Chapter 1 of Growing Up: The Difference that Made the Difference

I am excited to announce that Growing Up: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples is officially on sale! To celebrate, I  am posting to the entire first chapter incase you are still hesitant to order.


I thought I had hit rock bottom when I stole $15,000 from my parents. I was a twenty-five year old drug dealer, hopelessly addicted to prescription medications. The police were on my trail, and my prosperous life suddenly fell apart.

Fast-forward eleven years. Today, I have a godly wife and two sons, and I am privileged to serve as pastor of a thriving congregation. In fact, at the time of this writing, I am in my fifth year as pastor of Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, having been called as pastor in 2008. Here is the million-dollar question: how can a thieving, drug-dealing pill addict undergo such a radical transformation in so little time—a mere eleven years? What could produce this drastic change? The answer to this question is, first and foremost, the power and grace of God. This change has come about because of God’s marvelous, miraculous working in my life. But there is something else, a human factor: I have been powerfully impacted by godly men who were willing to sacrifice their time to hold me accountable and personally disciple me in the Christian life. These men invested themselves in me as Paul invested himself in Timothy, to whom he referred as his son in the faith. Paul’s model in 2 Timothy mirrors the work of these unselfish mentors who guided me through my own struggles as a new believer. Here is how it all happened: For the first twenty-five years of my life, the Lord seemed very far from me. I was born into a very strict Roman Catholic family, and my parents sent me to Holy Cross High School, a Catholic school for boys in New Orleans, La. For me, religion consisted solely of attending mass. Each Sunday, I sat in church and dutifully participated in the rituals, governed by a personal philosophy to do only what was best for me. Completely unconcerned with what God desired for me, I left the services with an unchanged heart—every Sunday. I graduated from high school with a fantastic opportunity: the University of North Carolina at Greensboro awarded me a basketball scholarship. But I was in love—or so I thought—and turned the scholarship down when my girlfriend begged me to attend a college closer to home. As I browsed the phone book to see what colleges were in the area, William Carey College jumped out at me. But when I inquired about trying out for the basketball team, I received bad news: the players had already been selected and the roster was full. I responded the only way a desperate, love-struck eighteen year old boy could: I begged the coach to allow me to try out for the team! Seeing that I wasn’t going away otherwise, the coach caved, and I showed him my stuff. To his surprise, Coach Knight offered me a scholarship the very next day. Just two weeks after school started, my devoted girlfriend, the one for whom I had given up playing for UNC Greensboro, suddenly broke up with me. Overwhelmed with both heartache and anger, I could not see the hand of God at work in the circumstances of my life. Although I did not realize it, He was setting the stage for something glorious, a life I could never have imagined at the time. Thanks, But No Thanks During my second semester at William Carey, the next step in God’s wonderful plan for me unfolded. In His abundant goodness and love, God brought Jeremy Brown into my life, a friend who cared enough about me to discuss what it really means to have a relationship with God. Although I refused to listen at that time, Jeremy’s persistent message remained in my heart: if I would only cry out to God, Jeremy said, He would forgive me of everything in my past. By surrendering my life to God, I would find a real, meaningful relationship with Him.  Seven years later, Jeremy’s words would come back to me at the time I needed them most. I graduated from college and started a computer business with two friends. For six grueling months we put everything we had into the company, but it never took off. Exhausted, dejected, and broke, we dismantled the company and each went our separate ways. When the business folded, I felt like a failure and turned to a realm where I was confident of success. Standing at 6’6” and 290 pounds, I was fascinated with the world of mixed martial arts. I watched extreme fighting competitions and began to train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Then, I was hired as a bouncer at a club in New Orleans, where they paid me to fight. It was exhilarating, and I felt