Growing up I thought discipleship happened in a classroom setting, or maybe at Starbucks across a table from someone at least 10 years older than you and much more spiritual. Then I started to hear people talk about how discipleship is designed to happen in a life-on-life context, and I thought, “What does that even mean?”
And then I went to college, and I was like, “Oh.” It was the first time I had developed a genuine and aggressively honest community with a group of guys and it was life-changing. We pushed the limits of what we thought was appropriate to share with others, daring to walk out into the light we’d been afraid of our entire lives, and found a transformative grace there. We obviously lived in close proximity, and our lives were literally sharpening one another’s.
In this I saw the church at her most basic level, and the fact that through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit in all of us, we could disciple each other. I didn’t have to have a Spiritual Giant at a coffee shop to be sharpened (although that would have been great), I simply had to have other growing believers with an honest view into my life and vice versa.
But then, college ends, does it not? Some, maybe you included, wish that it did not have to end–that glorious four year long summer camp with books. Real life starts, and with it the separation that real life brings. Dozens of guys living within a run down the hall from each other isn’t realistic anymore. Jobs and schools and houses scatter us, schedules get much busier, marriages and babies and ALL THE OTHER THINGS happen.
And a typical outcome is that a guy wakes up five to ten years later and realizes he no longer has any friends. Unless you count Netflix and the sports radio station he listens to on the way to work–in that case he has two great friends.
But no one actually knows him. He feels isolated and suffocated by the demands of being husband or father or employee or insert responsibility here. Sure, he may still go to church (maybe, sometimes). He may even go to a men’s Bible study or class where lots of things are talked about, but he is not known. Far from it.
At one point in his life he felt the full light of the sun, but now the shadows are starting to grow more and more familiar. Hiding is not something that stays stagnant. It takes over the soul. He used to be in the light with his wife, but now, not so much. He doesn’t realize it yet, but an affair ten years down the road is closer than it ever has been.
When we started Midtown (our church family), we started with a question: “Can genuine, life-on-life community happen in real life, beyond college? Can it happen in the local church?” Surely we knew it could. We had read Acts 2. But many of us had never seen it really happen in a local church context.
In the past 8 years, by God’s grace, some dogged focus, and casting vision until we are blue in the face, we’ve learned that it can. It’s much harder than it was in college, to be sure. Fitting intentional community into the mix of work and kids and school and everything is a challenge and our entire culture is set up to encourage us to go home, turn off, veg out and above all, isolate.
But it does fit, if we want it to. It has to.
We’ve learned this through having a laser-like focus on groups that practice the “one another’s” of Scripture together, seeking to be a “Jesus-centered family on mission with Him.” If you show up at a Gathering on Sunday, we want you to feel like you are missing out on EVERYTHING GOOD AND HOLY IN THE WORLD if you’re not in a group. Through telling beautiful stories and (again) a lot of vision casting, it has worked. People flock to get in a group, and on any average week we’ll have more people connected to our groups than we will have in attendance on Sunday. We think this is a great thing.
So my group has 22 people in it. We go to the 9am Gathering together every week, we play kickball with neighborhood kids on Sunday afternoons, and we gather for 2 hours of spiritually intentional time every Thursday night. Each Thursday the guys and girls will gather in one of our small living rooms, standing room only, to catch up on each other’s lives and pray for one another. Then we’ll split up into guys and girls and have some good time where we discuss the sermon from Sunday and apply it to our lives, being sure to leave plenty of room for walking in the light–confessing things that we need to, encouraging one another with the gospel, saying the things that need to be said though we’d much rather sinfully hide them.
In this group of guys that I love, it becomes much harder for me to hide–more difficult for my tendency towards isolation and silence to slowly take over my life. It is, in many ways, my spiritual vitamin, work out, or water.
And to end, a quick story:
One of my dear friends in the group is newer to our group and he has a long, hard, and beautiful story of God’s faithfulness in his life. He was abused in heart-breaking ways growing up. Having never really connected with his dad, he has struggled since his youth feeling unwanted attractions towards other men. He married young and had some babies, but years later the shadows started to creep in. The light of full transparency was distant from him, and he had an affair with a man that attended his church.
While that could have driven a stake through his family, God picked up the pieces. His wife forgave him and his church very lovingly walked through the difficult process with him.
Several months ago, our group took a trip up to a huge cabin in the mountains to spend time together. During a time where we were sharing some of our goals for the coming year, this man opened up and shared his entire story with our whole group. He had already told some of us, but thought it important to share with everyone. It was a sacred time where lots of tears were shed, and at the end we all gathered around this couple, prayed for them and thanked God for them.
A couple months after this, the guys were sitting in a living room during a group time. We were in the process of doing something we very cheekily called “The Love Seat,” where we picked a guy each week and expressed both concerns we had for his life and also encouragement for how we’ve seen God at work in him. This week the man who shared at the retreat was up.
Another guy who has been in a difficult battle with sex addiction spoke up. He said, “You know, when we were in the mountains on our retreat, I was watching you while we were sitting in that room. I could tell you were really torn up about something. I saw that you had an internal war raging, and I watched you struggle with whether or not you would say what was on your mind for several minutes. I wondered whether you would say it or not. Then, you decided to say it. We all remember how beautiful that was, but the thing that struck me the hardest was watching you struggle. You decided to say it, and that impacted me more than I can say. I went home after that weekend and told my wife some things I needed to tell her but didn’t want to. So, thank you, for deciding to say what you did.”
That moment in the mountains? It didn’t happen in Starbucks over a list of questions. It didn’t happen in a classroom with a fill-in-the-blank outline. It happened in a living room, where most moments like that seem to happen, and it was the purest and most affecting moment of discipleship that I’ve seen in the recent past.
My friend had no idea, but in his weakness, in his tears, in braving the light with the hardest part of his story–he was discipling us all.