—the girls. They’re right in that age group, right?
Tom: I have five children all in that age group, so—hey! Just as fathers, this is where our hearts are. Our hearts are for this next generation. So the question is, if somebody would say, “What do you think about the generation coming up Christians?”
Well, the first thing that would hit me would be—I’ve seen it across the board that they’ve been more entertained in their churches, and certainly, you couldn’t even use the word today “discipled.” There might be some classes on this and that, but pretty much you couldn’t find a discipleship program—at least from my experience, and so on.
So, along with the entertainment aspect, many young people today—not all, and I know there are exceptions to this—but many are biblically illiterate and, because of the entertainment aspect, the incentive, the motivation to get involved in these things, I haven’t seen it out there.
Now, here’s my question, Jim: Where do these young people who are in your program—where do they come from, and what motivates them?
Jim: Well, that’s a great question, because I think it brings out the fact that there are really good churches out there; there are really sincere Christians who want to grow, they want to serve the Lord, they want to know the Scriptures. So, I mean, there’s been a lot of decline in America—in the American church—in the last few decades, but there’s still a good number of people who really love the Lord and want to serve Him.
And I think the responsibility is on church leaders to provide the kind of training that these people want. I think even amongst unbelievers of the younger generation, the kind of things that they’re interested in is that which is authentic and real. They want to see it. They want to experience it. And I think the church needs to provide that.
Tom: Absolutely. Jim, as I mentioned, I was thrilled to be a part of your program, at least for a couple of days—but I’ll take that! But here’s my question: I dealt with some issues. You had me come down and deal with some issues, but what subjects do you major on with these young people?
Jim: Most of the training, Tom, is working our way through the Scriptures. We pretty much go from Genesis to Revelation, and that takes the bulk of our time, because, as you know, the Bible’s a very large book. So we just start on the first page, and we usually do the New Testament and the Old Testament simultaneously, but I think what the students want to see is that the teachers can make sense of Scripture from cover to cover—that there aren’t contradictions, that it makes sense, and that they can understand it and teach it.
So that’s the bulk of the training. But in addition to that, there’s a lot of training in how to serve the Lord, and so we have classes on preaching, and teaching, visitation, pastoral care, evangelism. We just don’t talk about it, we go out and we do it. We go out to college campuses, we visit the Christians—the training takes place in a local church—we visit the Christians in the church, we have the interns involved in the adult curriculum of the church. So they’re just brought into the heart of things, and they learn as they go.
Tom: Jim, when I came down to be with you, it wasn’t particularly for the discipleship program, but, as you remember, I dealt with a movement in the church, which was particularly affecting young people, and that was the Emerging Church Movement. And, you know, we dealt with that.
Now, here’s my question, though: Do you see, as these trends come up, and as these trends that are drawing people off a lot of times in major ways, do you find in the area of apologetics with your young people that you have to address trends and things that are going on today?
Jim: We do, Tom. We spend about—I think we give about 15 hours just to the topic of Roman Catholicism, because it affects so many people, and it’s a topic they’re very interested in, but also trends involving psychology in the church, and modern trends in…even good trends—we want them to understand good trends and bad trends in the evangelical church—they study Mormonism, and Hinduism, and Islam. We find this really increases their appetite to understand the Scriptures, as they…
Jim: …confront these challenging issues, it causes them…they really want to understand the Book of Galatians, and Romans, and Hebrews, and so on.
Tom: Now, you’ve covered a lot of territory with regard to what’s taught to these young people. Would there be a difference in what you do, let’s say, compared to somebody going to seminary or somebody going to Bible College?
Jim: I think the biggest difference is the amount of time we spend with the men. This is one of the reasons we only accept maybe seven or eight at the most, and I think of the scripture in Mark 3 where it says that the Lord appointed the twelve that they might be with Him. And that’s really the essence of discipleship—it’s life transference. The apostles—they learned by watching Jesus, by being with Him. And it wasn’t classroom time. It was walking on the road, it was confronting the Pharisees, it was dealing with a sick person or demoniac. And as they saw His life, they were changed.