that I was indestructible. Life Altering Accident I found out how wrong I was on November 22, 1999, when an eighteen-wheeler traveling sixty-five miles per hour swerved across two lanes of traffic and slammed my car into a guardrail. Doctors determined that I had two herniated discs in my neck, one herniated disc in my back, and one bulging disc in my lower back. All I knew was that I was in horrific pain. Their solution: a combination of Oxycontin, Valium, Soma, and Percocet. Having never taken drugs before, I began by precisely following the dosage instructions. But in three months, I found myself addicted to prescription pain-killers. When my thirty-day supply ran low as a result of abusing the drugs, I desperately turned to dubious means of feeding my insatiable craving for more. Two shady acquaintances introduced me to the lucrative world of dealing drugs. With my business training and experience, I quickly became successful in importing and selling illegal drugs. Trafficking heroin, cocaine, GHB, marijuana, and other dangerous substances into New Orleans enabled me to enjoy a lifestyle that most only dream about. Downward Spiral But in January of 2000, my world began to unravel. Rick, a former business partner and close friend, overdosed on heroin and died with the needle still in his arm. Between 2000 and 2003, I lost eight friends to alcohol or drugs, while six others ended up in prison. Additionally, my drug-dealing operation was being investigated, with the police monitoring our particular group. Everything changed overnight. Suddenly, we couldn’t pay the bills. The gas, water, and electricity to our house were shut off. The bill collectors continued to call until the phone was disconnected as well. To make matters even worse, I had a $180 a day drug addiction that growled to be fed. During that period, I stole $15,000 from my father by using his credit card to buy items online that I later pawned or sold for drug money. When my parents learned what I had done, they were totally crushed. They were well-justified in ordering me to never return to their house. Unfazed by the conversation, I wasted the remainder of the funds from my bank account on street drugs. This three-month drug binge ended with me on my parents’ living room floor, penniless and begging for their help. My next stop was a rehab program in Tijuana, Mexico, of all places. I spent ten days in an intensive recovery program involving the injection of amino acids to realign the serotonin and dopamine levels in my body. After completing the program, I moved to Mobile, Alabama, to live with my sister, and things began to improve. I even got a job as a sales manager at gym, where I began training five days a week. One day, while foolishly attempting to squat press over 500 pounds, I felt a familiar pain shoot through my back. After traveling back to New Orleans for treatment, I learned that I had damaged the same disc in my back, and that I needed immediate surgery. Following the surgery, I went home with the same four pain medications that I was prescribed after my car accident. For the next six months, I allowed these medications—substances that had caused so much hurt and heartache for my family—back into my life. Things quickly crashed for the second time. Knowing I had now reached rock bottom, I abruptly stopped taking all the drugs and voluntarily re-entered rehab two weeks later. 24-Hour Experience I once again began treatment on November 12, 2002. On the very first night, I remembered Jeremy Brown, who had told me that no matter what I had done, Christ loves me and is waiting for me to call out to Him in repentance and faith. It didn’t happen in a church service, under a revival tent, or in a crusade: Jesus introduced Himself to me that night in my rehab room. I surrendered myself to Him, confessing my sins and asking the Lord to save me from the mess I had made of my life. After dumping everything at the foot of the cross, God’s forgiveness rushed over me like a mighty, cleansing wave. Overwhelmed by a purity and freedom I had never known, I made two promises to the Lord that night: first, I would completely devote my life to Him, and second, I would travel the world sharing my testimony with others. I spent the next twenty-four hours in my room with nobody but Jesus Christ. This glorious experience birthed uncontainable excitement in my soul. The very next day, I told my dad that I intended to become a preacher.  A lifelong Catholic, my father was concerned about my plans for marriage. Naturally, he assumed that I wanted to become a priest. I carefully explained that I was leaving my focus on rituals and works behind, and I was devoting my life to sharing the gospel with others.

