I’ve been thinking a lot about discipleship. As I have served a small rural congregation and have been slowly growing into pastoral ministry, I’ve had to rethink a lot of what I’ve either assumed or been taught concerning discipleship, and as I’ve reflected and observed people and their “faith journey,” I’ve come to the following conclusions:
(1) The Church is not very good at making disciples. This is not just an American phenomenon. I’ve heard some well intentioned people attempt to pain a picture that suggests that only in America is discipleship an issue; however, this is not true. The task of making disciples as outlined in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) is difficult for a variety of reasons in every culture that I’ve been in.
(2) People tend to resist the necessity of discipleship. This is, as I see it, the heart of the issue. People resist making disciples and people resist being discipled. Sadly, other than a decent group of new people, the majority of people who are a part of the congregation that we are in has been discipled in the biblical sense. Sure, people have attended classes and conferences and lots of worship gatherings, but few have embarked on the journey of NT Christianity. At the surface level, many people simply are unaware of the cost and demand of discipleship. At a deeper level, people resist commitment and accountability. It is my prayer that “mature” Christians would take seriously Jesus’ mandate to make disciples and people who are brought into the faith would be introduced immediately of the cost of following Christ!
(3) Most “programs” or “methods” for making disciples are fundamentally flawed. This may sound arrogant, but only if I claimed to have a “new” program or method. I do not. What I do have is Scripture. And I have also taken the time to filter through a long list of resources by a variety of well-intentioned people. If statistics show us anything, they show us that these programs and methods are largely ineffective. Numeric growth is not equivalent to growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Perhaps we need to spend less time developing “programs” and “methods” that are absent of NT protocol. I’m not suggesting that all of these resources don’t contribute. The problem is that some of the foundational axioms of discipleship are often left to the way-side.
In order to prove that I’m not opposed to resources, allow me to quote one that gets to the heart of the issue. Greg Ogden, in Discipleship Essentials, writes about the life investment that discipleship takes when he says,
“Discipling is not a six-week program. We are geared to herding people in mass through a program, and once completed we expect mature disciples to pop out at the other end. Classroom models are necessarily focused on mastering content at the same pace for all, with standardized requirements. Disciplemaking should be viewed in terms of a parent’s investment in a child who is nurtured through the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence and finally into adulthood. Making disciples will only occur when we change our thinking from a quick fix to a long-term life investment. In the long run the results are deeper and numerically greater.” (p. 230, emphasis mine)
It would seem that we need to examine our methods of disciplemaking against the backdrop of the New Testament. I believe we’ll see that anything less than a “long-term” commitment to investing in the lives of people is less than NT Christianity. This should not be misunderstood to suggest that people are unable to transition but to highlight and enforce the thrust of what discipleship actually entails! It’s much more than doing a crusade and having some people raise their hands. It’s much more than having a few “disciples” on facebook. No, this does not describe what we find in the NT. Consider the following:
(1) NT Christians were devoted to each other. In the early church, we see that the first converts from Pentecost “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). They were devoted (Gk. proskartereo). BDAG defines the Greek verb as “hold fast to, continue in, persevere in something” but also suggests the probability that it is to “busy oneself with, be busily engaged in, be devoted to” in lexical range. Not only where they dedicated to good doctrine, the Lord’s Supper, and prayers; the early disciples were devoted to the fellowship. They were devoted to each other as they “were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44) and were together “day by day” (2:46).
(2) NT Christians were marked by command love for one another. Now I realize there were many conflicts in the NT and we wouldn’t have large portions of Scripture if there weren’t conflicts. That’s why I’m simply reminding you to consider how many times the NT commands and teaches and encourages that Christians love one another (cf. John 13:34-35; John 15:12, 17; Rom. 12:10; 13:8; 1 Thess. 4:9; Heb. 10:24; 1 Pet. 1:22; 4:8; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11-12; 2 John 1:5). In fact, Paul prayed that the Thessalonians would experience an increase in love for one another as the Lord worked in them (1 Thess. 3:12) and shortly, they experienced such a work of the Spirit (cf. 2 Thess. 1:3). Any discipleship “program” that lacks biblical love misses the thrust of the NT.
(3) NT Christians served each other. This really flows out of the previous emphasis on love. Paul told the Galatians that “through love” they were to “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Believers served each other as they ‘bore each other’s burdens and fulfilled the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2). Loving each other leads to serving each other. Since they were devoted to each other and loved each other, they served each other.
These are just a few of the many evidences that suggest longevity regarding the task of disciplemaking. There are many more, though I find these to be the convincing as well as challenging. Part of what I’ve learned from Tim Chester (and Steve Timmis) and his book Total Church is related to the commitment to both gospel and community. This commitment recognizes that there is a process in discipleship and that we need to think “long-term” versus “quick-fix.” Again, Ogden notes that,
“It may be three to five years before the effects of this approach on the quality and vitality of a church will be seen. Those selected for leadership of the church will be those who have been discipled and in turn can disciple others. The leadership base will be expanded, and spontaneous ministry will begin as “self-starters” energize the body of Christ. Mission groups will crop up because qualified leaders have a passion to meet a heart-felt need.” (Ibid.)
What’s my point? Think longevity. Think “long-term” versus “quick-fix.” Obviously this means that one person cannot disciple everyone. In fact, this radically challenges the general practice of the “Senior Pastor” model of church leadership and builds upon the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the plurality of pastors as emphasized in the NT. It challenges the “one-man-show” and the status quo of many churches and encourages the church community to partner together in the process of disciplemaking!
So I believe we need to ask ourselves some questions:
(1) Have I been discipled? If discipleship is more than just taking a class and has to do with commitment and accountability and often can be understood in a “mentoring” way, have I experienced something like this?
(2) Am I making disciples according to the NT methods or am I looking for a “quick-fix”?
(3) How can I be used by the Spirit to fulfill the Great Commission? What need I change?
It is my prayer that the Church will embrace all that the Spirit has as we labor to carry out the Lord’s command of making disciples!
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.