Peter Scazzero: Rediscovering Holistic Discipleship—Part 2

Catch up on part one of our interview with Pete Scazzero, the co-founder (with his wife, Geri) and teaching pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, and of the ministry Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. In part one, he discussed his latest project in the area of emotion as it relates to our identity as Christians. Last November, he and Geri released their newest course, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship (Zondervan), a two-part program that incorporates their past work in the areas of emotionally healthy spirituality and emotionally healthy relationships.

Here, we continue the conversation with Pete and talk about his personal discipleship journey, how the church came to view discipleship the way it does today and some of the less taught but equally important areas of discipleship he advocates leaders embrace. Perhaps most importantly, he shares the possibilities for churches, individuals, communities and the world when leaders embrace a holistic, deep-dive into discipleship the way Jesus intended.

How did discipleship in the Western evangelical Church evolve to become what it is today? Can you pinpoint some major shifts in church history where we started to move away from true discipleship as Jesus taught it?

That was actually one of my great questions when I started this journey in 1996. I went back to my seminary professors at Princeton and Gordon-Conwell, including one professor who was a scholar in Augustine. And I said, How did I end up in this mess? How could I end up where I almost crashed and burned, and yet I was such a committed follower of Christ? And he said, Because most Protestants are Neoplatonists. It’s where the body is bad and the spirit is good. That theology that Augustine made so popular he got from the Neoplatonists—you know, when you’re holier than emotions, the body, pleasure, delight and joy. Evangelicals don’t do those very much. We do sin. We start in Genesis 3.

And then you also had the reaction to the Reformation. First we had the split in 1054 of the Eastern and the Western churches. It was the first split in church history. So all the churches in the eastern part of the world—the Coptic church, the Ethiopian church, the Syrian church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church—were split with Western Christianity—the Roman Catholic Church.

And then you had the Reformation split in 1517. Basically the first thing the Protestant reformers did was shut down all the monasteries. That kind of monasticism went back to Moses and 40 years in the wilderness, and Elijah the prophet, and John the Baptist. It was always in the church. But with the Reformation, it got completely cut off and we entered the Enlightenment. We became very intellectually focused, with an emphasis on renewing the mind. That’s part of discipleship, it’s just not all of it.

You’re a big advocate of the stillness and meditation that are common in the monastic tradition, but in the Western, evangelical church, that might feel a little uncomfortable. But you say it’s critical to becoming a healthier Christ follower.

We’re not the whole church, and we really can learn from people different from us, from the wider church, without compromising our distinctives as evangelicals. A big part of emotionally healthy discipleship is a slowed down spirituality. Slowing down to be with Jesus out of which we do for Jesus. We’ve got lots of people in the church, even in leadership, who really aren’t spending a lot of time with Jesus, but they’re working a lot for Jesus. That’s a huge problem, because it’s just not sustainable long-term.

What we’re doing in these courses is exposing people to the global church, the historical church, and the riches of Christianity over 2,000 years. We try to be fully biblical. I’m committed to outreach and mission, and I wouldn’t be here if someone hadn’t shared the gospel with me. I think one of the greatest gifts of evangelical Christianity is preaching the gospel, mobilizing people for mission, and being externally focused to bring the gospel to the world. That’s phenomenal.

But we’re weak at other things, like silence and stillness and slowness and listening to God and being with God. Paying attention to our interior life. We’re so mission-driven that we often don’t put the focus on being with Jesus, on being the message we’re preaching. So we end up recycling the same old problems in churches, and it really hurts the mission. And I think healthy mission grows out of healthy discipleship. So both courses focus on developing a rhythm of Sabbath and what we call daily offices, of meeting with God. It’s a slowed down spirituality, and that’s a radical shift.

How did your own discipleship experience influence you and help you realize we need a different way?

I came to Christ at university. I was raised in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, so I had great discipleship: classic evangelical discipleship, Bible study, fellowship, prayer, outreach, evangelism, ministry to the poor, all that. It was wonderful. Then I went to seminary for three years and eventually spent a year in Latin America learning Spanish before planting our church in New York City. We’re a multi-racial, multi-ethnic church of 75 nations. My training is as a pastor. At heart, I’m a pastor-equipper.

As Geri likes to say, we were evangelical poster children. All the conferences, all the books. But something was really missing for us, and we hit a real wall in our own lives in 1996. We were exhausted, and things just weren’t working. People weren’t changing around us the way we had hoped, and our marriage was in trouble. Something was really wrong, but we just didn’t know what it was. It all came to a head, and I ended up going to a Christian counselor against my wishes. It was one of those things where God just has your back up against the wall. For the first time, I was reflecting on my own interior life, that maybe there was some unresolved stuff in me. I started to feel, I started to read the Psalms, and I started to understand my own journey, how my past has impacted my present.

It was opening me up, and I was reading and researching. It really was a moment in January 1996 when Geri quit the church. She was seeing all the craziness of church and some of the behaviors going on that I wasn’t confronting, because I didn’t know what to do. Some people are very gifted and maybe know the Bible very well, but are arrogant or proud or defensive. And she just said she couldn’t participate in that contradiction anymore. No one was talking about it. At that point, we were in big trouble, so we went away for a week, and God met us.