Questions to Consider

Were you discipled after coming to Christ? Was it even an option for you?

The Difference that Made the Difference Making the transition from religion to a personal relationship with Christ was extremely difficult for me. My Catholic upbringing didn’t promote Scripture reading, memorization, or unrehearsed prayer. For several months, I wandered aimlessly in my Christian life, uncertain of how to proceed. Sensing my desperate frustration, a friend suggested that I pray for God to provide a mentor to disciple me, just as Paul had discipled Timothy. Because I had never read the Bible, I was unfamiliar with Paul’s and Timothy’s relationship. But in spite of my nervous skepticism, I began to pray for God to send someone to help me. I began attending Edgewater Baptist Church in New Orleans, and, after a few weeks, a church member by the name of David Platt invited me to meet weekly with him for Bible study, prayer, and accountability. When he asked me to pray about joining him, I excitedly responded, “I have already been praying. When do we start?” I couldn’t believe that God had heard my sincere plea for help and had prompted David  to offer to disciple me in the Christian life. For the next five months, I met with David every week to discuss the glory of God, the lost nature of man, and the good news of Christ. Throughout this time, David constantly encouraged me to share my story with others. The following month, I enrolled in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to prepare for a lifetime of ministry. We continued meeting, enlarging our group to seven other seminary students, every Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 6:30 for the next eighteen months. Shortly after, God graciously brought another key person into my life. Tim LaFleur, a campus minister at Nicholls State University, invited me to work with him for the summer in Glorieta, New Mexico, helping hundreds of college students grow into mature followers of Christ. We spent those three months discussing the essential doctrines of the faith, the power of the Holy Spirit, the equipping of saints for service, and the assurance of salvation. He straightened out my faulty theology, always correcting me with grace and love. In addition to David and Tim, a number of other selfless men invested themselves in discipling me. I am eternally grateful to Don Wilton, Tony Merida, Reggie Ogea, Larry Osborne, Greg Surratt, Bill Hull, and Mark Dever as well. These men have been “Pauls” in my life, instructing and challenging me to do for others exactly what they did for me.

Question to Consider

For those of you who haven’t been discipled, in what ways could you have

benefited from a D-Group (disciple-making group)?

Reality Check As I grew in my faith and knowledge of God’s Word, I became aware that very few believers have had someone in their lives that accepted the responsibility of equipping them in the foundational doctrines, principles, and practices of the faith. In fact, I observed that most church members have yet to experience the benefits of personal discipleship. Having surveyed churches for the past eighteen years, David Olson, director of the American Church Research Project, reported eye-opening results. He found that “on any given weekend in 1990, 20.4 percent of the American population attended an orthodox Christian church. On any given weekend in 2000, 18.7 percent of the American population attended an orthodox Christian church. In 2003 the Christian church attendance percentage was 17.8 percent. If the present rate of decline continues, in 2050 11.7 percent of the population will be in a Christian church on any given weekend.”[ii] If the numbers digress as Olson projects, the future is bleak for the body of Christ in America. T-NET International, a Colorado-based organization that trains and coaches pastors to fulfill the Great Commission, conducted a survey to determine if churches were producing disciples. Their team polled over 4,000 churchgoers from thirty-five churches representing different denominations. Bob Gilliam, co-founder and president of T-NET International, reported, “Many people in these churches are not growing spiritually. Of those taking this survey, 24 percent indicated that their behavior was sliding backward and 41 percent said they were ‘static’ in their spiritual growth.”[iii] Thus, 65 percent of believers are either stalled or declining in their spiritual life. Did you grasp the seriousness of these numbers? Six out of ten church attendees admitted that their spiritual lives were stagnant. Should the Christian life be stagnant? Is static a proper term to describe followers of Christ? Every single one of us should be closer to Christ today than we were a year ago, or even a month ago. Wake Up Call Five years after writing about mobilizing, inspiring and leading others, Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, publicly apologized to his congregation for failing to produce disciples in his church. Hybels hired a company to evaluate Willow Creek’s effectiveness, and the results caused Hybels to experience “the wake-up call” of his ministerial life. Acknowledging Willow Creek’s failure, Hybels expressed his frustration. “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people how to read their Bible between services and how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.” After investing thirty years of ministry and tens of millions of dollars in facilities, programs, and promotions, Willow Creek was admittedly unsuccessful in producing disciples. Resources were prioritized on attracting visitors, but a step-by-step plan for personal growth was ignored. How important is discipleship to pastors? In study after study, pastors have repeatedly ranked discipleship at the bottom of their priority list. The average church today focuses on programs and the public worship experience. Few have any real emphasis on personal, one-on-one discipleship, much less any structure or instruction for performing it. Author and editor Jason Mandryk of Operation World directly confronted this problem. “Discipleship is the greatest challenge facing the Church today.”[vi] Mandryk states additionally, “There is a genuine need for effective Bible study and teaching in Christians’ heart languages, genuine fellowship, and a commitment to involvement in ministry.” It’s Not All the Church’s Fault  Speaking about the impact Christians have on the world, or the lack thereof, Greg Nettle stated, “The lack of discipleship undermines all else that we seek to do.”  So who is to blame for this oversight? It is unfair to blame the church exclusively. While the shortcomings of the church in discipleship cannot be overlooked, it is also true that many professing Christians are never committed to a growing relationship with the Lord. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus taught us that many who receive the Word of God into their hearts never grow and bear fruit for Him. A shallow commitment and love for the things of this world—this life—stunt their growth as believers (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23). The fact is, nearly all evangelical churches emphasize, to some degree, Bible study and prayer, which are the basic keys to knowing God. Most offer some sort of Bible study or D-Groups, albeit, often ineffectively. But, in the best of churches, only a fraction of the membership even attends a worship service regularly! Smaller still is the percentage of people who are faithfully involved in a group or class. Jesus pulled no punches when it came to discipleship. He was blunt and crystal clear about it: following Him is a choice, a choice that requires sacrifice, commitment, and making Him the number one priority of our lives. There is a price involved with being His disciple, He forewarned us, and many professing believers count the cost and decide it is more than they are willing to pay (Luke 14:26-33).

