“I’m just not being fed.” Every pastoral leader cringes when they hear this from concerned church attenders. What am I doing wrong? What can our ministry do to help? While it’s tempting to double sermon prep time, launch a series of apologetics classes, and recruit retired seminary professors to lead small groups, resist beefing up your biblical buffet. Change metaphors on them. Start sending believers to the deep end of discipleship. They’ll stop begging for food and begin asking, “Can you teach me to swim?”
But I Never Learned to Swim
Eating is a necessity; swimming is a choice. This has implications for disciple making. In The Great Omission, Dallas Willard makes a challenging statement: “So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship is clearly optional.” While pastors agree that following Jesus is more like swimming than stuffing faces with food, a lot of would-be disciples prefer to sit around eating snacks on the shore.
Religious people who sat around gorging on God’s Word didn’t impress Christ. He called everyone to pursue sacrifice and servanthood, not sit idly taking in His teaching. He invited every soul to leave the shoreline behind, to follow Him fully in search of more followers. Diving in part way with Christ wasn’t an option; Jesus required total surrender and a commitment to reproduce disciples of Him. The same is true today. To strengthen disciple making in your ministry, boldly let church attenders know that swimming spiritually is expected, and so is teaching others to swim.
Get Disciples Into “Swim at Your Own Risk” Situations
How do you get shoreline sitters into deep spiritual waters? Let them know they are called, equipped, and sent out by Christ and put them into “swim at your own risk” situations. Church attenders that prefer to eat rather than swim rely heavily on constant pastoral expertise and supervision. Help them learn to trust the Holy Spirit’s guidance and empowerment. The sooner you get out of the way and give them a challenge, the sooner they’ll be swimming in the deep end of discipleship.
Consider Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Paul wants disciples freed up to pursue spiritual depths apart from him. God will complete His work in and through His people, but unhealthy dependence needs to end first. Help church attenders grow by letting them discover how they do on their own. Remind them that spiritual maturity results as they “swim at their own risk” in the areas of Bible engagement, prayer, serving, reconciliation, stewardship, and so on.
Personal spiritual “swim at your own risk” situations are important, but real depth happens in disciple making relationships. Faith foundations are tested and refined as they’re reflected back in someone else’s character and life. Parents understand this full well. Children inevitably emulate portions of mom and dad whether good or bad. If you want church attenders to be spiritually nourished and deepened, have them step into a spiritual mentoring role.
Believers shouldn’t selfishly store up God’s grace and truth. 2 Timothy 2:2 says: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Paul backed away for disciples to grow, but held the disciple-making bar high. Loving one another and making disciples is impossible in isolation. Church attenders who step into spiritual mentoring roles—teachers, small group shepherds, children’s and student ministry leaders, lay counselors, and more—discover the deep end of discipleship quicker. By swimming with and teaching believers to swim, God illuminates what’s healthy and unhealthy about how they currently follow Christ. Rather than step back onto the shore, devoted followers in “swim at your own risk” situations often opt in to become stronger spiritual swimmers.
You have the choice to cater to church attenders or call them out as disciple makers. When they see how they do on their own and begin pouring themselves into others, they will finally start swimming in the deep end of discipleship.
Dan Lovaglia is an author, speaker, and ministry catalyst at Awana. He is passionate about propelling relational discipleship forward in the lives of kids, families, and leaders through local churches. Dan recently released Relational Children’s Ministry: Turning Kid-Influencers into Lifelong Disciple Makers (Zondervan). Visit Awana.org to explore ways to embed disciple-making ministry throughout your church.