The Discipleship Crisis
The Great Commission has been worshipped, but not obeyed. The church has tried to get world evangelization without disciple making.Bill Hull, The Disciple-Making Pastor (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Revell, 1988)
I’m compelled to tell you something that may be difficult for you to hear.
Your church has a serious problem.
I’m sure that you’d love to respond by telling me the size of your congregation, the amount of giving, your service to the poor, or the number of new converts.
But just for a moment, I hope you’ll suppress the urge to become defensive, because I’m truly not attacking you, your pastor, your denomination, or your church.
In fact, I trust that you have a sincere desire to win the lost and that you invest your time and resources in a variety of activities and programs taking place at your church. But I want you to ask yourself a question, and I don’t want you to feel like it’s your duty to honor the sacrifice of everyone in your church by instantly responding “yes.” Seriously ask yourself the question:
“Is my church producing disciples?”
Read that again, and give yourself several seconds to think about it. Are people genuinely being conformed to the likeness of Christ?
I’m not asking if they regularly attend services or if they love the pastor or whether they speak in tongues. I’m not asking if they participate in worship or whether they’re paying their tithes. Those may all be needful and good. But churches are full of people who do all of those things without being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
As proof, consider the following statistics. They are alarming. They indicate that there is almost no difference between the behavior of Christians and non-Christians.
- Divorce rates are about the same.
- The percentages of men who regularly view pornography are roughly the same — and it’s a lot of men.
- Christians are considered to be more than two times as likely to have racist attitudes as non-Christians.
- Domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and most other problems are just as prevalent among Christians as among non-Christians.
- Consider too statistics about evangelicals. About one in four people living together outside marriage call themselves evangelicals.
- Sixty to 80 percent of young people will leave the church in their twenties.
- Fewer than one out of five who claim to be born-again Christians have a worldview of even a few fundamental biblical beliefs.
In fact, after looking at a number of categories of lifestyle and values, George Barna said
The fact that the proportion of Christians who affirm these values is equivalent to the proportion of non-Christians who hold similar views indicates how meaningless Christianity has been in the lives of millions of professed believers.Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship (InterVarsity Press, 2003)
How can it be that the people who claim that they love Jesus and are committed to obeying his teachings are - in nearly every area of life - no different than non-believers?
As I mentioned, it’s possible to participate in church activities and programs without ever really allowing Jesus Christ to radically change your life and cause you to really become more like him.
It’s time for us to recognize that in spite of weekend services, mid-week services, small group meetings, choir practices, special events, programs and plays, trips, retreats, revivals, conferences, and much more, we are failing at the one thing Jesus commanded of us: make disciples who are also able make more disciples.
We must admit that in our pursuit of larger audiences, larger buildings, and larger budgets, we have neglected the real mission of the church. This neglect has resulted in a serious crisis, and how we respond to this crisis is the most important challenge we face today.
The crisis at the heart of the church is a crisis of product.Bill Hull, The Disciple Making Pastor (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Revell, 1988)
Rediscovering the Art of Becoming and Producing Disciples of Jesus Christ
As part of my personal response to the current crisis of discipleship, I decided to start this project - Disciple School.
While working on a tagline that would summarize the mission of Disciple School, I originally came up with: “Becoming and Producing Disciples of Jesus Christ.” But as I spent more time thinking about it and trying to clarify it, I came up with “Rediscovering the Art of Becoming and Producing Disciples of Jesus Christ.”
I still might revise it a bit in the future, but I like the three action words: Rediscovering, Becoming and Producing.
Let’s break the sentence down word-by-word and talk about it.
The great Christian revolutions came not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when someone takes radically something that was always there.H. Richard Niebuhr
Rediscovery is defined as: the action or process of discovering again something that was forgotten or ignored (Oxford).
I chose the word “rediscovering” in order to make it clear that I’m not looking to invent something new.
I have not single-handedly come up with some newer, better way to “do church.” On the contrary, I’m simply trying to rediscover that which has always been available to us, but was somehow forgotten and lost to us for a long time.
To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage.Henri Matisse
“Old is the new new,” writes Steven Poole, author of Rethink: The Surprising History of Ideas (Scribner, 2016). Poole insists that ours is “an an age of re-discovery. Because surprisingly often, it turns out, innovation depends on old ideas.”
So we will explore the “old ideas” of Jesus, the master disciple-maker. We’ll study his methods and techniques for training his disciples. Could it be that those methods are just as divine as his teachings? We will also look into the possible causes for the church’s current inability and/or unwillingness to make disciples. How and why did we settle onto this current form of church? What are we allowed to change? Are we even willing to change if it means greater effectiveness?
