“Nondiscipleship” – the Elephant in the Church
“Stunningly few churches have a church of disciples,” concluded George Barna, even while he recognizes that most churches have programs for this purpose. While most pastors fail to see the need, this could be the greatest problem in the church, negatively impacting everything it does.
Most pastors assume that their flock is being discipled. After all, our members attend worship services and Bible classes throughout the week. They listen to bible teachers and Christian music on radio, TV, as well as download it on their iPads and iPods. They tithe and give to missions. With all of this spiritual nurture and good works, we assume that that everyone in the church is growing spiritually. We often assume that they are mature because of their outside works without considering whether an ongoing transformation is really taking place.
Nonetheless, we tend to produce members who support the church, instead of disciples who impact their world. We seem to be content with church members who are compliant and zealous. If members regularly attend church worship services, serve in some kind of ministry, agree with church doctrine, without creating waves, we are satisfied. Yet, the most faithful church members as well as church leaders can do all of these and still live self-centeredly. They can be miserable in their marriage, display un-Christlike behavior, and irritate their neighbors and coworkers — while making little difference for the kingdom of God. It is a common occurrence in most of our churches.
Presently, 45 percent of Americans claim to be born again, even though 80% call themselves Christians. Gallop found that only 13 percent evidenced behavioral and attitudinal differences compared with the general population. Barna found that only 5 percent of adults — and less than 10 percent of churched youth — possess a biblical worldview. Dallas Willard bluntly states, “Nondiscipleship is the elephant in the church.”
Exchanging our Glamour for His Glory
First, we have to deconstruct and discard certain philosophies and practices of ministry in the church before we can replace them with biblical ones. Having served as a pastor now for nearly 35 years, I have often been guilty of substituting quick and often trendy ministry practices that offer visible impressions of success. Because these ideas have deeply rooted themselves in church culture. It takes courage, wisdom, and even tenacity to replace them with biblical paradigms that reflect the ministry of Jesus.
Outward Success over Inward Transformation
For over the first two decades of my pastoral ministry, I considered Sunday morning attendance as the measure of success. Why not? Pastors like everyone else like to see visible signs of accomplishments. Growing attendance, tithes, offerings, and missions giving; building size, these are all measurements we have used in the church culture to mark our success. However, in this age of residential mobility and consumer Christianity, 80 percent of church growth results from believers changing churches. Churches have become skilled at collecting crowds by offering desirable ministries. Through this means — especially in large or growing population areas — new churches can reach an attendance of hundreds and even thousands within a few years. While outstanding exceptions exist, Carl George concludes that megachurches generally sustain growth by being receptor churches for believers from smaller feeder churches.
One of the outcomes is a rampant easy believism that has come to mark cultural Christianity, especially in the West. True repentance and life transformation seems to have taken a backseat to these outward signs of success. Jesus said that His followers should be salt and light in a world that because of sin is respectively bland and dark (Matthew 5:13–16). Willard suggests, “Instead of counting Christians, we should weigh them … by focusing on the most important kind of growth — love, joy, peace … — fruit in keeping with the gospel and the Kingdom.
Sin Management Instead of Lordship
Another detrimental practice in the church today according to Stephen Lim, academic dean and professor for the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, is what he calls “sin management.” He believes and states “that serious evangelists and disciple makers need to emphasize the lordship of Jesus. Otherwise, we continue the scandal of millions professing faith without living it.”
In his book, Mere Discipleship, Lee Camp bluntly asks, “Could it be that ‘Jesus is Lord’ has become one of the most widespread Christian lies? Have Christians claimed the lordship of Jesus, but systematically set aside the call to obedience to this Lord?”
Over the past thirteen years, the church where I pastor has conducted encounter retreat weekends with an emphasis on seeing people be set free of sinful habits, addictions, bondages, and strongholds in their lives. Most of the hundreds of Christians that have been wonderfully delivered and set free at these encounters are weekly church attenders and even serve as leaders in their local churches. Many admit to having become paralyzed over the years by sin and as Lim says have learned to manager their sin rather than giving Christ lordship in every area of their lives.