Questions to Consider

In your opinion, why hasn’t discipleship been a priority for believers? Why hasn’t it been a priority for you?

The Masters’ Model As Jesus discipled the twelve men who would change the world, He gradually released them into ministry. The four-step progression He initiated applies to disciple-making today. First, Jesus ministered while the disciples watched. In the Sermon on the Mount,  Jesus taught God’s truths, and the disciples observed, listened, and learned (Matthew 5-7). When Jesus went into the synagogue and healed the lame, cleansed the lepers, and gave hearing to the deaf, the disciples looked on (Mark 1). Second, Jesus progressed to allowing the disciples to assist him in ministry. When Jesus fed the multitude, He broke the bread and performed the miracle. The disciples distributed the supernatural meal to the hungry crowd, and they also collected the surplus (John 6:1-13). Third, the disciples ministered and Jesus assisted them. After His glorious transfiguration, Jesus came down from the mountain and walked into an uproar (Mark 9). The disciples were attempting to cast out a demon from a possessed boy, and they were failing miserably. In utter frustration and desperation, the boy’s father turned to Jesus and asked Him to intervene. “I brought my son to your disciples but they could do nothing!” the despondent man cried. Jesus stepped in, cast out the demon, and made the boy whole. Later, Jesus rebuked the powerless disciples and instructed that “this one can only come out by fasting and prayer” (Mark 9:29). The final step of the disciples’ training was Jesus observing as the disciples ministered to others. Jesus sent them out with the instruction to go into the world, cast out demons, and preach the gospel. And they came back saying, “Jesus, it was just like you said. We cast out demons and we preached the good news. God miraculously worked through us” (Luke.10:1-17). This is the model Jesus gave us, and this is His plan for developing disciples today. You can’t do this alone, and you shouldn’t attempt to.

Question to Consider

Think about Jesus’ four-step process for making disciples. Why is it an effective strategy?

Where Do I Begin? In order to make disciples, we must first be disciples. In the average evangelical church, what happens immediately after someone comes to saving faith in Christ? Most ministers encourage the new believer to live for Christ, deny sin, and attend church faithfully. Completely puzzled, the baby believer leaves the service as clueless about following Christ as he or she was upon entering. Sadly, this is the norm in Bible-preaching churches every week. Sincere believers who desire a vibrant relationship with the Lord are sent out the doors totally unaware of how to cultivate intimacy with their Savior. The words “spring cleaning” spark fear and dread in the minds of most children. If your parents were anything like mine, once a year they would rise early on a Saturday morning to reorganize the garage, basement, or storage shed behind the house. The first year I was old enough to assist, my hard work paid off. As I was moving lawn equipment and bicycles out of the way, a massive black box caught my attention from the back corner of our shed. After climbing over old mattresses and furniture to reach it, I carefully maneuvered my way out of the shed without dropping my newfound treasure. “What is it, Dad?” I excitedly asked. My father bent down, wiped the dust off the black box, and with a smile on his face responded, “This is the world radio I had when I was your age.” I was fascinated. My dad and I spent the remainder of the day cleaning the radio and not the garage. Later that night our family gathered around that old radio, and, with fingers crossed plugged the cord into the outlet. To everyone’s happy surprise, it worked just as it had twenty years earlier. Although we could not hear nor see the radio frequencies being transmitted through the air, stations from China, France, and Europe came in clearly with a careful turn of the dial. As I fondly think back to that day, I am reminded that God speaks to us every day. But, in order to hear His voice, we must be tuned into His frequency. As in human relationships, communication with God is the foundation of an intimate walk with Him. Yet, many, many believers never learn how to tune in to God. For them, hearing from God is an elusive concept.