Now, typically, what happens in a Bible school or seminary is you have a kind of teacher-student relationship with the instructors, and there is an effort for teachers to spend personal time with the students, but the ratio is so high that it’s very difficult to do that. And so, actual discipleship can be pretty minimal, and if you’re a good student, academic achiever, you can do pretty well in those settings.
But we’ve found that often those are who are great in academics really aren’t the best disciples—there’s not always a correlation between, you know, intelligence and a heart for God. I’m not saying it’s negative, but it just doesn’t…you get all “A”s in class, and still don’t have your life together…
Tom: Scripture does say God has chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise…. I can speak for myself, okay (laughing)? I wonder who I’m confounding, though… But anyway, yeah, if you have a willing heart—that’s been one of my…things that have crossed my heart and my mind. If we will just bring to the table a willingness to do—to please God, and to do what He wants, hey…that’s the deal. Yeah, there are some people who are gifted in so many ways, and we don’t deny that. But it’s…it’s a heart to please God, you know. It’s the testimony of Enoch in Hebrews 11: “They pleased…He pleased God.” I think that’s the deal.
Jim, back to your students—what you have the privilege of introducing them to and teaching them, when they go away, what do you want for them? What would you like to see?
Jim: Well, our program is fairly informal, Tom. I mean, we have—these people are giving up their jobs and coming here for nine months, often uprooting their family to bring them with them, and…so obviously, they want a very serious and structured program, but the emphasis is not really on academics, and we don’t give diplomas. It’s not an accredited program through some institution that’s authorizing this. I think what we want to see when they go back home is that they’re equipped to serve the Lord. And most of these men end up being leaders in their church, elders, often they become missionaries, some are involved in itinerant Christian work, involved in preaching in various places. And we want them to have a basic grounding in the Scriptures and training in the basic things that you need to do in church ministry. So, often they go back, most of them are self-supporting, they’ll go back to secular jobs and work for several years and incorporate the things that they’ve learned into their lives, but gradually, we find them going more and more into ministry as they mature, and find themselves serving the Lord fulltime.
Tom: Mm-hmm. Jim, one of the things I think about, especially for your young people, as I said, I’ve had a taste of what you do, and that’s one of the reasons we’re talking together here today, because I’m thrilled with what you’re doing. And we could certainly say that most churches—well, they’re not doing this. And certainly, many could not…well, they could, but they do not do anything as extensive of that.
But what would you recommend? What would you say—“Hey, here’s where you need to get started?” (Sidenote here, those who are overseeing the youth in a church—to me, one of the most difficult callings is to be a youth pastor. It’s kind of like herding cats. And then the pressure is on to keep them entertained, to keep them in, to, you know, numbers issues, and so on.)
Now, having said all that, what would you recommend for a youth pastor, who said, “Hey, I’ve listened to what these guys had to say. I want to go there. I want to do that.” How would they get started?
Jim: You know, I think we should follow the example of the Lord. He had the multitudes following Him. He taught the masses. But He also selected the twelve to be with Him and to give them special training. And within the twelve, He also selected the three, which were Peter, James, and John, and gave them special attention. I think in a large youth ministry, you know, you have to minister to them all and do your best to care for them all, but to be prayerfully selecting a few who seem to have a greater heart for God and desire to grow, and to invest special time in them. I think that will produce the greatest results.