Activities Instead of Mission
Another common philosophy and practice is the idea that we have “to be all things to all people” or we have to keep the church calendar filled with activity. Unfortunately, secondary activities divert our focus, crowding out time, energy, and resources for the Great Commission. Thom Ranier’s research finds that simple churches that eliminate these activities are more effective in evangelism and discipleship than activity-filled churches.
I have come to see that all sizes of churches like all kinds of individuals possess uniquely designed strengths and giftings. Some churches maybe great community churches while others are powerful missional churches. Some may be praying and worship churches while others may offer excellent children or youth ministries. Some churches may do well at discipling and equipping people while others are faithful at feeding the poor and caring for the needy. Others are anointed preaching and evangelistic churches while others are equally anointed teaching churches.
One size does not fit all. What’s vital is that the mission drives the ministries of the church. Unless activity contributes effectively to evangelism or discipleship, leaders need to consider eliminating it. We do not need to create and manage more programs in our churches but instead concentrate on the mission of the church. More is not necessarily better. Peter Drucker urges organizations to assume a policy of abandoning yesterday to release resources for strategies that work today.
Ways to Create Cultures of Discipleship
Discipleship is Intentional
As a pastor, it’s easy to be confident that growth will naturally occur through participation in church services and activities. It’s easy to believe that in a highly spiritual environment strong biblical values will naturally transfer. This is rarely the case in today’s church. Most believers spend hardly more than a couple hours a week in church or with other believers where biblical values can be passed on. If we are to be truthful, most Christian church attenders in America obtain their values through different forms of the media because that’s where most of their time and interests are.
Church leaders must be intentional about creating lifestyle discipleship cultures where believers can grow and become like Christ outside as well as inside the four walls of the church. Discipleship can and should happen not only in the church, but in the home, as well as in social relationships, personal preferences of media, and even in their educational choices. Sooner or later in the growth process, there has to be a hunger for Christ in the life of a believer to where they choose to feed on spiritual things and make choices and plans to do so. The New Testament church modeled spiritual worship, prayer, study of God’s Word, and the practice of spiritual gifts as they met collectively. From there, individual families lived it out from the home to the marketplace to the community, eventually reaching the nations and the world.
Discipleship is ongoing
Many churches call their new believers class a discipleship class. Typically these run for several months, assuming that this amount of time suffices to transform a convert into a disciple. Since discipleship is a lifelong process, however, churches need to develop a means for ongoing growth.
Jesus’ discipleship program lasted approximately two and half years. After His resurrection, He sent them to the upper room where they were empowered by the Holy Ghost to go and make disciples. Believers are to be discipled and to make disciples. It never stops, it’s ongoing.
Discipleship is transformational through relationships
Most churches assume that if individuals complete the recommended classes and absorb the necessary information, they will be discipled. This conveniently avoids the difficult work of engaging people in the confusion and messiness of their lives. Generally, Christians have far more spiritual knowledge than they apply. While needed, we must recognize that curriculum alone cannot effect transformation. Mike Yaconelli regretfully observed, “Spiritual growth has become an industry, a system, a set of principles, formulas, training programs, curricula, books, and tapes that, if followed, promise to produce maturity and depth.” Jesus demonstrated that discipleship happens in an environment of ongoing nurture through relationships of trust, vulnerability, modeling, and accountability.
So how can classroom discipleship groups also include the relationship aspect? One suggestion might be providing a guide, a coach, a mentor or mentoring couple to each student/disciple. The mentor could pray with the student, be available to council and to listen. Possibly the mentor could do some ministry with the student providing real life opportunities for them to use the things they are learning in the lessons outside the classroom. Even after the completion of the course these relationships and the process of discipleship would continue.
As Professor Lim accurately states, “Churches deal with issues not simply by giving biblically correct answers, but by prayerful, ongoing support throughout the difficult process of obeying Jesus and by modeling a better way.”
Many churches today seem to be waking up to the importance of quality over quantity, of church health over numbers, big programs and big buildings. Challenging your church culture as leaders, looking for ways to replace unfruitful, weak approaches with biblical ones can pose some difficulties. Even changing a church culture to reflect biblical attitudes and standards must be small especially at first accumulating into small victories. In time as you are consistent in acting out of a prayerful and loving spirit, these victories will create momentum toward greater changes. Then one day, instead of a church of supporters, you will have a church that regularly produces growing disciples impacting the world for the glory of God.