Questions to Consider

What are three reasons for being in a D-Group? What are you expectations of this group?

 Multiplication over Addition God has always been interested in reproduction. In fact, His first command to Adam and Eve in the Garden was not to be spiritual, productive, or upstanding citizens of earth. Rather, it was to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). The goal of every D-Group is for the mentee, the one being discipled, to become a mentor; to multiply—make other disciples. In essence, the D-Group is designed for the player to become a coach. Leaders must communicate this at the outset of the group. If it is not discussed early on, members in the group will adopt a consumer mentality, with a narrow-sighted, self-serving focus. The heart of discipleship, as Christ modeled and instituted it, is that you are not learning only for yourself; you are learning for the person you will mentor in following Him. The Great Commission is designed to be a team effort. Instead of the pastors/leaders/Sunday school teachers/deacons performing all the duties of ministry in the church, the saints are equipped to carry out the work. The ministers cannot carry out the command alone, as Paul clearly stated: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph.4:11). Greg Ogden, in his book Transforming Discipleship, expounds this point by graphically illustrating the contrast between someone personally seeing one person come to the Lord every day for a year, as compared to investing in the same two people for an entire year (see Table 1). The evangelist hits the streets everyday with the goal of sharing the gospel with as many people as needed to see God save one person. In contrast, the disciple-maker walks two people through a year of intensive discipleship. The slow-moving discipleship process creeps forward with only four people being impacted in two years compared to 730 converts through the solitary work of a busy evangelist. However, this radically changes with the passing of time. After sixteen years of the same activity, the evangelist would have seen almost 6000 people come to faith in Christ, while the disciple would have impacted 65,536 people. Every person on the planet would be reached multiple times over after thirty years. It is a ministry shift from a strategy of addition, where the clergy performs the ministerial duties, to one of multiplication, where believers are expected and equipped to personally participate in the Great Commission. This is Jesus’ plan for reaching the world with the Gospel. This is the purpose of the D-Group. If the body of Christ would accept it, embrace it, and faithfully obey it, the Great Commission would be accomplished. Nothing Grows under a Banyan Tree The banyan is a massive tree that develops secondary trunks to support its enormous branches. A full-grown banyan tree can cover an entire acre. The tree provides shade and shelter for many animals with its branches, but nothing is able to grow under its dense foliage. Therefore, the earth beneath it is barren. A banana tree is exactly the opposite. Within six months, small shoots sprout from the ground. Six months later, another set of shoots spring from the earth to join the others, which are now six months old. At about eighteen months, bananas burst forth from the main trunk of the tree. Humans, birds, and many other creatures benefit from its fruit before it dies. Every six months, the cycle is reproduced with sprouts forming, fruit bearing, and shoots dying. The end result is a forest of banana trees. These contrasting trees graphically illustrate a vital discipleship truth. Many people utilize a banyan style of leadership. “Banyan-style leaders have a tremendous ministry but have difficulty finding a successor, because they do not generate leaders, only followers. It’s possible to grow followers in a relatively short space of time, and that’s a useful result in its own. But when the leader goes away, you are left only with a heavily dependent group of people, programmed with a list of instructions.” Discipleship is about shoots and sprouts. These new sprouts are never a threat to the banana tree, for they insure growth. In fact, they are expected. The goal of a D-Group is for the mentee to become a mentor, for the player to become a coach. Unless that happens, the group, in reality, never progresses beyond a small group Bible study.

Memory Verse 2 Tim. 2:1-2