And our job is to reproduce ourselves—to pass on that which others have passed on to us, and the masses aren’t going to accept that. I mean, they’re there for various reasons; some may not even be saved. But within every group, you’re going to have a few who just sense the call of God and are responding to that. And you have to give them more time. One person said on this subject, he said, “You know, there’s always problem people, and they take a lot of your time, but you also have to look for potential people.” And if you give all your time to problem people, and none of your time to potential people, I mean, your ministry eventually is going to fold up because the gospel and the work of God goes forward on the backs of a few—the ones who are totally surrendered to the Lord, and those are the ones we have to invest in…
Tom: Yeah, you know, Jim, as we’re recording this, I’m thinking yesterday was the national signing day for colleges and football to bring in the recruits. I mean, they’ve been working on young people for over a year, almost, to get them to come to their university to play on their team. And what I thought was interesting in looking at some of the articles, one of the coaches—and I think this would be shared by most of them—one of the coaches said, “Look, we would rather have a young man of character—more of character and less of talent.”
Tom: Yeah, it really is interesting, because many of the issues—and, you know, I like to track the college scene, basketball and football, but you see how many issues have been brought about for many universities because of players without that character.
Now, here’s my point. I just want to underscore what you just said. As a youth pastor, as ministering to the young people in his congregation, if he can pick out young people who will be—they don’t have to be perfect, but if he can recognize strong character, then he can have leadership…Listen, there’s nothing…you can have pressure from a youth pastor to the young people, but to me, there’s nothing that works like peer pressure.
Tom: And when you’ve got young leaders in your congregation and you train them up, you’ve—just as you said, Jim—put in the time and the energy—wow! Your chances of ministering to more young people, drawing them into God’s Word…. You know, I have a friend who’s a youth pastor—his mantra is “What brings them in, keeps them in.” You bring them in with entertainment, and all of that stuff, you’ve got to keep upping the ante. You know, you’ve got to do like the world does and better, which will never happen. But if you bring them in with the Word of God, and you have others there who really have an excitement about the Word of God—I’m talking about their peers—well, that sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
Jim: It has the potential to becoming a multiplying ministry, because as you invest in these young people, five, six years later, they are mature people, and young adults, and they become the greatest workers and they carry on the work—that’s how the gospel spreads.
Tom: Yeah. Well, Jim, we’ve just about run out of time in this session, this segment, of our program, but…have you got any thoughts as we kind of close out this….we’re going to come back with some more issues related to discipleship—but you got any thoughts that you could leave with us?
Jim: Tom, I find that, contrary to what most people would think, when you raise the standards, put out a strong challenge, and call young people and adults to serve the Lord wholeheartedly, Christians respond. They want that. And right now, we’re going through a course at our church on Leviticus. And we’re going pretty deep into it, and you’d think that people would be, you know, running for the doors, but that’s not what’s happening! They’re fascinated by learning what the sacrifices were about and how they point to Christ. And how the feasts of the Lord all show the prophetic calendar. These are things that most Christians know nothing of—they never get an opportunity to hear about, and the problem lies with church leaders. They want a quick fix, quick results, and as a result, people aren’t getting the Word of God, and, as you know, from your ministry, it just leaves them terribly vulnerable to deception and to false teaching, which comes in and fills that vacuum.
Tom: Jim, thanks a lot. I can’t wait to get back to our program next week, and we’re going to pick up with Discipleship—how important is it? Well, you’ve heard, it’s critically important, especially as we have been pointing to the upcoming generation—the generation that, should the Lord tarry—well, they’re going to have to deal with it. They’re going to have to deal with lots of things that maybe we can’t even imagine. Nevertheless, Maranatha! Come Lord, come quickly.
Jim, until next week, God bless you, brother.
Jim: Thank you.
Gary: You’ve been listening to Search the Scriptures 24/7 with T.A. McMahon, a radio ministry of The Berean Call. We offer a wide variety of materials to help you in your study of God’s Word. For a complete list of materials and a free subscription to our monthly newsletter, contact us at PO Box 7019, Bend, OR 97708; call us at 800-937-6638; or visit our website at thebereancall.org.
In our next program, Tom and his guest, Jim McCarthy, will continue their discussion on Discipleship. I’m Gary Carmichael. Thanks for tuning in. And we encourage you to search the Scriptures 24/7.