I just got off the phone with a missionary to remote China. The struggle for the missionaries has not been the language, the food, or the culture; but rather the relational tension between the missionaries on their team. They feel a loss of creditability in sharing the gospel because of their inability to get along with one another. Jesus words, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” taunt them. One wonders why unity even among committed believers is difficult.
The community of believers in which a disciple finds himself is by design. In his sovereignty, the Holy Spirit knows with whom each disciple needs to interrelate. As Inagrace Tieterich correctly states: “The role of the Holy Spirit is to form loving community: to create a people for God’s name, who bear God’s likeness in their character, as that is seen in their behavior” . This community designed by the Holy Spirit will not only expose each person for who he is, but it will also give each individual the opportunity to learn how to lovingly relate to other believers in order that their relationship with one another can be a witness of the gospel to the world. My friend Bill Greene says that he knows where the Lord is at work in his life based on who the Lord places into his immediate world for him to love; those from whom he cannot escape.
Robert Bellah sees living in community as an essential component for our own growth and for the benefit of others. He writes: “We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but through them. We never get to the bottom of ourselves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning. All of our activity goes on in relationships, groups associations, and communities ordered by institutional structures and interpreted by cultural patterns of meaning” . It was no accident that Jesus made disciples in a group.
A couple closing thoughts:
- Conflict in a community of believers is not a disruption to the purpose of God but rather they are an opportunity to teach your disciples how to love each other, how to build unity and therefore expanding the kingdom of God.
- Your disciple’s interaction with the others in a community will help you know your disciple. It is more difficult to get to know a person apart from community.
- Each individual, no matter how difficult, is an essential element in the Spirit’s building unity in the group. (Be careful not to think, “This could be a good community if only Jessica were not on the team.” In reality, Jessica may be the key to building the unity on the team that the Lord intends.)
 Inagrace T. Tieterich, Missional Community, Cultivating Communities of the Holy Spirit, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North American (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 148.
 Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 84.
The best defense against hypocrisy is to make disciples in a small community, as Jesus demonstrated. How your disciples relate to one another in a group is an indicator of how each relates to God as an individual. The reason I disciple in community is because the only real way to know a person is based on how he interacts with others. A person can say that they love God with all their heart and that they worship him with a total abandon, but if he does not relate well with others, he is a liar (1 John 4:20).
The test to see if a person is a child of God and if he knows God is that he lovingly relates with others. “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). My relationship with God cannot be separated from my relationship with people; it is a direct indicator of my relationship with God.
Disciple making is not just an equipping course on how to do ministry, at its core disciple making is learning how to relate lovingly with God and with others. For this reason conflict and disunity among a group of disciples should not be looked upon despairingly by the discipler; but rather it is an opportunity to instruct his disciples on how to love one another.
(This is also why the family is an optimal place to make disciples. Within the home the parents have the opportunity to observe how their children relate with one another and then are able to teach the children how to love one another from a young age.)
Here’s what I do:
- I talk privately with each disciple about their relationship with each member of our group. We then discuss how he can affectively love each individual of the group. (We have found “The Five Love Languages” has been helpful in teaching our disciples on how to love one another.)
- I make sure that the group members spend one-on-one time with one another.
- Generally, when there is a conflict I do not address the entire group, but rather only those individuals involved.
It was C. Norman Kraus who said, “The life of the church is its witness. The witness of the church is its life. The question of authentic witness is the question of authentic community” . Our unity and love for one another as followers of Jesus is a proof to the world that the heavenly Father sent Jesus to earth. Jesus prayed for his future disciples that “they would be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me” (John 17:23). Our unity is a proclamation of the gospel.
When the world sees our unity, it resonates with their innermost being because man was created not to live a detached existence, but rather to belong. Our unity may even make the world uncomfortable as it exposes their disconnection with others and with God.
Unity is at the heart of making disciples because it is rooted in the nature of God. Jesus came to earth to introduce the kingdom of God through demonstrating the unity he had with his own father. He said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (John 14:9-10). But he also worked for nearly three years to cultivate unity among his followers knowing that their relationships with one another would be a picture of the gospel to the world. He confronted anything that could cause disunity (e.g., arguing among themselves who was the greatest, Mark 9:33-34) and encouraged anything that would build unity. (“Love one another as I have loved you.” John 13:34-35)
Kevin (not his real name) was an atheist who had become friends with our group of disciples. Kevin later became a follower of Jesus and told us that the group’s love for each other was something that he had longed for his whole life. He had never had a place to belong. This love caused Kevin to re-investigate the very claims of Christianity that he had been earlier refuting.
Some closing thoughts:
- Be intentional in building unity among your disciples. Talk to your disciples about unity. I have worked on 4 church staffs and 2 para-church organizations and do not recall ever having a deliberate plan to cultivate unity among the believers.
- Believers love for one another and unity as disciples may be one of the best ways to reach atheists.
- Making disciples should be done in a community (as Jesus demonstrated both with the twelve disciples and the other disciples in his home town of Capernaum.) It is in the interpersonal relationships among the group that love is learned and demonstrated.
 C. Norman Kraus, The Authentic Witness: Credibility and Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 156.
Christianity is struggling in Chicago. Evangelicalism has spent thousands of dollars on advertising, church planting, and evangelistic outreach with disappointing results. Although the gospel is powerful, I wonder if we are hindered by our method. Christianity continues to approach Chicago as it has always done with church planters and missionaries working as “Lone Rangers,” even though we have the example of Jesus building and ministering from a team. Training His men, Jesus used fishing as a picture for making disciples. We envision a lone person with a rod and reel, while in the first century, fishing was a group effort netting multiple fish. It was no accident that Jesus wanted fishermen on His team.
The Holy Spirit gives each person an ability that works in harmony with the other team members. In our own community Jeremy is the energy behind us serving one another. Ryan and Abbie remind us of the lost people around us while Dan keeps us authentic. Prayer is Maureen’s passion, Randall leads us to give, Leah keeps us in the word, and Rachel has a hug for everyone. It is living in community that we have learned how to work together and how to love a variety of personalities. Unity is a choice that requires humility and hard work to keep a sure grip on the net.
The basis for this team approach is found in the nature of God. God is made up of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They exist in harmony, and out of their relationship flows an infinite love to the world through the cross of Jesus. A discipling team is a picture of God to the world by their love for one another as John describes in 1 John 4:12: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” The team embodies our message.
Our mission is no more difficult than the Roman world of Jesus. As He faced the challenge by forming a team, so we also should form teams believing that our unity is the point of engagement with our culture. Our unity is how Chicago will be convinced that the Father has sent Jesus into the world. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).