During college I struggled with one of the essential practices of Christianity:  daily, focused communion with God through Bible reading and prayer.  I knew I should do it.  I could quote most of the scripture references about why reading the Bible is crucial.  I even learned some tools that would help me dig deeper into God’s Word.  But I still struggled to regularly crack the thing open, let alone putting time into studying and praying through it.

biblereadingOf course I’d run to the Bible when I needed God, when I wanted something, or when I felt conviction from sin.  I enjoyed listening to good preaching and attending lively bible studies.  But my personal times of worship were sparse.  This would be a good time to lobby for personal worship, but I’m assuming you already believe that personal fellowship with your Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer is essential to your daily well-being and perseverance over the long haul.  If not, then read the last half of the last sentence again…slowly.

Since college I’ve grown in prioritizing daily Bible reading.  I’ve learned that I must approach the Bible with unique focus and care in order to meet with God.  Here are 8 ways to make the most of your bible reading time…

1.  Anticipate God speaking to you through it. The way we approach the Bible is as important as what we do when we’re in it. I’ve spoken to many friends who do not approach the Bible as if God is about to speak to them, giving them a word for their day.  Instead, they approach it like a textbook.  Or a book of wisdom.  Or a rulebook.  As a result they are more often bored, confused, and burdened when they read their Bibles than rejuvenated, enlightened, and excited.  God desires to speak something to you.  He has something for you in His Word for your particular day.  Do you believe that?  Are you eagerly anticipating what He might say to you today?

2.  Set aside regular time for it. Like most things in life you need a plan or very little will happen.  You need to be prepared.  So Christians ought to discern when the best time for communion with God would be.  I’d suggest the mornings even if you’ve got an early wake-up time.  Best to get the Word in you before embarking on your day.  Yes, this requires discipline.  But shouldn’t we be at least as disciplined about reading God’s holy Word as we are disciplined in counting calories, studying for tests, preparing for meetings, spending time with friends, attending church, eating meals, checking our Facebook page, watching Sportscenter, or exercising regularly?

3.  Pick one thing and read it the way it was intended to be read. Some may read the Bible regularly but approach it haphazardly.  They pick and choose what they read (a little of this, a little of that).  They often latch on to the verse that pops out or leaves a special impression instead of respecting the author’s arrangement of the passage.  Paul meant for his letter to the Ephesians to be read from beginning to end, not one verse here and one paragraph there as we may see fit.  Remember that God, through each author, intentionally places the first sentence in any given Bible book before the second, the first paragraph before the second, and so on.  We must respect the way God presents Himself in the Bible by reading each book from beginning to the end.  Note:  I am not saying that pulling single bible verses out for memorizing or study is always wrong.  But I am saying that the best way to approach each verse in the Bible is to read it in its literary context.

4.  Study it. A few years ago I taught Romans to forty-plus 16-year olds.  What a joy!  And a challenge.  I would often remind my students:  if you skim the Bible, then your application of it will also be superficialBut if you dig deep, your application will be rich and more helpful. Take the time to study the Bible.  Ask yourself what the author’s original intent to his audience before you jump to application.  Consider the culture and audience’s situation.  Get a notepad and scribble.  If you don’t know how to study the Bible, then ask someone who does.

5.  Meditate and pray through it. I read somewhere that meditating on God’s word is like a cow chewing its cud.  When we study the Bible, we give it an initial chew and swallow.  But we need the repetition of regurgitation to take God’s word deeper into our hearts and minds.  So many ways to meditate on scripture:  pray through it; journal about it; personalize it; visualize it; sing about it; talk it out with a friend etc.  Prayer in particular is a great way to meditate; it not only further presses God’s truths in our hearts but gives vent to our responses – confession, thankfulness, praise etc.

6.  Memorize it. I must admit I don’t do this much, but I should.  The Lord has blessed me with an ability to remember scripture phrases and sentences fairly well.  This is no excuse to not put in the extra time for memorization.  We might think of several reasons why bible memorization is crucial.  The Psalmist gives us one:  “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:11).