Regardless of how reluctant we may be to accept it, the data is overwhelmingly clear: we are not currently producing disciples of Jesus. We must accept responsibility for that failure, diligently search the Scriptures for the answers, and be prepared to change, or even completely discard, anything - yes, anything - that hinders our disciple-making abilities.
…the Art of
There are several definitions and uses for the word, “art,” as in, “the art of conversation” or, “the art of writing.”
Art is defined as “a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice” (Oxford), or “a skill acquired by experience, study, or observation” (Merriam-Webster).
Basically, if you can become better at it, it’s considered an art.
An art can be any activity in which one can improve her skills by studying, observing or practicing. Becoming a disciple certainly involves all of those activities. In fact, as we discover more about the rabbi-disciple relationship being modeled in Jesus’ day, it will become clear that those are some of the primary activities required of a disciple. Studying the Scripture. Observing the words and actions of the rabbi. And then putting the rabbi’s words and activity into personal practice.
Interestingly, the Greek word used for “disciple” in the New Testament is mathetes (pronounced moth-ay-tayce’) and its root, “math-“ (as in “math-ematics”) means the “mental effort needed to think something through“. Mathetes is also derived from manthano which “carries the connotation of intentional learning by inquiry and observation.”
In that case, becoming a disciple of another person is, by definition, an art. And so too, making disciples would definitely qualify as an art.
Referring to discipleship as an art makes clear becoming a disciple is not a passive transformation. It will require intentional effort. Becoming a disciple is hard work. Making disciples is even more difficult.
I used “becoming” because it acknowledges the likelihood that we ourselves may not even be disciples.
If it is true that the current model is not producing disciples of Jesus, we must be willing to accept the notion that - as products of that broken system - we may have developed some ideas and habits that are actually keeping us from reaching full maturity as disciples. More than that, we may have reached the point where we’re no longer even attempting to mature as disciples.
Research indicates that fewer than one in five born-again adults have any specific, measurable goals related to their spiritual development.
In fact, in a nationwide survey, conducted by The Barna Group, hundreds committed Christians were interviewed, including pastors and church leaders. The results of the survey revealed that “Not one of the adults we interviewed said that their goal in life was to be a committed follower of Jesus Christ or to make disciples of the entire world-or even their entire block.” (Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship, InterVarsity Press, 2003)
Why is that? Probably because we think of our relationship with Jesus as a passive one, where we simply receive good things from him, like forgiveness from sin, good health and financial blessings. We don’t view it as an apprenticeship, where we’re supposed to exert energy and apply discipline in an effort to become more like him.
And if we’re not truly applying ourselves in order to shape our nature and character into something that resembles Jesus, then how could we possibly be helping others do the same?
After all, one cannot make disciples of Jesus if one has never truly become a disciple, or committed apprentice, of Jesus.
A passive recipient is not the same as a devoted disciple. And our current church model seems to have been meticulously designed to create passive recipients.
Producing disciples of Jesus is the entire purpose of the church. There is absolutely nothing more important than the task of disciple-making.
It’s not enough for us to simply become disciples ourselves - and that task is difficult enough. Jesus also expects us to produce other disciples. I initially wondered if I should omit “producing” and simply say that we’re “rediscovering the art of becoming disciples.” After all, I reasoned, if we actually become true disciples of Jesus, we will - by our very nature - produce other disciples.
But then it occurred to me that it is possible to become something, and yet not be involved in producing that same something. Think of living organisms. While there is a tremendous variety in the means by which organisms reproduce themselves, living things typically experience two stages of being or cycles of life. There is the juvenile, or pre-productive stage in which individuals grow and mature. Once an organism reaches a certain level of maturity, it enters into the adult, or reproductive stage. In this stage, individuals can be expected to produce and care for more instances of their particular kind of organism, helping them to achieve their own maturity.
The same is true in the area of disciple-making. We first become disciples of Jesus, and then at some point, we reach maturity and are able to produce other disciples. How long should this developmental stage last? I think it’s safe to say that it varies from one person to another. But there is no doubt that every disciple should - at some point - reach a level of maturity where they begin producing other disciples.
Matthew 28:18-20 contains the most recognizable version of Jesus’ command to make disciples:
18 All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and
20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
So what exactly is a disciple? More precisely, what did Jesus mean when he commanded us to fill the earth with disciples? Why did he choose that particular word? What was he trying to convey? That’s what we need to figure out so that we can have a clear goal in mind.
