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On Learning Discipleship

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For several months now Aileen and I have been pursuing physical fitness. While neither of us was horribly out of shape, neither were we nearly as fit and healthy as we wanted to be. This summer we made the decision that we would join a health club and, for at least a time, would recruit a trainer to help us. We were so ignorant about fitness that we knew we would need someone to guide and instruct us in this unfamiliar territory. I don’t think it’s too early to say that these two decisions—to get fit and to hire help in getting there—have changed our lives for the better.

The main benefit of working with a trainer has been growing in fitness, but there has been an unexpected secondary benefit as well: Our trainer has taught us so much about discipleship and mentoring. In the Bible we often see Paul comparing the Christian life to physical training, and I now better understand the metaphor. There is a sense in which my trainer and I are in parallel fields: He, as a trainer, is in the business of helping people grow physically fit; I, as a Christian and pastor, am in the business of helping people grow spiritually fit.

Let me share a few lessons I have learned about discipleship by working with our personal trainer.

Training takes assessment. Before we began our program, our trainer did a thorough assessment of our current physical condition and learned about our goals. He put us through our paces to gage our capabilities. He did this because everyone who walks through those doors is at a different starting place and means to achieve a different goal. He can train us best when he knows our strengths and weaknesses and when he helps us work toward our specific goals. And in the same way, every Christian is at a different place in his spiritual growth, and different Christians have different goals—some mean to be pastors, some mean to be theologians, some mean to be godly husbands or wives. We disciple best when we disciple people specifically, with a right assessment of who they are and what they mean to achieve.

Training takes a plan. After our trainer assessed our fitness and learned our goals, he put together a plan that would get us where we wanted to go. He had complete confidence in this plan and assured us that the results would come if we simply stuck to it. Spiritual training also thrives with a plan. A mature Christian is able to speak with authority about how to grow in godliness by taking advantage of the God-given means of grace.

A trainer models and calls for imitation. The world of fitness was completely new to Aileen and me and we needed coaching on even the most basic exercises and movements. Our trainer modeled each one, patiently showing us how to do each of the exercises and how to use each piece of equipment. But he did not only show us our exercises and then walk away—he watched us as we imitated him, making adjustments and corrections to ensure we were doing it all just right. Christian discipleship works best when we can call upon others to imitate us. We call on others to imitate us in life, in relationships, or in spiritual disciplines, and then we watch them, and make corrections and adjustments as necessary.

Training looks for weakness. As we have progressed through weeks and then months of training, our trainer spotted certain weaknesses and adapted the program to meet them. Through all my life I have struggled with posture—my shoulders like to collapse forward. I didn’t know it, but this was because certain muscles in my back and neck are far too weak. Our trainer halted parts of the program to work on building strength that would correct posture. In our discipleship we also inevitably encounter weaknesses of knowledge and character, and need to adapt to meet those and deal with them before progressing any farther.

Training thrives with encouragement. Through all the hard work of training, our trainer has been a source of encouragement, motivating us to lift that weight just one more time, or assuring us that we are progressing in our program. When we feel ready to give up, he calls on us to persist. A good spiritual mentor does the same, offering specific and timely encouragement to press on, to do those things that seem so difficult, to build the right habits and to pursue the right patterns.

Training measures progress. Every now and again our trainer has us stop and check measurements like weight and percentage of body fat. Training is hard work and there are times we wonder if it is worth the effort. But these measurements ensure us that we are moving toward our goal and that our bodies are growing in fitness and health. Christian discipleship is also a long process and it can be easy to give up. While Christian growth cannot be so easily quantified there are still times to assess, to measure growth, and to rejoice in it.

A trainer offers accountability. Aileen and I have the ongoing accountability of a standing appointment. Every Monday at 10 AM we need to be at the club to meet with our trainer. Even on the days we do not care a bit about health and fitness, this accountability motivates us. And in the same way a discipler or mentor does best when he establishes the routine of meeting on a regular schedule for a regular purpose. His joy and confidence in meeting compels the other person to come and to participate.

These are just a few of the things I have learned about discipleship by working with a personal trainer. Working out has increased my physical fitness, but it has had the unexpected benefit of teaching me how I can better help others grow in their spiritual fitness.

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