The Missing Piece of Faith
Rev. Dr. John Fullerton
I recently put together a puzzle with Marley, my six-year-old granddaughter. She has a great sense of humor. We got to the end of the puzzle and there was a missing puzzle piece. “Where is the last piece?” I asked. I knew what happened. She hid it. She wanted to put in the last piece herself. I couldn’t be upset; I taught her the trick. My older sister taught it to me as a kid. When I asked Marley where the last piece was, she burst out laughing. She kept saying, “I don’t know” and laughing. I was laughing too but kept asking where that puzzle piece was. She finally pulled the last piece out, falling over the side of the couch with laughter at how sneaky she was.
Having a Complete Faith
The puzzle wasn’t complete until the last piece was included. Without it, the puzzle was unfinished. With it, we had the satisfaction of a completed work.
There is a missing piece in the life of many followers of Jesus. It is called for and modeled by Jesus, but largely not present in his followers today. Without this piece in place, our life in Christ is incomplete. With it, we will have the satisfaction of a more complete faith.
Being Mature in Christ
The missing piece is about being a mature follower of Jesus. Around the church, we have been talking about what that means. We say it different ways. We might ask what it means to be a mature disciple. We might ask, “What is discipleship?” Recently, at staff meeting I asked the staff to answer the question of what it means for us to be a disciple-making church. On our church website are the words:
A Mature Disciple Will
- Define their core identity as a Christ-follower
- Deny self-lordship and control as these belong to the Lord
- Pursue only hopes and dreams given by the Lord
- Invest all they are and have for Christ and his gospel
- Have a God-shaped view of the world
- Worship whole-heartedly
- Desire personal growth in beliefs, spiritual practices, and character
- Participate in God’s mission through making Christ known
- Participate in God’s mission through compassion and care
- Participate in God’s mission through seeking to right societal wrongs
- Do the work to make and mature others
Those 11 points are big. Some are harder than others. Some are mindsets. Some are practices. Some have to do with loving and caring for others. One has to do with biblical justice. However, it is the last one – “do the work to make and mature others” – that is the missing piece for many. A mature disciple of Jesus does the work to make and mature others into fully devoted followers of Jesus.
“A mature disciple of Jesus does the work to make and mature others into fully devoted followers of Jesus.”
The Fuel and Gas Tank Model
For many, being a disciple is about getting filled like a gas tank is filled. I grew up in the United States Air Force, which meant I grew up around airplanes. Dad took me flying in a single-engine Cessna or Piper airplane almost every time the weather was fair. At the end of the flight, we always filled the gas tank. The airplane needed fuel to keep flying, so we taxied up to the gas pump and topped off the tank.
The spiritual person needs spiritual fuel – knowledge, worship, serving – so we fill up the spiritual gas tank. We have personal devotion time, get into groups, go to worship, and have spiritual practices to fill up the spiritual tank. In this model, discipleship is filling up the spiritual tank in order to have a good marriage, be a good parent, battle injustice, worship more deeply, etc.
What is Missing
What is missing in that model is the outward focus of Jesus and the early church leaders. The disciples had their spiritual tanks filled up and their lives were better because of it, but they also poured into others. The focus was not one directional, where God was pouring into them with teaching and blessings. The focus was outward as well. They poured into others with teaching and blessings. Christians are not only to receive; we are also to give. We are to pour into others. That is what is largely missing. We need a different mental model of discipleship.
The Mid-Air Refueling Model
Rather than thinking only of our spiritual tanks being filled, I suggest another image to supply what is missing in discipleship. Instead of thinking of an airplane in need of topping off the fuel, think instead of being a mid-air refueling airplane. Yes, such airplanes require refueling themselves, but their purpose is to provide fuel for others. So may it be for us.
I looked up today’s mid-air refueling aircraft. A KC -10 Extender aircraft is based on the design of Boeing DC-10 and carries 160 tons of fuel. That fuel can be delivered at up to 1,110 gallons per minute to another airplane while flying. To put it in perspective, I have a 19-gallon fuel tank in my car. It would take a KC-10 Extender one second to fill up my car’s tank. One second. That is what we have in faith. What God can and does provide is so much greater than our capacity to receive it. There is so much more spiritual fuel available. We have access to that spiritual refueling station. What do we do with all that excess and immediately available spiritual fuel? We fill other tanks. We become a spiritual refueling station.