As long as we’re unclear about Jesus’ concept of a disciple, how can we be sure that we’re producing the kind of people Jesus that would regard as disciples?
In order to gain a better understanding of what we should be producing, we’ll explore the first-century concept of discipleship. Then we’ll compare Jesus’ expectations for disciples against what we’re actually producing.
I think it will clear that we are facing a serious crisis of discipleship.
If it is true that the product we are producing in our churches is so far removed from what Jesus clearly intended us to make, may I suggest that we stop and ask ourselves why we should continue devoting our lives and pouring resources into a failed system. The solution is for us to repent of our stubbornness, study the Scriptures, pray for direction, initiate honest dialogue and work towards an effective strategy for making disciples in our current context.
OF Jesus Christ
In our effort to become and produce disciples, it’s essential for us to remember that nobody is just “a disciple,” in general. They must be a disciple of something or someone.
Dallas Willard asks the question in his classic book, The Divine Conspiracy:
Whose disciple are you? Honestly. One thing is sure: You are somebody’s disciple. You learned how to live from somebody else. There are no exceptions to this rule... It is hard to come to realistic terms with all this. Today, especially in Western cultures, we prefer to think that we are “our own person.” We make up our own minds. But that is only because we have been mastered by those who have taught us that we do or should do so.Dallas Willard
Everyone is already in the process of becoming a disciple of someone else and simultaneously making others into disciples of themselves. So who has been teaching you? Who is shaping your thought life? Whose actions are you emulating?
Willard continues by saying:
It is one of the major transitions in life to recognize who has taught us, mastered us, and then to evaluate the results of their teaching. This is a harrowing task, and sometimes we just can't face it. But it can open the door for us to choose other masters, possibly better masters, and one Master above all.Dallas Willard
Of course, Willard is right. At some point, we should all seriously consider who has mastered us and evaluate the results of their mastery over. Maybe it’s a person or group of people. It may be more likely that we’ve been mastered by an idea or a system of thinking. At any rate, it’s vitally important that you take an active role in choosing whose ideas will control your life.
Obviously, the goal is for us to become and produce disciples (apprentices) who are under the mastery of Jesus Christ alone. We can only do this in the context of submission to Scriptures, the Spirit of Jesus, and a devoted community of believers where all of the functions of ministry are being fulfilled.
So, we will explore those areas together in detail.
What we’re currently doing isn’t working. It’s foolish to pretend that it is. We have allowed ourselves to be defined by habits, methods, and routines that do not - and cannot - produce the results Jesus intended.
Will we continue devoting ourselves to a model of church that brought us to this moment of abject failure? Or will we finally recognize the need to completely re-examine our beliefs and practices - even our entire lives, for that matter - in the light of Scripture? Given that the stakes are so high, we should be willing to challenge and change any beliefs and practices that may be hindering us from becoming and producing disciples of Jesus.
Think about this quote from John Stott:
We must allow the Word of God to confront us, to disturb our security, to undermine our complacency and to overthrow our patterns of thought and behavior.John Stott
He also said that what we need is “not the uncritical repetition of old traditions, but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh Biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform.”
For just a moment, consider what he’s saying to us in that quote. Stop going through the motions without thinking about their effectiveness. Be willing to submit every tradition to fresh Biblical scrutiny. And if necessary, be willing to change anything you’re doing, no matter how long you’ve been doing it - even if “grandpa did it this way” or “we’ve always done it that way.”
Are we really prepared to do that? Or, are there some things that are “off limits?” Would you really be willing to start from scratch with a Bible and a blank sheet of paper, surrounded by some committed followers of Jesus, and build a plan to make disciples of your community?
When Bill Hybels and the leaders at Willow Creek conducted a thorough review of their effectiveness as a church, they realized that they had to make significant changes. Hybels said it like this:
Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet.Bill Hybels, as quoted by Jim Putman & Bobby Harrington, DiscipleShift (HarperCollins Publishing, 2013)
That’s what we need to be: “informed by research and rooted in Scripture.”
As I move forward with generating content for this website - writing articles, recording podcasts and creating videos - the goal is to develop a clear and uncomplicated way to train spiritually mature, fully devoted disciples of Jesus who are able to then make more disciples.
I hope you’ll join me on the journey. Start a dialogue with me. Share your hopes and dreams for a truly Biblical disciple-making community.