One of the biggest mistakes I ever made in ministering to women was assuming that discipleship is one-size fits all.
Depending on where you live and to whom you’re ministering, discipleship will look differently even as the biblical principles for it remain the same.
Simply put, discipling unchurched women looks different from discipling women from a churched culture. What’s the difference? Certainly, not the condition of the heart; Scripture tells us we are all sinners in need of a Savior and Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 3:23).
The difference between discipling churched and unchurched women lies in the state of the soil in which women are planted.
One soil is nutrient-rich, having benefited from the Spirit’s work in and through the body of Christ. The other soil is hard and rocky. Places with unchurched soil often have layer upon layer of sin and strongholds, and people from unchurched soil will have hearts hardened by those many layers of sin in and around them. Because the Spirit’s life-giving stirrings have likely been absent for generations, life is neither visible nor sustained for any length of time.
IDENTIFYING YOUR SOIL
In Matt. 13, Jesus teaches about the nature of our discipleship efforts through the parable of the sower. Later to his disciples, Jesus explains that the four types of soil in his parable represent the four types of hearts or hearers his disciples could expect to minister to as they sought to fulfill his mission on earth.
The first soil was hard, having been packed down by travelers and untilled for gardening. Jesus said this soil represents a heart hardened by sin. Gospel seeds cannot penetrate this heart, as evidenced by their lack of remorse.
The second soil was shallow due to a hidden layer of rock beneath it. Jesus said this soil represented a heart that allows for superficial growth. Gospel seeds penetrate and grow quickly, making the eventual plant appear healthy and fruitful. But because the plant is unable to grow hardy roots capable of penetrating the rocky layers beneath, it will quickly die.
“20 But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.” Matt. 13:20-21 (NKJV)
The third soil was riddled with thorns that sprang up to choke out growth. Jesus said this soil represented a heart riddled with worldly cares. And finally, the fourth soil was the only soil to be considered by Jesus to be “good soil,” representing a heart receptive to the gospel. Four soils, four different hearts.
In developing a discipleship strategy targeting unchurched women, we are compelled to consider the type of soil in which we are ministering. As God has repeatedly planted our family in places with difficult soil, our family has learned to battle hard places, rocks, and thorns in fulfilling Jesus’ mission. In the places we’ve served, I have recognized the following lifecycle play out among new believers who have sprung up rocky soil (soil #2).
Women who come to Christ out of rocky soil are often eager to accept the truth of the gospel and, for a time, appear to be spiritually healthy. Fresh from their salvation experience, these women will eagerly participate in the life of the church and shoots of growth are often evident. In their initial growth spurt they often show a desire to read God’s Word and to fellowship with his church. They will talk excited about their new-found feeling of peace and joy.
But with an immature or non-existent root system, they cannot hope to endure the first onset of extreme circumstances. When the heat of life scorches their leaves, these women quickly wither away and die.
Because of the nature of the rocky soil in which they are planted, discipling unchurched women is first and foremost a root-building ministry.
BUILDING HEALTHY ROOTS
By God’s good design, roots are incredibly important for a plant.
-They absorb water and nutrients from the soil.
-They store food in preparation for extreme conditions experienced on the surface.
-They anchor the plant and keep that plant in place.
The taproot system consists of one main root that is bigger and thicker than the others. It anchors the plant and can dig deep to find water.
The fibrous system consists of many smaller, shallow roots that are intertwined and connected to each other. Grass is a good example of fibrous root system.
So, with respect to women’s ministries, our discipleship looks like one of these two root systems.
Too often, our discipleship looks like the fibrous root system. We offer events and fellowship-purposed programs in order to build connections with other women or meet felt-needs (love, acceptance, de-stressing, etc.,). But although quickly grown and quickly connected, fibrous roots are too shallow to keep a new plant firmly rooted when harsh conditions come her way. Connections with other women and fellowship is not enough to ground women in the church.
In the plant world, the taproot system offers us a better model of discipleship. Ministries that are based on the Word will help women grow deeper and more stable roots. The Word of God is our sustenance, by it we know God, by it we grow to be like God, and by it we demonstrate fruit (Ps. 19; Matt. 4:4; 1 Pet. 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 3:16).
When extreme conditions or storms come our way, we need roots deeply anchored in the Word and in truth. If we are anchored in truth, we won’t wither, we won’t die, and we won’t blow away. Deep and strong roots come only as the Spirit works in our lives through his Word to bring gospel growth and change to our heart.
My friend *Pamela made a profession of faith, but when we spoke a few weeks later, I couldn’t help but notice that her smile looked like it was pasted on. I could see in her eyes that the positive emotions following her salvation experience had long since faded.
A few questions and answers later, she shared she had recently endured a very difficult life situation (her first post-conversion experience with the heat of life). So I knew my spirit had discerned rightly; she was desperately trying to keep a smile on her face.
To the observer, all the outward signs indicated Pamela was a healthy disciple. She was still attending church and she said she was reading her Bible and praying.
But when pressed, it was her words that revealed the true state of her heart. In spite of her disclosure to me about her hard situation, Pamela indicated that her life had completely changed since she’d started coming to church and reading her Bible everyday – since she’d gotten her life together. Conspicuously absent was any mention of Christ.
Now, please hear me clearly. Church attendance and Bible reading are good things, but instead of keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, we can too easily focus was on the work of our hands instead of Christ’s work in us. Human works are a poor substitute for biblical discipleship.
Sensing that trouble was brewing below the surface of her life, I tried to get her plugged into a discipleship relationship. But my efforts came too late. The extreme circumstances she ha endured had already scorched her tender shoots of growth, and because she wasn’t deeply rooted in the truth of the Word, what little growth she’d enjoyed withered, and she soon stopped coming to church altogether. She was uprooted from her faith.
In places with rocky soil, it is crucial that discipleship happens quickly after a seed has been planted and new life begins to grow. If you wait to help a woman build roots after extreme conditions set in, it is too late. Because she doesn’t have the benefit of the nutrient-rich soil of a church culture, an unchurched woman lacks the benefit of seeing lives of obedience mirrored to her, however imperfectly.
So, while a new believer who has grown up in a churched culture might remain in the church out of habit or because she has learned to rely on the nutrients of someone else’s roots, an unchurched woman will not. An unchurched woman doesn’t know to do that. She will become uprooted, and as one of the many Barna studies about unchurched populations indicates, she will become de-churched.
This is why discipleship – particularly for unchurched women – must first help women build a healthy root system, so that when the first storm of life hits and all those good feelings of salvation wear off (joy, peace, excitement), she will remain deeply rooted and nourished in the truths of the gospel.
The key, then, to discipling unchurched women is starting early. As soon, as that seed of salvation takes root in a woman’s life, we must immediately start pouring into her. Because certain conditions have to be met in order for a new plant – or a new believer – to grow, thrive, bloom, and produce fruit.
In what ways have you seen this lifecycle play out in the women around you? Next week we will look a three specific ways we can build better roots in an unchurched disciple.
*not her real name, of course.