Discipleship and potty training

Mercy was just fifteen months old when Aaron was born, and around the time I delivered she suddenly decided that she wanted to potty train. It is a bit unusual for kids to have that much interest at that young of an age, but Mercy was adamant: it was time. I have very distinct memories of those early weeks of Aaron’s life, crouching down in the bathroom next to the toilet with Mercy while trying to hold and feed Aaron. I remember thinking: I don’t just need an extra set of arms; I need an extra body.

And so I should not have been so surprised when, in those last brutal weeks of my pregnancy with Elijah, Aaron decided that the time had come: “Pee in potty! Pee in potty!”

Anyone who has potty trained a toddler can attest to the ways that, for most, it is a high-maintenance endeavor. First, the issue of frequency. Then the constant on and off of diapers (I don’t have pull-ups for the guy yet, and I’m not willing to do underwear quite yet). Then there is the helping on and off the potty, though Doug has recently taught Aaron to do this by himself–way to go Dad! Next there will be the accidents and clothing changes, once we do quit the diapers, and of course the occasional clean-up.

Potty training is a great step, developmentally. I am thankful that we have not had difficulty with our kids in this area. And the earlier it happens, the better it is for the environment and the family finances. However, the TIMING of it with both kids has been challenging. They have each chosen to start training themselves at the exact time that my life has become the most complex and distracting: the time when I am most tired, have my arms the most full, and am already losing my mind on some days trying to figure out how life with a new addition works! If I were the one initiating the potty training process (and often it is the parent who initiates), I would NEVER have chosen to start when they did.

I have been reading and hearing a lot of people talking about discipleship of late. Doug took a great class over the summer with Ryan Bolger, and they spent a lot of time talking about what vitality in the church looks like. They read some great stuff about discipleship, and Doug would regularly read passages aloud to me from the books he was working through for the class. Doug also serves on the board for our church now, and that is another place where some great conversations about discipleship are taking place that I get to hear about. And I have seen a fairly robust discussion online recently about models of discipleship in the church following the release of the results of some research done by the folks at Willow Creek.

As I observe and participate in these discussions, I am struck by how my experience with potty training my two kids holds a powerful reminder of some truths about discipleship. The first is this: we ultimately cannot control the timing or pace for growth, maturity and specific developmental steps. We can encourage, we can set out tools, we can model, and we can remove obstacles that would inhibit growth from happening: but it is never something we can force. The timing is not ours to choose, and it is not uniform. Second: it is messy. There are accidents and missed targets. Enough said. Third, and perhaps the most important (and difficult) to remember: the timing is not about our ease or convenience as teachers, preachers, leaders and disciplers. People will not arrive at growth milestones that coincide perfectly with Sunday School schedules, retreats or camps, or small group schedules. People’s growth can not ultimately be managed by programs. Rather, in my experience, they will come knocking, ready to learn and receive when you least expect it (or even desire it!), and the most effective tool they long for: you. Your time, your ability to listen, your availability to pray, and your vulnerability in sharing your own journey with them.

Just the other day, our doorbell rang and someone was there who needed to talk and process some things relating to their own spiritual growth. Our house was a disaster, the kids were all needy, I was trying to feed Elijah and cook dinner, and the phone was ringing off the hook. This was no time for this person to come to us ready to “grow”. But just like Aaron and Mercy before him, he knew when he was being prompted to take a new step and he was seeking out those who could help him do that.

How much easier it would be if we could say to this friend: “oh, that sounds like spiritual growth 102. You can sign up for a class at our church to learn about that. It will run for six weeks and it starts next month. I will make sure and get you the flier and registration form! Goodbye. Go and be well-fed.”


  1. That last paragraph pretty much sums up the (sweeping generalization coming..) boomer-driven, mega-church, buffet of programs type of church.
    And it doesn’t work. Even without Willow Creek’s survey, which is pretty gutsy to do and release, it’s evident that the last 15-20 years of Church Growth principles haven’t really enabled the “churched” to make an impact in their communities.

    Liked this metaphor, as I have small kids too. You write Real.

  2. well… you know, Francis Schaeffer used to just drop everything he was working on when a needy person showed up. (don’t get me wrong, I’m like you, i don’t have time for that.)

    But he and Edith were always willing and happy to sit and take all the time necessary to pour into the lives of others. I think that’s what we miss so much in our busy lives. thats why we tried the programs over the last so many years.

    Sadly, Willow Creek discovered what the rest of us knew – it all comes down to investing time into relationships. As the people of God we need to stop neglecting each other. At least I do….

  3. just in case it might help with the “missed target” aspect of potty training…throw a few cheerios in the bowl and tell him to sink them. i think that worked with abe. i’m impressed that willow creek could publicly admit that they’d missed the point. the modern church has been very programmatic in the last few decades, but i feel like things are shifting to a more relational focus. makes me excited…

  4. Beautiful, Erika … For me the application is how to write social policy instead of how to do church, and I thank you for affirming those of us who were trying to hold out for something more, but do wonder at times whether we’re crazy not to settle for the compromise. You always encourage me not to settle and make me feel better in the bargain, even while juggling everything else you have to do. Thank you so much for that. What a wonderfully creative ministry you manage to maintain in His strength. Remarkable, really.

  5. Erika, blessings to you for being available. More and more I’m realizing my home is the place discipleship happens.

    The fact you’re doing it in the context of real life and family makes it so much more tangible and applicable than an abstract church program.

  6. Beyond Words,

    I totally agree! It is the harder path, I think. Yet also the easier yoke somehow…

  7. Jared,

    I’m glad you brought up the busyness factor…the impact of this on how we see our life as a Christ-follower is enormous, and it is probably largely responsible for why we (the church) became so program-driven: everything needs to fit into tightly packed schedules…

  8. Patty,

    Okay, the cheerio thing just about killed me…You need to meet Aaron to fully understand where my mind went in imagining what kind of ramifications that could have in our household 🙂

  9. ok, i can see where he might go with that one. i guess could be potentially harmful if he saw ALL cheerios as targets…

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