I saw that emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable. It’s not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature. What I did see, most importantly, was that I was an emotional infant leading a church. I was trying to raise up mature mothers and fathers of the faith, but I myself had large areas of my own discipleship that were untouched by the gospel. I was emotionally immature, and it was very embarrassing. I wasn’t a very loving person. I think I was a good preacher and good leader in some ways, and I could build a church. But I wasn’t a very healthy or mature person, and the fruit showed that. It was unsustainable.

I think the gaps in our discipleship became very evident, and so we spent the next years on a journey of learning and growing. And I did get a doctorate of ministry in marriage and family because I wanted to apply it to discipleship. What does it mean to actually disciple people in these areas that we normally don’t touch in church?

Both Geri and I are researchers and developers, so we invested our lives for the last 22 years in saying, We need to figure this out for the church. Our whole lives have been so dramatically changed. These have been the most wonderful 22 years of my life, as a person, as a Christian, a husband, a father. We were always into making disciples, but I think we know what that means now in a much fuller way. We know how to actually get under the surface and help people really break free in Christ.

Before you started this process, did your own church do discipleship like most other Western evangelical churches? You know, get them serving, giving, and in small groups, and they’re discipled!

Absolutely! And we still do those things today, just so you know. I’m not against those goals. It’s just that we weren’t going deep. We didn’t know how to, first of all. And we got caught up in the American, Western culture, which I think is obsessed with numbers and growth and not sufficiently obsessed with making disciples who obey everything Jesus taught us. I think we’ve gotten a bit off balance.

Our church has 1,500 adults in it, but I think if I’m not making disciples, I just have a crowd of people, and that’s not going to change the world. Imagine that the church is not just counting how many people show up on Sunday, how much money came in, how many people are in small groups and serving. How about how many people are actually disciples who are making disciples? That would be a different thing to measure in our churches, wouldn’t it? It’s harder to measure, yes, but it might also be a painful question to ask as well.

A leader can’t expect to properly disciple their people if they’re not spiritually and emotionally mature themselves. You experienced that. What should leaders do in their own lives before they take a deep dive into discipleship with their congregations?

Listen, I’m not 100 percent emotionally healthy. I’m on my own journey. I’m still living it out. So it’s not like you arrive, and the key isn’t that you’re “perfect.” I don’t think that’s the issue, because we’re all broken. But I think we need to be vulnerable and open about it. We’re learning, we’re on a journey, and we’re inviting people to come along with us.

Discipleship is a long, slow process. How do you reconcile the journey of discipleship with a two-part course totaling 16 weeks?

I think what we feel like God’s given us to do with Emotionally Healthy Discipleship is to launch the church into a discipleship that deeply changes people, to shift the discipleship culture. Now there’s a lot that has to happen, so we’re not saying this is all of discipleship, and we’re not saying it’s the big picture long-term. But once you do this, it creates huge opportunities for the rest of discipleship. All of the things you do after this—small groups, other courses or ministries—are all discipleship opportunities. You ask a different set of questions. You begin to look at things differently. It affects the marriage ministry and the singles ministry. The finance course. You understand how your family of origin impacts you. You look at generational sin in ways you’ve never looked at it before. This informs everything.

What are the implications of emotionally healthy discipleship for individuals, churches, and communities?

In all cases, the implications are enormous. We have many people in our churches who are like the woman in Luke 13 who was crippled and bent over for 18 years. They’re Christians, but because they have not experienced serious discipleship in their own lives, they’re stuck. So individually, I think it gets people unstuck, moving into a vibrant relationship with Jesus. It’s going to change all of your relationships—with God, first of all, and then with yourself, and then with other people.

Secondly, it’s going to change your church and the community, because we’re creating a culture that is serious about applying Scripture and actually has the tools to walk out these radical things together. That change is hard, and we really need the church and community to do this.

And the implications for evangelism and mission are enormous. When people are deeply connected to Jesus, life happens. The spirit of God is moving. People are becoming alive in Christ, and out of that flows mission. The disciples, after Jesus rose, went to the world. Why? Because they were so filled with Jesus. They couldn’t help but go.

It changes the worship in services, because people are now abiding in Jesus during the week. They show up on Sunday and the worship leader doesn’t have to get them excited. It isn’t a show. People are already connected. They’re already getting together, and now the worship is at another level. It’s electrifying the church.

There’s so much life of God happening that I don’t have to be pushing or pulling people as a leader. It’s freeing, because I don’t want people living off of my spirituality. Many people have a second-hand spirituality. Emotionally Healthy Discipleship is about getting people to have a first-hand relationship with Jesus. Imagine a church like that, where people are very aware of their baggage, and they bring that to Jesus on the cross and break free to live out their unique destiny, and then they’re able to make disciples and bring the gospel into the world. That’s powerful stuff. As a church, we have to dig into this for the sake of the glory of the name of Jesus. And if Jesus needed to do it, we sure need to do it as well.

Read more from Pete Scazzero »

Pete Scazzero is the founder of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, and the author of two best-selling books: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and The Emotionally Healthy Church, as well as the Emotionally Healthy Discipleship curriculum.