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Why the WAY Matters More Than the WHAT

Mac McCarthy
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September 20, 2021

We often say the epicenter of discipleship is the way of Jesus. It’s not just about words or works, but the way of Jesus—which has to do with love being our deepest motivation. Let's look at how to apply the way of Jesus in our leadership.

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Have you ever felt like you are talking past someone else?

You’re both talking about the same subject, you’re both using the same words, you both share the same goals, but something’s not connecting. You simply aren’t on the same page.

And the more you try to bridge the gap by drilling down on what seems to be missing or clarify what you are trying to say, the further you move apart.

Has this ever happened to you? It can be very frustrating.

This recently happened to me at a training seminar I was invited to attend. The goal was to take healthy churches and turn them into official “training stations” for up-and-coming leaders through a two-year residency program.

The goal of multiplying healthy leaders for greater missional impact resonates strongly with me, and I was flattered that our church was being considered. So I grabbed a couple other pastors on our team and we drove several hours together to attend this two-day seminar.

Not on the same page

Unfortunately it turned out to be a pretty painful experience. As we tried to interact with the content of the training, we realized we as a team were not on the same page as those leading the training.

We were all talking about the same topic, using the same language, but we were experiencing a pretty big disconnect. To make matters worse, the more we attempted to clarify the communication gap, the more we realized how far apart we were.

As we debriefed our experience on the way home what became clear was that the focus wasn’t the problem; the objectives of the training weren’t the issue; the vision behind the training wasn’t the problem, either.

Instead, what was causing the tension for all of us was the way of the training – the methodology, the implementation, and the assumptions driving it.

The way is more important than the what

We often say the epicenter of discipleship is the way of Jesus. It’s not just about words (information, knowledge) or works (behavior, actions), but the way of Jesus—which has to do with love being our deepest motivation.

As James K.A. Smith says, “You are what you love.” Love, then, is about our character, our motivations and desires, our hearts. You can have the right focus, the correct objectives, and a grand vision, but approach them in the wrong way, which ends up nullifying the most well-intentioned goals.

This exactly what was happening at the seminar. Let me give you three examples.

You can have the right focus, the correct objectives, and a grand vision, but approach them in the wrong way, which ends up nullifying the most well-intentioned goals.

1. The way of fulfilling the Great Commission

The training was part of a larger initiative with the goal of pursuing a greater focus on fulfilling the Great Commission: evangelizing and discipling new people into faith.

During the talks, lots of passion was expressed about doing our part to fulfill the Great Commission. Many heartfelt speeches were given on the huge number of lost people there are and our responsibility to do more to get the good news of Jesus to them.

Five years ago I probably would have been shouting “Amen!” during these speeches, but lately I’ve grown tired of these predictable pep talks rooted in fear, guilt, and shame.

Notice the problem isn’t the focus. Fulfilling the Great Commission is a worthy goal, one that I wholeheartedly believe in.

The problem is the way it is being narrated. The way they were telling the story put us in the driver’s seat, making us the primary actors with all the responsibility.

But this isn’t the way Jesus talked about the Great Commission. Matthew 28 needs to be read alongside Acts 1:8 where the disciples are told to wait for the Holy Spirit before they do anything.

This is Jesus’ way of mission. He never expected the disciples to “get things done” on their own. Without the Holy Spirit, we are incapable of making a single disciple, let alone fulfilling the Great Commission!

Of course we have a role to play, but it’s a secondary, participatory role in a story God initiates. Our role is to join God in that work—not do it for him. There is a big difference between doing things forGod and doing things with God.

There is a way Jesus calls us to fulfill the Great Commission that we need to honor.

2. The way of discipling people toward maturity

As the nuts and bolts of the discipleship program were explained, a second area of disconnect revealed itself: the way of discipling people toward maturity.

The way people would be discipled in this residency program would be to take an assessment that compares their lives to a rubric that measures what a healthy disciple looks like. The goal of this is to identify the weaknesses of the resident and then provide them with resources and goals to help overcome those weaknesses.

If someone is weak in evangelism, for instance, you might give him or her some books to read on evangelism and give them the task of sharing their faith with twenty people in a month. If they don’t do the work, you would have an exploratory conversation about their commitment. (This was an actual example used during the training.)

Once again, notice the problem isn’t with the goal of discipling people toward maturity. The problem is the way that’s being pursued. It follows the same basic construct as the fear, guilt, and shame pep talk given for fulfilling the Great Commission.

It’s a diagnose and demand strategy. My job as the disciple-maker is to diagnose people’s weaknesses and then demand growth while providing resources, setting goals, and applying pressure.

Notice, who the primary agent in this way of discipleship? Again, it’s us. Discipleship is something I’m doing myself for God (determine weaknesses, then prescribe and achieve goals). I’m in charge the whole time. God is nowhere to be found, except perhaps as an outside observer of my efforts.

  • But what if God knows better than I do what needs to change? (Hint: he does!)
  • What if God is already at work in a person’s life to bring about that change? (Hint: he is!)
  • What if God cares more about their development and growth than I do? (Hint: he does!)
  • What if my job is less to impose goals on someone and more to wake up to where God is already at work in their life to bring about growth? (Hint: it is!)

There is a big difference between diagnosing and demanding change from people and joining the work God is doing in someone’s life to bring about transformation.

Same goal, two very different ways.

There is a big difference between diagnosing and demanding change from people and joining the work God is doing in someone’s life to bring about transformation.

3. The way to work a plan

OK, here’s a final example of a disconnect on the way. One of the final exercises of the training was putting together a two-year calendar that mapped out every step of a resident’s experience, with as many concrete calendar events and to-dos as possible.

The goal was to get “hyper specific” and “intentional” in order to specify step-by-step every component of the residency experience.

Now again, the problem here isn’t having a plan or executing it. It’s important to have a goals and make steady progress toward those goals. But what blew me away was how much specificity they had included in the development of a residency program that hadn’t had a single resident go through it yet!

The fact is we live in an age of discontinuous change. This means that there is no way to reliably predict the future anymore, because things are changing so rapidly. Therefore it makes little sense to strategically plan for a future you can’t be sure of. By the time you actually put your plan to paper, it will most likely be obsolete.

This reality is actually a gift to us, because it reminds us that we aren’t in control (and never really were). Once again, we are not the primary actors or initiators in mission. God is.

If we’re not careful, our strategic plans can actually get in the way of God. We end up trusting our plans and strategies rather than trusting God to show us the way. We end up asking God to bless our plan rather than our plan being to discover God’s leadership.

There is a big difference between beginning with a goal in mind and mapping out every step to get there and beginning with a telos in mind and assuming a posture and presence that not only allows God to lead and guide, but surrenders the very outcome to him.

Why the way matters

This is why it’s easy to talk past one another. We can agree on the what but differ in our assumptions about the way it needs to unfold.

And the way is really important get right, because it can be the difference between doing “good” things in our own strength and really joining God in what he’s already doing.

Questions for reflection

  1. Does my story above help you see different ways at work in your own ministry context?
  2. What examples would you add?
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