7.  Take it into your day. The Campus Ministry leader who mentored me in college suggested that I write out key verses from my morning study on a 3×5 index card.  I’d pull the card out on the bus to class or between classes or when I was eating solo in the cafeteria.  Reading it several times saturated my day with scripture and provided more opportunities for meditation and prayer.

8.  Apply it. Jonathan Leeman says that God’s word brings action, light, and freedom to His people.  Indeed it does!  God’s Word encourages, confronts, and loves in such a way that often a specific response is very appropriate.  Sometimes application means simply to be still and worship the Lord.  But sometimes God wants us to do something specific like confess sin, serve a spouse, encourage a friend, or submit to an authority.  Reading the Bible and not applying undermines the daily rhythm of listening and responding to God’s voice.  If we take out application we short circuit the full circle of communion with God and will eventually lose motivation to meet with Him.  We desperately need not only to listen and meditate, but to live God’s words through worship and obedience.

When I approach the Bible with this kind of focus and care, my reading time becomes something far greater than mere reading.  It moves into the realm of communing with the Almighty.  And there is nothing more important that I can do for my spiritual health, my marriage, and my ministry than deep, daily fellowship with God.

[This post originally appeared at the Gospel Coalition website.]

I owe a significant debt to four men and three churches who, over the years, became my spiritual fathers and families. These wonderful people walked alongside me through troubling and joyful times. They prayed with me, mentored me, and laughed with me. They celebrated my victories and wept with me when my dad unexpectedly died. They counseled me when I began to explore pastoral ministry and spoke the Word to me when I became discouraged. They reminded me not to take myself too seriously, and they lovingly pointed out sin in my life. God only knows where I’d be and who I’d be without his grace working through them.

Today I am a pastor and long for my church to grow in this kind of intentional disciple-making. Discipleship at its core is the process of growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ. That sounds simple. But what does it actually look like? And how do pastors lead their churches in discipleship? A good place to begin is Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “go . . . make disciples . . . baptizing them . . . and teaching them” (Matt 28:19-20). Three contours of discipleship culture emerge from this passage.

Clarifying the Contours of Discipleship

1. Disciple-making is an intentional process of evangelizing non-believers, establishing believers in the faith, and equipping leaders. 

“Make disciples” implies intentionality and process. Disciple-making doesn’t just happen because a church exists and people show up. It is a deliberate process. Considering the modifying participles of “going . . . baptizing . . . teaching” help us recognize this process. It must include evangelizing (going to new people and new places), establishing (baptizing new believers and teaching obedience), and equipping (teaching believers to also make disciples). How does your church evangelize, establish, and equip?    

2. Disciple-making happens in the context of a local church

It’s a community project, not just a personal pursuit. And that community must be the local church, because Jesus has given her unique authority to preach the gospel, baptize believers into faith and church membership, and teach obedience to Jesus. Disciple-making doesn’t just happen in coffee shops and living rooms. It also happens in the sanctuary where the Word is sung, prayed, read, preached, and displayed through communion and baptism. Jesus didn’t have in mind maverick disciple-makers; he had in mind a community of believers who, together and under the authority of the local church, seek to transfer the faith to the next generation. Does your church view disciple-making within the context of the church, or only as a solo endeavor?

3. Disciple-making is Word-centered, people-to-people ministry. 

When Jesus said “make disciples” we cannot help but remember how he made disciples: three years of teaching twelve men on the dusty road. Disciple-making, then, is the Word of God shaping men and women within life-on-life relationships. It’s demonstrated in Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonian church: “being so affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess 2:8). This is gospel-driven, Word-saturated, intentional one-anothering. It is men and women regularly teaching one another to obey what Jesus commanded. And it goes well beyond watching football and having inside jokes with Christian friends. How would you evaluate your church’s Word-centered people-to-people ministry?

Creating a Culture of Discipleship

If these three contours are essential ingredients for a discipleship culture, how do pastors lead their churches in growing that culture? Here are seven ways:

1. Preach disciple-making sermons. 

Pastors are not called to preach convert-making sermons or scholar-making sermons. They are called to preach disciple-making sermons. This means that they must craft sermons that will evangelize, establish, and equip. This means that they are teachers, pleaders, and coaches from behind the pulpit. Sermons also disciple through modeling careful exegesis, keen application, and prayerful responses to the passage. After we preach, congregants should understand and feel the text at such a level that they long to be more obedient disciples.

