[Ministry Spotlight]Re-thinking discipleship

Bob Johnson serves on the Evangelism+Church Health Team as Sunday School consultant and liaison to associational missionaries.

“More than 50% of regular church attenders have never progressed in their spiritual walk beyond the basics of their initial salvation experience.” Barna Group, September 2021 

Take a look at the statistic above: Why do you believe this is currently true?  Have you observed this as well? 

Often, we are called upon to consult with churches about their small group structure or Sunday School program or their discipleship program.  In most cases, the question they have for us is “What do we do?” (…to improve, to get better, to grow in number).  However, my first question is almost always “Why?” (i.e. “Why do you do what you do?”)  When we focus only on what we do and lose sight of why we do it, we almost always begin to decline in effectiveness.   

As we examine the concept of biblical discipleship, the above statistic points to a reality within many of our churches.  As this stagnation in spiritual maturity becomes more obvious, it may be time to address several myths that could be at the root.  Unfortunately, many churches and leaders have bought into these myths when developing their “approach” to discipleship within the local church.  

Myth #1 – Discipleship is a program. Many of our churches still believe that discipleship is achieved through a program that can just be plugged in and then automatically results in spiritually mature believers.  We also erroneously believe that the more people we have in the program (numbers) must mean that we have that many more fully discipled members.  Discipleship is NOT a program we DO, or a certificate we receive.  Authentic discipleship is only truly evident in the lives of our people, not the programs of the church.  (See Ephesians 4 for a great, biblical “program.”)  

Myth #2 – Discipleship equals biblical knowledge. – In so many of our people’s lives, there is a false sense of maturity based in knowledge of biblical facts and information. The truth is that genuine discipleship is the LIVING OUT of this knowledge, not just the obtaining of it.  The Great Commission does not say “teaching them to KNOW whatsoever I have commanded.”  Jesus clearly says, “teaching them to OBSERVE whatsoever I have commanded.”  Consider this quote: 

“If we settle for only dispensing information, not only will change in people’s lives fall short of transformation, but we will begin to lead people down a dangerous path. Slowly but surely people will begin to define their discipleship exclusively in terms of intellect. That is, if you know the right answers, you are following Jesus more and more closely.” From – Transformational Discipleship by Geiger, Kelley & Nation 

To be an authentic follower of Christ, we see that acquired knowledge is not sufficient in and of itself to achieve this goal.  So much of Scripture points to a LIFE that exemplifies the mind of Christ, not just a belief of who He is. 

Myth #3 – Discipleship can be accomplished from the pulpit (or lectern) alone.  Unfortunately, we as leaders – pastors and teachers – have embraced the idea that our greatness as expositors and orators for thirty or more minutes a week will undoubtedly result in mature disciples within our churches. It is not my intent to dispute the importance of these events, but they are NOT the most effective methods for mentoring disciples.  Some thoughts: 

Preaching to make disciples is like going to the nursery and spraying crying babies with milk and saying you just fed the kids…discipleship involves more than preaching and listening. From – Growing Up by Robby Gallaty 

Most Christians have divorced the teachings of Jesus from the methods of Jesus, and yet they expect the results of Jesus…discipleship is the emphasis. Relationships are the method…” 

“…Jesus invited people into relationships with himself; he loved them, and in the process, showed them how to follow God. His primary method was life-on-life.”  From – DiscipleShift by Jim Putman

As leaders, we should see Jesus as our perfect example and learn to pour into the lives of our people – one individual and one small group at a time – if we are to truly help them to engage the Word for themselves and live their lives like Christ.  If we are to move the needle, we must see discipleship as an intimate, life-time process not an eight-week program. 

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