The missing part of discipleship is the idea that each person, each believer sees themselves as being entrusted and responsible to help fill the tanks of others. We help others mature in their faith so that they, in turn, can help others in their faith. Or, to say it another way, disciples are people who make disciples who make disciples.
“Disciples are people who make disciples who make disciples.”
A Small Vision
This was the way of Jesus. Have you noticed Jesus did not personally pour himself into hundreds of people? He talked with hundreds and more, but his focus and energy was on a small number of people. His vision, if you can call it that, was focused on a few. Those few went deep in faith, were taught well, coached up, equipped, and sent out in order to reach the multitudes.
Jesus had a big enough vision to think small. His plan was to reach the world with twelve motivated people he personally trained. Out of the twelve disciples he poured into an even smaller group of Peter, James, and John. His plan was to introduce his kingdom on this planet by pouring into twelve people who would reach “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
A Slow Vision
That work of pouring into the twelve was slow work. Jesus spent days, weeks, months, and years with his disciples. That alone speaks volumes to the vision. It can’t be rushed. It takes time.
I would love to say that as individuals or in the church I serve, we are going to eradicate homelessness in town or be the fiercest advocates for the poor and marginalized. I would love to say we are going to have the splashiest youth or fine arts or mission ministries of any church around. I would love to say that we will do caregiving to those in need in the church or connect with one another better than any church out there. And everything I just wrote we are working on as a church. To focus on disciple-making is to impact all those areas, but it is a slow process because it is person-to-person, moment-by-moment integrating the life of faith into every part of life. That can’t be rushed. It takes time.
A Sea Change Vision
A disciple-making vision takes time, but the yield over time is exponential. When one person disciples three people like Jesus did with his inner three, and those three then turn around and do the same thing, the results over time are not linear, but exponential. It yields numerical growth with far more depth. That vision for our work is a sea change; it is a fundamental shift that will affect generations to come and do so one person at a time.
If the issue of each person being a person who disciples others resonates as biblical, faithful, needed, and largely missing, what do we do? The answer begins with an intention to do so. If we don’t even see it as important, we will never disciple others who then disciple others. From there, the possibilities are endless.
Here are some suggestions for what to do.
- Don’t let your own feelings stop you. It is easy to think you don’t know enough or are too sinful to do this. “Who am I?” may be the concern. The answer is, “You are a child of God and as a follower of Jesus you are called to disciple others.”
- Limit the number of people you disciple. Keep it a small number. Jesus did it this way.
- Give time to those people. Pour into them with your time and attention first.
- Find a content that works. Some simply study the Bible and pray. Perfect. Others use printed studies like our Discipleship Essentials materials made for no more than four people. Find what works.
- Get help if you don’t know where to start. I suggest starting with Pastor Rebecca, our Discipleship Pastor. This is her passion and she is constantly monitoring tools and coaching people.
Jesus and the early church leaders were not interested in passing on an organization or a structure. They were growing a community of people who wanted to have impact on the world. They wanted to pass on the faith to individuals for generations to come. Faith wasn’t a program or a course of study; it was a way of life that was transmitted from one person to another, one generation to another. For them, to be a Christian was to be a disciple-maker.
Christians are still called to be disciple-makers. This means making a personal spiritual investment into another person. The call for every believer, the missing piece for many, if not most believers, is to take that seriously. Go. Be a spiritual refueling airplane. Pour spiritual fuel into another disciple having already received spiritual fuel into yourself. Jesus changed the world this way. You and I can change the world this way as well.
Rev. Dr. John H. Fullerton, Jr.
Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Florida, he worked in business for nine years. God then had other plans for his life that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity and then ordination as a pastor. In 2010, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He grew up in a military home that took him all over the United States but considers Palatka, Florida, his hometown. He and his wife, Cile, have been married since 1983 and are proud parents of three daughters who have given them five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading, running, golf, and spending time with family.