2. Shape disciple-making worship services.

Every church has a liturgy, whether you call it that or not, and every liturgy leads the people somewhere or disciples the people toward something. The question is where. The non-sermon elements of a worship service—songs, prayers, scripture reading, testimonies, and tone—contribute to the formative discipling of your congregation. Does your worship service lead people in thanksgiving for God’s gifts and goodness? Does it disciple people in confession and repentance? Is there an element in your worship service that offers assurance of salvation? Does your service lead people in celebrating our future hope? Thinking through these components with your worship director will strengthen your disciple-making services.

3. Invest in a few disciple-makers.

We’ve heard it before, but let me say it again: Jesus and Paul ask their disciples to invest in a few who will in turn invest in others (Matt. 28:18-19; 2 Tim 2:2). Pastors, choose a few men you can pour your life into and intentionally disciple for a period of time. Create a simple but effective format to accomplish this task. For example, meet with a few men twice a month to discuss sections of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology [2], confess sin, and pray for one another. Keep it relational. At the end of your time together, ask each man to choose a few men with whom he can do the same. The benefits are manifold. You are obeying Jesus’ disciple-making command, you are cultivating a disciple-making culture through strategic multiplication, and you are investing in those who may become your future elders.     

4. Make small group Bible studies central to your disciple-making strategy

Many churches offer small groups like a side item at the buffet, but few offer it as a main course. While Sunday school and other teaching venues certainly disciple people, small group Bible studies are unique in that they achieve multiple discipleship goals. After your corporate worship gathering, consider making small groups ministry your next priority. This means identifying and training mature leaders to shepherd and disciple their members. It also means providing a clear vision for your small groups ministry. For example, our church asks our groups to commit to three disciple-making values: Bible, community, and mission.

5. Raise the bar of church membership

Unfortunately many Christians don’t realize that joining a church is a vital step of discipleship. When you join a church, you are not joining a social club; you are publicly declaring your faith in Jesus and joining yourself to a group of Christians in life and mission. In view of this, pastors should view membership as discipleship and accordingly bolster their membership process and expectations. Instead of making it easy to join your church, make the process more involved. Get your elders teaching multiple sessions on the gospel, central doctrines, the importance of church membership, and your church’s operating convictions (baptism, for example). Broach tough subjects such as divorce and past church history during membership interviews. Finally, ensure membership actually means something for members. What unique privileges, roles, and responsibilities do members have in your church? Are your members actually joined together in Word-centered people-to-people ministry, as they promised when they became members?          

6. Confront sin and practice church discipline. 

Like church membership, discipline is neglected by some churches. Much like encouragement and affirmation are key components of disciple-making, so too are exhortation, confrontation, and if necessary more elevated measures of corrective discipline. God uses all of the above to make disciples and protect disciples within local churches.

7. Read disciple-making books with your leadership. 

Let me recommend four books for your disciple-making arsenal. The Trellis and the Vine [3] by Tony Payne and Colin Marshall outlines a practical vision for disciple-making. One-to-One Bible Reading [4] by David Helm will equip you with the motivation and tools to read the Bible regularly with others. Church Membership [5] by Jonathan Leeman is the best lay-level book on the subject I’ve read and will help you understand how membership rightly practiced is discipleship. And The Shepherd Leader [6] by Timothy Witmer calls elders to lead the way in disciple-making.  

Growing a disciple-making culture at your church might sound daunting. It’s hard enough to make disciples within a small group Bible study, but a church with all its complexities, systems, and baggage? Yikes. Here’s a piece of advice: start small, keep it simple, and focus on areas where a little investment will go a long way. For example, you may want to invest in a few who will do the same with others. Start with your elders. Or perhaps you want to focus on ramping up your small groups ministry. Start by training your current and new leaders around key biblical values that encapsulate discipleship.

Whatever you decide to do, may you find tremendous energy and courage to make disciples from the bookends of the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me . . . and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”