I’ve learned a lot about stonemasonry from my son-in-law, Brett. He took up the trade — one of the oldest in history — five years ago as an apprentice under a master mason and only recently moved on to his second level of training, that of a journeyman. He will remain a journeyman for seven or more years until he matures into a master stonemason. His entire training process could easily take 10 to 15 years!

Given the slow and costly process required to progress from apprentice to journeyman to master mason, it’s no surprise that there are relatively few master masons. But when a master mason builds something, that structure can last thousands of years, even in severe weather conditions. We see this in the pyramids of Egypt, in medieval castles, and in well-made stone farmhouses in our day.

Because of the expense and time associated with mining, cutting and transporting stone, and then hiring a master mason, the construction industry has developed cheaper alternatives over the years. To give people the look of real stone, builders often use a veneer called “cladding.”

Cladding falls into two general categories — natural and synthetic. Natural cladding is made by cutting large stones into light, one-to five-inch-thick slabs that are then placed over the exterior walls of a home or building. Geri and I recently installed stone cladding for a small area around our front door. It looks and feels like real, heavy stones that provide structural support for the house. People are impressed. But it is simply thin stone cladding attached as siding by workers without any masonry experience.

In contrast, synthetic cladding is made out of manufactured materials such as cement. It looks and feels like expensive natural stones, but without the higher cost of natural stone cladding (let alone the heavy stone used by master masons). Installation is fast and easy. Some brands even label their products as “do-it-yourself.” Simply watch a brief YouTube tutorial and you’re good to go.

At this point, you may be wondering why I’m waxing poetic about masonry and cladding. The answer is simple: Much of discipleship in the church today is the spiritual equivalent of cladding.

On the surface, everything looks like the real thing. Our people are upbeat and optimistic, filled with faith that Jesus will get them through crises and valleys. They are uplifted spiritually through moving worship experiences and dazzling messages. We highlight infectious testimonies. We see to it that our small groups and weekend gatherings are warm and welcoming and that there is a sense we are growing into the new things God wants to do in our midst.

The problem is that none of this is the heavy, load-bearing stone of Jesus’s way of discipleship. It appears to be the real thing that will endure severe storms and the test of time, but it is not. Yes, our people participate in worship, listen attentively to sermons, and attend small groups. They often serve faithfully in various ministries and give financially. And yet, their transformation in Christ remains at the level of cladding, a thin veneer on a life that has yet to be touched beneath the surface.

Cladding discipleship surely describes the first 17 years of my life as a Jesus-follower. Sadly, even though I looked good enough on the surface, I had large gaps in my discipleship and leadership. That was fine for a while because my gifts and zeal covered over a lot of what was missing beneath the surface. But before long, the thin veneer of my discipleship, along with that of our church, would be exposed for what it was.

The Heavy Stone of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship is an invitation to radically shift toward the real thing, a discipleship that is heavy, load-bearing stone.

Yes, the process is raw, messy, and weighty. But, like true stonemasonry, it endures.

At its core, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship (EHD) is a biblical theology that, when fully implemented, informs every area of a church, ministry or organization. It is a discipleship structure built with load-bearing stones so that people flourish even in the midst of cries and upheavals happening around them. More specifically, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship:

  • Slows down our lives to cultivate a deep, personal relationship with Jesus amidst the hurry and distractions that routinely overload us.
  • Offers guidelines to determine how much the values and goals of Western culture have compromised, or even negated, the radical call of Jesus to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.
  • Makes provision for surrendering to, rather than fighting against, the gift of God’s limits in our lives.
  • Integrates sadness and loss into our following of Jesus. As a result, we no longer miss out on the treasures God has buried within them.
  • Provides clear criteria to measure spiritual maturity by how we are growing in our ability to love others.
  • Connects how our family of origin and personal history influence our discipleship in the present. We no longer treat deep patterns and traumas from the past with a quick fix.
  • Embraces weakness and vulnerability as core to accessing God’s power and offering his love to the world.

Before I understood this, I, like most church leaders, simply worked harder and added new initiatives when people got stuck in their discipleship. I did not realize that the problem was in the way we made disciples and the quality of the materials we used. It was limited in its ability to get people unstuck in a number of areas in their lives. As a result, redoubling my efforts and doing the same things over and over but with more intensity, only led to greater confusion about why more effort bore so little long-term fruit.

It wasn’t until I experienced a building-wide failure — personally and in our ministry — that I finally realized the problem was the materials themselves. What we needed was a whole new way of doing discipleship that worked beneath the surface of people’s lives so they might experience a deep transformation and have a sustainable, long-term impact in the world as a result. We needed a model that was transformative.   

This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.

This excerpt from Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Moving from Shallow Christianity to Deep Transformation © 2021 by Pete Scazzero is used by permission of Zondervan. Order at Zondervan.