Discipling A Feedback Loop

26-1113tm-vector2-401I learned much about making disciples by watching an older man remain relevant to people much younger than himself.

Nathaniel Van Cleave became my pastor at the height of my rebellious teen years. During his first sermon, he watched my friends and pried the gunpowder from a box of bullets and two shotgun shells while sitting in the second row in church.

We thought we were pretty smart, but Van was smarter. Our actions made him reach out to us all the more. We actually became friends with a balding pastor decades older than our rat-pack.

Three Moves Of An Effective Disciplemaker

Over the years I watched him do three things that kept our attention.

First, he intentionally surrounded himself with younger people. He stacked his staff with youth at every turn.

The second, very wise thing, floored us. He actually moved on what we had to say, acting on it even when we were still unsure of our own opinions. He discipled us, but not in a top-down fashion. He made disciplemaking into a two-way street. Without his attention and coaching I would never have become a church planter. He made me believe in myself. Couple this with the fact that he managed to find balance between faking “cool” and being old kept us alert to whatever he did. His clothes and European sports-sedan didn’t fit our stereotypes of someone out of touch with the world.

Finally, he established a feedback loop that kept him culturally relevant, not only during the years that I knew him but later in life as well. I eventually worked for him when I planted the first Hope Chapel. After retiring from the job he held, he went on to become a favored Bible teacher to younger people at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa at the height of the cultural revolution in the early 70s.

He used meetings and personal friendship with his disciples to stay alert to the times.

The man marked my life in many ways, but the strongest was his ability to learn from his disciples. I work hard at discipling people a couple of generations younger than myself. Because of Van Cleave I always worked with younger people, but it is really paying off as I get older. They provide accurate feedback as to the relevancy of my life, leadership and teaching.

Broaden Your Cultural Base

To reflect your community in terms of race and/or economic conditions is a given. However, you can become a victim of your own generation and it’s cultural norms.

My current group of disciples includes a 22-year-old that started with us when he was 17. It also includes an 80-year-old former church planter and university professor with an assorted bunch in between. The important thing is that the young guy often has more to teach us than the older man, though he brings the unique perspective of years. The young leader keeps me fresh, the older one reinforces us when we are on the right track.

Remain Relevant

I find slogans like “Next-Gen” about as relevant as a topless dancer at a funeral. However, I believe that we are obligated to take what we know of the Lord to rising generations. If we fail at this, Christianity will fail in our culture. Sadly, that seems to be the case as Millennials reject a gospel of entertainment in favor of organic relationships that seem to matter.

My point here is that to stay relevant we need to remain in face-to-face contact with those we care to reach. Only direct human contact can truly keep us relevant. And, that doesn’t require big production teams or light shows during worship. After all, we are called to press the envelope of a movement that started with one leader and twelve followers (after he turned away from the crowds of shallow seekers).

Your church may be large or small (so who gets to define small, anyway?), but without face-on contact with younger people you endanger your future and theirs. Whoever you are, the one thing you can do well is make friends with younger people wherever you find them. The payout is huge. You too can “grow tall in the presence of God, lithe and green, virile still in old age” (Ps. 92:13-14, THE MESSAGE).




3 thoughts on “Discipling A Feedback Loop”

  1. Ralph, there is so much I can say about how you literally practiced all you learned from Dr. Van Cleave towards me. Just this morning I was sharing with Jeff Fischer an incident that took place almost 40 years ago when we were moving to the bowling alley. I would love to share that incident with you and your readers and ask questions about your post, but first I want to know if you have the time for that kind of interaction. Please let me know.

  2. Ralph, you reminded me of a forward-thinking Fire Chief I had. He took some heat (no pun intended) from the older guys for involving and listening to younger firefighters, but he was also able to make improvements as a result.

    I want to keep growing in the humility that seeks to learn from the younger people I meet. Some of the best times I’ve had, in terms of discipleship and fun, were the times I hung out with my fifteen year old son and his buddies at a yellow-arched restaurant. We call these meetings “Proverbs Parties” since we read and discuss the Proverbs chapter matching the date. God always teaches me through the insights of my younger friends. And a common side blessing that occurs is when a much much older stranger comments on how seeing a group of boys laughing and discussing the Bible made their day- three generations discipled and encouraged.

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